COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In an extraordinary act of contrition, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., returned to South Carolina Wednesday to declare that he had impugned his own integrity by failing to tell the American public during his presidential campaign that he believes the Confederate flag should be removed from atop the state house here.
McCain, who dubbed his presidential campaign the ''Straight Talk Express,'' said he was afraid at the time that he would lose the Feb. 18 South Carolina primary if he revealed his true feelings. So instead, he said he joined George W. Bush in saying that it was up to South Carolinians alone to decide, and lost the state primary anyway.
''As I admitted, I should have done this earlier when an honest answer could have affected me personally,'' McCain said in his speech to the South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank. ''I did not do so for one reason alone. I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.''
McCain's comments thrust what had been a prominent issue during the heated presidential primary season back to the forefront of national politics and marked an unusually blunt confession for a politician, even one who has tried to make candidness a hallmark of his character.
Both McCain and Bush were asked repeatedly their positions on the flag every time they campaigned here, and they answered similarly by saying it was up to the people of South Carolina. But initially in January, McCain stumbled, at first calling the flag ''a symbol of racism and slavery.'' The next day, McCain, appearing nervous, backed off those statements.
Asked Wednesday about the purpose and timing of this speech, McCain said he simply felt compelled to make a ''personal statement'' and that he had not thought about whether it would put more pressure on Bush to take a stronger position. A spokeswoman for Bush -- who has tried to move back toward the middle since effectively wrapping up the GOP nomination last month -- said the governor would not deviate from his previous statement.
''Gov. Bush believes on principle that this is a matter for the people of South Carolina to decide,'' said his press secretary Mindy Tucker. When asked how he personally felt about the flag, she noted that he had said i he supports Texas' decision to fly the state flag, not the Confederate flag, over its capitol.
Vice President Al Gore and the Democrats plan to highlight Bush's position on the flag in the general election. A spokesmen for Gore said Wednesday that McCain put the focus back on Bush
McCain's speech comes at a time when South Carolina politicians are furiously working on a compromise to move the battle flag from atop the state capitol. One compromise that recently passed the Senate would remove the flag and display a small version of it on the grounds of the capitol.
The 60 or so business and political leaders in the room sat in dead silence, some apparently shocked at McCain's words. McCain's speech drew strong responses, even from some of his one-time supporters. ''I think he said it all: He's a liar and a coward,'' said state Rep. Jake Knotts, who was one of McCain's most active supporters.
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