Carson's comments could come back to haunt him

Carson's comments could come back to haunt him
© Getty Images

A series of controversial remarks by Ben Carson is raising new questions about whether he's ready to take the Oval Office.  

Carson this week suggested the Holocaust would have been less likely if Jewish people had been armed, and appeared to criticize the victims of an Oregon shooting for not fighting back.  

ADVERTISEMENT
It's not the first time that Carson has earned headlines with eyebrow-raising remarks — and there's little evidence it is hurting him any more than they have in the past. But party strategists warn the damage may not be felt until later.  

“It’s not so damaging for him in the short term because the polls keep going up, but should we get down to a final two or three and he is one of them, this is going to be an issue that people start to mull,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked on Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate's defense authorization would set cyber doctrine Senate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions MORE’s (Ariz.) 2008 campaign.  

“And should he win the nomination, the Dems are going to play this stuff over and over on a loop.” 

The retired neurosurgeon drew the ire of Democrats, liberal advocacy and Jewish groups over a series of statements this week. 

He kicked off the week by telling “Fox and Friends” hosts that he would have confronted the Umpqua Community College shooter if he had been at the college during last week’s mass shooting.  

"Not only would I probably not cooperate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say 'Hey, guys, everybody attack him! He may shoot me but he can't get us all.' " 

Then on a SiriusXM show on Wednesday, he said he had encountered a gunman in a Baltimore Popeye’s. “Guy comes in, put the gun in my ribs,” he added. “And I just said, ‘I believe that you want the guy behind the counter.’”

Asked on Thursday why he didn’t confront the armed man as he suggested the Oregon victims should have, he said, “They’re two very different situations. You’ve got a crazy person who’s shooting people and is clearly going to continue to do that versus somebody who’s coming in to try to get a little bit of cash.”

Also on Thursday, he told CNN that “the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed.”  

Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett had publicly warned Carson against using Hitler comparisons earlier this month in an interview with ABC News, saying just the mention of Hitler overshadows his message. 

Carson lampooned the media during a Friday speech at the National Press Club in Washington for taking his words out of context and for blowing the comments out of proportion.  

“I’m not politically correct and I will not be politically correct and it’s one of the reasons a lot of people in the press don’t like me, but it’s OK, because I just love this country, and I don’t care whether the press likes me or not, and I’m not going to conform to all of their little requirements,” he said.  

“Everything needs to be looked at in context, and when news media picks one word or one phrase and they run with it, and try to characterize people like that, I gotta tell you guys, that’s why people don’t trust you anymore. I mean you’re down there with used car salesmen.” 

He additionally blamed the “left-wing press” for “trying to stir up controversy” about his Holocaust comment. 

Armstrong WIlliams, a longtime confidante of Carson, told the Washington Post this week that the extensive coverage is a "blessing" for keeping the spolight on Carson and that voters "care about intent. I think people understand what Dr. Carson is trying to say."

Despite the criticism, it’s unclear that those words will hurt his rising stock among GOP primary voters for now. 

There haven’t been any new polls since those comments, but he has seen a steady increase since about mid-August that hasn’t been derailed by previous controversies.  

Carson faced wall-to-wall criticism last month for saying he wouldn’t back a Muslim president. But that hardly stunted his rise and Carson now averages 17 percent in RealClearPolitics’ average of recent polling, 6 points away from front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE. And he just reported a massive $20 million third-quarter fundraising haul, so far the highest of any GOP candidate this cycle.  

O’Connell said Carson’s ability to escape the criticism without it damaging his poll numbers is reminiscent of Trump, but warned that even Trump has calmed down the rhetoric since his campaign’s contentious start.

“If you look at Trump’s comments from June and July and you look at his comments today, they are much better thought out,” he said.  

“Trump is now working on act two, and a lot of these guys have adjusted to the Trump rules while Trump is moving onto new rules.  

The big danger for Carson is that the remarks and high poll numbers put him under more scrutiny—and some Republicans don't like what they see. 

“I want a rock-ribbed conservative that can kick ass and not only win elections, but can take this country back,” former GOP Congressman turned television host Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday.  

“A mellow dude who happened to know how to get conjoined twins taken apart, that’s not the ticket.” 

One factor that might be keeping Carson in the clear for now—the pandemonium in Washington over the search for a GOP House Speaker. 

“I don’t think as many people heard these comments because of everything that’s happened at the Capitol this week,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye.   

“There’s only so much of a bandwidth for political news.” 

Another piece of the puzzle is Carson’s calm demeanor. He’s the yin to Trump’s yang, his penchant for an off-message headline buttressed by being so soft-spoken.  

“The way that he speaks is so different than any other candidate,” Heye said.  

“You get the sense that he’s not just reading talking points, he’s thinking about the question and thinking about what he wants to say, which normally is a big benefit. But when you are saying things about the Holocaust and shooting victims, that’s something that can go negative very quickly.”

Ultimately, strategists believe the comments will dog Carson down the stretch and could dissuade those from backing him.  

“When he makes these comments, everyone says, ‘He’s not going down in the polls and his fundraising is going up,’” O’Connell said. 

“He’s got to realize that eventually you’ve got to talk to more than just the Republican base.”