By Maggie Haberman – – – – –
From his home at Mar-a-Lago, Donald J. Trump stirred up new controversy this week in the Republican presidential primary — and new alarm among party leaders that the front-runner for the nomination will drive away women from candidates running farther down the ballot in the fall.
All last week, Mr. Trump has slowly escalated a war of words on Twitter against Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, his main competition in the Republican race, based on an ad by a “super PAC” started by people who want to stop the New York developer from getting the nomination. The spot featured an old nude photo shoot of Mr. Trump’s wife Melania Trump, a former model, posing on his jet.
Mr. Cruz has no affiliation with the super PAC, and he has denounced the ad. But Mr. Trump has continued to express disbelief. After threatening to “spill the beans” on Mr. Cruz’s wife, Heidi Cruz, who suffered a bout of depression years ago, he retweeted a post from someone who made a side-by-side photo comparison of Mrs. Cruz at an unflattering angle, and Mrs. Trump.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cruz repeatedly quoted from the movie “The American President” to defend his wife, as she held an event and faced questions about Mr. Trump’s threats. But that was before Mr. Trump’s Twitter post with the pictures of the two women. And Mr. Cruz had finally had enough.
Calling Mr. Trump a “sniveling coward,” Mr. Cruz told his rival to “leave Heidi the hell alone.”
It’s useful to remember the news media outrage in 2012 when Todd Akin, running as the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri, defended what he called “legitimate rape,” a remark that was overwhelmingly offensive to women. Under pressure from news outlets, the Republican Party tried to cauterize the wound that Mr. Akin had created by isolating him.
Spouses are generally seen as off limits. And the responses to Mr. Trump’s comments among news media critics, over time, have been far more subdued.