Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned to South Carolina today to declare that he had impugned his own integrity by failing to tell the American public during his presidential campaign that he believes the Confederate flag should be removed from atop the statehouse here.

In an extraordinary act of contrition, McCain said he was afraid at the time that he would lose the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary if he revealed his true feelings. So instead, he joined George W. Bush in saying that it was up to South Carolinians alone to decide whether to do away with the flag. He lost the state primary anyway.

"As I admitted, I should have done this earlier when an honest answer could have affected me personally," McCain said in his speech to the South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank. "I did not do so for one reason alone. I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth."

McCain's comments thrust what had been a prominent issue during the heated presidential primary season back to the forefront of national politics and marked an unusually blunt confession for a politician, even one who has tried to make candor a hallmark of his character.

Both McCain and Bush were asked repeatedly their positions on the flag every time they campaigned here, and they answered similarly by saying it was up to the people of South Carolina. But initially in January, McCain stumbled, at first calling the flag "a symbol of racism and slavery." The next day, McCain, appearing nervous, backed off those statements. Reading from a prepared text, he called the flag a "symbol of heritage."

Asked about the purpose and timing of today's speech, McCain said he simply felt compelled to make a "personal statement" and that he had not thought about whether it would put more pressure on Bush to take a stronger position. A spokeswoman for Bush--who has tried to move back toward the middle since effectively wrapping up the GOP nomination last month--said the governor would not deviate from his previous statement.

"Gov. Bush believes on principle that this is a matter for the people of South Carolina to decide," said his press secretary Mindy Tucker. When asked how he personally felt about the flag, she noted that he had said in the past that he supports Texas's decision to fly the state flag, not the Confederate flag, over its capitol.

Vice President Gore and the Democrats plan to highlight Bush's position on the flag in the general election. A spokesmen for Gore said today that McCain put the focus back on Bush. "I think McCain is doing the honorable thing. There's no question that most of America sees the Confederate flag as a symbol of divisiveness," Chris Lehane said.

McCain's speech comes at a time when South Carolina politicians are furiously working on a compromise to move the battle flag from atop the state capitol. One compromise that recently passed the Senate would remove the flag and display a small version of it on the grounds of the capitol. McCain said he was not here to endorse any specific plan but only hoped that the state's leaders would settle the issue soon.

The 60 or so business and political leaders in the room sat in dead silence, some apparently shocked at McCain's words. Most, if not all, of those here knew generally that McCain was planning to speak out against the flag, but none seemed to know that he would do it in such startlingly personal terms.

McCain said his ancestors fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War but said, "They fought on the wrong side of American history. That, my friends, is how I personally feel about the Confederate battle flag."

McCain's speech drew strong responses, even from some of his one-time supporters.

"I think he said it all: He's a liar and a coward," said state Rep. Jake Knotts, a Republican who was one of McCain's most active supporters in the primary. Knotts said he was "ashamed" of McCain for lying to him and the state's voters about his true feelings. Knotts has been a staunch defender of the flag, but recently said he supports the Senate compromise.

Also in the audience was Richard Quinn, a controversial political activist who had served as a top adviser to McCain here.

"I think he was kind of hard on himself," said Quinn, a flag supporter, explaining that he didn't believe McCain had lied or misled anyone in the primary. He said while he disagreed with McCain's newly revealed position on the flag, he still respects him and would have worked for him regardless.

Vince Ellison, one of the few blacks in the audience this afternoon, praised the senator, saying, "I think John McCain showed his character here today." Ellison, a Republican running for Congress, opposes the flag not because it is racially divisive, but because he says it is not a sovereign symbol.

A couple hundred feet away at the entrance to the State Fairgrounds, a half-dozen men waved Confederate flags while many people drove by giving either the thumbs-up or finger-up sign. The men, who were shown copies of McCain's remarks, were irate. "That's repulsive," said Ben Sinclair of West Columbia. "People are tired of politicians who run for office saying one thing and turn around later and flip-flop."

Near the end of his speech, McCain said he realized that his statement would be criticized. "I deserve it. Honesty is easy after the fact, when my own interests are no longer involved. I don't seek absolution. Like anyone else, I can only try to resist future temptations to abandon principle for expediency, and hope that in the end my character is judged from the totality of my life, and not by its flaws alone."