Dr. Carson makes the cut
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The 2016 GOP primary enters a crucial phase of the campaign this week. A series of candidate forums and of course, the first debate featuring the top 10 candidates — determined by an average of recent national polls — will undoubtedly shape the race going forward. The debate, hosted by Fox News, will be must-see-TV, with all eyes on GOP front-runner Donald Trump. His meteoric rise in the polls and no-holds-barred rhetoric has turned the party upside down. Perhaps in an effort to tamp down expectations, Trump stated on ABC's "This Week" that he's "not a debater." Nevertheless, the American public will be gauging for themselves if Trump or one of his competitors is ready to be the next commander in chief.

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Sharing the spotlight with Donald Trump on the stage in Cleveland will be Dr. Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon Carson'Housing First' approach won't solve homelessness crisis Clarence Thomas blasts his Biden-led confirmation hearings: 'The idea was to get rid of me' Affordable housing crisis demands urgent, sustained action MORE. Carson, like Trump, has defied the odds over the course of the 2016 primary. The world-renowned neurosurgeon is making his first foray into the rough and tumble of presidential politics and is trailing only Trump, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) in the national polls. The stakes are high and the pressure will be ratcheted up when the debate gets underway on Thursday. However, as the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins at the head, Carson is no stranger to pressure. In fact, he says he is "excited about the debate because it will give voters a chance to hear from me directly and not be swayed by who the media says I am."

Carson will be joined by some of the biggest names in politics, many of whom have been on this stage before and therefore know what to expect. To that end, Carson said he is "pleased with the breadth of choices that the Republican field offers the voters." He went on to say that he "will support whoever the GOP nominee is because the nation needs to move away from the ineffective policies offered by the Democrats." Win or lose, Carson is without a doubt a force to be reckoned with in the GOP.

The race for the White House is a marathon, not a sprint, and though it is still early in the campaign season, this first debate and subsequent forums could see a winnowing of the field. In 2012, in the aftermath of his poor showing in the Iowa GOP Straw Poll (won by then-Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota), former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (Minn.) exited the race. It is highly unlikely Carson will exit the race post-debate, but he is clear about how he defines success in its aftermath. He says, "Success in the debate is being able to have the voters hear directly from me and not base their view of me on what the media says about me."

Millions of Americans will be tuning in on Thursday and the GOP field of 17 recognize entry onto the stage could separate them from a very crowded field. Carson, too, is aware of this as he prepares to introduce himself to legions of voters who may not be familiar with him and his story. Exposure from the inaugural debate could catapult him to the top spot, as well as provide a major cash infusion from donors big and small. However, Carson does not appear concerned about the campaigns' ability to compete financially. As he notes, "Over 300,000 donations to my campaign with an average donation of around $52 indicates that we not only have solid grassroots support, but also the ability to continue to grow support and be extremely competitive."

Since announcing his candidacy, many have long wondered how the successful neurosurgeon, with no political background, would fare. To date, Carson has posted respectable fundraising numbers. Moreover, other longtime pols, including Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the winner of the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus, are on the outside looking in. Yet Carson is comfortably situated among the leaders in the 2016 GOP primary field. The surgical precision, stellar technique and astute vision that made him a celebrated titan of medicine now have him in the hunt for the GOP nomination. Clearly, Carson has what it takes to make the cut.

Ham is a national political analyst. He is the author of the bestselling book, The GOP Civil War: Inside the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party. Follow him @EKH2016.