Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon whose low-key personality and celebrated medical career are the antithesis of a politician’s usual path, gained ground as few seemed to notice.

Share story

The spotlight rarely found Ben Carson this summer. While other presidential candidates shot flaming arrows at rivals and sometimes the news media, the soft-spoken Carson seemed to struggle to be noticed. “Well, thank you,” he told moderators in the first Republican debate. “I wasn’t sure if I would get to speak again.”

But while almost all Republicans were upstaged by the bombast of Donald Trump in recent months, Carson, a retired neurosurgeon whose low-key personality and celebrated medical career are the antithesis of a politician’s usual path, gained ground as few seemed to notice.

A recent Quinnipiac University national poll showed him in second place in the Republican field, and a Monmouth University survey of Iowa Republicans released Monday had him tied with Trump. Another Iowa poll, by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, had the two candidates running closely within the poll’s margin of sampling error.

Like Trump, Carson has never held elected office, a quality that seems particularly prized by Republican voters this year. More than 90 percent of voters in the Register/Bloomberg poll conducted, last week, said they were unsatisfied or “mad as hell” with government and politicians.

And yet, in almost every other way, Carson is Trump’s opposite. He is almost professorial, where Trump is loud, combative and unfiltered.

“At the end of the day, I attribute it to the power of nice,” said Rob Taylor, a chairman of Carson’s campaign in Iowa, reflecting on the rise of his candidate.

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 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 Carson.

Carson’s campaign did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests to interview him.

A little-known figure to most voters before the first Republican debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6, Carson clearly benefited from the huge number of viewers who tuned in because of Trump’s flamboyance.

Carson spoke of separating conjoined twins and removing half a brain as qualifications for the Oval Office in his closing statement — made off the cuff, his advisers say. Many commentators shrugged, but social media lit up. Polling before and after the debate showed Carson with one of the biggest upticks.

His favorable rating among likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa was a towering 81 percent in the Monmouth University poll, with only 6 percent holding an unfavorable view.

Carson tied with Trump for the top spot in the poll at 23 percent, and pulled before him with female voters and evangelical Christians.

“After more than a month of Trump winning virtually every Republican demographic group, we’ve finally got a little variation in voting blocs to talk about,” Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth Poll, said in a statement.

J. Ann Selzer, who conducted the poll, said, “While there are others who are playing for the religious right, so far it’s Carson who resonates.”

Perhaps most surprising is that Carson’s appeal in Iowa is stronger than that of Sen. 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 Cruz, Rick Tyler, said 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.”

The money for television ads and a campaign organization beyond the first nominating states will also be a challenge for Carson. Although he raised a respectable $10.6 million through the first half of the year, most of it was from small donors who are costly to solicit through emails and direct mail. Carson has already burned through more than half the total money he has raised.

Being in the shadow of the Trump supernova for much of the summer may have saved Carson from sharper scrutiny over some statements he made. On a visit to the southern border, he called for the use of armed drones to target smugglers’ caves — a major policy shift from the current use of drones for surveillance only.

Carson, who first drew political notice by criticizing President Obama’s health-care law at a National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, favors repeal of the law. He favors a flat tax that can be filed in 15 minutes. The debate over global warming, he has said, is “irrelevant.” On many other issues, he has offered mostly general statements, but he plans to roll out detailed policies, including on immigration, after Labor Day.

Carson has also accused Planned Parenthood of opening most of its clinics in black neighborhoods “to control that population.” The statement was debunked by various news media fact-checkers, including The Washington Post, which gave the claim “four Pinocchios.”

Williams, the senior adviser to Carson, disputed that the statement was akin to earlier gaffes by Carson, arguing that Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, had a “racist history.”

“It’s a statement that can be argued back and forth,” he said.

The second Republican debate, on Sept. 16 in Simi Valley, Calif., will be Carson’s next major turn on the national stage. He has promised his advisers that he will take advantage of his current momentum and be a more assertive presence than he was in Cleveland. He is planning a full day of debate preparation.

“You will see more fire in him,” Williams said. “He will not allow himself to be ignored.”