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Niki Tsongas Backs Away From Supporter's Attack on Opponent With Notable Family History

Democrat Niki Tsongas is weathering a brutal attack over a campaign supporter's comments about her opponent's position on immigration.

In the final days before the special election to decide who will replace the seat vacated by Massachusetts Rep. Martin Meehan, Tsongas, the wife of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, tried to distance herself from comments made about Republican Jim Ogonowski by one of her political friends, former Massachusetts Rep. Chester Atkins. Atkins had attacked Ogonowski by saying that he was tarnishing his brother John Ogonowski's legacy with his stance on immigration.

John Ogonowski, who was a pilot, died Sept. 11, 2001, when the American Airlines plane he was flying was hijacked by terrorists. He also was a farmer, however, and at one time had helped out immigrant Cambodians by leasing them space on his farm, something Atkins said he respected.

Jim Ogonowski has been campaigning on immigration issues, and recently held a "No Amnesty" tour in which he blasted Tsongas for supporting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He also says immigrants should be forced to learn English.

"I thought that Jim would be like John, and all of the sudden, I see just these hateful words coming out of his mouth and a lot of it is sort of veiled racism and there's sort of a meanness to it and it was a surprise given my experience with his brother," Atkins told The Associated Press. Atkins once held the 5th District seat that will be decided in Tuesday's election.

Jim Ogonowski and his family expressed outrage at Atkins' attack, and called for a denunciation of his remarks. On Friday, Tsongas sought to put space between Atkins and herself.

“I strongly disagree with what Chet Atkins said and did and his comments are not reflective of my views. I’m the one running for Congress and he does not speak for me," she said in a statement posted on her Web site. She said called both her opponent and John Ogonowski's widow, Peg, saying the "family has suffered a terrible loss and that should be respected."

“This goes against the tone of politics I’ve established on my campaign," she added.

Despite the concessions, Jim Ogonowski said he wasn't completely satisfied.

"I appreciate her call and her sentiments are a good first step. Unfortunately for Niki, this entire episode is the product of the 'win at all costs' campaign she and her Washington consultants have been running," Ogonowski said.

"She and her team need to held accountable for the slash and burn approach they have taken this entire campaign," said, calling on his opponent to take Atkins off her endorsement lists and return his campaign contributions.

The special election for the congressional seat is on Tuesday, Oct. 16. Meehan announced his retirement earlier this year, and left office in July.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.