However, in this most serious of popularity contests, the debacle with the parents of the deceased Muslim soldier has most likely hurt Trump significantly.
Let's recap what happened:
"Donald Trump, you're asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words "liberty" and "equal protection of law."
"Have you ever been to Arlington cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing -- and no one."
The Democrats gambled by "playing chess" while expecting Trump to "play checkers" -- i.e. immediately and personally respond by a direct, frontal rebuke. And that's exactly what Trump fell for. While Trump's direct approach may have been appropriate in other contexts, his response was poor to say the least.
Let's begin by dissecting how the Democrats, through the Muslim soldier's parents, have attacked Trump:
1. Trump doesn't understand the meaning true sacrifice ("Have you ever been to Arlington National Cemetery? ... You have sacrificed nothing -- and no one.") -- This hits Trump on multiple fronts. It mocks Trump's birth into a wealthy family, his avoidance of military service during Vietnam, and his otherwise lack of connection to the military. It also reinforces the argument that Trump is insensitive to diversity and the contributions of immigrants.
2. Trump doesn't respect the rules ("...Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution?...") - This attacks Trump's vulnerability in a lack of legal sophistication and understanding of constitutional law, as well exploits an image that Trump is a bully and will act outside of legal constraints if elected.
Trump’s response was lackluster to say the least. He replied by saying that:
1. The mother of the dead soldier did not speak because she was Muslim, which implies that Muslim women have fewer rights than real American women have. This falls flat on its face because it only appeals to his existing right-wing constituency, which is already hostile towards Muslims and Islam. It does nothing to win over moderates who are more hesitant to paint all Muslims with a broad brush, nor Bernie Sanders supporters who may otherwise be more liberal towards religious diversity, which constitute critical voting blocks.
2. He did make sacrifices by hiring lots of employees and working hard. This hardly compares to dying for one’s country. Again, a pretty big fail.
So how should Trump have replied? My suggestions are responses along the lines of:
"I, like many Americans, am deeply moved by the sacrifice Captain Khan made for our country. It is for this reason that the Democrats are despicable for using his heroism in trying to score political points. I run a moral and honest campaign, and I would never stoop so low as to use a dead soldier as a political prop."
"Let’s not forget that Captain Khan was killed by a Muslim terrorist who was trying to blow up Americans. While it’s true that while not all Muslims are terrorists, remember that almost all terrorists are Muslim. [Maybe add: “The Muslim terrorists even called Captain Khan an apostate who should be killed.” – However, this risks diluting Trump’s attempt to paint all Muslims with a broad brush.] Therefore, I am convinced that until we can sort out which Muslim is a terrorist and which one is not, we must limit Muslim immigration to the United States."
"The Democrats accuse me of not understanding sacrifice. I understand it very well. I have held the hands of [the father whose son/the wife whose husband] was killed in Benghazi by Islamic terrorists. He/she told me of the pain he/she feels every day because Hillary Clinton snored soundly in bed while his son/her husband and many others' sons/husbands sacrificed their lives in Benghazi. I have listened to thousands of people who told me of their entire families that have been destroyed by free trade, even as Hillary Clinton rakes in millions of dollars from huge multinational corporations to support the TPP. So I find it sad that the Democrats have nothing else to accuse me of, when it is clear that Hillary Clinton is the poster child for corrupt privilege and power, and it is Hillary Clinton who is completely out of touch with ordinary Americans because of who really pulls her strings."