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For 2016ers, Charleston massacre is treacherous terrain

The massacre of nine people at a black church in Charleston Wednesday creates a treacherous minefield of race and politics for the presidential candidates.

South Carolina’s racial divisions have long played a prominent role in the state’s politics. Now, the massacre of nine people at an African-American church in Charleston Wednesday night, allegedly by a young white man, creates a particularly treacherous political minefield for those running for president.

That’s particularly relevant for the political parties since the Palmetto State follows only Iowa and New Hampshire in the presidential nominating process next year. South Carolina's primary will be the first contest in the 2016 cycle with a significant number of black voters. Hillary Clinton campaigned in South Carolina only hours before the shooting occurred. Jeb Bush canceled a scheduled Thursday campaign stop in Charleston in a sign of how the tragedy is already roiling the race.

“Governor Bush’s thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and families affected by this tragedy,” his campaign said in a statement.

RELATED: 2016 candidates, lawmakers send prayers to Charleston

For the Republican field, the shooting raises particularly thorny issues. By and large, the modern GOP has tended to avoid discussing race explicitly, often accusing Democrats of stoking racial grievances by doing so. But the events of Wednesday night — in which the shooter is said to have shouted “you rape our women, you’re taking over our country, you have to go,” before opening fire at one of the oldest black churches in the South — could make that stance difficult to maintain.

Police already have called the shooting a hate crime, and the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division has said it’s involved in the investigation. The most prominent victim of Wednesday’s massacre, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also was a state senator, had been seeking to raise awareness about unfair treatment of young blacks by law enforcement, and had been campaigning for Clinton.

Though they made no mention of racial tensions, several Republican candidates offered statements that condemned the shooting, emphasizing its religious setting.

“For Christians, such a horrific act is especially painful in that a place for peace and prayer has been infected with a demonic violence that desecrates a holy place,” Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who is also a pastor, said in a Facebook post.

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, went further. In a radio interview, Santorum connected the shooting to "assaults on our religious liberty," adding: "It's a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation."

Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spoke at the conservative Faith and Freedom Conference about the shooting. “There’s a sickness in our country. There's something terribly wrong but it isn't going to be fixed by your government,” he said. “It’s people straying away. It’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.”

RELATED: Disturbing narrative emerges about Charleston church shooting

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is said to be making a strong play for South Carolina, didn't mention the shooting at all in his own speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, though he did talk about the importance of protecting Second Amendment rights. 

At the same event, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), noted that the attack was "on a historically black congregation," before adding: "Christians across our nation, across the world, believers across the world are lifting up the congregants at Emmanuel AME."

South Carolina boasts the only black Republican U.S. senator, Tim Scott, and its Republican governor, Nikki Haley, is Indian-American. "We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” Haley said while choking up at a press conference Thursday. "We've got some pain we have to go through."

The state’s senior senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, who also is running for president, said in a statement that “there are bad people in this world who are motivated by hate.” Graham said he was cancelling campaign appearances in order to return to the state.

Ben Carson, the only black candidate in the race, said in a statement: "We must remember that we are a pluralistic society with many components and many beliefs. If we are to live together peacefully and with prosperity, we must learn the true meaning of tolerance, and that it goes in both directions."

Still, even for a southern state, South Carolina’s voting patterns show a stark racial divide, with whites overwhelmingly supporting the GOP. And for decades, conservative politicians in the state — which was the first to secede form the Union in the lead-up to the Civil War — have been accused of dog whistles, or worse, that aim to appeal to white voters by playing on racialized fears.

George W. Bush won the state’s primary in 2000 after a whispering campaign — said to have been orchestrated by Karl Rove — spread the false rumor that his rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had fathered an illegitimate black child. Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist platform, represented the state in the Senate until his death in 2003, though he later moderated his views on race.

Democrats, too, have failed to navigate the state’s complex racial politics. In 2008, Bill Clinton dismissed Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the state’s primary by noting that Jesse Jackson, too, had won the state in 1984. The comment, which seemed to accuse blacks in the state of voting only out of racial solidarity, helped cement African-American support nationwide for Obama.

Even before the shooting, race wasn’t far from the state’s political conversation. Hillary Clinton made a phone call earlier Wednesday to the family of Walter Scott, the African-American shot as he fled from a white North Charleston police officer in April. The killing was part of a sequence of police shootings of black men that have provoked anger and calls for change in the black community. At an event in rural Orangeburg, Clinton called Scott’s death “a terrible tragedy.”