SOUTH CAROLINA'S early Republican primary is promoting cowardice on racial issues, much as the Iowa caucuses promote pandering to farmers. In the past few days both George W. Bush and John McCain have faced questions about the Confederate flag that flies above the South Carolina capitol. Both candidates have given answers that are unworthy of their generally reasonable racial attitudes.

Mr. Bush refuses to condemn the display of the Confederate banner, even though it is an unrepentant symbol of slavery. Each time he is asked to state his view of the flag, he refuses to answer, saying that the matter is a local issue; then he responds to further questions by referring to non-responses given earlier. Mr. Bush has even lacked the spine to criticize a South Carolina supporter who called the NAACP an association of "retarded people."

Mr. McCain started out better. On television last Sunday, he said the flag was "offensive," a "symbol of racism and slavery." But then his courage failed him. "I understand both sides," he declared on Wednesday, adding that "personally, I see the flag as a symbol of heritage."

Both candidates badly want to win the South Carolina primary, which is the first significant contest after New Hampshire on the Republican calendar. But both should have done better than this. Mr. McCain's appeal rests heavily on his refusal to pander on other issues; he denounces ethanol subsidies, and he ridicules the make-work defense projects beloved of his congressional colleagues. Meanwhile Mr. Bush makes much of his appeal to voters of all races and backgrounds; the Republican Party, he declared at a meeting this week, must "welcome new faces and new voices." Mr. Bush himself needs to speak with only one voice if he is serious about that admirable ideal.