What’s the appeal of Ben Carson? Iowans say he inspires

One word emerges in almost every conversation with Iowans who like presidential candidate Ben Carson.

It’s the centerpiece of his campaign slogan — “Heal, inspire, revive” — for a reason, his aides say.

“We saw it in our first focus group. … And there’s not a week that goes by that we don’t see that underscored in many ways,” spokesman Doug Watts told The Des Moines Register. “It’s the watchword of the campaign.”

Who’s most inspired by Carson, the low-income Detroit kid who grew up to perform avant-garde brain surgeries on infants and children? Conservative Christians and conservative women are the core of his voter pool here, polling shows.

“It’s evident that if he runs into a hitch and doesn’t have all the information he needs, he’s not slow to ask God to give him the wisdom,” said Kim Hiscox, a West Des Moines Republican who has read Carson’s autobiography Gifted Hands and has seen the television movie about his life. “I haven’t seen him get rattled yet.”

Carson, who has drawn crowds of more than a thousand in Des Moines, Council Bluffsand Cedar Rapids, is back in Iowa today and Friday.

Despite a month-and-a-half-long absence from the GOP campaign trail here, he’s No. 2 in the Real Clear Politics rolling average of polls in Iowa, at 21%, behind Donald Trump at 27%.

In the national rolling average, Carson is at 16% and Trump at 23%.

Race still very fluid

The race is still wildly fluid, and interviews with Carson’s Iowa supporters make it clear that not all are fully committed to casting a ballot for him in the first-in-the-nation presidential vote on Feb. 1.

But for now, when pollsters ask Iowa conservatives who their top preference is, it’s easy to name Carson, one GOP strategist said.

“Carson is a safe place for people to wait it out,” said Brad Todd, an adviser for a super PAC that supports rival candidate Bobby Jindal. “He’s not going to embarrass them. They think he has the utmost integrity. They don’t have to be ashamed to say they’re for him.

“He could be a way station for people while they figure out which of these other guys can win, or while they wait to see if Carson proves out,” Todd said.

Personal story resonating with voters

Carson’s soft-spoken, sometimes monotone demeanor can at times be as exciting as watching paint dry, Iowans said. But his personal story gives people a charge — and he fares particularly well with the abrasive Trump as a foil, they said.

“Trump just blows up,” said Hiscox, who is retired from a non-profit that advocated for children’s safety. “To me he’s a bully. He doesn’t have the diplomacy.”

For Iowans who had never heard of Carson until recently, his popularity might be perplexing. After all, the nation has never elected a president without previous experience in elected office, prominent appointed office or military service.

But Carson isn’t an unfamiliar face to religious conservatives, said Lois Brookhart, co-owner of Divine Treasures, a Catholic bookstore in Des Moines. His autobiography,Gifted Hands, was first released six years ago. His eight books have peeked out at secular voters from revolving racks in pharmacies for years, too.

Brookhart, a longtime Democrat who switched to the GOP because of her opposition to abortion, said Carson’s writing is “beautiful,” and she thinks he stands for the same principles she does.

“I’m African-American and, frankly, the current president makes me ashamed to be one sometimes because of his policies and the things he’s done,” Brookhart told theRegister.

Carson is one of her favorites, but she’s still looking at other possibilities.

“Definitely not Donald Trump,” who she thinks is too changeable to be president.

Winning with Christian conservatives

Carson beats Trump with Christian conservatives and also with women, the late August Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll found. Several women told theRegister they view him as a role model for their children, no matter their kids’ age or income level.

“His story with his mom is amazing,” said Muscatine Christian conservative Lynn Pohren. “The fact that she was one of 24 kids and a single parent and she did what she did to get him through school.”

Carson’s father, Robert, worked in the car manufacturing industry in Detroit, and his mother, Sonya, was a maid. The couple split when Carson was 8. Although his mom didn’t know how to read, Carson says she forced her two sons to get through two library books a week. She drove home a message of independence, reciting the Mayme White Miller poem Yourself to Blame, he says. Carson’s brother, he tells Iowans, is now a rocket scientist.

An inspiration to many

David Stilley, the 59-year-old owner of a Johnston-based DoctorsNow walk-in clinic, thinks Carson is an inspiration to anyone who might feel like he or she is a victim of circumstances.

“Every American should aspire to the way he has lived his life,” said Stilley, who years ago watched Cuba Gooding Jr. play Carson in Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.

Stilley and his colleagues got copies in the mail of a miniature paperback about Carson distributed by his super PAC. “That was influential as well,” he said. But Stilley thinks there are several attractive options for the GOP nomination, “whether it’s Ben Carson himself” or someone else.

Iowans also said they’re exasperated with the D.C. political class and inspired that Carson is running to stand up against Washington. His lack of political experience is lessened by his experience as a hospital administrator and board member for several corporations, they said.

‘A man of color’

And the fact that Carson is black exults some Iowa conservatives.

He provides some cover for the GOP, a predominantly white party with a reputation for turning off minority voters, strategists said.

“Because he is a man of color,” Hiscox told the Register, “I think there is a very strong possibility we can get some crossover votes — from more conservative Democrats, from minorities, from Latinos — who have been disillusioned and let down by the current administration.”

But before Hiscox makes up her mind, “I want to hear from some others first,” she said, including Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and others.

“I don’t see a weak link in our chain of candidates,” she said.