Donald Trump began his closing bid to capture Wisconsin's Republican primary by trying to address one of the biggest vulnerabilities of his campaign for the presidency: the female vote.

After a week that found Trump launching attacks on Texas Senator Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi Cruz, and tossing barbs at Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, the billionaire front-runner on Monday attempted to play down his degrading comments about women, saying they were made in jest.

“I never knew I was going to be running for office. And you joke, and you kid and say things, but you’re not a politician so you never think anybody cares,” Trump said in a phone interview with Wisconsin’s FOX 11. 

Trump is marching toward the Republican nomination, but not quite quickly enough to pick up the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch it before the July convention. Ahead of Wisconsin's primary on April 5, which awards 42 delegates, his skirmishes with Cruz and Kelly have given ammunition to those who argue that the businessman isn't White House material and cannot unite the party. They have, in part, raised questions about his vulnerability with women voters. Moreover, the toned-down, “more presidential” candidate Trump promised in March that he would become has yet to materialize.

“Trump’s negatives among female voters are climbing,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who runs the pro-Cruz super-PAC Keep the Promise I, referring to a CNN poll released last week that found Trump's unfavorable rating with women at 73 percent. “The attrition is most striking among married and suburban female Republicans. They can tolerate a snide remark or witty snark here or there, but draw the line at personal insults in place of policy prescriptions. Some of his rallies, ‘riotous’ language, and Twitter loyalists bring out the worst.”

Rory Cooper, a former House Republican leadership aide who advises a new anti-Trump group called #NeverTrump PAC, added: “He won't tone it down because toning it down means talking about policy, not process, and he is incapable of talking about policy. He needs to be talking about distractions.”

Cruz, Kelly

Last week, Trump escalated his feud with Cruz by re-tweeting an unflattering photo of his wife after the unaffiliated anti-Trump group Make America Awesome used a salacious photo of his wife, Melania Trump, from a past GQ spread in an attack ad targeting Mormons in Utah. Cruz responded by calling Trump a “sniveling coward.” Trump insisted Cruz was connected to the attack ad, though the Texan and Make America Awesome deny he or his campaign had any involvement.

Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, greet Ted Cruz; his wife, Heidi; and the Cruz children on stage after a debate on Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, greet Ted Cruz; his wife, Heidi; and the Cruz children on stage after a debate on Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Trump also launched a broadside at Fox's Kelly in a pair of tweets, calling her “highly overrated” in response to her critical coverage of his candidacy. The remarks recalled his attacks on Kelly months ago that were widely condemned as demeaning and sexist.

The real estate mogul insists he’s only defending himself, but he risks further driving up his unfavorable ratings with women and emboldening the opposition he faces from within. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken March 3-6 found that 47 percent of Republican women cannot see themselves supporting Trump—15 points higher than for Cruz, and 20 points higher than for John Kasich.

“As I said at the start, Donald Trump doesn't represent me and he doesn't represent my party,” Carly Fiorina, a former Republican presidential candidate who introduced Cruz at a Monday rally in Rothschild, Wisconsin, told Bloomberg Politics.

‘Off the Wall’

Colleen Jowett of Wausau, who attended Cruz's rally and plans to support him, said Trump's rhetoric toward women has been demeaning.

“I don't want him for a president. He's too off the wall. He doesn't think before he speaks. I think he'd give us trouble,” she said.

Judy Pitcher of Mosinee said she was surprised and turned off by Trump for going after Heidi Cruz.

“I think it's not very presidential,” she said. “And I worry about how he's going to do dealing with foreign countries.”

The feuds continued to dog Trump ahead of his swing through Wisconsin—with events planned in Janesville, Appleton, and Green Bay—even as he signaled an eagerness to move past them.

During an interview on Monday, Wisconsin-based conservative radio host Charlie Sykes told Trump he has problems with “conservative women who are repelled by your attitude and your treatment of women.” When pressed several times, Trump declined to apologize for going after Heidi Cruz or Kelly and downplayed his derogatory comments about women by noting that he's a celebrity.

“Certainly I never thought I would run for office,” Trump said. He added women will see he’s “hired tremendous numbers of women” and in some cases pays them more than he pays men. “I have been better to women than any of these candidates, frankly.”

“I thought this was a dead issue until until I started talking to you,” he said. “I'd rather be talking about trade.”

November Pain

Trump's obstacles are greater in a general election. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found his negative rating with women nationwide at a staggering 70 percent, while 21 percent viewed him positively. A Reuters/Ipsos poll survey taken March 1-15 found that half of U.S. women said they have a “very unfavorable” view of Trump, a significant jump from the 40 percent of women who viewed Trump that way in October.

Protesters against Donald Trump gather before a Trump rally on March 13, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio.
Protesters against Donald Trump gather before a Trump rally on March 13, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio.
Photographer: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Trump also sparked a separate intra-party battle Sunday by threatening a lawsuit after reports surfaced that a quirk in the rules could leave Cruz with more delegates than Trump in the state of Louisiana, even though the Texan lost the popular vote to the New Yorker in the state. In recent weeks, he has also faced rebukes from within his own party for not clearly condemning violence against protesters at his rallies.

Overall, Trump enjoys a large lead in the primary. He needs to win 53 percent of remaining delegates to clinch the nomination, while Cruz needs to pick up 82 percent of what's left, a task his allies admit would require a sea change in the landscape. Kasich has no mathematical chance of securing the nomination before the convention, based on Associated Press figures of awarded delegates.

“Right now I'd say Trump has a small chance of getting the majority before June 7, and if he were going to get it he'd probably get it on June 7,” said Rick Tyler, former communications director for the Cruz campaign. (June 7 is the final day of the Republican primary race, with contests in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota.)

In a general election, Trump's obstacles would be greater.

His path to 270 electoral votes would be cut off unless he turns the tide with women, said Stan Greenberg, a respected Democratic pollster. He said female voters could undercut Trump’s hopes of victory on the strength of white working-class voters in the industrial Midwest if his popularity remains high.

“The white working class isn’t just the boys. In our data, the majority of white non-college voters are women,” Greenberg said, arguing that in order to win on the backs of white voters, “you can’t be losing ground with women, which he is.”

Some GOP strategists fear Trump would alienate women voters in historic numbers as the nominee, particularly if he faces Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who hopes to become the first female president and hasn’t been shy to call out sexism in her primary battle against Bernie Sanders. Women outside the Republican tent may be less forgiving if he hurls demeaning remarks at the first female nominee of a major party.

“I will beat Hillary,” Trump told Sykes on Monday, hinting that he's getting ready to unleash a stream of attacks on her. “I haven’t started on Hillary yet.”

(Corrects classification of Wisconsin primary as "winner-take-all" in first paragraph.)
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