Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump waded into politically risky territory this week when he accused Democrat Hillary Clinton of exploiting her gender to win votes and said she would have little support if she were not a woman.
As Trump and Clinton, fresh off big wins in North-eastern state primaries on Tuesday, circle each other for a potential matchup in the Nov 8 US presidential election, his comments portended what could be an unusually nasty campaign.
“The only thing she’s got going is the fact that she’s a woman,” Trump said Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show, refusing to back down from targeting Clinton for what he called “playing the woman’s card.”
Trump‘s remarks, reaching into an area of gender attacks that is conventionally out of bounds, energized Democrats.
“Keep talking, Donald Trump,” Democratic Committee National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told CNN on Wednesday. “Every single day when Donald Trump opens his mouth, he does more to alienate women.”
Trump, who can be as free with his personal attacks on men, has consistently polled poorly with women. Democrats and Republicans both accuse Trump of sexism over verbal insults lobbed at Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.
On Wednesday, Trump‘s closest Republican rival, US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, named Fiorina as his running mate should he win the party’s nomination.
In a round of interviews on Thursday, Fiorina said she was eager to help Cruz block Trump.
“Donald Trump gets shellacked by Hillary Clinton,” Fiorina told MSNBC, referring to Trump‘s prospects against the former secretary of state in a general election matchup.
But Trump told NBC women would support his positions on security and jobs.
US Representative Renee Ellmers, a Republican, said she believed Trump could overcome his unpopularity with women voters with his straight talk: “To me, this is breaking all the rules, this is going against any of the typical history books and elections of the past.”
Trump‘s top aide and other supporters said focusing on Clinton’s gender was part of Trump‘s emerging strategy for the general election and that he had no intention of hewing to traditional rules.
“When he is attacked, he will respond,” Trump‘s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told Reuters. “The campaign is going to proceed under the mantra, which we’ve had in this campaign from Day One, which is: Let Mr. Trump be Mr. Trump.”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this month showed a big gender gap in opinions about Trump. About two-thirds of women had an unfavorable view of the billionaire businessman and reality TV star, while 54 per cent of men had a negative view of him.
GEARING FOR A FIGHT
In taking aim at Trump‘s comments, Clinton appeared to be relishing the fight.
“Well if fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in,” she said in a victory speech in Philadelphia late Tuesday.
In her political career, Clinton has sometimes benefited from missteps by male candidates. Her 2000 US Senate rival, New York Republican Rick Lazio, was seen as a bully when he stepped close to her on stage during a debate to demand she sign a pledge.
Early in her first presidential campaign in 2008, Clinton accused her male opponents of “piling on” and said that would prompt more women to support her. Then-Senator Barack Obama’s comments during a debate in New Hampshire that year that she was “likable enough” were seen by some as patronizing, and as helping her win the state’s primary.
If Trump wins the nomination, his willingness to raise Clinton’s gender and other issues could make for one of the most contentious general election campaigns in recent history.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any taboos with Donald Trump,” said James Pethokoukis, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “He’s not going to treat her with any sort of kid gloves.”