Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio was recently likened to Billy Graham, but in the battle to win over evangelical primary voters, Ben Carson may have a closer connection to the legendary Christian evangelist. The Carson campaign named Larry Ross, a longtime PR exec focusing on faith-based clients including the 97-year-old Mr. Graham himself, as its new communications director.
While Mr. Carson must continue embracing conservative Christian voters -- a key voting bloc for him in Iowa and early primary states -- choosing someone with little to no political campaign experience could be risky. Indeed, A. Larry Ross Communications, the full service agency founded by Mr. Ross in 1994, has no political clients, though Mr. Ross has done advocacy work on political issues.
The agency does boast big names in the world of conservative Christianity as clients, including Promise Keepers, Pastor Rick Warren and his Saddleback Church and dating site ChristianMingle.com. Mr. Ross worked with late Yankees hit machine and Mr. Coffee pitchman Joe DiMaggio starting in 1981, and served as field spokesman for General Motors in the late '70s.
"I think it's a difficult discipline, but if [Mr. Ross is] very professional he should be able to treat all kinds of media with the respect and service that they deserve," said Doug Watts, the former Carson campaign spokesman who exited in late December along with former Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett.
"For the past 35 years, I have been working at the intersection of faith, culture and social issues, representing a number of high-profile individuals and organizations seeking to make a difference -- for God and for the common good. During this time, I have worked in advocacy on a number of political issues, and consulted on a nonpartisan basis with candidates and campaigns from both parties, such as The Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency in 2008," Mr. Ross told Ad Age in an email.
On its website, A. Larry Ross Communications bills itself a "Christian-focused" agency which provides "values-added, cross-over communications at the intersection of faith and culture, projecting client stories emanating from or targeted to communities of faith within the context of traditional news values."
Timing could be everything, suggested Mr. Watts, who is now back to wooing clients to his communications consultancy Urban Media Group. "I think it would be a challenging situation for a non-political person at the beginning of campaign," he said. "This is the end of the campaign in the middle of a crucible."
Mr. Watts noted that as the Carson's October surge began to wane, media interest followed suit. "You're getting a lot of contacts, a lot of media contacts per day, although ours had fallen off dramatically since November…just like as though it were money and volunteers."
The Carson campaign did not respond to a request to comment for this story.
A current Real Clear Politics polling average of Iowa Republicans currently puts Mr. Carson in fourth place in the first voting state at 9%, behind Mr. Rubio's 14.3%, Donald Trump's 26% and Senator Ted Cruz's 28%.
Pastor Rick Warren reportedly was named recently to Sen. Rubio's religious liberty advisory board. As Senators Cruz and Rubio scramble for evangelicals, some falling off from Mr. Carson's supporter base, the GOP race is taking on a more religious complexion than ever. Last week, Sen. Rubio released an ad entitled "Faith," in which the candidate discusses his belief in Jesus Christ and his goal to allow his faith to influence him in everything that he does.
A recent email from the Rubio campaign suggested the Florida senator is "leading the Billy Graham wing" of Christian evangelical voters.
The Carson camp today announced the addition of Mr. Ross to its staff, along with retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Christopher Bourne, president of Bourne Executive Strategies and foreign policy adviser of the campaign, as director of policy. The Carson camp has been dogged by the candidate's lack of foreign policy knowledge and experience.
The new communications team may have to contend with Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator and TV show host, who has been a sometimes-unwelcome mouthpiece for the Carson campaign. Mr. Watts said one of the reasons he left the campaign was a series of "screw-ups" by Mr. Williams. "He fancied himself a media guru and created problem after problem for us," he said.
Mr. Williams revealed the connection between Mr. Carson and a national security expert who implied in a New York Times article that the candidate lacked foreign policy knowledge.
Added Mr. Watts, "We just weren't interested in having a guy run off your own bench onto the field and tackle your own quarterback."