Every time Texas Gov. George W. Bush brings his presidential campaign to South Carolina, he is asked his opinion on one of the state's most divisive political issues: Should the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol?
Bush, who was campaigning in the state again this week, has remained consistent. Such questions should be left up to individual states, he said, suggesting on one occasion that the NAACP--which has called for a national tourism boycott until the flag comes down--should "butt out" of South Carolina's business. But at a news conference today, Bush was asked whether it was appropriate for the Jack C. Hays High School football team to use the rebel flag in his own state of Texas.
"That's for the local school district to decide if they want to continue to use it," Bush answered.
About half of the questions asked of Bush at a morning news conference here today centered on racial themes. The line of questioning--and Bush's answers--highlight the balancing act for the GOP front-runner, as he seeks to woo minority voters without turning off some conservative whites.
Bush has forcefully put the issue of race on the table. In virtually every speech he proclaims his success at improving test scores for black and Hispanic children. He has demanded his party be more inclusive. He has made it a priority to visit Hispanic and black neighborhoods and have his picture taken hugging minority children.
But Bush frequently brushes off questions that would require him to take a controversial stand on racial issues. For instance, while he has said he generally opposes quotas, he has said little about what he would do as president on the issue of affirmative action.
And when Bush was asked at today's news conference whether he supported strengthening hate-crime laws, he answered that all crime is hate, without directly answering the question.
"I think George W. Bush's position on the flag is indicative of the fact that he really does not want to seriously engage or discuss topics of interest to most" black and Hispanic people, said Democratic pollster Ron Lester, who is black and has several political clients in the South. "All the Republicans want to do is talk the talk."
Also this morning, Bush responded to remarks from Stella Byrd, the mother of James Byrd Jr., the black man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Tex. She said Bush never called her family after the June 1998 murder and noted that neither Bush nor a representative attended her son's funeral.
"It's not true," Bush said of the telephone-call issue. And the Bush campaign produced phone records they say proves Bush made a two-minute call to the family. Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said the Byrd family had expressed concern that the funeral would be politicized.
"Governor Bush was respecting the wishes of the family," said Hughes, adding that his absence was "a way to honor their request."