In some cases, their input has been subtle. Other times, unmistakable. The reactions, which have poured in from the field in the day-and-a-half since the slayings, highlight how the candidates want to be perceived by voters. They also provide a telling glimpse of how they plan to campaign in the coming months.
For Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, the shooting forced the country to confront “hard truths.” To former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) , it was an “assault on our religious liberty.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said “the body of Christ is in mourning.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) characterized it as an act of evil that government cannot solve.
Others were more subdued. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did not mention it at all during his remarks at a Christian conservative confab in Washington, even as Cruz and Paul did. He tweeted earlier in the day that the victims and their families were in his prayers.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) changed their campaign schedules, with the former foregoing plans to campaign in Charleston Thursday and the latter scrapping a Northeast swing to return home to deal with the crisis.
While most of the candidates expressed condolences without trying to sound political, their undertones showed how they intend to pursue the presidency in the coming months.
“Sadly, that’s the nature of politics,” said Ford O’Connell, who worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Most Americans don’t follow it all that closely and when you have a national backdrop like this, regardless of party, most politicians feel a need not to let a crisis go to waste politically, as crass as that may sound.”
“Even if a candidate wanted to avoid talking about an issue out of sensitivity to the tragic nature of the issue, it is really challenging to do that,” said Chris Lehane, a former aide to Bill Clinton.
In remarks in Las Vegas Thursday, Hillary Clinton pledged not to “forsake those who have been victimized by gun violence” and “to find answers together.” It was a general and cautious message in keeping with her careful political strategy. And it contrasted with President Obama, who railed against gun laws he sees as too lax.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), running in the Democratic race as a liberal alternative to Clinton, issued a statement saying the shooting was a “reminder of the ugly stain of racism that still taints our nation.” But Sanders, who hails from a state where gun rights are seen as sacrosanct and holds positions reflecting that, made no mention of guns.
Santorum, who is trying to rouse a loyal Christian conservative following in his second straight bid for the presidency, cast the attack as a blow to religious rights.
“You talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before,” he said in a radio interview. Santorum is considered a long-shot candidate.
That’s largely because of an emerging crop of new, young hopefuls like Cruz, a firebrand freshman senator who is also vying for the support of the Christian right.
“Christians across our nation” and the world are “lifting up the congregants” at the church that was attacked, said Cruz, speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority summit in Washington.
Minutes earlier, Paul took the same stage, expressing disgust at the killings and reiterating his broader opposition to government overreach, which he regularly mentions on the campaign trail.
“There’s a sickness in our country,” said Paul. “There’s something terribly wrong. But it isn’t going to be fixed by your government. It’s people straying away, it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.”
The shooting also led to some awkward moments. Sanders held a boisterous pension rally in Washington near a prayer service for victims of the shooting, irking some. At a vigil in South Carolina, a political reporter tweeted a photo of Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and Attorney General Alan Wilson, all Republicans, sitting as most others offered a standing ovation as a speaker called for tighter gun control laws.
“Republicans and Democratic candidates really walk a high wire,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, later adding: “You don’t want to look like you are capitalizing on voter attention and look like you are pandering to the public while everybody is in shock.”
Jose A. DelReal, Philip Rucker and Katie Zezima contributed to this story