Donald Trump says he loves women — but polls increasingly show they don't love him back.
A new Gallup tracking survey out Friday revealed 70 percent of women nationwide had a negative opinion of Trump. He splits Republican women in that same survey, with half each viewing him positively and negatively.
But North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, the first congresswoman to endorse the GOP frontrunner, is confident Trump can still appeal to women, if he sticks to what he knows.
"Women want to see someone who is a problem-solver and who is solutions-oriented," she said in a phone interview on Wednesday. "I don't think he needs to change his message for women…because every issue is a women's issue."
Ellmers should know — she's made GOP outreach to women a top priority during her time in Congress, serving as one of the chairwomen of the Republican Women's Policy Committee and counseling other members of her party on how to communicate with female voters.
The GOP has long faced challenges in wooing female voters — an 11-point advantage with women helped drive Obama to a win over GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, and the RNC emphasized outreach to female voters as a key priority in its postmortem report on the election.
And Trump, some Republicans worry, could exacerbate that deficit if he becomes the nominee because of a long string of controversial comments he's made about women, culminating this week in remarks he made at an MSNBC town hall initially expressing support for punishing women who receive abortions if the procedure is outlawed.
His remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism and Trump quickly walked that stance back, issuing a statement within hours saying the abortionist would be held legally responsible, not the woman, who "is a victim in this case."
Ellmers' initial conversation with NBC News took place on Wednesday, before the latest controversy developed. But in an exclusive statement issued after Trump made his comments on abortion, the congresswoman distanced herself from the remarks.
"As a mother and someone who is a 100 percent pro-life, I have consistently fought to ensure the safety of the mother and the unborn," she said. "It has always been the goal within the pro-life community to end abortion altogether, but it's equally important that the focus remain on the woman and her child. Throughout this discussion, we need to be focused on compassionate outcomes as opposed to punishment."
The abortion controversy came just days after Trump drew flack for threatening opponent Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi, over Twitter, sparking a feud between the two that carried over into the weekend with the release of a National Enquirer report that alleged Cruz had multiple affairs.
On Wednesday, Ellmers said both Cruz and Trump should leave families out of politics.
"I think that both of them need to walk away from any of those kinds of discussions. I personally feel that families should be off-limits," she said.
And she acknowledged that his controversial comments are "certainly…something that women are going to consider" when evaluating Trump — and suggested Trump might want to watch what he says.
"There are many women who are undecided out there and he will have to work to gain their support. I would be careful about what I say — but I wouldn't change my message," Ellmers said.
Still, she insisted that his strength on the issues would trump Trump's rhetoric.
"Women are seeing the threat of ISIS and terrorism, and the fact we're not fixing healthcare the way we should, and that the economy is still struggling," she said. "Where some of these issues would've been a distraction in a race, I don't think they necessarily are now."
Ellmers readily admits Trump wasn't her first choice — she previously expressed support for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. But she came around to him, she said, after talking with men and women in her district and realizing that Trump enjoyed strong support back home, where he won the state's GOP primary with more than 40 percent of the vote.
From those conversations, she found that "people really feel like [Trump] can relate to and understands their difficulties." And women in particular appreciated that Trump wanted to go to Washington and uproot the "good old boy network" that pervades Washington.
"Women are tired of business as usual, the good old boy network. They're looking for someone who hasn't had experience in politics to come in and shake things up."
Ellmers told him much of this during his meeting on Capitol Hill with lawmakers and other Washington insiders last week, emphasizing, she said, that "women are 53 percent of the vote" and telling Trump that she believes they'll be key to electing the next president. And she came away from the meeting surprised.
"I had never met him before. I found him to be very personable and very engaging, and I think the more he shows that personality in a debate situation or as he's out campaigning, it will be beneficial to him," she said.