FLORENCE, S.C. — Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s town hall here on Friday did not feel like an event for a failing campaign.
Hundreds of people packed the Florence Civic Center to hear Carson speak. And yet, though he’s able to draw a crowd, Carson is in last place in many polls of the major candidates in South Carolina’s Republican primary, which will take place on Saturday.
In a brief conversation after the event, Yahoo News asked Carson about his chances. The discussion also touched on a secret meeting he had with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to discuss alleged dirty tricks on the campaign trail.
Carson has been critical of the media throughout his campaign, which briefly attained near-frontrunner status in polls ahead of the Iowa caucuses. He kept up that criticism when Yahoo News asked if he feels he’s being “underestimated.”
“Not so much underestimated as it is ignored, because, you know, you’re not one of the chosen ones. But, you know, we’re fighting through that, because when the people hear us they know better,” Carson said.
Carson’s national press secretary, Deana Bass, told Yahoo News people are “underestimating” the “enthusiasm” he generates in South Carolina.
“This crowd alone just shows you, people waiting in line for a room this size. I think that Dr. Carson’s message of faith, integrity and common sense … it really resonates in this community. And so, wherever we go, it doesn’t matter if it’s, you know, we just stopped into Krispy Kreme, people get really excited to see him, or whether it’s a crowd like this,” Bass said. “They recognize that he’s not a politician, that he speaks from his heart and that he has a career of solving problems, and that’s what America needs right now.”
Christian faith is indeed a key part of Carson’s message. Bass said voters in South Carolina, where a large portion of the Republican electorate identifies as evangelical, born-again Christians, “appreciate” the fact that Carson is also religious.
“He does have a strong faith, and he is very clear about that. It’s not a talking point. It’s something that is sincere,” Bass said. “That sincerity resonates with people, and, you know, he doesn’t really speak in Christian-ese the way some politicians do, but it’s just a very sincere faith.”
Dr. Ben Carson speaks to cadets at the Citadel on Friday in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Carson indicated that the campaign has also been attempting to target African-Americans. Though African-Americans make up more than 27 percent of the state’s population, they traditionally vote Democratic. However, Carson, who is African-American, said he has been focusing on the community and is attempting to encourage black Democrats to cross party lines and vote for him.
“I’ve been messaging to them all week that, you know, forget about whether a person has a D or an R behind their name. Listen to the ideals, you know, the stale ideals that have kept people, you know, in a state of dependency, that have increased the number of out-of-wedlock births, the number of poverty, crime, incarceration,” Carson said. “Those are not the policies that you really want, no matter what promises they make you. What we want are people who will give us programs that will allow people to climb out of the state of dependency and become part of the strength and fabric of America.”
South Carolina has an open primary, where people can vote in either party’s election regardless of registration.
Carson has repeatedly suggested his disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa on Feb. 1 could have been affected by what he described as “fraud” from the Cruz campaign. While voters were caucusing in Iowa, Cruz’s campaign sent an email suggesting Carson had dropped out of the race. The message encouraged Cruz supporters to tell voters at the caucuses that Carson had given up while there was still time for them to switch sides.
On Thursday evening, Cruz and Carson had a private meeting to clear the air. According to the Daily Beast, which was first to report on the powwow, the pair spent “20 to 25 minutes” talking in a “storage closet” ahead of the Conservative Review convention. A spokesperson for Carson’s campaign said the meeting “did not go well.” The Carson campaign also claimed Cruz’s team leaked word of the tête-à-tête, which was supposed to be private.
Carson told Yahoo News that Cruz apologized to him for the incident in Iowa. However, he suggested they didn’t come to an agreement about whether there should be consequences.
“That wasn’t supposed to be a public meeting by any stretch of the imagination,” Carson said. “But yes, I accepted his apology and we just agreed to disagree on whether there should be accountability in that situation.”
Carson expressed confidence there would not be any similar dirty tricks in South Carolina.
“I would not expect to see that,” he said.
Bass was bullish about her candidate’s chances. Though she would not say where she hopes Carson will end up in the pack of candidates, she vowed he will outperform the low expectations most political experts have for his performance.
“I don’t even look at what place it will be, but I definitely know that we will do better than the pundits are predicting,” Bass said.