Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks during a campaign rally at the Sharonville Convention Center, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Ben Carson, the retired brain surgeon who is vying with Donald Trump at the top of the Republican presidential field, is facing tough scrutiny after questions emerged about his claim that he was offered a scholarship to the prestigious West Point military academy.

In his autobiography, Gifted Hands, Mr Carson tells an inspirational rags-to-riches story about his rise from a Detroit ghetto to become the youngest head of paediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In the book, he claims to have been offered a scholarship to West Point, but said he turned down the offer to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. On Friday, his campaign admitted he had not even applied to the college.

Donald Trump, the real estate mogul who is neck and neck with Mr Carson at the top of the polls, quickly seized on the scandal which was first reported by the political journal Politico, retweeting several critical messages including one that read: “WOW, one of many lies by Ben Carson! Big story.”

On Friday evening, Mr Carson tried to undo the damage, by claiming that he could not remember the details of something that happened decades ago. He also blamed the media, saying they were unfairly questioning him, and had not paid the same amount of attention to President Barack Obama.

According to an average of recent opinion polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, Mr Carson is supported by 24.8 per cent of Republicans — fractionally more than Mr Trump who has 24.6 per cent. While Mr Carson has risen without much fanfare, he is now attracting a lot more scrutiny.

In the book, Mr Carson, an African-American who joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps in secondary school, describes having dinner with General William Westmoreland, the commander of US forces in Vietnam, and later being “offered a full scholarship to West Point”.

“I didn’t refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn’t where I saw myself going,” he writes. “As overjoyed as I felt to be offered such a scholarship, I wasn’t really tempted”.

On Friday, Mr Carson conceded that he had never been accepted to West Point, but said he had received a verbal offer of a full scholarship. But he continued to face criticism because statements in his memoir and elsewhere created the impression that he had been accepted to the academy when in fact he had not even applied. Earlier on Friday, his manager said Mr Carson had met some “folks” from West Point at a dinner when he was in high school. “They told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC. He considered it but in the end did not seek admission,” his manager said.

While Mr Trump has stormed to the top of the GOP field with his bombastic style and skilful use of the media, Mr Carson is a soft-spoken man whose rise has confounded analysts. In interviews on the campaign trail, his fans say they like his low-key style and humble demeanour, and feel that he listens to their concerns more than other candidates.

Since surging in the polls this summer, Mr Carson has come under scrutiny for eyebrow-raising remarks, such as suggesting that a Muslim should not be US president, and describing “Obamacare”, the administration’s signature healthcare policy, as “the worst thing to happen in this nation since slavery”.

In other comments, Mr Carson has alleged that the theory of evolution has been “encouraged” by the Devil and that homosexuality is a choice. This week, BuzzFeed unearthed a 1998 commencement address by Mr Carson in which he suggested that the Egyptian pyramids had been built by the Old Testament’s Joseph to store grain — and not as burial chambers for the pharaohs.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” Mr Carson says in the remarks. “Now all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it.”

This week, Mr Carson said he still subscribed to this theory.

In his book, Mr Carson also describes how he was once consumed with “pathological anger” that resulted in him trying to hit his mother and stab a close friend. “That day when I tried to stab that young man was [my] last outburst of temper . . . I prayed to God for insight for deliverance,” he wrote.

Mr Trump tweeted on Friday: “With Ben Carson wanting to hit his mother on head with a hammer, stab a friend and Pyramids built for grain storage — don’t people get it?”

Mr Carson attacked the media on Friday for questioning some of his claims about his past, describing the coverage as “pathetic” and lies.

This article and the headline have been amended to reflect Mr Carson’s account that he received an informal offer of help to get a place at West Point.

@DimiSevastopulo

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