Here Comes Trouble

Six years after South Carolina officials removed the Confederate battle flag from atop the state capitol dome in Columbia, debate over the compromise that lowered the flag has been revived by a famous football coach.

Today the flag can be found near a monument on the capitol grounds. But University of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told a gathering in Columbia last weekend that it would be better for the state if the flag were removed from the capitol grounds altogether.

So we asked South Carolinians this question in our latest InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research survey:

"Do you favor or oppose removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol?"

Favor — 41 percent

Oppose — 49 percent

Undecided/No opinion — 10 percent

The poll was conducted on April 15 and 16. The telephone sample of 500 registered voters in South Carolina has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. The poll is weighted for age, race, gender and political affiliation.

While the newest flag flap will have no impact on the Democratic race for the White House, it has the potential to create real problems for Republicans seeking the presidency. And just as irritating to South Carolinians, it revives an issue they believed had been put to bed years ago.

For Democratic candidates in the key presidential primary state of South Carolina, the issue will be a no-brainer. African-Americans comprise almost half of the voters in South Carolina’s Democratic primary. Nearly all will fully back the coach and his remarks, and so will the Democratic candidates.

The problem comes when one examines the roughly 70 percent of poll respondents who identified themselves as Republicans, and who said they opposed removing the flag. Some GOP presidential candidates, such as Sen. John McCain, have been all over the board on this issue. Others, such as Mitt Romney, have already sided with the concept of "leave it up to the state." But it won’t be that easy.

Fresh from having destroyed radio shock jock Don Imus, the Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton road show will almost undoubtedly appear in South Carolina at some point, demanding the flag be removed. The whole thing likely will be just too noisy for the state — and some presidential candidates — to ignore. And if anyone doubts Jackson’s and Sharpton’s ability to shake things up, the Imus incident proves they still have considerable influence, whether their detractors like it or not.

That means another round of hot-seat questions in a year in which race is emerging as an obvious factor in the presidential race, what with Barack Obama being biracial. He has certainly enthused the black community, and his charismatic presence and lack of political baggage has many Americans of all races seriously considering a black man for president.

Now the Imus incident has roiled the waters. Passionate debate about race has resurfaced. Many believe that racial slurs and other injustices still remain an inexcusable part of our culture. Others believe there is a double standard of political correctness imposed on the speech of some, but not others.

Look for this perpetual controversy to transfer to South Carolina in time for the primary campaign. Remember, as predicted in this column for months, South Carolina will be forced to move its primary to an earlier date to keep it ahead of Florida, which will also move up to follow the inaugural primary in New Hampshire by seven days.

So, South Carolina will be sandwiched between New Hampshire and a high-dollar Florida contest. Immediately after that in February will come a Super Tuesday of primaries in many states.

All this means that South Carolina could become a litmus test on where presidential candidates stand on the issue of race in America. For Republicans, it likely will be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. Some moderate Republican candidates may want to embrace an effort to remove the flag, if for no other reason than to boost their chances of winning the national general election, were they to get that far.

But "getting that far" may prove all the more difficult if any GOP candidate alienates South Carolina Republican voters who don’t want the Confederate flag removed, and don’t want "outsiders" telling them what to do.

So there you have it. Steve Spurrier already has a national football championship to his credit. Now the stir he is creating off the field may affect the outcome of a different sort of "national championship" — the game of who becomes president of the United States.