Washington outsiders Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina jumped into the Republican presidential race Monday, aiming to mobilize voters disgusted with government and willing to gamble on a fresh, non-traditional leader.
Carson, 63, an African-American and retired neurosurgeon, and Fiorina, 60, a former business executive, join Hispanics Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in the race and help give the Republican campaign a jolt of racial, gender and political diversity. By comparison, the Democrats have a woman candidate in Hillary Clinton, but no Hispanics or minorities expected to join the race.
Carson and Fiorina stand out as well for their resumes – neither has ever held public office. The Republican race could see as many as 20 prominent candidates in a field comprised mostly of current or former governors or U.S. senators.
Their bids for the White House face long odds. Carson has been prone to making controversial statements that have limited his appeal to a wider audience, while Fiorina lost by 10 percentage points in her 2010 bid for a U.S. Senate seat from California.
Carson entered the race Monday at a spirited rally in Detroit, his hometown. “I’m Ben Carson and I’m a candidate for president,” he told hundreds at the city’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, not far from a public high school named for him.
“We’re going to change the government into something that looks like a well-run business rather than a behemoth of inefficiency,” he said.
The announcement might kick off a triumphant march to the White House – or represent the high point of an improbable political career that saw Carson grab the attention of the conservative movement, skyrocket in polls, then start to fade as he engaged in his first-ever campaign.
Carson attended Yale University and received a medical degree from the University of Michigan. He became head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1984, the youngest to hold that position. In 1987, Carson got worldwide fame for successfully separating conjoined twins joined at the head.
He retired in 2013 and became a favorite on the conservative political circuit for his criticisms of President Barack Obama and his pointed jabs at Washington.
His political fame soared two years ago, when he spoke at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. As Obama sat over Carson’s shoulder, he tore into the president’s health care law. He blasted the tax system and charged that “the PC police are out at all times.”
Conservatives were ecstatic. Fans formed a committee to draft him for the presidency. Carson became a columnist for The Washington Times and a Fox News commentator. The draft committee organized weekly phone calls to organize and raised more than $13 million.
Fiorina on Monday aimed her anti-Washington fire squarely at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO cast herself as a business leader and not a politician, saying she has executive experience making “a tough call in a tough time.”
She said she understands how the economy works.
“Our founders never intended us to have a professional, political class,” Fiorina said in a 60-second announcement video, which opens with a clip of Clinton announcing her run for the presidency. “We know the only way to re-imagine our government is to re-imagine who is leading it.”
Fiorina has earned kudos from Republican voters for sharp critiques on Clinton, whom she said is “not trustworthy.”
Fiorina, who challenged Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in 2010, barely registers in Republican presidential polls. She noted that she announced her bid in California just a year before the election, even as she was recovering treatment for cancer.
“Nobody gave me a chance, I was nowhere in the polls,” she said. “Seven months later, I won a three-way primary with 57 percent of the vote. “
She said that despite the general election loss, “I’ve demonstrated that I can unify the party, reach beyond the party.”
Fiorina has attracted appreciative audiences in trips to Iowa and New Hampshire and is starting to replace memories of her “underwhelming” 2010 Senate bid with “strong, finessed criticism” of Clinton, said Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler.
Her low poll numbers could keep her out of the Republican debates when they begin in August, but Fiorina said she was “reasonably confident” she’d make the cut and appear on stage.
Fiorina touted her technology prowess, but that didn’t prevent her fledgling campaign from making a tech mistake when it neglected to register the domain carlyfiorina.org. Someone else did and used the site to hammer Fiorina on the layoffs she oversaw during her tenure at Hewlett-Packard.
“Carly Fiorina failed to register this domain,” the site reads. “So I’m using it to tell you how many people she laid off at Hewlett-Packard.”
Fiorina’s deputy campaign manager, Sarah Isgur Flores, said she was confident people would find their way to the correct site.