Carson struggles under heightened scrutiny

Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonHUD drafting rule to require carbon monoxide detectors in public housing Treasury offers new guidance on opportunity zones HUD chief Carson leaves Dem lawmaker exasperated with answer on LGBT protections MORE is struggling to deal with the increased scrutiny that has come with his run atop the polls.

After spending weeks beating back questions over the veracity of his inspirational back-story, Carson has floundered on the issue of national defense, as the complicated fight against global terror has taken center stage after last week’s attacks in Paris.

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Meanwhile, Carson’s campaign has had trouble corralling the myriad advisers and consultants who surround the candidate in his first-ever run for political office.

The sum total has the GOP co-front-runner slipping in the polls, while knocking some of the shine off of a candidate who has otherwise long been the most popular Republican running for president.

“These are growing pains,” said Armstrong Williams, a close friend and adviser to Carson who is not affiliated with the campaign. “When a business is growing so fast you go through this sometimes, we just have to get through it.”

Carson has struggled mightily to elucidate his views on foreign policy, an issue that moved to the forefront at the last GOP debate on Nov. 10 and has taken on heightened importance after last week’s attacks.

At the debate, Carson gave a rambling and disjointed answer to a question about whether he supported President Obama’s decision to send special operations forces into Syria, at one point insisting the Chinese were in the country.

The White House and national security experts rebuked Carson for the claim.

Since the attacks in France, Carson has given similarly scattered responses to questions about national security; has appeared stumped in interviews, and been openly criticized by one of his national security advisers as being unable to absorb foreign policy matters.

At a press conference in Alabama on Thursday, Carson grabbed headlines for using the analogy of a “rabid dog” in response to a question about Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., and later argued that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria poses a greater threat to the U.S. today than al Qaeda did before Sept. 11, 2001.

“He’s been meandering and confusing on the issue and at times looked like a deer in the headlights,” said Republicans strategist Ford O’Connell. “Foreign policy is one area that you can’t just pick up from a crib sheet and learn. It takes years of study and conversation to be fluent on and he’s not there yet.”

Carson’s team says the candidate is taking daily briefings on the matter from dozens of experts. Robert Dees, a retired Army major general, is spearheading the effort, and Carson has said that former secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Bud McFarlane, a former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, are also involved.

Carson has acknowledged that as a political newcomer, he needs time to get up to speed. 

But he insists that he’s surrounding himself with the right people and has struck a defiant tone against his critics.

“I would say listen to my foreign policy recommendations and put them against anybody else,” Carson said in Alabama.

“[My critics] are very unfair, they always just make generalizations,” Carson said. “They’re never very specific on that because if they were specific on that, I’d come right back at them.”

But Carson’s foreign policy stumbles have also revealed fissures among the disparate group of advisers and consultants that surround his first-ever run for political office.

Earlier this week, Duane Clarridge, a former C.I.A. agent who has briefed Carson on national security on several occasions, lashed out at the candidate to the New York Times, saying that Carson was unable to quickly absorb foreign policy information. 

The Carson team pushed back strongly, seeking to diminish Clarridge’s relationship to the campaign, and describing him as an “an elderly gentleman” who had been taken advantage of by an opportunistic reporter.

But Williams, Carson’s long-time friend and confidante, was also quoted in the unflattering Times piece, saying that sometimes Carson “over-thinks things” and acknowledging that Carson “froze” under questioning in the last debate from Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace about U.S. allies abroad.

In a move that puzzled many, Carson on Thursday sought to distance himself from Williams, who is not officially with the campaign, but has been acting as Carson’s primary surrogate on television.
 
"Armstrong is an independent agent. He happens to be a friend of mine. He has nothing to do with the campaign,” Carson said. “Nothing formal.”

When asked about the New York Times story and Williams’ quotes in it, Carson responded: “Armstrong can comment on his own behalf. He does not speak for the campaign at all. He does not speak for me, he speaks for himself."

It has given the appearance of chaos within the campaign.

“Some of this just goes with territory for someone who is suddenly famous and finds himself in the lead,” said GOP strategist Charlie Black, a veteran of several Republican presidential campaigns. “He’s got the skills and intellect to do this, but he and his managers need to make sure he’s on top of things by the Dec. 15 debate.”

Carson is still running strong in the polls, but there’s evidence that his momentum has been stunted by the confluence of stumbles. 

An NBC News national poll released on Friday found Trump seizing a 10 point lead over the field, with Carson in a tie for second place with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Carson led the field by 6 points in the same poll from October, while Cruz was back in fourth place.

And while Carson still has the highest favorability rating in the field, a Public Policy Polling survey released this week found his net favorability rating has swung lower by 18 points over the last month, putting him in the same range as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“I’m sure [the attacks] do have an effect [on my numbers] and I know that will continue because it’s a competition, it’s a campaign, and people will do whatever they can to denigrate another person,” Carson said Thursday. 

“We’ll see where it goes. I’m not a politician. I just have to be honest and continue to be honest and…if it gets to a point where American people say ‘we don’t trust him, we don’t think he can do the job,’ I’ll listen.”

Republicans say Carson is still largely in good shape.

He’s a fundraising machine; has strong support from the evangelicals and social conservatives that make up a majority of Iowa caucus-goers; the conservative electorate has appeared wholly unconcerned about supporting a candidate with zero political experience, and every candidate except for Trump would gladly trade places with Carson in the polls.

“These foreign policy stumbles might not even end up hurting him, he could still win Iowa,” Black said. “He’s got the intellect for this, but he needs to spend the time thinking about these issues and present his thoughts on them more effectively.