By Ian Johnston, msnbc.com
LONDON - It's a politician's greatest fear: making the game-changing gaffe that can lose an election. U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown may have done just that.
With his ruling Labour Party trailing in third place in the polls ahead of the May 6 election, Brown was caught on tape describing a grandmother as "bigoted" Wednesday after she confronted him on the economy and immigration during an election campaign walkabout in Rochdale, northern England.
Thinking he was safe in the privacy of his car, Brown complained to aides that the 65-year-old woman had been allowed to speak to him. Unfortunately for embattled premier, he was still wearing a television microphone.
"That was a disaster," Brown said. "[They] should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? … It's ridiculous."
Asked by an aide what the voter had said, he responded: "Everything, she's just sort of a bigoted woman."
On discovering his remarks had been broadcast to the nation, Brown issued a swift reaction. "I do apologize if I've said anything that has been hurtful."
"I was dealing with a question that she raised about immigration and I wasn't given a chance to answer it," he complained.
Timing could hardly be worse
With the final of three televised leadership debates to be held Thursday night, the timing could hardly have been worse.
Brown, with an almost palpable sense of desperation, telephoned the woman in question. He told Gillian Duffy, who has previously voted Labour, that he was very sorry and, this time, described her as a "good woman."
But the damage was done.
"He is an educated person. Why is he using words like that?" Duffy said. "He is going to lead this country and he's calling an ordinary woman who has just come up and asked him questions that most people would ask him ... a bigot."
A "very upset" Duffy added that Brown's comments had cost him her vote.
Brown and his campaign chiefs must now fear that voters will, en masse, follow suit.