WASHINGTON _ Rick Perry’s presidential campaign said Sunday that his family moved quickly when they found they’d leased a Texas hunting camp informally named “niggerhead,” painting over the offensive word on a rock next to the camp entrance.
The rapid response from the Texas governor’s campaign, to a newspaper report Sunday about the camp name and to criticism from his one African-American rival, reflected an urgent move to stem any political fallout for a candidate who’s struggled to regain his footing since a weak debate in Florida and a surprise loss in a straw poll there.
The Washington Post reported Sunday morning that Perry’s family leased the Texas land starting in 1983, which already had the racially insulting name on a large rock beside one of the entrances.
The newspaper reported that Perry said his father painted over the word in the early 1980s, and that it was eventually turned over to further ensure the word couldn't be seen. But the newspaper also reported that some other visitors recalled seeing it displayed after the early 1980s.
Never miss a local story.
One of Perry’s rivals, businessman Herman Cain, called the use of the name troubling.
“That is very insensitive. And since Gov. Perry has been going there for years to hunt, I think that it shows a lack of sensitivity for a long time of not taking that word off of that rock and renaming the place,” Cain said during an appearance on ABC’s "This Week."
“Yes, it was painted over," Cain said. "But how long ago was it painted over? So I'm still saying that it is a sign of insensitivity.”
It was Cain who defeated Perry by a 2-to-1 margin in the straw poll of Florida Republicans, a surprise setback that punctuated Perry’s poor debate performances. A new Fox News poll shows former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with the support of 23 percent of Republican voters, Perry with 19 percent and Cain with 17 percent.
Ray Sullivan, Perry’s campaign communications director, issued a statement soon after Cain was asked about the camp on both the ABC and Fox morning programs.
"Mr. Cain is wrong about the Perry family's quick action to eliminate the word on the rock, but is right the word written by others long ago is insensitive and offensive. That is why the Perrys took quick action to cover and obscure it,” Sullivan said.
“As Gov. Perry told the Washington Post, `The old name has its origins from another time and era when unfortunately, offensive language was used to name some land formations around the country. When my dad joined the lease in 1983, he soon painted over the offensive word. It is my understanding that the rock was also turned over to further obscure what was originally written on it.’"
Sullivan went on to stress that Perry has appointed African-Americans to several Texas posts, including chief justice of the state supreme court and his own chief of staff.
In another statement Sunday, Sullivan disputed the Post report that the word was still visibly displayed on occasions when Perry took guests on hunting trips to the leased land.
"A number of claims made in the story are incorrect, inconsistent, and anonymous, including the implication that Rick Perry brought groups to the lease when the word on the rock was still visible,” Sullivan said.
“The one consistent fact in the story is that the word on a rock was painted over and obscured many years ago,” Sullivan said.
The land near his boyhood home of Paint Creek, Texas, is owned by the Hendricks Home for Children, a charitable group.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY Romney retakes lead in national poll as Perry loses steam Texas lieutenant governor critical of tuition law signed by Perry In debate, Perry defends stance on immigration, border security Follow Steve Thomma on Twitter Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington