Carson faces his biggest night yet

Carson faces his biggest night yet

Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonYes, President Trump, we do have a homelessness crisis and you're making it harder for us to address New HUD rule would eliminate housing stability for thousands of students Carson defends transgender comments, hits media for 'mischaracterizations' MORE is tempering expectations ahead of the biggest night in his political career.

In an exclusive interview with The Hill on Tuesday, the political newcomer said he isn’t engaged in last-minute study sessions ahead of the third Republican presidential debate — the first to feature the retired neurosurgeon sharing the very center of the stage.

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Carson, speaking from his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., said he prefers to go into Wednesday’s high-stakes battle in Boulder, Colo., with an uncluttered mind.

“I’m going to relax today and go through all of these piles of mail that I haven’t been able to get through,” Carson said. “And I’ll probably get a haircut.”

Carson is now seen as the favorite to win the Iowa caucuses, and a poll from CBS News and The New York Times released Tuesday put him in first place nationally. He is closing in on Donald Trump, who has been the front-runner for months, in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

The sudden rise has surprised most of the political world, prompting strategists and pundits to question why GOP voters are embracing a soft-spoken political novice prone to controversial statements.

Carson said he doesn’t read too much into polls.

“Obviously you’d rather be at the top of the polls than at the bottom, but I realize it’s a long, volatile process and there will be ups and downs,” he said. “The key thing is just to remain consistent.”

Despite his polling strength, few insiders believe Carson will win the GOP nomination. They argue he lacks policy expertise and a first-rate campaign team, and say he’ll eventually fade.

So far, those critics have been wrong, a point Carson clearly relishes.

“You’d think at some point [the pundits] would be tired of being wrong,” he said. “It’s in their minds that it has to be this way, that it can’t be any other way. I just don’t subscribe to that.”

The first two debates left many pundits perplexed.

Carson did not impress the political class in either debate with his performance, which Trump has deemed “low energy.”

Yet the debates have pushed Carson higher in polls while bolstering his fundraising.

The success has made him a target.

Trump, who has taken other rivals down with pinpointed insults, has hammered Carson as weak on immigration and the Second Amendment. He even questioned Carson’s faith, suggesting the Seventh-day Adventist is part of a fringe religion.

Carson isn’t swinging back yet, a strategy his team believes has contributed to him having the highest favorability rating of any candidate in the field.

“I would just say Donald Trump is Donald Trump,” Carson said. “That’s who he is and that’s certainly not going to change. But you’re not going to find me getting into the slime pit and going after people and retaliating when they say something. It’s just so unimportant when you look at the scope of things that we have to deal with.

“I think more like a surgeon,” Carson continued. “You focus on the problem. You deal with that. You don’t get involved with peripheral issues that don’t matter. I tend to be relatively calm. When you’re in the middle of a little kid’s head and something starts bleeding, if you panic, they’re dead. You just have to stay calm and keep everybody else calm and remember what your goals are and deal with the issues.”

Though soft-spoken, Carson has elicited outrage from some on the left and rebuke from some on the right over controversial remarks he’s made about abortion, gay marriage and ­ObamaCare. He also has a tendency to lean on analogies that recall Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Over the weekend, he provoked criticism for likening abortion to slavery. He stood by those remarks on Tuesday.

“It’s a moral issue. We are killing babies,” Carson said. “The politically correct say, ‘Don’t say that, oh no, you can’t say that,’ but of course that’s what it is. But we sometimes just don’t want to deal with it. We call it other things and change definitions and do anything we can to not address the issue, but the fact of the matter is, killing babies is a moral issue, and we need to talk about it.”

Earlier in the cycle, Carson sought to temper his remarks, believing the screaming headlines stepped on his message and that the media was eager to bury him in controversy.

But he and his campaign have ditched that cautious approach, preferring instead to put the candidate out there in full. It’s a strategy that’s worked so far, although Carson has largely played it safe at the two debates.

“Some people on my campaign were having heart attacks [over things I said], but they’ve come to understand that’s who I am, that I’m not going to be changed and that I’m not going to be managed,” Carson said. 

“The way I look at it, if it resonates with the American people and if they want to deal with truth straight up and don’t need to have everything sugar coated, then I would work very well with them. If they need everything massaged and put into a little pouch so it doesn’t offend anybody, then I’m probably not going to be the right one.”

The expected financial focus of the CNBC debate will be a new test for the White House hopeful.

Earlier this year, he stumbled on a question about the debt ceiling, seeming to confuse it with spending in the federal budget.

In the Tuesday interview, a confident Carson declared that as president he would not sign any budget that required raising the debt limit.

“If I’m elected, in January of 2017 we will begin to address the budget immediately,” he said. “We’re not going to wait until October or November to do it, when we’re backed against the wall. And I will make it very, very clear that there will not be any budget signed that increases our debt ceiling. It will have to be done.”

Carson also criticized congressional Republicans, saying they waited too long to negotiate deals to effectively reduce federal spending.

“They do the same thing every year,” he said. “They wait until their backs are up against the wall and the gun is to their head and you either raise the debt ceiling or we default and the world falls apart.

“Why do we do that?” he continued. “I think the time to address that is at the beginning of the fiscal period, not at the end, because then you have other options. Now, they wait until it’s too late to do anything else, and we keep raising the debt and compromising the future of the next generation. It is craziness.”

Carson said he’s eager to prove wrong the critics who say he lacks the policy chops of the more experienced candidates.

“I very much look forward to that,” Carson said. “I think a lot of people will be shocked.”