One big question Wednesday night was how the Republican field would handle the rise of Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon who has seen a dramatic rise in the polls in recent weeks. A political novice who has never held public office, Carson has not only had a light campaign schedule lately but has focused very little on policy in his rare moments on the stump. At last month’s debate, Carson was mostly ignored — by both his rivals and the Fox News moderators. In fact, Carson’s most memorable moment was when he expressed genuine surprise at being called on again.
At Wednesday’s debate, Carson finally got more attention. According to a tally by National Public Radio, he spoke for roughly 13 minutes — about 5 minutes less than Donald Trump, but far more time than several rivals, including Marco Rubio (11 minutes and 21 seconds), Mike Huckabee (9 minutes and 20 seconds) and Scott Walker (8 minutes and 29 seconds).
But it’s hard to say what kind of impression Carson made with that extra time. As he has done on the trail, the retired doctor spoke in a calm — almost meek — voice at times. Though he interjected himself into debates on Iran and immigration, he offered only vague details on policy. In his most specific proposal, he reiterated his support for raising the minimum wage and suggested it should be tied to inflation “so that we never have this conversation again.” But he also threw out an idea of having “two levels” of minimum wage — one for regular workers and a lower one for youngsters just entering the workforce.
Perhaps Carson’s biggest triumph of the night was the reluctance of his rivals to attack him in the way they targeted Trump. Moderator Jake Tapper several times invited the other GOP candidates to go after Carson — but all refused. On the minimum wage, Walker punted — using the moment to instead talk up his own plan to focus on “education and skills” that would get workers into higher paying jobs.
And later in the debate, Chris Christie passed on criticizing Carson on his suggestion that the U.S. should not have gone to war in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Instead the New Jersey governor used his allotted time to tell of his own experience as a U.S. attorney after the terrorist attacks. Pressed, Christie admitted he disagreed with Carson, but he seemed hesitant to go negative on him.
And Carson likewise had no thirst for going after his rivals. After Trump delivered a long answer that hinted at his support for rolling back child vaccination requirements, Carson was asked to rate the real estate tycoon’s answer. “He’s an OK doctor,” Carson said — echoing what Trump said about Carson a few days ago. Trump responded by giving him a high five.