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 saw in 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 candidate 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 responded with a Facebook post noting that in Florida, where he 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 took place “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 gun control 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 law-abiding, 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 become the 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. “How many 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 are a 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.”