The Confederate battle flag is a burning issue in South Carolina, where it flies high above the state capitol in Columbia along with the modern state flag and the U.S. flag. It is no issue at all in this northern state, which has only a tiny percentage of black residents.

But this is the presidential campaign season, when issues reverberate from one primary state to another, and so today outside a school here when he was asked about the battle flag, Arizona Sen. John McCain reached into his pocket and pulled out a typed statement on his position.

"As to how I view the flag," McCain said, "I understand both sides. Some view it as a symbol of slavery. Others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage. I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. None of them owned slaves. I believe they fought honorably. I continue to hope that the people of South Carolina will be able to resolve this emotional issue in an atmosphere of mutual respect."

For McCain, who is normally one of the least-scripted of presidential candidates, the written statement was an attempt to overcome some confusion about his position on the flag, and he was not alone in having to deal with the emotional issue. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination who has been promoting his own inclusive image of his party, was engulfed in questions about the flag that seemed to overshadow--at least for a day--his message on taxes, education and other matters.

At a news conference in Wilmington, Del., Bush was asked repeatedly about his stance on the flag, particularly in light of his assertion that he wanted to change the GOP's image as an unwelcoming place for minorities. He reiterated his position that the issue was for South Carolinians to decide, even refusing to say whether he was personally offended by it or would want the flag to fly in his home state of Texas.

Asked if there were any inconsistencies in his positions, Bush said, "No. I don't see that at all. It reflects that the people of South Carolina can make up their own minds on this issue."

McCain's problems with the flag issue began during an appearance Sunday on the CBS program "Face the Nation," when he declared that "the Confederate flag is offensive in many, many ways, as we all know. It's a symbol of racism and slavery. But I also understand how others do not view it in that fashion."

Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director, said that statement strayed slightly from McCain's standard answer on the issue, which is that "many people believe" the flag is a symbol of racism and slavery, but others do not and that the issue should be decided by the people of South Carolina.

"The result was a widespread misinterpretation of the position he's held all along" that today's written statement was meant to clarify, Schnur said.

Here in New Hampshire, McCain said interpretations of where he stands on the flag issue have "gotten very Talmudic and that's why I am now giving my position by reading from a written statement so there is no ambiguity whatsoever."

Earlier today at a news conference in South Carolina, Bush was asked about comments this week by Republican state Sen. Arthur Ravenel. At a pro-flag rally, Ravenel referred to the NAACP as the "National Association of Retarded People." He later apologized to retarded people for lumping them in the same category as the NAACP.

"His comments were unfortunate," Bush said. "You shouldn't be calling names to people in the course of an emotional debate." But when asked if Ravenel should apologize, Bush said: "It's up to the senator to do that."

The Democratic National Committee yesterday criticized Bush, accusing him of ducking and weaving on racial issues. "Bush, in particular, says he wants to run a different kind of Republican campaign and reach out to voters who haven't traditionally supported his party," said DNC Chairman Joe Andrew.

Also today, GOP Sens. John D. Ashcroft (Mo.) and Connie Mack (Fla.) became the 31st and 32nd senators to endorse Bush.

Neal reported from Wilmington.

CAPTION: Campaigning in Delaware, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, left, was battered by questions about his stance on the Confederate flag, a burning issue in South Carolina. Above, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) read his position on the flag from a script when questioned about it in New Hampshire after a statement Sunday left it less than clear.