(Reuters) - Two Republican U.S. senators who voiced support for a Nevada cattleman in his showdown with federal agents over grazing rights on public land condemned the rebellious rancher's remarks about whether African-Americans would be "better off as slaves."
A day after Cliven Bundy's comments about "the Negro" and government subsidies were published in The New York Times, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky issued a statement saying the rancher's "remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him."
Paul, regarded as a potential Republican contender for the presidency in 2016, has expressed sympathy for Bundy's cause and for the resentment that many conservatives in the West harbor towards Washington over government policies they find intrusive.
A spokeswoman for Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican who has called Bundy's supporters patriots, said her boss "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way."
Fox News Channel commentator Sean Hannity, who has been one of Bundy's most outspoken public supporters, also weighed in on his daily radio show to denounce the rancher's "ignorant, racist, repugnant, despicable comments."
The 76-year-old rancher, from Bunkerville, Nevada, became a symbol for conservative Republicans, particularly among the Tea Party movement, for his actions in defying the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the U.S. Interior Department.
The dispute dates back to 1993 when Bundy stopped paying monthly fees the government charges ranchers to allow their cattle to roam federal range lands.
Saying Bundy owes more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and had ignored court orders to remove his cattle from public land, the BLM sent armed rangers to Bundy's ranch earlier this month to round up his cattle by force.
Anti-government groups, gun rights activists and right-wing militia members rallied to Bundy's defense. Following a brief armed stand-off, the government backed down, canceled its roundup and released the cattle that had been seized.
Bundy's supporters hailed the outcome as a victory over government tyranny. Detractors have called Bundy an outlaw.
During a small gathering last Saturday at his ranch, Bundy, in remarks quoted by The New York Times and captured on video footage posted online, shared his views on race, which he said were informed in part by a drive he had taken past a public housing project in the city of North Las Vegas.
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," Bundy began, as he recounted seeing a group of "older people and kids" sitting idle in an open doorway of the building.
"They didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do," he said.
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" he asked. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
Supporters were quick to defend Bundy on a Facebook site managed by his family on Thursday. One post on the page, which showed more than 89,700 backers, dismissed the Times' account as "new rumors," suggesting Bundy's comments had been distorted.
"Cliven is a good man, he loves all people, he is not a racist man. He wants what is best for everyone," the post said.
Republican Nevada state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, who has visited the Bundy ranch in support of his cause, said in a separate statement: "I strongly disagree with Cliven Bundy's comments about slavery." But she reiterated her criticism of what she called BLM "atrocities."
Bundy himself stood by his remarks in a guest appearance on the "Peter Schiff Show" radio program, and repeated his views.
"That's exactly what I said," he replied when asked about his comments concerning blacks. "I'm wondering, 'Are they happier now under this government subsidy system than they were when they were slaves, and they was able to have their family structure together, and the chickens and garden, and the people had something to do?' ... I am wondering."
His son, Ammon Bundy, told Reuters by telephone on Thursday that he believes his father's plain, unsophisticated way of speaking left him misunderstood.
"He's a rancher. He's not a professional speaker. ... His vocabulary is a rancher's vocabulary," the son said.
Asked on CNN about Hannity's characterization of his remarks as ignorant and racist, the elder Bundy said, "Well, I hope I'm not that way."
(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner and Steve Gorman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Adler and Simon Cameron-Moore)