Neurologist Ben Carson could be 2016’s sleeper presidential contender.
You won’t find him in early polls, and he doesn’t make headlines for huddling with top advisers in primary states.
Carson is lauded for his plainspoken yet forceful ability to speak clearly about the party’s values. The retired neurosurgeon, rose to prominence after delivering a controversial speech at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast, where he lambasted President Obama and his policies while standing just feet away from the president.
That simple star power has made him one of the biggest draws at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, earned him a prime speaking slot on Saturday, and and even inspired an unlikely movement to draft him into the presidential race.
But for as much of a surprise as his rise with conservatives has been, he’s still a reluctant candidate.
Carson maintains he doesn’t want to run and isn’t making any serious preparations for a bid, but in a Thursday interview with The Hill, it was clear that he has thought seriously about the logistics of a campaign.
“My hope, obviously, is that someone else will really catch fire and generate a great deal of enthusiasm. If that doesn’t happen in another year and there’s still a lot of people clamoring for another option, then I will have to really look seriously at it,” he told The Hill in a phone conversation.
But people are already clamoring for Carson. He wouldn’t give specifics on where his packed speaking schedule had taken him in the past few months, but said he visits states in every corner of the country, headlining fundraisers and civic events and speaking at schools about conservative principles and on the dangers of ObamaCare.
“People are so thrilled to see that they’re not the only one with common sense. But the problem is the people with common sense have been beaten down so they’re afraid to express themselves,” he said.
That’s why he’s trying to “wake the American people up” — a central theme of his speech on on CPAC’s closing day.
“I’m going to talk about how [conservatives have] been picking on little things and making big arguments out of them, rather than looking at the big things that are destroying our country,” he said, noting the national debt as an example of a troubling “big thing.”
But don’t call his address a precursor to a presidential run. Carson said that “if it’s supposed to happen it’s going to happen,” and that he’s leaving the preparations “in the hands of God.”
Or, the hands of Vernon Robinson, a former congressional candidate and George H.W. Bush appointee and one of the co-founders of the Draft Ben Carson for President Committee.
The organization raised $2.83 million from 47,000 donors in its first six months of operation — considerably more than the $1.25 million the similar “Ready for Hillary” effort made in its first six months, and they’ve deployed 1,700 active volunteers to GOP functions nationwide to gather draft signatures.
Standing in the noisy hallways of CPAC, where a troupe of volunteers were passing out “Ben Carson for President” swag two floors down, Robinson told The Hill that the group is hoping to triple that sum by the end of the year.
“We’re trying to do three things: Get a million people to sign the [draft] petition by the end of the year, raise someplace between $7 or 8 million from 150,000 donors by the end of the year and we’re trying to build a political infrastructure,” he said.
Robinson is so enthusiastic about Carson for president because, he says, he may be the only candidate that can take down Clinton.
“He’s the only guy who can broaden the GOP base, get 17 percent of the black vote, get a healthy number of Hispanic voters, while still staying true to conservative ideals,” Robinson said. “[Carson’s] very effective at communicating conservative ideas so that the average American can understand.
Carson said he was aware of the draft effort but that he would “have to see something on a sustained basis” in terms of encouragement to run, and that “$2-3 million is not anywhere close to enough money” to support a campaign.
Carson did say, however, “I’ve heard from some very big donors” encouraging him to run, though he wouldn’t offer any names. He readily acknowledges that he’s not steeped in politics and would need a team with that experience to mount a strong challenge.
And, as any serious contender would do, he’s sizing up the field before he makes his decision.
“I really am waiting more to see what the field looks like. If there’s somebody out there who is truly exciting people, there wouldn’t be any need for me to run,” he said.
But that hasn’t happened yet: “I think there are a lot of potential people. No one has really grabbed the imagination of the American people.”
Indeed, if the need is there, he just might do it. Begrudgingly.
“I don’t particularly want to do it,” he told The Hill, “but I would never turn my back on my fellow Americans.”