LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Donald Trump still dominates the conversation as well as the polls in the Republican presidential race. Trump is defending his failure to challenge a supporter in New Hampshire who asserted that President Obama is a Muslim and is not an American citizen. Here's what Trump said in Iowa last night.
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DONALD TRUMP: Am I morally obligated to defend the president every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him? I don't think so, right?
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mara Liasson is following the controversy and how other Republicans are responding. She joins me on the line. Hello, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: So take us back to that question-and-answer session that started this round. It was in Rochester, N.H., on Thursday.
LIASSON: And I was there covering that event. And when Donald Trump opened up the floor to Q-and-A, this was the very first question he took.
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TRUMP: OK, this man; I like this guy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Amen, OK. We have a problem in this country; it's called Muslims. We know our current president is one.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You know he's not even an American...
TRUMP: We need this question...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Birth certificate, man.
TRUMP: This is the first question.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question, when can we get rid of them?
TRUMP: We're going to be looking at a lot of different things, and, you know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We're going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
LIASSON: So maybe it's not surprising Trump didn't correct that guy and point out that President Obama is not a Muslim, he is an American, and he didn't push back against the implication that being a Muslim is a bad thing. Remember that Donald Trump was the original big birther. And his campaign has become a magnet for the xenophobic wing of the Republican Party. You know, a recent CNN poll - a recent CNN poll - showed 29 percent of Americans and 43 percent of Republicans still believe that President Obama is a Muslim. And that Muslim training camp theme that the questioner asked is a staple on right-wing media.
WERTHEIMER: Now, we heard Trump defending his statement last night, and he was pressed about it in interviews this morning. What's he saying?
LIASSON: Well, he's doubling down, really. He gave - he refused to say whether he thought the president was born here. When he was asked on "Meet The Press" whether he could support a Muslim as president, he said, quote, "some people have said it already happened, frankly." So he's perpetuating this lie about the president being a Muslim. Then Ben Carson, also on "Meet The Press," was asked the same question, and he was categorical in say he does not want a Muslim as president. Here's Carson's answer.
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BEN CARSON: I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.
LIASSON: There are others in the race who have criticized Trump. Jeb Bush says President Obama is a Christian and American. Chris Christie said he would have corrected that questioner. Lindsey Graham was very strong in condemning Trump. But when Ben Carson says something like that, it's going to dominate the conversation and frankly, I think it will complicate the Republican Party's efforts to be more welcoming to minorities.
WERTHEIMER: So do you think this latest bit of controversial behavior will affect anything, the presidential race, the Republican Party?
LIASSON: Well, a lot of establishment Republicans have been hoping that Trump will implode. And up until now, it hasn't seemed that no matter who Trump insults or how divisive he is, nothing changes. But maybe something different is happening now. We are seeing a couple of new polls where Trump is weakening. In the latest NBC poll, Trump is still in first place, but he's dropped eight points. Carly Fiorina, she had a great debate performance.
She has now surged into second and Carson is third. So we are seeing, you know, a little bit of weakening. We don't know where that's going to go. Republicans are increasingly aggressive about taking on Trump himself, his temperament, his readiness to be president and his comments but not what he stands for, and that is the debate that many people think the Republican Party needs to have and it hasn't had it yet.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Linda.
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