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Coming into the Republican presidential candidate debate on Wednesday as the frontrunner, Ben Carson had the most to lose.
And he lost. Big.
It started early, when the candidates were asked what their biggest weaknesses were, in their opinion. Answers ran the gamut from humorous — such as Ted Cruz facetiously stating that he was too agreeable — to acts of political face-work, with Carly Fiorina’s talk about how she was told she needs to smile more. Carson, whose soft-spoken nature has made him the anti-establishment foil to Donald Trump’s bombast, had the chance to solidify his standing.
Instead, he was weak, opening his remarks with the fact that he had a hard time seeing himself as president until “hundreds of thousands of people told me I needed to do it.” From that point on, Carson faded into the backdrop of the stage in the Coors Events Center. Despite being the highest-polling candidate coming into Wednesday night, he had the third-least speaking time for the night, narrowly edging out Jeb Bush, who also flopped.
While candidates sparred with each other as well as the CNBC moderators, Carson remained relatively silent until questions were addressed to him directly. His tax plan, based on a concept of defunding hundreds of government programs and instituting biblical tithing (the former surgeon claimed the tax rate would be between 10 and 15 percent), was flatly questioned by CNBC’s Becky Quick. His rebuttal was stubborn and didn’t offer much insight into how this tax restructure would keep the United States out of the proverbial financial hole.
After that opener, he was largely ignored for the rest of the night. The best opportunity to solidify his poll numbers came not from his doing, but rather from a sub-par follow-up question from the moderator.
Carson, asked about his association with a controversial dietary supplement company, steadfastly refused that he had any intentional cooperation with them. The follow-up addressed whether that was an indictment on his vetting process.
Before Carson answered, the crowd, already on edge due to perceptions of anti-GOP bias, moderators, loudly booed the moderators’ table. Carson, with a half-smile, simply responded, “They know,” before CNBC went to break.
There were some positives for Carson, despite the fact that after the second break he didn’t have more than four minutes of cumulative speaking time. But when the question of Medicare came up, Carson had the opportunity to show his credentials in the medical field.
His idea to replace Obamacare with a family savings account so that families can cover their own expenses is controversial, but he at least explained it in greater detail than his tax plan. All of his ideas tied into a belief in free-market capitalism and an end to, or massive reduction of, government subsidies and regulations, which he believes cripple the economy and decrease the spending power of the individual.
But perhaps the biggest spot in which Carson simultaneously won and lost was on a question about his stance on homosexuality. While explaining that he believed marriage was between a man and a woman, he emphasized his belief that the homosexual community is protected by the Constitution and should be treated fairly. A stance like that can win some more moderate voters, but can also lose hard-line Republicans that stand against gay marriage.
In the end, a pseudo-positive take on LGBTQ issues wasn’t enough for Carson to be considered a winner or even a “middler” in this debate. A frontrunner needs to be in the top five in speaking times, and solidify their position as the top dog in the debate.
Carson did neither of these things, and disappeared at the Coors Events Center, allowing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to take center stage. There is a long road ahead for the candidates, as Boulder was only the third stop out of 12 republican debates. The next set of polls will really shape how Carson, and his staff, look at the rest of the election cycle.