Rick Perry's ranch keeps Texas governor backpedaling

Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaks during a 2012 presidential campaign event, Oct. 1, 2011, in Hampton, N.H. AP Photo/Jim Cole

Republican presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry spent Sunday on damage control after a stinging report in the Washington Post tying Perry to a racial slur used at a Texas hunting camp his family once leased.

The Perry campaign and some Republican commentators downplayed the story, saying Perry was not associated with the use of the name "Niggerhead" at the Throckmorton County property. The word was painted on a large rock at the entrance of the camp, but Perry said he and his father quickly painted over the word when they started using the property and noticed it in the 1980's. Some of the people interviewed by the Washington Post gave different accounts, with one former ranch worker saying he saw the word as late as 2008.

Even if the Perry campaign is right about the story, however, it keeps Perry backpedaling as his campaign continues to falter. Almost immediately after bursting into the race and seizing frontrunner status in August, Perry was left defending controversial statements, weak debate performances and overall questions of electability.

Perry's ties to the ranch were criticized over the weekend by Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, the businessman who in recent days has stolen some of Perry's thunder and the only African American vying for the Republican nomination. Cain said Perry was insensitive for not acting sooner to remove the offensive name from the camp.

As conservative voters once intrigued by Perry turn to Cain (as evidenced by his victory in a Florida straw poll) and moderates pine for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to get into the race, liberals suggest Perry's campaign is unraveling.

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"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 to such racial insensitivity," liberal Rev. Al Sharpton told Politico.

David Axelrod, senior strategist for the Obama re-election campaign, declined to comment specifically about the ranch to the New York Times, but he said it illustrates the challenges Perry and other candidates face.

"Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul -- whoever you are, eventually people find out," he told the Times. "Time will tell whether this comes to reflect him or not."

Commentators on the right came to Perry's defense after the story broke. Conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt wrote, "There is no hint of prejudice or race-baiting in Rick Perry's long career in the public eye."

Indeed, one of the recent issues to create problems for Perry among the conservative base was his support for in-state university tuition breaks for the children of undocumented immigrants.

In New Hampshire over the weekend, Perry defended his support for the policy in Texas, but he said at the federal level, it amounted to "amnesty." The Perry camp in New Hampshire emphasized the governor's efforts to secure the Southern border and deny undocumented immigrants drivers' licenses. But in another potentially controversial move, Perry raised the possibility of sending U.S. troops to Mexico to help fight the drug war there.

Perry has made multiple controversial remarks and policy gaffes that have left the GOP establishment wondering about his mainstream appeal. For instance, some on the right questioned his characterization of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, while Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann pounced on the Perry policy requiring young girls to get vaccinated for HPV.

The damage to his campaign is showing; after weeks in the lead, Perry fell behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a Fox News poll last week.

Romney as of late has been polling particularly well in some key early states, where the latest controversy surrounding Perry could derail his campaign. A recent Suffolk University poll in New Hampshire, for instance, put Romney, at 41 percent, far ahead of Perry, who received just 8 percent support.

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