COLUMBIA U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said Friday that a conversation with White House staff left him with the sense that a hostile environment in South Carolina is keeping the first lady from visiting.

The high-ranking South Carolina Democrat said he has received more than 100 invitations for Michelle Obama. But this summer when he brought one of those requests to her staff on behalf of his alma mater, South Carolina State University, Clyburn said her security was an issue.

The conversation came after former Richland County GOP activist Rusty DePass suggested on Facebook in June that an escaped zoo gorilla was not harmful because it was probably one of Mrs. Obama's ancestors. DePass' comment was coupled with a remark in July from U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican. DeMint said that beating the president's health care plan would be a 'Waterloo' moment for Obama.

Congressman Joe Wilson's 'You lie!' outburst during Obama's joint address on health care reform last month didn't help either, Clyburn said.

'A lot of it has to do with the fact that the climate in South Carolina just is not good, and that's a shame,' Clyburn said at a roundtable discussion at his Columbia office.

'I do believe it is keeping her away from this state,' he said.

The congressman said the first lady's family connections in South Carolina and her fond childhood memories from Georgetown County left many excited at the possibility that the Obamas would vacation on the coast here. Her security must be guaranteed before that could happen, Clyburn said.

DePass said Clyburn's comments were off base.

'The idea that people in South Carolina are hostile to the Obamas is poppycock,' he said. 'That's utterly ridiculous.'

DePass apologized before the South Carolina Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his Facebook comment, and reiterated that apology

Friday. He also said that his history with the Republican Party included reaching out to minority voters and trying to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome.

Wilson's office also said Clyburn was wrong.

'Congressman Wilson respectfully disagrees with Congressman Clyburn's assumption,' Wilson spokesman Ryan Murphy said in a statement. 'He believes the people of South Carolina would welcome the president and the first lady should they decide to visit our great state.'

Neither the first lady's press office nor the Secret Service provided comment for this story. DeMint's office also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pat Caddell of Hanahan, an expert on public opinion polls and a Democratic strategist, said South Carolina surely has racists among its residents, but racism isn't the prevailing sentiment. 'The Democratic Party will blow itself up if it keeps assigning things as racist,' Caddell said.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.