WASHINGTON — Now, finally, Donald Trump might have thrown cold water on his own white-hot summer surge to the top of the Republican presidential primary field.
The real estate mogul’s attacks on Fox News host Megyn Kelly, his steadfast decision to lash out at anybody who questioned him, and yet another high profile HR departure from his campaign has led some GOP operatives to predict that Trump will finally face a backlash from voters who have until now tolerated his bombastic comments out of an appreciation for his willingness to rage against the political machine.
At least, some political strategists think so.
But like one of the summer’s other great cliffhangers, no one can really be sure.
“This is like wondering whether Jon Snow is really dead in ‘Game of Thrones.’ Every time I think I understand it, it changes,” said New Hampshire Republican strategist Tom Rath, comparing the Trump campaign’s future — or lack thereof — to the not-so-certain recent death of a lead character in the HBO series.
Trump sparked his latest controversy Friday night by declaring that Kelly, one of the three moderators of Thursday night’s first Republican presidential debate of 2016’s primary season, “had blood coming out of her nose; blood coming out of her — whatever,” because she had grilled him over his history of derogatory comments aimed at women. Many of his opponents took it as a reference to menstruation.
In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Trump characteristically refused to give an inch, saying he wouldn’t apologize and he’d meant nothing of the sort. “Only a sick person would even think about that,” he said.
The attack on Kelly — a revered figure on the right — has again ignited worries among party leaders that the presidential campaign is handing Democrats opportunities to reprise their 2012 playbook and accuse Republicans of waging a war on women.
It comes days after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made his own blunder, questioning — mistakenly, he later said — whether the United States should spend as much as it does on women’s health, as he attacked Planned Parenthood.
Bush himself raised those concerns about Trump on Saturday.
“Come on. Give me a break. I mean, do we want to win? Do we want to insult 53% of all voters?” Bush said. “What Donald Trump said is wrong. That is not how we win elections.”
Trump’s standing had improved in recent weeks among conservatives, but some operatives predicted that he’ll be hurt by his latest remarks because they will raise questions even among his loyal supporters about whether he has the temperament necessary to win a general election.
“Politicians have survived plenty of unfortunate statements and events, but Trump is turning his greatest asset into a weakness. Flippant comments eventually catch up with you,” said Pete Seat, a former aide to President George W. Bush.
In a reference to gifts that politicians typically log on campaign finance disclosures, Seat said: “What he is achieving is making considerable in-kind contributions to Hillary Clinton through his comments.”
This, though, is far from the first round of speculation about Trump’s demise.
First his declaration that many undocumented Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “killers” sparked backlash from a party fearful of losing the Latino vote. Then his questioning of the hero status of McCain, a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam, led top GOP officials to ask him to tone it down. Yet each time, Trump’s poll numbers climbed higher.
“Trump has been declared dead so many times that he must feel like Huck Finn at his own funeral,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 Republican presidential campaign.
“The fact is, he’s not going away. He defies the normal political laws of gravity,” Fehrnstrom said. “He may go up and down in the polls but he will be there when the first voting takes place in February. The rest of the field is going to have to get used to him and make their adjustments.”
That view isn’t unanimous, however.
While attacking McCain is “very, very popular for conservatives,” going after Kelly is a different story, said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, a veteran of McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“If you can’t handle Megyn Kelly, how are you going to handle Hillary Clinton?” he said. “It’s not the comments per se. It’s more the thin-skinned tantrum that he threw afterwards. And that is what is less presidential.”
On Sunday, Trump blamed his Republican presidential opponents for fanning the flames of controversy, and claimed he meant to refer to her “nose and/or ears” — not a woman’s period.
In the hours after the interview, Trump also attacked on twitter former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only woman running in the 17-person Republican presidential primary field.
“I just realized that if you listen to Carly Fiorina for more than ten minutes straight, you develop a massive headache. She has zero chance!” Trump tweeted.
Trump attacked several other Republicans who have criticized his remarks about Kelly.
He pointed to Bush’s gaffe over women’s health funding last week, saying he “came out horribly” and that the comment “will go down to haunt him and be the same as Romney’s ‘47%.'”
Of blogger Erick Erickson’s decision to revoke Trump’s invitation to the weekend’s conservative RedState Gathering, Trump said Sunday: “This guy’s a loser. He’s backed so many candidates who have lost.”
He even said he’s gotten the better of his attacks on Kelly, which stemmed from her question during Thursday night’s debate about Trump using words like “pigs” to describe women.
“I have nothing against Megyn Kelly. I think her question was extremely unfair to me — her whole question was unfair to me. … On social media, I’m the one that’s beloved,” Trump said.
His attacks come as Trump has gone, in the span of 72 hours, from the surging front-runner to the public face of a campaign in turmoil.
Trump’s campaign said Saturday it had fired top political adviser Roger Stone — who promptly denied being let go and insisted he had quit. The back-and-forth over Stone, coming at the same time as the Kelly controversy, fueled a sense of growing tumult surrounding Trump’s campaign, which recently cut ties with two men accused of writing inflammatory Facebook posts.
The back-and-forth over Stone, who provided CNN with what he said was his resignation letter as Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski insisted that Trump’s team never saw the letter, highlighted the campaign’s seeming lack of veteran political advisers.
And the letter from Stone, a former Richard Nixon aide who helped the campaign with debate preparations, also highlights concerns similar to those national Republican leaders have expressed over how the real estate mogul’s rise in the polls has proven a distraction from the 2016 race’s key policy debates.
“Unfortunately, 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. With this current direction of the candidacy, I no longer can remain involved in your campaign,” Stone’s letter to Trump says.