MILWAUKEE — Donald J. Trump — he of the glamorous wives and high-profile romances — likes to boast of his prowess with women.
But among female voters, he is having less success, with women viewing him unfavorably by more than 3-to-1, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.
Now, in an apparent effort to shore up his support among women after a series of missteps, Trump is enlisting his wife, Melania, on the campaign trail.
Wearing a short baby-blue dress, Melania Trump joined her husband onstage at the Milwaukee Theatre on Monday night for his final rally in Wisconsin — a subdued event with a crowd that was less than capacity — before the state’s primary on Tuesday.
“No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal,” said Melania Trump, who spoke for just over a minute and read from notes, praising her husband as “a great communicator,” “a great negotiator” and “a great leader.”
“As you may know by now, when you attack him he will punch back 10 times harder,” she said. “He’s a fighter, and if you elect him to be our president, he will fight for you and for our country.”
Melania Trump is a reluctant campaigner who, by her husband’s telling, did not want him to run for president. But she was recently thrust into the spotlight after a super PAC supporting Sen. Ted Cruz put out an ad in Utah, aimed at the state’s Mormon population, featuring a picture of the former model from a nude photo shoot.
Donald Trump responded by spreading a photo of his wife juxtaposed with an unflattering image of Cruz’s wife, Heidi — an incident that set off a storm of criticism and that he later called “a mistake.”
Donald Trump has previously turned to the women in his life to help counter claims that he is a misogynist. He frequently invokes Melania and his daughter, Ivanka, on the campaign trial, talking about how, behind the scenes, they are the ones urging him to behave “more presidential.”
“Again, my wife: ‘Darling, you’re so brilliant, you’re so bright. Act presidential. It’s so easy for you,’” Donald Trump told a crowd Sunday night in West Allis, Wisconsin, mimicking his wife’s breathy, accented voice. “I said, ‘Darling, I’ve got to win first, you know? I’ve got to win.’”
The decision to enlist Melania Trump comes as he has stumbled in recent weeks on issues that could damage him further with women, especially in a general election matchup against Hillary Clinton, who is trying to become the first female president.
Last week, in an interview with Chris Matthews of MSNBC, Donald Trump said that should abortion become illegal, women who undergo the procedure should face “some form of punishment” — a view that put him at odds even with many fervent abortion opponents — before later recanting.
Candidate spouses are often deployed as character witnesses, and the Trump operation believes that Melania Trump, 45, could help her husband as he has faced a barrage of unflattering news reports. She first made an appearance on the campaign trail in February in South Carolina, at a time when Trump was in need of some image softening amid criticism of his combative rhetoric.
“She’s exceptionally smart, very articulate,” said Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s campaign manager. “She’s a great asset to the campaign.”
Ivanka Trump has also been a frequent surrogate for her father, appearing in how-to-caucus videos in Iowa and attending some of his rallies even while she was quite pregnant with her third child. For weeks, Donald Trump joked that his daughter was about to give birth in whatever state they happened to be at that moment. (She gave birth last week.)
Even Donald Trump’s first wife, Ivana, who is the mother of his three oldest children, is speaking up for her ex-husband, praising him in an interview published Sunday in The New York Post, which has long been friendly to him. In the interview, she said she still advised her ex-husband, wished Melania “all the best” and said Donald Trump “loves women” but is “not a feminist.”
A spokeswoman for Ivana Trump, Catherine Saxton, said the interview was simply the result of good timing — The Post asked, and Ivana Trump was able to do it. (At one point during the interview Donald Trump even called his ex-wife.) Yet in a sign of Donald Trump’s complicated relationship with women, Ivana Trump’s staff later called the paper to say that Donald Trump was, in fact, a feminist, before calling again to say he was not — and then calling a final time to say he was, indeed, a feminist.
Katie Packer, the founder of an anti-Trump super PAC and the co-founder of Burning Glass, a firm that helps Republican candidates convey a conservative message to women, said it would take more than an appearance by Donald Trump’s wife to help him attract female supporters.
“You don’t get special credit because your wife likes you,” Packer said. “The rub on this guy that is commonly accepted now is that he’s a sexist and a racist, and this isn’t going to be fixed because he has one black guy who speaks ahead of him at a rally or because his wife comes out on the campaign trail.”
But Donald Trump seems convinced of his wife’s potential, both as a campaigner and as a first lady. Spotting a homemade sign at his rally Sunday night that read “Melania for first lady,” Trump paused to praise his wife.
“She’d be a great first lady,” he said, gesturing to the sign. “That’s beautiful. Thank you.”
New York Times writer Maggie Haberman in New York contributed to this report.