WASHINGTON — The Confederate-flag question came near the end of the Republican presidential candidates' joint appearance last week on CNN-YouTube. (These events are not debates; let's stop pretending.)

A man from Houston asked via video: Did the Stars and Bars on the wall behind him symbolize racism, political ideology, Southern heritage or something altogether different?

Mitt Romney got first crack at the explosive pinata.

"I — right now with the kinds of issues we got in this country, I'm not going to get involved in a flag like that," he said, flustered. "That's not a flag that I recognize so that I would hold it up in my room. The people of our country have decided not to fly that flag. I think that's the right thing."

The former governor of Massachusetts then wandered away from the flag to criticize the "two Americas" theme of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. Romney said he wants to throw something at the TV when he hears Edwards talking that way.

"There are not two Americas. There's one America. We are a nation united ..." Or, we would be united, he said, were it not for Them — "Democrats dividing us and tearing down the country are doing exactly the wrong thing ... We do not need that kind of divisive talk."

Then, returning to the flag, he said, "That flag, frankly, is divisive, and it shouldn't be shown."

Tell that to the guys who reportedly flew a "Let the Band Play Dixie" Confederate-flag banner over the stadium before the South Carolina-Clemson football game last month.

One America? Not on the Confederate-flag issue. One America flies the Confederate flag proudly and one America sees it as a hateful symbol of racial injustice. The no-fly zone is much larger than the fly zone nationally, but both zones still exist.

Vice President Cheney learned this a few weeks ago after he went hunting at a private rod-and-gun club in upstate New York. A New York Daily News photographer spotted a Confederate flag hanging inside a garage door. Yes, in upstate New York.

The Rev. Al Sharpton condemned Cheney for going to a club that displayed "the flag of lynching, hate and murder." Sharpton said it was the "the epitome of an insult."

The vice president's spokeswoman said neither Cheney nor any of his staff had seen the flag.

At the CNN-YouTube event, after Romney answered, it was Fred Thompson's turn. The former senator from Tennessee preached it round and flat.

"I know that everybody who hangs a flag up their room like that is not a racist," he said. But he acknowledged that some view it as a symbol of racism.

"As far as a public place is concerned, I am glad that people have made the decision not to display it as a prominent flag symbolic of something in a state capital." But the flag is OK as part of a group of flags honoring service members, he said.

In 2000, South Carolina's legislature moved the Confederate battle flag from atop the state capitol to the capitol grounds with other flags.

During the primary campaign that year, John McCain was asked the flag question. "Personally I see the flag as a symbol of heritage," he said.

His campaign collapsed anyway. In 2002, he admitted he hadn't believed what he said. He said the episode had been an "act of political cowardice." McCain didn't get a chance to answer this time around.

In 2001, Mississippi voters got to choose their state flag. The old one, designed in 1894, featured the Confederate battle flag in the upper left-hand corner. The proposed alternative had white stars on a blue background — and no Confederate symbol.

The referendum wasn't even close. The Confederate symbol won, 65 percent to 35 percent. Mississippi is the last state where the Confederate flag still flies officially.

South Carolina's first-in-the-South GOP primary is Jan. 19, and Romney has spent a lot of time and money in the Palmetto State. A Clemson University poll of primary voters last week found him leading the GOP pack. But many minds are not yet made up. "Undecided" beats everybody.

Where candidates stand on the Confederate flag still could make a difference.


Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service. E-mail [email protected]