A brief exchange over a former beauty queen has become the biggest story to emerge from this week’s presidential debate, putting Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE’s campaign on the defensive with more than a month to go until the election.

Images and video of Alicia Machado, a 39-year-old soap opera actress from Venezuela, have dominated cable news since Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points MORE mentioned her name from the debate stage Monday night to accuse Trump of misogyny.

It’s the surprise development to come out of a debate that was chock-full of memorable moments and heated exchanges. 

Machado insists in interviews that she had no idea that Clinton planned to mention her from the stage. 

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Yet the Democratic nominee and her allies had clearly planned the moment, releasing a video that featured Machado roughly an hour after the debate ended.

Machado has been the focal point of the Clinton campaign this week, appearing in Spanish and English-language TV and radio ads, sitting for magazine features and cable news interviews and conducting conference calls with reporters.

The media has run with the story, which combines tabloid intrigue with presidential politics. Machado has landed prime-time interviews on CNN and Fox News Channel, and pundits are talking about the controversy obsessively on daytime news shows as video of Clinton’s attack ads roll endlessly on the screen.

In response, Trump’s supporters have sought to move the discussion back to Clinton, partly by invoking the women who have had affairs with the former first lady’s husband or accused him of rape.

But those attacks are not generating nearly the same level of attention. Meanwhile, the Machado controversy has raged for a second day, threatening to further damage Trump’s standing with the female voters and Hispanics he has struggled to reach.

To many Republicans, the misstep is more evidence that their nominee is hopelessly undisciplined as a candidate.

“It’s all part of a pattern where Trump dives into petty fights he should ignore,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye.

Machado became the subject of a media frenzy for gaining weight after winning the crown. Tabloids like the New York Daily News ran stories with headlines such as “Miss Universe is expanding.”

Trump, then the pageant’s owner, drove the fracas, inviting the press to watch Machado exercise in a gym and publicly criticizing her for putting on weight or missing contractually obligated promotional events.

“He called this woman ‘Miss Piggy,’ then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping’ because she was Latina,” Clinton said Monday night. “Donald, she has a name. Her name is Alicia Machado, and she has become a U.S. citizen, and you can bet she’s going to vote this November.”

The moment passed quickly at the debate but has exploded since, with Trump sending the controversy into overdrive in a Tuesday morning interview with Fox News in which he defended his treatment of Machado by saying she had “gained a massive amount of weight.”

The Clinton campaign promptly put Machado on a conference call with reporters, where she assailed Trump — mostly in Spanish — as a racist whose verbal abuse drove her to anorexia and bulimia.

“You can’t shake off racism, and we can’t take the risk of having such a violent, ill-tempered, sexist, misogynous person [in the White House] as this man is,” Machado said.

The Clinton campaign followed with ads in English and in Spanish showing a young Trump watching Machado as she exercised in front of the press.

“She weighed 118 pounds or 117 pounds, and she went up to 160 or 170,” the real estate tycoon says in the video. “So this is somebody who likes to eat.”

Both President Obama and first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaPoll shows Michelle Obama would lead in New Hampshire if she entered 2020 Democratic race Obamas' first Netflix project nominated for Critics' Choice Documentary Awards Maggie Rogers shares letter from 'huge fans' Barack and Michelle Obama MORE picked up on the attacks Wednesday, slamming Trump at separate events for disparaging women.

Reporters are hounding GOP members on Capitol Hill to respond to the controversy, and Democrats are using it as a cudgel against down-ballot Republicans. Even those who have disavowed Trump aren’t safe, like Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven Kirk10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable GOP senator says he doesn't remember signing 2016 letter urging 'reform' of Ukraine prosecutor's office The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (R-Ill.), among the most vulnerable senators up for reelection.

The Trump campaign is digging in against Machado, casting her as an opportunist and a liar.

“These are totally baseless and unsubstantiated claims by Ms. Machado, who lobbed a public smear campaign in order to gain notoriety at the expense of Mr. Trump’s name and reputation,” spokesman Steven Miller said in an email. 

The media spotlight for Machado is becoming hot, as the press pores over every aspect of her life.

In an interview with Megyn Kelly — a fierce critic of Trump’s treatment of women — the Fox News anchor challenged Machado on her claim that Trump had driven her to anorexia and bulimia, reading one of her quotes from a 1997 story in The Washington Post in which she said she had struggled with eating disorders before the Miss Universe pageant.

Machado denied ever saying that and accused the paper of manipulating something she had said 20 years earlier.

And media reports from the late 1990s have bubbled up — with the help of Trump allies — describing allegations that Machado drove a getaway car for her boyfriend after he attempted to murder someone at a funeral. Machado was never charged, but the judge in the case later accused her of threatening him.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Machado about the allegations on Tuesday night.

“You know I have my past, of course, everybody has a past, and I’m not a saint girl, but that is not a point now,” Machado responded. “That moment in Venezuela was wrong, was another speculation about my life because I’m a really famous person in my country because I’m an actress there … and [Trump] can use whatever he wants to use. The point is that happened 20 years ago.”

Trump has already publicly stated that he held back at the debate on some of the more embarrassing aspects of Clinton’s marriage out of respect for her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, who was in the audience. He will almost certainly retaliate against the Machado attacks by bringing those matters up at the next debate.

Speaking on MSNBC on Wednesday Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Congress set for showdown with Trump over Kurds GOP requests update on criminal referrals prompted by 2018 Kavanaugh probe MORE (R-Tenn.), a top Trump surrogate, warned: “I’m certain Hillary Clinton right now is thinking, ‘Maybe I should not have been so vindictive towards some of those women.’ ”