The head of the Senate Republican campaign committee shrugged off the flap over Montana Sen. Conrad Burns' comments about immigration as "a silly thing" and argued that he deserves another term.
"Most people who know him understand that he's a guy who has a sense of humor and sometimes that can be mistaken," said Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. "He'll say himself that he has misspoken. But the bottom line is that he is such a fighter for his state ... he absolutely focuses on the state of Montana."
Burns, whose re-election campaign is pressing for tighter immigration controls, referred to his house painter as "a nice little Guatemalan man" and suggested that worker as well as employees of a roofing company he hired might be in the country illegally.
"The other day, the little fella who does our maintenance work around the house, he's from Guatemala, and I said, 'Could I see your green card?'" Burns said at a June meeting recorded by Democrats. "And Hugo says, 'No.' I said, 'Oh, gosh.'"
The campaign of Burns' rival, Jon Tester, released the video this week.
Burns campaign said the worker is a legal citizen and the senator never doubted that. They also said the worker, Hugo Reyes, is small in stature.
Campaigning in Montana on Wednesday, Dole defended Burns and said voting him out of office after three terms would be a disaster. Asked about the criticism of his comments, she said in a telephone interview, "It's a silly thing."
Recent polls show the race, which is one of the most competitive, as tied or with Tester leading.