WASHINGTON — Hours before a make-or-break presidential debate, a defiant Donald Trump unleashed an aggressive — and politically dangerous — personal attack on Democrat Hillary Clinton Sunday by seizing on unsubstantiated rape allegations levied against her husband years ago.
The pointed and unproven charge against Bill Clinton, outlined in an interview that Trump tweeted, marks a dramatic escalation of an already nasty campaign as Trump seeks to deflect fallout from his own sexually predatory comments.
The interview by the pro-Trump Breitbart website described Juanita Broderick reliving "brutal rapes." Her lawsuit against Clinton was dismissed in 2001 and criminal charges were never filed. He has denied the allegations.
Trump's approach, which foreshadows a likely debate-stage attack, threatens to undermine his already weak standing with many women. It comes as he faces unprecedented opposition from within his own party just a month before Election Day.
More than two dozen Republican office holders have declared since Friday that they will not vote for Trump. Many have called on him to step aside after his vulgar descriptions of sexual advances on women were revealed in a recording.
"I thought about years from now when my daughter Kate is old enough to know what is in those tapes and to understand what he is talking about," New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte said of her 12-year-old daughter during a press conference Sunday. "I want her to know where I stood."
Trump's task in Sunday's debate is enormous.
Even before the recording was made public, the businessman lagged behind Clinton after an undisciplined first debate. Beyond concerns about his view of women, he is struggling to overcome deep skepticism about his temperament and qualifications to be commander in chief.
Trump's focus on Bill Clinton's past was backed by top surrogate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who equated Trump's latest controversy to the actions of Hillary Clinton in the 1990s when her husband struggled through the fallout of his own sexual transgressions.
Over the objections of CNN's Jake Tapper, Giuliani insisted that Hillary Clinton "was the leader of the attack" against "the women who Bill Clinton sexually assaulted, sexually abused."
In what was billed as a videotaped apology, Trump over the weekend said "Bill Clinton has actually abused women" and Hillary Clinton "bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated" her husband's "victims."
Donna Brazile, interim head of the Democratic National Committee, said Hillary Clinton had suffered because of her husband's infidelities and noted that Bill Clinton, who was impeached, has been held accountable.
"There is no accountability for Donald Trump in the — in the ridiculous and sexist things that he has said and racist things that he has said over the past few years," she said on ABC's "This Week."
Outside Trump's small cadre of advisers, public support for the businessman was scarce among prominent Republicans this weekend.
Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, declared he could neither condone nor defend the remarks. Several other Republicans took the extraordinary step of revoking support for their party's nominee. Among them: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Ayotte — both are running for re-election — and the party's 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Trump called his detractors "self-righteous hypocrites" Sunday on Twitter: "Watch their poll numbers - and elections - go down!"
Republican leaders have scheduled a rare Monday conference call for House GOP lawmakers, who are out on recess. An email obtained by The Associated Press doesn't specify the topic, but rank-and-file lawmakers believe it's about Trump.
In the 2005 video, obtained by The Washington Post and NBC News, Trump, who was married to his current wife at the time, is heard describing attempts to have sex with a married woman. He also says that when you're a star, "you can do anything." Trump adds seconds later: "Grab them by the p----. You can do anything." He said of his impulse to kiss beautiful women: "I don't even wait."
The Republican National Committee is considering how to move forward. One possibility: redirecting its expansive political operation away from Trump and toward helping vulnerable congressional candidates. Such a move would leave Trump with virtually no political infrastructure in swing states to ensure his supporters vote.
Election law experts suggest it would be logistically impossible to replace Trump on the ballot, with early voting underway in some states and overseas ballots already distributed.
The recording almost completely overshadowed the release of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign that revealed the contents of previously secret paid speeches to Wall Street. Clinton told bankers behind closed doors that she favored "open trade." Such comments were at odds with her tough public comments.
Clinton running mate Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine deflected questions about the emails and focused on Trump.
"I think there's kind of a piece of the jigsaw puzzle missing in Donald Trump where he does not look at women and consider them as equal to himself," Kaine said on CNN.
AP writer Laurie Kellman in Washington and Kathleen Ronayne in Manchester, New Hampshire contributed to this report.