U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes is working to shake off what could be a damaging distraction in the election's final days - his remark about liberals hating working Americans.
"I made a mistake I should not have made. I wasn't thinking," the Concord Republican said Thursday at the Mallard Creek Barbecue.
Hayes denied a report that his own party had forsaken him. But there's at least one sign that national Republicans aren't as invested as they once planned to be - they aren't purchasing television time to run an independent ad in the 8th Congressional District race.
Hayes' challenger, Larry Kissell, the Democrat who came within 330 votes of ousting Hayes in 2006, also worked the crowd at the must-attend community event for local politicians. Alongside Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who helped his party win control of Congress two years ago, they later attended a fund-raiser in Charlotte.
Hayes's trouble began Saturday in his hometown at a rally for GOP presidential nominee John McCain. Warming up the crowd , Hayes actually started out clutching some written comments he said were to make sure "we don't say something stupid, that we don't say something we don't mean."
He tossed the talking points aside, and after expressing dismay at how liberals had treated vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Hayes said: "Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God."
The comments caught heat on the blogosphere after they were reported by the New York Observer, and the national news media followed.
On Thursday, U.S. News & World Report said it had obtained a memo that suggested House Republicans had abandoned hope for Hayes and several other GOP incumbents.
But a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee dismissed any suggestion that party leadership had discounted Hayes.
"Absolutely not. Robin Hayes is well positioned for re-election,? Ken Spain said. ?Any reference to the contrary is simply not based on fact or any relevant data. This has become a race about Robin Hayes and Democrats in Washington."
Lee Teague, the Mecklenburg County Republican chair, also stood by Hayes.
"Robin is very popular," Teague said. "He comes to all our events even though he only (represents) part of the county. He's a fighter."
Democratic activist Mike Daisley of Charlotte said Hayes' comment was damaging, in particular because the campaign had initially denied he made the remarks until audiotaped proof surfaced.
"It's the lying about the comment that really harmed him," Daisley said.
MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who routinely calls out politicians, aired Hayes' remarks and added, "Congressman Hayes, how does it feel to be revealed to the nation as an unequivocal, indisputable, bald-faced liar?"
Kissell spokesman Tom Thacker said the comment, along with Hayes' votes on trade policy, showed a pattern that Hayes "said one thing but acted another."
Kissell challenged Hayes about the sequence of events Wednesday at a debate sponsored by the Independent Tribune of Kannapolis.
"I let those remarks stand for themselves," Kissell said. "The deception, that's the concern people should have."
Hayes claimed his office had initially been asked whether he said that he personally hated liberals, and that's what his staff had denied.
Charlotte attorney Wade Kennedy said he fired off a letter to Hayes, complaining that even if he didn't mean what he said, he'd made a conscious choice to draw on fear of political opponents rather than create enthusiasm for his own candidate.
"He made a choice to pursue a negative emotional attack rather than positive building up of his candidate. That shows very poor judgment," said Kennedy.
Hayes said his office is getting a lot of calls, but most of them are from out-of-state. "If you want to be the most popular person on the block," he said, "you don't run for office." He said the national party had been "very supportive."
Acknowledging that his race was close, Hayes said polls showed he was faring well.
"Like in NASCAR, if you're on the track, it's the last lap that counts," he said.