Carson, Trump ready for battle of outsiders

The second Republican presidential debate is shaping up as a battle of the outsiders, with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE and Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonVA slashes program that helps homeless veterans obtain housing: report Homelessness rises for first time since recession Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem is the right call MORE poised to take center stage.

Neither man has held, or even run for, elected office before — but that’s where the similarities end.

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Trump has surged to the front of the polls with a no-holds-barred style that invites conflict. Carson has moved into second place with a low-key approach.

Their disparate political styles are likely to be on full display during Wednesday night’s debate, when the two men will seek to build their momentum in the race against a crowded stage of contenders. 

Carson’s team sees little merit in attacking Trump head-on, preferring to heighten the temperamental contrast between the self-effacing retired neurosurgeon and the exuberantly bombastic businessman.

Asked what would constitute success for Carson in the debate, his confidant and business manager Armstrong Williams responded that it would involve him “being willing to clearly separate himself from Mr. Trump by his answers, by his body language, by how he stands up as necessary but continues to build upon his favorability ratings.”

“He doesn’t have to hit a home run, he just has to load the bases,” Williams said.

In his disinclination to spoil for a fight, Carson may be learning lessons from others who have tangled with Trump and lost. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was among Trump’s most aggressive attackers — right up until last week, when he became the first of the 17 major GOP candidates to exit the race.

Other Republican hopefuls, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have sought to draw attention by criticizing Trump. Graham released a video of himself smashing a cellphone after Trump gave out his private number at a rally, but no surge in support followed.

Such a combative approach would, in any event, go against part of Carson’s core appeal: his ability to champion conservative policies in an affable way.

Asked about the merits of the retired doctor taking on Trump, GOP strategist Ford O’Connell observed: “Carson pulled back on that, and he was right to pull back on it, because it’s not his M.O.” 

O’Connell was referring to the brief contretemps that erupted last week when, in seeking to describe the differences between himself and the billionaire, Carson said, “I’ve realized where my success has come from, and I don’t in any way deny my faith in God.”

The perceived jab at Trump’s faith drew a characteristically fierce response from the real estate mogul, who cast aspersions on Carson’s abilities as a doctor and told CNN’s “New Day” that Carson had been “heavy into the world of abortion.” 

Carson rapidly sought to deescalate the burgeoning conflict, apologizing to Trump via a Washington Post interview in which he also said, “The media frequently wants to goad people into wars, into gladiator fights, you know. And I’m certainly not going to get into that.”

This week, Carson’s camp is even expressing gratitude to Trump for one thing: his capacity to draw big audiences to the debates. Aides such as Williams argue this benefits Carson, who does not boast the kind of name recognition enjoyed by rivals including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ted Cruz (Texas) or Rand Paul (Ky.).

“There is no pressure on Dr. Carson in the second debate — none — because there is 50 percent of the population who don’t know him,” Williams told The Hill. “One thing we appreciate about Mr. Trump is that he is bringing people to this election to talk about these issues — which are very critical. So that is a good thing about the man called Trump.”

Other unaligned Republican observers think that Carson will be feeling his share of the pressure at the podium in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday night.

Whereas Carson had a relatively modest standing at the time of the first clash in Cleveland on Aug. 6., he is now in second place to Trump in the RealClearPolitics polling national average, as well as in polls of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first three states to vote.

“Carson is now a first-tier candidate,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “It’s one thing to sort of disappear and then pop up with a funny line at the end, and have everyone say you did well. But he is going to be pressed more on specifics. Can he rise to the challenge?”

Carson has an advantage in that he enjoys the best overall favorability ratings of any candidate in the GOP field. At the end of last month, Gallup gave him a net favorability score of 51 points among Republican voters, 9 points better than the second-placed Rubio, 19 points better than Trump and 32 points better than Bush. 

That is not only a formidable asset in itself — it also means there may be little dividend for other candidates in attacking Carson, for fear of sparking a backlash.

Whether Trump will see things that way, however, remains to be seen.

Many observers note that, of late, Trump has turned his fire on Carson and another non-politician, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, after focusing much of his attention on establishment figures such as Bush.

Trump, some Republicans believe, is keen to undermine Carson and Fiorina as much as possible, in order to consolidate the anti-establishment vote.

“Trump wants to destroy Carson before he can get his legs under him. Trump sees Carson as a potential Trump-slayer because of his appeal to ‘outside’ voters,” said O’Connell.

A Trump aide declined to comment on the businessman’s strategy for the debate.