LAKEWOOD, CO. — Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon currently leading polls, didn’t always want to run for president.
That was his message to reporters and a packed crowd of students and supporters at Colorado Christian University the morning after a debate in Boulder that didn’t get him much airtime and left him bruised over his relationship with a sketchy dietary supplement company.
The White House, he said, was never on his radar.
“I was planning on retiring, relaxing, not setting my alarm clock, reading all the books I’ve never read, watching the movies I haven’t seen, playing golf, learning how to play the organ,” he told reporters here at a news conference before his speech. “That’s what I envisioned. I did not envision being president of the United States.”
But, Carson said, “Things happen, and you respond to it.”
After speaking at a 2013 prayer breakfast in Washington, DC, a groundswell of supporters urged him to run for president. He grew up poor in a single-family Detroit household, never served in public office, and spent his career as a brain surgeon. But for the past two years, the unlikely candidate has been boning up on foreign affairs and the economy, learning about monetary policy and the Fed, he said, and trying to figure out what interest rates do to average people.
He’s crisscrossed the nation giving speeches, not exactly shining in debates, and racking up negative headlines for making Nazi analogies about the United States, saying homosexuality is “absolutely” a choice, and, more recently, his false answer to a question in the Boulder debate about his relationship to Mannatech, a dietary supplement company that settled for $7 million with the Texas attorney general in a lawsuit over claims its product can cure cancer and autism.
In the meantime, the outsider and only black candidate on the presidential debate stage has found himself edging out Donald Trump in recent polls.
For at least the past year in Colorado Springs, about an hour south of where Carson spoke at the Christian university in Lakewood, more cars have sported stickers for Carson than any other candidate.
Facing reporters before his speech in Lakewood, Carson took questions from a national press corps that revolved largely around his campaign, his debate demeanor and his poll numbers, rather than how his policy positions make him stand out.
“What have you concluded about this disconnect as you see yourself in a front runner position and yet often not being taken seriously or asked questions that take you seriously?” one reporter asked.
Carson said he’s acting outside of the traditional candidate mode, and voters recognize “that politics as usual is not working.”
As he settled into a golf cart outside the news conference on his way to give a speech nearby, Carson declined to offer his opinion to The Independent about whether Christian humanitarian organizations in America should partner with the Pentagon to help with intelligence gathering in countries like North Korea. (An investigation this week by The Intercept had exposed the leader of a Colorado Christian humanitarian organization as a U.S. spy.)
Later, speaking in his trademark slow and subdued manner to a packed auditorium on the Christian campus, Carson touched on themes ranging from his personal biography to classic conservative red meat. He railed at the federal debt and bloated bureaucracies.
“I don’t want to demonize the government,” he said, “but they deserve it.”
Carson told those assembled they should clue themselves in on “the fiscal gap”: the unfunded liabilities Americans owe to programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, versus what those programs expect to collect in revenue. And from the stage of this religious school he had gloomy prophecies about what that gap could mean.
“Before horrible things happen, usually there is a warning,” Carson said. “This is a warning. It is imperative that we make sure we all know what is going on.”
To fix the country’s budget woes, Carson proposed a six-month tax holiday and a moratorium on hiring federal workers. He wants to tax capital gains and corporate profits at 15 percent, and cut waste and department budgets.
In the meantime, he worries about a massive cyber attack from another country, and of progressives he sees as pushing God out of the public square.
“We cannot allow the government to control our lives,” he said.
Outside the event, Bev Hartley, a volunteer from Monument, was selling Carson for president T-shirts on the sidewalk. She’d earlier told one of Caron’s people that she’d give everything she had to get him elected to the White House.
Like other Carson supporters, Hartley first heard him at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC.
“Ever since then, we’ve been involved,” she said. “I crave listening to him.”
Asked what makes him stand out from the 15 or so other major Republican presidential contenders, she said Carson has plans to deal with the country’s problems.
“I kept saying, ‘I love this man, I love this man,’” Hartley said. “He knows about everything.”
A handful of students The Independent spoke with, however, mentioned Carson’s style.
‘He’s very nice in the way that he presents himself and he’s friendly and he relates with people a lot more,” said Noelle Corbiere, a student at Colorado Connections Academy. “And he’s not like a seasoned politician, which makes him have a freshness and a newness of ideas.”
Two Colorado Christian University students, Isak Baldwin and his friend James, both undecided in the race, noted the way Carson speaks as something that sets him apart.
“What I was thinking while I was in there,” Baldwin said, “is that while a lot of other speakers, especially presidential candidates, are always speaking very passionately and loudly, with him he has obviously a different style and it makes the audience kind of focus in on what he’s saying and be really attentive and listen for what he has to say rather than just being talked at.”
James appreciated Carson’s mild manner.
“He doesn’t go on rants about the people who disagree with him,” James said. “He says what he thinks, what he believes, what he would implement, without degrading his opponents, and I think that’s very admirable.”
During a GOP debate watch party in Boulder, one woman quipped at one point that Carson sounded “stoned.” The candidate, however, indicated to reporters here in Lakewood that his muted style isn’t likely to change into anything more flashy anytime soon.
“You just have to listen carefully, you know, when I answer questions,” Carson said. “You have to listen carefully to what I say. It’s just not the nature of who I am.”
Photo credit: Corey Hutchins