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Charleston attack drags GOP 2016 field into uncomfortable places

Some candidates are struggling to address emerging issues like white supremacist donations and South Carolina’s display of the Confederate battle flag.

The aftermath of the Charleston church shooting rippled across the presidential landscape on Monday, when Republican contenders struggled to address such unexpected issues as white supremacist donations, the role of race in the shooting, and South Carolina’s display of the Confederate battle flag. 

Police officials described the attack at the historic black church as a hate crime and are investigating a website purportedly linked to shooter Dylann Storm Roof that's loaded with photos of Confederate memorabilia and white supremacist writings.

The horror of Wednesday's events prompted a renewed conversation over the state's practice of flying the Confederate battle flag on its capitol grounds. On Monday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — joined by a bipartisan group of leading state officials — came out decisively for its removal, saying it "does not represent the future of South Carolina."

RELATED: 2016 Republicans dump ‘white nationalist’ cash after church attack

In doing so, she gave cover to a Republican presidential field that had been painfully reluctant to issue similar calls in the wake of the attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine people dead. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tweeted support for Haley’s decision within minutes, and sources told NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell that Walker had held off on his own call to take down the flag in deference to Haley.

The state’s two Republican senators — Lindsey Graham, who is running for president, and Tim Scott, the first black senator in the South since Reconstruction — stood alongside Haley, as did Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and a number of Republican and Democratic state officials. The RNC issued a statement shortly afterwards saying the flag "has become too divisive and too hurtful for too many of our fellow Americans" to remain in place.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton called for the flag's removal during her 2008 presidential campaign, and President Obama indicated this week that it should be put in a museum. A number of prominent conservative commentators asked Republicans to finally address the issue once and for all. Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee in 2012, tweeted that the flag was “a symbol of racial hatred” that should be taken down to “honor” the Charleston victims.

Among Republican 2016 hopefuls, however, the conversation was far more muted ahead of Haley's announcement. South Carolina is a critical early primary state and the flag has been a wedge issue in the past with conservative white voters — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously apologized in 2000 for holding his tongue on the issue while competing in the state’s primary because he “feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win.”

RELATED: Are Republicans shifting on the Confederate flag?

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who strongly defended South Carolina’s use of the flag as a presidential candidate in the run up to the state’s 2008 primary, complained on “Meet The Press” that it was “not an issue for a person running for president.” Walker initially declined to weigh in on the issue until funerals for the victims had been conducted. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) criticized "people from outside of the state coming in and dictating how they should resolve" the issue. 

Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) all noted they had supported taking down Confederate flags in their respective states, but none explicitly called on South Carolina legislators to do so themselves. Rubio, in particular, performed an Olympic-level gymnastics routine in one interview with Politico’s Marc Caputo to avoid expressing any clear opinion. Perry issued a statement praising Haley's "leadership" after her announcement. 

The flag issue is forcing Republicans to confront the most glaring contradiction of the modern GOP coalition, namely how the party of Abraham Lincoln reorganized itself to appeal to — and eventually become defined by — a Southern conservative white base over several decades. 

No candidate better embodies this tension than Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who kept quiet on the flag in the run up to Monday’s announcement. Paul has worked hard to court African-American voters on the trail and is often willing to go further than other Republicans in denouncing the lingering effects of racism. Nonetheless, he co-wrote a book with Jack Hunter — who donned a Confederate flag mask as a radio host dubbed the “Southern Avenger” — and campaigned for his father Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who considers Lincoln a tyrant and published years of racially inflammatory newsletters. He also previously criticized the 1964 Civil Rights Act that ended segregation for infringing on states' rights and private businesses before clarifying that he supported the law's passage. 

Paul finally addressed the flag issue in an interview with WKRO on Tuesday, declaring it "inescapably a symbol of human bondage and slavery" and saying he would vote to move it to a museum if he were a South Carolina legislator. 

In addition to the flag issue, candidates have struggled to find the right vocabulary to describe the nature of the attack itself, with several contenders initially avoiding any mention of race as a motive in the violent spree at an historic black church or declaring the shooter's intention beyond understanding.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the lone African-American in the GOP field, stoked the issue further on Monday with an op-ed in USA Today in which he accused his rivals of consciously avoiding the topic. 

“[T]here are people who are claiming that they can lead this country who dare not call this tragedy an act of racism, a hate crime, for fear of offending a particular segment of the electorate,” Carson wrote.

RELATED: For 2016ers, Charleston massacre is treacherous terrain

In addition to issues raised by the flag and the shooting suspect’s motives, several Republican presidential candidates have returned donations tied to a white supremacist group purportedly cited by Roof, who authorities have charged with killing nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told The New York Times through a spokesman that he would “immediately refund” $8,500 in donations from Council of Conservative Citizens president Earl Holt III after the contribution came to light in a report by The Guardian published on Monday. In addition, a spokesman for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the campaign would donate $1,750 in contributions it had received from Holt to the Mother Emanuel AME Church, the site of last Wednesday’s massacre.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also received a $1,500 donation from Holt, which Santorum said he will donate to the church.

"It was brought to my attention late Sunday evening that an individual who led a group cited by the murderer who terrorized the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston had given to one of my past political campaigns," Santorum said in a statement Monday. "Rather than put more money back in the pockets of such an individual, my 2012 campaign committee will be donating the amount of his past donations to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund to support the victims of this tragedy."

Holt has given $65,000 to Republicans over the years, according to The Guardian.

Police are investigating a document posted online that may have been written by Roof, attributing the writer’s initial descent into violent white supremacist ideology to discovering lists of “brutal black on white murders” on the CCC’s website. The Missouri-based group, according to its statement of principles, “oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”

RELATED: 2016 candidates, lawmakers send prayers to Charleston

In a statement on the CCC's website, the group said it was "deeply saddened" by the shooting massacre.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism, describes the CCC as a “white nationalist” group descended from organizations created in the 1950s to defend segregation from the ascendant civil rights movement.

This isn’t the first time the group has popped up as a story in mainstream politics, however. Then-Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) resigned his position as majority leader in 2002 after his praise of Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) segregationist presidential run prompted new scrutiny of his relationship with the CCC, which included speaking at one of their events.