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Can Carson win GOP nomination?

The possibility of Ben Carson becoming the Republican presidential nominee is being raised with increasing urgency after he knocked Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE out of first place in two Iowa polls late last week. 

But there are plenty of skeptics within Republican ranks, many of whom give voice to the same concerns: Carson has not yet faced real scrutiny; the depth of his policy positions is untested; he is gaffe-prone; and he could struggle to build the organization that is necessary to turn poll leads into primary victories. 

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At the same time, more sympathetic observers see him has someone who can offer Trump's 'outsider' cachet wrapped in a more affable style. They also note that he is a long-standing favorite of evangelicals and that he can offer a compelling personal story. 

“He is very well-liked, but he hasn’t been scrutinized like the rest of the field,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “Maybe being at the top in Iowa brings that, and we’ll see where he stands after that.”  

The two new surveys last week from Iowa showed Carson leading Trump by high single digits. Trump had led the field since early August in the state that kicks off the nominating process. 

"Iowa has been our target from day one," said Doug Watts, the communications director for the Carson campaign. "It is critical to our path."

Carson’s campaign is also launching its first TV ads, according to NBC News, with a $500,000 buy having begun Friday in the first four states to vote: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. 

He also lies second in polling averages nationally, as well as in New Hampshire and in South Carolina. That makes him the obvious alternative to Trump and underlines how he has outperformed more establishment-friendly contenders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. 

But some strategists say he lacks the necessary depth on issues. 

Veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins said, “What he can’t do is make any mistakes. He has a tendency to think out loud.” 

Robinson asserted that “when you look at the first two debates, Trump gets criticized because he is not detailed enough, but Carson is even lighter on substance. He has succeeded in these debates really because he has avoided a lot of stuff, and he has scored points on the lighter questions.”

Even so, the affable, low-key aspects of Carson’s personality have resonated with many Republican voters. 

In the Bloomberg poll of Iowa Republicans, Carson’s favorability ratings were sky-high: 84 percent viewed him favorably and just 12 percent unfavorably. 

His net favorability of 72 percent was well clear of his closest challenger by this measure — Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks MORE (R-Fla.), who stood at net 50 percent. Trump scored a relatively anemic net rating of 22 percent favorable. Bush did even worse: just 7 percent favorable. 

“You are in living saint territory at those kinds of numbers,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said, referring to Carson’s favorability score. “You don’t see that among political figures.” 

The affection in which Carson is held by many conservatives is founded in part on his story of rising from childhood poverty in Detroit to worldwide renown in his profession.  

Mackowiak also noted that Carson had not truly come out of nowhere in the political sense.  

“People underestimate the profile he has with the evangelical community,” Mackowiak said. “It has grown in the past year, but it has been there for a long time. He has been well-known among evangelicals for 10 years.” 

Campaign aides such as Watts also dismiss concerns that Carson's lack of political experience — he has never run for elected office before — will prove to be a serious problem.

"It has become obvious as the campaign has developed that political experience is a liability, at least in voters' minds," Watts said, adding that making the right calls on difficult questions "does not require political experience. What you need is wisdom, leadership and judgment."

Still, many insiders assert that Carson is about to feel the glare of the spotlight as never before. 

How he will fare is anyone’s guess, especially given his propensity for inflammatory comments. On Sunday, during an appearance on NBC News's "Meet the Press," he drew an analogy between abortion and slavery. On the same show last month, he said he “absolutely would not agree” with the United States electing a Muslim president.  

Earlier this month, Carson raised eyebrows when he gave a meandering answer to a question about the debt limit during a radio interview. 

Still, those apparent missteps have done nothing to slow Carson's rise in polls of Republican voters. 

Questions about money and organization also loom large, however. Carson has no problem raising money, given that he outperformed the rest of the Republican field in the third quarter, hauling in $20.8 million.  

But he has also spent a prodigious rate. Through the end of the third quarter, his campaign had spent $20.1 million of the $31.4 million it had raised since its inception, according to a New York Times analysis. Bush’s campaign, by contrast, had spent $14.5 million.

Watts, the communications director, siad the large expenditures were a consequence of looking, successfully, for new donors. "It's clearly an investment," he said. "When you take the prospecting out of our program, our burn rate is around 11 percent."

Watts also insisted that the campaign is where it needs to be in terms of on-the-ground staffing. Others are not so sure. A New Hampshire Republican strategist who is not working for any presidential candidate told The Hill that Carson’s operation in the Granite State was “very small. He has one or two people, but you don’t see any evidence of it.”

The conventional wisdom is that Carson’s stay at the top of the polls may not endure. But he has defied expectations many times before.

 “I would not bet on him today,” said Rollins, “but he has got a lot further than anybody thought he would go.”