Paging Dr. Ben Carson: What’s Behind His Appeal?

A soft-spoken hardliner approaches front-runner status.

11/02/2015 07:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 03, 2015

WASHINGTON -- While the hothouse world of politics was obsessed with Jeb Bush’s languor, Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s hair and CNBC’s nasty debate questions, something amazing -- some would say alarming -- has happened.

His name is Dr. Ben Carson.

A 64-year-old African-American surgeon from Detroit, who compares abortion and Obamacare to slavery and the Holocaust, is well on his way to becoming the front-runner in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination.

In what is shaping up as a chaotic and unpredictable election year -- and in a GOP field with a dozen candidates -- it is foolish to cite any one poll, or group of polls, as predictive. But especially given that chaos and the size of the field, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday is clear evidence of Carson’s astonishing rise from a minor curiosity to lead actor.

With 29 percent of Republican support, 6 points ahead of Trump, Carson today has as much support as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Bush -- combined.

The questions aren’t whether that number will grow or what it means for the horserace, but rather who is Carson, how did he get here, and why does he seem to have such appeal?

It’s both odd and instructive that Carson was dismissed as a soft-spoken kook by Democrats, media and even his fellow Republicans.

On paper, he has the most stirring life story and some of the most impressive -- and (nonpolitical) establishment -- credentials of anyone in the GOP field.

Reared in a working-class neighborhood by a single mother, Carson was a top scholarship student at Yale, and went from the University of Michigan Medical School to a distinguished pediatric surgery and management career at Johns Hopkins.

Initially, his status as a late-blooming political novice and his almost anesthetized manner made him seem out of his element, a sideshow at best.

So did his severe and even apocalyptic views on issues such as Medicare (abolish it), income taxes (replace it with a tithe-like low rate) and Islam (no Muslim president).

But it turns out that, at least for now, being a soft-spoken amateur with what the “mainstream” regards as extreme views is exactly what a noticeable plurality of GOP grassroots voters are telling polltakers they really want.

“When voters look at Dr. Carson what they see is an honest man,” Armstrong Williams, a Carson business manager and political advisor, told The Huffington Post. “He connects with people wherever he goes.”

Carson’s prominence has surprised even his closest advisors, including Williams, a D.C. consultant who began his career in his native South Carolina with the late Strom Thurmond and Lee Atwater, and whose clients and friends include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“We didn’t think he’d be this far along,” Williams said.

Now Carson’s real challenges begin. The organizational one is a work in progress. Carson has a circle of experienced GOP campaign hands advising him and, according to Williams, more than 100 full-time staffers in the field for the primaries.

Carson’s prominence is already bringing a new level of scrutiny to his stance on issues and to the credibility of his statements.

Reporters swiftly derailed his effort in last week’s CNBC debate to distance himself from a nutrition supplement company that had paid millions to settle a deceptive-claims lawsuit. He has begun trying to trim the sharp edges from some of his views (on Medicare, for example) while hurriedly trying to get up to speed on the nuances of foreign, military and fiscal policy.

“He knows he has to put more meat on the bones,” said Williams. “But this is a very smart guy who is learning very fast.”

Thus far his rivals have been reluctant to attack him and perhaps a bit flummoxed about how to do so. He is as competitive as they are, but his soothing, blissed-out demeanor can make those who attack him look mean or desperate.

Eight years after an African-American with an Ivy pedigree was rising fast in the race for the Democratic nomination, could history repeat itself on the Republican side?

Can Carson break out from his base, which is largely to be found among the older, evangelical Christian contingent in the party?

Can he withstand the intense scrutiny that will come -- and that he deserves?

Will rivals start attacking him in a serious way?

Hard to say.

Conventional thinking says he’s a placeholder, another “outsider” infatuation that will fade, as Trump seems to be doing. Others such as Cruz will ultimately harvest Carson’s votes.

But conventional thinking has been wrong about Carson so far, and, in the meantime, more GOP voters are paging him in the polls. 

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