The Republican nomination battle between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is starting to resemble an ugly barroom brawl, with the pair trading personal accusations about their attitudes toward women that could wind up greatly influencing that key demographic in the next primary.
With the GOP presidential race basically a two-man contest, Cruz, the Texas Republican, took a calculated risk on Thursday to get down in the mud with the frontrunner after Trump retweeted an unflattering photo of his wife, Heidi Cruz.
"It's not easy to tick me off. I don't get angry often," a visibly angry Cruz told an NBC reporter during a campaign stop in Wisconsin, the site of the next major GOP primary on April 5. "But you mess with my wife, you mess with my kids, that'll do it every time.” Then he looked directly into the camera and said forcefully, “Donald you are a sniveling coward and leave Heidi the hell alone."
The gambit might have backfired if a story from the National Enquirer published on Friday turns out to be true. It charges that Cruz has been involved in at least five extramarital affairs, which Cruz claims was planted by Donald Trump. The story claims one of the affairs was with Katrina Pierson, a Texas communications specialist and Trump’s official national campaign spokesperson.
Pierson went on Twitter to call the situation “stupidity on all levels.”
Of course the National Enquirer story is 100% FALSE!!! I only speak to myself, however.— Katrina Pierson (@KatrinaPierson) March 25, 2016
“This National Enquirer story is garbage. It is garbage, complete and utter lies,” Cruz said Friday. “It is a tabloid smear, and it has come from Donald Trump and his henchmen.”
Rick Tyler, Cruz’s former press secretary who was forced to resign after being accused of committing dirty campaign tricks in early primary states, defended his former boss and suggested that Trump or an ally shopped the story around to several news organizations until David Pecker, an associate of Trump’s and the National Enquirer’s publisher, agreed to print it.
Tyler told MSNBC that Cruz is “a man of integrity and a man of decency,” and that he was “100 percent” certain the story is false.
Trump issued a statement on the Enquirer article, saying he had “absolutely nothing to do with it, did not know about it and have not, as yet, read it.”
“Ted Cruz’s problem with the National Enquirer is his and his alone, and while they were right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards, and many others, I certainly hope they are not right about Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” he added.
That Cruz must spend time dealing with such controversies -- time that could prove critical before the Wisconsin primary, which is less than two weeks away -- plays right into Trump’s hands. Prior to his statement, the former reality TV star had been virtually non-existent on the campaign trail for much of the week.
Trump’s last event was a major speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington on Monday. That was the same day he told The Washington Post editorial board that the U.S. should reconsider its involvement in NATO; the remarks have come under immense scrutiny from both parties following the terror attacks that took place in Brussels on Tuesday.
And aside from a few storms, Trump has mostly stayed off Twitter, his preferred method for picking fights with his critics.
Taken together, the episodes give further fuel to the anxieties of GOP leaders that their presumptive nominee, who has been accused of sexism through his campaign, will alienate female voters, including those within their ranks.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted before the war of words over Heidi Cruz, found that 47 percent of Republican women could not see themselves supporting Trump, a number significantly higher than for any other GOP candidate.
And a new poll conducted by Emerson College found that the two are running neck and neck in Wisconsin, where Cruz could make his last stand against the billionaire. However, Trump is 10 points underwater among Republican woman, with 50 percent unfavorable to 40 percent favorable.
Ironically, it was left to Pierson, Trump’s chief spokesperson and one of the five women implicated in the controversial National Enquirer expose, to defend the billionaire businessman’s standing with women.
Pierson said that she and the Trump campaign have been hearing for months that Trump has alienated women voters, and that it is simply not true.
“Mr. Trump has been winning women as these elections have occurred, and I think he’s going to continue to win them because women care more about the education of their children, their safety and security and their jobs in this country,” she told MSNBC.
That could change if Trump becomes the nominee and faces Hillary Clinton, who would be the first female standard-bearer of either major political party.
Polls by Fox News and Bloomberg Politics released earlier this week each showed the former Secretary of State beating Trump by double-digits.