The outsiders dominating the Republican presidential primaries – Donald Trump and Ben Carson – have largely stayed out of each other’s way. But with new polls showing the retired neurosurgeon finally pulling ahead of Trump in Iowa, the game is set to change.
“We have a breaking story: Donald Trump has fallen to second place behind Ben Carson,” Trump said at a Miami rally on Friday. “We informed Ben, but he was sleeping.”
Had Trump stuck with the low-energy theme – a criticism that might land harder on Carson than it did on Jeb Bush – he would have been fine. We’ve come to expect some tough jabs from Trump, even when they aren’t necessarily called for. But Trump…being Trump…had to take it a little further.
In Jacksonville the next day for another rally, Trump said, “I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
Questioned on ABC about his remarks, Trump said that he didn’t owe Carson an apology. “I know nothing about it really – I’m a Presbyterian and I had mentioned that, and I did say I don’t know about it, and in fact those are my exact words, so I just really don’t know about the Seventh-Day Adventists, and that’s what I said.”
This is the famous “here are my exact words” defense that Trump used to skate through his “blood coming out of wherever” remarks about Megyn Kelly. It’s about as believable now as it was then. Trump gets a lot of credit for his refusal to apologize, but that refusal would be more admirable if he would just stand by his comments. But hey, it seems to be working.
And to be fair, Carson can hardly complain. He’s put religion on the table by saying that Muslims should not be president. And to be even more fair, Carson really isn’t complaining. He told Fox News Sunday that he would not “get in the mud pit” with Trump, but he’s not out there crying persecution.
Trump would be wise to steer clear of religion from here on out, though. Not just Carson’s, but also his own. His “I’m a great Christian” shtick is inauthentic. And maybe he really is a deep man of faith, who knows. But his popularity is born out of his frankness and candor; when he starts talking about his “favorite book,” he comes off like he’s selling a used car with a suspicious history.