ATLANTA — Donald Trump is showing no signs of curbing his battle with a Fox News television host, the Republican Party establishment and several presidential primary rivals who are accusing him of disrespecting women.
Even a former Trump campaign aide suggests that the businessman's bid for the White House has become a side show.
Trump's unconventional, insurgent campaign has excited many anti-establishment conservatives while confounding Republican Party leaders already facing the prospects of a bruising fight among 17 candidates.
The latest controversy started Thursday night when Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly recounted Trump's history of incendiary comments toward women. Angry over what he considered unfair treatment at the debate, Trump told CNN on Friday night that Kelly had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever." That remark cost Trump a prime-time speaking slot at the RedState Gathering, the Atlanta conference where several other presidential candidates spoke to about 1,000 conservative activists.
RedState host Erick Erickson said in a statement that Trump had violated basic standards of decency, even if his bluntness "resonates with a lot of people." The Trump campaign retorted by calling Erickson a "total loser" who backs other "establishment losers."
Jeb Bush, the presidential favourite for many top Republican donors, said at RedState that Trump's bombast would hurt the GOP's chances with women, who already tilt toward Democrats in presidential elections. "Do we want to win? Do we want to insult 53 per cent of our voters?" the former Florida governor asked.
A parade of other candidates criticized Trump as well. Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, seemed exasperated by it all, at one point snapping at reporters after being asked several Trump-related questions. "I'm running for president," he said. "I'm not running for social media critic of somebody else who's running for president."
By Saturday evening, Trump's campaign announced that he had fired one of his top campaign consultants. Roger Stone retorted on Twitter that he'd "fired Trump," not the other way around. According to an email obtained by the Associated Press, Stone wrote to Trump, "The current controversies involving personalities and provocative media fights have reached such a high volume that it has distracted attention from your platform and overwhelmed your core message."
Trump's campaign manager said he never received that message.
Among RedState attendees, opinions varied about whether Trump should be criticized for the remark he made about Kelly. But if there was anything close to a consensus, it was that the activists still want to hear from Trump and hope that other candidates heed his rise.
"It sounds like Republicans want to cherry-pick someone as the nominee," said Jane Sacco of New Port Richey, Florida, who was angry at Erickson's decision to dump Trump. "And," she added, "they want everyone to fall in line."
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.
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Bill Barrow, The Associated Press