COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Bill Bradley, switching his sights from Vice President Al Gore to Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, accused the two Republicans yesterday of "narrow political expediency" for refusing to say whether they thought the Confederate flag should be removed from the state capitol here.
"The weakness and passivity of Republicans on this issue is appalling," Bradley told cheering students and faculty at the predominantly black Benedict College.
"At a time when leadership, courage and principle should guide our leaders on this issue, both George Bush and John McCain have instead embraced the narrow political expediency of the Republican Party.
"It's an expediency that ignores the hateful and shameful past," he said, "in an effort to bottom-fish for votes from the most right-wing elements of the Republican Party."
The former New Jersey senator contrasted their positions with those of two other Republicans -- Presidents Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated America's slaves, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who enforced school integration in Little Rock, Ark.
At the same time, Bradley pointedly invoked Gore, his Democratic foe for the nomination, to condemn the two opposition-party rivals who are competing in South Carolina's Feb. 19 Republican primary.
"Al Gore and I say, 'Take the flag down;' George Bush and John McCain say, 'Leave it up,' " Bradley said. "So it does matter who we entrust to lead this country."
That comment, however, misrepresented the position of the two Republicans, who have not called for the flag to stay up, but rather to leave the decision to residents of the state.
Bradley also criticized Bush for delivering a speech last week at Bob Jones University, which bans interracial dating.
Bradley made his charge of political expediency here even though the South Carolina primary Saturday is among Republicans only, with the Democratic primary not until March 9.
A new Washington Post-ABC News Poll has found that 51 percent of South Carolina voters believe the Statehouse should not fly the Confederate flag, while 42 percent said the flag should continue flying.
The former senator's press secretary, Eric Hauser, acknowledged that the current national news media spotlight on the state provided an unusual opportunity "to raise the profile" of the issue of racial conciliation, a major Bradley campaign theme.
The student body rose and applauded several times during Bradley's remarks on that theme, and Benedict's president, David Swinton, told the students:
"We're not going to be satisfied when candidates come and say, 'It's up to the people of South Carolina whether the flag stays up.' "
He invited all the other presidential candidates to come to the campus and state their views.
Janice Brown, a junior, said of Bradley's remarks: "He said what needed to be said. He told what we should be standing for."
Deon Williams, a freshman from Alabama, agreed. "I thought [the flag] should have come down when the North won the war. What's the purpose of it anyway?"
The Confederate flag actually was hoisted over the state capitol in 1962 as a demonstration of defiance against pressures for racial integration.
Bradley's decision to visit, at this juncture in the Democratic campaign, a state not included among the 15 that will hold the next party primaries and caucuses March 7 was clearly an effort to reinforce his record in the field of race relations.
Gore leads him by substantial margins in most polls of African-American voters.
In previous days, since he fell short in the New Hampshire primary, Bradley has addressed black audiences in New York, which is a critical state in the Super Tuesday lineup, and Florida, which is not.
In Tampa on Monday, he faulted Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, for repealing affirmative action programs in that state.
Yesterday, the former senator told the Benedict audience: "No Democrat would have acted to drop affirmative action. I am in Columbia today because I want to be president of all Americans."
Bradley praised the estimated 47,000 protesters who marched here earlier against the continued flying of the Confederate flag, noting that the flag was not raised "as a symbol of Southern heritage."
"That flag," he said, "shows the true color of the Republicans who want to be president. That flag should not fly another day over the state capitol."
McCain, touring South Carolina yesterday, brushed aside Bradley's criticism.
"It's sort of like the senator's position on ethanol," a reference to Bradley's switch from opposing federal subsidies for the corn-based fuel as a senator to supporting them during the Iowa caucuses. "I wouldn't want to do anything like flip-flopping on an issue."
Bradley, however, had accused McCain not of flip-flopping but rather of dodging a politically sensitive issue.
McCain cited polls here that he said demonstrated that South Carolinians don't want outside interference on what to do about flying the flag that is offensive to many residents, black and white.
"They want me to stay out of it," he said. "I'll stay out of it."
Scott McClellan, a Bush spokesman, said it was Bradley who was seeking to score political points.
"Voters will reject such divisive remarks that pit people against one another," he said.