Mild-mannered Ben Carson doesn’t seem inclined to turn the other cheek to Ted Cruz, now that voicemail messages have been uncovered that appear to show Cruz campaign staff in Iowa falsely telling precinct captains that Carson was planning to suspend his presidential campaign.
Carson, who came in fourth in Iowa with 9.3 percent of the vote, has shown increasing public anger with Cruz over the last few days, as details about what happened on Monday night have emerged. At the same time, reports that Carson’s campaign is on the rocks financially, and is laying off large numbers of staff, are beginning to circulate.
The combination could have some toxic consequences for Ted Cruz, who is trying to follow up his win in Iowa Monday with strong performances in other early voting states. Both men have built campaigns that rest in large part on their repeated outward demonstrations of Christian faith, which has made them popular with evangelical Christians that make up much of the GOP base.
While Carson has faded considerably since the brief moment he led the polls a few months ago, his 9.3 percent showing in Iowa demonstrates that he still has a considerable following, and many of those followers are the same evangelicals that Cruz has his eye on as he looks to consolidate any support he can to challenge frontrunner Donald Trump.
The general assumption is that Carson voters’ second choice would be another evangelical or at least a candidate who leans heavily on religious themes.
That seemed to be Cruz-backing Iowa Rep. Steve King’s thinking Monday night when he sent out a tweet suggesting that Carson’s departure was imminent.
Carson looks like he is out. Iowans need to know before they vote. Most will go to Cruz, I hope. https://t.co/lW5Js50EMA— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) February 2, 2016
As the media discovers more facts surrounding Ted Cruz's campaign resorting to dirty tricks, even they are appalled.https://t.co/sOieTvJy8o— Dr. Ben Carson (@RealBenCarson) February 5, 2016
All things equal, the fallout from the Iowa results would have seemed to support that theory. With former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum out of the race, that left Cruz as the last candidate standing for voters to whom displays of Christian faith were important.
But in Carson’s mind, things are far from equal.
The tweet from King was just the beginning. On Thursday, the website Breitbart.com, which is unabashed in its support for Trump, obtained and published what it said were two voicemails left for Cruz precinct captains.
The messages, left shortly before Iowa Republicans gathered to caucus for presidential candidates, urged the Cruz organizers to tell Carson supporters at Monday night’s caucuses that their man was getting out of the race, and that they would be wasting a vote on the retired neurosurgeon.
On Tuesday, Carson accused the Cruz campaign of employing “dirty tricks” in Iowa. On Wednesday, speaking to reporters, Carson himself got Biblical on Cruz.
“I make no bones about the fact that I am a person of faith, and I believe what it says in Matthew 7:20: 'By their fruit you will know them.’” The verse, as Carson undoubtedly knows, refers to “false prophets” and is the source of the saying, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
When Breitbart released the audio recordings Thursday, the Cruz campaign posted them online and sent out a fundraising pitch in the form of an email from Carson himself to his supporters.
“This kind of deceitful behavior is why the American people don't trust politicians and don't trust Washington, D.C.,” it read. “If Senator Cruz does not act, then he clearly represents D.C. values… I call on Senator Cruz to take decisive action at a senior level within his campaign or I fear this culture of destructive behavior will only continue.”
For its part, the Cruz campaign has denied any wrongdoing, and said that its messages to supporters were just accurately reporting what was already in the news.
In fact, what had been reported was that Carson was briefly returning home to Florida before heading on to the next primary state of New Hampshire. There was no suggestion that he was “suspending” his campaign – the technical term candidates use when they drop out of a race.
However, one of the voicemails specifically used the word “suspending” to describe what Carson was doing.
By Friday, Carson was still plainly furious, not just about the events Monday night, but about the Cruz camp’s response to it.
“Not to take corrective action is tacitly saying it’s okay, or it’s sort of like, as Hillary Clinton said after Benghazi, ‘what difference does it make,’” he said in an interview Friday. “I’m not saying that it rises to the level up Benghazi, I’m saying it’s the same kind of attitude…The attitude being, it’s water under the bridge, it’s gone by, let’s not deal with it.”
It’s not clear when, or even if, Carson will drop out of the campaign, but right now, he doesn’t sound like a guy ready to throw his support, and his influence with evangelicals, behind Cruz.
In fact, if he keeps warning about “false prophets,” he may have exactly the opposite effect.