Why South Carolina's Still a Red Flag for Bush

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George W. Bush has long insisted that his attempts to be both "compassionate" and "conservative" are not diametrically opposed. But the South Carolina statehouse Confederate flag issue has forced the Texas governor onto a high wire between the two camps, as he tries to keep the conservative base he built in the primaries while wooing compassionate swing voters. In his primary runoff against John McCain, Bush said it was up to the state to decide whether to keep the controversial banner (which is widely seen as an emblem of white supremacy) atop its capitol building, and refused to take a position on the issue. He was pressured to reconsider that decision Wednesday when McCain said he personally believed the flag should be removed, and admitted that he had earlier taken a stance similar to Bush's because if he "answered honestly I could not win the South Carolina primary."

But Bush isn't quite ready to follow McCain's authenticity tack into the public's hearts. While the Arizona senator wears such "honesty" well, it could be seen as hypocritical coming from Bush, who has repeatedly attacked Al Gore as poll-driven and without conviction. On Thursday, Bush reaffirmed his position that the flag is a state issue. Now he finds himself trapped between states' rights purists and moral purists, between presenting himself as a man of conviction and bending to public opinion, and between his vision of an expanded federal government and a strong position on state sovereignty. "For Bush, the challenge is to maintain his current position as popular among southern conservatives while attracting the suburban centrist vote," says TIME political correspondent John F. Dickerson. "It may seem that he has the conservative vote sewn up, but if they feel he's abandoned them, they can always stay home at the polls. "

"The bigger balancing act," argues Dickerson, could come between principle and respecting states' rights. "Bush likes to argue that one of the failures of America in the 1960s was that people in power didn't stand up and say the moral decay of the country was wrong. He's therefore long held that it's the responsibility of leaders to speak out against moral wrongs. So there seems to be a contradiction between his saying leaders should stand up for what's right and not taking a stance on the flag issue. This could certainly hurt him with African-American voters, but more importantly, it has the potential to hurt him with independent and suburban voters who tend to notice issues of tolerance."