In a raucous debate in which candidates talked over each other looking for moments to stand out, Ben Carson remained true to his past performances: cerebral, quiet, almost passive.
That is the approach that has worked well for Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and political novice who took the CNBC stage Wednesday night in Boulder, Colo., as a newly minted front-runner. And in refusing to stray from his even keel, Carson is raising a question: Can he soft-talk his way into the Republican nomination?
He provided responses within the minute-long limit, with his arms folded and in a quiet, methodical tone. He was the only candidate to receive some applause after his closing statement, in which Carson thanked the audience for “being attentive and noticing the questions and noticing the answers.”
Even after days of buildup, in which he was told to expect criticism from rivals, Carson made clear his intentions from the debate’s opening moments that he would stick to his own script. He vowed to abide by Ronald Reagan’s “11th commandment” not to attack a fellow Republican and said that he “will not be engaging in awful things about my compatriots here.”
Carson boasts the highest likability ratings in the crowded field — more than 80 percent of likely voters in the Iowa caucuses, for instance, viewed him favorably in a Bloomberg Politics-Des Moines Register survey published last week — and many have been drawn to his mild-mannered, assured style.
He saved his sharp attacks for a culture of political correctness and accusations of liberal propaganda. He dismissed government subsidies as a “bunch of crap.”
He demonstrated a knack for turning audience members into allies. When the crowd booed after CNBC moderators pressed him on his relationship with a medical company that paid $7 million to settle a deceptive-marketing lawsuit, Carson looked pleased.
“See,” Carson said, insinuating the question was unfair. “They know.”
What’s unclear is whether Carson’s reserved style will be able to garner even stronger support. Despite leading the polls, Carson has only tenuous support. About 80 percent of Carson supporters in a recent New York Times-CBS News poll of Republicans said they might change their minds. He also has not released his policy stances on taxes or immigration, as many of his opponents have done.
Another major question heading into Wednesday night’s debate was whether Carson could withstand an onslaught of pointed questions and attacks that come with being a front-runner.
Within moments of the debate’s start, Ohio Gov. John Kasich jabbed Carson in a thinly veiled attack, saying that Carson “cannot do this job.”
“I’ve watched to see people say that we should dismantle Medicare and Medicaid and leave the senior citizens out in the cold,” Kasich said, referring to Carson’s past statements suggesting that people use health savings accounts as an alternative to Medicare.
Then a moderator questioned whether Carson understood the potential cost to the government of his idea to impose a flat tax based on tithing; the moderator said it would result in a massive deficit.
Carson responded calmly. “That’s not true,” he said, adding that he planned on closing tax loopholes.
“It is true,” asserted moderator Becky Quick.
Only after Kasich assailed him for having a “fantasy tax plan” did Carson roll his eyes into his head as if he were figuring out that math. He then concluded that if the flat tax was applied to corporate taxes and capital gains that the debts would be closed “pretty quickly. So that’s not in any stretch pie-in-the-sky.” And that was that.
The moment exemplified how Carson is trying to capture voters. While others onstage approached questions with seemingly more political polish and an ability to recite voting records and alleged misdeeds of their rivals, Carson was double-checking his math.
His campaign has said he has eschewed the sort of think-tank seminars and discussions with academics that other candidates often rely on to prepare for debates. Instead, his campaign found voters to pepper him with questions and to help carve out common-sense solutions.
Not only have those conversations helped to inform his policy opinions, those close to him have said, they also have changed them. During Wednesday’s debate, he acknowledged that “I was wrong” about supporting ethanol subsidies before dismissing all government subsidies as “a bunch of crap.”
Carson backers who watched the debate said they liked his approach.
Lee Vincent, a Carson supporter who helped organize watch parties throughout the Tampa area, said that he thought Carson would never fully win a debate but that the candidate’s style will still find broad appeal.
“He has integrity, and he studies problems, and he thinks before he speaks, and he does not aggravate people and instead brings them together,” said Vincent, 64, a real estate broker. He watched the debate with a group of 15 people at an Applebee’s restaurant. “But as an interested voter, I just want to learn about the candidates. I don’t want to see a mixed-martial-arts fight on TV, and that’s what we’ve gotten so far.”
Carson’s challenge now is winning over a broader audience, even when he is overshadowed onstage.