COLUMBIA, S.C. – The Confederate flag doesn’t belong on the State House grounds in South Carolina, two presidential hopefuls said Monday at the King Day at the Dome march and rally.

U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., told the estimated 5,000 people crowded onto the Capitol’s north lawn that the rebel banner is not what the country is fighting for.

“As a state that has provided so many of your sons and daughters who have served in the military uniform of our country, thank you for your sons and daughters, South Carolina,” Dodd said.

“Let me also tell you, they are dying for a country whose symbol is the flag of the United States of America. And in South Carolina, the flag that ought to fly is the flag of the United States of America.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., also spoke at the rally, and said if he were a member of the S.C. General Assembly, “I’d vote for it to move off the grounds, out of the state.”

In an interview with The State newspaper afterward, Biden said once people realize how much pain the Confederate flag causes African-Americans, the banner will be moved off the State House grounds.

The NAACP’s King Day march and rally began in 2000 to protest the Confederate flag, which at the time was flying atop the State House.

Later that year, lawmakers struck a compromise that lowered it from the dome and raised it on a new flag pole by the Confederate Soldiers Monument at Gervais and Main streets.

The flag has continued to be a political hot potato for Democrats and Republicans. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was criticized by fellow Republicans during the 2000 presidential campaign for disparaging the Confederate flag.

For Democrats, however, black voters can make up more than 50 percent of the primary vote.

, making opposition to the flag an important issue. Both Biden and Dodd referenced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of tolerance and peace.

“Dr. King brought hope,” Biden said. “Not just to black folks, but to white boys like me. He brought hope to a whole gen-eration.”

Both senators were well received by the NAACP crowd. But across Gervais Street, Confederate flag supporters were holding a counterprotest. When Dodd and Biden spoke, the flag supporters raised signs that said, “Yankee go home!”

And Biden and Dodd were not the only presidential hopefuls to be mentioned Monday.

When the Rev. Charles White Jr., director of the NAACP’s national field operations, invoked the name of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the crowd erupted.

Obama is the freshman lawmaker considering a presidential bid. The son of an African father and a white American mother, Obama has garnered great attention and would likely attract support of many black voters.

(c) 2007, The State (Columbia, S.C.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-15-07 1941EST