BUNKERVILLE, Nev. -- For a while, in certain quarters, Cliven Bundy was celebrated as a John Wayne-like throwback to the Old West -- a weathered, plainspoken rancher just trying to graze his cattle and keep the government off his back. But that was before he started sounding more like a throwback to the Old South.
Conservative Republican politicians and commentators who once embraced Mr. Bundy for standing up to Washington are stampeding in the other direction -- and branding him a racist -- after he suggested that blacks might have had it better as slaves picking cotton.
The furor has made it apparent how limited Mr. Bundy's appeal ever was.
Mr. Bundy, 67, and his armed supporters two weeks ago thwarted an attempt by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to seize his family's cattle over his failure to pay $1.1 million in grazing fees and penalties for his use of government land over the past 20 years. A local land-use dispute soon turned into a national debate, with conservatives calling it another example of big-government overreach.
But the rugged West that Mr. Bundy was said to represent has changed, becoming more urban and less concerned about federal intrusion than it was during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and '80s. In the urban areas that now dominate the West, there have been few stirrings of support for Mr. Bundy.
Even many fellow ranchers regard him as more a deadbeat than a hero. "You've got hundreds of ranchers in Nevada who pay their fee regularly," said Tom Collins, a rancher on the Clark County Commission. "On the grazing fee issue, Bundy doesn't have sympathy from the ranchers."
University of Nevada-Reno political science professor Eric Herzik said Mr. Bundy was made into a hero by conservative activists and journalists in New York and Washington, "who did not understand how extreme Cliven Bundy is, ... even among Sagebrush rebels and Nevada ranchers."
In fact, the remote area outside Las Vegas where Mr. Bundy and his supporters made their stand is represented by a black Democrat, Rep. Steve Horsford. The congressman said Friday that many people in the region's small towns, which have drawn an increasing number of retirees and tourists seeking to enjoy its open spaces, are upset with Mr. Bundy, who "does not reflect Nevada or the views of the West."
The BLM claims Mr. Bundy's cattle are trespassing on fragile habitat set aside for the endangered desert tortoise. Mr. Bundy says he doesn't recognize federal authority over lands his cattle have grazed on for years.
After the BLM called off the roundup and released about 350 animals back to Mr. Bundy, the rancher drew praise from many Republicans -- most notably Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a likely 2016 presidential candidate -- and condemnation from several Democrats.
Then, in a New York Times interview published Thursday, he suggested that "the Negro" might have been better off during slavery rather than on government welfare. In a statement Friday, Mr. Bundy defended himself by saying he is "trying to keep Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream alive." At his regular afternoon address to the media and supporters at his ranch, he apologized if he offended anyone. "I might not have said it right," he said, "but it came from my heart."
Before the newspaper story broke, Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller, Republicans who got their political start in the state's sparsely populated northern end, issued statements supportive of Mr. Bundy.
Mr. Bundy's racial comments, however, drew bipartisan condemnation.
Mr. Heller's spokeswoman said the senator "completely disagrees" with the rancher's remarks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., whose power base is in Las Vegas, home to most of the state's Democrats, said Mr. Bundy "revealed himself to be a hateful racist." He added, "But by denigrating people who work hard and play by the rules, while he mooches off public land, he also revealed himself to be a hypocrite."
The federal government owns more than 80 percent of the land in Nevada.