* PM makes first big election gaffe
* Issue overshadows discussion about the economy
* Polls show May 6 election headed for inconclusive result
(Adds quote from voter, edits)
By Kylie MacLellan and Fiona Shaikh
LONDON, April 28 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised in person for describing a voter as “a bigoted woman” on Wednesday in an embarrassing gaffe before next week’s parliamentary election.
A campaign stop to meet locals in a northern English town backfired when Brown let slip the unguarded comment about grandmother Gillian Duffy, a supporter of his own Labour Party. It was picked up by a microphone on his lapel as he was driven away in his car after meeting her.
Labour, in power for 13 years but trailing in opinion polls, had already been on the defensive after opposition parties said the Greek financial crisis was an example of what could happen if Britain’s record budget deficit was not tackled.
Brown later visited Duffy in her own home to apologise, saying he was mortified by what had happened.
“Sometimes you do make mistakes and you use wrong words, and once you’ve used that word and you’ve made a mistake, you should withdraw it and say profound apologies, and that’s what I’ve done,” he said, after spending more than 30 minutes in the grandmother’s modest home in the town of Rochdale.
Brown was shown on television with his head in his hands as the comments were replayed to him during a BBC interview.
The furore over a rare unscripted moment in a highly choreographed campaign may undermine his attempts to reclaim lost ground on Thursday in the last of three televised leaders’ debates, which will focus on the economy.
Labour, which has narrowed the Conservatives’ lead in opinion polls in recent months, had high hopes for this week’s campaigning. So far Brown’s performances in the TV debates — which have dominated campaigning — have not drawn plaudits.
“A politician in a stronger position could recover from this. What we know is that Gordon Brown is not in that position ... I don’t think it’s a good idea to call voters bigots,” said Andrew Russell, a politics lecturer at Manchester University.
The pensioner had asked Brown how he would tackle the country’s record deficit, as well as other issues ranging from east European immigration to university fees and pensions.
Brown’s gaffe could reinforce public perceptions of a leader lacking in social skills and prone to outbursts of temper.
However, some TV pundits and voters were more sympathetic.
“For me, I’ve got more respect for him. Let’s be honest, we all meet people who we think are a moron, we don’t like them,” said accountant Nigel Howcutt, 29, in Watford, north of London.
Bookmakers widened their odds against Labour winning a majority to 46-1 after Brown’s gaffe, from 30-1 before.
“There’s no doubt in what the punters are saying: Brown has royally messed up this time,” said Mike Robb, a spokesman for online betting company Betfair.
Opinion polls on Wednesday continued to point to a hung parliament, in which no one party wins an overall majority. But they showed the Conservatives and Labour had regained some ground from the Liberal Democrats, the traditional third party in British politics, who have enjoyed a strong ratings boost since the first TV leaders’ debate and turned the contest into a three-horse race. [ID:nUKPOLLS10]
Much of Wednesday’s campaigning had been focused on the economy and Britain’s record budget deficit.
Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman, told Reuters all the big parties were agreed on the need to cut government borrowing, warning that failing to do so risked Greek-style financial chaos. [nLDE63R0XK]
Greece, which saw its debt downgraded to junk status by rating agency Standard & Poor’s on Tuesday, is currently in talks with the IMF and the European Union on getting a 45 billion euro bail-out package to prevent a sovereign default.
Greece’s budget deficit last year stood at 13.6 percent of GDP, compared to a British deficit running at over 11 percent.
Labour Business Minister Peter Mandelson said that likening Britain to Greece was “frankly ridiculous”.
Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron said that while there were many differences between the two countries, Britain should take note of Greece’s troubles.