WASHINGTON (AFP) - Organisers of a Republican event withdrew frontrunner Donald Trump's invitation Saturday after he suggested that a presidential debate moderator was tough on him because she was menstruating.
The off-handed comment unleashed a new storm of criticism against Trump as he seeks the party's nomination for next year's election and leads in the polls.
The bombastic billionaire came under fire from his party after a particularly crude accusation that Fox News' Megyn Kelly - one of the moderators at Thursday's Republican presidential debate - singled him out with rough treatment.
Trump had already called out the station's moderators for asking "unfair" questions after Kelly brought up his use of derogatory language towards women in Twitter posts. Kelly asked him if this was befitting a man vying to be the US president.
But he turned up the tone Friday evening when he told CNN that Kelly "is just somebody I didn't have a lot of respect for." "You can see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever," he continued.
Those remarks prompted a prominent grassroots Republican event in Atlanta - RedState Gathering - to rescind a speaking invitation for Saturday.
"As much as I do personally like Donald Trump, his comment about Megyn Kelly on CNN is a bridge too far for me," said conservative pundit Erick Erickson, who is hosting the RedState activist event. Trump was to have spoken at it.
Meanwhile, Trump's campaign told various US media on Saturday that he sacked top political advisor Roger Stone, as the controversy churned on.
"Roger wanted to use the campaign for his own personal publicity... and Mr Trump wants to keep the focus of the campaign on how to Make America Great Again," a campaign spokesperson told CNN.
Stone, however, took issue on Twitter with that version of events.
"Sorry @realDonaldTrump didn't fire me - I fired Trump. Diasagree (sic) with diversion to food fight with @megynkelly away core issue messages," he wrote.
"I have nothing but respect for (Trump)," Stone told CNN. "He's leading 15, other experienced applications, why? Because he had a core message of taking on the system, fixing our broke immigration system. Taking on China and Mexico, redoing trade deals to bring jobs back to the country. He was a breath of fresh air. I resigned largely because I thought I was having no impact and the campaign has been diverted from those big picture issues."
The other presidential candidates, meanwhile, were only too happy to try to take political advantage of the controversy.
Carly Fiorina, the only female Republican presidential candidate, tweeted: "Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse." She later added "I stand with @megynkelly."
Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker followed suit, tweeting: "I agree with @CarlyFiorina, there's no excuse for Trump's comments. Stand with @MegynKelly." -
'Politically correct fools' -
Trump tried late Saturday to backtrack from the comment about Kelly, stating that he was not referring to the body part most people had in mind from his remark on blood.
"Re Megyn Kelly quote: 'you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever' (NOSE). Just got on w/thought," Trump tweeted.
"So many 'politically correct' fools in our country. We have to all get back to work and stop wasting time and energy on nonsense!" he also tweeted.
A statement from the Trump campaign widely cited by US media also insisted that Trump was referring to Kelly's nose, and that "only a deviant would think anything else."
The statement also called Erickson "a total loser." Apparently as part of the spin effort, Trump is now scheduled to appear Sunday on ABC television on one of the top US current events programs, "This Week."
- High viewership -
A staggering 24 million viewers tuned in to Fox News to watch the debate, and Trump was clearly a main factor.
In a brutal tweet Friday, he let the broadcaster know it.
"@FoxNews you should be ashamed of yourself. I got you the highest debate ratings in your history & you say nothing but bad," Trump tweeted to his 3.5 million followers.
The Republicans have said they plan to host eight more debates as the party whittles down its broad field and determines its flagbearer to go against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
In the meantime, Trump is sitting out the RedState summit in Atlanta, which includes appearances by Republican presidential hopefuls Fiorina, Huckabee, Walker, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush.
"@redstate I miss you all, and thanks for all of your support. Political correctness is killing our country," Trump tweeted.