MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Frustrated Republicans grappled with new fears about Donald Trump's impact on their party Wednesday, as the billionaire businessman's campaign 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, leery of confronting the man who may well lead their election ticket in November.
Their silence underscored the deep worries plaguing the party's leaders — particularly its most prominent women — who are growing increasingly concerned that a Trump presidential nomination could not only cost the 2016 election but also tarnish the party brand for a generation of women and young people.
"A nominee who cannot speak to women cannot win," New Hampshire party chairwoman Jennifer Horn said, though declining to rebuke Trump by name.
Trump added to his challenge when asked to explain his prescription to fight abortion, a subject that remains highly controversial decades after the Supreme Court legalized it.
He told MSNBC during the taping of a town hall-style event in Wisconsin that abortions should be banned and, if they are, women who get them should receive "some form of punishment." That sparked an immediate backlash from both sides of the debate, and Trump's campaign quickly backtracked, releasing a statement that sought to take back his words. It said that 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," the new Trump statement said.
The abortion comments came as Trump questioned the findings of Jupiter, Florida, police, who charged his closest political adviser, Corey Lewandowski, with misdemeanor battery on Tuesday 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 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 States of America. And every issue is a women's issue."
Women favored President Barack 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, listing several, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Haley's office said she was "unavailable for comment" Wednesday, among other 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.
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.
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.
Clinton's Democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders, told MSNBC that calling Trump's comments "shameful is probably understating that position."
Peoples reported from Washington. AP writers Catherine Lucey, Jonathan Lemire and Jill Colvin in New York, Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Todd Richmond in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.