Carson tries to weather the storm

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Ben Carson is seeking to weather a barrage of media scrutiny and attacks from fellow candidates that have intensified with his ascension to the top of GOP polls.

The soft-spoken, retired neurosurgeon is pushing back hard at accusations that he has exaggerated stories about his life to craft a personal narrative that resonates with supporters.

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Surrounded by a mob of reporters late Friday evening, Carson characterized the growing attention to his past as a “witch hunt” aimed at derailing his candidacy.

“Here’s my prediction: My prediction is that all of you guys piling on is actually going to help me, because when I go out to these book signings and I see these thousands of people, they say, ‘Don’t let the media get you down,’ ” Carson said.

“I do not remember this level of scrutiny for one President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaStates opposed to Obama more dependent on federal government Clinton confidante: Sanders did 'significant damage' Juan Williams: Trump's race politics will destroy GOP MORE when he was running,” he added. “In fact, I remember just the opposite.”

Carson’s bid for the presidency, once considered a long shot, has steadily gained momentum throughout the fall. After a slow and steady rise, he this week eclipsed Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump resisting calls for mock debates Trump camp disavows David Duke after robocall Poll: Clinton has 6-point lead over Trump MORE in a closely watched average of national polls for the first time.

With the front-runner status has come the most intense scrutiny of Carson’s political career.

On Wednesday, BuzzFeed published a video of a 1998 speech where Carson shared his belief that Egyptian pyramids were used to store grain, not serve as tombs for pharaohs.

On Thursday, he was hit with a story from CNN questioning whether his tales of a violent upbringing had been embellished.

And on Friday, Carson found himself in a firestorm when Politico reported that his campaign had admitted “fabricating” the offer of a full scholarship to West Point.

Carson’s team reacted with fury, calling the report untrue. Politico said it stood by the story, but dropped the "fabrication" claim and specified that Carson had never applied or been admitted to West Point.

Carson wrote in his 1990 book "Gifted Hands" that that he "was offered a full scholarship to West Point" after meeting with the Army Gen. William Westmoreland. 

"I didn't refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn't where I saw myself going," he wrote.

Carson told reporters on Friday that the offer to attend West Point was “informal,” something his campaign said was consistent with his past statements.

With controversy swirling, Trump pounced, sensing an opportunity to weaken his rival for the nomination.

“WOW, one of many lies by Ben Carson! Big story,” Trump wrote in a tweet Friday.

Trump has also ripped Carson's "strange" and "ridiculous" pyramid theory, and said the West Point story was "one of many lies by Ben Carson."

"Well, I think it’s really the beginning of the end," Trump told The Washington Post.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Iowa caucus winner who has been struggling at the polls, piled on.

“Vote for me. I never said I went to West Point,” he said in a tweet.

It’s far too early to tell whether the stories will damage Carson, who is now a favorite to win the Iowa caucuses.

"Carson can certainly weather the storm, because the GOP electorate finds him so likable," said GOP strategist Ford O'Connell.

But, O'Connell added, "If Carson loses that likability factor, his bid for the nomination is toast."

Carson has made light of the media frenzy, joking Friday during an interview with The Brody File that reporters will be looking into his elementary school record next.

“They’ll ask my Kindergarten teacher if I wet my pants," Carson quipped.

While the stories about his past could take some of the shine off Carson’s “outsider candidacy,” it’s unlikely to alienate the Republican base, which is deeply mistrustful of the “mainstream media.”

That dynamic was on full display during the last Republican debate, when Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump at immigration crossroads Poll: Majority of GOP voters wish they chose another presidential nominee Trump attacking immigration issue openly and honestly MORE (R-Texas), another top rival to Carson, received thunderous applause after assailing the CNBC moderators.

"This week's media hits on Carson seem trivial. They're more likely to rally his supporters than erode his standing in the polls," said Republican strategist David Payne. 

"Don't forget how unflappable Carson is," Payne said. "He may not be animated on the debate stage. But he can calmly handle media critique."

Still, strategists say Carson and his campaign will need to figure out how to handle the enhanced scrutiny he’ll face as the front-runner.

GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak warned the stories about Carson’s background “will raise questions about his honesty."

"I think he's a little bit of a wounded animal," Mackowiak said. "He's either going to show he can handle a crisis situation ... or he's going to wilt."

"Do they have the wherewithal in the crisis communication situation they're going to be in for the next three or four days?"

And while Carson has taken a more freewheeling approach to interviews, O’Connell said his campaign would have to be more disciplined going forward.

"Presidential candidates only get so many verbal mulligans, and the Carson camp has literally used most of them up," O’Connell said.

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