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GOP debate: What's behind the Ben Carson surge (+video)

On the eve of the Republican debate, Ben Carson is now the clear front-runner in Iowa and has even pulled ahead of Donald Trump in one national poll.

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    Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson looks on as he is introduced to speak at a town hall meeting in Ankeny, Iowa, earlier this month.
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Ben Carson is easy to underestimate. Soft-spoken and spiritual, the renowned neurosurgeon doesn’t display the bombast and bravado of a certain other candidate in the Republican presidential field.

Even Dr. Carson’s most controversial of statements – such as his recent comparison of women who have abortions to slave-owners – are uttered in such soothing tones they can just slide by.

And unlike Donald Trump, whose rhetoric is all about winning, Carson projects a zen-like calm over his prospects.

“I’m going to be who I am, and that’s it,” he tells the Des Moines Register. “If that works, great, and if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.”

The reality is that Carson has just pulled ahead in the latest national poll, by The New York Times and CBS News, and is now the solid front-runner for the kickoff Iowa caucuses. When he and Mr. Trump take the stage Wednesday night for the third Republican debate, Carson may face an onslaught. Already, the hyperkinetic billionaire has slammed the mild-mannered doctor as “lower energy than Jeb Bush,” and used a mocking tone in discussing Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith. Carson has called for an apology. Trump sees no need to issue one.

It’s unclear whether the “Trump treatment” will hurt Carson; it might even help him. But it is clear that Carson has impressed plenty of Republican voters, even those not intending to support him in the primaries. His favorability ratings are consistently the highest of all the Republican candidates. He also wins on honesty and temperament.

Not everyone is sold on Carson, of course. His mounting support in Iowa – bolstered by evangelicals – might not translate to more secular states like New Hampshire. But the reasons for Carson's appeal were certainly apparent during a focus group of 12 likely Republican primary voters – six men, six women – brought together in Indianapolis recently by veteran pollster Peter Hart.

While focus groups aren’t scientific, the reaction to Carson was extraordinary.

It offered a glimpse at Republican voters' desire for outsiders, with 10 of the 12 participants saying they didn’t see the value of governing experience for a presidential nominee. But it also suggested that at this relatively early stage in the campaign, it’s Carson’s persona – not his policy views – that dominates the impressions of the Republican primary electorate.

Carson's Midwest appeal

Whether they planned on voting for him or not, the Indiana Republicans expressed wide admiration for his life story and his emphasis on morality and family. While voters’ one-word descriptions of Trump were often negative (“impulsive,” “self-serving,” “loud”), descriptors for Carson were uniformly positive – “wise,” “thoughtful,” “intelligent,” “gentleman,” “good morals.”

“He’s a natural born leader,” says Christopher Berry, a middle-aged Carson supporter who works in agriculture. “He grew up in poverty and he became a multimillionaire, so he’s lived in every class and he can relate to every class. And doing so, he’s a role model for those living in poverty.”

Mr. Berry also likes that Carson “hasn’t had a political life,” and says that his African-American race means “he’s going to get certain groups to vote for him.”

The idea of Carson as a unifier was echoed by others. When asked which of the candidates would unite the country as president, 6 of the 12 focus group participants named Carson. Ten said Trump would be divisive.

Michael Price, who is deciding between Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, says Carson can bring the country together “where [President] Obama failed.”

“Obama turned black against white, rich against poor,” says Mr. Price, a 60-something voter who works in transportation sales. “I think Carson can bring that all together.”

No controversy here

Notably, none of the participants brought up any of Carson’s controversial statements. He has compared the Affordable Care Act to slavery; questioned whether a Muslim should ever be president of the United States; and said the Holocaust would have been “greatly diminished” if German citizens had been armed.

In fact, among Republicans in another Midwestern state, Iowa, where Carson now leads in the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll by nine percentage points, those remarks were all broadly popular: 81 percent liked the equation of Obamacare with slavery; 73 percent liked the doubts about a Muslim president; and 77 percent liked the comment about the Holocaust and guns.

Voters who find such remarks jarring can’t say they weren’t warned. "I'm probably never going to be politically correct because I'm not a politician,” Carson said in May when he declared for president.

In the focus group, “political correctness” didn’t come up. But Carson’s social media presence made an impression.

Shonda Sonnefield, a middle-aged homemaker, says Carson is her first choice because he’s “transparent” and “personable.”

“I follow him on Facebook,” she says. “He answers questions every night, and he’s just very transparent about what he stands for and who he is, so you can at least get to know him better.”  

Social media has been a key to Carson’s success – both in introducing himself to voters and in fundraising. His $20 million haul in the third quarter of 2015 topped the GOP field.

The lure of the outsider

And what of Carson’s lack of governing experience, as with Trump and former CEO Carly Fiorina? Mr. Hart, who conducted the Indiana focus group for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that Republicans have a history of nominating candidates with long experience in government.

The Indianans' reaction came back loud and clear: We’re tired of career politicians. One participant likened Washington to the political dystopia of the Netflix series “House of Cards.”

Not everyone dismissed governing experience. Josh Albrecht, a 20-something credit manager who supports Gov. John Kasich (R) of Ohio, said that he liked Carson, but part of being effective is “playing the game.”

“[President] Johnson knew how to twist arms to get things done,” said Mr. Albrecht.

Carson supporters defended his ability to govern if he won the White House. He could surround himself with “good people” to help him, said Berry.

When asked to predict who has the best chance of defeating the Democratic nominee next year, four picked Carson – the most of any candidate.

Trump got two votes, and Ms. Fiorina got three. That’s 9 out of 12 picking political outsiders.

In New Hampshire, questions

Some Iowa Republicans worry about picking someone so politically green. Connie Schmett, a member of the Polk County Republican Executive Committee, says Carson is “a good man,” but he has “absolutely no governing experience at all.” She’s backing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Moreover, winning the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses would not necessarily give Carson momentum going into the New Hampshire primary a week later, says Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“First off, New Hampshire is the second least religious state in the country, whereas Iowa Republican caucuses are really driven by evangelical voters and organized by evangelical churches,” Mr. Smith says.

The last two winners of the Iowa GOP caucuses – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – came nowhere close to winning in New Hampshire.

One New Hampshire Republican, Kelly Roe of Keene, is impressed by Carson’s career, “but when he comes out with these really bizarre comments, like the one about Muslims, it’s hard to take him seriously.”

"He’s no dummy to get where he’s gotten, but that doesn’t make him qualified to be president," adds Ms. Roe, who is in her 50s and works in human resources.  

She's undecided about whom to support in the primary, but is considering former Governor Bush of Florida. “His talk about the balancing of budgets and Obamacare does interest me.”

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