LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. (AP) — Ben Carson suggested last week the Holocaust wouldn't have happened if Jews in Europe were better armed. He argued that gun control is a bigger tragedy than a bullet-riddled body. He said the best way to confront a mass shooter is to rush the gunman.
The statements, after the mass shooting in Oregon that killed nine college students, have drawn no shortage of criticism, including from public-safety experts and the FBI. Carson's commentary on gun policy is emblematic of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
The retired neurosurgeon is a political rookie who prefers to muse on the news of the day and make academic arguments, rather than offer a clear picture of what policies he would pursue if elected.
The freewheeling approach has put Carson at the top of many preference polls, where he and billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump are looking down at more than a dozen candidates with experience developing and implementing policy in governor's mansions and on Capitol Hill.
"He's exactly the kind of man we need representing and leading our country," said Paige Mitts, a 51-year-old financial planner, as she waited outside a suburban Atlanta bookstore over the weekend to meet Carson. "Who better than a surgeon to solve the complex problems we face?"
Yet some Republicans, including Carson's rivals for the GOP nomination, question how long he will be able to stick with his style, even in an election year in which conservative discontent with anyone in elected office has powered the candidacies of Carson, Trump and former technology executive Carly Fiorina.
"Dr. Carson will have to get more detailed, have a consistent message," said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi who is neutral in the primary campaign. Influential in GOP circles nationally, Barbour is a nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the veteran politicians trying to catch up to Carson, was less diplomatic. "You know, Dr. Carson loves to sit around and speak theoretically about things," he said in an interview Friday on Fox News Radio. "I want to talk about the things that are going to directly affect the American people."
While Trump benefits from decades in the spotlight, Carson is, like Fiorina, trying to build a national profile from scratch. But unlike Carson, the former technology executive used the first two GOP debates to project a confident command of policy, firing off in rapid detail the ways in which she would rebuild U.S. military might on Russia's doorstep and detailing her interactions with foreign leaders during her career in business.
"You've got Fiorina out there proving every day that she knows her stuff," Barbour said. "Trump," Barbour added, "is just Trump."
Both Trump and Fiorina largely stuck to the popular conservative approaches to gun violence in the days after the Oregon shooting, matching a robust defense of the rights of firearms owners with a focus on mental health care.
"The Second Amendment to the Constitution is clear," Trump said at a campaign appearance in Tennessee, before noting that he has a New York concealed-carry permit. Fiorina also hammered President Barack Obama for "politicizing" the Oregon shooting with his call for stricter gun regulations.
While Carson made similar arguments, they were often drowned out by his headline-grabbing remarks. Some of his advisers have privately acknowledged that he needs to be more disciplined, but as he signed books Saturday in the Atlanta area, Carson said his place in preference polls validate his approach.
"It says that the people are waking up and they are starting to realize that listening to the pundits and the experts and the news media probably is not the right thing to do," he said.
The next morning, Carson was back on national television, explaining again why he thinks "it's not hyperbole at all" to link 2nd Amendment rights to preventing the rise of a Nazi-like form of tyranny in America.
"Whether it's on our doorstep or whether it's 50 years away," he told CBS "Face the Nation" moderator John Dickerson, "it's still a concern, and it's something that we must guard against."
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