WASHINGTON (AFP) - Democratic White House frontrunner Hillary Clinton denounced her Republican rival and former supporter Donald Trump on Monday, saying he went "way overboard" in a crude verbal assault on a female journalist.
She also took issue with the rest of the broad Republican field of candidates seeking to succeed President Barack Obama, saying their stances on women's rights and health care could set back the cause for women's equality in America.
"I think the guy went way overboard - offensive, outrageous. Pick your adjective," she told reporters on the campaign trail in New Hampshire.
Mr Trump sparked a furor when he suggested that popular Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever" when she took a forceful line of questioning to him during last week's Republican debate.
But "while what Donald Trump said about Megyn Kelly is outrageous, what the rest of the Republicans saying about women is also outrageous", she went on, seizing the opportunity to attack other Republicans, whom she has accused of waging a war on women.
"They brag about slashing women's health care funding. They say they would force women who have been raped to carry their rapist's child," she added.
"We don't hear any of them supporting raising the minimum wage, paid leave for new parents, equal pay for women, or anything else that will help to give women a chance to get ahead."
The remarks were the strongest yet by Mrs Clinton against the brash billionaire who said he contributed hefty sums to the Clinton Foundation, called Mrs Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton, shortly before he launched his own presidential campaign, and who quipped that Hillary "didn't have a choice" but to come to his wedding.
Mr Trump has faced a firestorm of criticism for his remarks, and for doubling down by refusing to apologize to Kelly, saying: "I couldn't care less about her."
He has lambasted rivals with brutal tweets, including Ms Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive - and only Republican woman in the race - who many thought delivered the best debate performance of the 17 Republican candidates.
"I just realized that if you listen to Carly Fiorina for more than ten minutes straight, you develop a massive headache. She has zero chance!" Mr Trump tweeted.
Twitter has bitten back against Mr Trump's sexist remarks with an unorthodox anti-Trump hashtag campaign.
"@realDonaldTrump thought you should know I'm on my period. Whoa, and still completely myself and functioning," wrote literary agent Mallory Brown, using the hashtag "#periodsarenotaninsult".
Mr Trump is also facing a backlash over his crude comments and fears he could mount an independent White House run.
The trash-talking billionaire has upended the Republican campaign, refusing to apologize for his remarks on Ms Kelly.
"She should be apologizing to me," Mr Trump told MSNBC early on Monday, after appearing on several Sunday talk shows to defend his remarks.
Mr Trump insisted Washington has been consumed by political correctness, and that he brings a dose of straight talk to the White House race. But is that enough to win over America?
"There is a difference between avoiding political correctness and being a moron," Mr Brian McClung, a Republican strategist who consulted for Tim Pawlenty's 2012 presidential campaign, told AFP.
Republican candidates and leaders, Mr McClung stressed, "have to stand up and speak out against Trump's brand of stupidity".
But in the first major poll released since the fractious debate featuring Mr Trump and nine rivals, and an event with seven second-tier hopefuls, the campaign's most controversial candidate remained on top.
Mr Trump earned 19 per cent support, compared with 12 per cent for neurologist Ben Carson and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and 11 per cent for Jeb Bush, according to Public Policy Polling's survey of Republican voters in Iowa released on Monday.
Experts say The Donald is now entering a more difficult campaign period, one marked by increasing skepticism about his political intentions, deeper scrutiny of his past, and concern about Mr Trump's back-up plans.
RedState Gathering, a high-profile seminar of conservatives, disinvited Mr Trump to its weekend conference, where Mr Bush laid into the frontrunner.
"Do we want to insult 53 per cent of all voters?" Mr Bush asked at the Atlanta event.
"What Donald Trump said was wrong. That is not how we win elections."
Mr Trump signalled campaign changes are afoot, including the departure of long-time strategist Roger Stone, who reportedly urged Mr Trump to lay out a political agenda rather than focus on sniping.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr Trump said he "fired" Mr Stone, while Mr Stone said he quit because of the direction of the campaign.
"I'm going to come out with more positions," Mr Trump added, promising more policy heft.
His Republican rivals are not holding back.
Ms Fiorina, who catapulted from the back of the pack to fifth place with 10 per cent support in the PPP poll, blasted Mr Trump's "completely inappropriate and offensive comments" about Ms Kelly.
Senator Rand Paul warned Tea Party conservatives on Monday against supporting Mr Trump, declaring he simply "isn't suited to lead the country".
Sen Paul cited the real-estate mogul's previous support for Democrats, including the Clintons, and for liberal causes like abortion rights and universal health care.
"Are conservatives really willing to gamble about what Donald Trump really believes in?" Sen Paul wrote in the Independent Journal Review.
Despite the blowback, Mr McClung anticipated "a longer slog ahead" and that a Trump campaign could last until early 2016 and Iowa, which holds the first primary vote.
"That's when the Trump candidacy ends," he predicted.
Mr Brad Marston, another Republican strategist, said Mr Trump does not automatically spell disaster for the party, but he doubts the billionaire will translate his early lead into a serious candidacy.
"He would have to come out with well-thought-out, realistic policy prescriptions to back up his bombast, and I don't think he's inclined to do that," he said.
And Mr Trump's post-debate statements "disqualify him for serious consideration as our nominee", Mr Marston added, especially given how Mitt Romney lost the women's vote by 12 points to President Barack Obama in 2012.
Even if Republicans jettison Mr Trump, he could still throw a wrench in the spokes by running as an independent, something he declined to rule out during the debate.
"That could be very scary" for Republicans, Duke University associate professor Mac McCorkle told AFP.
"Even if he wears out and he's not much of a third-party threat, he may well dictate the way the campaign narratives run, and that could be very beneficial to Hillary Clinton," he added.