NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Republican Scott Walker spoke out forcefully Wednesday in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and the nation's health care law while treading carefully about the debate over the Confederate flag in a state that holds the South's first primary in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Wisconsin governor mocked the concept of climate change and railed about "union bosses," and hit some of the standard GOP applause lines with his pledge to scrap the nuclear agreement and repeal the health overhaul if he were in the White House.
He was more circumspect when it came to the display of the Confederate flag, even as he praised South Carolinians for their response to the murders of nine worshippers at a historic black church.
Walker was the first high-profile presidential candidate to campaign in South Carolina since the flag that was flying on the Statehouse grounds was taken down Friday, the result of an emotional vote by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Pictures of the gunman accused in the church shooting showed him displaying the flag.
"You all showed how to bring people together for this region, this state and, in turn, you did it for the country," said Walker, who entered the 2016 race earlier this week.
At a later stop at a barbecue restaurant in Lexington, he praised GOP Gov. Nikki Haley for her handling of the issue, which he said should have been decided without pressure from outside groups.
"I respect her bringing together a broad coalition to get the job done," Walker said.
The flag has been a political flashpoint for years. The state's influential conservatives have long viewed it as a symbol of Southern pride; many minorities and some white liberals see the banner as a symbol of racism.
The debate played out most conspicuously in the bitter 2000 presidential primary between Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain.
South Carolina leaders struck a compromise that year to move the flag from atop the Capitol dome to a nearby pole, where it remained until last week.
Bush and McCain both said that flying the flag was an issue of "state's rights," a buzz phrase that traces back to the pre-Civil War debate over slavery. Bush won that primary and the nomination; McCain later disavowed his position, writing in a memoir that he should have opposed the flag's public unfurling.
As Haley pushed for the flag's removal in recent weeks, presidential candidates avoided taking a firm position. Walker said he wouldn't address it until after the Charleston church victims were properly mourned.
Cindy Costa, a Republican National Committee member from Charleston, called it "the right thing to do" at "a sensitive time in our state's being," but she also celebrated that the removal dulls a political attack "that Democrats used against us."
The debate comes as the GOP works to win over minority voters who are becoming a more powerful voice in national politics, particularly in presidential elections.
A Democratic leader in the Legislature summed up the GOP challenge.
Haley, said Rep. Todd Rutherford of Columbia, actually is "saving the Republican Party from itself — stopping all the presidential candidates from sounding silly saying the flag is a state's rights issue and not a human rights' issue."
Republicans also must navigate voters such as Jon Sistare, a Walker supporter who said he's "sad" to see the flag come down. "To me, it's like trying to erase history," said the 44-year-old who came to Walker at a barbecue spot near Greenville. "I know some people view it as a symbol of hate. To those people, I would say they misunderstand."
Haley even gives a nod to the politics. Recalling a recent conversation she had with Walker, she said, "I said if you have any uncomfortable things (regarding the flag), we'll help you get through it, but I'm going to take care of this."
Most Walker supporters Wednesday said they were more excited to hear his pitch on national issues anyway.
"He's a fighter, not an establishment Republican, and that will play very well here," said Edward Lynch, a self-employed security contractor who heard Walker in North Charleston. "He's got guts."
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Associated Press reporters Seanna Adcox in Columbia and Meg Kinnard in Lexington contributed to this story.