Donald Trump’s suggestion that a Fox News journalist had forcefully questioned him at the Republican presidential debate because she was menstruating cost him a speaking slot Saturday night at an influential gathering of conservatives in Atlanta. It also raised new questions about how much longer Republican Party leaders would have to contend with Trump’s disruptive presence in the primary field.
With Trump at center stage, the debate Thursday shattered television viewership records: Nearly 24 million people watched. But any hopes that he would try to reinvent himself inside the Cleveland arena as a sober-minded statesman, or that he would melt under scrutiny and tough questions, vaporized in the opening minutes.
By the weekend, as Trump’s latest eruption rippled through Republican circles, the conversation had turned to whether the party, and his rival presidential contenders, should continue to accommodate his candidacy, quietly hoping that this would be the moment he burned out — or should try to run him out on a rail.
If party leaders saw danger in provoking a breakup — and no small advantage to be seized from the ratings bonanza Trump showed himself capable of delivering — there were signs that other influential Republicans would tolerate only so much in the way of provocations from Trump.
His escalating barrage at Megyn Kelly of Fox News — who, at the debate, invoked the Democratic accusation of a Republican “war on women” in grilling him about sexist, and sexually suggestive, insults he had publicly directed at women — prompted Erick Erickson, the leader of RedState, a prominent group of conservative activists, to disinvite Trump from the group’s forum.
Friday night on CNN, Trump complained of Kelly’s disposition toward him at the debate, saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
Just before midnight, Erickson — an author with his own track record of inflammatory remarks, sometimes about women — wrote on the RedState website that he admired Trump for his bluntness and for connecting with “so much of the anger in the Republican base.”
“But there are even lines blunt talkers and unprofessional politicians should not cross,” he wrote. “Decency is one of those lines.” He added, “I just don’t want someone on stage who gets a hostile question from a lady and his first inclination is to imply it was hormonal.”
Trump’s campaign shot back at Erickson, calling him a “weak and pathetic leader” and his decision “another example of weakness through being politically correct.”
Other Republican contenders, who had mainly shied away from taking Trump on in the debate, seemed to be grappling with how strongly to respond.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive who delivered perhaps the most assertive turn in Thursday’s debate among the candidates trailing in the polls, expressed support for Kelly late Friday and posted on Twitter: “Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went further, saying, “Enough already with Mr. Trump.”
“As a party, we are better to risk losing without Donald Trump than trying to win with him,” said Graham, who has been one of Trump’s harshest critics.
Yet in a sign of the lingering reluctance among some in the field to anger Trump’s supporters, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, spoke glowingly about Kelly at the RedState gathering Saturday morning but avoided criticizing Trump or saying whether he was bad for the Republican Party.
In an interview Friday afternoon, before he went on CNN, Trump sent conflicting signals about his intentions, saying he was irritated by the debate moderators’ questions about a third-party candidacy but reiterating his threat to mount one if he is unhappy with his treatment by Republican leaders.
An independent candidacy would be complicated and costly, he said, but “if you’re rich, it’s doable.”
What some Republicans struggled to sift through on Saturday was just who was rallying to Trump’s side, and how damaging it would be if they left the party’s fold with him.
“Trump isn’t and wasn’t going to get the conservative vote,” Joseph W. McQuaid, publisher of the Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire, said in an email. “Conservative Republicans are worried about their party, but it’s still their party. Trump isn’t philosophically a conservative, and that will come out.”
“Trump’s base is more the people who used to have season tickets to the Roman Coliseum,” McQuaid wrote. “Not sure that they vote in great numbers, but they like blood sport.”
But others on the right said the disaffected voters rallying to Trump represented a constituency that Republicans would be foolish not to pay heed to.
“People have to get their minds wrapped around the fact that the seething fury at the leadership of the Republican Party is real, and it’s going to bubble over somehow with somebody, and right now it’s with Trump,” said the conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham, noting that there were “a lot of ticked-off people out there who are willing to throw both parties into the fire.”
Erickson himself got a taste of Trump’s die-hard loyalists, recounting in a speech at the conference Saturday that he had received a vitriolic response to his decision to bar Trump.
“We will not gain the White House,” said Erickson about the inflammatory messages he had received, “if we’re screaming at people, calling them whores and queer and the N-word.”
Even before Friday night, prominent Republican women said they were worried about how female voters would respond to Trump’s prominence on the debate stage, where he defended imprecations like “fat pigs” and “bimbo” to describe women — and his rivals did not chide him.
But Trump’s suggestion that Kelly had been harsh with him because she was menstruating caused a new bout of consternation among senior Republican leaders, who saw it as the latest evidence that they would not be able to fully conduct a primary campaign as long as he was overwhelming the race.
“We need to nominate somebody who can win, somebody who is substantive and somebody who knows how to govern,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. “But we can’t have that debate in the full jacket as long as we’re sidetracked off on this Trump exercise. It does undermine our ability to have a substantive debate. All the substantive arguments are being muted by his persona.”
Still, Gregg said that while RedState was wise to bar him from its event, the party would only “make him an even larger figure” by trying to keep him out of future debates. “He’d love that,” Gregg said. “He loves when institutional forces take him on. That’s part of his shtick.”
He added: “The campaign is serious, but his campaign isn’t. It’s entertainment. What’s the line of decency in the entertainment world? It’s pretty far out there.”
Some in the party have mused privately about using Trump’s refusal to rule out an independent bid as grounds to bar him from future debates, but there is deep concern that such a heavy-handed effort would only prod him into pursuing such a run.
It also appeared unlikely that any network could be persuaded to exclude him. As Trump crowed Friday in a telephone interview, “I’m a ratings machine.”
At the RedState gathering in Atlanta, there was resignation to the likelihood that Trump would continue to draw support from voters looking to rage against the political establishment. But some of the grass-roots activists in attendance described him as a jester, not a threat.
David Pettigrew, a retiree from Milledgeville, Georgia, said he knew many conservatives who regretted voting for Ross Perot in 1992 out of frustration with President George Bush. (Perot’s third-party candidacy is widely believed to have helped tilt the election to Bill Clinton.) But he said he doubted Trump could win over enough disgruntled Republicans to undermine the party’s nominee.
“Hell, if he wants to run as a third party, have at it,” Pettigrew said.
Trump, for his part, fired off a defiant salute to the RedState crowd on Twitter Saturday morning: “I miss you all, and thanks for all of your support. Political correctness is killing our country.”
He added in a word what he thought of his critics: “weakness.”