FREDERICK, Md. — The Republican presidential race turned into a bathroom brawl Thursday as Donald Trump blasted conservatives’ push to restrict bathroom access based on gender and his chief rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, said Mr. Trump was caving to politically correct “nonsense.”
Just days after he took major strides toward the Republican nomination with his New York primary win, Mr. Trump defied the party’s orthodoxy on gay rights and abortion, saying he would weaken the pro-life language in the party’s platform.
The billionaire businessman told NBC that he “absolutely” wants to include exceptions for rape and incest in the platform’s pro-life stance, which currently says the “unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”
In the same town hall interview, Mr. Trump also said he disagreed with laws barring people from using public restrooms of the opposite sex.
North Carolina, he said, is “paying a big price” for its recently enacted law.
“There have been very few complaints the way it is,” Mr. Trump said. “People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble, and the problem with what happened in North Carolina is the strife and the economic punishment that they’re taking. So I would say that’s probably the best way.”
His comments rocketed around the Internet and sparked a fierce backlash from social conservative leaders.
“He said he thought men should be able to go into the girls’ bathroom if they want,” scoffed Mr. Cruz. “Let me ask you, have we gone stark-raving mad? This is political correctness. This is nonsense.”
He mocked Mr. Trump by saying he expected the Republican front-runner to change his slogan from “Make America Great Again” to “Make America PC Again.”
Pro-life group Live Action blasted Mr. Trump for his comments, saying abortion is wrong regardless of how the child is conceived.
“If you are pro-life, you can’t say certain lives are less worthy or don’t deserve protection because of how they are conceived,” Lila Rose, president of Live Action, said in a statement. “To say children conceived in rape are somehow less human and shouldn’t be allowed to live is a grave injustice.”
It wasn’t the first time Mr. Trump alienated social conservatives. Last month, the billionaire businessman said at an MSNBC town hall meeting that women who get illegal abortions should be “punished,” breaking with the long-standing pro-life position that abortion doctors alone should be held accountable under law.
Mr. Trump quickly retracted his “punishment” statement amid severe backlash from both pro-life and pro-choice forces. But this time, Mr. Trump showed no sign of moderating his views on transgender bathroom use.
States across the country are grappling with the bathroom issue, and Republican governors find themselves in the crosshairs as they debate whether to restrict transgender people from using restrooms of the sex with which they identify rather than the one that corresponds to their gender at birth.
North Carolina is facing economic boycotts for its legislation. The governor has issued an executive order trying to limit the potential scope of the law’s effects, but the outcry has not diminished.
Mr. Trump’s comments reverberate beyond the bathroom dispute, though, feeding a broader fear among Republicans that the businessman and reality television star has been playing voters and will turn on them once he secures the party’s nomination.
“What else is he willing to compromise? There are some things you don’t compromise,” said Mary Anthony, 50, a homemaker who attended the Cruz rally in a theater in Frederick.
She said Mr. Trump’s statements supporting transgender bathroom use were “an outward indicator of an inward moral condition.”
“This is horrible. This is jeopardizing little girls. Anyone can use that [transgender] title to get in there,” she said. “As a woman, I don’t appreciate that. It’s morally wrong.”
Mr. Trump leads in polling and is expected to win in the five states that vote Tuesday. But his path to the nomination could falter a week later in Indiana, where conservatives are hoping to rebuild the coalition that delivered Wisconsin to Mr. Cruz this month.
“Transgender individuals just want to use the bathroom like everyone else, not commit crimes,” said DNC spokesperson T.J. Helmstetter. “It’s straight out of the right-wing attack-dog playbook to confuse and conflate the issue of equality with unfounded scare tactics and lies.”
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