OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward Derwinski apologized for referring to Hispanics as ''wetbacks'' during a campaign stop for a Republican congressional candidate.

The derogatory expression, derived from the crossing of the Rio Grande by illegal aliens, came up during a discussion on drug trafficking, Derwinski told television station KMTV in Omaha.

''And in the process, I got so carried away with my subject that that term slipped, and I shouldn't have used it, obviously. Again, I will apologize if I must, and I should,'' Derwinski told the station Friday.

Derwinski was campaigning for House candidate Ally Milder on Friday. ''We're all sorry it happened,'' Ms. Milder said. ''It should never have been said.''

Derwinski said racist connotations associated with the term didn't apply in his case.

''No, that's I think a phrase that you know is commonly used, certainly it has no intention of being disrespectful other than descriptive,'' he said.

Gail Handleman, a spokesman for Ms. Milder's opponent, Rep. Peter Hoagland, said she was ''shocked and outraged'' by Derwinski's remark and also by what she termed his ''callous insensitivity'' toward women.

Derwinski has been criticized for using pet names like ''Zsa Zsa'' and ''Little Miss Coffee Maker'' for women who work in his office.

Derwinski said Friday he has an informal office and that he intends no slight against women. Derwinski said he has pet names for male employees, too, and that his employees call him the ''Big Cheese.''

Derwinski, 64, a congressman from Chicago from 1959 to 1983, was appointed by President Bush in 1989.