Hours after Republican front-runner Donald Trump went after surging GOP rival Ben Carson on CNN, questioning the neurosurgeon's faith and calling him just an “okay doctor,” Carson told The Washington Post that he wanted to lower the temperature on their escalating conflict.
“The media frequently wants to goad people into wars, into gladiator fights, you know,” he said. “And I’m certainly not going to get into that.”
For months Trump and Carson, two outsider candidates who have surprised the country with their staying power atop national polls, have co-existed nicely. Earlier this month Trump said: “I like Ben a lot. He’s a good guy.”
But Trump also likes to say that he is a counter-puncher, and when he felt over these past couple of days that he was being attacked by Carson, the gloves came off.
First Carson said he didn’t see how a plan of rounding up 12 million illegal immigrants was practical -- which read as a dig at Trump's proposal to do just that. Then there was Wednesday's comment in Anaheim, California, which took the criticism to a new, seemingly more personal place: the big difference between him and Trump, said Carson was that “I’ve realized where my success has come from, and I don’t in any way deny my faith in God.”
There was no denying Trump's response: this morning, he went after Carson.
"If you look at his past, which I've done, he wasn't a big man of faith,” Trump said on CNN's New Day morning show. “All of a sudden he's becoming this man of faith and he was heavy into the world of abortion.”
Carson “makes Bush look like the Energizer bunny,” he said, adding that “Ben Carson will not be the next president, that I can tell you.”
The next logical step would be for Carson to counter-counter-punch, feed the media frenzy, while Americans grab for the popcorn. Instead, Carson wants to dial down the drama. “I’m not going to get into that fray,” he said.
“Everyone is going to be saying, ‘Oh there’s a big fight, everyone come watch the fight,’” he said. “But it's just not going to be as great as they think, because I’m not going to participate.”
In fact, he said the whole thing is a misunderstanding, and that he feels bad that Trump thought he was attacking him at all.
“I would like to say to him that the intention was not to talk to him but about what motivates me,” he said about his religion comment. “If he took that as a personal attack on him, I apologize, it was certainly not the intent.”
Carson likes to say that he is only interested in running a positive campaign, and in many respects has been true to that idea. He is calm and quiet, he doesn’t often attack his Republican opponents, and puts intense focus on his compelling life story -- his journey from poverty in Detroit, to a successful career as a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins.
But Carson does have a proclivity for saying provocative things: comparing the country to Nazi Germany, comparing Obamacare to slavery, calling for drone strikes near the Mexican border.
Carson said that he isn’t afraid to make pronouncements that get him in hot water -- but that he certainly wasn’t trying to do so when it came to Trump.
“Will there be other things that I say that people will misinterpret? Of course there will,” he said. “This won’t be the last time.”
Trump remained the GOP front-runner in the CNN/ORC poll released Thursday, with Carson in second place with 19 percent.