Dr. Ben Carson has successfully separated conjoined twins and removed half of a human being’s brain. But on to more difficult work: Can the world-renown pediatric surgeon save the Republican Party from its self-loathing infatuation with Donald Trump?
At a Republican Bar-B-Q in Anderson, South Carolina, this week, it wasn’t hard to find conservatives who are praying, literally, that the answer is “yes.” A Monmouth University poll released that day showed Trump leading the South Carolina primary field with 30 percent, Carson in second with 15 percent, and no other candidate in the double digits.
Holding signs that said simply, “HEAL,” hundreds of Carson faithful turned out to see the man they have admired for years and are now hoping will lead the country.
Thanks so the massive success of his first book, Gifted Hands, and an in-your-face speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast where he rebuked President Obama, Carson enjoys a celebrity among evangelicals and conservatives in the way Donald Trump enjoys celebrity among everybody else. Gifted Hands has been a fixture in many homeschooling curriculums since its release in 1996. His latest book, One Nation, has sold more than 350,000 copies, more than all of the other GOP presidential candidates’ books combined.
And unlike Trump, Carson is a soft-spoken, overtly religious man. The word that resurfaces again and again in conversations about him is “humble.”
“We have known Ben Carson from his book, Gifted Hands,” said Jerry Collier, who traveled to the BBQ from Six Mile, South Carolina. “In medicine, he did the impossible. In government, we think he can do the impossible, too.”
Irene and Andy Kelleher have also known of Carson well before he flirted with the idea of running for president. “We knew him from the Prayer Breakfast, of course,” Irene said.
“We’ve read his books, we know his life, he realized the American Dream coming from the bottom. He’s a problem solver and he cares.”
When Trump’s name came up during the dinner, which featured speeches from Carson, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Senator Ted Cruz, heads shook sideways. Trump’s an “‘I’ man. ‘I.I.I,’” said Shirley Ellison. “Remember, ‘sin’ has a big ‘I’ in the middle of it. I like that Dr. Carson is not stuck on himself. He’s stuck on helping people.”
Rela Biagiotti and her husband Tim wore “Carson” stickers, along with two for Cruz and Walker. Did they wish Trump was there too? “Not really,” they both said with a shrug. “I personally just don’t like his demeanor,” said Rela. “Let’s soften yourself down a little.”
As Trump has pulled away from the rest of the GOP field nationally, with his hurricane of rants, tirades, and insults, conservatives have noticed the quiet but steady ascent of Carson. The RealClearPolitics poll average shows Carson solidly in third in the 17-person field, less than one point behind a sinking Jeb Bush.
While Trump had his 20,000-strong crowd in Mobile, last week, Carson drew 12,000 in Phoenix. No other Republican has come close to those numbers. Carson also had 2,000 in Durango, Colorado, the week before, and 2,000 in Iowa before that. And Carson has done it without taking direct aim at the front-runner, even leaving the door open to becoming Trump’s vice president.
Operationally, pundits dismiss Carson as disorganized and a lightweight. But in the crucial early state of South Carolina, he has assembled a team around several veterans of Newt Gingrich’s winning 2012 effort there. He has visited the state more than a dozen times and, according to local operatives, is running an unconventional campaign that’s bringing out people who aren’t typically involved in politics.
“Dr. Carson has spent a lot of time here—his super PAC is based in North Carolina. They’ve done a lot of grassroots work and raised a ton of money from individual donors,” said a local Republican strategist. “He has a huge campaign bus that he drives around in. It’s a little bit higher key than some of the senators who just sit in the backseat of an SUV, but it’s working for him.”
Matt Moore, the executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, said Trump and Carson are tapping into the same vein of anger with Washington, but going about it in totally different ways.
“I think Dr. Carson has carried the outsider mantle in a different form than Donald Trump,” Moore said. “If Trump is the anger, then Carson is the reasonable one.”
But Moore said it remains to be seen which approach, if either, will win the primary and ultimately the GOP nomination. “At some point in this campaign, there’s going to be a really serious discussion about policy ideas and solutions,” he said. “But right now, we’re in the first quarter of a football game, where name i.d. and celebrity have mattered a lot. There's a lot of time left on the clock.”