Madison - Donald Trump is fighting to convince a sceptical 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 billionaire'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 Senator Ted Cruz in Wisconsin's high-stakes primary on Tuesday.
Trump maintains a big lead in the delegate count and with a win in Wisconsin his grasp on the party's presidential nomination could be unbreakable.
Delegates pledged to candidates are elected in state primaries and then vote for the party's nominee at the national convention in July.
Republicans are privately grappling with fears about Trump's impact on their party's appeal among women and young people, yet few dared criticize Trump 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 chair Jennifer Horn, though declining to rebuke Trump by name.
Women made up 53% of the electorate in 2012. That year, they favoured President Barack Obama by 11 points over Republican 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% among women. In Wisconsin, the Marquette poll released on Wednesday found that 76% of female Wisconsin registered voters have an unfavourable view of Trump, compared with 55% for Cruz.
Earlier in the week, police in Florida, charged Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski with misdemeanour battery after examining surveillance video of an incident in which a reporter said she was grabbed and shoved.
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.
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 on 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."
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."