Donald Trump is facing a damaging media narrative just as he seemed to be in a position to wrap up the Republican race.
The sharks are circling in the campaign water, sensing blood from a series of controversies that his critics want to define him.
And it’s happening in the final stretch before Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary, which a Fox Business poll yesterday says Ted Cruz is leading over Trump, 42 to 32 percent, with John Kasich at 19.
Trump insists he respects women, and he has promoted many of them at his company. But complaints about his language began to pick up again when he attacked Megyn Kelly as “sick” and “crazy.”
Then the Corey Lewandowski story exploded.
The decision by Florida police to charge Trump’s campaign manager with a misdemeanor for manhandling former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields produced a tsunami of media coverage. The campaign insists that Lewandowski did nothing wrong.
But what upset some folks is Trump’s dismissive comments about Fields, questioning her account of how her arm got bruised, reading from her statement in a dramatic voice, and musing about whether he should sue her because she touched him in attempting to questioning him (and was armed with a pen).
Now 16 conservative female commentators (including Fox’s Dana Loesch, Katie Pavlich and Meghan McCain and CNN’s S.E. Cupp and Mary Katharine Ham) have signed a petition urging Trump to fire Lewandowski. Whether or not they shot themselves in the foot in terms of future coverage, as Greta Van Susteren says, the move underscored how Trump is on the defensive.
Next came the major misstep on abortion.
Trump was in an MSNBC town hall with Chris Matthews, who’s a pretty aggressive interviewer when he’s sitting down with Republicans. Asked about his pro-life views, Trump said that if abortion were illegal, women who undergo the procedure should be punished. That set off shock waves, as even the leading pro-life groups don’t take this position.
Trump’s campaign quickly issued a statement in which he backed off, saying that if abortion were outlawed, it is doctors who perform them, not female patients, who should be punished.
All this has led to a spate of stories such as this one from ABC: “Donald Trump's Growing Problem With Women and What It Means for the GOP.” And the billionaire faces a huge gender gap in the polls.
The mistake also fuels another media narrative that could be equally harmful to Trump: that he hasn’t thought through the issues. And abortion, as opposed to, say, the role of NATO, is a hot-button subject for both pro-choice liberals and pro-life conservatives.
Trump made the mistake in part because he’s not a polished politician. Candidates who had run for office before would have a carefully calibrated response emblazoned on their brain. They also would have parried Matthews by refusing to answer a hypothetical, or pivoted to the importance of naming the next Supreme Court justice, or something.
Trump just says what he thinks, political correctness be damned, and that is at the heart of his appeal. This approach, as we have seen this week, can also get him into trouble.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.