Ben Carson Tries To Weather The Storm

Ben Carson is seeking to weather a barrage of media scrutiny and attacks from fellow candidates that have intensified with his ascension to the top of GOP polls.

The soft-spoken, retired neurosurgeon is pushing back hard at accusations that he has exaggerated stories about his life to craft a personal narrative that resonates with supporters.

Carson’s bid for the presidency, once considered a long shot, has steadily gained momentum throughout the fall. After a slow and steady rise, he this week eclipsed Donald Trump in a closely watched average of national polls for the first time.

With the front-runner status has come the most intense scrutiny of Carson’s political career.

And on Friday, Carson found himself in a firestorm when Politico reported that his campaign had admitted “fabricating” the offer of a full scholarship to West Point.

It’s far too early to tell whether the stories will damage Carson, who is now a favorite to win the Iowa caucuses.

"Carson can certainly weather the storm, because the GOP electorate finds him so likable," said GOP strategist Ford O'Connell.

But, O'Connell added, "If Carson loses that likability factor, his bid for the nomination is toast."

And while Carson has taken a more freewheeling approach to interviews, O’Connell said his campaign would have to be more disciplined going forward.

"Presidential candidates only get so many verbal mulligans, and the Carson camp has literally used most of them up," O’Connell said.

Read more from Jesse Byrnes at The Hill

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Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee Relegated To Undercard At Next Republican Debate

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have been demoted to the undercard for next week’s prime time Republican presidential debate, while Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George E. Pataki learned that they did not get an invite — stoking speculation as to whether their sputtering campaigns can survive the damaging blow.

Fox Business Network announced Thursday that businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will take center stage at the two-hour event in Milwaukee. The debate, scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. EST, is the fourth of the nomination race and also will feature Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who have picked up momentum.

Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist, said the candidacies of Mr. Christie and Mr. Huckabee could be doomed “because of the stigma attached to being on the undercard, and we are roughly 80-plus days to the first nominating contest.”

“There just is not enough time to recover,” Mr. O’Connell said. “Politics is all about perception, and if you are not in the prime-time portion of the debates, it is going to be very hard for voters to get excited about you given the size and scope of the current field.

“Put it another way, how does getting demoted to Pawtucket help you make a MLB all-star game?” he said, alluding to the Boston Red Sox AAA baseball affiliate in Rhode Island.

Read more from Seth McLaughlin at The Washington Times

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Jeb Bush Rebrands Himself In Attempt To Gain Traction

Jeb Bush is trying to reboot his faltering presidential campaign, using a speech in Florida to push back against critics who have already written his political obituary.

Speaking from a podium bearing his new tagline – “Jeb Can Fix It” – the former Florida governor addressed his poor performance at last Wednesday’s CNBC debate, which has many questioning his future in the race. 

While the “Jeb Can Fix It” tagline is supposed to be about setting loose a gridlocked Washington, D.C., it could just as easily be interpreted as a message about Bush’s campaign.

“Bush can conceivably recover and [the] "Jeb Can Fix It" tag line is not an accident,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who was an adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008. 

“Jeb is trying to play to his strengths - policy, substance, record,” O’Connell added. 

“Just not sure he can break through given the 2016 environment where voters want to ‘fall in love’ and are drawn to those candidates with strong personality traits who can harness the anger they feel.” 

Read more from Jonathan Swan at The Hill

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Mark Rubio Making His Mark

Sen. Marco Rubio’s recent backing from a key billionaire donor, along with his surging popularity after Wednesday’s debate, could signal a long-awaited shift in the presidential race, analysts say. The Florida senator may be poised to dethrone business magnate Donald Trump as the GOP front-runner.

The senator has an “under-selling, over-delivering” approach that stands in stark contrast with Trump — and although Rubio hasn’t left Trump in the dust yet, that seems to be the way the wind is blowing, said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily at that point, but we’re making strides toward that,” O’Connell said. “He has to continue these debate performances.”

Read more from Lindsay Kalter at The Boston Herald

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Jeb Bush Goes Negative On Marco Rubio

Jeb Bush’s campaign is taking a more aggressive and negative tone against Marco Rubio, his chief rival for the establishment mantle in the race for Republican presidential nomination.

For months the Bush and Rubio campaigns have sparred behind the scenes or with veiled or soft criticisms of one another. 

But with Wednesday’s debate highlighting Bush’s struggle and Rubio’s rise, the Bush campaign has begun to move beyond attacks on Rubio’s Senate voting record and relative inexperience into far more personal territory as it seeks to keep the up-and-comer at bay.

“They don’t want to let Rubio get too far out ahead or build too much momentum,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “He had a ground-breaking moment at that last debate and I think they’d like to cut his knees out before the next one.”

Bush’s attack against Rubio for abandoning his Senate work for the campaign trail backfired at Wednesday’s debate, as the junior senator came prepared to shut down Bush on the issue.

But it turns out, the Senate voting complaint was one of the Bush campaign's milder attacks on Rubio.  

Read more from Jonathan Swan and Jonathan Easley at The Hill

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Jeb Bush's Existential Crisis

Jeb Bush's presidential campaign is facing a full-blown existential crisis.

The former Florida governor's attempt to revive his White House hopes during Wednesday's Republican debate by taking on his former protege, Sen. Marco Rubio, backfired badly.

nstead, he delivered a performance drained of passion, fire and inspiration followed by a testy post-game interview that added up to a disastrous night for Bush.

Bush was already struggling going into the debate -- grappling with low poll numbers and a weak base in early voting states.

But his performance only confirmed and deepened damning perceptions of his political skills and questions about his stomach for the fight. And Bush is already trying to stave off the stench of decay that quickly gathers around losing campaigns.

"I think his campaign is on life support," said Ford O' Connell, a Republican political consultant not currently affiliated with a 2016 presidential candidate.

[M]any observers believe Bush might be a victim of poor timing and that his problems could therefore be insurmountable.

"In a lot of other cycles, Jeb could have run and won, but given the sort of groundswell for political outsiders and the ghosts of his last name, it is just very tough," said O'Connell.

"No matter what he says, he either comes across as privileged or entitled -- he just doesn't seem to be able to overcome it."

Read more from Stephen Collinson at CNN

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Rubio, Cruz, Strike It Big in Debate

Marco Rubio was the big winner Wednesday night in the third debate of Republican presidential hopefuls, according to a group of neutral observers who spoke to me shortly after the nationally-televised forum ended. 

The same group — pundits, academics, and Republican political consultants—also concluded that Ted Cruz made significant strides with his debate performance. Almost the entire panel felt that Jeb Bush, who badly needed to jump-start his troubled campaign, clearly fell short of meeting the hopes of his supporters.

Almost precisely seconding Madonna’s view, Republican consultant Ford O’Connell concluded “Rubio had the best all-around performance. He pushed back Jeb Bush’s attempts to paint him as the GOP's version of Obama. If Rubio continues on this path he could become the insider's choice for the nomination and possibly the party's nominee.”

But O’Connell also hailed Cruz for his firm handling of the CNBC moderators and “his entitlement explanation, which showed that he is a realistic alternative to Trump and Carson for conservative insurgents.”

“Trump and Carson had sleepy nights,” O’Connell told me, “but neither went backward with respect to the polls. Remember, Trump didn't have to beat Rubio tonight, he just had to do better than Carson. And I think he did, but Carson's likability should not be discounted.

Read more from John Gizzi at Newsmax

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Jeb Bush Debate Performance Fuels More Doubts About His Campaign

Jeb Bush needed a strong performance at Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate to silence the doubters. He did not get it.

His showing, widely viewed as lackluster, is likely to spur even more questions about his viability as a top-tier candidate, according to political strategists and donors. 

“If he was looking to revive his campaign and replenish his coffers, tonight did not do him any justice,” said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

Bush hit fellow Floridian Rubio early with a jab at his attendance record for votes on the Senate floor. But in what became one of the debate’s most talked-about moments, Rubio flipped the attack back at him, labeling Bush an opportunist. 

“He went at Rubio with a knife," O'Connell said. "Rubio came back with a gun.”

Read more from James Oliphant at Reuters

 

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The Softer, Vulnerable Side Of The Donald

Donald Trump has replaced his boasting with begging just days after losing his front-runner position in Iowa and his firm lead over Ben Carson nationally.

Much of the bravado the Republican presidential hopeful has shown in past stump speeches was absent Tuesday when pleaded with supporters in Sioux City, Iowa to help him recover his edge in the earliest voting state.

"Iowa, will you get your numbers up, please?" Trump asked the crowd of about 2,500 while promising to do "such a good job" on the campaign trail if he's able to reverse his slumping poll numbers in the state.

One Republican insider says the vulnerability Trump displayed yesterday in Iowa could precipitate an even further decline in his support.

"It could backfire," Ford O'Connell, a veteran campaign strategist and political analyst, told the Washington Examiner.

"Trump's biggest asset has been his perception of inevitability and ability to play the media like a fiddle. The one thing he doesn't want, is to have that perception of inevitability pierced," he added.

Read more from Gabby Morrongiello at The Washington Examiner

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Five Things To Watch In Tonight’s Republican Tilt

Republican candidates for the White House will face off for the third time in a debate broadcast by CNBC on Wednesday night.

The battle hosted in the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado Boulder will focus on the economy.

Here’s a look at five things to watch:

2. Will Carson get specific?

GOP strategists say Carson may need to offer more policy specifics, given his recent struggle to explain issues such as raising the debt limit.

His soft-spoken and conversational approach has been a hit with voters — his favorability ratings are through the roof.

But Carson needs to answer a key question, says GOP strategist Ford O’Connell: “Can they see him in the Oval Office?”

“Just being likable is not enough. He’s now going to have to be credible,” agreed Matt Mackowiak, another strategist.

Solidifying his support in areas outside Iowa will require that Carson sell himself as a substantial presidential candidate with a mind for economic policies.

Read more from Jesse Byrnes at The Hill

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