Republican Rick Perry in hunting lodge race row

image captionRick Perry is considered a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012

Republican presidential contender Rick Perry is on the defensive after it emerged a hunting lodge used by his family had a racially offensive name.

His campaign said his family had years ago painted over an entrance stone that once displayed the name, Niggerhead, at the rented West Texas camp.

But the Texas governor was heavily criticised by rival Republican nominee Herman Cain, who is African American.

Mr Perry is a leading contender for the Republican nomination for president.

The Perry campaign did not deny that the term was used as a name for the property, but said it was changed soon after Mr Perry's father joined a lease that gave him hunting rights there in 1983.

'Vile, negative word'

"The word written by others long ago is insensitive and offensive. That is why the Perrys took quick action to cover and obscure it," campaign 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."

But the Washington Post, which reported the story on Sunday, was told by several people that the name was still visible at points during the 1980s and 90s.

It also reported that as recently as this summer the word was still faintly visible under a coat of white paint.

The land - leased by Mr Perry's father, and later by Mr Perry - was the site of hunting and fishing getaways where the Texas governor entertained lawmakers and supporters. It is not far from Mr Perry's boyhood home in the community of Paint Creek.

Governor Perry had not visited the property since December 2006, Mr Sullivan said.

But Herman Cain told Fox News Sunday: "[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."

image captionRival Republican contender Herman Cain criticised Mr Perry over the camp name on Sunday

Perry aides sought to defuse the racially charged issue by saying that the Texas governor had a long record of inclusiveness and had appointed the first African-American head of the Texas Supreme Court.

But veteran civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton told 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?"

Mr Perry became the frontrunner in the Republican field after declaring his candidacy in August, but correspondents say his lead is fragile.

He was widely criticised over his suggestion that it would be "treasonous" if Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke printed more money in an effort to boost the struggling US economy.

He then angered many Republicans when he said in a recent TV debate that anyone who opposed his policy as Texas governor of giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants' children was heartless.

At the weekend, Mr Perry again raised eyebrows when he said that if elected president, he would consider sending US troops to Mexico to combat drug-related violence.

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