AUSTIN -- After being hit with a racially charged controversy over a family hunting camp, Gov. Rick Perry's once soaring presidential campaign is struggling to regain momentum and could implode unless Perry and his chief strategists find a way to change course and retake the offensive, several analysts said Monday.
"It's another issue that's put him on the defense that he has to explain," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Atlanta's Emory University. "He's really been hurt by all these factors and it takes away any momentum that he had at the first."
Perry, who soared to the top of the Republican field days after entering the race in mid-August, dropped in the polls last week, relinquishing his lead over chief rival Mitt Romney after subpar debate performances and opponents' attacks over his stands on immigration, Social Security and other issues.
The latest blow came over the weekend when The Washington Post reported that Perry's family leased a Texas hunting camp whose name included the n-word. Perry campaign officials said the family quickly painted over the racial slur on a rock next to the camp entrance after learning of the name.
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Romney, appearing on Sean Hannity's nationally syndicated radio show Monday, criticized the name as "offensive" and said Perry needs to address the controversy.
Experts credited the Perry campaign for condemning the racial slur and for moving swiftly and forcefully to deal with the controversy, though some said it's too early to gauge the damage.
"We'll know in the next 48 hours," said Dan Schnur, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "This one is going to end up in the damage control textbooks, either for bad or for good."
President Barack Obama's chief spokesman issued a restrained response. "The name is clearly offensive," Jay Carney told reporters. "And from what I've read -- and I have no inside knowledge beyond what I've read -- the governor shares that opinion."
Haskell County Judge David Davis, a Democrat who has frequently been critical of the governor's leadership, defended Perry. "He's been unfairly accused of something he had nothing to do with," Davis said in a phone interview with the Star-Telegram.
Davis said the name was given to the remote piece of pastureland, about 25 miles southeast of Haskell, the county seat, decades ago, possibly early in the 20th century. Although the name endured, Davis said the Perry family and other residents of the county do not condone the racial intolerance it conveys.
The Post reported that Perry said his father painted over the word in the early 1980s. But the newspaper also reported that some visitors recalled seeing it after the early 1980s.
Perry has previously touted his success in bringing more diversity to state courts and agencies, including appointing Wallace Jefferson as the first African-American chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and Albert Hawkins as health and human services commissioner, and hiring Brian Newby, now a Fort Worth lawyer, as chief of staff.
African-American elected officials who may not agree with Perry's politics said Monday that calling the governor a racist goes too far.
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said Perry is no racist but showed "poor judgment" by continuing to lease the property after learning of its back story.
"I was disappointed that our governor would associate himself with a lease that has history of racism," West said. "The fact is someone, whoever that person was, decided to name that ranch those foul words."
State Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said he didn't know enough details of the controversy to determine whether Perry deserves criticism.
"I certainly think he's been insensitive to the needs of African-Americans but I've never thought he was a racist person," Veasey said.
Analysts said the newspaper report presented Perry with another major distraction when his campaign is trying to push past setbacks and refocus on his fundamental message: job creation.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294
Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695