Donald Trump tones down fight with Pope Francis

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Nobody wants to tangle with the Pope -- not even Donald Trump.

One of the more unlikely battles to ever jolt a presidential campaign emerged Thursday when Pope Francis said Trump is "not Christian" if he wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump, true to form, shot back that the pontiff's comments were "disgraceful."

But by Thursday evening, the GOP front-runner was doing something unusual: de-escalating a fight.

"I don't like fighting with the Pope," Trump said at a GOP town hall in South Carolina hosted by CNN. "I like his personality; I like what he represents."

Trump called the Pope a "wonderful guy" and blamed the day's drama on the press.

"I don't think this is a fight," Trump said. "I think he said something much softer than was originally reported by the media."

Trump added he would meet with the Pope "anytime he wants."

For someone who has built a powerhouse campaign around confrontations with everyone from Fox News' Megyn Kelly to GOP opponent Jeb Bush, Trump's change in tone was striking. So what accounts for the shift?

The obvious answer is that he doesn't want to alienate Catholic voters, who comprise about 20 percent of the American electorate and likely don't want to see politicians pontificating about their Pope. Catholics consider the Pope not only the vicar of Christ, but also the successor to St. Peter, who legendarily holds the keys to the Pearly Gates.

But, like most Popes throughout history, Francis is also a political leader.

He heads a sovereign state -- Vatican City -- and meets regularly with world powers. When the Pope made his comments about Trump's stance on illegal immigration, Francis was returning from Mexico, where he met with government leaders, including President Enrique Pena Nieto.

And the Roman Catholic Church, most especially through its bishops, takes policy positions on a wide range of issues, from abortion to combating the Zika virus.

In that sense, the Pope's remarks on Trump's proposal to deport undocumented immigrants and build a big wall between the United States and Mexico weren't terribly surprising.

Trump's rivals at the town hall largely stayed away from the brouhaha.

When asked about the controversy at the town hall, Ohio Gov. John Kasich simply said he was "pro-Pope."

"This man has brought more sense of hope and more about the do's in life than the don'ts," Kasich said, referring to the Pope. "This guy has been so humble."

Bush, who is a devout Catholic, didn't criticize the Pope's comments. But he said he personally wouldn't "question people's Christianity."

"I think that's a relationship they have with their Lord and savior and themselves. So I just don't think it's appropriate to question Donald Trump's faith," Bush said at the town hall. "He knows what his faith is."