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Republicans forced to confront Donald Trump’s challenge

Analysis: Unafraid to air controversial populist positions, mogul poses problem for candidates aiming for wider vote

Business mogul and 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump seemed to finally cross the line within his own party when, at a gathering of Christian conservatives in Iowa on Saturday, he dismissed and derided the military service of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was tortured during a five-year ordeal as a prisoner of war after being captured by the North Vietnamese in 1967.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said during an onstage interview at the event in the town of Ames. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Most of the other GOP contenders quickly registered their objections. "It's not just absurd, it's offensive. It's ridiculous. And I do think it's a disqualifier as commander-in-chief," Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said in an interview on CNN.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another 2016 candidate from a state with a large Latino population, had been a vocal critic even before Trump’s attack on McCain. “I have a message for my fellow Republicans and the independents who will be voting in the primary process: What Mr. Trump is offering is not conservatism, it is Trump-ism — a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense,” Perry said in a statement issued last Thursday.

But Trump is unbowed. He has been surging in some early polls and has refused to back down from his criticism of McCain, and the Republican establishment is worried about the damage he may be doing to the party’s brand.

“Republicans like me, we’re all wondering how much further can he go on with this vanity campaign of his,” said David Payne, a Washington-based Republican strategist. “He’s running for himself — not for the party and not for the people. I think he’s so focused on allowing his personality to drive the campaign, he will probably continue despite the denunciations.”

But while Trump’s comments on McCain’s status as a war hero drew immediate and widespread reprimand from the party, similarly outlandish remarks on another of Trump’s favored topics — immigration — have elicited a much more muted response from the GOP. In announcing his presidential bid, Trump labeled Mexican immigrants as rapists, criminals and “people that have lots of problems.”

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, criticized the party’s response to this as a double standard.

“They’re right — you can’t insult war heroes and veterans and walk into the White House, but you also can’t insult Latino voters and make it through a general election,” she said. “Where were they when immigrants and Mexicans were being attacked? The most you saw was a quiet phone call from [Republican National Committee Chairman] Reince Priebus to Donald Trump.”

“If they actually disagree with what he’s saying, they need to come out and say it,” Tramonte added.

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy at Southern Illinois University, said Republican moderates don’t want to alienate the Trump supporters they might potentially win over.  

“He says things that a lot of the strong conservatives and tea party types really love, and I think it’s important to remember how strong isolationist and nativist political sentiments are in American politics,” he said. “Mainstream candidates don’t want to alienate those tea party and nativist conservatives, but on something like this, there’s no downside to pushing back. It almost becomes an acceptable way to attack Trump without getting into the immigration debate.”

Still, Trump poses a serious challenge for a party trying to rehabilitate its image with Hispanic voters, an ever-growing and important part of the American electorate. “He gets pushback from more moderate Republicans who understand their party has no future unless it can reach out to Hispanic voters,” Yepsen said. “It will have an impact on the future — you’re making a lot of Latino people into Democrats.”

Payne, meanwhile, said that Trump was destined to self-destruct and that all other Republicans could do was repudiate his most unhinged comments and ignore him the rest of the time. With Trump’s personal fortune being vast enough to keep his campaign afloat for months, the Republicans may have to deal with him for much longer than they like.

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