Politics

Meet Ben Carson, the GOP field’s positive, pleasant outsider

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at the Eagle Council XLIV, sponsored by the Eagle Forum, at the Marriott St. Louis Airport in St. Louis Friday, Sept. 11, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at the Eagle Council XLIV, sponsored by the Eagle Forum, at the Marriott St. Louis Airport in St. Louis Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. AP

Ben Carson doesn’t shout. He doesn’t throw zingers, and he rarely disparages rival presidential candidates. In a period when Donald Trump’s bluster dominates the 2016 presidential race, Carson seldom says anything provocative enough to generate TV news coverage.

All of which will make him perhaps the most extraordinary person on stage Wednesday night when 11 Republicans gather at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California for the second televised debate in an already bizarre contest.

Carson, a 63-year-old retired neurosurgeon who talks so slowly and quietly he practically murmurs, has surged into second place nationally — ahead of every other Republican except Trump — and in the critical early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. He has done it without the help of celebrity or publicity or even paid advertising but quietly, through word of mouth.

“Three months ago nobody knew who he was,” said Christie Day, a volunteer organizer and first-time political activist in St. Johns County who has devoted much of the summer to promoting Carson. “As he started doing better in the polls, people, thank God, started to look into him and watch his videos.”

There is no Ben Carson campaign to speak of in Florida, but across the state, devoted fans are showing up at auto shows, Republican club meetings, anywhere they can find a crowd to talk up Dr. Carson and try to grow his base of support. Many of them are new to politics, not especially connected to their local, state or national GOP leaders, but see something inspiring in the former Baltimore doctor who retired to a West Palm Beach golf community in 2013.

The appeal does not appear to be about issues.

Carson’s broad and vague platform — restore fiscal responsibility, fight jihadist terrorists, seal the borders — differs little from those of any of his rivals. Interviews with Florida Carson supporters suggest the common thread is more personality based, more affirming.

They refer to his character, his faith in God, his personal story as the African-American son of an illiterate single mother in Detroit who became a celebrated neurosurgeon. The former head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Carson was the first doctor to successfully separate twins conjoined at the brain.

“We lived in the most dilapidated ghetto imaginable — rats, roaches, sirens, gangs, murders. I saw people laying on the street with bullet holes waiting to die. Both of my cousins, who we adored, were killed. I didn’t think that I was going to have longevity in this nation,” Carson told a rapt crowd of more than 7,000 at the Anaheim Convention Center in California last week.

It’s a staple of his stump speech, how his mother required her children to read two books a week and never allowed them or herself to view themselves as victims.

Since the publication of his 1996 memoir, Gifted Hands, Carson has been popular on the speaker circuit. He gained widespread attention among conservative political activists in 2013 when as the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, and just a few feet from President Barack Obama, he criticized political correctness, the Affordable Care Act, federal spending and progressive taxation.

“I have never been excited or active for campaigning for any candidate ever, besides maybe putting a bumper sticker on my car or a yard sign out, but I just jumped on this thing with both feet,” said Tom Shaw, an environmental consultant in Lakeland helping organize volunteers for Carson across central Florida. “I’ve essentially taken on a second job doing this, because it is so important that we get Dr. Carson into the White House.”

Carson has never run for office before and, much like Trump, his status as an outsider to the political establishment is a big part of his appeal. Supporters describe him as the flip side of Trump — positive and nice, rather than negative and obnoxious.

“He has brilliant ideas, but he doesn’t have to shout and scream and attack to get them across,” said Emily Rodriguez, 40, a home-schooling mother of two in Tampa helping lead Carson volunteers in Hillsborough County.

Demeanor is important, Shaw said: “Many of the other Republican candidates have similar ideas, but when they disagree with someone they have a hard time doing it in a respectful manner. ... Dr. Carson doesn’t have anything bad to say about anybody. It has a lot to do with his faith, the way he was brought up. His whole story is absolutely amazing.”

Last week, reporters peppered Carson with questions about how he differed from Trump, and Carson said his faith is genuine.

“My humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life, and that’s a very big part of who I am. I don’t get that impression with him,” Carson, a Seventh Day Adventist citing Proverbs, said of Trump while campaigning in California. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t get that impression.”

He apologized a day later, saying he was wrong to question Trump’s faith. By then, Trump had already fired back, calling Carson an “OK doctor” with so little energy “he makes Jeb Bush look like the Energizer Bunny.”

The average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com show Trump with 30.4 percent support nationally, followed by Carson with 16.8 and Bush with 8.2. In Iowa, Trump leads with 27.2 percent, followed by 20.8 percent for Carson, and then 7.8 percent for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In New Hampshire, Trump averages 32.8 percent support, Carson has 11.5 percent, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich has 10.8 percent support.

Jamie Miller, a Sarasota-based Republican consultant unconnected to any presidential campaign, said Carson’s pleasant, professional demeanor and outsider status clearly are winning over many voters. Even qualifying for the ballot in most states requires a top-notch campaign team, however, and it’s not clear Carson has that. No one from the Carson campaign responded to emails and calls for this article.

“The danger for anyone running right now is to assume that the support you have today is going to be there in late January and February and March, when people are actually voting,” Miller said.

Carson likes to point out that he has been doubted many times before.

“People are saying to me constantly, 'You know, no one like yourself, a political novice, has ever been successful in running for president of the United States.’ Well, I tell you something: If I listened throughout my life to people who said, this has never been done before, this cannot be done, I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” he said in California last week, dismissing the importance of political experience.

“If you look at the collective political experience today of everybody in Congress, it comes out to something like 8,700 years. Where has it gotten us?”

Contact Adam Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow at @adamsmithtimes.

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