Former Ben Carson communications director: They gave Cruz a "loaded pistol"

Republican presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s former top campaign aides think Carson’s campaign botched the handling of his post-Iowa caucus trip home to Florida, the fallout of which has pervaded throughout the week.

Before the caucuses began, Carson’s campaign hastily said the candidate was heading home “to get fresh clothes,” amid speculation that he might pulling the plug on his campaign.

Barry Bennett, Carson’s former campaign manager, and Doug Watts, his former communications director, both told Business Insider that the candidate was asking for such speculation by making the announcement in the middle of the caucus fury.

“Eighteen days on the road is a long time,” said Bennett, who now serves as a volunteer adviser to real-estate mogul Donald Trump. “He’s been going at this pace now for about a year, so I understand his wanting to get home and sleep in his own bed for a night. But, last I checked, there were dry cleaners in Iowa, so he could probably get fresh clothes.”

He said he would have advised Carson to stop in New Hampshire first before heading back to Florida, to avoid any appearance that he was ending his campaign. Watts shared a similar sentiment.

Watts said he would have “vigorously” counseled against going anywhere but New Hampshire or South Carolina. He added that, if he had lost that debate, he would have been strong in telling staffers to “keep their mouths shut” about where Carson was going and when.

“I think it was a mistake to make the decision to go to Florida — even if it was to pick up a toothbrush,” Watts told Business Insider. “And I think it was a mistake to talk about it publicly. And I think it was a mistake to write a press release refuting the rumours and the tweets. So I think all around it was not wise of them to speak about it the way they did.”

Both Watts and Bennett abruptly resigned from the Carson campaign on New Year’s Eve.

The campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) sent a CNN news report to its precinct captains, which encouraged them to pass along the information that Carson was “taking time off from the campaign trail after Iowa and making a big announcement next week.” The message also urged the precinct captains to tell caucusgoers to vote for Cruz instead.

“They saw an opportunity and they twisted it and they ran with it,” Bennett said. “Some people would say that was bare-knuckles politics and that was a good move. Other people would say it lacked a bit of integrity. I would say that.”

But Watts said what Cruz did was fair game, based on what was out in the public at the time. If Cruz had made up everything about the claim, that would be a “dirty trick,” as Carson’s campaign has termed the incident.

“I think the Carson campaign handed Cruz a loaded pistol, and I think Cruz made effective use of it,” he said. “I take issue with the people who say it was dirty politics and dirty tricks.”

Bennett doesn’t think the trickery from the Cruz campaign made a huge difference in the caucuses’ outcome. But he said it’s certain some votes were lost.

On Tuesday, Carson called on Cruz to fire whomever started the rumour that was circulated to voters.

“I think whoever is responsible for blatant lying should be dismissed, absolutely,” Carson told CNN. “Unless that kind of behaviour is acceptable in your campaign culture.”

Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses, apologised to Carson on Tuesday, according to CNN. He said it was a “mistake” for his campaign to send out the notice to its precinct captains without also sending out a follow-up including the Carson campaign’s clarification about his Florida detour.

Carson accepted the apology in a statement.

But on Friday, Carson’s campaign posted voicemails from Cruz’s campaign that featured apparent staffers telling Iowa precinct captains that Carson was “suspending campaigning” after the Iowa caucuses and that they should encourage people to vote for Cruz instead.

On one voicemail, a Cruz staffer said: “Hello, this is the Cruz campaign with breaking news: Dr. Ben Carson will be suspending his campaign following tonight’s caucuses. Please inform any Carson caucusgoers of this news and urge them to caucus for Ted instead.”

Trump joined in the fracas on Wednesday. Trump, who finished second behind Cruz in Iowa, threatened to sue the candidate for what he alleged was “cheating.” He said the caucuses’ results should be nullified.

“What he did is unthinkable,” Trump said, before calling Cruz a “really fraudulent” character.

Carson, who finished fourth in Iowa, made drastic cuts to his campaign staff on Thursday. Roughly half of his team would be released, according to reports.

“Dr. Carson is going to get his campaign lean — really lean,” Armstrong Williams, an informal Carson adviser not officially part of the campaign, told The Washington Post. “One issue for a while has been too much infrastructure, and he has decided to fully address it so that he can sustain his campaign until the convention.”

Bennett said funding began to erode in mid-November and that the campaign has been adjusting to a new reality. Bennett also added that Williams’ involvement was a major reason he decided to step away from the Carson campaign, saying that it would be best for someone else to deal with him. But he said the cuts Thursday indicated that “no one else is dealing with him.”

“If you cannot afford to run any television ads in South Carolina, or in the SEC primary states, sooner or later you’re just spinning your wheels,” he said. “But you know, they have got a big debate coming up and I expect Ben might be more forceful than normal, and I’m sure they think they can use it to raise some more money. But short of a big uptick in fundraising, it’s going to be very tough for him.”

If he were to be in Carson’s ear at the moment, Bennett said he would tell him it’s perfectly fine to campaign through South Carolina and Nevada. But unless he builds up a strong ground game and pays for TV ads throughout the “SEC” primary states, the group of southern states that each holds a primary on March 1, he’s “going to lose.”

“And, at some point, you’re going to start to damage your brand, and I’d hate to see that happen,” he said. “He’s got a big following, but you know, take that following and go do some good in the world. It’s probably not going to be inside the White House.”

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