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By Brian Bennett and Kurtis Lee, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidates continued to struggle Sunday over how to respond to last week’s mass shooting of nine black parishioners at a historic Charleston, South Carolina, church, particularly over the issue of whether the state should remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that his fellow GOP presidential candidates were being “baited” with a question that a future commander in chief should not have to address.

“People want their president to be focused on the economy, keeping America safe, some really big issues for the nation,” he said. “I don’t think they want us to weigh in on every little issue in all 50 states that might be an important issue to the people of that state but not on the desk of the president. … I don’t personally display it anywhere. So it’s not an issue for me.”

His comments were echoed by two other 2016 GOP hopefuls, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, who both said the issue should be left to South Carolinians.

The killing Wednesday in Charleston rekindled the long-standing disgust many feel about the flag being officially flown on state property. South Carolina’s Republican primary comes early in the presidential election cycle, and the Confederate flag has been an issue in previous primaries.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) one of two African-Americans to serve in the Senate, said Sunday that the issue needs to be debated.

“There will be an ongoing conversation, a real debate and discussion about next steps,” he said on CBS’ Face the Nation, although he did not take a position. “So that will be coming soon. And after the funerals, we look forward to participating in it.”

Other Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, called Saturday for the flag to be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse, pushing debate over the divisive symbol to the forefront of the Republican primary.

Romney wrote on Twitter that many see the Confederate flag as a “symbol of racial hatred,” and called for its immediate removal. “Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims,” Romney wrote.

Bush, who formally announced his candidacy last week, was more measured, noting in a Facebook post that, in his home state of Florida, the Confederate flag was moved from state grounds “to a museum where it belonged.” Bush appeared to favor the same approach for South Carolina.

“This is obviously a very sensitive time in South Carolina,” Bush wrote, and after a “period of mourning” for those killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 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.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is also running in the Republican primary and serves alongside Scott, said attention on the flag was misplaced. Graham told CNN that the focus should be on accused gunman Dylann Roof and that the Confederate flag should not be used as “an excuse” for the killings.

“We’re not going to give this guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It’s him … not the flag,” Graham said.

The issue came to prominence in the 2000 GOP primary when Arizona Sen. John McCain and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush said the flag was a state’s rights issue for the people of South Carolina to decide.

After the primary, McCain expressed regret, saying he had compromised his beliefs while seeking the nomination.

Last week, civil rights leaders and President Barack Obama renewed calls to remove the flag, which flies at the top of a 30-foot flagpole near the South Carolina Capitol. Roof, 21, posed with a Confederate flag and a pistol in a photo posted online before the shooting.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Jason Trommetter via Flickr

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