BALTIMORE (AP) — Donald Trump stood up for his supporters Monday against Hillary Clinton's remark that half of his supporters belonged in "a basket of deplorables," denouncing the comment as "an explicit attack on the American voter" and suggesting that it makes her unfit for the presidency.
But even as Trump defended his backers, one lashed out at protesters in the hall by appearing to punch and slap them. Trump talked through the scuffle.
"While my opponent calls you deplorable and irredeemable," he said in Asheville, North Carolina, "I call you hard-working American patriots who love their country and want a better future for all our people."
But his rally was interrupted several times by demonstrators and, at one moment, brief violence. As several protesters were being escorted out by security, a man in the crowd grabbed a male protester around the neck and then punched him. He then slapped at a woman being led out. The Trump supporter was not ejected by security.
The celebrity businessman talked through the scuffle but cracked after the disturbance: "Is there any place more fun than a Trump rally?"
No stranger to making his own sweeping negative characterizations of large groups of people, Trump nonetheless deployed Clinton's remark as the foundation for a new campaign theme. The message: Clinton is divisive, while Trump is the only candidate representing "all Americans."
"You cannot run for president if you have such contempt in your heart for the American voter," Trump said. "You can't lead this nation if you have such a low opinion of its citizens."
In a speech earlier Monday to the National Guard Association conference in Baltimore, Trump said Clinton's comments were aimed at those in uniform, whether in the military or in law enforcement.
"These were the people Hillary Clinton so viciously demonized," said Trump, who demanded that Clinton issue a full apology. "She divides people into baskets as though they were objects not human beings."
Clinton has said she regrets using the term, "half," to describe the proportion of Trump supporters she considers "deplorables." But she didn't back down from describing his campaign as largely built on prejudice and paranoia.
The comments, though, combined with Clinton's health scare Sunday at the 9/11 memorial — she was captured on video struggling to step into a waiting van and her doctor later announced that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia — could reshape the race, in which Clinton holds slim leads in several battleground states. Trump, who has long questioned Clinton's fitness for the presidency, was notably restrained on the health matter, saying he hopes Clinton feels better soon.
A new ad, set to air in the battleground states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, is squarely aimed at the voters the Trump campaign says Clinton is vilifying.
"You know what's deplorable? Hillary Clinton viciously demonizing hard working people like you," concludes the ad.
Clinton, who has said she is the candidate to unify a divided country, made the "deplorables" comment at a fundraiser Friday night in New York. She has made similar comments recently, including on an Israeli television station.
"To just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it," she said, before stressing that other Trump supporters are frustrated and need sympathy.
Trump and his aides have predicted that Clinton's statement would be more damaging than the gaffe to which it has been frequently compared, when Mitt Romney four years ago suggested that "47 percent" of voters wouldn't back him because they were dependent on government.
But Trump has also attacked Americans who don't intend to vote for him.
When he trailed Dr. Ben Carson in the polls last December in Iowa, he mocked his opponent's claim that he had tried to stab a family member only to fail after the blade hit a belt buckle.
"How stupid are the people of Iowa?" he asked. "How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?"