Ben Carson's debate strategy: Calm and cool

Story highlights

  • Carson brushed off questions about inconsistencies in his personal story with humor
  • Carson: 'We should vet all candidates'

(CNN)The calm, cool and collected Ben Carson returned to the Republican presidential race on Tuesday.

After a week of lashing out at the press for scrutinizing shifting aspects of his biography, Carson took a lighter touch at the GOP presidential debate sponsored by Fox Business. He brushed off questions about inconsistencies in his personal story with humor and an artful pivot to Hillary Clinton's role in Benghazi.
"Well, first of all, thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade, I appreciate that," Carson said to laughter.
    With the help of a sympathetic question from Fox Business moderator Neil Cavuto, Carson glided over questions about his biography by dismissing them as "lies" without any further explanation.
    A key part of Carson's story of spiritual redemption has been his account of the violent outbursts in his youth -- which include attempting to stab a friend as a teenager, hitting a junior high school classmate over the head with a lock and attacking other kids with rocks, bricks and baseball bats.
    CNN reported last week that nine childhood friends, classmates and neighbors who grew up with Carson had no memory of the violent outbursts he has described and the campaign has declined to provide further details.
    Alluding to the string of reports about Carson's biography, Cavuto noted that Carson has recently complained about a "double-standard in the media" and asserted that the press "seems obsessed with inconsistencies and potential exaggerations in your life story, but looked the other way when it came to then Sen. Barack Obama's." Cavuto then asked Carson whether he was worried that the scrutiny was harming his campaign or voters' trust in him.

    'Being lied about'

    "We should vet all candidates. I have no problem with being vetted," Carson continued. "What I do have a problem with is being lied about, and then, putting that out there as truth. I don't even mind that so much -- if they do it with everybody, like people on the other side."
    Carson then turned to what he and other Republicans view as inconsistencies in Clinton's account of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. "When I look at somebody like Hillary Clinton, who sits there and tells her daughter and a government official that 'No, this was a terrorist attack,' and then tells everybody else that [the attack was incited by] a video -- Where I come from, they call that a lie."
    The former pediatric neurosurgeon also suggested that his writings had been "misinterpreted" -- taking issue for example with a report in Politico that questioned his assertion that he was offered a scholarship to West Point. Carson has clarified that it was an informal offer and that he never applied to West Point. Pointing to that example Tuesday night, Carson said he was being held to a higher standard than Clinton.
    "We have to start treating people the same and finding out what people really think and what they're made of," he said. "People who know me know that I'm an honest person."
    Notably, though several of Carson's rivals have said vetting of his past is to be expected, none of them attacked him or engaged him on the topic Tuesday night.
    On the campaign trail in recent days, Trump has said voters should be troubled by Carson's account of his "pathological" anger in youth and particularly his account of attempting to hit his mother with a hammer.
    "When you suffer from a pathological disease, you're not really getting better unless you start taking pills or something," Trump told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly of Carson last week. "Do you think that's the right temperament to be president? I don't think so."
    At a rally in Illinois on Monday, Trump told the crowd that it was a "strange election."
    "This is the only election in history where (you're) better off if you stabbed somebody. What are we coming to?" Trump said in Springfield. "People are getting away with murder. I never saw anything like this. You can say anything about anybody, and their poll numbers go up."
    But when face to face with Carson on Tuesday night, Trump avoided engaging with Carson at all. And none of the other candidates raised questions about Carson's varying accounts of episodes in his youth.
    Debates have never been Carson's strong suit -- he gave a rambling answer Tuesday on how he would defeat ISIS and then a confusing response about whether he would break up big banks. But even as other candidates have outshined him at these forums, the famed neurosurgeon has continued to draw high favorability ratings and has risen to a commanding place at the top of the polls—challenging Donald Trump for the frontrunner position. Tuesday night did not suggest any exception to that pattern.
    Carson's calm demeanor has endeared him to his many fans, but some of his advisors want to see a more fiery, feisty Carson on the campaign trail.
    The candidate, however, clearly didn't think it was necessary to show that side in Milwaukee. Talking to reporters after the debate, he said he wasn't going to try to be anybody other than himself.
    "I am who I am," he said. "If the people like who that is, that's great but I'm not going to become someone else."