By Andy Sullivan and James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates steered clear on Thursday of addressing the role gun rights and racial tensions may have played in a deadly mass shooting in South Carolina as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton called for the United States to face what she called the "hard truths" underpinning the tragedy.
The responses to the attack in Charleston, in which a white man is suspected of killing nine black people at a historic church, showed the contrasting pressures facing White House hopefuls in each party as they prepare for primary contests.
Clinton and other Democrats are appealing to a racially diverse voter base that has been frustrated by an inability to tighten gun laws after other mass shootings. Those voters are also increasingly vocal about heavy handed law-enforcement tactics in black communities following a series of police killings of unarmed African-American men.
Republicans, meanwhile, have successfully loosened gun restrictions across the country in recent years while catering to core voters who are overwhelmingly white.
Clinton cited past mass shootings as she called for the United States to confront the toll taken by racial prejudice and gun violence. "How many people do we need to see cut down before we act?" she said in Las Vegas.
Several Republican candidates issued statements expressing condolences in the wake of the attack. But unlike Clinton and President Barack Obama, they did not call for action to reduce similar attacks. Few were willing to label the murders a hate crime, although police in Charleston said the attack was racially motivated.
"There's a sickness in our country, there's something terribly wrong, but it isn't going to be fixed by your government," the libertarian-leaning Kentucky Senator Rand Paul told a group of religious conservatives in Washington. "It's people not understanding where salvation comes from."
Speaking at the same event, Texas Senator Ted Cruz did not mention the race or possible motivation of the suspected shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof. The young man's Facebook profile showed him wearing a jacket emblazoned with flags of apartheid-era South Africa and of the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, both formerly ruled by white minorities.
"A sick and deranged person came and prayed with an historically black congregation for an hour and then murdered nine innocent souls,” Cruz said, without referring to the race of the shooter.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a leading contender, did not mention the attack in his 20-minute speech.
There is little incentive for the Republican Party to press deeply into the episode since the party's voters overwhelmingly favor expansive gun rights.
Their opposition, backed by the powerful National Rifle Association, ensured Obama failed in his bid to expand background checks on gun buyers after a gunman killed 20 schoolchildren and 6 adults in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.
Obama acknowledged on Thursday that further efforts in Washington to tighten gun controls were likely to be futile, saying the "politics in this town foreclose" attempts to limit gun rights.
Americans, too, are divided on the subject of gun control, with 48 percent supporting government restrictions and 41 percent saying they should not be regulated, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken in April. Some 61 percent of Republicans oppose firearms regulation, while Democrats support it by an equal proportion.
Beyond the gun issue, the voters who will choose the next Republican nominee are overwhelmingly white - in 2012, they made up 90 percent of voters in the Republican primary contests.
That means there is little incentive -- and perhaps a real downside -- for conservatives to grapple head-on with racial tensions spurred by the Charleston shootings.
Some comments by voters at the event attended by Paul, Cruz and others bore that out.
“I'm tired of hearing that every time someone shoots someone from another race that it's racially motivated,” said John Cartree, 78, of Columbia, Mo.
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker; editing by Stuart Grudgings.)