BLUFFTON, S.C. — The very brashness that propelled Donald Trump’s sudden rise to the top of the polls may now push his political fortunes in the opposite direction.
The Republican businessman’s suggestion at a weekend forum in Iowa that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is not necessarily a real war hero just because he was captured by the North Vietnamese led to a deluge of criticism from presidential rivals, party leaders and veterans groups.
On Tuesday, as Trump ventured back onto the campaign trail, it was clear that the fallout may be eating away at his base of support.
“Some days I’m hot, and some days I’m cold,” said George Smith, 70, a retired consultant who said he is still leaning toward Trump. “There’s things he’s saying that other politicians don’t have the guts to say. . . . But he tends to be a little thin-skinned and retaliates too easily. When I see that out of Obama and his people, I detest it.”
A number of Republican activists who had been intrigued by Trump’s business background and outsider bona fides say the latest controversy has led to second thoughts.
Joanne Grossi, a retiree volunteering at the campaign event and wearing a Trump T-shirt, said she thought of her father’s World War II service when she first heard of the real estate magnate’s weekend remarks about McCain.
“After his latest comments, I’m a little nervous,” she said. “I feel very strongly we need to put America back together and make it the great country it was. . . . But you can’t say anything bad about anyone who’s served our country. You just can’t.”
During his speech, Trump celebrated the Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday night that showed him leading the Republican field nationally with 24 percent. He bragged to the crowd that he was up 11 points over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was in second.
But that same poll contained some warning signs for Trump.
The poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday. In the small but statistically significant sample for Sunday — the day after Trump’s McCain comments — support for him dropped off sharply.
Concern about the comments was a common refrain in nearly two dozen conversations with likely primary voters at Trump’s event, which took place in a gated retirement community.
“I was interested,” said Kimberly Tatro, 49, who sat behind Trump on stage at what was branded as his South Carolina campaign kickoff. She served in the Marine Corps for six years, and her son is in the service now. But the McCain comment is a red flag that makes her think he may not really understand what motivates people to join the armed forces.
“People don’t serve for money,” she said, adding that she is “torn” and wants to hear Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
South Carolina might have been the worst place for Trump to land after the uproar. The Palmetto State handed McCain a crucial victory in the 2008 primary over more conservative candidates, largely on the strength of his appeal as the only veteran running for the GOP nomination. The Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island is just a few miles from where Trump spoke.
“He trashed McCain, but he also trashed his campaign,” said Bill Brady, who served a tour in Vietnam as a member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. “Trump’s mouth works before his mind works. Then, instead of saying, ‘I screwed up,’ and unwinding it, he doubled down.”
When the billionaire took the stage here, he was critical of McCain, blaming him for starting the tiff by describing people who came to a Trump rally in Phoenix as “crazies.”
Trump also tried to make overtures to veterans. He spoke, as he has in the past, about his involvement in the construction of a memorial to Vietnam veterans in New York. His campaign printed signs that said “Veterans for Trump.”
“Our vets are being treated worse than they’ve ever been,” he said in his 43-minute speech. “It’s the most corrupt thing you’ve ever seen. . . . The [VA] waiting list is longer than it’s ever been.”
And Trump did have defenders. Pat Grzelak, 77, who owned a luncheonette in New Jersey before retiring here, said that Trump’s comments about McCain had no effect on his support. He brought his copy of Trump’s 2007 book, “Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life,” to the event.
“Maybe he’s a war hero; maybe he was just an ordinary soldier. Who knows?” said Grzelak, who served in the Air Force from 1956 to 1960.
About 600 people were in the room when Trump again took aim at a string of critics and rivals, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Texas governor Rick Perry and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina. A few hundred more watched from an overflow room.
Trump repeatedly cited the huge crowds that come to see him as evidence that his message is resonating, but several in attendance Tuesday said they came only to see the spectacle.
Dan Kam, 72, who retired from the federal government and moved here from Prince William County, Va., a decade ago, said he is leaning toward supporting retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson because he’s an outsider with less baggage than Trump.
Kam, who is active in the local Republican group, said he never supported McCain but saw his cell from his prisoner-of-war days during a recent cruise to Hanoi. He was “shocked” by Trump’s statement, he said.
Why, then, spend so many hours waiting to see him?
“These are retired people. They’ve got a lot of time,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think he has a chance, but he provides entertainment.”