South Carolina's flag controversy unfurls

As the first presidential candidate to honor a boycott of South Carolina over its flying of the Confederate flag, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina made a key concession in his bid for the Palmetto State: Call it the spare-bedroom gambit.

While other candidates such as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, say they have no practical choice but to breach the three-year-old boycott by rooming in hotels while campaigning in the state, Mr. Edwards, a personal-injury lawyer born in Seneca, S.C., has promised to "personally honor" the state's NAACP's tourism boycott - aimed at having the Confederate flag removed from State House grounds - by staying at a friend's house on a visit to Charleston last weekend.

It was a bold move in a region still fuming about the fate of the Confederate flag - and crucial for its early primary, just after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

For Democrats, opposing the flag is smart, experts say, but could be a liability - especially in Southern states. The South is crucial to Democrats and, this year, a varied field of candidates hailing from North Carolina to Missouri and Massachusetts makes it especially so. As Democrats walk the line between white conservatives - whose votes they need to take the South - and their African-American base, the flag symbolizes clashing interests of different, critical constituencies. And that clash has unfurled on the boycott's wind.

"Any Southern Democrat who wants to win in the South now has to run two campaigns: one geared to African-American voters, the other geared to moderate white Southerners. And it's a very delicate balancing act," says J. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C.

A symbol of heritage - or hate?

For now, though, Edwards's opponents are nervously snickering and asking if he'll bring bag lunches, too.

Lots of people here call the Rebel flag simply a symbol of Confederate heritage - a point of pride for the defeated republic. After all, they say, the flag is just a version of the cross flown by Scottish ships to signify St. Andrew's martyrdom - a cause many here identify with. "All it is, is a heritage flag," says retiree Victor Mincey in Hamer, S.C., who hoisted the St. Andrew's cross above his yard the day the flag came off the capitol dome.

But James Gallman, president of the state NAACP conference, says the flag's appearance on the national political stage will only buoy the image of the South as a place where vestiges of discrimination and hate still have undue influence. "The Confederate flag is not a symbol of honor.... They lost the war - and now they still get to fly the flag," says Mr. Gallman.

But there is confusion over the boycott. While the NAACP got its wish to have the flag removed from the capitol dome, it's now more prominent, swaying over a Civil War memorial on Gervais Street downtown. So contentious is the issue that flag supporters installed a lighter-weight version, hoping it would unfurl even on the windless lawn.

So far, the boycott has caused some groups, like the American Bar Association and the Urban League, to cancel events. Edwards and the Rev. Al Sharpton have said they'll honor the boycott - though Sharpton has not come up with a strategy - and Mr. Dean's campaign is still struggling with the decision. Democrats like Messrs. Kerry and Gephardt say they support the boycott in spirit. But to campaign, they need to spend money on food, transportation, and lodging - and ads.

"Senator Kerry believes the flag should be displayed in a museum," says Robert Gibbs, a campaign spokesman. "But in order to bring up the issues raised by the boycott, we have to be in South Carolina making those points."

But with wells of shiners around him at Johnny's Bait & Tackle here in Nixons Crossroads, Cornell Williamson, a white store owner, says business "is about the same as ever." In fact, the state had a record tourism year in 2002, racking up $5 billion.

Beyond state lines, a broader issue

Still, in a state where more than half of Democratic voters are likely to be black, the spare-bedroom promise has already given Edwards an edge, says the NAACP's Mr. Gallman. The other candidates "need to realize this is an issue that affects a lot of people," he says.

Moreover, a flag-waving debate is likely in Georgia, as well. After defeating Gov. Roy Barnes, who led a behind-the-scenes campaign to take down the flag in 2001, Republican Sonny Perdue has vowed to hold a referendum on whether the St. Andrew's cross should once again be hoisted over the golden dome of the State Capitol in Atlanta. That's likely to kick over a political hornet's nest - one that national candidates may have to contend with, too.

"It's one thing to take the flag off the Capitol and put it somewhere else - and it's another to take it down and then put it back up," says Bill Moore, a political-science professor at the College of Charleston. "That could [be] a bigger problem for candidates in Georgia if they're asked to take the position of whether there should be a referendum."

For Maria Hewett, an African-American woman working in her yard Saturday, the flag issue is crucial. "I think the flag should come down and be put where it belongs: in the history books," she says. "How candidates react to the boycott will have an impact on me."

Still, others don't put much stock in Edwards' spare-bedroom gambit. One of those is Mr. Williamson at Johnny's Bait and Tackle. "He can sleep in the woods and it won't make a difference to me," the bait salesman says.

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