He's a patriot, I'm sure. What I'm saying is, in his rhetoric, I very rarely hear him say the things that I used to hear Ronald Reagan say, the things that I used to hear Bill Clinton say, about how much he loves America. —Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani
WASHINGTON — Democrats on Thursday assailed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for questioning President Barack Obama's love of country, and urged the potential field of Republican presidential candidates to rebuke his comments.
Giuliani said at a New York City event on Wednesday night that "I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America."
"He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country," said Giuliani, who sought the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. His comments were reported by Politico and the New York Daily News.
Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said it's time for Republican leaders to "stop this nonsense."
Several likely GOP candidates declined to get involved Thursday. Giuliani, meanwhile, softened his remarks somewhat in an interview, saying he didn't mean to question the president's patriotism.
His comments at the dinner brought to mind a familiar conservative criticism during Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns that he wasn't proud enough of the United States. During his presidency, a smaller segment falsely claimed that Obama was not born in the United States but rather in his father's native Kenya.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Giuliani "test drove this line of attack during his fleeting 2007 run for the presidency." Asked whether the comments were appropriate, Schultz said he would leave it to those at the event to make that assessment.
The private dinner was attended by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is considering a 2016 campaign. Giuliani said that "with all our flaws we're the most exceptional country in the world. I'm looking for a presidential candidate who can express that, do that and carry it out."
"And if it's you Scott, I'll endorse you," Giuliani said, addressing Walker. "And if it's somebody else, I'll support somebody else."
Walker, asked about the comments in an interview with CNBC, did not directly address whether he agreed with the former mayor.
"The mayor can speak for himself. I'm not going to comment on whether — what the president thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well," Walker said. "I'll tell you, I love America, and I think there are plenty of people, Democrat, Republican, independent, everywhere in between, who love this country."
Democrats said the incident reflected poorly on Walker, who has generated early presidential buzz among Republican activists in Iowa, the nation's first 2016 contest. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said he heard a "deafening silence" from Walker and that the governor should "disassociate himself immediately" from the remarks.
Asked about Obama in an interview with Fox News on Thursday, Giuliani said he wasn't "questioning his patriotism. He's a patriot, I'm sure. What I'm saying is, in his rhetoric, I very rarely hear him say the things that I used to hear Ronald Reagan say, the things that I used to hear Bill Clinton say, about how much he loves America."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential presidential candidate, defended Giuliani, saying what Obama had "obviously demonstrated for everyone is that he is incapable of successfully executing his duties as our commander in chief."
Most Republican presidential hopefuls largely avoided the subject. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, visiting New Hampshire, said he had "no doubt" that Obama loves the country, "but I just think his policies are bad for our nation."
Officials with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas declined comment.
Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, said she often disagreed with former President George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress but never questioned their patriotism. She noted that Arizona Sen. John McCain, during his 2008 presidential campaign, urged fellow Republicans not to question Obama's love of country.
"I would challenge my Republican colleagues and anyone in the Republican party to say, 'Enough.' They need to start leading," Wasserman Schultz said at the start of the DNC's winter meeting.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Chicago; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin; Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire; and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report. Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KThomasDC