With close to two dozen supporters, Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart staged a rally in Roanoke Saturday to preserve Virginia’s Confederate statues and battle flags.

Protecting Virginia’s heritage, and keeping Confederate statues in place is the top issue in the governor’s race, said Stewart, whose single-digit poll numbers show him trailing in a primary race that includes two other GOP candidates.

At Awful Arthur’s downtown, Stewart vowed as governor to defund any Virginia localities that would remove Confederate statues.

Stewart, chairman of Prince William County’s board of supervisors, was co-chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Virginia until he was fired a month before Election Day.

He has turned a fight over a the controversy involving the future of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville into his top campaign issue.

“We will never ever allow the city of Charlottesville, or Petersburg or Richmond or any other city to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee or any other Virginia military hero,” he said Saturday.

After passionate community debate, Charlottesville City Council recently voted to remove a statue of the Confederate general from Lee Park . Stewart has since criticized the issue numerous times on the campaign trail.

In comparison, Republican gubernatorial front-runner Ed Gillespie unveiled a tax reduction plan that he called the “centerpiece” of his campaign this week. Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, opposes removal of Charlottesville’s Lee statue, but says the governor should avoid overriding local government decisions.

The third Republican gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, has largely shied from the statue debate, as Stewart typically focuses his attacks on Gillespie, whom he refers to as “Establishment Ed.”

The issue is about character, Stewart said.

“If someone’s not strong enough to stand up for Virginia’s heritage, then how can you ever expect that they’re going to stand up for you on other issues, including the economy, tax cuts, any of that stuff,” he said.

Stewart’s Roanoke rally was a tame affair compared to his recent public rallies in Charlottesville and Richmond that drew dozens of protesters who shouted expletives and tried to drown out the candidate as he spoke against issues such as removing statues and sanctuary cities.

For about an hour in Roanoke, Stewart chatted with supporters, many of whom wore camouflage or Confederate flag symbols.

Stewart stressed the battle flag is not a symbol of racism or slavery, but an icon of the commonwealth’s heritage.

Prior to Stewart’s arrival, a small group of attendees vocally demanded a channel change on two of the televisions in the restaurant and sports bar. The TVs were tuned to a comedy program showing a man wearing tight, revealing, American flag-patterned underwear and nothing else.

A waitress quickly changed the channels to ESPN, but not before a woman shouted, “and they find my flag offensive” alluding to the Confederate battle flag, one of which was delicately folded nearby.

Edward Bennett, 72, of Roanoke County said he attended the event not knowing what to expect. Stewart is unique for fighting to preserve historic Confederate statues and monuments, he said.

“We learn from our past,” he said. “You have to remember the past in order to build a better future, and many of these people that we have monuments and statues to performed a service for this state.”

With three months to go until the June 13 state primary, Bennett is still mulling which Republican candidate will earn his vote.

The Republican nominee will face either former U.S. Rep Tom Perriello or Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, both Democrats, in the general election.

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