Get ready for a bizarre new dynamic in the Republicans’ third nationally televised debate Wednesday evening.
For the first time since this summer, billionaire Donald Trump won’t be at the center of the universe with all eyes riveted on him as the debate unfolds in Boulder, Colorado. Instead, the soft-spoken former neurosurgeon Ben Carson will be the man on top. And for the first time, Trump will have to figure out how to regain the spotlight – and recapture his mojo – in a race that has suddenly become more fluid and complex again.
“For once, I think you will see the other candidates ignoring Trump,” said John Zogby, a veteran pollster and political analyst. “He is on a downward spiral, predictably so, not so much for what he has said, but because Hillary Clinton's great week knocked him from his pedestal of endless news coverage. He can't take being ignored, so any efforts by him to be outrageous will simply be even hollower than they have been.”
Carson in the past several days overtook Trump in polls in Iowa, home to the first national GOP caucuses of the 2016 campaign season. And on Tuesday, he took a narrow four-point lead over Trump in a New York Times/CBS survey. This is the first time Trump has taken a back seat to anyone in that poll since late July. However, the margin of error for the sample of 575 Republican primary voters is 6 percentage points.
According to the findings, Carson is the choice of 26 percent of likely Republican primary voters, compared to 22 percent for Trump. No other candidate come even close to that: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida picked up 8 percent while former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina both had 7 percent.
The survey suggests that Carson has scored important gains with many key Republican factions. In contrast to earlier months, Carson now leads Trump among women and is running “neck and neck” with Trump among men. Carson, who is a Seventh Day Adventist, has seen his support among evangelicals rise and leads Trump by more than 20 points among that group, according to the survey.
For a presidential candidate who lives and breathes polls – and who often uses them as a club to belittle others in the crowded GOP field -- The Times/CBS survey was a stunning jolt to the bombastic New Yorker.
“I don’t get it, to be honest with you,” Trump told reporters yesterday. “I’m a little bit surprised.”
For his part, Carson seemed to take it in stride, telling CNN: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Polls will go up and down over the next year. No one should be terribly alarmed and no one should be terribly excited.”
He has a point. The RealClear Politics average of all polls to date still shows Trump ahead of Carson 26.8 to 22 percent.
Since the start of the campaign, Carson has been something of a novelty act – an up-by-his-bootstraps nationally renowned surgeon and author from Detroit who charmed conservatives and evangelical Christians with his strong conservative views on education, abortion, health care and immigration reform. Many of his assertions – like Muslims should not be allowed to serve as president, and the government should deploy military drones to combat illegal immigration and drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border – have raised many eyebrows but weren’t taken very seriously.
Yet after months of largely cruising under the media’s radar – with few willing to concede he had any chance of snagging the Republican presidential nomination – Carson suddenly is coming under intense scrutiny. He dominated last weekend’s political coverage on the Sunday talk shows.
Now he can count on drawing fire from Trump and other lesser GOP candidates like Bush, Fiorina, Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – who all desperately need to find a way to reboot their stalled campaigns. “Since Ben Carson has now taken the lead in Iowa and in a national poll, one must wonder if sharper elbows will be thrown by Donald Trump against him,” said Ron Bonjean, a Washington political analyst and adviser.
Trump has already begun a new line of attack, including his recent dig at Seventh Day Adventists for being far out of the religious mainstream. He also indicated he intends to go after Carson’s controversial proposal to replace Medicare and Obamacare with cradle-to-grave health care savings accounts financed in part by a $2,000-a-year government contribution.
Last weekend on Fox News Sunday and NBC’s Meet the Press, Carson insisted in appearances that his medical savings accounts would be optional, and that Americans satisfied with Medicare could keep that coverage. “I would never get rid of the program,” Carson said.
But that’s not what he said over the past two years when he clearly advocated medical savings accounts as replacements for Medicare and Medicaid. And Trump indicated to reporters yesterday that Carson’s proposal almost certainly would be a new line of attack in tonight’s debate, which will be carried by CNBC.
“Abolishing Medicare – I don’t think that he will get away with that one,” Trump said. “And it’s actually a program that’s worked. So it’s a program that some people love.”
Carson’s showing in the past few weeks has been impressive, although we have seen in past GOP presidential campaigns that frontrunners come and go. While many Republicans are most impressed right now with Carson and Trump, the Times/CBS poll showed that seven-in-ten Republican voters have not firmly decided on a candidate. Still, Trump has an edge over Carson here because 55 percent of his supporters say their mind is made up, while 80 percent of Carson supporters say it’s too early to decide for sure.
“The race is still in implosion mode for the outsiders,” Zogby said in an email message. “Carson will fade, Cruz will have his turn in the sun -- then watch for Bush, Rubio, [Ohio Gov. John] Kasich, possibly [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie. I do wonder if Fiorina will do well again. She could rise.”