Rep. Lynn Jenkins said she was instead making a comment about GOP leaders in the House and was trying to reassure Republicans that the party has bright leaders there. She used the phrase during an Aug. 19 forum in Hiawatha and someone in the crowd recorded it and gave the video to the Kansas Democratic Party.
Both she and an aide apologized Thursday if the comment offended anyone. But when she was asked about the remark after a town hall meeting in Ottawa, Jenkins also suggested it had been taken out of context.
"Let's remember the context of this situation," she said. "I don't know how the president got injected into this debate."
Patrick Leopold, Jenkins' chief of staff, said her office in Pittsburg received a death threat Thursday, but he didn't know whether it was connected to any specific issue. He said the matter was being turned over to police.
The phrase "great white hope" often is associated with pre-civil rights-era racism and is widely believed to have entered usage in the U.S. when boxer Jack Johnson, who was black, captured the heavyweight title in the early 20th century. Many whites reacted to Johnson's achievement by trying to find white fighters - or a "great white hope" - who could beat him. The boxer's story inspired a play, then a movie, with that title, both starring James Earl Jones.
The Democratic National Committee in Washington declined to comment on Jenkins' remarks. Officials at the Washington offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People did not respond to a request for comment.
"I saw that report," White House spokesman Bill Burton said at a briefing on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, where Obama is vacationing. "I also saw that her spokesperson backpeddaled and said that was a poor choice of words. We obviously give congressman Jenkins the benefit of the doubt."
Jenkins said she wasn't aware that the phrase had a negative connotation. She noted that she used it when answering a question from an audience member who began by noting the GOP's success in taking control of Congress in 1994 after drafting a "Contract with America."
"I got a question one day from someone regarding the future House leadership. I made a reference to him not giving up hope, that we had some great bright leaders in our future," she said. "I apologize if anyone misunderstood my intent."
At the Hiawatha event, Jenkins mentioned three House colleagues as future party leaders: Eric Cantor of Virginia, Kevin McCarthy of California and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. All are white, as is Jenkins; Obama is the nation's first black president.
"Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope," Jenkins said last week. "I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that, who are Republican, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington."
Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, said Jenkins was touching on an issue of concern to many Americans - that there's a "void" in leadership in the GOP, which Lindsay said is being filled by officials like Jenkins.
"Any interpretation of her comments as otherwise is a distraction to the work congresswoman Jenkins is doing to help Kansans through this recession, control our nation's debt and slow the rapid expansion of the federal government," he said in an e-mail.
Tyler Longpine, a spokesman for the Kansas Democratic Party, called Jenkins' comment "a poor choice of words" but said he doesn't think it was anything more than that.
He said a Democratic Party supporter shot the video at the Hiawatha forum and shared it with the state party.
"The thing that kind of strikes me was the partisan tone of it all," Longpine said. "If she'd stick to talking about policy rather than politics, she could have kept her foot out of her mouth."
Jenkins, 46, won the 2nd Congressional District seat last year by ousting Democratic incumbent Nancy Boyda. She previously served two terms as state treasurer and four years in the Kansas Legislature.