Donald Trump's latest shocker: He defends Ben Carson

Donald Trump has been prickly toward most Republicans in the presidential field. But he defended Ben Carson's comments about the Oregon shootings. 

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill/File
Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, right, listens as Ben Carson speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif.

Donald Trump on Wednesday defended fellow presidential candidate Ben Carson’s controversial remarks about the Oregon shooting, tweeting that the retired neurosurgeon was "speaking in general terms" when he urged victims to attack their assailant, and was not criticizing the victims.

The move marks a shift from how Mr. Trump responded to his closest rival's last big brush with controversy, when Mr. Carson last month said that he would not support a Muslim for president. Most of the GOP field distanced themselves from that remark, and so did Trump. "Anybody that is able to win an election will be absolutely fine," he said.

Carson says that his comment on a Muslim in the White House was a big boost with fundraising, and Trump's remarks on Mexican immigrants as rapists appeared to drive his poll numbers higher.

Trump's comments Wednesday supporting Carson were unusual for a man who tends to attack when an opponent is down. But the two are tied by their embrace of their political inexperience and their ability to connect with many conservatives on contentious issues such as religion, immigration, and gun control. 

“There are many similarities in that they are both appealing to angry voters,” says Henry Olsen, an expert on conservative politics and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “They resonate among … those who are most angry about the way things are.”

Indeed, Carson's statements defending gun rights in the face of the Oregon shootings in many ways echoed Trump's own platform. Trump has cast himself as a staunch defender of the Second Amendment, and by supporting Carson Wednesday, he was also burnishing his gun rights credentials among conservative voters who agree with Carson.

In that way, Trump's comments might have been more about positioning himself on gun rights than supporting Carson. 

The two have the most overlap among evangelical Christians, some of whom appreciate Trump’s blunt, in-your-face attitude. “[H]e tells it like it is, and he exudes honesty and transparency ... he’s the kind of person who is not going to deceive us,” the Rev. James Linzey,  a retired Army chaplain and vocal leader among some conservative Evangelicals, told the Monitor's Harry Bruinius,

Carson, too, “is obviously sincere, and his faith predates his involvement in politics,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. 

Polls vary regarding who’s ahead, but narrowly: In the most recent Public Policy Polling survey, Trump received 25 percent of the evangelical Christian vote, while Carson was just behind at 21 percent.

None of this means that Carson or Trump will maintain his top standing in the polls into the primaries. As Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst for the University of Virginia Center for Politics, points out, “We’re talking about polls in October 2015. The primaries are an eternity away.”

And if history is any indication, the Republican electorate will turn to stable, traditional, conservative candidates once the elections draw closer, says Olsen. “Republican voters … flock to stability,” he says.

Still, Trump and Carson’s current lead reflects “a tremendous frustration with American politics, across the board,” says Mr. Pitney. And that, he says, is something that establishment candidates ought to learn from both Trump and Carson’s early success as the primary season inches forward.

“Don’t go overboard in stressing your experience – this is a year in which that kind of talk could be fatal,” Pitney notes. Instead, “demonstrate your competence. That will make a candidate... a president.”

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