Ben Carson Sidesteps Confrontation With Donald Trump

Retired neurosurgeon’s apology to Mr. Trump comes after other presidential candidates were diminished by tussles

AIKEN, S.C.—Ben Carson’s approach to handling Donald Trump’s insults differs from every other 2016 Republican presidential candidate’s: He apologizes for provoking them.

“I said something that sounded like I was questioning his faith,” Mr. Carson said in an interview at a hotel here. “I really wasn’t. I was really talking more about mine. But it was said in an inappropriate way, which I recognized, and I apologized for that. It’s never my intention to impugn other people.”

The retired neurosurgeon’s deferential display comes after Jeb Bush, Scott Walker andLindsey Graham found themselves diminished after tussling with Mr. Trump. For Mr. Carson, steering clear of confrontation with his chief competitor for antiestablishment support is part of his effort to become the anti-Trump.

The Trump-Carson collision was inevitable as the two rose in the polls together. Mr. Trump’s audacious campaign has upended Republican politics this summer, and Mr. Carson has drafted quietly behind. The former Johns Hopkins University physician, now in second place in national polls, attracts followers who desire someone willing to defy political convention—as Mr. Trump does—but prefer Mr. Carson’s soft-spoken demeanor to the brash reality-TV star.

“Trump is a flash in the pan, but he’s speaking stuff that we want to hear,” said Arthur Storer, a 77-year-old retired Navy contractor from Aiken who attended Mr. Carson’s Saturday address. “But Carson would make a better president than Trump. I think most people know that.”

While Mr. Trump holds spectacle-style events in stadiums and arenas, Mr. Carson stumps in places like the banquet hall holding this weekend’s luncheon for the Aiken Republican Club. Mr. Trump shouts his messages; Mr. Carson delivers a stump speech in such quiet tones that in some rooms it can be difficult to hear him. Mr. Trump taps into Republican anger about immigration; Mr. Carson focuses on his biography, covering his rise from Detroit poverty to become one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons.

The tiff between the two started last week when Mr. Carson was asked to compare himself with Mr. Trump and he described himself as being more devoted to his religious faith. That prompted days of attacks from Mr. Trump on Twitter and TV, in which he said Mr. Carson is just an “OK doctor” and questioned his rivals’ Bible-study assertions. “For him to read from the Bible in his memory—it looked like he had memorized it about two minutes before he went on stage,” Mr. Trump said Thursday on CNN.

Mr. Carson, in the interview, said he wasn’t sure if his attempt to bury the hatchet will satisfy Mr. Trump. “It will depend on what kind of person he is,” Mr. Carson said.

What sort of person does Mr. Carson think Mr. Trump is? “I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “I guess we’ll find out.”

On Saturday, Mr. Trump responded at a rally in Iowa, saying, “He was nice enough to apologize, so I respect him.” But Mr. Trump added: “We need energy. I don’t think Ben has the energy.”

At the luncheon, the first-time candidate accused Senate Republicans of being “bamboozled” by President Barack Obama into allowing the nuclear deal with Iran to stand. Mr. Carson, who has raised more money from donors giving less than $200 than any Republican running for president, also said he doesn’t know any Washington lobbyists and isn’t bankrolled by the rich.

“I have made it my business not to go around licking the boots of billionaires,” Mr. Carson told the approving audience. “It’s one of the reasons the pundits said, ‘You’ll never be successful.’”

Mr. Carson has released few policy specifics. He said he would replace the Affordable Care Act with personal health savings accounts. He said he favors a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country but would seal the border first. He would repeal the tax code and replace it with an 11.5% income tax and a 4% value-added tax on retail purchases.

Though Mr. Carson sought to play down his altercation with Mr. Trump, his top aides are happy to draw contrasts between the dispositions of the GOP’s leading candidates.

“One’s got to decide, if you’re an antiestablishment person, who do I really want sitting at the desk as president of the United States?” asked Terry Giles, who built Mr. Carson’s campaign team and is now running a nonprofit organization to create policy and has begun laying the groundwork for a transition into the White House. “Both have an agenda to turn America around. Which one will we be most happy with and most proud of to be president of the United States?”

The temperament appeal, he said, is directed at women, who are backing Mr. Carson’s campaign in numbers unusual among Republican candidates. While polls consistently show Mr. Trump is preferred by more men than women, Mr. Carson does better with women than men. Quinnipiac University’s poll of Iowa Republicans released Friday showed Mr. Trump receiving 10 percentage points more support from men than women. Mr. Carson did three points better with women.

The dynamic carries across the campaign. Six of 10 people interacting with Mr. Carson’s campaign on Facebook are women, according to the company’s data. Ed Brookover, Mr. Carson’s top strategist, said 53% of the campaign’s donors are women. (The Center for Responsive Politics found 38% of Carson’s donors are women, though its figures don’t include donors who gave less than $200, which aren’t individually reported to the Federal Election Commission.)

“I’m a Christian, and I think that he feels that he’s been called to this,” said Susan Brown Liles, 50, who owns a furniture business in Florence, S.C. “He’s not doing this for the power. He’s not doing this for the prestige. He’s not doing this for himself. He truly feels that God has opened these doors for him.”

Attacking Mr. Carson poses some risks. He has the highest favorable and lowest unfavorable ratings in the GOP field. Quinnipiac University’s Iowa survey found 79% have a favorable view of the retired neurosurgeon, 13 percentage points more than the next-best candidate and 19 points better than Mr. Trump.

“He seems honest, that’s novel,” Aiken real-estate agent Joan Bonder said of Mr. Carson. “He’s a listener. He listens to other people’s ideas.”


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