A test for can­di­dates

Re­spond­ing to the Charleston at­tack pro­vides the first defin­ing mo­ment for the pres­i­den­tial field.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kath­leen Hen­nessey kath­leen.hen­nessey@latimes.com

Re­marks about the shoot­ing tend to fall along party lines.

WASHINGTON — The tragic shoot­ing in a Charleston, S.C., church has quickly be­come some­thing of a Rorschach test for the crop of politi­cians run­ning for pres­i­dent, who are fac­ing the first ma­jor na­tional trauma of the cam­paign sea­son.

What they sawin it— and what they said about it — spoke vol­umes about their pol­i­tics.

In com­ments, Twit­ter mes­sages and public state­ments, both Democrats and Repub­li­cans moved quickly to their po­lit­i­cal com­fort zones, em­pha­siz­ing is­sues most likely to ap­peal to their core con­stituents.

For Democrats, that largely meant de­cry­ing the ap­par­ent racial mo­ti­va­tions of the shooter and re­viv­ing talk of gun con­trol — although it re­mained un­clear whether the gun reg­u­la­tions that Democrats have pushed in re­cent years would have pre­vented this par­tic­u­lar crime.

Repub­li­cans em­pha­sized the re­li­gious el­e­ments of the crime — par­tic­u­larly the hor­rific na­ture of a shoot­ing in a church, against peo­ple of faith.

On Satur­day, how­ever, for­mer GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney in­creased the pres­sure on his fel­low Repub­li­cans to en­gage in the race de­bate by pub­licly call­ing upon South Carolina to re­move the Con­fed­er­ate flag from its state Capi­tol grounds. In a tweet, he called the flag a “sym­bol of racial ha­tred.”

Repub­li­can Jeb Bush re- sponded with a Face­book post not­ing that in Florida, wherehe served as gover­nor, the Con­fed­er­ate flag was moved “from the state grounds to a mu­seum where it be­longed.”

The can­di­date added: “Fol­low­ing a pe­riod of mourn­ing, there will rightly be a dis­cus­sion among lead­ers in the state about how South Carolina should move for­ward, and I’m con­fi­dent they will do the right thing.”

Still, the dis­tinct frames that Repub­li­cans and Democrats put on the mas­sacre in South Carolina demon­strated the wide po­lit­i­cal di­vide be­tween vot­ers driv­ing the still-nascent pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Where one part of the po­lit­i­cal uni­verse sees an at­tack on Chris­tians, another sees a dev­as­tat­ing com­bi­na­tion of racial ha­tred and easy ac­cess to weapons.

Speak­ing Fri­day to a group of re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives gath­ered in Washington, Bush, who in re­sponse to the shoot­ing can­celed plans to cam­paign in South Carolina, noted that the at­tack took­place “in a house of peace and brother­hood,” where a well-known pas­tor was lead­ing a prayer group.

“I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who com­mit­ted these atro­cious crimes,” Bush said. “But I do know what was in the heart of the vic­tims. They were meet­ing in brother­hood and sis­ter­hood in that church. … They were pray­ing.”

Bush made no ref­er­ence to the vic­tims’ race, although Dy­lann Roof, the white 21-year-old charged Fri­day with killing nine black peo­ple, made racist state­ments at the scene of the at­tack, wit­nesses said.

Other Repub­li­cans have steered clear of talk about race or guns. Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, speak­ing at the same Faith and Free­dom Coali­tion con­fer­ence Thurs­day, also em­pha­sized re­li­gious faith, with a twist that was true to his lib­er­tar­ian lean­ings.

“What kind of per­son goes in a church and shoots nine peo­ple?” he asked. “There’s a sick­ness in our coun­try; there’s some­thing ter­ri­bly wrong.

“But it isn’t go­ing to be fixed by your gov­ern­ment,” he said. “It’s peo­ple stray­ing away. It’s peo­ple not un­der­stand­ing where sal­va­tion comes from. I think if we un­der­stand that, we’ll have bet­ter ex­pec­ta­tions of what to ex­pect from gov­ern­ment.”

Only Ben Car­son, the one African Amer­i­can in the GOP field, came close to la­bel­ing the shoot­ing as racially mo­ti­vated.

“If we don’t pay close at­ten­tion to the ha­tred and the di­vi­sion that’s go­ing on in our na­tion, this is just a harbinger of what we can ex­pect,” he said.

The con­trast with Democrats was stark. Cam­paign­ing Thurs­day in Ne­vada, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton cited racism as part of the prob­lem but stressed gun­con­trol as the pri­mary so­lu­tion to such vi­o­lence.

“Let’s just cut to the chase,” she said in an in­ter­view with Ne­vada jour­nal­ist Jon Ral­ston. “It’s guns, and we have to have a bet­ter bal­ance. … So there’s a lot of fear, and I think if you stand up to that fear and you say, ‘Look, I’m speak­ing to lawabid­ing, rea­son­able peo­ple who don’t want guns in the hands of un­bal­anced peo­ple, felons, ter­ror­ists, we’ve got to do more.’”

In another speech Satur­day, Clin­ton re­ferred to the “deep fault line” of race in the U.S.

For­mer Gov. Martin O’Malley of Mary­land, one of the Democrats try­ing to be­comethe al­ter­na­tive to Clin­ton, went fur­ther. In an email to sup­port­ers, he tried to tap into out­rage over the failed ef­fort to pass gun reg­u­la­tions in the wake of the New­town, Conn., ele­men­tary school mas­sacre in 2012 and the in­flu­ence the Na­tional Ri­fle Assn. has on Congress.

“I’m [an­gry] that we’re ac­tu­ally ask­ing our­selves the hor­rific ques­tion of, ’what will it take?’” O’Malley wrote. “How­many sense­less acts of vi­o­lence in our streets or tragedies in our com­mu­ni­ties will it take to get our na­tion to stop cav­ing to spe­cial in­ter­ests like the NRA when peo­ple are dy­ing?”

It’s not un­ex­pected that can­di­dates, in the wake of such an event, would stay in what might be con­sid­ered the po­lit­i­cal safe zone. The mas­sacre touches on some of the most emo­tion­ally po­tent is­sues in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics — race, re­li­gion and guns. That the shoot­ing took place in an early-vot­ing state, where a mis­step or tone-deaf com­ment might take on a life of its own, only raised the stakes.

Sen. Bernie San­ders, the Ver­mont in­de­pen­dent who is seek­ing the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion, saw the po­ten­tial Thurs­day for such a mis­step. He was hit with crit­i­cism on Twit­ter for hold­ing a noisy rally on Capi­tol Hill within earshot of where some had gath­ered to re­mem­ber the vic­tims of the Charleston shoot­ing.

San­ders later can­celed a Sun­day cam­paign event in South Carolina and sent an email to sup­port­ers ask­ing them to do­nate to the Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church, where the shoot­ing took place.

San­ders, who has de­vi­ated from many Democrats on guns by vot­ing against some gun-con­trol leg­is­la­tion, made no ref­er­ence to the gun is­sue in his com­ments.

“The Charleston church killings area tragic re­minder of the ugly stain of racism that still taints our na­tion,” the sen­a­tor said in a state­ment. “The hate­ful killing of nine peo­ple pray­ing in­side a church is a hor­rific re­minder that, while we have made sig­nif­i­cant progress in ad­vanc­ing civil rights in this coun­try, we are far from erad­i­cat­ing racism.”

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