ROME (AP) " The head of an anti-migrant party who is running to be Italy's premier came to the defense Monday of an Italian gubernatorial candidate who advocated for clamping down on immigrants' numbers to preserve "our white race."
While political opponents condemned the comment by Attilio Fontana, who is running for the governorship of prosperous Lombardy, his League party leader, Matteo Salvini, said Fontana had rightly raised a worry about an "invasion" by Muslims.
Fontana, who is running with support from a center-right alliance, whose backers include former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, made the incendiary comments on Sunday on Radio Padania, the mouthpiece of the League.
He said that being unwilling to "accept all" immigrants "isn't a question of being xenophobic or racist, but a question of being logical or rational."
"We can't (accept all) because we all don't fit, thus we must make choices," Fontana said. "We must decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society must continue to exist or if it must be cancelled out."
As outrage grew, Fontana, sought to downplay the remarks on Monday while out on the campaign trail in northern Italy. He explained that his remark, indicating the white race should get priority to live in Italy, to "a lapse, an error in expression. I meant to say we must all re-organize a different kind of welcome that respects our history, our society."
The vote for governor is being held on March 4, the same day as national elections, which sees Salvini as one of the candidates who have so far announced their candidacy for the premiership.
Salvini's party is running in elections for Parliament in a center-right alliance with Berlusconi's party and a small right-wing party.
On Monday, Salvini defended Fontana and said his party in government will "regulate every Islamic presence in the country."
"Our culture, society, traditions, way of live are at risk," he said. "An invasion is underway."
Under Salvini's leadership, the League has whipped up anti-migrant sentiment, blasting Italy's hosting of hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers, many of whom were rescued at sea from smugglers' boats.
Jewish leaders said Fontana's remark recalled anti-Semitic racial laws enacted in 1938 during Benito Mussolini's dictatorship.
"It's inconceivable that in 2018 one must repeat to ignorant ones that there doesn't exist a white race to defend, 80 years after the promulgation of the racial laws," Ruth Dureghello, president of Rome's Jewish community, said in a tweet.
Jews are a small minority in Italy, which is largely Roman Catholic.
Fontana's center-left opponent, Giorgio Gori, countered that his own campaign is "without hysterics and demagoguery."
The leader of Gori's Democratic Party and former premier, Matteo Renzi, said that with Gori, the center-left chooses to "speak about innovation and human capital" over "'white race' and invasions.""
The candidate for the premiership from the populist 5-Star Movement, which leads in the polls, also blasted Fontana's white-race remark. Luigi Di Maio scoffed at an earlier characterization by Berlusconi' that the 5-Stars were the extremists and the center-right the moderates.
Frances D'Emilio on Twitter: www.twitter.com/fdemilio