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Ben Carson ignores aides’ advice — and sees jump in polls

GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson posed for a photo Sunday with Ike Ikokwu, a member of Free Chapel in Gainesville, Ga., after Carson spoke during a service there.
GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson posed for a photo Sunday with Ike Ikokwu, a member of Free Chapel in Gainesville, Ga., after Carson spoke during a service there.Branden Camp/Associated Press

NEW YORK — For a long time, Ben Carson's campaign team feared that his habit of inflammatory remarks would sink his presidential hopes. They sent him to media training in Texas. The candidate pledged to police his words.

But ever since Carson remarked on Sept. 20 that he did not think a Muslim should be president, then refused to retract the statement amid a furious blowback, his campaign has watched grass-roots support grow and donations pour in.

His advisers have backtracked, deciding, in the words of one, to "let Carson be Carson."

A retired neurosurgeon seeking the Republican nomination, Carson has seemed lately to be a candidate unbound. He has uttered a string of remarks on policy and national events, some divisive and some seemingly uninformed, that have led commentators on the right as well as on the left to question his fitness for the presidency.

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And yet none of this has deterred elements of the Republican base, which in making 2015 the year of the political outsider see in Carson's provocative comments a more palatable variation on the bombastic insults of Donald Trump.

Both accuse critics of "political correctness." Now Carson is edging up behind Trump in many polls, with Carly Fiorina, a third outsider candidate, close behind.

The three candidates' collective lack of governing experience is not seen as a disqualification but rather a chief asset among supporters, particularly as Republicans in the House descend into chaos and many in the party view President Obama as an abject failure.

In recent days, Carson seemed to blame the inaction of victims of the massacre at an Oregon community college for their own fate; sounded confused in an interview on public radio on whether there was any difference between the budget deficit and the national debt; and linked the Holocaust to Nazi gun control, later calling an objection by the Anti-Defamation League "total foolishness."

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"I respect Dr. Carson for his accomplishments in life, but he's not prepared to be president of the United States," said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the Republican Party of New Hampshire. "I don't take his policy comments seriously."

Carson's remarks two weeks ago about a Muslim president came in answer to a question on NBC's "Meet the Press" about whether a president's faith should matter. "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation," he said.

His campaign team cringed at the statement and advised him to retract it, said Armstrong Williams, Carson's business manager and a top outside adviser.

They feared the comment "could be a game changer for him, and not in a good way," Williams said. But Carson refused, explaining to follow-up interviewers, who noted that the Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, that he meant a Muslim who followed Sharia law should not be president.

"In the past, Dr. Carson was very sensitive to the people in his campaign," Williams said. "He would listen to others and abandon sometimes what he feels deep down. But for the last two weeks he has said, 'No.' "

"He came alive" following the uproar over the Islam question, Williams said, and a poll for USA Today showed that three out of four Republicans agreed with him. "He has not backed down from that moment," Williams said.

Carson's campaign manager, Barry Bennett, said he never suggested that Carson retract his statement about a Muslim president. "The left is hyperventilating, thinking that somehow he thinks there is a prohibition on Muslims running," he said.

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Over three days last week, Bennett added, small donors sent Carson $1 million in reaction to the criticism he was receiving, including his statements about the Oregon shooting. When asked how he would respond to a gunman demanding to know his religion, Carson said on Tuesday, "I would not just stand there and let him shoot me."

Critics interpreted the remark as implying that the victims had not done enough to save themselves. Carson held his ground. "I'm laughing at them and their silliness," he told Fox News, referring to his critics.