MADISON, Wis. - Frustrated Republicans grappled privately with new fears about Donald Trump's impact on their party Wednesday, as the billionaire businessman's rivals targeted his punitive plan for fighting abortion and extraordinary defense of his campaign manager who police say assaulted a female reporter.
Concern rippled through Republican circles nationwide, yet few dared criticize the GOP front-runner directly when pressed. Their silence underscored the deep uncertainty plaguing the party — particularly its most prominent women — who are growing increasingly concerned that a Trump presidential nomination could tarnish the party brand for a generation of women and young people.
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"A nominee who cannot speak to women cannot win," said New Hampshire party chairwoman Jennifer Horn, though declining to rebuke Trump by name.
Weighing in on abortion, a subject that remains highly controversial decades after the Supreme Court legalized it, Trump declared that women who get the operations should receive "some form of punishment." He did not recommend what that punishment should be in taped comments from an MSNBC town hall-style meeting in Wisconsin that was to be aired Wednesday evening.
After the excerpt came out, Trump's campaign issued a further statement from the candidate: "This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination. Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions, which I have outlined numerous times."
On the dispute that has been dominating attention in the campaign, Trump questioned the findings of Jupiter, Florida, police, who charged his closest political adviser, 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 Wednesday.
The Republican front-runner suggested his campaign manager was simply trying to protect him from Michelle Fields, a reporter for Breitbart News at the time, 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, Republican rival Ted Cruz surrounded himself with women as he courted Wisconsin voters ahead of the state's high-stakes primary contest next Tuesday. Cruz leads the state by 9 points among likely voters, according to a Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday.
Cruz campaigned in Madison with his wife, mother, two daughters and even their nanny in what he called a "celebration of women."
"We're here because we love our families," Cruz declared, declining to repeat his harsh criticism of Trump from the day before. "Women are not a special interest. Women are a majority of the United State of America. And every issue is a women's issue."
Women favored President Barrack Obama by 11 points over GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, 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 nearing or even eclipsing 70 percent among women.
The RNC recommended that prominent female elected leaders be featured to promote the Republican brand, specifically listing a handful of Republicans including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Haley's office said she was "unavailable for comment" on Wednesday, among several female Republican officeholders who didn't respond to AP requests for comment. They included Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Reps. Kristi Noem of North Dakota and Mia Love of Utah.
Liz Johnson, communications director for Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who is in a tough re-election fight, issued this statement: "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.
"He is an utter embarrassment for the Republican Party," said GOP operative Ryan Williams, who is working to help elect Republican officials in several races across the nation. "Most people are staying out of it and hope it resolves itself at the convention."
Trump is the undisputed GOP front-runner in the nomination fight, but should he lose Wisconsin, his foes would have a realistic chance of denying him the delegate majority he needs to claim the nomination before the July convention. In such a scenario, Republican delegates would select their presidential nominee in what would likely be a messy televised gathering.
Trump showed little willingness to change. He said the reporter likely would have pressed charges against Lewandowski even if he had apologized instead of denying for weeks that he touched her.
"I think she likes it," Trump said of Fields.
Leading Democrat Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, attacked Trump's rhetoric on women and minorities as she campaigned in New York.
"Just listen to Donald Trump. He plays coy with white supremacists. He says demeaning and degrading things about women," she declared.