Republican candidate Ben Carson is seeking to take control of his struggling presidential bid amid an increasingly public clash between his top advisers, saying Wednesday that blame for his drop in the polls lies with his campaign and that he plans to shake up his staff in the coming days.
Sitting alone in the basement of his Maryland house, Carson said in an interview with The Washington Post that no one’s job is safe, complained about budgetary management in a campaign that has spent millions, and called some of his top staffers overpaid and ineffective in broadcasting his message.
“I’m looking at every aspect of the campaign right now. Everything is on the table, every job is on the table. And we’re going to analyze it very carefully,” Carson said. “It’s not perfect, and we’re going to work on it.”
“I want to see more efficiency in terms of the way money is utilized,” he added, saying he is frustrated with his campaign being described by critics as a “rat hole” for small-dollar donations.
Carson initially declined to say whether his campaign manager, Barry Bennett, would remain in charge. He was coy and responded by saying changes could come as soon as “tomorrow” and certainly before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.
The comments caught many of his advisers off guard, leading to confusion within the campaign’s ranks about his strategy and team for the final stretch before the primaries. They also raised questions about who is making decisions and who holds more influence with Carson. “Dr. Carson is back in charge,” said press secretary Deana Bass when asked about the potential campaign changes. As for Bennett’s role, Bass said of Carson: “This is his campaign, and these are his decisions.”
Just hours later, Carson sought to minimize the scale of the shake-up in a statement saying his senior advisers would remain in place “with my full confidence.”
“We have come a long way and accomplished great things together, and together we look forward to winning in Iowa and beyond,” Carson said. “We are refining some operational practices and streamlining some staff assignments to more aptly match the tasks ahead.”
But according to two Republicans close to Carson, the retired neurosurgeon has been interviewing consultants for prominent roles in the campaign without Bennett’s knowledge. They said Logan Delany, a Carson confidant, is spearheading the process. The two Republicans spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Disagreements within the campaign’s highest ranks have broken out into the open on numerous occasions, pointing to a persistent and sharp division between Armstrong Williams — Carson’s longtime business manager who is not formally part of the campaign — and Bennett, a Republican operative. Williams and Bennett have been battling over Carson’s image and approach, Republicans said, to the point where they often communicate directly to Carson with competing messages.
On Wednesday, the two also offered competing portraits of a campaign in rapid decline.
“We had our standard 3:30 p.m. call and I asked him about the story. He said he has 100 percent faith in the team,” Bennett told The Post on Wednesday. “Dr. Carson was talking about the campaign and the mechanics, not the people.”
Carson’s interview with The Post was one of several he conducted Wednesday to discuss the state of his campaign and his decision to make personnel changes. The Associated Press reported earlier Wednesday that staffing changes were expected.
Williams set up the interviews on his own without Bennett’s involvement or knowledge. In a phone interview shortly after speaking to Carson late Wednesday, Williams said: “Take what the candidate said to you, in his home and on his invitation, seriously. That is what he said and what he believes.”
Carson said that his staffers will probably face salary cuts. “It’s one of the things we’re looking at: making sure everyone’s salary is in line with the standard,” he said. He grumbled that some aides are paid “5 percent above average.”
The last-ditch effort to revive what just weeks ago was a front-running bid comes as Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) have begun to dominate the conservative side of the GOP race.
Carson insisted that his soft-spoken style and faith-infused pitch were not to blame for his steady decline. “The key thing for me is going to be not changing,” he said. “Everybody wants you to change. They say if you do this, it’ll be better. But that’s what politicians do.”
Carson said he has been urged privately by his aides to use more “bombast” and to take on Trump and Cruz more forcefully but that he disagreed with their advice. “That’s just not who I am,” he said.
Turning toward the primary calendar, Carson said Iowa and South Carolina will be his chief focus and that New Hampshire, with its “volatile” dynamic, will be less of a target.
The retired neurosurgeon has been under heavy scrutiny over his grasp of foreign-policy issues in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., which have elevated national-security concerns among voters. Carson’s national support has dropped precipitously in the ensuing weeks, bringing him from second place just behind Trump to fourth or fifth place in most national polls.
Carson has acknowledged the difficulties on the campaign trail in recent days, even as he dismissed questions about whether his staff was to blame.
“The key thing for me right now is just to dispel the rumor that I don’t know anything about foreign policy,” he told reporters Monday in Manchester, N.H. “I just have to concentrate on making sure that people know it’s not true.”
The campaign has aggressively sought to correct course by touting Carson’s medical accomplishments and stressing that he has been working with foreign-policy experts to study geopolitical issues. Carson visited two Syrian refugee camps in November on a quick “fact-finding” journey after Thanksgiving, which he has since publicized in an attempt to gain credibility on the controversy over admitting Syrian refugees into the United States.
The candidate has wilted under the spotlight, stumbling through a high-profile national security speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition this month; he was panned for mispronouncing Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in the Palestinian territories, like “hummus,” the chickpea dip. Meanwhile, primary rival Cruz has seized the moment with hawkish national security rhetoric.
There have also emerged significant questions over the caliber of his national campaign staff, which has not only seemingly failed to prepare the candidate for the intensity of the presidential race but has time and again failed to capitalize on his momentum in the polls.
In Iowa, the Carson campaign operation has largely relied on the organic grass-roots support of Christian evangelicals. But some Iowa operatives say the campaign has done little to organize them in a meaningful way ahead of the caucuses in five weeks.
This story has been updated.