SPARKS, Nev. (AP) – Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson said Thursday his use of a Spanish word that some contend is a slur against homosexuals was meant to be playful but apologized to anyone who was offended.

With critics revisiting the statement he made on a radio program a year ago, Richardson questioned the timing of their comments.

“My record is the strongest among the presidential candidates on gay rights issues and I’m puzzled by the timing of this.

“When it happened a year ago, nobody seemed to think it was terribly important. Now it surfaces,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.

“It’s probably a sign from other campaigns that they are little worried about me,” he said.

Richardson, a Hispanic and the governor of New Mexico, was a guest on Don Imus’ syndicated radio program on March 29, 2006.

Imus, who later lost his job over making racial comments, jokingly said one of his staffers suggested Richardson was “not really Hispanic.”

Richardson replied in Spanish that if the staffer believes that, then he is a “maricon.”

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation says the word means “faggot” in Spanish.

In a statement this week, Richardson said that in the Spanish he grew up speaking, “the term means simply ‘gay,’ not positive or negative.”

He told the AP on Thursday: “It was a playful exchange between me and Don Imus that was not intended to demean anybody, but if I offended anybody, I apologize.”

Looking at the political landscape for the 2008 race, Richardson said it is crucial that he do well in Nevada’s second-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan. 19 if he’s to have a shot at winning the nomination.

“It’s critically important I show strength in my own region,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I have to win, but I have to be a major player here.”

Dressed in blue jeans, a dark-blue T-shirt and tennis shoes, Richardson shook hands and chatted with residents in both English and Spanish at the Sparks Hometown Farmers Market just east of Reno. He planned a stop Friday in rural Elko 300 miles to the east – a longtime Republican stronghold – after opening his northern Nevada campaign headquarters in Reno.

“I share the same Western values,” he said while on the way to the market, where he told potential voters he likes to hunt, listen to country music and watch boxing.

“I’ve dealt with issues that are important to Nevada,” he said, citing renewable energy, water, agriculture and nuclear waste.

On the war in Iraq, Richardson said the amendment his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is pushing to de-authorize the war is something he’s advocated since January.

Richardson said he’s been steadfast in his opinion that all U.S. troops – including “residual troops” – should be pulled out by the end of the year.

“The Iraqi war policy is collapsing and our troops are at risk. They have become targets,” he said.

Richardson said he favors a diplomatic initiative aimed at producing reconciliation talks among the three groups in Iraq toward a “partition of Iraq and a coalition government” with an all-Muslim peacekeeping force.

AP-ES-07-12-07 2336EDT