Until now, Donald Trump and Ben Carson have been content to co-exist as the two Republican “outsiders” dominating the presidential campaign scene.
Together, the bombastic billionaire real estate executive and the eerily soft-spoken former neurosurgeon have shared about half of the overall Republican support in the presidential sweepstakes while the other candidates have languished with single digit showings in the polls. But as Trump and Carson prepare for another crucial Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado on Wednesday, the gloves are definitely coming off.
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With two new polls showing Carson surging ahead of Trump in Iowa, Trump has begun lashing out with the same tactics he has used effectively against former Florida governor Jeb Bush earlier this year – saying that Carson lacks the energy and negotiating smarts to be president and that he is too soft on immigration. “Carson is lower energy than Bush,” Trump declared during a Jacksonville, Florida rally on Saturday. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”
Carson immediately retorted in Iowa that “My energy levels are perfectly fine,” noting that he often spent as many as 15 to 20 hours in the operating room during his career as a nationally renowned surgeon. In an obvious reference to Trump’s showboating, combative political style, Carson added that “jumping up and down and screaming” doesn’t qualify one to be president.
During an appearance on NBC News’ Meet the Press today, Carson said that Trump and other critics often mistake his soft-spoken manner as a sign of a lack of energy. “I have plenty of energy,” he said. “But, you know, I am soft-spoken. “I do have a tendency to be relaxed. I wasn't always like that. There was a time when I was, you know, very volatile. But, you know, I changed.”
Over the weekend, Trump also veered into more treacherous political territory – and may have offended the state’s politically active evangelical Christians -- by singling out Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith and suggesting that it somehow puts his chief rival on the religious fringes when contrasted with Trump’s more “middle of the road” Presbyterian faith.
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“I’m Presbyterian,” Trump said on Saturday in Jacksonville. “Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist I don’t know about. I just don’t know about it.”
Carson angrily demanded an apology. He also suggested during an interview on Fox News Sunday that Trump’s outbursts might be a sign of desperation, especially his attack on Carson’s religious faith after complaining two months ago that Carson had improperly questioned his own faith.
Back in September, Carson caused a stir when he credited his faith for his success in life and contrasted that with Trump, who had said that he never asked God for forgiveness and refused to cite his favorite Bible verse. Carson later apologized.
“He went a little ballistic on that, so it seems a little interesting that he would now be doing that,” Carson said. “You know, I really refuse to get in the mud pit. You know, Hillary [Clinton] was actually right when she said the Republicans are there trying to destroy each other. I really think that was a huge mistake in the last [presidential election] cycle, and I’m certainly not going to get into that no matter what anybody says.”
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Evangelical voters make up a substantial part of the Iowa’s Republican base, and it’s a group that Trump has had difficulty wooing. Why he called out Carson on being a Seventh Day Adventist and further offending evangelicals more generally is hard to fathom.
By Sunday, Trump was back-pedaling on the controversy, even while refusing to apologize to Carson for having raised the topic in the first place. Questioned by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News’ This Week on why he even brought up the subject, Trump sputtered, “I just don’t know about that particular religion.”
“I would never say bad about any religion,” Trump said. “I said, ‘I don’t know about it.’ That’s not an insult.”
For a front-running candidate who lives and breathes polling results and who has been riding the crest of an anti-establishment movement in his party, Trump suddenly has something to worry about.