The debate-night clash between Donald Trump and Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly spilled offstage and onto Twitter, television and the campaign trail Friday, as Republicans wondered whether the seemingly unstoppable celebrity-candidate had met his match — not in a fellow contender, but in a popular news anchor.
At the heart of the dispute between the unlikely front-runner for the GOP nomination for president and the television host trusted among conservatives was Trump's treatment of women — and Kelly in particular.
One of three moderators in the first Republican primary debate, Kelly asked Trump arguably the most pointed question of the night when she inquired about his habit of aiming insults at women he doesn't like. Trump groused about the question on stage — in front a debate-record 24 million viewers — and off, complaining on Twitter in the wee hours Friday morning.
"Fox viewers give low marks to bimbo @MegynKelly will consider other programs!" read a comment from one defender. Trump retweeted it to his 3.5 million followers.
It was not clear whether Trump meant to be ironic. His campaign did not respond to a request to comment.
But it was clear during the debate that Trump was displeased with Kelly noting he had called women "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals" and once made suggestive comments to a contestant on his reality TV show. He denied the remarks and made a joke — then took aim at Kelly. He said he'd been nice to her, "although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that."
The apparent threat and subsequent endorsement of a personal attack marked another key point in Trump's tumultuous campaign. Yet again, the real estate mogul said something that under conventional rules of politics would send a candidate to the dustbin. Yet again, Republicans who'd long hoped his candidacy would collapse began to predict that this would be the last straw.
Late Friday night, Trump attacked Kelly once more, complaining in a CNN interview about her question. "She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions," Trump said. "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base."
This comment had consequences.
It cost Trump his invitation to the RedState Gathering of conservative activists in Atlanta, where he was to join a tailgate event Saturday night at the College Football Hall of Fame.
"While I have tried to give him great latitude, his remark about Megyn Kelly was a bridge too far," RedState founder Erick Erickson tweeted. He later said he had invited Kelly instead and predicted doom for Trump's candidacy. A spokesman for Trump retorted that the campaign would hold an event elsewhere, capping the roller-coaster day of fallout from his verbal assaults on Kelly.
"It's clear that he has a very disrespectful and sort of misogynist attitude toward women," said Katie Packer Gage, a GOP strategist and deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid. Packer Gage said she saw Trump's response to Kelly on stage as "almost menacing."
"He's going to pay a price with Republican primary voters. I think most of them are going to come down on Team Megyn," she said.
Speaking to reporters earlier at RedState, GOP candidate Carly Fiorina called Trump's comments about women "inappropriate."
"Anybody who paints with a broad brush, calls people names — it's not helpful to our political process," said Fiorina, who appeared in an early debate Thursday for candidates who didn't poll well enough to qualify for the prime-time spectacle.
Packer Gage and others acknowledged that Trump might not feel an immediate blow. Since announcing his bid in June, he's said many Mexican immigrants are rapists and has derided the war record of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war. Trump's lawyer has threatened a reporter with ruin and asserted that it's impossible to rape one's spouse.
Through all of that, Trump's national poll numbers remained solid. Polls show him winning roughly 20% of likely GOP primary voters nationwide, putting him well ahead of any of the other 16 candidates in the field.
Whether the debate turmoil will snowball into more may depend on three factors: how broadly the dispute with Kelly circulates, whether it's seen as part of a pattern of behavior and whether Republican women begin to believe Trump's disparaging comments are about them, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
Awareness of the dispute is undeniably huge. The Fox News debate in Cleveland garnered three times the audience of any previous primary debate. And it notched a record for the highest-rated nonsports program on basic cable, according to Nielsen. That's more than the average for an episode of HBO's "Game of Thrones" or a "Sunday Night Football" game.
Much of that audience was probably tuning in to see Trump and his filterless rants against politics as usual. The style has won praise from conservative Republican voters tired of traditional candidates and platitudes. But it's also gotten Trump in trouble in the past.
Although Trump suggested Friday that Kelly had her facts wrong — "I don't recognize those words" — past comments from a man who lives in the spotlight are easy to find.
In 2006, while feuding with Rosie O'Donnell, who was then hosting a talk show, Trump called her a "fat pig" and a "slob." He'd called a Miami lawyer "disgusting" after she asked to pump breast milk, according to a deposition transcript cited in the New York Times last month. In 2011, the newspaper's columnist Gail Collins wrote that Trump, angry about a column, sent her a copy with the words "The Face of a Dog!" written over her photo.
And on an episode of "Celebrity Apprentice" in 2013, Trump listened to a story about contestant Brande Roderick, an actress and former Playmate, and picked up on one line. "Excuse me, you dropped to your knees?" he asked Roderick. "Must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees."
Hall Jamieson compared Trump's use of vulgar language to that of Rush Limbaugh, another conservative celebrity who has faced criticism for statements about women. Like Trump, Limbaugh has tried to suggest that his comments were jokes, but also railed against "political correctness," Hall Jamieson noted.
The latter tends to win sympathy among conservative women already poised to believe that a liberal language police is stifling free speech. But that sympathy tends to run out when women — and men — start seeing themselves as the targets, Hall Jamieson said.
"It alienates men who imagine it's about their daughters and their wives," Hall Jamieson said. "They hear their daughters and wives being disparaged."
That's where Trump taking on Megyn Kelly gets risky. As a leading face on the leading network for conservatives, Kelly isn't easily going to be pegged as carrying a liberal agenda. Tearing into Kelly may be worse than ripping into McCain, Packer Gage suggested.
"Republican primary voters like Megyn Kelly probably a lot more than they like John McCain," she said.
Deborah Doolittle of McDonough, Ga., was one GOP voter who found herself turned off by Trump after his back-and-forth with Kelly. He sounded "caustic," she said Friday at the RedState Gathering.
"If you're going to be able to dish it out, then you need to be a little bit thicker-skinned and not be so quick to take offense," Doolittle said. "I don't want him to be so presidential that we're too afraid to call a spade a spade. But at the same time, take a breath, count to five, and then make your point."