NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Other speakers had rowdier receptions and larger followings. But few who appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past week had an emotional pull on the audience quite like Dr. Ben Carson.
The renowned pediatric neurosurgeon-turned-Obama antagonist-turned-conservative darling drew a less than ideal slot for the annual confab, as first speaker up -- at 8 a.m. -- on the very first day. His soft-spoken delivery, even peppered with the requisite applause lines, seemed to reflect the mood of a crowd still sipping its first cup of coffee.
But after he was done Thursday, a noticeable buzz kept up throughout the halls. Carson's followers, decked out in white shirts adorned with his name, talked about him in terms usually reserved for the pew.
"He is a godly man. And if you are a godly man, then all the other adjectives fall into place: morals, values and Christian faith,” said Ellen Harris of Huntsville, Alabama. "He is a breath of fresh air."
Unlike other potential presidential candidates who appeared at CPAC Thursday, Carson's supporters seem to feel an almost spiritual connection to the man. Many had flown hundreds of miles to attend the conference. As he addressed an overflow room following his speech in the main hall, supporters hustled about handing out booklets on his policy platform and placing campaign stickers on passers-by.
Beulah Land had already gone through a book of "Run Ben Run!" stickers before Carson spoke at his second event. A volunteer for the National Draft Ben Carson For President Committee for more than a year, she had travelled from Georgia to attend her first CPAC. As she darted around the room to find those who had yet to get their Carson swag, she professed to having never felt this way about a candidate before. "No," she said of previous ones, "they don't come close."
Land was far from the only one proselytizing Carson's virtues. Others described a potential run for the White House as almost divine in its design.
"He is a god-fearing man. The only way he would run is if God grabbed him by the collar and shook him. And when I met him last night, I said, 'I'm sure glad God is shaking you by the collar telling you to run,'" said Jackie Donney of Pennsylvania.
"There is just something about him," said Ashlyn Knaur, Harris' daughter, who had travelled to CPAC from Baton Rouge. "He just has this air of wisdom, almost like he was born to do this, appointed by some higher power to do this. He does have that extra something that nobody else does."
In many respects, Carson doesn't strike the conventional image of a social conservative. He's a man of science, who grew up impoverished in inner-city Detroit and managed to find his way to the classrooms of an Ivy League institution.
But his personal triumph and amazing medical feats (saving the lives of society's most vulnerable) provided incredible, moving texture to his biography. It also turned him into a best-selling author and cultural commentator. A recent, excellent Buzzfeed profile described him as "Horatio Alger in hospital scrubs." Even in the hospital wards, people seemed to perceive a celestial aura.
"He could walk into the patient's room the evening before surgery, meet the parents for the first time, speak to them for a few minutes, and it was as if God had entered the room," the late Dr. John Freeman, a Johns Hopkins pediatric neurologist, wrote in his memoir Looking Back: A Career in Child Neurology. "Many of the patients came to Hopkins because of Ben's reputation, which was very well deserved. He is one of the very few individuals that I can honestly say 'walks on water.'"
A religious event first launched Carson into the 2016 conversation: his now-famous 2013 appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast, where, with President Barack Obama sitting nearby, he unspooled his criticisms of the Affordable Care Act and elevated his stature in conservative circles. In his own retelling, Carson describes that moment as more than merely a political confrontation.
"I was so surprised when I got called to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast," Carson said at his side-session appearance at CPAC. "I was surprised because I didn't think anybody did it twice. But I then found out that there was one person who had done it twice and that was Billy Graham. And then I was certain God had something up his sleeve. But I didn't know what it was."
In the room, his recounting of that moment provoked visible delight. Though his delivery is slow and fairly monotone, something about its unconventionality is deeply inviting. His lack of a political background or a polished touch makes him relatable and separates him -- in the eyes of his supporters -- from fellow social conservatives like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"He sees us as children of God," said Kristin Karcher, of Virginia, "which is how we see the world."
That same unpolished style has its downsides, of course, occasionally getting Carson into trouble and even disinvited from apolitical events. On Thursday, he pledged to remain unbowed by the so-called PC police. But he also acknowledged that he had had to sand down some of his rougher rhetorical edges, if only to ensure that his provocativeness doesn't overshadow his message.
How he balances those two impulses will very much affect the course of a quixotic but increasingly likely run for the White House. It is precisely those rough edges, after all, that have made him uniquely appealing.
"He is not a politician. He is not in it for himself. He is in it for the country. You can just feel that about him. That he loves us," said Joyce Clark, an Alabama organizer for the committee that's encouraging Carson to run. "I feel he is telling the truth, which I feel is rare right now. I pretty much hear people open their mouth and expect it not to be true. But when he speaks, I believe him. He is one of the most inspiring figures we've ever seen."
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