Elections

Ben Carson’s on top, but for how long?

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson signs a book for a woman during a campaign stop in Lakewood, Colorado.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson signs a book for a woman during a campaign stop in Lakewood, Colorado. AP

Ben Carson’s the front-runner you hardly notice.

While that contradicts all political wisdom, it’s working. So far.

Carson’s gentle, understated – some would say somnambulant – style has been a big factor in his rise to the top of Republican Iowa polls and one national survey. Now comes the tougher challenge: Filling in the blanks for voters smitten at first glance but needing to know a lot more if the relationship’s to get more serious.

The retired neurosurgeon has shown flashes of why the fall’s most intriguing presidential candidate could wither in winter. Carson has questions to answer about how his tax plan would work. He hasn’t fleshed out a health care proposal that would seem to be costly. More politically seasoned rivals such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas are starting to get noticed.

And Carson now has to endure the daily grind of being under a media and voter microscope, every word and expression scrutinized for clues as to what this sudden star is really like.

Carson quickly did what he needed to at the start of Wednesday’s debate, reminding an electorate exhausted with political sniping he’s going to stick to his own, understated path. He said he would “not be engaging in awful things about my compatriots,” while most others did.

Thursday, he entertained an appreciative audience of 1,500 at Colorado Christian University in this Denver suburb, reminding them, “We must stop listening to secular progressives who are trying to kick God out of our country.”

Carson retains some big advantages, notably that base of support that’s been eager for this moment for years.

Some have followed his career since the 1980s, when he became the first physician to separate conjoined twins. They remember well his autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” detailing his rise from inner-city Detroit to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital at age 33.

Randalea Milhorn, a Glenwood Springs social studies teacher, stood in the 39 degree cold Thursday waiting to get inside the college arena. She’s a longtime fan. The nation, she said, is “not an organization. It’s an organism. We’re living and breathing. He’s a doctor, and he knows how to heal.”

Carson backers have been building their own political organization for more than two years, since he gained notice at a National Prayer Breakfast. He criticized Obamacare as President Barack Obama sat a few feet away, and conservatives have never forgotten that.

They’ve been buoyed by his emergence in the national spotlight, how he stayed composed and committed to his beliefs at Wednesday’s debate. They cheered his explanation about opposition to same-sex marriage, winning applause as he criticized fealty to political correctness.

“I believe that our Constitution protects everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation or any other aspect,” he said in the debate. “I also believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

But Carson was less sure-footed explaining policy. As he discussed his flat tax plan, Carson said the rate “is going to be much closer to 15 percent.”

He offered familiar conservative talking points: cut taxes, cut government spending dramatically, put more money in people’s pockets and all will be well. Ronald Reagan made that promise 35 years ago, and while the economy eventually boomed under his watch, so did spending, and the nation ran then-record deficits for years.

Critics suggest Carson’s tax, which he characterizes as similar to a tithe, would starve the government and require severe cutbacks. He didn’t specifically address a flat tax’s impact on lower-income people who now pay no income tax or its potential as a windfall for the wealthy, now taxed at a top rate of 39.6 percent. None of that got a serious airing in the debate Wednesday.

Neither did his plan to cut regulations he said hamstring small business. Carson called for a “major reduction in the regulatory influence that is going on,” but he didn’t elaborate, and no one followed up.

The college audience Thursday was unfazed. “I’d rather have someone who listens to people and makes up his mind than someone with a prepared list of positions,” said Josh Roman, a Denver men’s clothing consultant.

Carson spokeswoman Deana Bass said that’s Carson’s philosophy. “He listens to people. He never pretends he has all the answers,” she said. “He will be providing more detail in the coming weeks.”

He’ll have to show more than detail. Carson will also have to demonstrate command and confidence discussing a wide range of issues, to give the impression he’s not reading off a briefing paper.

Carson could get one break: His chief anti-Washington opponents, real estate mogul Donald Trump, who still leads most national polls, and former business executive Carly Fiorina, are having tougher struggles. Trump was able to talk with authority on taxes at the debate, but he had to explain why his companies have filed for bankruptcy. His volatile personality has driven up his negatives, a difficult image to overcome in politics.

Fiorina’s hard edge makes her a solid debate performer, but she conceded, with a smile, that she’s been criticized for not smiling enough. Then she quickly pivoted to explain, “I also think these are very serious times.”

For now, the brightest, harshest spotlight is on Carson and it’s getting hotter. The next debate is Nov. 10. He’s got a lot to explain in the days ahead.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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