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How presidential candidates are responding to Charleston, S.C., shooting (+video)

The shooting at a historic black church in South Carolina has become a precarious political subject for Republican presidential contenders, particularly regarding the overt racial motivations behind the shooting.

Charleston, S.C., has long been a place of both physical and political conflict. After a white man was charged with shooting and killing nine parishioners at an African-American church in the city last week, many of these historical and contemporary conflicts have begun to converge.

The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – allegedly perpetrated by 21-year-old Dylann Roof – comes as presidential hopefuls converge on South Carolina, an early-primary state.

Politicians were quick to condemn the shooting in the hours after.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) called the shooting “depraved” and “unthinkable,” according to an Associated Press report. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) called that attack “an evil act of aggression” that “had a big impact on me.”

The campaign for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) scrambled to limit the damage after the presidential hopeful described the shooting as an “accident” last Friday. A spokesperson for the campaign quickly responded that Perry misspoke, and that he meant to say “incident.”

Mr. Perry had torpedoed his 2012 presidential campaign with a notorious “oops” comment during a debate. On Saturday, Perry described Mr. Roof as “deranged” in a speech to the Faith & Freedom Coalition Conference in Washington, the Guardian reported.

In an address at the Conference of Mayors in San Francisco, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton denounced the racism that apparently fueled the attack and seized the opportunity to call for gun control, CNN reported

“How it could be possible that we as a nation still allow guns to fall into the hands of people whose hearts are filled with hate?” Mrs. Clinton said.

Recommended: Righting past wrongs: South Carolina's 'evolution of conscience'

The shooting has become a precarious political subject for Republican presidential contenders, particularly regarding the overt racial motivations behind the shooting.

While South Carolina will hold primaries for both major political parties, the state’s status as a deep red, Evangelical state makes it a key battleground for Republican candidates in particular. The state’s political importance has many candidates walking a fine line as they seek to condemn the attack without losing an important primary.

For several hopefuls, this has meant skirting around the clear racial motivations behind the attack.

Brad Knickerbocker wrote in the Monitor that several prominent Republicans, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, initially characterized the shooting as primarily an assault on religion.

“The online manifesto of [Roof] – filled with racist comment as well as photos of him with the Confederate flag, but no mention of religion – quickly corrected that notion,” wrote Mr. Knickerbocker. 

The Confederate flag currently flies on a knoll a few feet from the State House in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. The flag has become another political grenade for the Republican candidates to handle carefully.

Knickerbocker reported that some of the contenders, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, have said it should be left to the state government to decide whether the flag should be removed or not. Other contenders went a step further. Ohio Gov. John Kasich said that if he were a South Carolina citizen, “I’d be for taking it down.” Mr. Bush said that the flag should be taken “to a museum where it belonged.”

Some Republican candidates have also been scrambling recently to distance themselves from the leader of a white supremacist group, who appears to have donated thousands of dollars to several different Republican campaigns, the Guardian reported.

Citing records from the Federal Election Commission, the newspaper reported that Earl Holt III, president of the Council of Conservative Citizens, gave $8,500 to Sen. Cruz and the super PAC Jobs Growth & Freedom Fund, which supports Cruz, between 2012 and 2014. Mr. Holt also gave $1,500 to former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and $1,750 to RandPAC, a group supporting Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, between 2012 and 2013, according to the Guardian.

The CCC appears to have influenced Roof prior to the shooting. The group’s website is mentioned in Roof’s online manifesto. The Guardian noted that there is no evidence the Sens. Cruz, Paul, or Santorum were aware of the group’s background. The Cruz campaign has said they will return all the money the senator received from Holt.

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