ATLANTA — Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have launched into a rhetorical scrum, with the Republican front-runner eliciting a backlash that highlights his perilous standing among female voters who could help propel the likely Democratic nominee to the White House.
Trump celebrated his five-state primary sweep Tuesday by swiping at Clinton for playing "the woman's card" in her bid to become the nation's first female president, and he repeated the charge again Wednesday as he campaigned.
"She's got nothing else going," Trump told supporters in New York after primary victories in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware. "And, frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent of the vote." He added in an immediate contradiction that "the beautiful thing is women don't like her."
Clinton, herself enjoying victory in four out of five of Tuesday's Democratic primaries, retorted in Philadelphia, that "if fighting for women's health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the 'woman card,' then deal me in."
The exchange prompted the social media hashtags #womanscard and #dealmein. Many voters also circulated video of Mary Pat Christie, the wife of Trump backer and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who, standing behind Trump during his victory speech Tuesday, looked as though she was rolling her eyes at the same time as he made those comments.
Clinton's retort isn't a new line of argument; for months she's framed issues important to many female voters as matters of economic security for everyone.
But it shows Clinton would be more than willing to engage directly on matters of gender, seeking to highlight her policy and personality differences with Trump, whose long history of incendiary comments about women already have helped define his candidacy.
An anti-Trump Super PAC, financed by Republican donors, last month launched an ad in which unnamed women read aloud quotes Trump has proffered about women. "Bimbo. Dog. Fat Pig," the ad begins, with later references to Trump bemoaning "flat-chested" women and referring to "a young and beautiful piece of a--" and a woman "dropping to your knees."
In March, Trump distributed via social media an unflattering image of Heidi Cruz, Trump rival Ted Cruz's wife, prompting the Texas senator to assert that "strong women scare Donald."
Four years ago, 11 out of 13 general election swing states went to the nominee who won among women. Of those eleven, President Barack Obama, with 55 percent of the female vote nationally, won nine; Republican Mitt Romney won just two.
If she manages an even wider advantage among women than Obama, Democrats say she may get a boost in states like Pennsylvania and Colorado, casting them out of Trump's reach while allowing her to compete in GOP-leaning territory like Georgia and North Carolina.
The back-and-forth comes as Trump and Clinton solidify their nomination paths. Combining earned delegates and publicly committed super-delegates, Clinton has 90 percent of the total she needs.
Trump's path to the GOP's required 1,237-delegate majority isn't assured, but his Tuesday sweep intensifies pressure on Republican leaders who would seek to deny him the nomination during Republicans' July convention in Cleveland.
As for Trump's claim that women "don't like" Clinton, he's wrong at the very least about Democratic primary voters. Exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and television networks in 25 states this year show Clinton won 62 percent of female voters over Bernie Sanders' 36 percent.
According to a recent AP-GfK poll of the general population, 40 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion and 55 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton. Women weren't significantly more likely than men to have a favorable opinion. But for Trump, things were even worse. Just 26 percent had a favorable opinion and 69 percent had an unfavorable one, also with no significant gender gap.
Women, however, were more likely than men to say they definitely would not vote for Trump in a general election, 66 percent to 60 percent. About half of men and women said they would definitely not vote for Clinton.
Among Republicans only, primary exit polls have shown Trump facing a gender gap his last remaining rivals do not have. In the 25 states polled, Trump won 36 percent women and 44 percent of men. Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich both demonstrated consistent support across genders.