A controversial anti-Islam campaigner running for the UKIP leadership has been “demonised”, according to the party’s leader in the assembly.
Anne Marie Waters, who called Islam evil, said she had faced an “avalanche of lies and smears” and “the party’s establishment is terrified I will win”.
Neil Hamilton said he did not think Ms Waters looked “out of the ordinary”.
But North Wales UKIP AM Michelle Brown urged members to reject “what she stands for”.
Ms Waters was allowed to take part in the leadership contest last week.
She proposes a ban on the burka, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration and is one of 11 candidates taking part.
She had predicted she would be prevented from standing, as had Mr Hamilton’s assembly colleague David Rowlands, who said her views were “too extreme”.
Mr Hamilton said: “I just think that Anne Marie Waters has been demonised because it’s easy to paint her in sort of technicolour colours, by virtue of remarks that had been taken out of context from, in some cases, many years ago.”
Mr Hamilton said he did not think it was likely she would win, adding: “I’ve looked at her website and I don’t agree with everything on it.
“It’s part of the debate on issues which are very important to lots of people, fundamentalist Islam, etcetera.”
But the Mid and West Wales AM said he did not want UKIP “to be stigmatised as being excessively dominated by Islamic issues”.
“I’ve already said it was a mistake to propose in the last general election campaign that we should ban the burka, not that I think that is totally unacceptable”, he said.
Mr Hamilton said he would not endorse or criticise any leadership candidate and would work with whoever won.
Wales MEP Nathan Gill said he would leave UKIP if Ms Waters won the contest, which was called after the resignation of Paul Nuttall.
Asked about the prospect of Mr Gill leaving, Mr Hamilton said: “It wouldn’t make the slightest difference. We hardly ever see him and he never says anything unless it’s to undermine the UKIP group or UKIP as a party.”
Ms Waters argued UKIP could rebuild support if it had the “guts” to be “honest about Islam” and her manifesto said the ideology had “created a fearful and censorious society”.
But other UKIP AMs have criticised her – Ms Brown said members had a chance to “reject Ms Waters and what she stands for”.
She added: “In doing so we will show the public that UKIP is not the narrow-minded party the mainstream media try to portray us as.”
Caroline Jones, AM for South Wales West, said: “I think she courts controversy and appears to have far right views.
“This is my opinion but I think she will take the party in a direction I would not be happy to support.”
Ms Water responded to the criticism of her in an email to BBC Wales.
“It’s very clear to me that the party’s establishment is terrified I will win, and they are right to be,” she said.
“I have support all over the country and it is growing.
“I have been subject to an avalanche of lies and smears from people who don’t understand the issues (or the difference between race and religion) and don’t have the courage to.
“It’s disappointing that some in UKIP should use the same smear tactics that have been used against them for years.”
Ms Water added she would “carry on speaking the truth” and “continue building support among the party’s grassroots”.
UKIP’s new leader will be announced at the party’s annual conference in Torquay on 29 and 30 September.