By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took aim at supporters of Republican rival Donald Trump by saying half of them belonged in a "basket of deplorables" as people who were racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, or Islamophobic.
But Clinton, in a statement on Saturday, walked back the remarks, saying she regretted using the word "half" and seeking to refocus on what she described as episodes of "deplorable" behavior by Trump and his campaign.
Her remarks at a fundraiser Friday night unleashed a fierce response from Republicans and Trump supporters on social media on Saturday and threatened to distract from her efforts to paint Trump as unqualified for the presidency.
Speaking at a LGBT fundraiser in New York, Clinton said Trump had given voice to hateful rhetoric through his behavior as a candidate for the White House in the Nov. 8 election.
"To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the 'basket of deplorables,'" Clinton said. "Unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up."
Some of those were irredeemable, she said, but they did not represent America.
The other basket of Trump's supporters constituted individuals desperate for change who felt let down by the government and the economy, Clinton added.
"They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different," Clinton said. "Those are people we have to understand and empathize with, as well."
Trump's campaign pounced on Clinton's candid views.
"Hillary Clinton’s low opinion of the people that support this campaign should be denounced in the strongest possible terms," said Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana and Trump's running mate, speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.
"So let me just say from the bottom of my heart: Hillary, they are not a basket of anything. They are Americans, and they deserve your respect."
In her statement on Saturday said: "Last night I was 'grossly generalistic,' and that's never a good idea. I regret saying 'half' - that was wrong," she said in the statement.
But, she added, it is "deplorable that Trump has built his campaign largely on prejudice and paranoia and given a national platform to hateful views and voices, including by retweeting fringe bigots with a few dozen followers and spreading their message to 11 million people."
Trump, a New York businessman who has never run for political office before, regularly says things that some consider insulting, racist or off-color. On Friday night, he told supporters in Pensacola, Florida, that Clinton could shoot someone and not be prosecuted.
"Because she's being so protected, she could walk into this arena right now and shoot somebody with 20,000 people watching right smack in the middle of the heart and she wouldn't be prosecuted, okay?" he said.
But Clinton's remarks got top billing on Twitter where the hashtag #BasketOfDeplorables was trending, with shows of condemnation and support for Clinton.
Twitter user Basketeer Vendetta, under the account Vendetta92429, tweeted a photo of Trump supporters wearing campaign T-shirts and hats, adding: "Proud to be part of the #BasketOfDeplorables with my fellow Americans."
And Trump himself tweeted: "Wow, Hillary Clinton was SO INSULTING to my supporters, millions of amazing, hard working people. I think it will cost her at the Polls!"
But some Twitter users agreed with Clinton, referencing remarks by Trump that have been called racist, such as when he described some Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists.
A RISKY COMMENT
Clinton's comment could nevertheless end up being a boon to Trump.
"As long as Trump stays out of the way and doesn't overshadow Hillary's comment, her 'basket of deplorables' comment should dominate the media in the coming days and runs the risk of negatively defining her campaign," said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
"The question is whether Trump can show a discipline thus far unseen."
Republican strategist Ana Navarro, who has been highly critical of Trump, said Clinton might have crossed an important line.
"When you are running for President, you are running to represent all Americans, even the ones you think are deplorable," said Navarro.
But Jamal Simmons, a Democratic consultant, said the remarks probably would not wrest voters from Clinton.
"We’re moving to the part of the election process where there’s a lot less persuasion of new voters and more persuasion of the people who like you to turn out and work to elect you," he added.
Many of Clinton's fundraisers have been closed to the media, but not the one on Friday night. While the fight between Trump and Clinton has been bitter and personal, Friday's remarks were unusually forthright for Clinton.
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill noted a previous speech in which she accused Trump of embracing a brand of U.S. political conservatism associated with white nationalism and nativism known as the "alt right" movement.
"Obviously not everyone supporting Trump is part of the alt right, but alt right leaders are with Trump," Merrill said on Twitter. "And their supporters appear to make up half his crowd, when you observe the tone of his events."
Some critics likened Clinton’s observation to 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s "47 percent" comment in which he said 47 percent of voters are dependent upon the government and would vote for President Barack Obama no matter what. His campaign struggled to recover after the remark leaked.
But Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who supports Clinton, pointed out that Romney was talking about all voters, and Clinton was specifically describing Trump supporters.
"I have no problem pointing out the fact that Donald Trump and his campaign is drawing on some of the worst impulses, whether it’s racism or whatnot, that this country has ever seen," Manley said.
(Additional reporting by Luciana Lopez; Editing by Grant McCool and Mary Milliken)