Don’t forget Ben Carson.

The retired pediatric neurosurgeon isn’t generating the headlines or drawing the crowds of Donald Trump, but his numbers in some surveys suggest the appetite for his presidential candidacy might be just as great, if not greater.

Consider a recent survey by TargetPoint Consulting, a top Republican polling and data-research firm. Roughly two-thirds of likely Republican primary voters polled said they would consider backing Mr. Carson, the highest level of support for any candidate in the field. Just 16% said they wouldn’t, the lowest such tally. Those results include voters who didn’t know who Mr. Carson is.

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[P]art of Carson’s appeal can be explained by his outsider status. Remember, the Des Moines Register poll found that 75% of Republican Iowa caucus-goers said they were unsatisfied or mad as hell at their own party in Congress. But what sets Carson apart from the other GOP outsiders — Trump and Carly Fiorina, who is in third in that Monmouth poll — is his explicit Christian faith. Here was Carson talking about taxes at last month’s Cleveland debate: “What I agree with is that we need a significantly changed taxation system. And the one that I’ve advocated is based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy,” Carson explained. “And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn’t matter how much you make. If you’ve had a bumper crop, you don’t owe me triple tithes. And if you’ve had no crops at all, you don’t owe me no tithes. So there must be something inherently fair about that. And that’s why I’ve advocated a proportional tax system.”…

And if Donald Trump somehow stumbles in the months ahead, Carson could benefit. As one Iowa voter told NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard, per The Lid: “I think Trump has done a good thing by stirring everybody up and making the average American believe that there are other people who have the ability to be in power, thinking the same way we are. But he doesn’t necessarily have the finesse… I like [Carson’s] demeanor. I think Trump is acting like a spoiled child, and he needs to stop that.”

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The candidate is not the most eloquent in the Republican field, nor does he have the most experience or money. But in a campaign that has so far revolved around Donald Trump, Ben Carson brings to the table much of what Trump is – a Washington outsider, not a politician, authentic and genuine — without the bombast and spectacle…

Instead, he embodies a compelling personal story — from troubled youngster with a horrible temper to prominent neurosurgeon who became the youngest physician to ever head a major division at Johns Hopkins and the first to successfully separate Siamese twins joined at the head. And while the candidate isn’t the most charismatic on the stump, he often hits a rhythm while engaging with voters’ questions…

“I think that people are just really attracted to him because he’s authentic. He plants his feet and he tells the truth,” Press Secretary Deana Bass told ABC News. “It doesn’t matter if he’s on the Southside of Chicago, in the middle of Iowa with farmers. It doesn’t matter where he is: he tells the same truth everywhere.”…

And his closing remarks were not prepared. “Some people think that his closing remarks [debate] were prepared. That wasn’t the case. He was waiting for his turn. The Lord kinda told him what to say. It wasn’t at all prepared,” Bass told ABC News. “His performance in the debate certainly introduced him to a larger audience. People were impressed, it was refreshing. It was really a breath of fresh air.”

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“The most important number right now is his net favorability, which is about popularity and personality. Our guy is 71 and Trump is at 26. That is the highest we have seen since (President Barack) Obama,” said Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business manager. “The key for us to be able to maintain such high ratings through the ideas portion of the primary.”…

“I like Ben Carson very much,” Trump said last week in South Carolina. “He’s really a fine man. He’s a friend of mine. He’s doing well also.”…

Aides said that Carson also has another advantage over the rest of the field because of his connection to African-Americans, who have long celebrated his medical achievements. They argue that he could get 13% of the black vote in the general election…

He was and is a legitimate contender. His closing at the debate was one of the best closings I’ve seen in a debate. He did not have the depth as some of the others on the issues, but showed he has been spending his time learning,” Erickson wrote in a mea culpa over not inviting Carson to his annual summit. “Above all, he was humorous, respectful and showed a real good nature. And I know, based on all the incoming polling, that I was not the only one to take a second look at Ben Carson. It seems a great many people realized Ben Carson is a legitimate candidate for President.”

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Holding signs that said simply, “HEAL,” hundreds of Carson faithful turned out to see the man they have admired for years and are now hoping will lead the country…

When Trump’s name came up during the dinner, which featured speeches from Carson, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Senator Ted Cruz, heads shook sideways. Trump’s an “‘I’ man. ‘I.I.I,’” said Shirley Ellison. “Remember, ‘sin’ has a big ‘I’ in the middle of it. I like that Dr. Carson is not stuck on himself. He’s stuck on helping people.”

Rela Biagiotti and her husband Tim wore “Carson” stickers, along with two for Cruz and Walker. Did they wish Trump was there too? “Not really,” they both said with a shrug. “I personally just don’t like his demeanor,” said Rela. “Let’s soften yourself down a little.”…

“I think Dr. Carson has carried the outsider mantle in a different form than Donald Trump,” Moore said.  “If Trump is the anger, then Carson is the reasonable one.”

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“I call it the power of nice,” says Rob Taylor, an Iowa state representative co-chairing Carson’s Hawkeye State campaign. “When you compare the two [Trump and Carson], it’s kind of a yin and yang. Carson’s approach is kind, gentle, smart and effective, and what he’s practicing right now, we haven’t seen in a long time in politics.”…

Taylor suggests interest in Carson is more about authenticity, especially in Iowa, and that voters sense that Carson is genuine. “People are frustrated by politicians promising things to their constituents, and once they get elected, they don’t follow through,” Taylor says. “I think the appeal with Dr. Carson is he says what he does and does what he says.”

And the campaign isn’t convinced that Carson and Trump are appealing to the same supporters, which may help explain the split. “Some people are upset and are fed up and want someone to hammer. And others want someone to fix it,” says Ryan Rhodes, a state Tea Party leader who is running Carson’s Iowa campaign, adding that campaign events attract independents and some Democrats.

“It’s not that they are just craving a non-politician or outsider … they are craving someone who is just not there for the political gain or themselves, who says it’s not about me–it’s about fixing a problem,” Rhodes says.

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Mr. Carson has worked hard to tame his habit of making highly provocative statements, often on homosexuality, a move that advisers said had saved his campaign after it nearly derailed amid negative early headlines. They predicted that Mr. Trump’s own tendency toward such statements, whether directed at illegal immigrants or in personal attacks on Twitter, could undermine his headline-grabbing run.

“We’ve been there and realize no matter how much the base will love you for it, people will not think it’s presidential,” said Armstrong Williams, a close adviser to Mr. Carson…

Perhaps most surprising is that Mr. Carson’s appeal in Iowa is stronger than that of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has anti-establishment credibility and recently drew more than 2,000 evangelicals to a rally in Des Moines.

A spokesman for Mr. Cruz, Rick Tyler, said Mr. Carson would have “to withstand the scrutiny of a front-runner candidate” and “convince people he’s qualified to be president on foreign policy, economic policy and religious freedom policy.”

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In an interview, The Hill asked Carson if he believes he can convince those currently backing the celebrity businessman to give him a look…
 
“I believe the American people are smart enough to figure out what’s real, what’s not real, and what kind of temperament and intellectual endeavors are necessary to be president,” Carson said…

“The emergence of Donald Trump is very helpful for us,” said Terry Giles, who briefly managed Carson’s campaign but has left to help him raise money. “When I was actively involved in the campaign and traveling the country, I couldn’t believe the groundswell against the establishment. Trump has brought out that anti-establishment fervor.”
 
“Now, Trump may very well end up doing very well in the race,” Giles continued. “But if any Trump followers are going to leave him for another candidate, I think chances are good that person could be Dr. Carson.”

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Now that Carson presents a real threat to Trump, it will be interesting to see what happens when Trump inevitably attacks him. So far, Trump has not only gotten away with attacking sacred cows like an opponent’s wife, a war hero, and a Fox News superstar, those controversies have only made him stronger. Carson, though, is a different case, because he’s a sacred cow of a different color. First thrust into political prominence by sticking it to President Obama at a prayer breakfast, Dr. Carson has become a symbol of resistance to the Obama presidency, as well as a convenient talisman against accusations that such resistance is rooted in race…

The Trump-Carson dynamic will test the Beltway premise that Donald Trump and fellow non-politician candidates Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are tapping into some general “anger at Washington,” rather than an intoxicating cocktail of white male resentment. If the former is true, then attacking Carson should measurably damage Trump, and if the latter is true, it will send Trump into higher orbit, and Carson to the trash heap. Some of that will depend, of course, on how Trump attacks Carson…

“Ben Carson is a wonderful guy,” Trump can say, “and it’s a shame, but thanks to President Obama, there won’t be another black president for generations.”

There are also ample substantive grounds on which Trump can attack Carson without ever having to get to his left on the social issues that make Carson so appealing to evangelicals. Like the many liberals who are afraid to attack Ben Carson, Trump can begin by complimenting Carson’s “inspirational” story and medical brilliance, but then pivot to his lack of leadership experience. “He’s a wonderful guy, but we’re not fixing brains here, we’re getting killed by China. We’re not separating Siamese twins, we’re separating Mexico from Texas with a beautiful wall!”

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For all his appeal, Carson lacks polish. His language is a bit too blunt; his sentences perambulate. This works in front of already-sympathetic listeners, but it will be a vulnerability as the primary field narrows, pitting Carson against tougher questioners and feistier opponents. And it would be self-immolating in a general-election campaign, when hostile media will be searching for every off-pitch statement and a candidate must capture voters who, though they disagree with President Obama, do not think him a proto-Mussolini…

Two years later, Carson seems to some tailor-made for the moment. Among a certain part of the Republican electorate the desire for someone who will stand up to political status quo has grown desperate (Donald Trump is the latest beneficiary of this desire, though his cohort of supporters is not identical with Carson’s). Government has become alarmingly invasive, the bureaucracy notoriously partisan, a whole bevy of agencies hideously corrupt; America’s reputation and influence abroad have diminished, allowing for the rise of a host of malevolent forces; cultural progressivism, with the full backing of the Democratic party, has abandoned compromise for raw force, and proved that it will cheerfully extirpate First Amendment rights to secure the concocted rights of sexual liberation; race relations have degraded. Christian conservatives, especially, see a federal government that has demanded to evaluate prayers and Facebook posts, an administration that makes theological excuses for Islamic terrorism, a secular left-wing culture that would crush an Indiana pizza shop on the basis of a hypothetical question, and media keen to exploit (or manufacture) racial divisions. All of this has been promoted, presided over, or prodded on by Barack Obama, who promised to “heal” and to “unite.” Carson seems the antithesis of this president. Serene, plain-spoken, expressly Christian — in a time of political corruption, he is a citizen-servant, and in a time of moral degradation, a spiritual leader.

But if the Outsider is one type in American politics, the Messiah is another. And to a messianic politics, conservatives — especially Christian conservatives, inclined to see themselves and their God as persecuted or cast into exile — are particularly susceptible.

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While it can be foolish to predict what happens to the polls in the short run, there’s a pretty obvious case to be made that Carson is on an upswing as part of a “discovery, scrutiny and decline” polling cycle of the sort that Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain (among others) experienced in 2011. If Carson’s doing this well with so little media attention, imagine what happens when he gets some. Polls will trigger more coverage of Carson’s campaign, which will in turn improve his standing in the polls, which will produce yet more coverage, and so forth.

Carson also has outstanding favorability ratings among Republicans, which could give him more room to grow. And it’s not as though he’s a dull story to cover. While Carson is more mild-mannered than Trump — and possibly a lot smarter — he, like Trump, has a history of stoking controversy through impolitic statements.

The question is what happens to Trump’s numbers when Carson surges. (Or if Carson doesn’t, when another candidate like Ted Cruz inevitably does some weeks or months from now.) If Trump is more like the Gingriches and Cains of the world, his support may erode pretty quickly once there’s another GOP “flavor of the month” who appeals to voters seeking an outsider to mainstream politics. An alternative possibility, however, is that Trump is more like a Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul — a factional candidate who is relatively immune from shifts of opinion elsewhere in the Republican field, but also has a low ceiling on his support. Either way, Trump is not very likely to win the Republican nomination — and neither is Carson — but we’ll learn something about the nature of his support.

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