Columbia, S. Car. -- The populist campaign of Mike Huckabee, seeking to mobilize an insurgency of white evangelicals against the Republican establishment, took an abrupt turn today after the former Arkansas governor directly appealed to voters on the issue of race, summoning his fellow candidates to stop calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from government offices.
"You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. ... If somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell them what to do with the pole. That's what we'd do," he declared to applause at a campaign rally in Myrtle Beach Thursday.
At the same time, an Atlanta, Georgia, based organization, Americans for the Preservation of American Culture, began running radio ads attacking John McCain for his opposition to displays of the Confederate flag on public buildings and praising Huckabee.
"McCain has been doing it -- calling the flag a racist symbol -- for years," the announcer declares. "After McCain, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee stands as a breath of fresh air. Governor Huckabee understands that all the average guy with a Confederate flag on his pickup truck is saying is, he's proud to be a Southerner." The ad concludes: "In South Carolina, we're proud to be Southerners."
The addition of a powerful, racially-freighted issue into the Republican primary contest appears designed to enlarge the constituency of voters supporting Huckabee, expanding the circle of white conservative Christians to include descendants of George W. Wallace's campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s - a constituency that has shown the potential to become influential in southern elections, as David Duke demonstrated by nearly winning the governorship of Louisiana in 1991.
The emergence of the confederate flag as an issue -- if past elections are a guide - holds the possibility of inflicting damage on McCain.
When McCain ran in South Carolina in 2000 against George W. Bush, he, like Huckabee now, said the confederate flag issue is a matter of states' rights -- a laden term in these parts -- and should not fall under federal jurisdiction. Later in 2000, after losing the nomination, McCain renounced his states' rights position, acknowledging, "I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.... The Confederacy was "on the wrong side of American history. That, my friends, is how I personally feel about the Confederate battle flag. That is the honest answer I never gave to a fair question."
Debates over flying the Confederate flag above southern statehouses and other government buildings have been bitter and intense in recent years across the states of the former Confederacy, including here in South Carolina. Opposition to flying the Confederate flag has resulted in defeats for both Democrats and Republicans.
Huckabee, ironically, has been campaigning throughout the state accompanied by former Republican Governor David Beasley, a conservative white evangelical who lost a 1998 bid for re-election after he called for the removal of the flag from the South Carolina statehouse. During that campaign, cars across the state displayed a bumper sticker declaring "Keep the flag, dump Beasley!"
In next-door Georgia, former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes, who had appeared to be unbeatable with high popularity ratings, lost a 2002 bid for re-election after replacing the state flag, which prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem, with a flag that reduced the flag emblem to a barely visible icon. Sonny Purdue, Barnes' successful Republican opponent, issued campaign brochures declaring, "Remember who changed your flag."
Furman political scientist James Guth said he was initially surprised Huckabee played the Confederate flag card, noting that it was out of character for his campaign. Guth said he believes Huckabee did so to try to stop Fred Thompson from making further gains here. Thompson remains far behind, but he has picked up roughly 7 or 8 points in recent weeks, and almost all the points Thompson acquired have been at Huckabee's expense, polls show.
The result of these trends is that in less than two weeks, Huckabee has dropped from first to second, with John McCain at the top of the polls.
Ron Wilson, past commander of the South Carolina Sons of the Confederacy, said he organized the fundraising to pay for the anti-McCain, pro-Huckabee radio ads. He said that the ads will run on every station that carries Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, plus all drive-time shows throughout the state.