It has been a dizzying few days for Donald Trump. But as the dust swirls from his latest provocation – a controversial remark about Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly – the party that has until now begrudgingly tolerated him has shown itself ready to cut him loose.
Related: Donald Trump banned from RedState over menstruation jibe at Megyn Kelly
As Democrats focused with glee on Trump’s remark and what it may say about the so-called Republican “ war on women ”, GOP strategists said they expected the real-estate mogul would not stay the course. Such operatives are instead focused on how to engage those voters who have propelled Trump to the top of the polls, once he has been jettisoned from the contest.
On Saturday one strategist, Liz Mair, told the Guardian: “It’s a very good thing for the GOP that Trump is basically self-destructing in front of our eyes.”
Trump’s latest controversy exploded in an interview with CNN on Friday, when he appeared to imply that Kelly had questioned him so directly in the first debate on Thursday – when she quizzed him about his previous derogatory statements about women – because she was menstruating.
The real-estate mogul, who thanks to his poll numbers took centre stage in Cleveland on Thursday night, said Kelly “had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”.
The remark earned him criticism from his own party, as well as from Democrats. On Friday and Saturday, several GOP challengers piled on.
“What Donald Trump said is wrong,” Jeb Bush told conservative activist Erick Erickson , who uninvited Trump from the RedState Gathering in Atlanta, which he organizes, after the candidate’s attack on Kelly.
“Your decision, I think, was the right one,” Bush added. “Mr Trump ought to apologize.”
In true Trump fashion, he refused to do so. On Saturday, he sought instead to clarify the remark, saying he meant that blood was coming from Kelly’s nose.
Other Republican candidates joined in.
“Attacking veterans, Hispanics and women demonstrates a serious lack of character and basic decency and his comments distract from the serious issues facing our country,” said former Texas governor Rick Perry.
Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the only female candidate in the GOP race, tweeted that she “stood with Kelly”. “Mr Trump,” she said . “There. Is. No. Excuse.”
But not every candidate was ready to go after Trump by name.
“I think every candidate should treat everyone else with civility and respect,” Senator Ted Cruz told reporters at RedState. He added: “I also think we’re not going to solve the problems in this country, we’re not going to defeat the Washington cartel by obsessing over the politics of personalities.”
The Ohio governor John Kasich, one of the more moderate voices in the 17-strong field, offered an echo of Cruz.
It’s a very good thing for the GOP that Trump is basically self-destructing in front of our eyes
“You don’t tear people down just because they disagree with you or stand up to you or question you,” he said. “I deliberately seek out different views in my life and work, and I am grateful for the strong women in my family, in my office, in my cabinet and in my campaign because they improve everything they touch.”
Another candidate, meanwhile, chose to pre-emptively push back against expected Democratic messaging.
“The Republican Party is not engaged in a war on women,” said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. “The Republican Party is not engaged in saying things about Megyn Kelly. One individual is.”
Huckabee has spoken out strongly about efforts to defund Planned Parenthood , the federal organisation that has been the subject of a succession of videos released by a pro-life group which purport to show staff members offering fetal material for sale.
In the debate on Thursday, Huckabee said a fetus was a person from the moment of conception, and that the next president should endow fetuses with a right to due process and equal protections under the law.
“[Trump] has struck a nerve with people and I can only stand back and understand there a lot of people in this country who are very angry,” he said.
Democrats have a war on women. They promote laws and entitlements that aren’t designed to help you rise up
Betsy Shaw Kramer
At RedState in Atlanta, voters were restrained when asked how they felt about Trump’s latest comment. Betsy Shaw Kramer, a Republican activist from Johns Creek, Georgia, took a somewhat detached view.
“I do feel Megyn might have been a little bit rough on him,” she said, “and I saw bit of Fox News trying to take him down a notch.” However, she noted, Trump can be a little crass.
Kramer also dismissed concerns about a “war on women”.
“Democrats always want to bring up a Republican war on women but in reality Democrats have a war on women,” she said. “They promote laws and entitlements that aren’t designed to help you rise up but to keep you down.”
Kramer also brushed aside the continuing controversy on Planned Parenthood. “I am pro-choice but I don’t look at these videos as a war on women,” she said. “I look at them as a war on babies.”
Martha Todd of Atlanta said she only learned the news that Trump had been uninvited from RedState when the Guardian spoke to her on Saturday afternoon. She had been spending day with Cruz, whom she ardently supported.
Todd was “surprised and disappointed” that Trump was not coming to the event.
“I’ve been a long-time admirer and I really think his heart is in the right place,” she said. “I think he could be good for our country.”
‘Maybe this stirs more conversation’
Related: RedState hypocrisy: does Donald Trump critic Erick Erickson have a woman problem too?
Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics and an associate professor of political science at Rutgers, said where the conversation goes from here will be telling.
“The question is going to be how does the party and how do the other candidates respond to his comments, not only today and this week but going forward in the race,” Dittmar said.
“Maybe this stirs a deeper conversation or maybe it’s just a flash in pan, everyone disavows it and then moves on.”
Among such observers of the 2016 campaign, which is still in its infancy, expectation remains that Trump will not last the distance through the primaries, let alone challenge seriously for the Republican nomination. Beyond Trump’s controversial comments, they say, the party must consider how it will engage with his supporters once his campaign fades away.
“The most important thing is how party and conservative movement responds when Trump implodes,” said Ellen Carmichael, a Republican strategist who was a spokeswoman for the pizza magnate Herman Cain in 2012, when he briefly led in the polls.
The most important thing is how party and conservative movement responds when Trump implodes
“It’ll be important for party to treat it like a prodigal son moment and not rub it in faces of those who have chosen to support Trump,” Carmichael added, “because if they feel like they are being shamed for their decision to support him they are going to stay home.”
How Trump’s antics will affect the Republican party’s image, and its standing with women, remains to be seen. But it does complicate the terrain for Republicans who are working to promote a more inclusive message and broaden the party’s appeal.
Women made up about 53% of the electorate in the previous two presidential elections, and have favored the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since 1992. In 2008, Obama won 56% of the female vote. In 2012, he won 55%. Democrats are hopeful the former first lady, senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton will surpass those numbers, should she become the party’s nominee.
“My sense is that the GOP won’t go for a guy who basically is making the same jabs at women that an 11-year-old in my sixth grade class did to my classmate and supports a British-style socialist healthcare system for the United States,” said Liz Mair.
Mair said Trump’s eruptions – from his remarks about Mexicans and veterans to those about women – threatened to harm the Republican party. But with each new spectacle, she said, it was becoming clearer to voters that Trump represents a fringe minority, and is not reflective of the GOP as a whole.
“It’s a very good thing for GOP that Trump is basically self-destructing in front of our eyes,” Mair said. “He’s been a problem child as a GOP candidate and the faster he self-immolates, the better for the party.”
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