WASHINGTON (AP) -- A racial gaffe by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put Democrats on the defensive Monday, the latest woe for President Barack Obama's party at the start of a potentially difficult election year.
Republicans called for Reid's resignation after a new book said he had described Obama, in a private conversation during the 2008 campaign, as a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
Leading Democrats rallied behind Reid, praising his record on civil rights.
Obama himself said Monday that the senator was trying to praise him but simply used "inartful language." Obama told the TV One network that was the language inappropriate but not mean-spirited.
The president had received a telephoned apology from Reid over the weekend. Obama, the first Black U.S. president, has tried to steer clear of the political thicket of race and politics.
Reid also made his first public comments on the controversy Monday in his home state of Nevada, where is running for re-election this fall.
"I've apologized to the president, I've apologized to everyone that within the sound of my voice that I could have used a better choice of words," Reid said.
Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, said the 70-year-old senator has no intention of stepping down as majority leader and is "absolutely running" for another six-year term.
But recent polls show Reid -- one of the Republicans' main targets this year -- trailing potential Republican rivals in Nevada.
Debate over Reid's remarks remained one of the top stories Monday on cable television news channels and in Internet blogs. The attention has been an unwelcome distraction for Obama and Democrats at a time that Reid plays a crucial role in winning approval of a health care overhaul, Obama's top domestic priority.
It also comes as Democrats struggle to get their footing ahead of the November elections. The party in power commonly loses at least some seats in the congressional election that comes midway through a president's four-year term. And two veteran Democratic senators announced last week that they will not seek re-election.
Reid's remarks were reported in the book "Game Change," by Time magazine's Mark Halperin and New York magazine's John Heilemann. They report that Reid "was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a Black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as he later put it privately."
The latest expression of forgiveness came from Attorney General Eric Holder, who said in an Associated Press interview Monday that Reid's remark was "unfortunate but I don't think that there is a prejudiced bone in his body." Holder is the first Black to serve as the country's top law enforcement official.
But Republicans say Reid should be held to the same standard as former Republican Sen. Trent Lott, whose racial remarks cost him the Senate leadership in 2002.
Lott had cheered the 1948 presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond -- then a segregationist Democrat -- saying said the nation would have been better off if he had won. He spoke during a 100th birthday tribute to Thurmond, by then a longtime Republican senator.
"There is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own," Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele, who is Black, said Sunday. "But if it comes from anyone else, it's racism."
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, refrained from criticism. But Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement that Reid should step down.
But former Rep. Harold Ford, an African American who is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, said on NBC television: "I don't believe in any way Harry Reid had any racial animus. I think there's an important distinction between he and Trent Lott."
Obama was born to a Kenyan father and a White American mother who met and married when his father came to the United States to study. He was largely raised by his mother and her family after his parents split.