Ready for the new Ben Carson?

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: By letting two top campaign veterans resign, Ben Carson showed he's ready for all-out battle to snag third place or better in Iowa
  • Louis says Carson is trying to evolve from quiet outsider to political contender -- aims to assume more forceful demeanor

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)In shaking up his leadership team last week, Ben Carson has begun changing before our eyes from the consummate political outsider -- a soft-spoken neurosurgeon making his first run for any public office -- to a savvier, more outspoken political leader willing to mix it up in the coming Republican primary bloodbath.

And not a moment too soon, if he wants to make it to the White House.
Carson has reached that tricky moment in politics when critics of the status quo must decide if they want to remain on the outside permanently or take a chance by leaping into the messy, pulsating center of politics, where doing what it takes to win can mean discarding old allies and adopting a new playbook.
    For most of 2015, Carson was running an impressive insurgent campaign, raising more than $30 million in the first nine months of 2015 and $23 million in the last quarter, outpacing Sen. Ted Cruz and other political veterans. Carson has been a fiercely vocal critic of politics-as-usual -- the hollow speeches, broken promises and hostile press -- but he's learning that you can't break all the rules of the game and still expect to win.
    As Bill Clinton is fond of saying: you can take the politics out of a lot of things, but you can't take the politics out of politics.
    The rise of Donald Trump has made clear that many Republican voters crave red meat from their political leaders, heavy doses of bluster, posturing and threats that seem a world away from Carson's quiet, self-assured charisma.
    And while Carson expresses confidence about his ability to master new topics quickly, recent terrorist attacks drew heavy public attention to issues of defense and foreign policy where he has little experience.
    Two top Ben Carson campaign aides quit
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      Two top Ben Carson campaign aides quit


    Two top Ben Carson campaign aides quit 01:28
    To make matters worse, these challenges emerged amid campaign infighting that sometimes spilled into public view. Carson, who wants to lead the nation, had to show he could lead his campaign through his rough patch, and began making moves.
    He allowed two high political veterans, Barry Bennett and Doug Watts, to resign as campaign manager and communications director, respectively, and is responding to concerns about his grasp of defense and foreign policy matters by naming Gen. Robert Dees (ret.), a former top Pentagon official, as his campaign chairman.
    Carson is expected to trade in his modest, soft-spoken speeches for a more firm, authoritative tone in the weeks ahead, according to his friend and adviser Armstrong Williams, an entrepreneur and longtime Washington power-broker.
    All the changes appear to be driven by political necessity: He fell from 28% in the polls to under 10% in the last two months -- a drop that leaves him in fourth place behind Trump and Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
    Conventional political wisdom hold that any GOP candidate, to remain viable, must rank among the top three finishers in the opening trio of presidential primary contests in February -- the Iowa Caucuses and the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The viable candidates will then square off in a sprawling 12-state free-for-all on Super Tuesday, March 1.
    Ben Carson adviser downplays campaign resignations
    Ben Carson adviser downplays campaign resignations


      Ben Carson adviser downplays campaign resignations


    Ben Carson adviser downplays campaign resignations 02:29
    By ditching his campaign manager and communications director, Carson is preparing for an all-out battle to snag third place or better in Iowa, where he was leading all candidates, including Donald Trump, as recently as November 4. To get there, Carson is expected to offer pointed criticism of Sen. Ted Cruz, who has enjoyed rising numbers in preference polls and appears to be cutting into Carson's support among evangelical Christian leaders and voters.
    The Carson field operation in Iowa, which surprised much of the political world by quietly organizing, using Facebook and other social media, is now focused on converting the campaign's supporters into active caucus-goers.
    Carson also intends to make the top three in South Carolina, where at least one poll had him leading all candidates in early November. He'll get a considerable amount of help from his adviser Williams, a South Carolina native who once worked for the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.
    So look for the new Ben Carson at the next two Republican presidential debates, scheduled for January 14 in South Carolina and January 28 in Iowa. We'll see if the quiet doctor has completed the metamorphosis from quiet outsider to forceful contender.