Ben Carson, the GOP's long shot

In my 48 hours stalking the candidate, I never have the “Wow” experience. On general principles, most Republican voters would not disagree with Carson: President Obama and his coterie have been fiscally profligate, Obamacare has transformed the relationship between state and citizen, we have turned our back on crucial allies in favor of dangerous and untrustworthy regimes, etc. But he has a way of hitting odd, uncomfortable, and over-the-top notes…

Carson does not deliver a stump speech, exactly, as much as touch on a handful of points, complemented by a set of anecdotes and historical allusions (a Daniel Webster quote here, a Thomas Jefferson citation there), in a loosely structured 15- to 30-minute address. Perhaps it feels “genuine,” but it also can feel meandering and undisciplined. At the Lamoni Community Center, one-third of the way through his remarks, he tells at length the story of Francis Scott Key at Fort McHenry. At the Fruited Plain Café in Sioux Center, he ends his address talking about the need for enhanced defense capabilities because of the possibility of a nuclear strike in the exoatmosphere. His answers to audience questions can be wandering. In Corning, a question about reducing the number of government employees turns into a discourse on his plans for the Department of Education. You can see how he got from A to B, but there was no particular reason to make the journey. And some questions he simply does not answer. He is asked twice about how he would work with Democrats in Congress. His answer is that we need to elect more Republicans to the House and Senate.

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.

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