AMES, Iowa — Donald Trump blustered his way into more trouble as he criticized Sen. John McCain’s war record at a conservative forum Saturday, overshadowing fellow presidential candidates promoting their credentials to evangelical Christians.
The 10 White House hopefuls who converged on early-voting Iowa offered broad support for a crackdown on illegal immigration, a forceful approach to the Islamic State group that could include ground troops, and a devotion to Christian values.
They were vying for support from the more than 2,000 religious conservatives crowded into an Iowa sports arena at the annual Family Leadership Summit to listen to the candidates less than seven months before the Iowa caucuses kick off the state-by-state nominating contests.
Trump overshadowed a more substantive conversation by heaping fresh criticism on McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee. It was the latest example of the real estate mogul’s willingness to take on his own party, a practice that both excites his party’s most passionate conservatives and worries Republican officials.
Pressed on whether his recent criticism of McCain went too far, Trump went further.
“He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said when the moderator described McCain as a war hero. McCain spent more than five years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp after his plane was shot down.
The comment drew some boos from the audience — and quick condemnation from rivals who have been waiting for such an opening to reign in the outspoken reality television personality.
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. Despite his strong showing in the polls— which should secure him a spot in the first Republican presidential debate next month — Trump is still considered a long shot for the nomination.
Trump and McCain traded barbs earlier this week. McCain said Trump’s controversial comments about Mexican immigrants had “fired up the crazies” at a rally in Phoenix. Trump retorted that the Arizona Republican was “a dummy” who graduated at the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy.
During a news conference after his appearance, Trump did not apologize but sought to clarify his remarks.
“If a person is captured, they’re a hero as far as I’m concerned. … But you have to do other things also,” Trump said. “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, declined to comment when asked about Trump’s latest remarks.
Trump said he avoided service in the Vietnam War through student and medical deferments. He added that he did not serve because he “was not a big fan of the Vietnam War. I wasn’t a protester, but the Vietnam War was a disaster for our country.”
Trump’s comments about McCain drew rapid criticism from other 2016 hopefuls.
“As an individual who has worn the uniform of this country, I was highly offended by what Donald Trump said about John McCain and his years of sacrifice in a dirty, dingy terrible prison in North Vietnam,” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry told the audience later in the day. “Donald Trump owes every American veteran and in particular John McCain an apology.”
Bush tweeted: “Enough with the slanderous attacks. ?SenJohnMcCain and all our veterans — particularly POWs have earned our respect and admiration.”
Trump’s outsized role in the Republican presidential primary began when, during his announcement speech last month, he described Mexican immigrants as “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
“It turns out I was right,” Trump declared on Saturday, citing the recent murder of a California woman by an immigrant in the country illegally. “I am so proud of the fact that I got a dialogue started on illegal immigration.”
Trump was not alone in his hardline approach on illegal immigration.
Once a leading advocate for an immigration overhaul that included an eventual pathway to citizenship, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio focused almost exclusively on the need to crack down on immigrants in the country illegally as he addressed the conference.
“I don’t think we can make any progress on (broader immigration reform), until we bring illegal immigration under control,” Rubio said. “We have to secure our borders.”
Rubio’s position, like most of his party’s 2016 contenders, moves further away from Republican leaders’ previous calls to embrace comprehensive immigration reform heading into a presidential election where Hispanic voters are expected to play a critical role.
On foreign policy, the candidates offered an aggressive approach to the Islamic State group, whose rise has become an increasing concern for American policy makers and a focus in the Republican presidential primary.
Iowa’s evangelical voters traditionally hold great sway in the state caucuses. Christian conservatives backed the winners of the last two caucuses, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012, but neither became their party’s nominee.