It's official: As he creeps up in the polls, surges in Iowa, and quietly rallies thousands, Ben Carson has emerged as 2016's first stealth candidate.
Before last month’s debate, the retired neurosurgeon barely registered in the national consciousness. Now Carson is rivaling Donald Trump in the all-important first voting state of Iowa, where a Monmouth University poll released earlier this week showed Carson tied with the real estate mogul, each earning 23% support among likely Republican caucusgoers there.
In a primary where Trump’s bombast and braggadocio have given him indefatigable popularity, Carson’s contrasting humility and soft-spoken demeanor -- paired with his outsider credibility and far-right views -- has wowed voters across the country.
“He’s really the mystery candidate in this race.”'
“Ben Carson may be the perfect answer to people who are sick and tired of traditional politics and the politicians that practice it, but without the pomp and arrogance of Donald Trump,” Republican strategist Rich Gallen told msnbc. “He’s got Jeb’s thoughtfulness and Trump’s outsiderness.”
Carson has an incredible personal story, feeding powerful anecdotal speeches that routinely touch on the neighborhood drug dealers that gave a young Carson candy, his father’s polygamy, and the racism he’s faced.
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 made-for-TV movie, “Gifted Hands.”
It’s this charisma, personality, and outsider story that feeds Carson’s secret weapon: powerfully compelling retail politics. His "family picnics" and other personal events are resonating in Iowa, where voters expect to see candidates multiple times before deciding on a candidate, and it’s fueled his national profile too.
RELATED: Carson draws massive crowd to rally
"He’s not going to fill a stadium with screaming fans, but he’s gonna fill a room with people who walk out of that room going ‘holy crap, this guy is amazing,'" Republican strategist Rick Wilson told msnbc. “He’s really the mystery candidate in this race.”
While many of Carson’s event are intimate and organized by a small crew of staffers, he drew 6,000 to the Phoenix Convention Center in August – where Trump and insurgent Democrat candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders both attracted thousands -- for a long, rambling and anecdotal address.
But translating Carson’s ease in Iowa to big wins on Super Tuesday will be a big feat, strategists told msnbc, referring to March 1, when nearly a dozen primaries occur in one day.
“Between now and probably January somebody at the Carson campaign has to get beyond the visiting the coffee shops."'
“Between now and probably January somebody at the Carson campaign has to get beyond the visiting the coffee shops … and go on the air,” Gallen said. Primaries and caucuses “start coming like Niagara Falls after you get past the first three [states].”
Wilson agreed: “It becomes more problematic for a guy who is running an independent, small-ball operation to get his wings under him.”
To win nationally, candidates need to spend a lot more time doing media, they said, and that hasn’t always been where Carson has shined -- past national appearances have earned him notoriety and condemnation in the past.
He said being gay was “absolutely” a choice on CNN earlier this year, citing prison rape as proof. He later apologized. In 2013, he made national headlines for saying Obamacare is akin to slavery.
Carson, however, says he's fighting against political correctness.
"We need to be in a place where people feel free to express themselves and not to be intimidated by political correctness. It’s destroying our nation,” Carson said on Fox News in February. “And there is a reason that our founders, one of the very first amendment freedom of speech, freedom of expression.”