Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), a folksy former radio announcer and livestock auctioneer, talked his way into a major campaign controversy this week when he repeated a racial slur and said that living with blacks in Washington "is a hell of a challenge."

Burns apologized on Thursday for the comments and defended his record on civil rights, but the incident that occurred Wednesday during a visit to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle newspaper mushroomed into front-page news across Montana yesterday as Burns campaigned for a second term in the Senate.

According to an account published in the Daily Chronicle, Burns was chatting with one of the paper's editors when he related an anecdote about an elderly Montana rancher who asked him: "Conrad, how can you live back there {in Washington, D.C.} with all those niggers?" Asked by the editor how he responded to the man, Burns said he had told him that it was "a hell of a challenge."

On Thursday, Burns's office issued an apology. "I deeply regret having related a story from the campaign trail which could have been interpreted that I share racist views," Burns said in the statement. "Such views are inappropriate and belong in the past and that was the context in which the story was told. But more importantly, they are views which I do not condone and do not share."

Despite the apology, Burns came under fire from Montana human rights activists and his Democratic opponent, former law school dean Jack Mudd. A recent statewide poll had Burns ahead by as much as 15 points in his bid to become the first Montana Republican ever to win a second term in the Senate.

Terming Burns's statement "offensive" and "outrageous," Mudd said the incident reflects poorly on a state that is characterized by tolerance. "We are not that way in this state," he said. "We are a tolerant people."

After his discussion with the Daily Chronicle editor, Burns was asked by the paper why he had not told the rancher he disapproved of the use of a racial slur. "I don't know, I never give it much thought," said Burns, the paper quoted him as saying. "Those are not my words." Burns also elaborated on his remark that living with blacks is a challenge, saying, "It's always a challenge when you bring different cultures and beliefs together."

The 1990 census found 2,381 blacks among Montana's 800,000 people, or 0.3 percent. Sixty-six percent of the District of Columbia is black.

A former Yellowstone County commissioner, Burns won his Senate seat in a 1988 upset of the Democratic incumbent, John Melcher. In a legislative body often known for pomposity and self-importance, Burns has stood out. "The Almanac of American Politics" describes him as "almost a stereotypical easterner's version of a western politician: He picks his teeth with a pocketknife, chews tobacco, and tells deadpan jokes."

Burns, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on the District of Columbia, ignited a similar controversy three years ago. After passage of a civil rights bill in November 1991, Burns told several lobbyists outside the Senate chamber that he was going to attend a slave auction. He later explained he was referring to the common Montana practice of holding auctions in which people are auctioned off to perform chores and other personal work.