OSKALOOSA, Iowa — First Donald Trump questioned whether Sen. John McCain was truly a war hero.
“Finally, I can attack!” Trump said at a packed rally at Oskaloosa High School. “Wisconsin’s doing terribly. It’s in turmoil. The roads are a disaster because they don’t have any money to rebuild them. They’re borrowing money like crazy. They projected a $1 billion surplus, and it turns out to be a deficit of $2.2 billion. The schools are a disaster. The hospitals and education was a disaster. And he was totally in favor of Common Core!”
The mention of the state-driven education standards — from which Walker, like many Republican governors, has walked away — incited a prolonged boo. That was not enough for Trump, who told a story about Walker giving him a “beautiful plaque” out of gratitude for campaign donations and wondered if “Wisconsin paid for it.”
Republicans’ hopes of banishing Trump from their presidential primary may have wilted in the heat of the Iowa summer. On his first visit to the caucus state since the McCain insult, Trump drew a crowd of 1,300 in a city of 11,463. He cleaned up his remarks about veterans, from the stage and in the crowd. He talked with characteristic gusto about “killing in the polls and” securing a spot in the party’s first sanctioned debate, scheduled for Aug. 6.
“I’m going to be there,” Trump told reporters, “much to the chagrin of many people.”
Trump did all of this at a four-hour spectacle — the Make America Great Again Rally and Family Picnic — that felt like a New York cinematographer’s idea of an “Iowa event.” A campaign bus stood unused until Trump posed in front of his, giving a double thumbs-up before hopping into an SUV. The outdoor barbecue was so large that Trump endorser Tana Goertz — who had been a contestant on Trump’s NBC series, “The Apprentice” — asked the crowd to gorge themselves a little more. “Mr. Trump can’t take all this food home on the plane,” she said.
As they lined up for the speech, conservative Iowans fell into two camps. One group adored Trump’s brio, but wished he hadn’t gotten personal with McCain (R-Ariz.). The larger camp egged Trump on for again refusing to play nice. Although a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Trump’s ratings slipping after his comments about McCain, the crowd in Oskaloosa saw another reason to trust him. Some Republican voters, who had dutifully turned out for “anti-establishment” candidates and been disappointed, insisted that Trump was just the man to blow up the system.
“The dude’s badass, no question about it,” said Dave Moore, 30, a National Guard veteran and welder. “Republicans keep sending chihuahuas to a pitbull fight and being nice, and the only time they’re mean is to each other.”
The McCain spat, Moore said, was an example of that. “People applied that to all soldiers,” he said. “Trump was trying to protect his people.”
That was Trump’s official line. In the seven days since he suggested that merely being “captured” did not make McCain a hero, Trump has alternately denied that he said it, talked up his work for veterans, and said that he was only responding to McCain for calling opponents of immigration reform “crazies.”
Trump deployed all of those arguments here Saturday. One of his warm-up speakers, 20-year Navy SEAL Brad Nagel, insisted that Trump respected veterans, unlike “people who think we’re crazies.” (McCain had not been referring to veterans.) Event staffers who found veterans in the crowd handed them “Veterans for Trump” signs. Late into his 56-minute speech, Trump beckoned to someone offstage, and a woman in a black dress delivered a stack of paper wrapped in a red bow.
This, Trump said, represented one day of “more than 700 letters from veterans, thanking me.” They appreciate his charity, he said, and trust him to reform Veterans Affairs, even though he did not serve.
“I might not have been a great soldier,” Trump said. “I don’t know. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t.”
Trump’s cleanup seemed to do the trick. Tammy Sparks, 54, came to the event because she interpreted the comment as an insult to her father, a prisoner of war during World War II.
“I heard he’d been saying some bad stuff about prisoners of war, and I was so irritated,” Sparks said. “One of the guys in suits explained it to me. And when Mr. Trump saw me again, he said, ‘That was not what I meant.’ ”
Others said there was nothing to apologize for as far as McCain was concerned. “He’s done nothing for veterans, nothing to secure our borders,” said Randy Binns, who wore a hat and pin commemorating his service in the 1991 and 2003 Iraq invasions. “If he was running again, I’d tell him to get out of town.”
In Oskaloosa, Trump told his main audience, of 700, about his Thursday visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. He told an overflow audience that President Obama had failed POWs by winning Bowe Bergdahl’s release from the Taliban but not getting Iran to turn over hostages.
He also won cheers for telling how he denied credentials to the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, after its editorial board called on him to quit the race. In a back-and-forth with reporters, with the Register’s team kept outside his event, Trump proved that he was comfortable being playful with the facts.
“I didn’t ban them,” he insisted. “They just couldn’t get credentials.”