STATEN ISLAND, New York — “Who said there weren’t warm people in New York?” Ben Carson began, beaming on the stage of a small ballroom in this borough’s Hilton Garden Inn.
He spoke for 45 minutes to a packed house of over 200, riffing on his traditional talking points of humble beginnings and biblical tithes with a renewed vigor suggesting that his campaign hasn’t quite fallen off the cliff yet.
In the wake of an internal power struggle between business manager Armstrong Williams and some of Carson’s top staffers, the candidate said that a more aggressive campaign was on the way, reflecting the shifting tide everyone in the race has had to ride after terrorist attacks shook up the conversation.
And if tonight was any indication, Carson is ready to at least try on those new shoes.
He landed some applause lines that sounded like they could have been issued from Donald Trump’s mouth and told The Daily Beast that the militia members occupying a refuge on federal land in Oregon had good reason to do so.
“I think there’s probably legitimacy,” Carson told The Daily Beast when asked if he supported the cause of the militia. “I have already spoken out publicly about the fact that I think it’s ridiculous that the government owns so much land and that we should enact a program where the government gradually begins to restore that land to the states. ”
He added,“There’s a reasonable and rational way to do it.”
Carson has previously stated that the federal government owns 2.4 billion acres of land. The United States is only 2.3 billion acres in size.
“I think right now, the government is handling it the right way by not being confrontational,” he added.
The event was announced late on Dec. 31, in the midst of his campaign going into self-destruction mode with top-ranking staffers resigning on New Year’s Eve. Carson claimed he had meetings in New York which prompted him to stick around despite the fact that the primary for the state is three months away.
Supporters at the event resembled calmer ilk of clientele than the people who often show up to Trump rallies, ready to protest or throw protesters out.
“He’s a genius,” 30-year-old Kristen Parente told The Daily Beast before Carson began. She hadn’t decided on a candidate and said she wanted to get a chance to hear Carson speak extensively because the race “is just a pissing match between everyone right now.”
Others were seemingly on the fence as well. Robert Cutrona, 77, said that he was looking at all the candidates and that besides Carson, he is interested in Marco Rubio.
While Cutrona thought Carson’s lack of foreign policy experience might help the candidate in the long run because he would—in theory—assemble a crack team to advise him, Cutrona said the trouble in Carson’s own ranks makes him think “there may be more problems we don’t know about.”
Carson didn’t seem to be shaken by the sudden resignations of his staffers though; if anything, he appeared as if a weight had been lifted as he jostled between talk of his new tax plan, the threat of ISIS, and education, which occupied a great deal of the speech.
“The best educated people are homeschoolers,” Carson declared. “You get a good education, you write your own ticket,” a similar refrain to the story of his own educational path.
These types of claims, no matter how unfounded they may be, didn’t even stop skeptics like Parente from rushing up to Carson among the book-carrying audience members who waited for a chance to take a selfie.
Still, while the tales of his life story were decidedly Carson, the moments that engaged the crowd the most were those in which the retired neurosurgeon sounded a bit like Trump and his supporters started to follow suit.
“We’re dealing with dirty people, so we can do dirty things,” he said about ISIS, a line which could have come right from Trump’s playbook. During the Q&A session which followed his speech, he shut down a person in the audience questioning the constitutionality of Carson’s claim that Muslims shouldn’t be president.
This drew the loudest applause of the night, prompting one woman nearby to yell, “Take that, Muhammad.”