Palm Beach County’s two presidential phenoms — part-time islander Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson of West Palm Beach — are topping a new Republican poll and trading barbs over their Christian faith.
A national CNN poll released Thursday shows a majority of Republican voters favor either Trump or Carson, who have never held office and are running as outsiders. Trump leads with 32 percent, followed by Carson at 19 percent. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a distant third with 9 percent.
Republican candidates will square off next Wednesday in a debate televised by CNN from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif.
Carson ignited the faith-based fireworks on Wednesday when he was asked in Anaheim, Calif., about differences between himself and Trump.
“Probably the biggest thing is that I realize where my success has come from and I don’t in any way deny my faith in God. And I think that probably is a big differentiator,” said Carson, who moved to West Palm Beach in 2013 and is registered to vote in Palm Beach County.
“You don’t believe his faith is sincere when he’s made comments about it?” a reporter asked.
“I haven’t heard it. I haven’t seen it,” Carson replied. “You know, one of my favorite Bible verses, Proverbs 22:4, it says, ‘By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life’ and that’s a very big part of who I am — humility and the fear of the Lord. I don’t get that impression with him. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t get that impression.”
Trump, a New Yorker who has been a Palm Beach fixture since buying the Mar-a-Lago estate in 1985, fired back at Carson on Thursday morning.
“Ben Carson, you look at his faith and I think you’re not going to find so much,” Trump said on CNN. “And you look at his views on abortion, which were horrendous. And that’s I think why I’m leading with all of the evangelicals.”
Trump once called himself “very pro-choice” on abortion but now describes himself as pro-life. Carson has been an ardent critic of abortion, but recently said he did not support a ban on fetal tissue research after it was revealed he did research in 1992 using tissue from aborted fetuses.
On CNN Thursday, Trump said he’s “a great believer in God, a great believer in the Bible…Who is he to question my faith when I am, I mean, he doesn’t even know me.”
Trump, who recently declined to identify his favorite Bible verse, said Carson’s quoting from Proverbs “looked like he memorized it 2 minutes before he went on stage.”
Trump also suggested Carson’s professions of Christianity are a recent development.
“If you look at his past, which I’ve done, he wasn’t a big man of faith. All of a sudden he’s become this man of faith,” Trump said.
Calls for Carson to launch a White House bid began after he delivered a conservative speech at the 2013 prayer breakfast with President Barack Obama seated nearby on the dais. And Carson was keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1997 when Bill Clinton was president.
Trump also said Carson, a famed pediatric neurosurgeon who was the first person to successfully separate twins joined at the head, was “perhaps an OK doctor.”
Carson on Thursday said his comments about Trump’s faith were not meant to be a personal attack.
“I would like to say to him that the intention was, not to talk to him, but about what motivates me,” Carson told The Washington Post. “If he took that as a personal attack on him, I apologize, it was certainly not the intent.”
While Trump has polled well with evangelical voters, he raised eyebrows at a July forum sponsored by Christian groups in Iowa when he was asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness.
“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t,” Trump said.
He added that he does take communion when he goes to church.
“When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness,” Trump said. “And I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed, OK?”