Has Ben Carson peaked?
The retired neurosurgeon entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination Monday at a spirited rally in Detroit, his hometown.
“I’m Ben Carson and I’m a candidate for president,” he told hundreds at Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, not far from a public high school named for him.
“It’s time for people to rise up and take the government back,” Carson said. “The political class won’t like me saying things like that, the political class comes from both parties.”
The announcement might kick off a triumphant march to the White House – or represent the high point of an improbable political career that saw him grab the attention of the conservative movement, skyrocket in polls, then start to fade as he engaged in his first-ever campaign.
Carson, 63, has never held political office. He grew up in a tough Detroit neighborhood, 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.
Carson got the audience cheering Monday by sticking to familiar themes, promising, “We’re going to change the government into something that looks like a well- run business rather than a behemoth of inefficiency.”
Conservatives regard Carson, the only African-American to enter the race from either major political party, as a highly promising candidate.
But he’s faded in polls in recent months. The Loras College Iowa poll last month found Carson tied for sixth place in that state with 6.9 percent, down from 13 percent in January.
Nationally, a Quinnipiac Poll last month had Carson tied for seventh at 3 percent, down from 7 percent in a March survey, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics put him in the fourth tier of Republican hopefuls.
“I don’t think he can be discounted, but I don’t see a groundswell,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
Carson is finding what outsider candidates have been experiencing for some time: While people may like the new face, choosing a president is a very different matter.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, expected to declare his candidacy Tuesday, have loyal followings, particularly in Iowa, the nation’s first caucus state. Each has won an Iowa presidential caucus. Carson, said Craig Robinson, editor-in-chief of TheIowaRepublican.com, a partisan website, has “basically been a no-show all spring. Out of sight, out of mind.”
Carson backers counter that they’ve been active. At the New Hampshire First in the Nation Republican summit last month, every chair in the ballroom was adorned with big red “Run Ben Run” tote bags. Carson’s supporters say they have backers in all 99 Iowa counties, and the 2016 Committee “super PAC” is raising money.
John Philip Sousa IV, the committee’s chairman, said the lower poll numbers were the result of others getting in the race and drawing more attention. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., jumped in the polls after announcing his candidacy April 13; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz got a small boost when he did the same in March.
Carson stills stands apart, Sousa said, as someone without conventional Washington ties who has a deep faith and a staunchly conservative message.
Huckabee, Sousa maintained, will tumble once his record of raising some taxes as governor gets more publicity. Santorum, said Sousa, is a “good guy, but I think he’ll fade.”
Even if Carson does well in Iowa, with its sizable bloc of evangelical voters, he would face the New Hampshire primary next. And a Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce University poll in March found him the choice of 4 percent of Republicans, tied for seventh. Only 1 percent said it was likely he’d get the Republican nomination.