Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) is seen in his Capitol Hill office on Jan. 19, 2011. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett apologized Thursday for invoking the Holocaust to make a point about the role of government in education, acknowledging that he used an “extreme example” to explain his position.

At a town hall meeting in Cumberland on Wednesday night, the Maryland Republican said he thought federally issued student loans were unconstitutional. Bart­lett also said that “ignoring the Constitution” could lead down a “slippery slope,” citing the Holocaust as an example of what could happen when a country takes the wrong path.

After initially defending Bart­lett’s statement, his campaign issued an apology Thursday afternoon.

“While explaining my position on an important constitutional issue, I regrettably used an extreme example as a comparison that was ill-advised and inappropriate,” Bartlett said. “I should never use something as horrific as the Holocaust to make a political point, and I deeply apologize to anyone I may have offended.”

Bartlett has served in Congress for 20 years and has typically won reelection with ease. But this year, he faces a tough battle against financier John De­laney (D) after Democrats redrew his district to be more competitive by including a slice of the Democratic-leaning Montgomery County.

Bartlett has held a handful of town hall meetings in the past week, including the one Wednesday night at Allegany College. As is often the case now when lawmakers and candidates appear publicly, a “tracker” from the opposing party was there to record the event, and a Democrat shared the video with The Washington Post.

“I want to know how you feel about the government issuing student loans. Is that something that you’re for?” asked an audience member who identified herself as an instructor at the college.

“I’m for student loans. I want kids to have an education,” Bartlett responded. But he explained that he had carefully read through the Constitution and could find no evidence “that the federal government should be involved in education.”

Then Bartlett expanded on that point.

“Not that it’s not a good idea to give students loans — it certainly is a good idea to give them loans,” Bartlett said. “But if you can ignore the Constitution to do something good today, tomorrow you will be ignoring the Constitution to do something bad. You could. There are more people in our, in America today of German ancestry than any other [inaudible]. The Holocaust that occurred in Germany — how in the heck could that happen? And when you start down the wrong road, it can be a very slippery slope.”

Asked about the statement Thursday, Bartlett campaign spokesman Ted Dacey initially suggested that the lawmaker’s position on education fits clearly with his broader philosophy.

“Congressman Bartlett has always been a strong believer in limited government,” Dacey said. “He is also a strong supporter of making college accessible to all Americans, and unlike most politicians, he has put his money where his mouth is by donating a substantial portion of his salary to help underprivileged students attend college.”

Bartlett has amassed a largely conservative voting record and has suggested before that the federal government should play a reduced role in the educational system. It’s not clear how those views will be received in Montgomery, which tends to be more liberal than the conservative-leaning Western Maryland region he has long represented.

Bartlett’s Democratic foe said the comments illustrated why the incumbent shouldn’t be in office any longer.

“Congressman Bartlett’s comments about the Holocaust are terribly insensitive and shockingly inappropriate,” Delaney said in a statement. “His comments about federal student loans reflect an utter lack of understanding of what’s needed to move America forward and create good-paying jobs.”