Jeb Bush, the leader in recent S.C. GOP presidential primary polls, returned to the Palmetto State on Monday, more than a week after he called off a Charleston town-hall meeting scheduled for the day after nine African-American parishioners were gunned down.
The former Florida governor is the first 2016 White House hopeful to campaign in South Carolina since the shootings. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton attended the funeral Friday for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
Bush met privately Monday morning with more than 50 pastors in Charleston, a gathering organized by two members of his S.C leadership team who are members of the clergy. Bush said he discussed the shooting at Emanuel AME Church as well as the role of faith in American life after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
“They asked questions about my faith,” he said, adding the court’s ruling does not change his view that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Bush traveled to the Midlands later in the day, touring the Nephron Pharmaceuticals plant in West Columbia and taking questions from about 100 employees. One worker asked Bush about the Confederate flag, which Gov. Nikki Haley and other state political leaders want removed from the State House grounds.
Bush recounted how he moved the Confederate flag from the Florida Capitol in 2001 to a museum when he was governor, a move he called “politically incorrect.”
“If you’re trying to lean forward, rather than live in the past, you want to eliminate the barriers that create disagreements,” he said. “So I did. We eliminated all of the controversy.”
Bush, who is trying to equal the success of his father and brother in their S.C. presidential primary bids, praised Haley for her call to remove the flag.
“Look, South Carolina wants to be viewed as the host of this great business,” he said, referring to Nephron. “Most South Carolinians are proud of Boeing. They’re proud of the businesses coming here, the emerging automobile industry. They’re proud of the fact that higher-wage jobs are being created.
“And anything that gets in the way of that vision, I think, while doing it respectfully, ought to be put aside and allow South Carolina to move forward.”
Asked what changes he would make in the wake of the church shootings, Bush said current gun-control proposals would not have prevented the slayings, which authorities are calling a hate crime. The accused shooter bought a .45-caliber handgun legally in April, according to multiple news reports.
The problems lie elsewhere, said Bush, who holds a narrow lead over Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in recent S.C. polls.
“Why do people reach a point where their hatred overcomes any other impulse?” he asked. “If you look at these cases, one of the common features is the lack of connection with the rest of us. And the second, in many cases, is a mental-health issue.”