Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush on Saturday added his voice to calls for South Carolina to stop flying the Confederate flag, saying he was confident leaders there “will do the right thing.”
Later Saturday, Sen. Marco Rubio also weighed in, though he was more circumspect.
Bush, in a carefully worded statement, did not explicitly say the flag should be removed following the massacre of nine people in a historic black church in Charleston. But he referred to his decision to take down the flag in Florida in 2001 when he was governor.
“My position on how to address the Confederate flag is clear. In Florida we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged.”
“This is obviously a very sensitive time in South Carolina and our prayers are with the families, the AME church community and the entire state. Following a period of mourning there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward, and I’m confident they will do the right thing.”
Demands have grown since the shootings, which have been called a hate crime and an act of domestic terror. The suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, has been seen in photos on a white supremacist website posing with Confederate graves and weapons.
On Saturday morning, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, wrote on Twitter, “Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.”
Romney effectively thrust the issue into the GOP primary. South Carolina holds one of the first nominating contests, and the Confederate flag has flown at the Capitol since 1962 as the civil rights movement grew.
In 2001, Bush quietly took down the Confederate flag from the state Capitol in Tallahassee.
“Regardless of our views about the symbolism of the ... flags — and people of goodwill can disagree on the subject — the governor believes that most Floridians would agree that the symbols of Florida’s past should not be displayed in a manner that may divide Floridians today,” Bush’s spokeswoman said at the time.
Bush was scheduled to campaign in Charleston on Thursday, but canceled following news of the slaying Wednesday night. On Friday, he spoke of the tragedy before a gathering of Christian conservatives but did not address race.
“I don’t know what was on the mind or heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes, but I do know what was in the heart of the victims,” Bush said. “They were meeting in brotherhood and sisterhood in that church ... they were praying, they were learning and studying the word of the Lord.”
He later told a reporter that the shooting looked racially motivated and then, speaking at a GOP dinner in Tampa that night, explicitly called Roof a “racist.”
“It breaks my heart that somebody, a racist, would do the things he did,” Bush said.
Rubio, another Republican contender for president, told reporters in Miami Saturday night that the tragedy was the work of an “individual full of hate in his heart who carried out an act motivated by racial hatred and it’s an atrocity. It’s a horrifying instance.”
“What I do think is important to remember is that the people of South Carolina have dealt with this issue before. They have found a bipartisan consensus over a decade ago on moving that flag to a new location. And I have confidence in their ability to deal with that issue again. So I think it’s important to let the people of South Carolina move forward on it,” he said.
Directly asked if the flag should be taken down, Rubio replied: “Ultimately the people of South Carolina will make the right decision for South Carolina and I believe in their capacity to make that decision. The next president of the United States will not make that decision. That’s up for the people of South Carolina to make, and I think they’ll make the right one like they’ve made them in the past.”
Rubio said he supported taking down the flag in Florida. As a state legislator, however, he also backed legislation that said no war artifacts “may be relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered.”
Asked about that Saturday, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said, “Marco, along with four other Cuban-Americans, two African-Americans and a Jewish Democrat, co-sponsored this legislation in 2001 to protect war monuments.”