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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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April 24th, 2014
05:26 PM ET

Rancher branded a racist, and his rant sends GOP backers fleeing

(CNN) – For nearly a month, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has been battling federal authorities over his cattle grazing on public lands.

"The federal government is here with an army stealing my cattle," he told CNN.

Bundy's anti-government crusade turned him into a conservative hero, thanks in large part to a platform on Fox News; he was a recurring guest of news anchor Sean Hannity, a vocal supporter.

"I would think the federal government would be thankful because you're cutting the lawn for free," Hannity said.

When Nevada's Democratic Senator Harry Reid called Bundy a domestic terrorist, Republican Dean Heller came to Bundy's defense.

"What Senator Reid may call domestic terrorists, I call patriots," Heller said.

Now, it's not Bundy's anti-government rants getting attention, it's his racist remarks.

"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro ... They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton," Bundy told reporters, as first reported by the New York Times.

"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," he said.

Before those comments, Bundy drew praise from GOP presidential hopefuls.

"There is something incredibly wrong when a government believes that some blades of grass that a cow is eating, is so an egregious affront to the government of the United States," said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

"We're a rule of law country and private property is at the base of it," Texas Governor Rick Perry said.

"It really is government overreach, government gone amok," said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Now some who jumped on Bundy's anti-big government bandwagon, are running the other way.

"His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," Paul tweeted Thursday.

A spokesman for Nevada Republican Dean Heller underscored he had called Bundy's supporters patriots, not Bundy himself.

"Senator Heller completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way," the spokesperson said.

"His comments are beyond repugnant to me, they’re beyond despicable to me, they’re beyond ignorant to me," Hannity said on his radio show Thursday.

"People who for the right reasons saw this as government over reach are branded because of the ignorant racist, repugnant, despicable comments of Cliven Bundy," said Hannity.

For analysis from CNN's Dana Bash and Brian Stelter on the media's role in the rise of Cliven Bundy, click here or check out the video below.

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