LONDON — Britain's prime minister blundered into the first major gaffe in his country's short campaign season Wednesday when an open microphone captured him slamming a voter he had just been trying to win over.
Gordon Brown, apparently forgetting that he had left a television microphone pinned to his chest, called Gillian Duffy, 66, a "bigoted woman" as he was being driven from a public meeting.
Within minutes the bad-tempered aside exploded across the British media, and within a couple of hours Brown was rushing back to her home to beg Duffy's forgiveness and writing to his supporters to make clear he had apologized.
All the rest of the country could do was look on as the cringe-inducing drama played out over television and radio. The debacle dealt Brown a setback on the eve of the last TV debate ahead of the May 6 vote.
Duffy, a retired widow and a self-described supporter of Brown's Labor Party, met with the prime minister at a campaign stop in the northern town of Rochdale and questioned him about the influx of eastern European immigrants. Brown dismissively explained that Britons were also working in Europe and got into his official Jaguar before complaining to an aide.
"That was a disaster, they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It's just ridiculous," Brown is heard saying.
Asked what Duffy had said to upset him, Brown told the aide: "Everything. She's just a sort of bigoted woman."
Duffy, a grandmother who had worked with handicapped children, had questioned Brown on taxes, university fees, immigration and Britain's record deficit of $235.9 billion.
"I thought he was understanding but he wasn't, was he?" said Duffy, who said she had planned to vote Labor but would now most likely abstain.
Brown later telephoned Duffy to apologize, then unexpectedly showed up at her home. He emerged 40 minutes later and said Duffy had accepted his apology. Duffy stayed in her house and refused to face the cameras.
Brown is third in opinion polls, behind Conservative leader David Cameron and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats.