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Ben Carson Making Case to Be Taken Seriously in 2016

Ben Carson Making Case to Be Taken Seriously in 2016

By Scott Conroy - November 13, 2014

When Ben Carson keynoted the Polk County Republican Party dinner in Des Moines this past August, the first thing noticed by longtime Iowa observers of presidential politics was the size of the crowd. 

A sold-out audience of 400 attended the event -- an impressive showing for a late-summer county-level fundraiser in the nation’s first voting state.  

But perhaps even more revealing than the crowd size was its composition.  

Instead of the well-known GOP activists who typically attend such functions in droves, unfamiliar faces dominated the Carson event. These were people who had become familiar with the retired pediatric neurosurgeon through his regular appearances on The Fox News Channel and his best-selling book. And, by and large, they were not longtime participants in state politics.  

“There was this whole new group of people, and we were just floored,” recalled Polk County GOP Chairman Will Rogers.  

That reaction has been a common one following Carson’s speaking engagements around the nation this year. In Iowa and the other early-voting states, in particular, it is Carson’s ability to draw from a new herd of caucus-goers and primary voters that makes him a potential presidential candidate to watch, despite his glaring vulnerabilities.   

A rhetorical missile-launcher in human form, who has never before run for public office, Carson is easy to dismiss as a serious contender. But already a hero among grassroots conservatives who hold outsized influence in the early GOP nominating process, Carson’s capacity to make significant noise in 2016 should not be overlooked.  

The political newcomer was long renowned in the medical field for being the first surgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head (and was even played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in a made-for-TV movie). But as recently as two years ago, he did not amount to even a blip on the presidential radar screen. 

That all changed in February 2013, when Carson earned a chorus of adulation from the right after outlining his black-and-white principles on various hot-button issues at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington -- with President Obama sitting just a few feet away.  

Since then, a growing stream of grassroots conservatives have discovered something they love in Carson’s unique political potion, which combines three core ingredients: a compelling life story, his unimpeachable credentials as a political outsider and a blunt approach to speechifying, all refracted through his reserved, soft-spoken personality. (There may be an unspoken fourth ingredient -- that Carson is an African-American conservative.) 

Nowhere has his rise been more visible than in Iowa, where a recent Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll of a hypothetical 2016 Republican field showed the political neophyte in second place behind only Mitt Romney, who has insisted repeatedly that he does not plan to run for president a third time. 

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Carson is scheduled to return to the Hawkeye State to headline the annual dinner hosted by the Family Leader, a prominent socially conservative organization in the state that plays a significant role in harnessing evangelical caucus-goers.  

Family Leader President Bob Vander Plaats said tickets for the event have been going at a rate “exponentially” faster than for similar dinners in the past.  

In an interview with RCP, Vander Plaats issued a warning to Carson’s potential opponents.  

“They underestimate Dr. Carson at their own peril because I don’t think his campaign is going to be a typical campaign,” Vander Plaats said. “I believe that if he’s going to run and he’s going to get the kind of support it looks like he’s going to get, it’s going to be more like a force of nature than a well-orchestrated, ‘politics as usual’ campaign. So my advice to Dr. Carson would be keep doing what you’re doing.”

What the 63-year-old Detroit native has been doing is building his media presence and refining his message on core issues, while largely outsourcing early organizational efforts to an exceptionally well-funded group that has been paving the way for a potential campaign for more than a year.  

The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee (also known as Draft Ben Carson) has raised over $11 million since it was founded in August 2013, more than $8 million of which has come from contributions under $200. 

This showing has not only dwarfed similar efforts being conducted on behalf of other possible GOP candidates, it has even exceeded the $10.2 million raised so far by Ready for Hillary -- the draft effort to support presumed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

That summer sales of Carson’s most recent book, “One Nation,” outpaced those of Clinton’s far more widely publicized tome, “Hard Choices,” provides another example of how fired up his supporters are about a prospective White House run. 

Draft Ben Carson’s efforts in Iowa are being led by state Rep. Rob Taylor and his wife, Christi Taylor, who is the chairperson for the Dallas County Republican Party -- one of the most active county-level GOP groups in the state.  

Last month, Draft Ben Carson announced that it had already signed up chairmen to represent the would-be candidate in all 99 Iowa counties. Longtime Iowa GOP organizer Tina Goff helped achieve that milestone, an especially notable one considering that many official presidential campaigns fail to reach it.  

And Draft Ben Carson hasn’t confined itself to Iowa. 

In advance of the midterm elections, the group aired over $500,000 worth of aggressive radio ads, making the case to black voters in Louisiana and North Carolina that the incumbent Democratic senators in those states were failing them.

After a pre-election stint in Iowa, Draft Ben Carson’s co-founder and campaign director, Vernon Robinson, decamped to Louisiana to help get Carson supporters behind Republican Bill Cassidy in his Dec. 6 runoff campaign against incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu. 

Robinson told RCP that if and when Carson declares his candidacy, the draft organization plans to remain active (though under a different name), focusing on outreach to minorities, medical professionals and evangelicals -- three groups for whom Carson, an African-American physician and devout Christian, may prove a particularly adept messenger.

“What we will do should Dr. Carson get the nomination is to communicate directly with minority voters [via] the media that they know and trust, like urban contemporary radio,” Robinson said. “And we’ll make the case explicitly that Ben Carson and the Republicans are X, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are Y, now let’s have an election.” 

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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