Republican presidential candidate John McCain has become embroiled in a war of words with racial undertones after clashing with a civil rights icon.
John Lewis accused Mr McCain's campaign of "sowing hatred" against opponent Barack Obama and said he was reminded of 1960s segregationist George Wallace.
Mr McCain, who recently said Mr Lewis was one of his most admired Americans, called the reference "beyond the pale".
Mr McCain has also tried to cool his supporters' resentment of Mr Obama.
In Minnesota on Friday, Mr McCain defended Mr Obama after some at the town hall meeting labelled him a "terrorist", "an Arab", a "traitor" and a candidate who inspired fear.
The Republican's campaign has also suffered from a legislative probe in Alaska that found his vice-presidential running mate and state governor, Sarah Palin, had abused her power.
With just over three weeks to go to the election, she has again denied any wrongdoing in the affair.
Democratic Congressman Lewis is considered one of the key figures of the civil rights movement.
He said: "Senator McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all."
My statement was a reminder to all Americans that toxic language can lead to destructive behaviour
Mr Lewis said the "sowing of seeds of hatred and division" reminded him of Alabama Governor Wallace's rhetoric in 1963 that was blamed for a church bomb attack that killed four young girls.
Mr McCain reacted angrily, calling the reference "shocking and beyond the pale".
"I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I've always admired, would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character," he said.
Mr Lewis later said his reference was not a direct one, but was simply pointing out that "toxic language can lead to destructive behaviour".
He also welcomed Mr McCain's attempts to cool angry supporters at Republican rallies.
At the Minnesota meeting, Mr McCain said Mr Obama was a decent family man and voters should not be afraid of him, but drew boos for defending him.
The Obama campaign quickly said it did not believe Mr McCain's campaign was in any way comparable to Wallace.
The McCain campaign has targeted Mr Obama over his alleged links to 1960s militant William Ayers.
Mrs Palin said Mr Obama was "palling around with terrorists".
On Saturday, Mrs Palin defended herself against the findings of the Alaskan investigation.
It found she had abused her power by allowing her husband to put pressure on officials to sack her former brother-in-law, a state trooper who was in a bitter custody battle with her sister.
Asked by a journalist in Pennsylvania if the accusations were correct, she said: "No, and if you read the report you will see that there was nothing unlawful or unethical about it."
The report said Mrs Palin failed to act to stop her husband contacting the officials in the case known as Troopergate.
Mrs Palin on Saturday stepped up her attacks on Mr Obama, calling him a pro-abortion radical."He hopes you won't notice how radical, absolutely radical, his ideas on this and his record is until it's too late," she said.
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