By Megan Cassella
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican front-runner Donald Trump's campaign sought on Thursday to contain the fallout from his comments on punishing women for having an abortion, characterizing the flap as a "simple misspeak" as his White House rivals pounced on the controversy.
The billionaire businessman rowed back rapidly on Wednesday from his statement that women should be punished for having abortions if the procedure is banned in the United States. The comments triggered a flood of rebukes from both sides of the abortion debate, and his campaign tried to address the repercussions.
"You have a presidential candidate that clarified the record not once but twice," Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson told CNN, describing the initial comments as a "simple misspeak." She described Trump as "pro-life with exceptions" and pointed to Trump’s two statements that followed the MSNBC interview as an accurate depiction of his views.
“We shouldn't make this a 24-hour headline when we have things like terrorism going on in the world,” she said.
Trump, leading in the race to win the Republican nomination for the Nov. 8 presidential election, pulled back from his initial comments within an hour, first issuing a statement that U.S. states should handle abortion issues and later saying doctors who perform abortions are the ones who should be held responsible.
Trump's latest controversy threatened to further erode his standing with women voters, many of whom have been offended by his use of vulgarities and insulting language to describe women during the presidential race.
The abortion flap erupted as Trump campaigned in Wisconsin ahead of the state's critical primary on Tuesday. An opinion poll released on Wednesday showed Trump's top rival, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, has moved ahead of him by 10 percentage points in Wisconsin.
Trump visited Washington on Thursday for a private meeting hosted by his top backer in the capital, U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Critics have questioned Trump's suitability to be commander in chief after a series of controversial foreign policy statements.
In recent interviews, Trump has declared NATO obsolete, said Saudi Arabia is too dependent on the United States and said Japan and South Korea may need to develop their own nuclear programs because the U.S. security umbrella is too costly to maintain.
In the same MSNBC town hall where he made the abortion comments, Trump refused to rule out the potential use of nuclear weapons in Europe or the Middle East to combat Islamic State militants. "I would never take any of my cards off the table," he said.
Many establishment Republicans have labored to block Trump from the Republican presidential nomination at the July convention in Cleveland, worried that he will lead the party to a broad and overwhelming defeat in November.
Trump's Republican rivals said his abortion comments were just the latest in a series of controversies that raise questions about his suitability for the White House.
"It just shows that he's really not prepared to be president of the United States," Ohio Governor John Kasich told reporters at a New York news conference arranged so that he could address the controversy.
Kasich said the president should not be constantly rowing back on a series of "wild-eyed suggestions."
"I have to tell you that as commander in chief and leader of the free world, you don't get do-overs. You need to be able to get it right the first time," Kasich said.
Opposition to abortion, which was legalized in a Supreme Court ruling more than 40 years ago, is a central plank in the platform of most conservative politicians. But conservatives have questioned whether Trump, who once supported access to abortions, is sincerely committed to his anti-abortion stance.
Cruz said on Wednesday that Trump had clearly not thought through the issue and later called his comments "unfortunate" and "wrong."
(Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)