First Read: Explaining the Ben Carson Phenomenon

by Mark Murray , Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann /  / Updated 

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First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Trying to figure out the Ben Carson phenomenon

On this FEC filing day, we already know Ben Carson will have raised the most money on the GOP side. He’s now running neck-and-neck with Donald Trump nationally, per a recent Fox News poll. And it all comes after a week that could have sunk a more traditional candidate (his Holocaust/guns remarks, not appearing to know the difference between the debt limit and the debt/deficit). What’s more, Carson rarely holds campaign events, and ABC even reports that he’s taking two weeks off to sell his book. Trying to explain the Ben Carson phenomenon is one of the best political stories out there.

  • Here’s Donald Trump taking a stab at it: "I think he's a nice person,” Trump told NBC’s Katie Tur. “I don't really know why he's doing well. I mean, I will bring America to a new level…. Ben is-- you know, that's not his thing. But he certainly seems to be resonating."
  • Here’s National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar: “Ben Carson is following Jimmy Carter’s presidential playbook.”

It’s been much easier to explain Donald Trump’s rise (a combination of controversy, celebrity, and pushing the immigration button) and Scott Walker’s fall (poor debate performances, a lack of hard campaign money). But explaining Carson’s rise -- and staying power so far -- is much, much more difficult, especially considering his lack of campaign activity and his relative lack of candidate charisma.

Does a stronger-looking Clinton provide an opening for the establishment Republicans?

As Carson and Trump have demonstrated, the GOP outsiders are leading the Republican field. But here’s something to chew on: Does Hillary Clinton’s strong debate performance start changing things, forcing GOP primary voters to think more pragmatically about who they might want on that debate stage against her? Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the GOP outsiders have taken off at the same time as Clinton’s overall political standing took a hit. But the stronger Hillary looks, do Republican primary voters become more pragmatic?

It’s FEC Filing Day:Just how mediocre will Jeb’s number be?

Tonight at midnight is the deadline for the campaigns to file their 3rd-quarter fundraising numbers (what they’ve raised and their cash on hand). Here is what the campaigns have told us they raised from July 1 to Sept. 30:

  • Clinton: $28M-plus ($75M-plus for campaign)
  • Sanders: $26M-plus ($41M-plus for campaign)
  • Carson: $20M-plus ($30M-plus for campaign)
  • Bush: Between $12M and $20M (raised $11.4 million last quarter)
  • Fiorina: $6.8M ($8.5M for campaign)
  • Rubio: $6M (about $18M for campaign)
  • Paul: $2.5M ($9.4M for campaign)

But here’s who we don’t have numbers from: O’Malley, Chafee and Webb on the Dem side, and Trump, Kasich, Huckabee, Christie, and others on the GOP side. And, of course, all we have for Jeb Bush is that ballpark estimate (between $12 million and $20 million). Is his number going to be disappointing? Well, NBC’s Jordan Frasier says that the Bush campaign today ALSO will be releasing its bundlers, Jeb’s 2014 tax return, and his health record. And that has us wondering: Are all of these disclosures to mask the campaign’s 3rd-quarter haul? We’ll find out…

In reversal, Obama to leave more U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan than originally planned

Per NBC’s Kristen Welker, President Obama today will announce that he will maintain a presence of 5,500 troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2016 -- higher than then 1,000 he hoped to leave there. There are currently 9,800 U.S. troops in the country. What we can tell you: Obama has been telegraphing this move for months, and it wasn’t an easy decision for him, knowing the president’s resistance to wanting to leave a significant troop presence for his successor. More from the New York Times: “In abandoning his ambition to bring home almost all American troops before leaving office, Mr. Obama appears to be acknowledging that Afghan security forces are still not near ready to hold off the Taliban on their own.”

Another House Republican admits the Benghazi panel was intended to hurt Clinton

The hits keep on coming for the House GOP -- and the breaks keep coming for Hillary Clinton. Per MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald: “In an interview with WIBX 950 in New York on Wednesday, moderate Republican Rep. Richard Hanna said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was speaking the truth when he said this month that the committee had successfully injured Clinton. ‘Sometimes the biggest sin you can commit in D.C. is to tell the truth,’ Hanna told the upstate New York radio station. ‘This may not be politically correct, but I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton.’” The Clinton campaign, not surprisingly, pounced on the news: "House Republicans aren't even shy anymore about admitting that the Benghazi Committee is a partisan farce," spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement. “Hillary Clinton will still attend next week's hearing, but at this point, Trey Gowdy's inquiry has zero credibility left."

Reading more Biden tea leaves

Well, Joe Biden’s brother is now even weighing in on the vice president’s decision about 2016, saying that events like Tuesday night’s debate won’t influence Biden. “Everybody is trying to make hay out of the idea that Joe’s decision is based on something other than an internal barometer, but that’s simply not true,” Frank Biden told the Palm Beach Post. “It’s all about the dialogue between his head and his heart.” But if the “longtime Biden friend” who emailed Politico is really that close to Biden, then it looks like Biden World might be setting the table for no. “Anyone who knows the man even a little bit understands how much he’d like to be president. The problem is democracy and elections. He wants it by acclamation, and can’t understand why the American people have not risen up as one to insist he take the job, as he surely is the most qualified and talented by far. Again, he is hardly the only politician to view his own abilities in such an unmatched light. But when he declares that he will not run, it will turn out to have been no more real than it was a dozen years ago.”

On the trail

Clinton stumps in San Antonio, TX, where she picks up the endorsement from HUD Secretary Julian Castro… Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum campaign in Iowa… Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and George Pataki are in New Hampshire… Ben Carson raises money in Georgia… And Marco Rubio is in Pennsylvania.

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