WASHINGTON — Republicans across the party’s wide political spectrum, increasingly worried about the GOP’s ability to appeal to women voters, pointedly criticized Donald Trump on Saturday for comments that appeared to suggest Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly questioned him forcefully during Thursday’s debate because she was menstruating.
Even in today’s rough and tumble politics, where a premium is placed on extreme language and biting discourse, some saw Trump’s latest rhetorical fusillade as vaulting past tolerable limits, even for a candidate who says he doesn’t have the time or inclination to be politically correct.
Rivals for the Republican presidential nomination and other party figures said he should apologize, or even withdraw from the race.
Erick Erickson, the organizer of a large conservative gathering in Atlanta, canceled Trump’s speaking engagement there on Saturday, bringing about a bitter back and forth with Trump. The only woman running for the party’s nomination, Carly Fiorina, said she stood by Kelly and wrote pointedly on Twitter: “Mr. Trump: There. Is. No Excuse.”
Senator Lindsey Graham was even more forceful, saying that Trump was spreading “hate speech,” and that the very future of conservatism would be at stake if his rhetoric is not forcefully rejected.
“This is a moment for the party,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican also in the race, said in an interview. “We need to stand up to him. He’s like an extortionist trying to hold everybody hostage, and we cannot be intimidated by this.
“He’s a bully. Like any other bully he only goes down when people stand up to him,” he added. “It’s time to disassociate and create a bright line. When one politician attacks another, that’s just part of life. But this isn’t political discourse. This is hate speech . . . this is demonizing people, and degrading women.”
The swift reaction from Republicans came after Trump, in an interview with CNN on Friday night, complained about Kelly’s questioning of him during the previous night’s debate.
“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes — blood coming out of her wherever,” he said.
Trump later tried to clarify, saying he meant blood was perhaps coming out of her nose, and saying “only a deviant would think anything else.”
But several hours after Trump’s comment, Erickson, who runs an influential conservative group that was sponsoring the gathering in Atlanta where many GOP candidates would be speaking, said he had disinvited the New York businessman.
Erickson, who has his own history of comments he’s been forced to apologize for, said he has admired Trump’s bluntness, and how he connected with “so much of the anger in the Republican base.
“But there are even lines blunt talkers and unprofessional politicians should not cross,” Erickson stated. “Decency is one of those lines.
“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,” he added. “It was just wrong.”
Erickson invited Kelly to speak in place of Trump, but it did not appear she would do so.
As of late Saturday afternoon, Trump had offered no apology. Instead, he attacked Erickson for canceling on him.
“Not only is Erick a total loser, he has a history of supporting establishment losers in failed campaigns, so it is an honor to be uninvited from his event,” he said in a statement.
It was the third time over the past several weeks in which Trump found himself under heated criticism from his rivals for a comment many regarded as out of bounds. First he called illegal immigrants from Mexico “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” and a week later said that Arizona Senator John McCain, a POW during the Vietnam War, was not a hero.
None of the previous comments seemed to do him any damage — confounding most political observers, his standing only improved as he rose in the polls and solidified his front-runner status — but this time could be different, some speculate. Trump is attacking a female Fox News anchor who is extraordinarily popular among conservatives and who has topped the rating charts.
“I suspect that it is going to hurt him, but since none of us seem to understand what the Trump phenomenon really is, it is hard to know,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview. “Clearly his latest comments were so over the top that they require some apology,” he added.
Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor and a rival for the party’s nomination, called on Trump to apologize.
“Come on. Give me a break. I mean, do we want to win? Do we want to insult 53 percent of all voters?” Bush said from the RedState gathering in Atlanta, where Trump had been scheduled to speak. “What Donald Trump said is wrong. That is not how we win elections, and worse yet that is not how you bring people together to solve problems.”
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky called Trump’s statements “inappropriate and offensive,” while fellow GOP hopeful Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin said he agreed with Fiorina: “There’s no excuse for Trump’s comments.”
Rupert Murdoch, the Fox network’s owner, defended its performance hosting the debate, saying early Saturday that the questions, including those from Kelly, were fair.
“Fine journalism, no more, no less,” Murdoch wrote on Twitter. “Friend Donald has to learn this is public life.”
While Trump appeared unbowed, the reverberation of comments appeared to roil his campaign. Trump announced on Saturday that he was firing his top adviser, Roger Stone.
Stone disputed that, writing on Twitter that Trump didn’t fire him, “I fired Trump.”
He said he disagreed with the “diversion to food fight” with Kelly instead of talking about “core issue messages.”
Trump has been a huge benefit to Republicans in some ways, bringing an unprecedented amount of attention to the first presidential primary debate last week.
Some 24 million Americans tuned in to watch, more than most big-time sporting events, demonstrating a clear curiosity about Trump’s campaign but also giving the other candidates an opportunity to showcase their own views.
But Trump could also prove a damaging force for a party that has been trying to broaden its appeal, particularly among women and Hispanics.
After the GOP suffered devastating losses in 2012, party leaders put together a memo intended to improve the brand in key demographics where it lost ground to Democrats.
The report identified a “growing unrest” among even Republican women that the party has a “negative image.” The GOP memo listed 10 ways to improve its standing, including “developing a forward-leaning vision for voting Republican that appeals to women.”
“Women are not a ‘coalition,’ ” it stated. “They represent more than half the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections.”