Donald Trump refuses to apologize for 'absolutely fine' attack on John McCain
Sen. John McCain (R), Donald Trump -- AFP/Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Donald Trump on Sunday stood by incendiary remarks in which he mocked Senator John McCain over his capture during the Vietnam war, refusing to bow to a chorus of criticism from Republicans and insisting he has no plans to pull out of the party’s presidential nomination contest.

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The outspoken business mogul, who leads a crowded field of Republican presidential contenders in several recent polls , sparked widespread condemnation on Saturday after declaring in Iowa that McCain, who was tortured during more than five years as a prisoner of war, was “not a war hero”.

Less than 24 hours later, after a furious and virtually unified response from his rivals, Trump insisted that his comments about McCain were “absolutely fine”. He argued he was the victim of a controversy stoked by the press and Republican adversaries envious of his surge in popularity.

In his first media appearance since the comments, which he made at a gathering of social conservatives in Ames, Iowa , Trump was asked on ABC if he would apologise.

“No, not at all,” he replied. “When I left the room it was a total standing ovation, it was wonderful to see, nobody was insulted.”

The remarks appear to have marked a turning point in the Republican race, prompting the party establishment, which previously resisted condemning Trump’s offensive remarks about Mexican immigrants, to finally come out against the billionaire TV celebrity en masse.

Trump, in return, was defiant.

“I will say what I want to say,” he told ABC. “And maybe that’s why I am leading in the polls. Because people are tired of hearing politicians, and pollsters telling the politicians exactly what to say.”

During the 10-minute interview, conducted over the phone, the billionaire property developer did appear to waiver a little, saying his remarks about McCain had somehow been misconstrued.

But he repeatedly sought to focus attention back on the Arizona senator, who angered Trump earlier in the week by labelling attendees at one of the billionaire’s rallies the previous week as “crazies”.

“This all started when we had thousands and thousands of people in Phoenix, Arizona,” Trump said. “He [McCain] called them crazies. Frankly, I think he owes them an apology.”

It was this incident that, during Trump’s appearance in Iowa on Saturday, prompted his angry denunciation of the senator. Trump mocked McCain’s failure to beat Barack Obama in the 2008 election and and demurred when the moderator suggested the Arizona lawmaker was a war hero.

“He’s not a war hero,” he said . “He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” He then added: “And I believe, perhaps he’s a war hero.”

Trump did not walk the comments back on Sunday, insisting that veterans who were not captured did not receive the same appreciation as prisoners of war.

“People who fought hard and weren’t captured and went through a lot, they get no credit,” he said. “Nobody even talks about them; they’re, like, forgotten.”

Characterising the controversy as part of the rough and tumble of politics, he said he too was unfairly attacked.

“People are constantly attacking my hair,” he said. “I don’t see you coming to my defense. My hair is just fine. But if I say something about somebody else …”

McCain has so far not issued a public response. He has not had to. Virtually the entire political establishment, Republican and Democrat alike, has come out forcefully against the real-estate magnate and former host of The Apprentice.

McCain was captured after being shot down by the North Vietnamese in 1967. He fractured both arms and a leg ejecting from his aircraft and nearly drowned when his parachute landed in a lake. He was beaten, tortured and interrogated, and still today is unable to lift his arms above his head because his injuries did not properly heal in captivity.

When the North Vietnamese offered McCain an early release for propaganda purposes, he declined, insisting that men taken before him should be let go first.

“Senator McCain is an American hero because he served his country and sacrificed more than most can imagine. Period,” said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee, which oversees the presidential nomination contest. “There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honourably.”

Trump, who avoided serving in the Vietnam war through a series of draft deferments and then drawing a high number in the draft lottery, was also criticised by the country’s main veterans associations and almost every rival Republican candidate except Ted Cruz, the Tea Party senator from Texas who has cosied up to the billionaire since his surge in the polls.

Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has watched his wafer-thin lead in surveys of Republican voters slip to the businessman, tweeted: “Enough with the slanderous attacks.” Former Texas governor Rick Perry called on Trump to pull out of the race.

That sentiment was echoed on Sunday by the Florida senator Marco Rubio.

“It is not just absurd, it’s offensive, it’s ridiculous, and I do think it is a disqualifier as commander-in-chief,” Rubio told CNN.

Related: Donald Trump is the elephant in the room at conservative summit in Iowa

The Republican party’s decision to, in effect, excommunicate Trump over his attack on McCain stands in contrast to its response to comments about Mexicans during his campaign launch.

The TV network NBC ended its long-running relationship with Trump after he suggested that illegal Mexican immigrants were criminals, drug dealers and rapists. Bush, Perry and Rubio, all of whom hope to appeal to the Latino vote, did offer some criticism of the tenor of Trump’s remarks, but many others in the Republican field did not.

The party establishment’s reaction was, in comparison to the current outpouring of condemnation, relatively muted.

In part that was a recognition that Trump’s brazen style, and focus on touchstone conservative issues like illegal immigration and the economic rise of China, appeal to a significant sector of the Republican primary electorate, which has shifted to the right in recent years.

However, Trump’s current standing in the polls is, analysts say , very unlikely to result in his winning the Republican nomination. His poll ratings are artificially inflated by the comparative lack of name recognition among his rivals – a factor that will change in the course of the campaign.

Despite his popularity among a dedicated base of supporters, that backing is capped by high unfavourability ratings among those who do not support him, diminishing the prospect of him broadening his appeal.

And as the weekend brouhaha over McCain’s war record showed, Trump shows all the hallmarks of a candidate about to self-combust.

“He is an entertainer. He is a showman,” said Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican political consultant who believes Trump is benefiting from a “a celebrity political bubble”.

“He is a clown in a fancy hat, strutting the stage for a few minutes, and then the serious actors will come on the stage in a little while.”

Paul Lewis in Washington

  • Additional reporting by Tom McCarthy © Guardian News and Media 2015