The Republican establishment has worried for weeks that Donald Trump — a combustible blend of media personality, business tycoon and insurgent politician — was pushing the GOP out of the mainstream and crushing its ability to expand its appeal.
When Trump unexpectedly jumped to the front of the crowded Republican field, party officials and several of his rivals remained silent even as his coarse comments about Mexican immigrants threatened to alienate the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Now, Trump’s latest comments threaten to offend military veterans and others crucial to the GOP’s chances of retaking the White House.
On Sunday, a day after impugning Arizona Sen. John McCain’s military record, Trump refused to back down and rebuffed an opportunity to apologize.
“Of course they’d love to have me do that because I’m leading the pack” in some Republican polls, Trump boasted on ABC’s “This Week.” A day earlier, Trump said McCain, a Navy pilot who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, was “only a war hero because he was captured.”
Trump did not serve in the military. He received several draft deferments.
Several thousand socially conservative activists at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa were not offended by his comments, Trump said. “I got a standing ovation, the biggest ovation they had all weekend, by far,” he told ABC. “Nobody was insulted.”
He also rejected the notion that his outbursts and confrontational language had diminished the presidential campaign or hurt the Republican Party.
“Look, when people attack me, I let them have it back,” he said. “You say physical appearance. You know, it’s my hair but people are constantly attacking my hair. I don’t see you coming to my defense. I’m — my hair is just fine, but I don’t see you coming to my defense.”
Trump kicked off his bid for the Republican nomination last month by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug smugglers, adding, “And some, I assume, are good people.”
He has also called McCain, a Republican who supported a comprehensive immigration overhaul that passed in the Senate but died in the House, “very weak on immigration.”
In turn, McCain said Trump was catering to “the crazies.”
Republican leaders have been treading warily around Trump, assuming he would quickly self-destruct on the political stage. But Trump has made clear he intends to stick around, and he has refused to rule out a possible third-party candidacy.
“I’m certainly not pulling out,” he said Sunday.
And in a few weeks, he is likely to join other Republican candidates on stage for their first debate, scheduled for Aug. 6 in Cleveland.
The Republicans’ challenge is a gift to Democrats.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, described Trump as a symptom of a deeper problem in the Republican Party.
“It’s shameful, and so is the fact that it took so long for his fellow Republican candidates to start standing up to him,” she said late Saturday. She tried to tie his views to the broader GOP field, adding, “The sad truth is, if you look at many of their policies, it can be hard to tell the difference.”
Several Republican candidates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American from Florida, were quick to criticize Trump for his harsh claims about illegal immigration.
Appearing Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Rubio said other Republicans should be “more forceful on some of these offensive things that he’s saying.”
But other candidates who are courting the GOP’s most conservative voters have moved cautiously.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin declined to rebuke Trump until Saturday, after the criticism of McCain. And Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas continued to call Trump a friend even after others began walking away.
Trump’s appeal was clear in interviews with active Republicans last week in South Carolina, which holds the third nominating contest, after Iowa and New Hampshire.
Tom Olejniczak, who is unemployed, called Trump “up front” and “honest” and said he would consider voting for him in the primary.
Hank Osborne, a civil service employee from Goose Creek, S.C., said he liked the way Trump was “shaking things up.” Kay Fekete of Charleston praised Trump’s outspokenness. Brian Grant of Charleston appreciated that “he’s not given in to criticism.”
It’s unclear how much support Trump will retain as the 2016 campaign progresses. But the warning signs are clear for the party if he continues to play a major role in the race. In a Univision poll, 71% of Latinos surveyed held an unfavorable view of Trump.
And the wider fissures he exposed could carry on without him, through other wedge issues that divide party leaders from the base.
Republicans still debate whether Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to President Obama was due to his poor performance among women, minorities and young people — as party leaders have argued — or the result of low motivation from core conservative voters, who tend to be older and white.
Last week, a presentation from a “super PAC” supporting Cruz argued in strong terms that the GOP could win only by galvanizing its most conservative voters — the people Trump and Cruz are courting.
“The establishment, however, never seems to learn that moderates don’t win,” says the document, first reported by CNN.
The document calls Romney a “terrible candidate with a terrible campaign” who lost by a combined 428,000 votes in five swing states: Ohio, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. It argues that Republicans can win the White House not only by garnering more Latino and female voters, but also by energizing the GOP’s most conservative base.
“Turn out white, married people over the age of 40 by focusing on wedge issues and targeting evangelicals,” it says.
Another group of Republicans, led by Bush, is betting that Trump and Cruz are wrong. Bush said before he entered the race this year that he would be “willing to lose the primary to win the general,” meaning he doesn’t intend to swing hard to the right and risk alienating moderate voters who can carry the fall election.