WASHINGTON — Attending a civil rights group's dinner to honor Martin Luther King Day would have seemed to be a safe, politically correct thing to do for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

But because controversial Austrian politician Joerg Haider — who has praised Hitler — was also there, it's creating headaches for Hatch and other Republicans.

For weeks, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has attacked her likely opponent for the Senate, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for sharing the dais with Haider at a Congress for Racial Equality dinner.

Hatch was dragged into it Thursday when Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress, reported that Hatch was also there.

Hatch told the Deseret News he did not know that Haider was among the 2,000 or so people in attendance, "and I would not have known him from the man in the moon. I still wouldn't. I have no idea if I met him or if he was there. I met a lot of people I didn't know that night."

Hatch said he was asked to attend the dinner by Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson to accept an award from the group to Ronald Reagan.

"I did it for my friend Ronald Reagan, and for Roy Innis," who heads the Congress for Racial Equality.

Hatch said the Congress for Racial Equality is "one of the old-line, main civil rights groups in this country.

There were Republicans and Democrats at its dinner — including the chairman of the New York City Council, a Democrat, who may run for governor."

Hatch said Haider's views "need to be condemned." Haider has expressed sympathy toward some of Hitler's actions as Haider's anti-immigration Freedom Party ascended to power and a share in a new ruling coalition — which brought threats of sanctions from other European countries.

But Hatch said attacking others for being at the same dinner "is a phony issue" drummed up by Clinton to attack Giuliani "because she's out there with one of the biggest demagogues in all of New York: Al Sharpton, one of the biggest emitters of racism. For her to try to make political points out of that is ridiculous."

Giuliani had remained silent on the issue for two weeks, but earlier this week said he would not have attended the dinner if he had known Haider would be there.