NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- A ballroom full of conservative activists is trying to do the wave.
“Wheeeee,” they cry, throwing their arms in the air as they wait for renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, a celebrity at this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference. He takes the stage and lays out his latest, far right proposal: Federal judges who rule against voter initiatives should be fired. Carson argued this point more specifically last month in reference to judges who overturn gay marriage bans.
"The Constitution also says that Congress has oversight of all inferior courts,” he said tells the standing-room only ballroom. “So when these federal judges interfere and overturn the will of the people, something they've voted for, Congress has the responsibility [to remove them].”
Carson’s stance on gay marriage isn’t new, but it highlights exactly why the neurosurgeon’s presidential ambitions put the GOP in such a pickle: With a majority of Americans supporting gay marriage, fielding a Republican candidate who likens homosexuality to bestiality is a great way to to send swing voters packing.
"He’s a smarter, more accomplished version of Sarah Palin."'
“Candidates who would like to see the inside of the West Wing,” GOP strategist Juleana Glover told msnbc, “are gonna find a way to be more inclusive on the issue of marriage.”
Carson’s race and up-from-bootstraps life story could help soften the GOP image and bring some much-needed diversity to the GOP field. But for many Republicans hoping to reclaim the White House after eight years in the wilderness, Carson is just another base-stirring personality whose rhetoric and hard-right views would sink the party in a general election.
“He’s a smarter, more accomplished version of Sarah Palin,” GOP strategist Karen Hanretty told msnbc.
And much like Palin, Glover said, Carson could cause “a tremendous amount of heartburn” within the party.
Born into poverty to an illiterate, single mother, Carson worked his way out of Detroit, and went on to be an internationally renowned neurosurgeon who in 1987 performed the first-ever successful separation of cranially conjoined twins. Last year, he tied for sixth as the most-admired man in America. Does it sound like a movie? It is, with Cuba Gooding Jr. portraying Carson in the 2009 TV movie, “Gifted Hands.”
Carson pairs his American-dream story with strictly pro-life, anti-gay, and fiercely Christian politics. He’s likened being gay to pedophilia, compares America today to Nazi Germany, and has said Obamacare is akin to slavery. Carson also doesn’t believe in evolution and has called abortion human sacrifice.
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Affable and folksy, Carson presents his staunchly conservative views with a lilting voice and big smile. It’s an appealing package for many Republicans who want the party to remain staunchly conservative without looking like the party of old, rich, white men.
“He is an unapologetic conservative on both economic and social issues yet has a manner that is not strident or off-putting,” conservative radio host Laura Ingraham told msnbc. “He speaks in commonsense terms and offers practical solutions.”
Carson has never held elective office, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity.
“When you don’t have a record it can be your biggest strength and your biggest weakness,” GOP strategist Joel Sawyer told msnbc, explaining it’s both a fresh slate and a target for criticism.
Carson tells reporters he’s “beefing up” and argues it’s why voters like him: “I think I appeal to many voters because I am not a politician and because I try to speak truth and common sense,” he told msnbc.
"When you don’t have a record it can be your biggest strength and your biggest weakness."'
Carson drew national attention in 2013 in a speech he delivered at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, where he lectured President Obama over debt and the Affordable Care Act. Fox News promptly anointed Carson as the next big thing and soon after hired him as a contributor. Since then, he’s won a handful of straw polls in the like Iowa’s Polk County and Western Conservatives Summit in Colorado and performed well in straw polls at the annual Values Voter and CPAC.
Hanretty, for her part, remains skeptical. “If a white neurosurgeon had given the same speech at a prayer breakfast, I don’t think he’d have gotten the same attention Dr. Carson received,” she told msnbc.
But early polls show that Carson’s got momentum: The left-leaning Public Policy Polling ranked Carson second below Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in anational poll of Republicansreleased on Tuesday. A Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll released the same week saw Carson tied with the presumed establishment heavyweight and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among likely Republican voters in Texas. A recent Fox News saw similar results, ranking Carson with a respectable 9% of Americans in the divided Republican field, as did a In a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll in Iowa of likely Republican caucus goers.
Buoyed by these numbers, Carson may soon join the field competing for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. He’s expected to launch an exploratory committee in the next few weeks and already has begun staffing up a campaign-in-waiting, run by Terry Giles, a Houston lawyer.
"Does he have staying power, does he have a realistic shot to win? Probably not, but can he change the debate and shift the debate? Absolutely."'
A considerable grassroots effort is brewing on his behalf: The National Draft Ben Carson for President Coalition has appointed a grassroots leader in each of the 99 counties in Iowa, the first voting state, and offices in New Hampshire and South Carolina, too, according to the group’s chairman, John Philip Souza IV. The PAC -- which has raised and reportedly spent most of more than $15 million -- is unaffiliated with the doctor and his allies but has corralled more than 30,000 active volunteers, Souza said, who are spreading the message through mail efforts and more.
The more support he can build -- particularly in the ultra-conservative Iowa caucuses -- the more sway he’ll have over the field.
“Does he have staying power, does he have a realistic shot to win? Probably not, but can he change the debate and shift the debate? Absolutely,” Sawyer said.
And while Carson’s experience as a black man growing up in inner-city Detroit could give him a unique way to appeal to a voting block that historically votes blue, Carson appears reluctant to identify himself that way.
“My experiences as an individual growing up in America who has had the opportunity to experience life at all socio-economic levels is extremely beneficial for anyone who is concerned with the well-being of everyone in the society regardless of race or economic backgrounds,” he told msnbc.
Consultants are quick to note that Carson’s race alone is hardly a game-changer: “It’s going to take more than a black candidate to bring black voters to the Republican party,” Sawyer said.
To wit: 2012’s sole black Republican, Herman Cain, promised he could win a third of all black votes in the country, but hardly resonated with those voters. Two years later, when a black Republican, South Carolina’s Tim Scott, ran and won a Senate seat, he earned just 10% of the black vote (securing 88% of the white vote).