MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Donald Trump is fighting to convince a skeptical Republican Party he can improve his standing among women, even as he takes back an explosive comment about abortion and attacks the credibility of a female reporter police say was illegally grabbed by the GOP front-runner's campaign manager.
It took Trump's campaign just hours to backtrack on Wednesday after he said that should abortion become illegal, women who undergo the procedure should face "some sort of punishment." The plan sparked an immediate backlash from both sides of the debate, prompting Trump to release two statements clarifying his position. His second statement said only those who perform abortions would be "held legally responsible, not the woman."
"The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb," Trump said.
The flap comes as Trump works to hold off a challenge from chief rival Ted Cruz in Wisconsin's high-stakes primary on Tuesday. With a win, Trump's grasp on his party's presidential nomination could be unbreakable. A loss would give concerned Republican officials across the nation a realistic hope of wresting the nomination away from the New York businessman at the GOP's national convention in July.
Frustrated Republicans are privately grappling with fears about Trump's impact on their party's appeal among women and young people, yet few dared criticize the GOP front-runner directly when pressed this week. Their silence underscored the deep uncertainty plaguing the party — particularly its most prominent women — who have few options in dealing with the brash billionaire.
"A nominee who cannot speak to women cannot win," said New Hampshire party chairwoman Jennifer Horn, though declining to rebuke Trump by name.
Earlier in the week, police in Jupiter, Florida, charged Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski with misdemeanor battery after examining surveillance video of an incident in which a reporter said she was grabbed and shoved. The police report said the woman's arm revealed "bruising from what appeared to be several finger marks indicating a grabbing-type injury."
"I don't know who created those bruises," Trump said in what was a sustained effort on Wednesday to defend his adviser and discredit the reporter.
Trump suggested his campaign manager was simply trying to protect him from Michelle Fields, a 28-year-old reporter then working for Breitbart News, who was trying to ask him a question after a March 8 campaign appearance.
"She's got a pen in her arm which she's not supposed to have and it shows that she's a very aggressive person who's grabbing at me and touching me," Trump said. "Maybe I should file charges against her."
As Trump assailed Fields from a television studio, Cruz surrounded himself with women as he courted Wisconsin voters. The Texas senator leads the state by 9 points among likely voters, according to a Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday. He campaigned in Madison with his wife, mother, two daughters and even the family's nanny in what he called a "celebration of women."
"Women are not a special interest," Cruz said. "Women are a majority of the United State of America. And every issue is a women's issue."
Cruz, an aggressive abortion opponent, later seized on Trump's comments on the delicate social issue.
"Of course we shouldn't be talking about punishing women," he said. "We should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world."
Women made up 53 percent of the electorate in 2012. That year, they favored President Barack Obama by 11 points over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, a divide highlighted in the Republican National Committee's post-election study. "Our inability to win their votes is losing us elections," the report's authors wrote.
Yet Trump is poised to fare worse among women than Romney in a general election, according to recent polls that put his negative ratings near or even surpassing 70 percent among women. In Wisconsin, the Marquette poll released on Wednesday found that 76 percent of female Wisconsin registered voters have an unfavorable view of Trump, compared with 55 percent for Cruz.
Few Republican women were willing to address Trump's impact on the party publicly, however.
Several female Republican officeholders declined to respond to AP requests for comment, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Reps. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Mia Love of Utah.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, in a tough re-election fight, issued this statement through spokeswoman Liz Johnson: "As a longtime prosecutor, Kelly believes Mr. Trump should leave this case to the criminal justice system, instead of wrongly trying it in the media."
The Trump campaign was in discussion with the Republican National Committee about arranging a meeting with Chairman Reince Priebus on Thursday, but GOP strategists acknowledged party leaders have few options for persuading Trump to moderate his rhetoric.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, addressed Trump's abortion comments on Twitter: "We can't let someone with this much contempt for women's rights anywhere near the White House," she wrote.