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Trump Takes A Shot At John McCain, And Republicans Push Back

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In American presidential politics, a single utterance, a single moment can set off a firestorm. That's what happened this weekend in Iowa.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And at the center of it all was Donald Trump. Trump has been sparring for a few weeks with U.S. Sen. John McCain over immigration and Trump's description of Mexican immigrants as rapists. McCain referred to Trump's supporters as, quote, "crazies."

MONTAGNE: So in Iowa Saturday, Trump was again attacking McCain when the moderator interjected that McCain is a war hero who spent five and a half years as a POW in Vietnam. Trump responded that McCain is not a hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: He's not a war hero.

FRANK LUNTZ: He's a war hero.

TRUMP: He's a war hero...

LUNTZ: Five and a half years...

TRUMP: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK? I hate to tell you.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: And that's Donald Trump. John McCain told MSNBC this morning that Trump owes him no apology.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MCCAIN: But I think he may owe an apology to the families and - of those who have sacrificed in conflict and those who have undergone the prison experience in serving their country.

MONTAGNE: Over the weekend, reaction from Republican candidates was swift. And that's where NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea picks up the story.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was supposed to be a big Iowa campaign weekend. Ten GOP hopefuls were appearing at a forum sponsored by the evangelical group the Family Leader. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was finishing up his first week as an official candidate, traversing the state in a Winnebago RV.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Governor, welcome back to (unintelligible). We have a little warm weather for you today.

GONYEA: But once Trump made his remarks halfway across the state in Ames Saturday morning, Walker had to adapt the top of his speech in the parking lot of the party headquarters in Sioux City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT WALKER: I want to be clear about something - I won't say who, but somebody else raised a question about John McCain today. I'm not going to comment on his policies. I just want to say something unequivocally; John McCain is an American hero.

GONYEA: Walker then told reporters that Trump needs to apologize to McCain and to all veterans. Meanwhile in Ames, in the same auditorium where Trump had stirred things up, one by one, other candidates reacted. Here's former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK PERRY: As an individual who has worn the uniform of this country, I was highly offended what Donald Trump said about John McCain and his years of sacrifice in a dirty, dingy, terrible prison in North Vietnam.

GONYEA: Perry said Trump is not qualified to be a candidate or commander-in-chief. Moments later, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke of his close friendship with Senator McCain. Then moderator Frank Luntz asked Graham this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUNTZ: If he does not apologize to Sen. McCain, does that disqualify, in your mind, Donald Trump from being a candidate?

LINDSEY GRAHAM: I believe in democracy, don't you?

GONYEA: Graham said the people in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will sort this out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAHAM: And here's what I think they're going to say - Donald Trump, you're fired.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: There was a flurry of tweets from the other GOP presidential hopefuls calling McCain a hero. Jeb Bush wasn't in Iowa, but his posting called Trump's remarks slanderous. Offensive was the word Sen. Marco Rubio used. At the event in Ames, Sen. Ted Cruz also lauded McCain, but he declined to attack Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: You know, I recognize that folks in the press love to see Republican-on-Republican violence. And so you want me to say something bad about Donald Trump or bad about John McCain or bad about anyone else. I'm not going to do it.

GONYEA: Then yesterday, less than 24 hours after his first remarks, Trump himself was on Sunday morning television. He didn't back down. On ABC's "This Week" program, Trump was clearly perturbed that some many have rushed to Sen. McCain's defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

TRUMP: Hey, look, when people attack me, I, you know, let them have it back. 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. You know, my hair is just fine, but I don't see you coming to my defense. But if I say something about somebody else...

GONYEA: So a strange weekend for the campaign, but perhaps a significant one as well if it leads the other Republican candidates to do what they've been slow to do so far - go after Trump and his record, rather than treating him as little more than a sideshow. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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