Surgeon outpaces US presidential rivals
WASHINGTON — Ben Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon with no experience in the cutthroat world of Washington politics, is riding a surprising wave of support among conservatives that has placed him near the top of contenders for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.
The soft-spoken 63-year-old Mr Carson, an African-american who only officially became a Republican last year, has found an opening in the wide-open race in which 13 candidates are running for the White House. His resume of having performed 15 000 surgical operations is the most unusual of anyone in the field.
In polls, Mr Carson regularly outperforms most of his fellow candidates, who often have much bigger media profiles, much more political experience and in many cases have track records as governors or senators. While the spotlight has been on opponents like former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Mr Carson has been quietly building a grassroots following.
Mr Carson won the straw poll at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver this weekend for the second year in a row.
Mr Carson’s rise appears to be a reflection of deep dissatisfaction with traditional politicians in the Republican field, according to interviews with supporters and conservative activists. Conservatives feel their elected leaders in Washington have been unable to come up with policies to grow the economy, reduce debt and cut the size of government.
Mr Carson’s surprising popularity in the polls has translated into a high number of individual donations.
Campaign officials say Mr Carson is receiving a surge in small-dollar financial donations, up to 185 000 so far and on track for 200 000 by the end of the month, with an average of $52 (M636) apiece.
Campaign finance expert Brendan Glavin said 185 000 was a big number if all were unique donors. In 2011, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign said it had 493 697 unique donors.
Much of Mr Carson’s appeal centres on his lack of connection to Washington and his off-the-cuff speaking style: He eschews prepared speeches in favour of thoughts he jots down on index cards to which he may or may not refer.
His supporters are not troubled by his lack of political experience and indeed welcome the fact that he is new to the public stage. His support is particularly strong among Christian conservatives, who like the fact that his half-dozen books and speeches are infused with discussions about his faith.
Mr Carson told a crowd in Sioux Centre, Iowa, last week that he didn’t really want to run for president, but there were so many people clamouring for him to get into the race that he felt the call.
“I started praying about it, asking God for guidance, and I finally concluded that ‘Lord, as long as you open the doors I’ll walk through them. And if you shut the doors, I’ll gladly sit down.’ Well, he has continually opened the doors,” Mr Carson said.
Popular choice A Reuters/ipsos poll last week showed that Mr Carson was the third most popular choice among Republican primary voters (11 percent). Only former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (17 percent) and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (15 percent) placed ahead of him.
A WSJ/NBC News poll placed him fourth in the Republican race, while a poll by the conserva- tive group Citizens United of the group’s members found Mr Carson in first place with 18 percent among 4,300 respondents.
If Mr Carson rises further in the polls, chances are his positions on the issues will get more scrutiny.
In Iowa, he called for presidents to have only one six-year term instead of two four-year terms, which can only be done through the extremely difficult task of amending the US Constitution.
He has also said prisons prove that being gay is a choice, a comment he apologised for, and has referred to illegal immigrants having “anchor babies” in the United States to increase their odds of staying in the country.
Mr Carson is trying to pull off the virtually unthinkable: To become the first non-politician to be elected president since World War Two hero General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Republican strategists say, however, he is extremely unlikely to secure his party’s nomination.
“He has to show he can raise money,” said Dave Bossie, president of Citizens United. “But at the end of the day he’s got to translate grassroots support across the country into votes and that’s a tough thing to do.”
Mr Carson’s speeches on the campaign trail include the standard conservative calls for getting the government off the backs of the people without a whole lot of specifics.
But there’s also an element of faith-healer optimism based on his life, from rebellious Detroit street youth who tried to stab a friend at age 14, to accomplished physician who in 1987 led a surgical team that successfully separated conjoined twins.
Mr Carson broke through on the national stage when he upbraided Mr Obama over his signature healthcare law at a National Prayer Breakfast in 2013 that the president attended.
Anxious moments His staff is never quite sure what Mr Carson is going to say publicly since he does not speak from a text, a stark difference from today’s carefully scripted candidates.
“It makes for some anxious moments for his staff, I can promise you that,” said Mr Carson communications director Doug Watts. “But that’s his style.”
While it would be easy to write off Mr Carson as simply enjoying a brief shining moment, his rise is not based on a sudden burst of publicity from, for example, a good debate performance on national television.
Instead, Mr Carson is riding high based on what has been a far smaller stage that includes support from people who have seen him on cable TV, watched the 2009 movie “Gifted Hands” about his life or read one of his books.
Interviews with more than a dozen Mr Carson supporters show that it is his unique background that is helping him get traction in the race for the Republican nomination.
All of them said it does not matter to them that he has no experience in government, a measure of how much dissatisfaction there is with politicians in Washington.
“I think it would be a plus,” said Kenneth Hunter (59) of Georgia. “I think we have too many career politicians in the race.”
Christi Taylor, an internal medicine doctor from West Des Moines, Iowa, said she first felt the pull of Mr Carson when she saw him speak more than a year ago at a medical conference in Texas.
She and her husband are now cochairs of the Mr Carson campaign in Iowa.
“It’s truly what I would call a groundswell,” she said of the popular support for Mr Carson. “The most encouraging thing to me is that we have people who haven’t been involved in politics and some who haven’t voted in years because they have become frustrated and felt their voices haven’t been heard.” — Reuters
REPUBLICAN Presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks during a campaign event in Denver, Colorado on Saturday.