Humble but controversial, politically inexperienced yet deeply popular, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is a campaign contradiction, albeit one who just surpassed Donald Trump as frontrunner in the 2016 Republican presidential battle.
Recent major national polls have Carson edging ahead of his fellow political outsider, a noteworthy trend in a primary campaign season in which voters are venting their frustrations with Washington and anger with establishment politicians who they see as failing to change the status quo.
Both men are clearly capitalizing on that sentiment.
But while Trump is brash, direct and combative, Carson is thoughtful and reserved, an anti-Trump preaching tolerance and compromise, a work in progress who admits he is on a steep learning curve as he seeks the most powerful job in the world.
That does not stop the doctor from unleashing blunt rhetoric which has sent him careening into trouble, like his many references to Nazi Germany, including his suggestion last month that Jews would have fared better in the Holocaust if they had been armed.
Or in 2013, when he said President Barack Obama’s health care law was “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”
Or this September, when he said “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”
Carson is the least combative of the 14-candidate Republican field, as evidenced during their party’s three debate, in which he often struggled to stand out but delivered a calm, even-keeled performance that is rapidly becoming his trademark.
His standing in the race has been one of the main surprises of the election cycle, surging into second in the polls, nipping for weeks at Trump’s heels before edging ahead.
On Wednesday the RealClearPolitics poll average placed him out front for the first time, with 25.3 percent support, one point ahead of Trump and 14 points ahead of Senator Marco Rubio.
Carson has been criticized for lacking a consistent message.
He has been obtuse in explaining his position on key issues, including abortion and guns, a sign of what he himself calls his “political inexperience,” according to Yahoo News, in an age of increasing discipline among presidential candidates.
The 64-year-old is the only African-American in the presidential race, and like billionaire Trump he is praised by supporters for his authenticity.
Carson’s history is the epitome of the American dream. He grew up poor in Detroit and Boston, raised by an illiterate mother who married at age 13 but left her bigamist husband.
At 14, Carson tried to stab a classmate, but the boy’s metal belt buckle stopped the blade.
The incident leaves audiences speechless when Carson tells it at conservative gatherings, an opportunity for him to show how faith and family values helped a drifting teenager escape poverty’s grip and find the internal strength to realize his dream of becoming a doctor.
“That was the last day I had an angry outburst,” the Seventh Day Adventist said this year.
Carson grew into a model student, earning a scholarship to Yale University and attending University of Michigan medical school.
At 33, he became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, earning global acclaim in 1987 by performing the first successful separation of twins conjoined at the head.
– ‘Saving the nation’ –
Carson has authored six books, from the spiritual to the motivational and, in 2014, a best-selling guide to problem-solving in US political discourse.
He retired in 2013 to hit the conservative talk circuit. On stage, his affable delivery is punctuated with anecdotes, jokes, life stories and passages from the Bible.
He routinely promotes compassion and a return to individual responsibility — a value that led him to denounce the welfare state, which he has warned only traps people in poverty.
“If we continually keep people in a dependent position, then they’re soon going to lose the drive that is necessary to achieve in our society,” he told conservatives in 2013.
Carson increasingly has grown “politically incorrect,” rallying his supporters who appreciate the straight talk but leaving many shocked by his statements, including on homosexuality.
Shortly before declaring his candidacy, he said being gay was a choice.
“A lot of people who go into prison straight and when they come out they’re gay, so did something happen while they were in there?” he told CNN.
His surge in polls is thanks largely to success with the evangelical Christian base, particularly in Iowa, the state that votes first in the primary process.
Like Trump, Carson has taken advantage of the anti-establishment wave sweeping the Republican race.
This summer in Iowa he reminded conservatives why it was so important that he is “not a politician.”
“They want to get re-elected,” he said, “and I want to save our nation.”