Donald Trump has stirred up new controversy after he criticised the Republicans’ 2008 presidential nominee, saying John McCain was a “war hero because he was captured” during the Vietnam war.
Speaking at a conference of religious conservatives, Mr Trump was pressed on his recent description of Mr McCain as “a dummy” who graduated at the bottom of his class at the US Naval Academy.
Mr Trump’s criticism came after Mr 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.
Mr McCain was 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.
Mr Trump said Mr McCain “is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured”. The comment drew some boos from the audience.
Mr Trump was among 10 Republican presidential hopefuls seeking to woo several thousand socially conservative evangelical voters at the annual Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa.
No one seeking the Republican nomination has emerged as a clear favourite among evangelical voters in the state.
Social conservatives play a key role on the Republican side in the lead-off Iowa caucuses, which serve to winnow the presidential field. Christian conservatives backed the winners of the last two Republican caucuses, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in 2012, but neither was the eventual nominee.
During a news conference after his appearance, Mr Trump did not apologise but tried to clarify his remarks about Mr 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.”
Mr Trump said he avoided service in the Vietnam war through student deferments and a medical deferment, then said he did not serve because “I was not a big fan of the Vietnam war”. He added he was not an anti-war protester.
Several national polls show Mr Trump leading the crowded Republican presidential field – with 15 candidates and counting – with former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin governor 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 Mr McCain drew rapid criticism from other 2016 Republican hopefuls. In a statement, former Texas governor Rick Perry said the remarks make Mr Trump “unfit to be commander-in-chief”.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush tweeted: “Enough with the slanderous attacks. @SenJohnMcCain and all our veterans – particularly POWs have earned our respect and admiration.”
When pressed, Mr Trump again refused to apologise for his recent description of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals”. Instead, he said he was “so proud of the fact that I got a dialogue started on illegal immigration”.