DES MOINES, Iowa — The two top aides to Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson resigned on Thursday, citing frustration with the influence of the retired neurosurgeon's business manager and questioning his readiness for the White House.
Barry Bennett and Doug Watts, both seasoned political operatives, stepped down with less than five weeks before voters in Iowa begin the nominating process with the state's Feb. 1 caucuses.
Bennett was Carson's campaign manager. Watts was communications director. But Bennett said Carson's longtime business manager, Armstrong Williams, is the adviser who has Carson's ear, even though Williams does not have a formal role in the campaign.
Carson is "one of the smartest men I've ever worked for," Bennett said, but added that he believes Carson has become Williams' "script reader."
Bennett said that made it difficult to advise Carson and raised questions in his mind about what kind of president Carson would make if elected.
"You have to surround yourself with good people," Bennett said. "And he hasn't demonstrated that he can do that. No one wants Armstrong Williams anywhere near the Oval Office."
Williams did not immediately return a telephone message left at his Washington office.
The staff turmoil at the highest reaches of the Carson campaign is the latest setback for his presidential bid, which displayed significant fundraising power this summer and for a brief time was atop some preference polls.
But as quickly as Carson rose to the top of the GOP field, he began to stumble. Bennett says Williams led Carson into multiple mistakes, particularly in the last two months as Carson struggled to establish foreign policy credentials amid increased voter concerns about national security.
Bennett and Watts' decision to leave the campaign came a week after Carson told The Associated Press in an interview that he was considering a major staff shakeup, only to walk back those comments hours later, declaring that he had "full confidence" in his team.
Williams arranged for that interview without Bennett's knowledge. Carson's subsequent statement of support for his team was issued after discussing his initial comments with Bennett and Watts, but Bennett said Friday those events were evidence his place in the campaign had become untenable.
Carson "told everybody else 'nobody wants staff changes,'" Bennett recalled. "Why the hell did you say it then? Armstrong had given him the talking points."
The interview "was Armstrong's calculation against us," Bennett said. "Ben was just the script reader. It was horribly embarrassing to us, the whole campaign staff. One hundred fifty people went home for Christmas with their families wondering whether they would keep their jobs. Excellent timing."
Barrow reported from Gulf Shores, Alabama.