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U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a LBGT for Hillary Gala at Cipriani in New York, New York, United States September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said half the supporters of Republican rival Donald Trump belonged in a "basket of deplorables" of people who were racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, or Islamophobic.

Speaking at a fundraiser on Friday night in New York, Clinton said Trump had given voice to hateful rhetoric through his behaviour as a candidate for the White House in the Nov. 8 election.

"To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the 'basket of deplorables,'" Clinton said. "Unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up."

Some of those were irredeemable, she said, but they did not represent America.

The other basket of Trump's supporters constituted individuals desperate for change who felt let down by the government and the economy, Clinton added.

"They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different," Clinton said. "Those are people we have to understand and empathize with, as well."

Clinton's comments drew a rebuke from Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who said on Twitter that Clinton had insulted millions of Americans.

New York businessman Trump, who has never previously run for political office, regularly says things that some consider insulting or off-color. Also on Friday night, he told supporters in Pensacola, Florida, that Clinton could shoot someone and not be prosecuted.

"Because she's being so protected, she could walk into this arena right now and shoot somebody with 20,000 people watching right smack in the middle of the heart and she wouldn't be prosecuted, okay?" he said.

The hashtag #BasketOfDeplorables was trending on Saturday morning as many Twitter users either condemned or supported Clinton's remarks.

Twitter user Basketeer Vendetta, under the account Vendetta92429, tweeted a photo of Trump supporters wearing campaign T-shirts and hats, adding: "Proud to be part of the #BasketOfDeplorables with my fellow Americans."

And Trump himself tweeted: "Wow, Hillary Clinton was SO INSULTING to my supporters, millions of amazing, hard working people. I think it will cost her at the Polls!"

But some Twitter users agreed with Clinton, referencing remarks by Trump that have been called racist, such as when he described some Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists.

Clinton's comment could help Trump, said Republican strategist Doug Heye.

"As long as Trump stays out of the way and doesn't overshadow Hillary's comment, her 'basket of deplorables' comment should dominate the media in the coming days and runs the risk of negatively defining her campaign," Heye said.

"The question is whether Trump can show a discipline thus far unseen."

But Republican strategist Ana Navarro said that Clinton's remark is still problematic.

"When you are running for President, you are running to represent all Americans, even the ones you think are deplorable," said Navarro, who has criticized Trump.

But many voters have already decided anyway, said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic consultant.

"We’re moving to the part of the election process where there’s a lot less persuasion of new voters and more persuasion of the people who like you to turn out and work to elect you," he added.

Many of Clinton's fundraisers have been closed to the media, but not the one on Friday night.

"What’s truly deplorable isn’t just that Hillary Clinton made an inexcusable mistake in front of wealthy donors and reporters happened to be around to catch it, it’s that Clinton revealed just how little she thinks of the hard-working men and women of America," Trump senior communications adviser Jason Miller said in a statement.

Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill noted a previous speech in which she accused Trump of embracing a brand of U.S. political conservatism associated with white nationalism and nativism known as the "alt right" movement.

"Obviously not everyone supporting Trump is part of the alt right, but alt right leaders are with Trump," Merrill said on Twitter. "And their supporters appear to make up half his crowd, when you observe the tone of his events."

Some critics said Clinton’s comment recalled 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s "47 percent" comment in which he said 47 percent of voters are dependent upon the government and would vote for President Barack Obama no matter what.

But Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who supports Clinton, pointed out that Romney was talking about all voters, and Clinton was specifically describing Trump supporters.

"I have no problem pointing out the fact that Donald Trump and his campaign is drawing on some of the worst impulses, whether it’s racism or whatnot, that this country has ever seen," Manley said.

(Additional reporting by Luciana Lopez; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Grant McCool)

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