Fine Gael was facing calls last night to abandon the Dail campaign of senator Catherine Noone after she described the Taoiseach as "autistic".
Ms Noone, a Fine Gael candidate in the Dublin Bay North constituency, said she was "truly sorry" and withdrew remarks made about Leo Varadkar to a journalist from The Times while she was canvassing last week.
"He's autistic like, he's on the spectrum, there's no doubt about it. He's uncomfortable socially and he doesn't always get the in-between bits," she said.
The Times reported that Ms Noone subsequently denied using the word "autistic" and then said she "did not mean it literally".
She gave examples of potentially offensive words that could be used out of context, including "special" and "n***er".
She then clarified that she would never use the n-word, and said it was a bad example.
In a statement yesterday, Ms Noone apologised unequivocally" and withdrew all of her remarks, describing them as "completely unacceptable".
"My choice of language was inexcusable and wrong. I am truly sorry," she added.
On the campaign trail in Galway, Mr Varadkar said Ms Noone's apology and withdrawal of her remarks was "good enough for me".
However, Fine Gael figures at all levels were furious with Ms Noone, whose comments also angered autism advocacy groups.
A senior party figure said she had "caused an awful lot of upset", and the party's election campaign had been overshadowed by the controversy.
Fine Gael senator James Reilly, whose son Jamie was diagnosed with autism, said: "It was ill-informed, unwise and I am very glad she has withdrawn it. As a parent of a child with autism who has nothing but empathy, I am deeply upset."
Disabilities Minister and outgoing Independent Alliance TD Finian McGrath suggested Fine Gael should abandon her candidacy.
"If she was an Independent candidate, I wouldn't be backing her. If I was in Fine Gael, I wouldn't be backing her," Mr McGrath told the Herald.
"I think they should seriously look at her candidacy for the Seanad elections. I am very unhappy about the comments. I would be concerned that any person involved in public life would be allowed to express views like that."
He said people with autism should be treated as equals in line with the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with a Disability.
He called Mr Varadkar a "strong supporter" of people with a disability and pointed to investment that would not have been delivered without his support.
"I accept Ms Noone's apology, but we will need to focus on our new Autism Plan which will deliver an awareness-raising campaign, a national training programme for clinicians and improvements to the assessment process," Mr McGrath added.
Mr Varadkar was asked about Ms Noone's remarks while campaigning in Galway city.
"She has withdrawn her remarks and apologised and that's good enough for me," he said.
"It's not about me. I just think we all need to be very aware and very respectful of people who have autism, people who are on the autism spectrum, and we need to understand that those terms should never be used in a pejorative way at all."
He defended the Government's record on supports for people with autism, including more special classes and an autism awareness campaign.
"We know that isn't enough, but it is a good start and we're going to build on it," he said.
Mr Varadkar said Ms Noone will not be sanctioned, repeating that she "apologised to those people who she's offended and that's enough for me".
Asked if he is still encouraging people to vote for her, he said: "I'm encouraging people to vote for all of our Fine Gael candidates.
"Richard Bruton and Cath- erine Noone are our candidates in that constituency."
He said a canvass with Ms Noone in Dublin Bay North is not on the schedule, but added "I'm sure it will at some point."
Earlier, Health Minister Simon Harris, whose brother Adam is an autism awareness campaigner, tweeted: "Autism should never be used as a slur or a negative. One in 65 people can be on the autistic spectrum - including someone I know and love dearly.
"As a society, we need to become much more aware in relation to Autism and not use casual stereotypes."
A senior party source said last night that, as it stands, it is unlikely Fine Gael would suspend or withdraw support from Ms Noone's campaign, despite some candidates privately calling for this to happen.
"The key thing is that she is now on the ballot paper and as such will be a candidate for Fine Gael," the source said.
As Fine Gael candidates reported that the matter was being raised by voters on the doorstep, Ms Noone held talks with senior party figures yesterday, including director of elections Paschal Donohoe.
Her election to the Dail in five-seat Dublin Bay North was widely viewed as unlikely before the remarks about Mr Varadkar.
However, Fine Gael has in recent days distributed thousands of letters across the constituency in which the sitting TD, Communications Minister Richard Bruton, urges voters to give their number one preference to Ms Noone and number two to him.
"This gives us the best poss- ible chance of delivering a strong and dynamic Fine Gael team to represent the people of Dublin Bay North," he said.
"Two seats in this constituency will bolster our changes of returning to government for a record third time."