Ft. Pierce, Fla. – The race for the White House took another surreal turn Friday, with Donald Trump inviting supporters to find a “sex tape” of a former beauty queen who has fast become a symbol of Hillary Clinton’s narrative that the Republican is unfit for the presidency.
Clinton criticized Trump’s “strongman approach” at a campaign stop in this seaside town in Florida and later called the New York businessman’s Twitter tirade “unhinged – even for him.”
“I mean, really, who gets up at 3 in the morning to engage in a Twitter attack against a former Miss Universe?” Clinton said.
She was referring to a spate of tweets from Trump targeting Alicia Machado, the 1996 winner of the pageant he once owned. He rattled off a series of tweets early Friday, starting at 3:20 a.m., that claimed without evidence there was a pornographic video involving Machado and that Clinton was “duped and used by my worst Miss U.”
“Hillary floated her as an ‘angel’ without checking her past, which is terrible!” he tweeted.
Clinton invoked Machado at Monday’s debate at Hofstra University, assailing the New York businessman for calling her “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” after she won the pageant he once owned. A visibly frustrated Trump hasn’t been able to overcome the attack since – and he and his top allies have refused to back down.
The squabbling over Machado comes as polls show a tight race with less than six weeks left to go, with one survey staking her to a 4-point lead in Florida. Barack Obama swept the Sunshine State in 2008 and 2012, and both candidates have crisscrossed this sun-soaked stretch in southeast Florida trying to jolt their supporters and sway skeptical holdouts.
“The world is watching,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents a string of beachside communities stretching north from Ft. Lauderdale. “No matter what the polls say, this race is going to be close. Florida is ground zero.”
Fact-checkers have found no evidence that Machado, who has posed nude in Playboy, has appeared in pornographic videos. On her Instagram account, she wrote in Spanish that Trump was “reviving defamations and false accusations about my life” and urged women to rally around Clinton.
Trump on Friday afternoon defended himself against critics who mocked his early-morning tweets, posting that voters will at least “know I will be there, awake, to answer the call!”
Clinton’s campaign has been eager to forcefully push Machado into the conversation, particularly as she tries to appeal to undecided college-educated women torn over the race.
“Let’s face it: We don’t say to guys you need to lose 60 pounds,” said Eileen Riordan, a former federal staffer from nearby Port St. Lucie. “Think of the world’s leaders, when they see this. The world is watching us, and this is an embarrassment.”
The Republican’s allies, too, are frustrated that Trump hasn’t let up on his attacks.
“It’s a non-issue. He should be talking about the economy,” said Bill Sekscenski, a retiree from Port St. Lucie. “He’s got to have better control of what he says. But anybody who is in business like that surrounds himself with good advisers.”
And Gingrich told Fox News late Thursday he was concerned Trump’s rhetoric – and his threats to bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities at the next presidential debate – could jeopardize his chances.
“If it’s he-said-she-said, and it’s a personality thing, she has a fair chance of winning,” said Gingrich. “She has zero chance of winning if Trump can discipline himself and run this at a very high level.”
At Friday’s Clinton rally at an historic theater, many were quick to invoke Trump’s late-night tweets berating Machado. Among them was Brooke McMahan, who won a string of local beauty pageants and sported a “Hillary 2016” sash.
“He continually degrades women. He doesn’t respect us at all,” said McMahan. “We work hard to achieve what we’ve achieved and he looks at us as people who are all about our appearance, and not our intelligence. It’s offensive.”