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A sure sign it's election day in South Carolina

January 19, 2008 |  6:24 am

One of the best things about the South Carolina Republican primary election today is that the rest of us won't have to hear any more about the Confederate flag.

Many Americans, who do not reside in South Carolina or Arkansas or Tennessee or Alabama or Georgia, may have thought that issue was settled in 1865. But that flag symbol retained special emotional power in South Carolina where, despite Appomattox Courthouse, it flew over the state Capitol until 2000.

For some it was -- and is -- a proud yahoo symbol of being Southern, suitable for the bumpers and rear windows of pickup trucks of males typically with two first names. For others, the flag of the losing side in what some still call....

the War Between the States was an offensive symbol of racism and slavery.

A 2000 compromise removed the flag from the statehouse in Columbia and placed it elsewhere, which is swell. But for generations, seeking the opinions of out-of-state candidates on the Confederate flag was an evergreen question for every lazy local print and TV reporter who couldn't think of anything else to be provocative. Even puzzled spouses of candidates from distant states were asked their opinion and were too polite to reply, "Who cares?"

Still today a few South Carolina reporters dust off the quadrennial question, and some Republicans can't resist the temptation. Years ago Sen. John McCain took a political consultant's advice and said the flag was a state's rights issue. Then, he felt guilty and started straight-talking what he really thought, that the Confederate flag was "a racist symbol." That may have helped seal his political doom in South Carolina's 2000 primary, but he's standing by it.

Mitt Romney criticized public display of the old flag in one debate, and a spokesman said the other day that as far as the former Yankee governor is concerned, the issue was settled in 2000.

A group calling itself Americans for the Preservation of American Culture, which supports the flag's public display, has been running ads on South Carolina talk radio stations criticizing McCain and Romney and praising Mike Huckabee.

The former Arkansas governor says the Confederate flag should be a matter of state's rights. Here's how the candidate, a former Baptist preacher, put it this week:

"You don’t like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell them what to do with the pole."

Only a few more hours to go.

-- Andrew Malcolm