DES MOINES — It’s no surprise to find Penn grads across the country, but in a wedding hall across from a pizza joint, 12 miles outside of downtown Des Moines, Iowa? In Republican candidate Ben Carson’s campaign bus? Amy Gutmann’s kingdom really must know no bounds.
I stumbled upon 2014 Fels Institute of Government graduate Gregory Manz after being turned away from a Saturday night rally Carson hosted at NOAH’s Event Venue, a reception hall that quickly reached capacity.
“Carson was just the right fit,” Manz said to a group of reporters inside Carson’s campaign bus, which acted as a receiving area for journalists unable to gain entry to the event. The campaign bus was decked out with couches, a refrigerator, a PlayStation and television — airing the History Channel — along with framed pictures of Bible verses.
Not even Carson’s staffers anticipated the massive turnout, which grew so large that a Des Moines fire marshal had to be called in to escort some guests out once the building’s capacity exceeded the amount allowed by the fire code.
“It’s totally at capacity. We didn’t expect this many people,” Carson’s Deputy Press Secretary Stephanie Marshall told a reporter from Urban News Network.
The burst of enthusiasm may not be enough to boost the morale of Carson’s staffers, who have struggled from one high-profile crisis to another in the last month.
Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who briefly rose to the top of the Republican presidential polls, arrived in Iowa a battered candidate, trailing real estate mogul and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) by 18 and 13 points, respectively, in the most recent poll conducted by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg.
“It’s been a rough couple of weeks,” Deputy National Field Director Andrew Hughes said inside his boss’ bus. He’s been in Iowa since Jan. 4 and is responsible for getting Carson — whom he calls “the Doc” — from “point A to point B.”
Last week, a 25-year-old staffer died in a car accident on an icy road in Atlantic, Iowa, weeks after two campaign officials left the campaign in a much-publicized shakeup.
“Everyone rallied around each other,” Manz said. “It was good to see.”
Deb Schinzel, a Carson supporter from West Des Moines, also did not make it inside the venue but stayed to speak with campaign staffers. She praised Carson for his commitment to traditional conservative beliefs.
“He is such a decent man and he believes in the Constitution and what the Founding Fathers wanted for our people — you know, the people of this land,” she said. “I think he’s just the type of man we need to heal all the division in our country.”
Carson appears to be a man of some personal discipline, as he never drinks coffee, Hughes said, due to a personal aversion he developed as a surgeon preparing for delicate operations. That same self-mastery extends to another aspect of Carson’s personality popular with voters: his Christianity.
Religion, a popular issue , has been a hot topic here in the days before the caucuses.
Carson’s bus driver, who did not give his name, said his support for the former neurosurgeon stemmed from his Christian stance against abortion and respect for the Scriptures.
Tomorrow, the Daily Pennsylvanian staff will be criss-crossing Iowa to check out Trump and Cruz, the two leaders at the top of the Iowa polls.
Staff reporter Nicole Rubin, Senior Photographer Amanda Suarez and Photo Manager Carson Kahoe contributed reporting.
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