Former U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Saturday that South Carolina should remove the Confederate flag flying on its state capitol grounds in Columbia.
In a statement, Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president, called the flag "a symbol of racial hatred." On Twitter, he wrote: "Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims."
Romney's statement was the first about the divisive flag from a prominent Republican since the massacre of nine black church leaders in the city Wednesday. It was widely seen as intensifying pressure on Republican candidates to face an issue of race and symbolism that has long vexed the party and divided Southern states since the end of slavery 150 years ago.
On Facebook, candidate Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, noted Saturday that his state administration removed the flag from his state's capitol after he took office in 2001.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has not yet addressed the issue since the killings. But she called for the removal of the flag during her 2007 presidential campaign.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz sought to distance himself from the controversy Saturday, telling The Associated Press that the people of South Carolina did not need "people from outside the state coming in and dictating how they should resolve it."
While repeatedly saying he was "horrified" by the Charleston killings, the hard-line Republican presidential candidate also accused Democrats of using the deaths as a pretext to roll back Second Amendment gun rights.
Neither Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker nor Ohio Governor John Kasich, prospective Republican candidates for the White House, had responded to media inquiries by late Saturday.
By the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, the conflict had morphed into a war against slavery — the cornerstone of the agrarian economies of the Southern states. The Confederate flag has since been reviled by many as an enduring vestige of slavery. Other supporting public displays of the flag claim it as a symbol of heritage and pride.