When George W. Bush was asked at a news conference in South Carolina Wednesday whether he believed the Confederate battle flag was a symbol of the South's heritage, he responded testily.
"I view it as a local issue, and I've spoken to this issue every time I come to this state and I'm not going to say any more," he said. "The people of South Carolina can solve this issue."
The nonresponse has been increasingly common from Bush as the fight for the Republican presidential nomination has intensified. While he appears confident on the campaign trail delivering his stump speech, he often has difficulty articulating a clear vision when he's forced to diverge from the script--a failing that rival campaigns and voters have been insistently pointing out.
Nowhere was the Texas governor's difficulty more apparent this week than on the issue of race. Nearly every day he has been questioned about the subject--in South Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware and Michigan--and has either refused to answer or appeared to stumble.
In South Carolina the subject was the Confederate flag and a Republican state senator named Arthur Ravenel, who referred to the NAACP--which has called for a tourism boycott of the state until it takes the flag down from the capitol--as "the National Association for Retarded People." He later apologized to retarded people for lumping them in the same category with the NAACP.
When asked about the comments, Bush called them "unfortunate," but refused to say whether he believed Ravenel should apologize. "That's going to be up to the senator."
Later in Wilmington, Del., after meeting with a racially diverse group of officials representing social organizations and charities, Bush told reporters that the GOP needs to be more welcoming to minorities. "People assume that the Republicans don't care about African Americans or the downtrodden," he said, adding that the Republican Party "has to reach out to people."
But when asked if his refusal to take a position on the Confederate flag was consistent with such statements, Bush said, "I don't think it reflects my heart at all. It reflects the understanding of the people of South Carolina."
Earlier in the week, at a GOP debate in Michigan, Bush muddled his way through an answer about what he would do to stop racial profiling of black motorists by police, saying generally that it isn't the federal government's job to tell states how to operate their police departments.
"No one wants racial profiling to take place in any state," he said. "The governor of this state doesn't, the governor of my state doesn't. I'm interested in fair justice. I think we ought to hold people accountable if they break the law regardless of the color of their skin. In terms of being a president . . . it starts with saying there's no place for racism in America. This is a, this is a nation where all people are created equal."
He went on: "One of the problems I have with oftentimes what's happening in Washington, D.C., there's too much group thought; there's too much attempt to lump people in groups and pit one group of people against another. And that leads to disharmony, it leads to the balkanization of America. . . . I intend to say each individual counts, each individual matters, the American dream belongs to each individual who's willing to work hard to achieve it."
Armstrong Williams, a conservative black radio talk show host who is close to such politicians as Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), criticized Bush's answers on the flag, on racial profiling and on Ravenel's remark about the NAACP.
"He had clear opportunities to take stands," Williams said. "He's worried about what people will say. But you didn't see people standing up and cheering when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation or when the 13th and 14th amendments were signed. Bush must speak to these things."
As Bush has sought to portray himself as someone who appeals to the broad middle of American politics, he has often found pitfalls from the right and left when pushed on specifics. And as he seeks to avoid political land mines, some critics say he risks being seen in the public's eyes as too programmed, overproduced and even slick.
When The Washington Post gathered a dozen undecided Republican New Hampshire voters to watch last week's GOP debate in Durham, many came away with that impression of Bush. "Every answer he had was almost verbatim of most of the speeches and commercials I've seen on television," said Robert Morin, a 42-year-old traffic manager from Manchester. "And they were all little sound bites of him and totally prepared, I believe."
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer acknowledged that Bush avoids some questions on issues occurring in particular states, but characterized that tendency as a core conservative value. "If you're going to reduce the size and power of Washington, you've got to get a president who doesn't weigh in on every specific state issue," he said.
But Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jenny Backus said that Bush often uses states' rights as a subterfuge to avoid answering questions he doesn't want to take on race and other issues.
For instance, when Bush was asked today whether he would instruct his supporters in New York not to oppose rival John McCain's efforts to get on the ballot using a legal challenge, Bush answered that he would let the New York GOP decide.
Similarly, citing the "it's a state issue" line, Bush at one time or another has declined to take a position on the anti-affirmative action initiative in California, video gambling in South Carolina and the proposal of Tennessee's Republican governor to impose an income tax there.
But Bush did, Backus noted, criticize a judge's decision against a school voucher program in Cleveland, criticize an assisted-suicide initiative in Oregon and support an anti-gay marriage initiative in California--all issues popular among the conservative GOP base.
David Bositis, a political analyst for the nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a District-based black think tank, said that Bush has dropped the ball repeatedly on the flag issue and others that would demonstrate, beyond the rhetoric, that the GOP front-runner means what he says. "It's times like these that I'm just so disgusted," Bositis said. He added: "If [the Bush campaign] thinks they're fooling anybody with their rhetoric--" and his voice trailed off as he laughed.
It's unlikely, however, that such answers on racial issues will hurt Bush in the campaign for his party's nomination. McCain had his own troubles answering the Confederate flag question this week, and when Bush was asked for his opinion on that topic at a debate in South Carolina last week, the nearly all-white audience of 3,000 booed the questioner.
But if Bush makes it to the general election, Democrats will try to exploit what they see as his inconsistency. "Bush has the opportunity to use the bully pulpit and his lead in this race to show that he is a different kind of Republican," Backus said. "But silence and refusal to take a stand speaks volumes about his conservatism."
Bush's GOP rivals Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer have labeled the Texas governor as dodgy and evasive, and in the Durham debate seemed to make a sport of trying to pin him down on abortion and other conservative topics. McCain's "Straight-Talk Express" motto for his campaign bus, meanwhile, is an implicit slap at Bush.
Such criticism, not surprisingly, angers the Bush camp. Fleischer said no other candidate has been as specific on so many subjects as Bush, noting his detailed policy proposals on taxes, education, defense and foreign policy. Bush "answered the question," on abortion, Fleischer said. "They just didn't like his answer."