Why Trump Played Nice With Carson at the Debate

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Ben Carson and Donald Trump arrive onstage for the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 16, 2015. Photo: ROBYN BECK

Donald Trump has so far dominated his Republican rivals by sticking to the slimmest of playbooks: provoke attacks, and then pounce. On Friday, Rick Perry, who was the first GOP candidate to go after Trump in July, also became the first candidate to drop out of the race. “Everybody who attacks me is doomed,” Trump boasted to The Wall Street Journal over the weekend.

Except they’re not.

Ben Carson is the only candidate in the Republican field who is proving to be immune to Trump’s insult-comic shtick. In recent days, Carson has surged in the polls despite his recent tangles with Trump — and perhaps because of them. Since August, Carson doubled his national poll average to 20 percent. In the latest Iowa polls, Trump and Carson are in a statistical tie. In New Hampshire and South Carolina, Carson has zoomed into second place.

You would think that Carson’s rapid advance would have prompted a scorched-earth response from Trump in last night’s debate at the Reagan Library. But instead Trump made a conspicuous showing of playing nice with Carson, even as he blitzed others on the stage. When Carson challenged Trump’s claim that he was the only Republican on the dais who opposed the Iraq War, Trump reached over and shook his hand. Later, Carson questioned Trump’s claim that doctors found links between autism and vaccines. Trump responded by clarifying his position and amiably patting Carson on the back. “And that’s all I’m saying,” Trump said.

To understand why Trump decided to treat Carson with kid gloves instead of a clenched fist, you have to look at what happened in the days before the debate, when Trump feuded with Carson. Appearing on CNN to respond to remarks Carson had made about Trump’s immigration plan and religious faith, Trump doubted Carson’s Christianity, accused him of supporting abortions, and called him an “okay doctor.”

The attack backfired — badly. Carson has been a beloved pro-life figure in Evangelical circles for two decades, since he published his best-selling memoir, Gifted Hands. He earned international acclaim by performing the first operation to separate conjoined twins joined at the head. The notion that Carson is not a devout, pro-life Christian nor a brilliant doctor came across as patently absurd, even by Trump standards of truthiness. “Look at what he said. I’m an okay doctor? People know better than that,” Carson told me after the debate. “People know I have never performed an abortion. He’s just taking Democratic talking points, and they know that. So, you know, that probably makes his numbers go down.”

Inside Trump Tower, Trump’s botched attack on Carson caused concern, according to multiple sources close to the campaign. Like Trump, Carson is an outsider candidate who is appealing to anti-Establishment voters frustrated with the system. Attacking Jeb Bush is one thing, but Trump can’t afford to alienate Carson voters. “I’m hearing Donald is very worried about Carson’s surge. He doesn’t know how to handle him,” a prominent conservative who speaks regularly with Trump told me. Another Trump friend said that Trump made a tactical error by taking a shot at Carson. “You can’t go after Dr. Carson personally. Folks think too highly of him.” A source told me that former Trump adviser Roger Stone, who is still supporting the campaign, recently sent Trump a memo telling him not to attack Carson head-on. “Calling him a so-so doctor wasn’t effective,” Stone said when I asked him about it. “Trump should say Carson would be a good surgeon general in a Trump administration. Praise him and put him in a box. End of story.” Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had a Trumpian response when I asked if the campaign was struggling to deal with Carson. “We’re not worried, and anyone who told you that is a boldface liar,” he said.

Carson’s emergence as a serious Trump alternative also adds more complexity to the already complicated Trump–Fox News relationship. According to multiple Fox sources, Fox chairman Roger Ailes has been impressed by Carson, a former Fox pundit, and is promoting his candidacy inside the network. Sources said this is a subtle strategy to undermine Trump. “Roger has told producers to push Carson and put him on whenever he wants to go on,” one Fox personality told me.