Carson makes last stand in Iowa

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Ben Carson is looking to recapture his magic in Iowa after months of campaign turmoil have badly damaged the once high-flying Republican presidential candidate.

In an interview with The Hill late last week, as Carson and his Iowa state director drove the back-roads of the Hawkeye State from a rally in sprawling Cedar Rapids to a stop in tiny Bettendorf, Carson insisted that a comeback was in the works.

Carson said he can “absolutely” win Iowa. 

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“We are seeing very large and enthusiastic crowds, standing room only and overflow crowds,” Carson said. “The level of enthusiasm is tremendous and a lot of people are telling me that they are coming back home.”

Even if he falls short of a win in Iowa, Carson said a “top three” finish will keep him viable at least through South Carolina, another early-voting state the campaign has circled as having the potential to thrust Carson back to the forefront.

The three most recent polls in Iowa show Carson in fourth place. He trails GOP front-runners Ted CruzTed CruzStephen Hawking: Trump a 'demagogue' Dems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals Meet the billionaire donor behind Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker MORE and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump slams 'totally biased' judge in Trump U case Ex-pharma CEO Martin Shkreli: I didn’t endorse Trump Five things Clinton needs to do to win the California primary MORE badly, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has recently moved ahead of him as well.

Nonetheless, Carson is optimistic. 

“It won’t be a problem at all,” he said of a top three finish in Iowa.

With only three weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, Carson isn’t going all-in on the state in the same way candidates like former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have. 

His appearances in the early-voting states throughout the campaign have been scattershot, as evidenced by the rally he held earlier this month in Staten Island, N.Y. Carson still has stops planned this month in South Carolina and Nevada, among other states. 

But Carson will spend a majority of the days in January making retail stops and holding rallies across Iowa, where his top advisers see signs of him getting a second look from voters ahead of theFeb. 1 caucuses.

“We’re going to be here a lot,” said Ryan Rhodes, Carson's Iowa state director. “His message won’t get cycled through some other narrative. Voters will get to hear directly from him and when people get to hear that message, they gravitate towards it…you’re going to see that groundswell coming back as things progress.”

That Carson needs his supporters to return “home” at all is an indication of how far he’s fallen.

In the fall, Carson came out of nowhere, shocking political pundits as he sprinted past long-time front-runner Donald Trump to lead in some national polls and surveys of Iowa.

By late October, Carson had opened-up a 9 point lead over Trump in Iowa, according to the RealClearPolitics average, taking 29 percent support. 

But Carson struggled to withstand the scrutiny that comes with front-runner status. He spent much of his time atop the polls beating back questions over the veracity of his inspirational back-story, and he failed to convince voters of his foreign policy acumen at a time when the Republican debate turned to national security.

In addition, long-simmering tension between Carson’s campaign and his close friend and outside adviser Armstrong Williams over the direction of the campaign came to a head on New Years Eve, when campaign manager Barry Bennett and other top aides suddenly quit amid talk that they would be fired.

The sum total has seen Carson drop into fourth place in Iowa, where he now sits at 9 percent support. Cruz, who has galvanized the evangelical base that once boosted Carson to the top, now leads with 31 percent support, according to RCP. 

“As these things go, you’re going to see candidates all over the state looking for that [evangelical] voting bloc,” Rhodes said. “Obviously, a lot of people are competing for it. Ben and Ted seem to be doing it the best, and I think I’ll put Ben next to Ted Cruz side by side any day of the week. I think everybody will be very surprised come caucus day.”

The Carson campaign hopes the fervent energy of his grassroots supporters will translate into votes on caucus night. 

While outside groups supporting Carson never landed a mega-donor, Carson will benefit from a plucky super-PAC, whose members have been staking out retail centers and fairs, singularly focused on get-out-the-vote efforts in Iowa since before Carson even announced his candidacy, 

And Carson continues to be a small-dollar fundraising juggernaut. He hauled in $23 million in the fourth quarter, besting Cruz, who raised $20 million over the same period.

The campaign now points to the size of Carson’s rallies in Iowa as evidence that he still commands an enthusiastic base of support on the ground there.

“The rallies we have – this morning we were in a gymnasium that went over fire code so we had to unfortunately turn a few people away because there were so many people that showed up clamoring to see,” Rhodes said.

Despite the recent setbacks, Carson’s spirits are high. He says he feels reinvigorated by the campaign overhaul, which led many pundits to write his political obituary.

Former senior strategist Ed Brookover has taken over as campaign manager, while retired Army Gen. Robert Dees, who formerly advised Carson on foreign policy matters, is acting as the campaign’s chairman.

Advisers say communication among the campaign team is better than it ever was before, and insist that the ground troops have not been dispirited by the tumult.

“I feel energized now,” Carson said. “I feel that I have a very responsive organization now that knows how to execute and get things done and it gives me a lot more energy.”