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Carson swipes at GOP over convention talk

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson takes questions from reporters Thursday at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago after a roundtable meeting with pastors. Carson threatened Friday to leave the Republican Party amid reports of deepening concerns from GOP officials about the splintered 2016 electorate.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson takes questions from reporters Thursday at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago after a roundtable meeting with pastors. Carson threatened Friday to leave the Republican Party amid reports of deepening concerns from GOP officials about the splintered 2016 electorate. (Rich Hein / Associated Press)

Ben Carson, the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who is running for president, threatened to leave the Republican Party on Friday over a spat about next year's convention — the latest indication of how a splintered electorate is complicating the party's ability to unite behind a nominee.

The former Baltimore County resident, who registered as an independent when he lived in Maryland, reacted angrily to reports that senior party officials were preparing for a floor fight at the July convention in Cleveland if billionaire Donald Trump maintains his front-runner status next year.

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Establishment figures and donors in the Republican Party have for months expressed concern about Trump's ascension, underscoring the divide between conservatives searching for a new voice and party leaders calling for a nominee who can appeal to independents in the general election.

Trump also has taunted the Republican Party with the possibility of mounting a third-party independent run for president — a move that would almost certainly benefit the Democratic nominee in November by splitting the Republican vote.

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"I am prepared to lose fair and square, as, I am sure, is Donald," Carson said Friday. "But I will not sit by and watch a theft."

If party officials attempt to influence the convention process, Carson continued, "I assure you Donald Trump will not be the only one leaving the party."

Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer downplayed talk that GOP officials are considering a brokered convention — a less-scripted event during which campaigns compete for delegates — if a consensus nominee does not emerge.

The concern for Trump would be that the process allows establishment Republicans to coalesce around a single candidate to challenge his lead.

Fourteen Republicans are still in the hunt for the nomination, a wide field that has wrestled for months with how to confront Trump. Polls show Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz gaining ground but still trailing Trump significantly.

Trump's lead has flummoxed party officials, who are concerned that his bombastic comments on immigrants, women and Muslims will hurt the party's brand. This week, in response to the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., Trump suggested the U.S. should ban all Muslims from entering the country. The comment drew a rebuke from former Vice President Dick Cheney, among others.

Carson also has demonstrated a propensity for controversial remarks — such as when he said he could not back a Muslim for president — though his support seems to have ebbed as fears about domestic terrorism are forefront in voters' minds and as concern grows about whether his lack of political experience leaves him unprepared for the White House.

A third-party run by Carson or Trump would be a worst-case scenario for the GOP. While Carson is slipping in recent polls, an independent bid that siphoned even a few percentage points away from the party's nominee could make it all but impossible for the Republican nominee to win the general election.

Spokesman Doug Watts said Carson was appalled at reports suggesting that Republican leaders were trying to manipulate the party's presidential nominating process. He acknowledged that Carson, like Trump and the rest of Republican field, signed a pledge not to launch a third-party bid.

"The pledge isn't meaningless," Watts said. "But he signed the pledge based on everybody playing by the rules."

Carson told ABC News on Friday that he had no plans to run as an independent, even if he left the GOP. "But I certainly don't want to be a part of corruption," he said. Asked if he would rule out a third-party run, Carson said he would leave it up to the media to speculate.

Richard E. Vatz, who teaches political rhetoric at Towson University, noted a couple of political dynamics likely at play. To begin with, Carson has regularly issued controversial statements at times when his support has slipped, as it has recently. That tactic has generally been rewarded with substantial media coverage and, according to his campaign, an increase in financial support.

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The other issue is Trump's long-standing threat to mount a third-party campaign. While many Republicans have confronted him publicly, Vatz noted party leaders and other GOP candidates have been wary of pushing him out of the party entirely.

"The threat of Trump running as an independent really is the main issue," Vatz said. "That is their bind."

Past practice gives one presidential candidate control of convention planning when he or she emerges as the party's nominee earlier in the year.

Party officials agreed during a private dinner to review contingency plans should multiple candidates remain viable leading into the mid-July convention, according to multiple media reports. The Washington Post first reported the story.

The possibility of a brokered convention is a common topic of conversation for political operatives examining the turbulent 2016 election season. In that free-for-all scenario, delegates committed to an individual candidate are "released" to support someone else, and campaigns must work — and negotiate — to earn them in successive rounds of balloting.

Such a scenario would play out if none of the Republican candidates accumulate the necessary number of delegates in the state-based primaries by the time the GOP holds its national convention.

The last time a brokered convention played out was in 1976.

Meanwhile, the clock is already ticking for those considering leaving the GOP.

Texas has a May 9 deadline for independent presidential candidates to appear on the ballot — that's the earliest deadline among all the states. However, several states have deadlines in March if a candidate forms a third party, which can sometimes require fewer signatures to get on the ballot.

Trump continues to lead in polling both nationally and in early nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. After a brief run at the top, Carson has slipped into third place in many of those polls — usually behind Cruz.

Carson led the GOP field in Maryland in a poll last month for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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