The next round of Republican presidential debates will have a soft-spoken new star, as Ben Carson is surging to first place in Iowa and brimming with the millions needed to mount a serious national effort.
But as Carson stands alongside Donald Trump at center stage in next week’s debate and perhaps the one after that, he faces potential challenges from his rivals.
Will he have to explain anew his comparisons of the United States to Nazi Germany, or his likening Obamacare to slavery? How has someone who’s never run for public office, whose gentle style is not the usual way presidential candidates get noticed, remain a serious contender?
The next few weeks will be telling. Republican candidates debate Wednesday in Boulder, Colo., then again 13 days later in Milwaukee.
“My question now is how he handles attacks from other candidates,” said Tyler De Haan, chairman of the Republican Party in Dallas County, Iowa. “He’s very laid back. How will his answers come off?”
Carson is prone to incendiary statements. He called Obamacare in 2013 “the worst thing to happen in this nation since slavery.” Last year, he compared the U.S. to Nazi Germany, saying a lot of Americans “do not feel free to express themselves.”
Last month he said, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” After a gunman went on a killing rampage at an Oregon college earlier this month, Carson said, “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’”
Carson backers urge looking beyond the sound bite and reading all of Carson’s remarks. “Listen to all that he says. If you think his statements through, they’re not crazy,” said John Philip Sousa IV, national chairman of the 2016 Committee, a super PAC supporting Carson.
Carson said he was “not judging” the shooting victims at all. He said that if someone has a Muslim background and was “willing to reject those tenets and to accept the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion,” he would be willing to support them.
The statements don’t appear to have taken much of a toll. Iowa polls released this week by Quinnipiac University and Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register gave Carson big leads in the nation’s first caucus state and, more importantly, big favorability numbers. In the Quinnipiac survey, 84 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers viewed him favorably and the same percentage said he shared their values.
“He has a great story, and he sounds different than a lot of other people,” said Will Rogers, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party, who is neutral in the race.
Carson is a retired neurosurgeon, best known for a historic 1987 operation separating conjoined twins. He leaped into the nation’s political picture at a February 2013 National Prayer Breakfast when he offered alternatives to Obamacare and criticized the nation’s tax system as the president sat a few feet away.
The Carson embrace is typical of candidates who suddenly capture public imagination in the fall before an election year.
Angry Republicans fall into five categories, said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll, and Carson appeals to each. They’re anti-establishment, tea party, libertarian, evangelical and populist. They want someone who not only shares their concerns, but offers them in a different style.
“He’s good in small groups. His views and values seem to be clicking with a hefty number of Iowa Republicans,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll.
While Trump is the fist-pounder eager to shake up Washington, and remains the national front-runner, Carson’s more understated approach is drawing new interest. In Iowa, he is in a virtual tie with Trump among moderates and liberals. He wins every age group.
“Come to any of our rallies and that will dispel the notion” that Carson appeals largely to evangelical voters and not others, said Deana Bass, a campaign spokeswoman.
Carson and his backers insist he’s not going to go the way of other fall phenoms. Unlike Herman Cain, the Republican pizza executive who soared and quickly fizzled in 2011, or Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont who captivated Democrats in 2003 and went nowhere once the voting began, Carson has two October advantages.
His campaign raised $20 million in the third quarter, and he gets a boost from a fractured Republican field. The party is split into establishment and anti-establishment wings, and no mainstream candidate has caught fire. Trump is second in the Quinnipiac poll with 20 percent, and next comes Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at 13 percent.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, and his supporters have raised more than $100 million, but Bush is far down in most polls. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, had begun to climb in New Hampshire, where his center-right message was seen as having some traction, but he has stalled.
The star of the last debate was Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive. Fiorina’s glow has ebbed, and her poll numbers nationally and in Iowa have slipped. She remains strong in New Hampshire.
Carson is the Iowa Republican darling. For now. “He speaks to very large crowds,” said De Haan. “I see a lot of fresh faces, but I wonder if they’ll go to the caucus. I don’t know the answer.”