- - Sunday, January 31, 2016

Al Gore referred to a presidential campaign as a job interview. Over the course of two years a candidate will try to convince the nation that his or her personal resume and personality makes him or her the best person to lead the country. Every president since George Washington has had a background in either government or the military (though we haven’t had a military president since Dwight D. Eisenhower). Occasionally candidates, like Donald Trump, Steve Forbes and Ross Perot have run large companies, but to date, none have won without having prior government or military experience.

This year, Dr. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, is working to prove that his lack of business, military and government experience is not a detriment and that his medical experience is an asset. Dr. Carson’s new campaign chairman, retired Gen. Robert Dees, is certain that Dr. Carson’s experience has prepared him better for the White House than anyone else in the race. “Dr. Carson has more 2 a.m. calls than any other candidate on that stage — crisis, life and death scenarios, complex decision making that’s been his whole life. He has the right reflexes to be commander in chief of the United States military and to be president of the United States. So the point is it is not about political experience, it’s about leadership and about experience and Dr. Carson is more experienced in the right areas than any other candidate,” Gen. Dees remarked in a recent interview.

For most of last year, voters believed that Dr. Carson’s resume prepared him to be president. Before the terror attacks in Paris last year, Dr. Carson’s lack of experience did not hurt his poll numbers. In the beginning of November, he was neck and neck with Mr. Trump, the current GOP front-runner. But on Nov. 13, Paris was attacked by terrorists. Foreign policy became the dominant issue after domestic issues had been driving the race previously. The change in focus accompanied a steep decline in Dr. Carson’s poll numbers. On Nov. 9, a McClatchy/Marist poll had Dr. Carson leading Mr. Trump 24 percent to 23 percent. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has Dr. Carson trailing Mr. Trump 12 percent to 33 percent— Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have both leapfrogged Dr. Carson.

Over the New Year holiday, in order to halt the sliding poll numbers, Dr. Carson made changes to his campaign team. Gone were the seasoned political operatives like his campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, and communications director. “At this point in time we don’t need beltway Washington, D.C. solutions, but we need something that best represents ‘we the people,’” said Gen. Dees.

To replace the departing staff, Dr. Carson looked outside the orbit of political operatives who make up the staff of most of the other presidential campaigns. His new campaign chairman, Gen Dees‘ communications director, Larry Ross; and policy director, Chris Bourne, have never worked on political campaigns before, though they have a plethora of outside experience. His new campaign manager and former senior strategist, Ed Brookover, is the only person with a new high level role who has political experience. “I don’t think the ship was headed in the wrong direction. It’s just that now we’ve taken the governor off the engine and we’re leaning forward in our messaging, and our strategy, and our policy, and so we are on all eight cylinders maybe for the first time in a while,” said Gen. Dees. “In the last seven days we’ve put out a tax plan, an education plan, and, today, our national security plan. So that’s what I am alluding to when I say we are starting to hit on all eight cylinders.”

In many ways, the new moves inside the campaign reflect the candidate himself. Dr. Carson, an outside the box candidate, has never held elected office, and never run a large company (though he was in charge of the neurosurgeon department of hospital at Johns Hopkins). Dr. Carson is pitching himself as a candidate with the right experience even though that experience is different than the traditional presidential resume. His top ranking campaign staffers got their jobs not because they have the traditional campaign resume but because they have what Dr. Carson considers to be the right experience for the job. “I do not have political experience, nor does Dr. Carson. So, what we have to do is consider what are the competencies we are looking for. If we are looking for execution, if we are looking for values, we are looking for wise solid leadership that empowers others,” said Gen. Dees. “To say that only political operatives have those skills is certainly a false narrative and in fact sometimes the political operatives have proven that they are the very ones who do not have those skills. … In short it’s about leadership.”

The strategy for success, according to Gen. Dees, is to change what voters are looking for in terms of experience. Once they realize that political experience is not as valuable as it often is perceived to be, Dees is confident Carson is the obvious choice. “Political experience is the wrong question. The right question is experience. … I would simply draw some rhetoricals: Do you want volume? Or do you want values? As I look across the candidates, do you want someone who is an elite Washington insider? Or do you want somebody that better identifies with ‘we the people’ of Iowa or Texas or wherever we happen to be on that day? So that is awful important. You know do you want somebody who makes wild proclamations? Or do you want somebody that actually has common sense policy solutions like a Dr. Ben Carson? You know and all the analogies continue but the point is when you ask these rhetoricals the answer for these things is Dr. Ben Carson who has the right stuff to be the next president of the United States.”

The first sign of whether the campaign’s strategy is working will be the Iowa caucuses on Feb 1. If there is a place that is primed to pump new life into the Carson campaign, it is Iowa, where Dr. Carson led the field by as much as 14 percent according to an October Monmouth poll and continues to be well received. “We were in Iowa last night with overflowing crowds. It’s just incredible and it’s heartening to see the people out in the heartland that believe strongly in Dr. Carson. Some folks have fans; Dr. Carson has believers. The cream is rising to the top in Iowa, to use a dairy metaphor for that state, and it is really fun to see.”

Despite the overflowing crowds, Gen. Dees refuses to set expectations for how the campaign that looks a lot more like the candidate will do on Feb. 1, but he will admit that he has a positive outlook. “We are not casting expectations. Let me give you a couple of vignettes. I was in Iowa last night and we were in an ice cream store and the store has two levels. … The top part was filled, the room he was talking to had about 300 people in it, that’s what we expected. There were another 400 outside in another room. … We had to do two events. We had an … event earlier in the day — same thing, two events. Another event, people waited for two hours in the rain to be with Dr. Ben Carson. … In Iowa, we see a lot of great things happening and I think we are in for a very positive experience there.”

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