In the first few days after nine African-Americans were gunned down Wednesday night at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, many leading Republicans seemed to strain to avoid admitting the obvious: that the shootings were motivated by racism.
But by the weekend, the conversation seemed to have changed, with a broad consensus coming together about the role race played in the massacre. And, prompted both by emerging facts and the fast-moving public debate, a few top Republicans are going further, wading into the raging, politically sensitive debate over the Confederate flag by calling for it to be removed from the statehouse grounds entirely.
Even many GOPers who don't go that far are acknowledging that the flag is seen by many as a symbol of hate, and saying a debate is needed.
"In Florida, we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged," Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said on Twitter Saturday. "Following a period of mourning, there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward and I'm confident they will do the right thing."
Bush’s statement came a few hours after Mitt Romney came out in support of removing the flag, tweeting: "Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims."
After a compromise between state lawmakers in 2000, the Confederate flag was removed from the state capitol building but kept on the statehouse grounds. Supporters of removing the flag from the grounds held a rally Saturday outside the Capitol building.
That the admitted shooter, Dylann Roof, was motivated by racism, has never been in serious doubt. Roof’s Facebook profile shows him wearing neo-Nazi symbols, and he’s said to have told his victims that they were “taking over” and “raping our women” before he opened fire. Police almost immediately called the rampage a hate crime.
Still, several leading Republicans on Thursday tied themselves in knots to avoid mentioning the role of race, seemingly afraid that doing so could alienate white conservatives. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee -- both candidates for the presidential nomination -- framed the shooting as an assault on Christians. Other Republicans, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Bush, appeared to try to short-circuit discussion of what drove Roof, saying his ultimate motivations were unknowable.
Marco Rubio, speaking at a conservative Christian conference Thursday, completely ignored the shooting.
Asked about the Confederate flag on Sunday's "Meet the Press," Huckabee said, "I still feel like it's not an issue for a person running for president."
"I still feel like it's not an issue for a person running for president."'
One exception was Ben Carson, the only African-American running for the party’s presidential nomination. “If we don’t pay close attention to the hatred and division in our nation, it is just a harbinger of what we can expect,” Carson said. Still, Carson suggested ideological intolerance is a larger problem than "racial based hate."
For those with presidential aspirations, the issue is particularly delicate, because South Carolina hosts a key early primary contest, and many of the voters who turn out in the GOP primary are staunchly conservative.
“I think they’re worried about the Republican electorate in South Carolina, and they’re worried about their base,” said Gibbs Knott, the chair of the political science department at the College of Charleston. “For the presidential candidates, it’s the folks who are going to show up for that all-important South Carolina primary. That’s the fear, that you’re going to go in the wrong direction.”
But by Saturday, after a racist manifesto surfaced, said to be written by Roof, along with a picture of him posing with a gun and a Confederate flag, Rubio was saying that the shooting was "an act motivated by racial hatred." And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told reporters: “I want to make it abundantly clear that I think the act, the crime that was committed on Wednesday is an act of racism."
The debate over the Confederate flag has followed a similar course. Asked Thursday whether the state would consider moving the flag, a Haley spokeswoman seemed to dodge the question, telling msnbc that only the legislature could do so. Last year, Haley defended the state’s policy on the flag, after her Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, Vincent Sheheen, called for its removal.
But as the week has gone on, the anti-flag campaign has only become more intense, with state lawmakers of both parties saying they plan legislation to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds. On Friday, Haley allowed in an interview that the state "will start talking about [the flag issue] again, and we'll see where it goes."
A White House spokesman said Friday that President Obama believes the Stars and Bars should be in a museum. And a Detroit newspaper even called for the flag to be burnt.
By Saturday evening, Romney and Bush had added their voices to the push to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds.
“I think there’s just a growing understanding among some whites and some Republicans that this is just such an offensive symbol to most in the African-American community,” said Knott. “And so I think that just having that on state property, I think people are starting to question a bit.”
But several Republican presidential candidates, like Haley, are still hedging. In a statement, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in a statement that he understands both sides of the debate, but added that South Carolina doesn’t need "people from outside of the state coming in and dictating how they should resolve it.”
Carly Fiorina acknowledged that the flag is a “symbol of racial hatred,” but said her “personal opinion is not what’s relevant here.”
And Walker avoided even offering a personal opinion, saying South Carolina’s public officials “should have a healthy debate” on the issue.