NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Even though Dr. Ben Carson has yet to announce that he's running for president, his supporters are acting a lot like he has.
On the heels of a Public Policy Polling survey that found the pediatric neurosurgeon and conservative pundit in second place nationally among the current crop of prospective Republican presidential candidates, his supporters are transitioning from "Draft Ben" mode to a full-fledged campaign operation.
John Philip Sousa IV (yes, they're related), president of the largest pro-Carson super PAC, is already plotting out a primary strategy. Speaking to HuffPost at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, Sousa was confident that Carson's candidacy is a foregone conclusion.
"Our goal was to draft Ben Carson," Sousa said about his group, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee. "To steal a line from Dubya, 'Mission Accomplished.'"
Though election law prohibits direct coordination between super PACs and candidates' campaigns, Sousa said his group will focus in early primary states on getting out those voters who may have a natural affinity for Carson -- medical professionals, homeschooling families and Seventh-day Adventists (Carson is one).
"Taking a page from President Obama's 2008 playbook, we're going to reach out to nontraditional constituencies," Sousa said.
He added that his group will be conducting its first polling in the coming weeks, not just to gauge Carson's name recognition in early primary states but also to assess his popularity among traditionally Democratic voters like African-Americans and Hispanics.
So far, supporters of Carson have operated largely outside the GOP's traditional power circles, generating excitement through social media meetups and raising funds through small-dollar donations. But Sousa's operation hasn't shunned the Beltway entirely. Draft Ben Carson has retained the services of a prominent Washington-area communications firm, Pinkston Group, whose contacts include conservative stalwarts like the American Enterprise Institute, the Leadership Institute and FreedomWorks.
Messaging is a crucial part of any campaign, but for Carson, who rose to political prominence after delivering a public rebuke of Obamacare during the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, it's central to his mass appeal.
"He's a man of principle with Reaganesque speaking skills and abilities," said Sousa.
That sentiment was on strong display Thursday at the annual CPAC gathering, with "Carson 2016" placards and T-shirts outnumbering those of other would-be White House candidates like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
"It's his ability to articulate conservative values in a way that's very appealing to a lot of people, not just ones who identify themselves as conservatives," said Patricia Phillips, a Virginia organizer for Draft Ben Carson, after Carson's CPAC address Thursday morning.
In his speech, Carson espoused the politics of reconciliation, insisting that he was not entirely opposed to the social safety net and urging the conservative audience to improve its outreach to minorities.
At the same time, he let fly a series of broadsides against Democrats and liberal activists. “They’ve created a ‘war on women,’ race wars, age wars, religious wars. You name it, there’s a war on it,” he said. "The real enemies in our country are the purveyors of division, no matter where they are.”
Carson's supporters aren't concerned about comparisons to President Barack Obama, another African-American politician with humble beginnings who rose to prominence after a high-profile speech.
"Well, there's a total difference between someone who has not had a real job and someone who has been a director of a pediatric neurosurgery," said Phillips. "Ask any physician -- there's politics in [medicine] as well."
"If people want to line up Ben Carson and Barack Obama, they'd be very foolish," echoed Sousa.