BROOKFIELD, Wis. — Women who get abortions should receive "some form of punishment," Republican front-runner Donald Trump said Wednesday, without indicating specifically what the punishment should be.
The comments came in a heated exchange with MSNBC's Chris Matthews during the taping of a town hall in Wisconsin, which holds its primary next week.
"There has to be some form of punishment," Trump told Matthews in the exchange over whether abortion should be banned. The subject remains highly controversial decades after the Supreme Court legalized it.
Pressed by Matthews on the nature of that punishment, Trump responded: "I haven't determined what the punishment should be." He also suggested that women could continue to receive abortions, but at "illegal places."
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton quickly responded on Twitter, noting Trump's comments and adding, "Just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Horrific and telling."
Just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Horrific and telling. -H https://t.co/Qi8TutsOw9
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) March 30, 2016
Trump has often said he's opposed to abortions except in the case of three exceptions: rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk. He used to describe himself as in favour of abortion rights, but says his stance has evolved over the years.
Within hours, Trump's campaign sought to take back his comments in two separate statements, ultimately saying the billionaire businessman believes abortion providers — and not their patients — should be the ones punished.
"My position has not changed," Trump argued in both statements released by his campaign. "Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions."
Even before Trump's comments, recent polls have put his negative ratings nearing or even eclipsing 70 per cent among women.
"Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions."
The New York billionaire arrived in Wisconsin fending off another controversy. His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with misdemeanour battery in Florida on Tuesday over an altercation with a female reporter earlier this month.
Wisconsin's April 5 primary looks pivotal in the Republican race. If Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wins, it would narrow Trump's already tight path to the nomination and raise the prospect of a contested party convention. Delegates there might turn to other candidates if the billionaire fails to win on the first ballot.
Trump heads into Wisconsin with 739 delegates to Cruz's 465. Kasich lags behind with 143. Wisconsin has 42 Republican delegates, with 18 going to the statewide winner and 24 divided among the winners in each of the state's eight congressional districts
Trump would need 1,237 delegates by the end of the primary season to capture the nomination and avoid a contested convention.
Candidates likely won't support nominee
All three Republican candidates now say they aren't committing to supporting whomever the party chooses as its nominee for the November election.
Trump on Tuesday said he was rescinding his promise because "I have been treated very unfairly," and he listed the party establishment among those he believes have wronged him.
Cruz said if Trump were the nominee, that would hand the election to Clinton.
Based on primaries and caucuses to date, Clinton has 1,243 delegates to rival Bernie Sanders' 975. Including superdelegates, party leaders who are free to support any candidate, Clinton has 1,712 delegates to Sanders' 1,004, leaving her shy of the 2,383 it takes to win the nomination.