Ben Carson has his sights set on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpEx-CIA analyst resigns rather than serve Trump administration Matt Schlapp op-ed: Challenges, controversy won't stop CPAC 2017 Anti-Trump protests swell outside Parliament during debate on official visit MORE.
The retired neurosurgeon is surging in the polls, but faces a huge hurdle in overcoming Trump, the runaway leader of a pack of 2016 presidenital candidates looking to tap into the anti-establishment fervor that is energizing the Republican base.
In an interview, The Hill asked Carson if he believes he can convince those currently backing the celebrity businessman to give him a look.
Carson responded by taking his first implied shot at the front-runner, saying that voters would consider a host of matters — including temperament — in making their decision.
“I believe the American people are smart enough to figure out what’s real, what’s not real, and what kind of temperament and intellectual endeavors are necessary to be president,” Carson said.
When pressed on whether he believes Trump has the temperament and intellectual curiosity to be president, Carson replied: “If he does have it, voters will be able to decide that and they’ll vote for him. If not, they’ll figure that out too.”
Carson has largely flown under the radar of the Washington political class, and few pundits believe he’ll make a serious run at the nomination.
His Aug. 6 Fox News debate performance was dismissed as unmemorable by political watchers on a night punctuated by Trump’s defiant posturing and party infighting between Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over the federal government’s spy programs.
Yet interest in Carson is soaring.
According to a Fox News survey released over the weekend — the first major national poll conducted since the debate — Trump still holds a lead of more than 2 to 1 over the field with 25 percent support, but Carson was the biggest gainer, picking up 5 points to move into second place at 12 percent support.
If Trump were removed from the equation, Carson would have been tied for first place in the poll with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), at 14 percent each. Carson leads in the poll as the candidate Republicans rate as the most likable.
Furthermore, A CNN-ORC poll of Iowa showed Carson all alone in second place and trailing only Trump. In several recent Iowa polls, Carson has caught or surpassed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who spent months atop the field in the state.
Carson’s rise has stoked increased attention from the media. He was booked on two Sunday news shows over the weekend: ABC’s "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos and "Fox News Sunday" with Chris Wallace.
The early success has those close to Carson believing he’ll be in good shape to capitalize on the political momentum if Trump-mania ever subsides.
“The emergence of Donald Trump is very helpful for us,” said Terry Giles, who briefly managed Carson’s campaign but has left to help him raise money. “When I was actively involved in the campaign and traveling the country, I couldn’t believe the groundswell against the establishment. Trump has brought out that anti-establishment fervor.”
“Now, Trump may very well end up doing very well in the race,” Giles continued. “But if any Trump followers are going to leave him for another candidate, I think chances are good that person could be Dr. Carson.”
While both Carson and Trump are running as pure Washington outsiders pledging to upend the status quo, their styles could not be more different.
Trump is riding a media frenzy sparked by his bombast, wealth, celebrity, refusal to apologize and populist straight-talk. Carson, meanwhile, is calm and quiet, methodically making the argument that the nation needs a more thoughtful, rather than politically experienced, leader.
“Voters are tired of the same old,” Carson said. “They know that any politician can get in front of them and talk a beautiful game, but they want people who have actually accomplished something. They see it as the only way out of this morass.”
The Carson campaign says it raised more than $1 million in less than a week following the debate and added tens of thousands of names to its email list.
Giles, who is raising money for a group that will likely one day become a pro-Carson super-PAC, said it’s a struggle to convince big donors to get on board with an unknown commodity like Carson, but that a few more rounds of strong polling could be a tipping point in his efforts.
Still, Carson faces considerable challenges.
Trump’s support has proven to be surprisingly durable, and there’s no evidence yet that he’s begun to fade.
And Carson will face competition from two other anti-establishment candidates who are similarly gaining traction.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina was the consensus winner of the undercard debate earlier this month. She has since seen her standing improve in the polls nationally, as well as in Iowa and New Hampshire, and could be elevated from the early debate to the prime-time stage for the second GOP debate next month.
Cruz has raised more hard campaign dollars than any other candidate. He’s attracting big crowds on the campaign trail and barnstorming the South, setting up what he’s calling a “firewall” in the states that will vote in the early March 1 primaries.
Meanwhile, Carson’s momentum has shifted the bright political spotlight onto the newcomer — and he’s at times struggled to handle it.
For instance, Carson was critical of Planned Parenthood after videos surfaced of officials negotiating the cost of donated fetal tissue for medical research. Carson blasted the agency and has called for it to be defunded, but one of his former colleagues revealed last week that as a neurosurgeon, Carson used fetal tissue in his own research.
And Carson has stumbled on the question of abortion. Last week, he said he believes life starts when the heart starts beating, and he advocated the use of RU-486 — which anti-abortion-rights groups have dubbed a “chemical abortion pill” — in cases of rape and incest.
This week, Carson said he believes life starts at conception and that he’s opposed to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Carson made a handful of other controversial remarks this week as well, grabbing headlines for saying Planned Parenthood was formed to control the black population and calling the Obama administration’s Iran deal “anti-Semitic.”
Earlier in the cycle, he said he was making a deliberate attempt to put forth a disciplined message, believing that some of his controversial remarks were drowning out his message.
That’s becoming more difficult to control as Carson’s demand among media outlets increases.
Carson blamed the media for obsessing over his views on abortion and race and said he believes he’s a target for his conservative views.
“I’m not terribly surprised,” Carson said. “For months now I’ve been going around the country and pulling large, enthusiastic crowds where people get to hear who I am, not who the media is trying to portray me as.”
“They’ve been coming after me since the beginning,” he said. “They say I’m irrelevant but spend more ink on me than anybody. It’s OK, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t, because it would mean I’m not relevant.”