- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2015

All eyes will be on Ben Carson in the Republican presidential debate Tuesday, as press questions over the retired neurosurgeon’s inspirational life story have made it safer for his fellow candidates to target him.

Mr. Carson has defied expectations with his rise in the polls despite his political inexperience and laid-back style on the campaign trail, and strategists from opposing camps have privately grappled with how to go after a likable and successful black Republican star who polls particularly well among the evangelicals who make up the party’s Election Day shock troops.

Then came a week’s worth of stories forcing Mr. Carson on the defensive over claims in his autobiography that he overcame a violent youth and that he was offered a scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Mr. Carson has backed up some of his assertions, swatted away other questions and chiefly pushed back against the press, saying reporters are being unfair by doubting him and should be giving others the same sort of scrutiny.

Fellow Republicans scoffed.

“I heard him this morning say he’s been more scrutinized than anybody in this race. Is he kidding?” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on CNN, pointing to the stories surrounding his 2013 “Bridgegate” episode. “Did he watch what I went through in January of 2014 for months and months of relentless attacks from people in the media and in the partisan Democratic Party when it turned out that I did absolutely nothing wrong?”

Still to be seen is whether any of the other Republicans, with the exception of Donald Trump, go after Mr. Carson on the substance of the questions. That’s a line they have not crossed — yet.

“I think it is really hard for people to take him down,” Greg Strimple, a Republican strategist unaffiliated with any of the presidential campaigns, said last week. “He has a really great bedside manner. If people attack him, it is going to be like the hand grenade bounces off him and blows up the people who throw it.”

Mr. Carson and seven other candidates will square off in Milwaukee in the fourth Republican prime-time debate of the primary season. The forum will air on Fox Business Network, which will host four lower-tier candidates, including the newly demoted Mr. Christie, for an undercard debate.

There is early evidence that Mr. Carson is weathering the storm.

A Monmouth University poll found he has the highest favorability rating among Republican voters in South Carolina, and a McClatchy-Marist national poll showed voters said that the more they hear about Mr. Carson, the more they like him rather than dislike him, by a 67 percent to 20 percent margin — the best in the field.

The numbers dovetailed with a Quinnipiac University Poll last week that found Mr. Carson is the only candidate in the Republican field who bests Hillary Rodham Clinton in a hypothetical matchup — outperforming the Democratic front-runner among independents and, perhaps more surprisingly, women.

A Morning Consult survey released Monday found that “two-thirds of Republican primary voters view Ben Carson favorably, even as he faces new scrutiny over details of his personal story.”

“His personal story and outsider credentials are winning him fans among Republicans,” said James Wyatt, Morning Consult’s director of the Morning Consult polling.

Mr. Carson’s political inexperience hasn’t hurt him. Indeed, even his flip-flops, which in the hands of other candidates could be lethal, turn out to help him with some voters. That was the case when he announced in the latest Republican debate that he has changed his mind and no longer supports federal taxpayer subsidies to promote the use of ethanol — an issue of severe importance in farm-dependent Iowa.

“In the last debate, he said, ‘I was wrong,’” said Melissa Barnes, a mother of eight from Chesapeake, Virginia, and a Carson supporter. “I don’t believe I ever heard that come out of a politician’s mouth before. I love a leader who is willing to say, ‘I am wrong.’ I think there is too much trying to be perfect.”

Mrs. Barnes, a Christian home-schooler, said Mr. Carson’s campaign marks the first time she has sent a donation. She called him honorable and a strong leader.

“It is the first time since I turned 18 and could vote ever felt that way,” she said. “I feel like [Washington] is a big machine. People are career politicians, and they say what they need to say to keep their jobs.

Like Mrs. Barnes, Chuck Biery, a Carson supporter in Salem, Ohio, said last week that the retired doctor is the first candidate to whom he has sent a contribution. He said Mr. Carson offers “a lot of wisdom” and a “totally fresh” political perspective.

“We don’t need another politician,” said Mr. Biery, who runs a hardware store. “We need someone who knows the values that our country was founded on and gets us back to the basic principles.”

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