Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump grappled on Thursday with the fallout from his comments on punishing women for having an abortion, including from his rivals in the race for the White House.
The billionaire businessman rowed back rapidly on Wednesday from his statement during an MSNBC town hall that women who end pregnancies should be punished if the United States bans abortion. The comments provoked a storm of rebukes from both sides of the abortion debate.
His campaign continued to address the repercussions on Thursday.
Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said his initial comments were a "simple misspeak" and that he does not support penalizing women for having abortions, even if they are illegal.
"You have a presidential candidate that clarified the record not once but twice," Pierson told CNN. She described Trump as "pro-life with exceptions" and pointed to Trump's two statements that followed the MSNBC interview as an accurate depiction of his views.
"We shouldn't make this a 24-hour headline when we have things like terrorism going on in the world," she said.
Trump, leading in the race to win the Republican Party nomination for the Nov. 8 presidential election, pulled back from his initial comments within an hour, first issuing a statement that US states should handle abortion issues and later saying doctors who perform abortions should be held responsible.
The latest controversy ignited by the New York real estate tycoon threatened to further erode his standing with women voters. Many women are already offended by the candidate's vulgarities and insulting language he has used to describe women.
Abortion was legalized in a Supreme Court ruling more than 40 years ago, but the procedure has long divided American politics.
Opposition to abortion is a central plank in the platform of most conservative politicians. While Trump has won support from Republican voters by billing himself as an outsider, he has also faced scrutiny for having once supported access to abortions.
White House rival John Kasich said on Thursday Trump's comments and subsequent shifts showed he is unfit for the presidency.
"The past 24 hours revealed in the clearest way yet that Donald Trump is not prepared to be president," the Ohio governor said in a statement. Kasich scheduled a media availability later in the day to address the Trump comments.
"Things that are coming out of Donald's mouth that are just, they're just basically irresponsible," he added on ABC.
Trump's closest rival in the Republican race, US Senator Ted Cruz, said on Wednesday said Trump had clearly not thought through the issue and later called his comments "unfortunate" and "wrong."
Trump has been largely rebuffed by the party establishment, which has been alarmed by campaign pledges such as imposing a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and building a wall along the border with Mexico.
He was expected to visit Washington on Thursday for a private meeting hosted by his top backer in the capital, US Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, three people familiar with the meeting said.