Key Points:

Another National MP gaffe left leader John Key fielding questions about potentially racist comments while out of the campaign trail in New Plymouth today.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has described National Party immigration spokesman Lockwood Smith's comments - that Asians have small hands that make them better at picking fruit and that some Pacific workers needed to be taught to use toilets and showers - were daft, ridiculous and demeaning.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said the comments were racist and had Dr Smith not apologised it could have affected the party's future relationship with National. She does not think he could now be immigration minister.

Dr Smith said earlier today he regretted causing any offence but that his comments were taken out of context.

Mr Key said the comments could be offensive "and I think it's totally appropriate to apologise this morning".

Dr Smith made the comments when talking about expanding the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme (RSE) which allows Pacific people to do fruit picking work to include workers from Asia.

He told the Marlborough Express that Asian workers were better at picking fruit "because their hands are smaller."

Dr Smith said employers should not be solely responsible for teaching or funding training that prepared workers for life in New Zealand.

"Some of them are having to teach them things like how to use a toilet or shower...I don't think the employer should have to pay for that work."

In a statement Dr Smith said his remarks were taken out of context and he was referring to concerns employers expressed.

"Presented in the way they were, I can see that my reported comments may have caused offence. I sincerely regret that because it certainly was not my intention."

Miss Clark said the remarks were not fitting of a senior MP.

"Absolutely daft comments. If you were going to judge who was fit to pick fruit by the size of their hands you would never pick men over women because generally we have smaller hands," she told reporters.

"This is ridiculous. It's not what you would expect of a senior MP. I don't think he engaged brain before mouth."

Miss Clark said she did not agree with the comments about Pacific people.

Mrs Turia told NZPA she thought the remarks were racist.

"It is racist to describe people in such a negative way."

The size of hands was irrelevant and many employers who hired workers under the scheme had been "really thrilled" with their workers.

"He had no right to be making comments of that nature. To say they had to be taught to go to the toilet and take showers, that's just so rude and ignorant."

She said he was completely out of touch with real people.

"He can smell the power coming his way and he thinks that going to give him licence to speak out as he likes about any other people - it won't be tolerated."

She was pleased that Mr Key did not condone the remarks and that Dr Smith apologised.

"If National didn't require an apology it would have affected us in the future."

Mrs Turia said Dr Smith should not be immigration minister if National won the election.

"Definitely not because what he's shown is he has a particular attitude towards a group of people."

Mr Key was asked if the remarks would hurt Dr Smith's chances of being a minister.

"I take a number of factors into consideration when we put together a (cabinet). I'm not going to single those out in isolation," he said.

Mr Key said during an election campaign all candidates statements were "heightened... My MPs are aware of that."

The latest gaffe followed National Party transport spokesman Maurice Williamson this week getting into strife over comments to do with toll roads.

Dr Smith was caught out earlier in the year being secretly recorded talking about "swallowing dead fish" to keep the public happy.

The Marlborough Express asked if that experience made him more careful: "I suppose sadly it does make you more cautious, although by and large it doesn't trouble me much because I don't usually say anything that would trouble me."

National supported the RSE scheme and wanted to expand and improve it.

Miss Clark said the focus was helping unemployed people in the Pacific and New Zealand could not solve the problems of the world.

"Our first priority is the Pacific. If we don't help there we are not helping to take pressure off unemployment away from those communities."

She thought it unlikely numbers under the scheme would be increased if unemployment grew in New Zealand.