Gordon Brown described himself as a "penitent sinner" today after personally apologising to a voter he described as a "bigoted woman".
The Prime Minister emerged from the Rochdale home of Gillian Duffy after a meeting lasting 39 minutes to tell waiting journalists that she had accepted his apology for his unguarded remarks.
He said: "I am mortified by what has happened. I have given her my sincere apologies. I misunderstood what she said. She has accepted that there was a misunderstanding and she has accepted my apology.
"If you like, I am a penitent sinner."
Mr Brown continued: "Sometimes you say things that you don't mean to say, sometimes you say things by mistake and sometimes when you say things you want to correct it very quickly.
"So I wanted to come here and say to Gillian I was sorry, to say that I made a mistake, but to also say I understood the concerns she was bringing to me and I simply misunderstood some of the words that she used.
"So I've made made my apology. I have come here, its been a chance to talk to Gillian about her family and about her relatives and about her own history and what she has done.
"Most of all, it is a chance for me to apologise and say sorry and to say that 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 is what I have done."
A Labour press officer told reporters that Mrs Duffy would not make an immediate comment.
He told the waiting press pack: "She just wants you to get off her drive."
The Prime Minister had described Mrs Duffy as a "bigoted woman" in unguarded comments to an aide after she had tackled him on immigration, benefits, the national debt and tax policy.
Mr Brown was still wearing a radio microphone as he got into his car following a campaign visit in Rochdale.
"That was a disaster...should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that," he said.
"Just ridiculous," he added, before being asked what Mrs Duffy has said.
"Everything, she was just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour."
He later used a radio interview to apologise publicly to the 66-year-old grandmother, saying: "I do apologise if I have said anything that has been hurtful and I will apologise to her personally."
And he followed that up with a phone call saying sorry personally to Mrs Duffy.
But as senior Cabinet members including First Secretary Lord Mandelson and Health Secretary Andy Burnham took to the airwaves to defend the Prime Minister's character, Mr Brown decided he would break away from preparing for tomorrow's third televised leaders' debate to visit her in person.
He faced a barrage of questions as he arrived at the house in Rochdale, with one reporter shouting: "Has this ruined your campaign?"
Mrs Duffy had approached Mr Brown as he prepared to leave what should have been a routine visit to a community payback scheme.
During their apparently good-natured exchange in the street, Mrs Duffy told the Prime Minister: "You can't say anything about immigrants."
She added: "All these Eastern Europeans... where are they coming from?"
Mr Brown said a million people had come from Europe but another million Britons had moved the other way.
Mrs Duffy also complained about people on benefits.
"There's too many people now who aren't vulnerable but they can claim, and people who are vulnerable can't claim, can't get it," she said.
Mr Brown said: "But they shouldn't be doing that. There is no life on the dole for people any more."
As he went to get into his car, the Prime Minister told her: "Very nice to meet you, very nice to meet you."
But seconds after his limousine's doors slammed shut, he made his unguarded comments.
Mrs Duffy, who has a daughter and two grandchildren, told reporters she used to work with handicapped children for Rochdale council before she retired.
Her husband, who was a painter and decorator, died of cancer four years ago.
Before she was aware of the his remarks about her, she told reporters she was a lifelong Labour voter and said of Mr Brown: "He was very nice."
After being played the Prime Minister's comments, Mrs Duffy, looking surprised and upset, said she was "very disappointed", adding it was "very upsetting".
She went on: "He's an educated person, why has he come out with words like that?
"He's supposed to lead this country and he's calling an ordinary woman who's just come up and asked questions what most people would ask him - he's not doing anything about the national debt and it's going to be tax, tax, tax for another 20 years to get out of this mess - and he's calling me a bigot."
She said she would not now be voting in the General Election and urged the Prime Minister to go out among the public and "find out what's going on in our lives".
She said she had not planned to speak to Mr Brown but saw him "walking up the street" and thought she would ask him what he would do about the national debt.
"I thought he was understanding but he wasn't, was he, the way he's come out with the comments."
Mr Brown was made aware of his gaffe as he was en route to be interviewed by BBC radio presenter Jeremy Vine.
The Prime Minister said on his show: "I apologise if I have said anything like that. What I think she was raising with me was an issue about immigration and saying that there were too many people from Eastern Europe in the country.
"I do apologise if I have said anything that has been hurtful and I will apologise to her personally."
Mr Brown was then played a recording of his comments, and asked if Mrs Duffy had not been entitled to express her view.
He said: "Of course she is allowed to express her view and I was saying that. The problem was, I was dealing with a question she raised about immigration and I wasn't given a chance to answer it because we had a whole melee of press around her.
"But of course I apologise if I had said anything that has been offensive and I would never put myself in a position where I would want to say anything like that about a woman I met.
"It was a question about immigration that I think was annoying.
"I am blaming myself and I blame myself for what is done.
"But you have got to remember this was me being helpful to the broadcasters with my microphone on, rushing into the car because I had to get to another appointment.
"They have chosen to play my private conversation with the person who was in the car with me. I know these things can happen. I apologise profusely to the lady concerned.
"I don't think she is that, I think it was just the view she expressed that I was worried about that I couldn't respond to."
After speaking to Mrs Duffy by phone, Mr Brown's spokesman said: "Gordon has apologised to Mrs Duffy personally by phone. He does not think that she is bigoted.
"He was letting off steam in the car after a difficult conversation. But this is exactly the sort of conversation that is important in an election campaign and which he will continue to have with voters."
Lord Mandelson said there was "no justification" for Mr Brown's words, but insisted he was just letting off steam and did not believe Mrs Duffy was a bigot.
The PM was "mortified" at what he said and "upset" about the hurt he had caused to the pensioner, said Lord Mandelson.
"All of us sometimes do say things that we simply do not mean and, the moment we have said them, we regret it deeply," he added.
Chancellor Alistair Darling stressed that Mr Brown had apologised for the incident and said the Prime Minister knew "he shouldn't have said it".
Asked if it would have a big impact on the campaign, he told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: "I think the election campaign will be decided not just on individuals but it will be decided on what the party stand for."
And Mr Burnham told BBC 2's Daily Politics: "We're all only human, believe it or not, and I think at times we make off-the-cuff comments that we regret afterwards.
"This was a regrettable incident. The Prime Minister recognised he said something - I think he misunderstood what was being said - and apologised for the words and any offence he'd caused."
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said Mr Brown was right to have apologised.
"I am not going to start hurling abuse at my opponents," he told Sky News.
"He is right to apologise because, when people ask you questions, whatever you think of the questioner or the question, you have got to treat them with respect and give a straight answer."
But Shadow Chancellor George Osborne told the channel: "We have found out the Prime Minister's internal thoughts and I think they speak for themselves and the Prime Minister has got a lot of explaining to do.
"The thing about General Elections is that they reveal the truth about people...
"What people will see is the contrast between what he was saying publicly and what he was saying privately."