“I’m an atheist voter. I’m not planted here, I’m born and raised in Iowa.”
From the moment the questioner stood up and pointed his camera phone at Ben Carson at a rally in Iowa City Friday afternoon, he was clearly gunning for a confrontation. He asked Carson, a devout Seventh-day Adventist, whether as president he would adhere to God’s law above United States law.
With his signature calm demeanor, Carson clasped his hands and said, “Everybody, including atheists, live according to their faith. It’s just what they decide to put their faith in … In my case, I have strong faith in God and I live by godly principles … Fortunately, our Constitution, the supreme law of our land, was designed by men of faith. And it has a Judeo-Christian foundation. Therefore, there is no conflict there. So it is not a problem.”
Then Lynda Ambrose piped up, a 64-year-old Carson supporter from Oxford, Iowa: “I’m a Christian, I’ll pray for that atheist guy.”
“Please don’t,” the first questioner yelled back.
It was a tense moment in an otherwise classic Carson event: the candidate cycled through telling personal stories from childhood, giving history lessons about America, waxing poetic about morality, and doling out pieces of inspirational wisdom.
“There’s a reason that God gave us a brain with the ability to dream,” the former neurosurgeon said at one point. “Because sometimes the dream is the only thing that gets you through. Sometimes the going gets very, very difficult, and you have to grasp unto the impossible dream and reach when your arms are too weary, and grasp it.”
Carson’s campaign itself seems a bit of an impossible dream now too. A few months ago polls put Carson at first place in Iowa, and he’s since slipped to a position where he can merely hope to finish in the top three on Monday. According to a RealClearPolitics poll average, he’s currently in fourth place in Iowa. It’s a fall he attributes to the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, since he believes voters mistake his soft voice for weakness.
“It hurts with some people … who think toughness is denoted by how loud your voice is and how loudly you stamp your feet,” he said to reporters after the event.
Still, he remains tranquil about his prospects.
“I think we’re going to be extremely pleased with what happens,” he said of Monday night’s caucus. “And I always say, never guess when soon you’ll know.”
For voters like Ambrose, this inner peace is what makes her think Carson is the best choice. When asked why she thinks Carson’s faith would make him a good president, she replied, “I don’t know if it will. But it’s not going to make him worse than anybody else. I trust him and I think he’ll be as honest as he can be.”
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Write to Tessa Berenson / Iowa City at tessa.Rogers@time.com