An overshadowed Ben Carson trying to re-energize supporters
Ask any of Ben Carson's supporters why he's best suited to be America's next president and many will point to his vision for a country they see as distorted by liberalism and hindered by acrimonious politics.
Yet many are skeptical about whether the soft-spoken neurosurgeon can overtake the raucous crowd of candidates vying for the Republican nomination, among them Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who top the polls in the final weeks leading up to the primary season.
"I'd love for it to be Ben Carson. We need his temperament," said Ed Murphy of South Carolina, which follows Iowa and New Hampshire in the nominating process. "But it's just not going to happen."
Murphy, a business owner, attended the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, where Carson, Trump and Cruz were all scheduled to speak.
"I'd be ecstatic with any of them," he said, but added that he'll likely cast his ballot for Trump on Feb. 20.
In Iowa, which kicks off the early voting season with its Feb. 1 caucus, 76-year-old Ray Buck waited in line to hear Carson at a recent campaign stop in Cedar Rapids.
Buck called Carson "America's greatest hope" and said he'll vote for him "no matter what."
But, he said, Carson may be "too calm, too reserved" to win. "I don't suppose he'll be the president," he said.
Carson remains unyielding, maintaining a busy campaign schedule and reemphasizing his Washington outsider pitch hinged on his poverty-to-fame biography and outspoken Christian beliefs.
"Do not listen to those ... trying to discourage you," Carson said in Iowa recently when asked about his supporters' concerns, "because they want to continue down this pathway that we've been going down - both Republicans and Democrats. I represent something very different."
In South Carolina, Carson told tea party enthusiasts Monday that "every venue" during his latest Iowa swing "was standing room only." He added, "I believe God is hearing the cry of many people in this country."
Activists gave him a warm welcome, but the crowd fell short -- in number and volume -- of those that gathered at the same convention to hear Trump and Cruz speak two days earlier.
Carson's slide began in early November, almost as soon as he'd risen to share a national lead with Trump.
He also briefly topped polls in Iowa, where his message resonates among evangelical Christians -- a dominant force among Iowa Republicans.
Since then, Carson has faced questions about the details of his biography.
He's struggled to establish his credentials as a potential commander-in-chief after attacks linked to the Islamic State group in Paris and San Bernardino, California, brought national security to the forefront of the country's national dialogue.
He lost his top aides in December after a long, public squabble within his inner circle, and former campaign manager Barry Bennett questioned Carson's competence for the presidency on his way out.
Just last week, Carson accepted the resignation of his finance chairman and personal friend Dean Parker amid criticism over the campaign's profligate spending, including Parker's own salary.
His ultra-calm demeanor has also served as more of a handicap on the debate stage where bombastic exchanges among members of the crowded GOP field have won the spotlight.
After Thursday's debate in Charleston, Carson said he has intentionally avoided getting "caught up in these peripheral things that mean nothing to the American people." He mocked the back-and-forth over Cruz's insult that Trump, a billionaire businessman, represents "New York values."
"What the heck does that mean? ... It's irrelevant," Carson said.
When a tea party activist Monday asked Carson whether he's "too nice" for the job, he said he will not "yell and call people names and act like a buffoon" to win.
Carson aides point to the most recent Iowa caucus winners -- Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 -- as justification for their optimism.
Both men used a coalition of evangelical conservatives to outperform polls leading up to the caucuses.
But in both races, Santorum and Huckabee had far less competition.
This time, there are several Republican contenders vying for the same pool of evangelicals and anti-establishment conservatives, making the outcome all the more difficult to predict.
Brittany Neilly, a 32-year-old at Carson's Cedar Rapids, Iowa, stop, said she likes "a lot of what Ben has to say."
The question, she added, is "what are his chances? Is my vote going to make a difference?"
Andrew Boucher, who worked as Santorum's national political director in 2012, said Carson and several rivals must navigate that kind of "strategic voting" when the field is so large.
"It's not just a matter of who is your first choice," said Boucher, who is unaligned in 2016.
"Sometimes, it's more about your second or third choice, because you decide they are in a better position."
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