WASHINGTON — US presidential hopeful Rick Perry sought to tamp down a row over his family's rented hunting lodge, insisting he was not responsible for its "insensitive and offensive" name: "Niggerhead."
Throughout his meteoric rise from state legislator to Texas governor and now leading contender for the 2012 Republican nomination, Perry has alluded to an idyllic rural upbringing centered on Boy Scouts, school and the church.
But in a front-page expose, the Washington Post sought to examine a potentially darker aspect to his background, growing up in the segregated south, where issues of race predominate.
The article called upon Perry to explain why a giant stone at the entrance to the hunting camp still had the shocking name "Niggerhead" emblazoned upon it in bold letters long after his family picked up the lease.
Perry, quoted in the Post story, says his father painted over the rock at the earliest opportunity after taking over the lease in 1983, but the article cites several witnesses saying the letters were clearly legible years later.
The use of one of the most reviled words in the American lexicon drew immediate and strong condemnation Sunday from Herman Cain, an African American who like Perry is vying for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
There is "no more vile negative word than the N-word, and for him to leave it there as long as he did, before I hear that they finally painted it over is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country," Cain told Fox News Sunday.
Veteran civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton also slammed Perry, telling the Politico news website: "How can someone who would seek the highest office in the land be so insensitive to the implications of that name?"
The campaign office for Perry, who leads the current crop of Republican candidates, issued an angry rebuttal.
"The word written by others long ago is insensitive and offensive. That is why the Perrys took quick action to cover and obscure it," spokesman Ray Sullivan said in a statement.
"The Perrys did not own, name or control the property, they simply rented hunting rights to 1,000 acres of the ranch."
Sullivan insisted the Perry family had taken "quick action to eliminate the word."
But the Post said that as recently as this summer the word was still faintly visible under a coat of white paint and cited several witnesses as saying it was clearly visible at different points in the 1980s and 1990s.
The 1,070-acre parcel of land, used for hunting and fishing retreats, was the venue of getaways hosted for years by Perry, who entertained fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters there as he launched his political career.
Perry said he had hunted at the property, not far from his boyhood home in Paint Creek, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Fort Worth, about a dozen times between 1983 and 2006, the report said.
"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," Sullivan said in his statement.
The Post article noted that several place names using the word "Nigger" or derivations like "Niggerhead" were changed by law in 1962 but that the federal action failed to account for many more local landmarks.
Perry aides sought Sunday to burnish his credentials on civil rights and racial awareness, saying he had a long record of inclusiveness and noting that he had appointed the first African American head of the Texas Supreme Court.
But Sharpton said the issue would hurt Perry.
"Even though he?s running in a party whose primary [does] not have a substantial African-American vote, the average American does not want to be identified with such racial insensitivity," Sharpton said.
The furor erupted as Perry swept through New Hampshire championing his message of smaller government and lower taxes, trying to revitalize a campaign dented by a couple of sub-par debate performances.
He has work to do in a state dominated by his chief rival, businessman and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, as the pair and a slew of others battle for the right to challenge President Barack Obama in November 2012.
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