NEW YORK • America's extraordinary presidential campaign has descended to new lows, with the front runner for the Republican nomination, billionaire Donald Trump, and his main rival Ted Cruz escalating their feud and taking to social media to clash over their wives.
Their bitter battle, featuring taunts and insults and likened to playground fights, is alarming Republicans about their party's ability to win over women, especially as the likely Democratic nominee is Mrs Hillary Clinton, who is vying to be the country's first female president.
Hostilities hit a new high last Friday when Mr Cruz accused Mr Trump and "his henchmen" of stoking false rumours that he had cheated on his wife, Heidi.
The Texas senator angrily slammed as "garbage" allegations from a tabloid magazine that he has had five mistresses, accusing Mr Trump of concocting the explosive story.
The National Enquirer splashed the alleged scandal across the front page of its April 4 edition, screaming "It's Over For Pervy Ted".
Indecent innuendos... as well as righteous indignation – all just another week on the Republican campaign trail
Meet Melania Trump. Your next first lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.
AN AD, ISSUED BY MAKE AMERICA AWESOME, an anti-Trump group, featuring a risque photograph of Mrs Melania Trump from a 15-year-old photo shoot.
Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!
DONALD TRUMP, on Wednesday, reacting to the ad . He also retweeted an unflattering image of Mrs Heidi Cruz.
Donald, you are a snivelling coward and leave Heidi the hell alone.
TED CRUZ, on Thursday, in response to Mr Trump, for disparaging his wife.
I want to be crystal clear: These attacks are garbage. For Donald J. Trump to enlist his friends at the National Enquirer and his political henchmen to do his bidding shows you that there is no low Donald won't go.
TED CRUZ, on Friday, accusing his rival of engineering a magazine article that cited rumours alleging that he had cheated on his wife with five women.
I have no idea whether or not the cover story about Ted Cruz in this week's issue of the National Enquirer is true or not, but I had absolutely nothing to do with it.
MR TRUMP, on Friday, flatly denying having anything to do with the article.
The magazine touted "an explosive 'dirt file' on the finger-wagging conservative senator" but did not identify or quote any of the alleged mistresses in its online version.
"Let me be clear, this National Enquirer story is garbage. It is complete and utter lies," Mr Cruz told reporters as he campaigned in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
"For Donald J. Trump to enlist his friends at the National Enquirer and his political henchmen to do his bidding shows you that there is no low Donald won't go," he added on his official Facebook page.
Mr Trump denied having anything to do with the story, saying: "Ted Cruz's problem with the National Enquirer is his and his alone, and while they were right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards, and many others, I certainly hope they are not right about Lyin' Ted Cruz."
The magazine in 2007 broke the politically - and personally - damaging story of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Edwards' affair as his wife battled cancer.
Asked if he would still support Mr Trump if he emerged as the Republican nominee - something Mr Cruz has insisted he would do despite his opponent's escalating personal attacks - the senator deflected with a bite, saying: "I don't make a habit out of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my family."
In the race to amass the 1,247 delegates needed to secure the party's nomination, Mr Trump leads Mr Cruz by a margin of 739 to 465.
The war of words began earlier last week when an anti-Trump political group used a 15-year-old photograph of the tycoon's wife, Melania, a former model, lying nude in his private jet .
The angry real estate mogul hit back by posting on Twitter a photograph of his wife next to an unflattering photograph of Mr Cruz's wife, a Goldman Sachs banker. She has taken leave from work to campaign for her husband.
Mr Cruz reacted with fury. "Leave Heidi the hell alone," he hit back. "It is not acceptable for a big loud New York bully to attack my wife."
For the Democrats, the mudslinging was a gift, playing into their planned strategy to defeat Mr Trump in the November elections by portraying him as an unabashed sexist.
With this, Mrs Clinton's allies hope to sway the suburban and independent women who are expected to play an outsize role in deciding the presidential election.
Although Mrs Clinton will present herself as a protector of women, the strategy is more about maths than morality.
A recent New York Times/CBS News poll shows Mr Trump has not been popular with female voters, who favoured Mrs Clinton 55 per cent to 35 per cent for the tycoon.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE