Ben Carson: the most misunderstood candidate?

Story highlights

  • Carson's rocky few weeks have raised questions about the durability of his brand
  • A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday morning shows Carson sliding to third place in Iowa, behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz

(CNN)By Ben Carson's telling, he may be the most misunderstood candidate in the 2016 presidential race.

The retired pediatric neurosurgeon has shrugged off a series of controversies over the past two weeks by claiming that the press simply misunderstood what he said -- or by accusing reporters of deliberately miscasting his remarks.
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    In a presidential race where the old tropes of politics don't seem to apply, Carson's quirky statements and the lack of clarity about his positions on key issues didn't seem to have harmed his candidacy as he cruised atop the GOP polls, vying for first place with Donald Trump. Targeting the "liberal media" and the "secular progressive movement" was a strategy that clearly resonated among his supporters.
    But Carson's rocky few weeks have raised questions about the durability of his brand, particularly as the terrorist attacks in Paris have heightened voter interest in the foreign policy strength of the candidates, and their comfort on the world stage.
    After a string of missteps, Carson's poll numbers have taken a hit in Iowa -- the early state contest dominated by evangelicals that would be key to his path to the nomination.
    A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday morning shows Carson sliding to third place the state, behind Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who had doubled his support from October. The Hawkeye State poll has Trump at 25%; Cruz at 23% and Carson at 18% — a drop of 10 points since the previous month's survey for Carson.
    The new focus on world affairs has brought a fresh round of scrutiny to Carson's more curious claims -- from his assertion that the Chinese are involved in Syria, to his theory that the Egyptians used the pyramids to store grain, to a seeming gaffe in a Sunday interview with C-SPAN where he erroneously stated that Thomas Jefferson had helped craft the Constitution.
    "Voters want and expect a president to communicate with a high level of clarity," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. "If a candidate gets too bogged down in explanations or begins to battle their own narrative in the media on a regular basis, their leadership profile begins to suffer. They run the risk of looking reactionary instead of strong and decisive."
    "No matter who the candidate is, there's a diminishing return in placing the blame on the press or other adversaries," Madden said.
    For the most part, Carson's strategy of brushing off controversies as the product of an obtuse and clumsy press corps has served as a useful foil for his campaign.
    After angering activists last week by making an analogy between Syrian refugees and "rabid" dogs, Carson brushed off the criticism as a matter of semantics. Too many people, Carson told reporters Friday, "completely miss the big picture on anything" and "just focus on little words and things."
    When he faced pushback on his dubious claim during the recent Fox Business debate that "the Chinese are there" in Syria, Carson said at subsequent press conference that he'd never made the initial assertion: "I never said that they were," he said during a Nevada press conference last week. (After the campaign chided reporters for not doing "requisite homework," Carson said his statement that the "Chinese are there" was a reference to sophisticated Chinese weaponry in Syria "that requires support to utilize.")
    Looking to diffuse negative attention to his campaign after The New York Times recently published an unflattering article about Carson's foreign policy aptitude, Carson insisted that the foreign policy adviser quoted by the Times, Duane Clarridge, was not an adviser.
    "He's not my adviser. He is not my adviser. He is a person who has come in on a couple of our sessions to offer his opinions about what was going on," Carson said to PBS' NewsHour. "To call himself my adviser would be a great stretch, and he has no idea who else I'm sitting down and talking to."
    Carson went a step farther by distancing himself from his one-time business manager and adviser who had referred Clarridge to the Times, Armstrong Williams. Though Williams has spoken on behalf of Carson many times to news publications and television networks in recent months, Carson insisted last Friday that Williams was "a friend" with no official role in the campaign.
    If that's all a bit confusing -- welcome to the 2016 presidential race.
    Carson's outsider appeal has served him well in the GOP contest. But as the primaries draw closer, voters often tend to sharpen their focus on each candidate's policy positions. Even though he remains among the most well-liked of the GOP candidates, the continual state of confusion about his policy stances could end up being a problem for his campaign.
    In a recent Bloomberg poll while dueling with Trump for the top position, Carson showed enviable strengths in voters' personal perceptions of him. He far outpaced Trump, for example, when voters were asked who had the "better temperament to be president," who was "most honest and trustworthy," and who "cares most about people like you."
    But on the flip side, Trump held a wide advantage over Carson on who would best handle the economy, illegal immigration and a broader question of who "knows the most about how to get things done."

    9/11 celebrations?

    Monday, Carson appeared to agree with Trump when the billionaire businessman told reporters Muslim were celebrating in New Jersey following the September 11, 2001, attacks.
    "I saw the film of it, yes," Carson said in Nevada on Monday. Asked what kind of film, he said: "The newsreels."
    "I think that was an inappropriate response," Carson added. "I don't know if on the basis of that you can say all Muslims are bad people. I really think that would be a stretch."
    But later in the day, his campaign put some distance between Carson and his earlier words, saying the videos at issue were from outside the United States.
    "Dr. Carson does not stand behind the statement attributed to him early today regarding events surrounding 9/11," Carson's communications director Doug Watts said in a statement. "He does not believe Muslim Americans in New Jersey were celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers, rather he recalls the ample news footage of crowds in the Middle East celebrating the tragic events of 9/11. He found their jubilation inappropriate and disturbing, but did not and does not consider it representative of the Muslim American population or the Muslim population at-large."

    Terri Schiavo case

    Carson's recent verbal tangles over the handling of the sensitive Terri Schiavo case and the treatment of Syrian refugees were exactly the sort of exchanges that could spell trouble for Carson's candidacy -- with one issue testing his ability to broaden his appeal beyond the GOP base, and the other testing loyalty among his core supporters, evangelicals.
    In both cases, Carson seemed to have spoken off the cuff -- later insisting that he had not intended to offend and backpedaling to limit political damage.
    When talking about Schiavo's case, a multi-year legal battle of intense interest to evangelicals, Carson answered several straightforward questions from a reporter during a recent visit to Florida with answers that seemed to leave little room for misinterpretation. He later sought to reframe his remarks in an interview with LifeSiteNews where he said his comments had been "taken out of context and misinterpreted" by reporters.
    In the exchange with Carson over Schiavo, the reporter had noted that Jeb Bush, one of Carson's GOP rivals, had been Florida's governor during the legal struggle over the fate of the brain damaged 41-year-old woman, who died after her brother and parents lost their battle to block the removal of her feeding tube. Even after the courts had decided the matter in 2005, state and federal lawmakers tried to prevent authorities from granting Schiavo's husband's request to remove her feeding tube.
    Both Bush and members of the Florida legislature "moved to overturn the court decision on Terri Schiavo -- to force the feeding tube to be reinserted," the reporter said to Carson: "What was your view of that as a doctor at the time?"
    "Well, I said at the time, we face those kind of issues all the time and while I don't believe in euthanasia, you have to recognize that people who are in that condition, do have a series of medical problems that occur that will take them out," Carson told the Florida reporter. "And your job is to keep them comfortable throughout that process and not to treat everything that comes up."
    The reporter followed up by asking Carson whether the candidate thought it "was appropriate for Congress and the Legislature to act?"
    "I don't think it needed to get to that level," Carson responded. "I think it was much to do about nothing. Those things are taken care of every single day just the way that I just described."
    Days later, after Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler, said Carson "owes every pro-life advocate an apology" for his answer, Carson said that his "much to do about nothing" remark was misunderstood.
    "When I used the term 'much ado about nothing,' my point was that the media tried to create the impression that the pro-life community was nutty and going way overboard with the support of the patient," Dr. Carson told LifeSiteNews. He told the publication that he would not have supported the judicial decision to remove Schiavo's feeding tube.
    But it was not just that issue that had caused confusion. Toward the end of last week, Carson's press gaggle centered almost entirely on clarifying recent remarks about his foreign policy advisers, the monitoring of terrorists and what he "actually said" in his analogy between rabid dogs and Syrian refugees.
    "Listen to what I'm actually saying," Carson told reporters. "Stop listening to the narrative of those who want to try to create doubt in people's minds."