AMES— Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump stirred up new controversy Saturday when he criticized the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, saying Sen. John McCain was a “war hero because he was captured” during the Vietnam war.
Speaking at a conference of religious conservatives on Saturday, Trump was pressed on his recent description of McCain as “a dummy” who graduated at the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy. Trump’s criticism came after McCain told an interviewer that the businessman and reality TV personality had “fired up the crazies” with his inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants during a recent campaign rally in Phoenix.
McCain served as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. He was captured after his plane was shot down and was held for more than five years as a prisoner of war. The moderator, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, described McCain as “a war hero.”
Trump said McCain “is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” The comment drew some boos from the audience.
Trump was among 10 Republican presidential hopefuls seeking to woo several thousand socially conservative evangelical voters attending the annual Family Leadership Summit on Saturday in Ames, Iowa. No one seeking the Republican nomination has emerged as a clear favorite among evangelical voters in Iowa.
Social conservatives play a key role on the Republican side in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, which serves to winnow the presidential field. Christian conservatives backed the winners of the last two Republican caucuses, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012, but neither was the eventual nominee.
During a news conference after his appearance, Trump did not apologize but tried to clarify his remarks about McCain: “If a person is captured, they’re a hero as far as I’m concerned. I don’t like the job John McCain is doing in the Senate because he is not taking care of our veterans.”
A spokesman for McCain, Brian Rogers, said no comment when asked about Trumps remarks.
Trump said he avoided service in the Vietnam War through student deferments and a medical deferment, then said he didn’t serve because “I was not a big fan of the Vietnam war.” He added he wasn’t an anti-war protester.
Several national polls show Trump leading the crowded Republican presidential field — with 15 candidates and counting — with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also in the top tier. But despite his strong showing in the polls — which should secure him a spot in the first Republican presidential debate next month — he is still considered a long shot for the nomination.
The comments about McCain drew rapid criticism from other 2016 Republican hopefuls. In a statement, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the remarks make Trump “unfit to be commander-in-chief.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted: “Enough with the slanderous attacks. @SenJohnMcCain and all our veterans — particularly POWs have earned our respect and admiration.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were also quick to condemn the remarks.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called McCain an American war hero, but sidestepped when asked whether he would condemn Trump’s remarks.
“I recognize that folks in the press love to see Republican on Republican violence,” Cruz said. “You want me to say something bad about Donald Trump or bad about John McCain or bad about anyone else and I’m not going to do it.”
When pressed, Trump again refused to apologize for his recent description of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.” Instead, Trump said, he’s “so proud of the fact that I got a dialogue started on illegal immigration.”
Associated Press Writer Catherine Lucey in Ames, Iowa, contributed to this report.