WASHINGTON — Seeking to blunt Donald Trump's summer surge, Republican White House hopefuls are shedding their cautious approach to the provocative businessman's political rise.
But Trump simply may not care.
Trump has refused to apologize for disparaging comments he made about Sen. John McCain's military service and brushed off rivals who say he's shown he doesn't merit the presidency. He's also sought to use the furor over his remarks to remind supporters, especially those frustrated with Washington, that he's not a typical politician.
"You know the Republican Party — of course I was one of their darlings when I was a contributor," Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I went from a darling to somebody that they're not happy with because I'm not a politician."
During a conservative forum in Iowa Saturday, Trump dismissed McCain's reputation as a war hero because he was captured in Vietnam and "I like people who weren't captured." His rivals spent much of the weekend condemning his comments and suggesting he was unfit to serve as commander-in-chief.
"It's not just absurd," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. "It's offensive. It's ridiculous. And I do think it is a disqualifier as commander-in-chief."
Numerous other GOP candidates, including Jeb Bush, Rick Perry and Scott Walker, were similarly critical of Trump. The Republican National Committee also put its thumb on the scale, issuing a statement saying "there is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably."
Until now, Republicans have been largely cautious in their handling of Trump and his provocations.
While officials privately fretted about the damage he could do to the party, they are also worried about alienating voters drawn to his celebrity, brashness and willingness to take on establishment Republicans. He's emerged as one of the favorites early in a race that is bound to see shifts in the standing of many of the candidates.
Trump has made other eyebrow-raising comments since declaring his candidacy, most notably his assertion that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. Many GOP candidates were slow and halting in their response to those comments, underscoring a continuing struggle to hit the right notes on immigration when they want to appeal to Hispanics without alienating traditional GOP voters.
But for a party that prides itself on its support for the military, Trump's comments about McCain were an easy opening. McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, spent more than five years as a prisoner of war, enduring torture and refusing release ahead of fellow captives.
Democrats reminded voters about the tepid response to his earlier bombast. Democratic presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton said it was shameful "that it took so long for most of his fellow Republican candidates to start standing up to him."
Trump noted he got a standing ovation after his remarks to a religious conservative forum in Iowa and told AP "when I left the room, everybody thought I gave the best presentation of anybody." But his comments about McCain drew a smattering of boos, his rivals received standing ovations, too, and when some of them spoke up for McCain in their remarks, they got hearty applause.
To some Republicans, Trump will have a detrimental effect on other candidates.
"It's all Trump, all the time," said Matt Strawn, the former Iowa GOP chairman. For candidates still introducing themselves to voters and trying to qualify for the party's first debate on Aug. 6, Strawn said, "it is all but impossible for them to cut through the Trump noise." Although polls this early in a presidential contest are of dubious reliability, they are being used to determine who can come to the debate, and Trump appears likely to make the cut.
Pennsylvania GOP chairman Rob Gleason doesn't mind the fuss kicked up by Trump.
"Now there's more people interested in what the Republican Party has to say," Gleason said. "It's all good."
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Steve Peoples and Calvin Woodward contributed to this report.
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