Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign is fighting back against a Washington Post report that his family leased a hunting camp that had been known by a racially insensitive name.
Exactly when the name of the hunting camp was obscured is still being debated. What we do know is that this is something Perry would rather not be dealing with right now.
Is it a game changer? It’s not clear yet. Is it a big headache and giant distraction? You bet.
Perry is already dealing with the fallout from some poor debate performances last month, showings that raised questions about whether he is ready for primetime. This story, which revealed that the hunting camp went be the name “Niggerhead,” adds to the negative narrative out there about Perry and serves as a further distraction for the Texas governor.
“[It’s] not a good story for a campaign that needs to focus on Obama and the poor economy,” said GOP strategist Scott Reed.
Instead of trying to assure donors that he’s still the frontrunner, Perry’s camp now faces the unhappy responsibility of making sure people don’t associate him with racism.
That task was made much harder Sunday morning, when the lone African-American candidate in the GOP presidential field, businessman Herman Cain, attacked Perry on the matter.
“There isn’t a more vile, negative word than the N-word,” Cain said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And for him to leave it there as long as he did before he painted over it, it’s just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country.”
Cain’s presence in the presidential field makes this issue much more difficult for Perry, because if there’s anybody who can press it going forward, it’s an African-American candidate. (And don’t forget that if Perry is the Republican presidential nominee, he will be facing off against the first African-American president in history.) Cain also happens to be catching on of late, so his words carry weight — and draw media attention — in a way they might not have in the past.
“I think the fact that Herman Cain leveled the word ‘insensitive’ at Rick Perry is a real problem for [Perry],” Democratic strategist Mark Penn said on ABC’s “This Week.”
And perhaps more than just being an inconvenience, the story also feeds into the notion that Perry is unelectable and fits into a convenient stereotype about race relations in the South.
We’ve written many times before about how Mitt Romney outperforms Perry in matchups with President Obama in just about every poll and also how Romney does better with women, for instance. A recent CNN/Opinion Resarch poll also showed people split about half-and-half when asked if Perry has the qualities of a president — significantly worse numbers than Romney.
So, there’s already a caricature of Perry as a West Texas cowboy who may have trouble appealing to northern suburbanites. Then we learn that his family leased property at a West Texas hunting ground with a racially insensitive name.
Now, we should also emphasize that, with difficulty comes opportunity. The fact is that Perry’s camp has a real chance to show it’s mettle here.
With conservatives already rebelling against the Post’s story, Perry’s campaign seems to have a real opportunity to rally the base. Another truism of politics is that, when something is in doubt, your supporters are more apt to rally behind you.
Nothing unites conservatives quite like attacking the mainstream media, and if Perry can turn this story into a non-story in the minds of Republicans, maybe that reinforces his frontrunner status and his ability to run a strong campaign. (See the New York Times’ piece on John McCain’s relationship with a lobbyist for evidence of how a negative story can be turned into a positive.)
Getting to that point, though, will be difficult. Just a whiff of racism is enough to turn off some voters, and attaching that term to a southern governor is a lot easier than if Perry was a northerner.
Put simply: Perry has a major political headache on his hands.
More on Perry at PostPolitics.com