Minnesota Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch faced a potential setback for a second day Friday, denying a newspaper report that said he called a male reporter "a Republican whore."

Hatch at first denied using the word. In a debate Friday night, he said he might have used that language but didn't believe that he did.

Forum Communications Co., which owns several Minnesota newspapers, reported that Hatch lashed out at a reporter questioning him Thursday about a gaffe by his running mate, Judi Dutcher.

Dutcher had earlier gotten stumped by a question about the ethanol fuel blend E-85; Minnesota is a major ethanol producer.

The newspaper chain said Thursday that reporter Scott Wente asked Hatch via telephone about Dutcher's knowledge of ethanol and why she wasn't available to discuss the issue. The account said Hatch abruptly ended the interview with: "You're nothinag more than a Republican whore. Goodbye," and then hung up.sv

"My recollection is that I said a Republican hack," Hatch said. He said he offered to put Dutcher in touch with Wente, whom he described as "very aggressive."

"He kept asking about why didn't Judi know, and I simply didn't have the answer," Hatch said. "I said, 'Do you want to talk to her?' He was very, very aggressive. I said, 'Listen, you're acting like a Republican hack. I'm going to get her to call you.'"

Hatch, who has led in most public polls lately, said the reporter has a tape of the interview.

Don Davis, Forum's state Capitol bureau chief, said the organization stands by the story. He declined to say whether Wente taped the conversation or to make him available for interviews.

Davis said Hatch didn't offer an interview with Dutcher during the original conversation but called back later to do so.

Asked about the decision to write about the exchange, Davis said: "It's a comment that gives out an insight to an important candidate."

Forum has endorsed Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Hatch has cultivated a tough-guy image in two terms as attorney general, a period where he filed lawsuits or otherwise challenged banks, insurance companies, health providers and utilities. Republicans have portrayed him as overbearing and unfit for office, even a bully.

"The larger issue now is not Judi's comments or lack of awareness about E-85," Pawlenty said in the Friday night debate. "It's the attorney general's handling of the situation. Sadly, he has a long record of this type of behavior and these kind of comments. This isn't new and it's just now coming through in this campaign."

Hatch said during the debate that he regrets how he handled the flap but doesn't think his temper would undermine his ability to lead.