GOP Presidential Campaign Rapidly Turning into a Two-Man Race
Policy + Politics

GOP Presidential Campaign Rapidly Turning into a Two-Man Race

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As Republicans brace for a second major debate next week, the quest for the GOP presidential nomination has turned into a race between two Washington outsiders – billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

It has been no secret for months that GOP voters have tired of conventional politicians and have been transfixed by Trump’s brash barnstorming and attacks on illegal immigrants and “stupid” government leaders. The astounding development just six months before the first primary votes are cast is that many of Trump’s and Carson’s most  prominent rivals – including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida  and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker –are being left in the dust.

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A new Quinnipiac University poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers released on Friday confirms that Trump and Carson are pulling away in a crowded field of 17 Republican candidates and are displaying personal and leadership qualities that have animated the party’s conservative base.

Earlier this summer, Trump and Carson each garnered 10 percent of the support of likely Iowa caucus goers in a Quinnipiac survey. In the latest findings, Trump is on top with 27 percent of the GOP vote and Carson is second with 21 percent. Their nearest rival is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, with nine percent, followed by Bush with 6 percent and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Rubio with five percent each.

Walker, who at one time electrified Iowa conservative political gatherings with tales  of doing battle with Wisconsin public employees, has plummeted in the Quinnipiac survey from 18 percent in July to just 3 percent in the latest poll. A series of gaffes, desultory speeches and desperate efforts to keep up with the high-flying Trump appear to have hurt him in Iowa and with GOP voters nationally. Bush is doing little better, despite his fast start in raising a huge campaign war chest and lining up support among more moderate or establishment Republicans.

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“The Iowa Republican Caucus looks like a two-man race in which the Washington experience that has traditionally been a major measuring stick that voters have used to choose candidates is now a big negative,” Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said in a statement.

“With five months until the balloting, anything can happen. But the field has become a two-tiered contest – Donald Trump and Ben Carson ahead and everyone else far behind.”

The Iowa results are a microcosm of the larger national campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. In the latest Real Clear Politics aggregation of the national polls, Trump leads with 29.8 percent to 16 percent for Carson, 8.3 percent for Bush and 7 percent for Cruz. The remainder of the candidates in the field are clocking in with voter support of five percent or less.

As Trump and Carson continue to surge in the polls, a formerly reticent Carson this week began showing a willingness to challenge Trump directly on such personal issues as integrity and religious conviction. Responding to reporters’ questions before a rally of evangelical Christians in Anaheim, California earlier this week, Carson said that probably the biggest difference between him and Trump is that “I don’t in anyway deny my faith in God.”

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Carson, the only African-American In the race and a Seventh Day Adventist, has made his religious faith the keystone of his campaign – making him a favorite of the powerful political faction of evangelicals in Iowa. He apparently was teeing off against a comment by Trump, a Presbyterian, at a Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, earlier this summer that he was “not sure” if he ever asked God for forgiveness. 

Carson also has begun speaking out against Trump’s preposterous proposal for rounding up and deporting all 11 million illegal immigrants in this country and then letting “the good ones” apply for reentry. Carson said during a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco that Trump’s proposal was unfeasible and unrealistic. Carson, of course, has promoted some odd proposals as well for securing the U.S.-Mexico border, including deploying military drones to destroy drug smugglers’ emplacements.

Trump has been rather tepid in his response, calling the celebrated neurosurgeon who once separated conjoined twins an “okay doctor” and warning that Carson shouldn’t question his faith, according to media reports.

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“I’m a big believe in in God, the Bible,” Trump said.

Both men enjoy solid favorability ratings among likely Republican caucus participants, with Trump scoring best on questions about his leadership qualities. By a 60 percent to 35 percent margin, Iowans say they approve of Trump, with well more than half saying he is honest and trustworthy and cares about their needs and problems.

But Carson is the more popular of the two – garnering an overall 79 percent favorability rating and an 88 percent score for being honest and trustworthy. What’s more, the poll suggests that many Republicans surveyed would not support Trump under any circumstances, and that Carson has greater potential than Trump for picking up additional support when other candidates begin to drop out of the race.

As Brown noted, “Trump has an edge on leadership, but Carson has a 20-point margin when it comes to having the right temperament and personality to handle an international crisis.”