Ben Carson faces high stakes at first debate

Ben Carson on Wednesday bought the suit he’ll wear to the first Republican debate.

The Hill gained exclusive access to Carson on a whirlwind morning trip through Washington, where he met with editorial boards, spoke to congressional lawmakers, cleaned out his old office at Johns Hopkins and was fitted for the suit he’ll wear on Aug. 6, when much of the nation will be introduced to him for the first time.

For Carson, the stakes at the debate are higher than most.

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This will be his first-ever political debate. And while the retired neurosurgeon has proven to have a durable base of support in the polls, a CNN/ORC survey released this week found that 48 percent of registered voters don’t even know who he is. He will have the lowest name recognition of anyone on stage.

“I see this as an opportunity,” Carson said from the back of the black Chevrolet Suburban that scooped him up from a meeting on Capitol Hill and whisked him off to Suitsupply in Georgetown, which boasts on Facebook as being “there for people who want to be seen.”

Having gotten flak for controversial remarks in the past, Carson sees next week’s
debate as a way to better manage the message.

“There’s been a lot of negative press about me, and some of the things I’ve said have been distorted,” Carson said. “There’s this narrative that I’m this guy that hates other people. This will give people the opportunity to see who I really am. That’s the reason I’m really looking forward to it.”

Suitsupply opened an hour early on Wednesday so Carson and his small entourage of two advisers and two photographers documenting his campaign could have free rein to try on clothes and break for a Skype interview with the BBC, which Carson sat for in the middle of the showroom.

When the store opened to the public, the shoppers went about their business seemingly unaware that they were in the presence of a presidential candidate. It’s a far cry from the media frenzy surrounding some of the other contenders in the field.

Still, in a short time, Carson has built enough of a following to qualify for the prime time Fox News stage at the first Republican debate.

Only those in the top 10 of polls Fox News deems valid will be a part of that debate, and while it’s not the official decider, the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of polls shows Carson tied for fifth place nationally, trailing Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioThe ignored question: What does the future Republican Party look like? Graham to roll out extension of Obama immigration program Trump and Cuba: A murky future MORE (R-Fla.) by less than 1 point.

Carson has lost some support since rocketing into the top tier of candidates nationally after launching his bid for the White House in May.

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump’s White House is a step backward in racial progress The people have spoken: Legalizing cannabis is good Republican policy White House: Obama has 'no plans' for media career after leaving office MORE’s entrance shook up the race, and both Trump, who leads in RCP’s average, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is in second, have high name recognition and double-digit poll averages.

But as big an introductory moment as the debate will be for Carson, he’s taking a laissez-faire approach to it. He won’t be doing any dry runs, insisting that the town hall events he’s been holding in early-voting states are all the practice he needs.

And rather than cramming and worrying over the “500 things” the people around him are telling him to remember, Carson says he’s most comfortable falling back on the experiences that got him to this point.

“I’m not going to fill my head full of talking points, because my lifetime has filled my head with talking points,” Carson said. “I’ll just talk about what I truly believe.”

While a half-dozen other candidates are scrambling to make the final cut for the debate, Carson was able to invest in a new suit knowing that his spot is secure. The only downside is that Carson hates shopping for clothes.

As he went in and out of the dressing room, one of Carson’s aides picked up the brown coat the 63-year-old candidate was wearing that day and speculated that it came from the 1980s. Carson’s high-octane business partner and confidante, Armstrong Williams, prodded him into updating his wardrobe for the debate.

“He didn’t want to be here today, but he trusts other people, and that’s the sign of a good leader,” Williams said as another coat was slipped around Carson’s shoulders. “I want them to be mesmerized.”

Responded Carson: “I hope they’re more interested in what I say.”

Carson’s raw message of American exceptionalism is punctuated by his personal story of growing out of poverty in Detroit to become among the world’s foremost neurosurgeons.

It’s a story that has won him a huge grassroots following and helped him build a veritable conservative media empire of best-selling books and even a movie about his life starring Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Still, Carson acknowledged the debate offers a new challenge that will test the limits of his message. Having never held political office before, he lacks the domestic executive experience of the governors running for the nomination and doesn’t have the international perspective of the senators.

“As far as areas that people think physicians don’t know anything about, like economics and foreign policy, I think some people are going to be pretty surprised,” Carson said.

On the economy, Carson points to his nearly two decades on the boards of the Kellogg Company and Costco. On foreign policy, he noted that he has travelled to 57 different countries, lived abroad and has had meetings with state leaders, military officials and national security experts.

As a former brain surgeon, Carson is preternaturally confident in his ability to absorb information.

“Intellect counts for a lot,” said Carson, who graduated from Yale University and the University of Michigan medical school. “I’m always reading.”

Indeed, on the shopping trip, Carson was constantly making sure his iPad was within reach and fully charged.

But he faces another challenge on the debate stage: His presentation. In addition to his soft-spoken style, Carson doesn’t go off prepared remarks for his speeches, preferring instead to speak from the heart in addresses that can meander.

“The key is going to be in being concise,” Carson said. “It’s going to be tough because a lot of what we’ll be talking about doesn’t lend itself to brief explanation.”

Carson will also have his work cut out for him in standing out among an “excellent slate of candidates.” He said he admires all of the contenders, and while he declined to name names, he speculated that a number of them would make fine additions to his Cabinet, if he’s elected.

And Carson is familiar with Trump, who for many will be the main draw at the debate. The two men are practically neighbors, both having homes in the West Palm Beach area.

Carson described Trump as a “very personable individual” and said his message is resonating because “the American people are frustrated and don’t want the status quo anymore.”

As to whether Trump’s at-times incendiary remarks have crossed the line, Carson said only that “it works for him.”

Carson has personally made a deliberate attempt to watch his tongue. Earlier in the cycle, he had a penchant for grabbing headlines over controversial remarks comparing ObamaCare to slavery and joking about gay couples finding poison in their wedding cakes.

Carson believed the headlines were drowning out his message and has sought to be more disciplined and focused in the months since.

“It works for [Trump]; it didn’t work for me,” Carson said.

After two hours of shopping, Carson settled on a size 44 navy-blue pinstriped suit for the debate. He will wear a white shirt with a 16 1/2 inch neck, silver cufflinks, a burgundy tie and brown size 10 1/2 shoes.

At Williams’s prodding, Carson bought another charcoal pinstriped suit that the team believes will come in handy for his packed media schedule. Both were paid for personally, an aide said.

Then he was off to his next stop, a meeting with the Fox News editorial board, sounding confident about his future. There’s “a strong chance” he can win the Iowa caucuses, he said, and he never tires of the narrative that he’s a long shot.

“The pundits all said there’s no way a political neophyte could ever mount a national campaign. ‘Don’t even think about it, it won’t happen,’” Carson said. “But they forgot about one very important thing — the people. That’s why we’ve been able to mount a campaign with over 300,000 people giving to us. Our numbers are growing by the day.”