AMES, Iowa—Donald Trump blustered his way into more trouble as his feud with a Republican Party elder turned decidedly nasty on Saturday, overshadowing fellow presidential candidates promoting their conservative 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 ISIS 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 to listen to the candidates less than seven months before the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Trump overshadowed a more substantive conversation by heaping fresh criticism on a well-respected GOP leader. It was the latest example of the reality television star’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 Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, 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.
The comment drew some boos from the audience and an even more aggressive response from national Republican leaders who fear that Trump is damaging their party’s brand.
A spokesman for McCain, Brian Rogers, declined to comment when asked about Trump’s remarks.
Yet former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the comment makes 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.
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.”
Only then, Rubio said, should voters support granting a “work permit, or something like that” to immigrants who have been in the country illegally for a significant period of time, pay taxes and a fine, and haven’t “otherwise violated the law.”
Rubio’s position, like most of his party’s 2016 contenders, moves further away from GOP leaders’ previous calls to embrace comprehensive immigration changes 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.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a conservative favorite, said he was skeptical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago. On the Islamic State group, however, Carson said there was a “strong likelihood” that American ground forces would be necessary to contain the threat.
“I would send ground troops if I needed ground troops in order to take the land,” Carson said. “You’re not going to take the land without troops.”
While not addressing ground forces, Rubio charged that, “ISIS is someone we can humiliate,” using an alternative acronym for the group.
“We need to subject them to high-profile humiliating defeats that we broadcast and advertise to the world,” he continued. “We have won propaganda wars before.”
The conversation came as evangelical voters eye their options in an extraordinarily crowded Republican presidential contest. There are already 15 high-profile contenders in the race, while two more are expected to join by the month’s end.
Iowa’s evangelical voters traditionally hold great sway in the state caucuses, which are expected for the first week in February. Christian conservatives backed the winners of the last two caucuses, Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, but neither became their party’s nominee.
Former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said it was likely too early for a leader to emerge among Christian conservatives. He also noted that some of the candidates may have a wider draw.
“Not only are there considerable options within the Christian conservative lane, but there are also those in that lane that demonstrate appeal to a broader base,” he said.
Indeed, muscular policies on immigration and foreign policy are often popular among the GOP’s most passionate voters — as is a commitment to Christian values.
“I go to church. And I love God,” Trump said. “I’m a religious person. … People are so shocked when they find this out.”