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Ben Carson hints at major campaign shakeup, then takes it back

Ben Carson is willing to do whatever it takes to regain momentum for his struggling presidential campaign — including a remaking of his senior campaign staff.

Or perhaps not.

“Everything. Everything is on the table,” the Republican presidential candidate explained Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press after hinting that “personnel changes” could come. “Every single thing is on the table. I’m looking carefully.”

Then, in a statement issued in his name shortly after the AP article was published, Carson said he has “100 percent confidence in my campaign team.”

The confusion comes as former Carson advisers tell POLITICO that a shakeup is necessary and perhaps imminent as the retired neurosurgeon has plunged in recent polls amid questions about his personal narrative and foreign policy acumen.

“It is not too late for Ben to turn it around. This is actually an opportunity for him to demonstrate true leadership by making needed adjustments and responding to whatever the issues are in his campaign,” said Terry Giles, a longtime Carson friend who left the campaign in October, in a recent interview prior to Carson’s comments to the AP.

Bill Millis, a North Carolina businessman who had been a member of the campaign’s three-man board before departing last month because of strategic differences, said Carson had been led astray by “insiders” running his campaign — and he singled out Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett, a longtime political operative, as the root of the problem.

“It’s really more the Barry Bennetts of the world [who are the problem]. Barry was not Dr. Carson’s first choice,” Millis said. “I don’t remember which choice Barry was but it was far from No. 1.”

A new campaign manager, he said, could set a new tone for the campaign. “I think a lot of us feel that it could’ve been handled differently with a different person at the helm. Ben would’ve gotten better advice, and if he had I’m convinced he’d be No. 1,” Millis added.

The AP interview was conducted in Carson’s home, and when the AP asked Bennett about Carson’s comments, the campaign manager said he needed to speak to the candidate first. “Why don’t I have that conversation and call you back,” he told the AP.

Reached by POLITICO, Bennett denied the notion that a campaign shakeup is coming, explaining that he was unaware of Carson’s interview because he was “taking a day off.” He pointed to Carson’s updated comments expressing confidence in his campaign staff and dismissed criticism from Giles, Millis and Harold Doley, a banker and former Reagan administration official who has suggested Carson’s aides have been making an unseemly amount of money off his candidacy.

“Three people who aren’t happy doesn’t seem like a lot to me,” Bennett said. “Dr. Carson is putting out a statement expressing full confidence. Terry is a friend. I don‘t really know Millis. I have never met … Doley. We all took pay cuts to come to work here so if we are profiteers we are really bad ones. We all have different styles, but in the end it is about raising money and winning. The campaign is getting very good at both.”

Frustrations at Carson’s inability to stem his nosedive in polls, combined with a report in he Wall Street Journal this week about his campaign “hemorrhaging cash,” have begun to percolate among Carson’s allies outside the campaign. The Journal, citing internal documents, reported that the campaign is spending more than it takes in and may even be exaggerating its fundraising numbers for public consumption.

“I would like to see Ben go the distance. I think that is not possible unless there’s a complete change in the hierarchy of the campaign,” said Doley, who held a fundraiser for Carson in October. “It’s about to. It has to. If they want to go into the next six months, seven months going into the convention, and then be viable, they have to change the hierarchy.”

Carson once drew close to, or even slightly ahead of, front-runner Donald Trump in national polls and held a strong position in evangelical-friendly Iowa. But he fell to 10 percent in the latest CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday, a collapse driven by a series of foreign policy blunders at a time when Republican voters see national security and terrorism as their top concerns.

The retired neurosurgeon has provided no details about how he planned to reboot his campaign, saying in his statement only that he was “refining some operational practices and streamlining some staff assignments to more aptly match the tasks ahead.” He added: “My senior team remains in place with my full confidence, and they will continue to execute our campaign plan.”

Armstrong Williams, Carson’s longtime friend and adviser, suggested that the candidate was seizing back control of his campaign. “Dr. Carson is back in charge, and I’m so happy to see that,” he told the AP.

Millis told POLITICO that he and Giles had been frustrated by Carson’s top advisers’ unwillingness to let policy aides ”get close to Ben … on the things that he needed on national security and other issues.”

“They reined him in. They said he didn’t need to come out until January and start talking about policy,” he said. Giles attempted to re-engage the Carson campaign in October and said he had prepared a slew of policy papers for Carson.

“On the day I went back to civilian life, Oct. 25 , Ben was polling No. 1, the campaign and Super PACs seemed solid, and I had handed over 15 months of research on monetary, military, and foreign policy based on hundreds of hours spent with the best Republican think tanks and some of America’s brightest minds,” he said in an email. “But in the last 6 weeks things have clearly gone in the wrong direction. I am extremely disappointed to see that happening and I am not sure why it is occurring or how it was allowed to happen.”

Carson seems to recognize his credibility problem on national security — he told the AP that his task is to prove to voters that he’s tough and has what it takes to be commander in chief. “The issue that has been put out is that because you are soft-spoken and nice you can’t possibly be tough, you can’t have the strength to deal with the incredible security problems we now face,” said Carson, who has made his metric for strength a talking point on the campaign trail.

Carson said he plans to preview a strategy for Libya after Christmas, insisting that U.S. leaders and even his GOP rivals are too concerned about the Islamic State’s actions in Iraq and Syria, failing to see the threat the group poses elsewhere. “They have a global strategy,” he said of the terrorist group, adding the U.S. must be equally global to match it.

Alex Isenstadt contributed.

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