PELLA, Iowa — Amid tanking poll numbers and a campaign shake-up, supporters swarmed three Ben Carson events on an icy Wednesday in Iowa, suggesting that the retired-pediatric-neurosurgeon-turned-Republican-presidential-candidate may still have what it takes to do well in the state's kingmaker caucuses.
More than 150 supporters showed up in Panora, a small town of just 1,100, and so many supporters gathered at a small Winterset café that Carson gave a second, shorter town hall for those who couldn’t fit in the room for the scheduled event. More than 350 attended an event in Pella on Wednesday evening, filling dozens of seats and standing in the aisles to hear the candidate speak.
"I do think [I'm regaining momentum,]" Carson told MSNBC after the final event. "I feel very good about what's happening, I think the timing is going to be just perfect."
The Iowa caucuses will be held on Feb. 1. For social conservatives like Carson, it's a key state to win in order to capture early momentum.
“When you’ve got a line out the door and you’ve gotta hold two rallies, it says something about Ben,” Carson’s Iowa state director Ryan Rhodes said in Winterset. Many attendees told MSNBC that they liked Carson’s values, but were still undecided in the race – often citing the current Iowa front-runner Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as another candidate they were seriously considering.
“Everyone’s obviously heard about some of the changes made,” Rhodes told the Panora crowd ahead of his town hall, referring to the campaign shake-up just before the new year, when three top campaign aides and two junior staff members quit. “You’re gonna see a reinvigorated campaign and a reinvigorated Ben Carson.”
Indeed, the candidate looked refreshed and cheerful after a lengthy break from the campaign trail during the holidays, and the big crowds across the state challenged the national narrative that Carson’s campaign is on the brink of tanking.
“The strategy is to keep talking,” Carson told reporters in Panora. “I don’t have control over a lot of external affairs. I don’t have control over what happened in Paris, what happened in San Bernardino. I don’t have control over, you know, people deciding we’re gonna try to destroy your character and your honesty. We just have to react to them as things come up.”
In the wake of terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Carson has struggled to find firm footing in the race, demonstrating limited foreign policy experience and repeated gaffes while trying to tackle the issue in interviews. His poll numbers dropped dramatically, and the five staffers cited internal tensions for their recent resignations.
At both events Wednesday in Iowa, Carson seemed determined to get back to the issues and, in particular, doggedly address foreign policy — as if to try to calm voters’ anxiety that he might be out of his depth.
“People say ‘you’re weak,’ and they say that because I’m soft spoken,” Carson said in Winterset with a laugh that seemed to underscore his frustration with his struggles on foreign policy in the 2016 race.
Carson spoke at length about the Islamic State and other terror groups, but he continually pivoted back toward Christian values — a fundamental pillar of his policy views and a key selling point in a state where more than two-thirds of Republican caucus-goers are evangelical Christians.
The divided political and cultural environment threatens the nation, he said.
"It did not come from our Judeo-Christian foundation, and we must reject it as a society," he said. "Because there are others called radical Islamic jihadists who want to destroy us. Why would we help them by destroying ourselves?"
In Winterset, attendees repeatedly asked Carson how he would handle the threat of terrorism.
Carson told voters that he wanted to close the northern and southern borders to keep out terrorists he said were entering the country illegally. He claimed that Iraqis and Syrians were flooding into the country on the southern border, and that needed to be stopped with fences and additional surveillance.
"You also need to seal the northern border, because the prime minister in Canada is going to keep a whole lot of refugees, and you know who’s gonna be among them? Terrorists," Carson said.