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This Week In Politics: GOP Candidates Carson, Rubio Take Heat

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

As the presidential primary season comes closer, the leading candidates are coming under much greater scrutiny. That's been especially true in recent days for Republican candidates Ben Carson and Marco Rubio, who've been fielding questions about their past and their finances, respectively. All those questions may come to a head tomorrow night, when the GOP candidates have their next debate. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So Ben Carson, he has this strong back story. He said he was prone to violence as a kid and found salvation in his faith. In his autobiography, he writes of getting a scholarship to West Point. But as reporters have dug into the details, some things are proven false; others just cannot be corroborated. How is he dealing with this?

LIASSON: Well, he's dealing with it mainly by attacking the media. He has said that he is getting more intense vetting than any other candidate because he's, quote, "a threat to the secular progressive movement." And that appears to be working so far. Carson's campaign says it's raised three and a half million dollars in just the last week. And as you said, Carson has said repeatedly in the past that he was offered a full scholarship to West Point. He - turns out he never applied to West Point or was granted admission. And everyone who's admitted to West Point gets, in effect, a full scholarship because there is no tuition there. Carson suggests that this is at worst an exaggeration but still accurate. As for stories of his youthful violent behavior, so far they have not been able to be corroborated or confirmed. Carson says the people involved just don't want to come forward and talk to the media.

WERTHEIMER: What about the part where he says he's getting more scrutiny than any other presidential candidate has ever had? Somehow, I cast my mind back, and that doesn't make sense to me.

LIASSON: Well, he says he has never seen this level of intense vetting before. And I think that Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama might not agree with him. And the fact is that front-runners do get scrutinized. And Ben Carson is the front-runner - one of the two front-runners - in the Republican primary. What's different now is that the media, which used to be the frontline vetter, the gatekeeper, is so distrusted by conservatives that it's very effective for Carson to attack the messenger. And so far, the two outsiders in the Republican race, Carson and Trump, have not been judged by the traditional criteria that candidates have in the past. The big question is whether all this will hurt Ben Carson or in some way help him. And of all of Carson's Republican rivals, only Donald Trump has been criticizing him for these issues.

WERTHEIMER: Marco Rubio has been facing questions about his finances. And they're not exactly new questions. He's handling it a bit differently. He seems to be kind of trying to make the best of it.

LIASSON: He certainly has. He's been facing questions about his use of a Florida Republican Party American Express card. He's been facing these questions ever since his 2010 Senate race. But he's now released two years of records that show he did pay back American Express for any personal charges on the card. And he's explained this by saying he has the same financial struggles of ordinary Americans. He's said in the past he's lived paycheck to paycheck, except ordinary Americans don't have access to a political party American Express card. The big question for Rubio, again, is, is this important to Republican voters? And will his Republican rivals be able to make this into an issue about his financial responsibility and his judgment? Jeb Bush has said these issues are fair game. But the question is, will Bush be able to turn this into an effective attack against Rubio in the debate tomorrow night?

WERTHEIMER: About that debate, it is tomorrow night in Milwaukee. And the - it's a less crowded stage this time.

LIASSON: Absolutely. There are only eight candidates on stage. Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee didn't make the cut. They won't be on the main stage. And that matters because debate appearances really are a lifeline for candidates. The Republican race now has two clear tiers. Trump and Carson are the front-runners. Then there's Rubio, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush. The Democratic race is also being winnowed. On Saturday, Democrats will have a debate in Des Moines. There were five of them the first time. But now there's only three, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.