This article has been updated.
Dr. Ben Carson’s lead in the Republican presidential race is weakening as worldwide attention zeroes in on national security in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and the former neurosurgeon’s limited foreign policy credentials are scrutinized.
After terrorists perpetrated deadly coordinated attacks on six sites in Paris on Friday, Carson fumbled a handful of interviews in which he was asked about foreign policy issues. On Monday, the Republican candidate couldn’t answer a question on NATO. “I’m not sure,” he said after a long pause. On Sunday, asked three times, he failed to name a single ally or world leader he’d draw into a coalition to fight ISIS. Those were the most recent moments in what appears to be Carson’s ongoing struggle on foreign policy — a problem that came to the forefront when he claimed during the recent GOP debate that China is militarily involved in Syria. Both China and America say that is not true.
Now, three polls taken in the wake of the Paris attacks and released this week show Carson’s numbers dipping. In a WBUR poll of New Hampshire voters, Trump’s lead grew, up 5 points over last month to 23%, while Carson dropped three points to 13%. A Fox News poll also showed Trump at 27% with New Hampshire Republican voters and Carson tying with Jeb Bush at 9%. A national Reuters poll signaled Trump’s dominance overall: 36% of Republicans said they’d support him, while just 14.6% said they’d vote for Carson.
On terrorism, Carson fared particularly badly. Asked who was best able to handle terrorism, Americans favored Trump over all candidates: 20% of voters said he was best on the issue. Just 4% of voters said Carson was the best suited.
Making matters worse? One of his advisers said Carson needed regular foreign policy briefings to “make him smart.”
“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” foreign policy adviser Duane R. Clarridge told The New York Times.
The campaign pushed back, arguing that Clarridge, who was notably indicted, but later pardoned on charges of lying to Congress during the Iran-contra scandal, was a senile old man who was occasionally consulted. It may seem a damning assessment — that they’d consulted with someone they painted as out of touch — but it’s perhaps better than agreeing with Clarridge’s harsh assessment.
“Dr. Carson has had daily, DAILY foreign policy briefings for several months. The briefs are an amalgam of no less than five senior foreign policy advisers — Mr. Clarridge not among them,” spokesman Doug Watts told NBC News, though he wouldn’t list those advisers. The campaign said they’ll offer it up “soon.”
Former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden said “his instincts are all right,” in an interview with “Morning Joe,” adding he’d had a conversation with the candidate months ago. “But this is a database with which he’s very unfamiliar.”
Asked about Carson’s China remarks, Hayden acknowledged the China wasn’t involved in the country.
“I think he was trying to say when we’re absent from the playing field, we leave a vacuum in which other powers may enter. Now, in this particular case, the Russians are there. I would characterize the Chinese as merely interested,” he said. “And so I think he overstated the data in that point.”
Carson’s campaign admitted they need to improve how they talk about foreign policy: “We want to continue to get better at what we do in communicating his message,” senior adviser Ed Brookover told NBC News.
The voters know his “values,” Brookover said. “They understand he’s going to put American safety first and work with experts in the area and make sure American interests are represented globally.”
The campaign may need to spend some time working on messaging here at home, too: the campaign posted a map on Tuesday night that rearranged all of New England, moving five states 150 miles north. The posts were later deleted, but not before the media noticed the cartographic disaster.
This week, Carson is striving to appear as a sound voice.
On Wednesday, he released a foreign policy op-ed in Time magazine decrying “political correctness” and reiterating his calls for keeping Syrian refugees out of the U.S. The op-ed served as an attempt to boost his profile on national security issues and highlighted his controversial remarks that a Muslim shouldn’t be president.
“This Monday, I sent letters to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan urging Congress to terminate all public funding for ongoing federal programs that seek to resettle refugees from Syria into the U.S. I also call on the American people to stop viewing Islamic extremism through the lens of political correctness,” Carson wrote, espousing views shared by most of the presidential candidates.
On Tuesday, the Republican candidate told PBS Newshour that he’s still learning, but “a year from now, I’ll know a lot more than I know now.”