For an hour last week, Dr. Ben Carson had the audience in Berean Baptist Church leaning forward in their pews to catch his soft-voiced message.
It was part biography – of a how a poor black kid from Detroit became a famous neurosurgeon. It was part a call for a return to Judeo-Christian values. And it was part a populist brand of conservatism made to order for a political outsider.
“I 100 percent refuse to lick the boots of billionaires or get in the bed with special interests,” Carson told about 1,200 people who packed into the church, which sits on a two-lane road on the edge of town. “There is only one special interest group – and that is the American people.”
Carson’s message seems to be working far better than anybody would have imagined just several months ago.
Carson is trailing only real estate magnate Donald Trump in North Carolina, according to two recent polls. One found that Carson had the highest favorability rating (70 percent) of any Republican in the field and that he is especially popular among those who identify themselves as very conservative.
He would beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in a match-up by 10 points in North Carolina if the election were held today, according to a Public Policy Polling survey.
A major part of his appeal is that he is seen as a political outsider.
Ronnie Griffin, 61, a retired firefighter from Clemmons, is still shopping for a candidate, but he is looking at Carson, Trump, former business executive Carly Fiorina, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“I don’t want the establishment in there,” said Griffin, who attended the Carson event. “They are all in the Washington mafia. It’s all about the money these days. It’s not about the people. It’s about the corporations.”
“He is not a politician,” said Vanesa McIntyre, 56, of Candor, who is a minister and teacher. “That is very important. That is what gives a person an open mind – to look at what is not working and find a solution.”
Michelle Lee, 45, a teacher from Greensboro and an independent, has decided to work for Carson.
“He is someone who can unify our nation,” Lee said. “With his background he has lived through our history. He has excelled. I am a teacher. I see the inspiration he can bring. I also agree with his policies. He is a breath of fresh air to have someone who supports the conservative platform and who has the wisdom and compassion and really lives the idea that family values are acceptable to all of us.”
At Berean Baptist, Carson, a Seventh-Day Adventist, was courting social conservatives, which make up a large segment of the North Carolina GOP primary vote. The pastor, Ron Baity, has been active in public affairs, particularly in opposing gay marriage and working to retain Christian prayer at public events.
Carson opened his remarks by offering a prayer, and described his candidacy as not something he sought, but something in which the Lord opened the door for him.
His positions are in keeping with most of the Republican field. He is for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and he blames “secular progressives” for bringing political correctness to America that prevents people from talking about the issues that need to be discussed. Carson is discouraged by the spread of socialism. He supports a strong Second Amendment right to bear arms.
He dismisses his lack of experience in public office.
“Our country was not designed for the political class, it was designed for citizens who have real lives and understand the practicalities of life,” he says.
Carson also said it was “a lie” that he wanted to eliminate the governmental safety net that he had benefited from. He said the country should provide “a ladder of opportunity for the people on the lower rungs of our society to climb up.” He said “that doesn’t happen when you pat people on the head and say, ‘There, there you poor little thing.’ We will take care of all your needs. All you have to do is vote for me.”
He said critics have attempted to demonize him because he is a black conservative.
“They feel if you belong to a certain race, that you have to think in a certain way,” Carson said. He said it was “racism” to think that blacks don’t have the ability to draw their own conclusions about issues.
Right now, Carson is drawing a lot of oxygen out of the room, leaving other GOP candidates courting evangelical voters scrambling for votes.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is stuck at 5 percent and Cruz is at 6 percent in North Carolina, according the PPP poll. The day that Carson arrived in North Carolina, Huckabee’s campaign released a statewide steering committee headed by the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte who was a GOP U.S. Senate candidate last year. The team includes former Congressman Charles Taylor and former state Sen. Woody White.
While in North Carolina, Carson was busy building his campaign organization, holding at least a half-dozen meetings in Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, according to his campaign.
Although his parents were born in rural Georgia, Carson has not lived in the South and he is still feeling his way. Stopping at a Lexington barbecue restaurant, he pointed to fried balls on his plate and asked his wife, Candy, “What are these?” according to the Associated Press. “Hush puppies,” she replied.
In Randleman, there was a laying on of the hat, if not the hands, by NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
Petty showed Carson around Victory Junction, a privately funded camp for children with chronic medical conditions that was started by the Petty family.
Petty placed his famous hat on Carson’s head and revved up the Carson campaign bus, which has the slogan, “Heal, Inspire, Revive.”
But Petty stopped just short of endorsing Carson. “We’re hoping he’s endorsing the camp, we’re not necessarily endorsing him, but we are – you know what I mean,” Petty told AP.