A clearly perplexed South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham can't seem to fathom just what it is that so many Republican voters see in retired-neurosurgeon-turned-GOP-presidential-candidate Ben Carson. "I don't know what to tell you. I mean I can't understand what he's saying half the time."
Graham's quip to an interviewer though wasn't just a textbook case of sour grapes about a presidential opponent who's seemingly knocking them dead in the polls while his candidacy only charitably can be said to be on life support. From virtually the instant Carson burst on the scene a couple of years ago with his shoot-from-the-lip, inane, sometimes-idiotic-sounding digs against President Obama, and idiosyncratic quips on seemingly everything that stirs his brain cells, Carson has been a mix of mystery, anomaly, and fascination, and groupie awe. Now that he's nosed out Donald Trump not only as the big leader in the first-up GOP Iowa caucus next February, and as the GOP presidential poll leader nationally, Carson will get even more attention and head-scratching about how and why he got where he's gotten.
But it's really not much of a mystery about Iowa.
Carson is an unabashed pro-life, family values, religious values-spouting candidate. In fact, the very first issue listed on Carson's official presidential campaign website, "Ben Carson on the issues," boldly states, "I am unabashedly and entirely pro-life. " Anyone with that line will stir the juices of the state's top heavy evangelical crowd. And this coming from an African-American, the line sounds even more appealing since it seems to buck the standard political equation -- black, liberal, and Democrat.
This has been the key to understanding why Carson has defied the political odds, stumped the skeptics, and is on the verge of outmuscling Trump on the one issue that Trump has had a field day with, and that's an unfettered willingness to let fly with what angry, disenchanted, disillusioned, borderline nihilistic, political-establishment-loathing conservatives want to hear. Carson tops Trump on this because while he lets fly with his eye and media attention zingers on everything from the Mt. Vesuvius eruption a millennium ago to equating homosexuality with bestiality. He does it with a quiet almost child-like sincerity and belief in what he's actually saying. It may sound dumb and silly, but the way he says it never sounds stage-y and rehearsed. This pushes him even higher up on the honesty scale among voters who think and just know that every other word out of a traditional politician's mouth is a lie or double talk.
Carson has also done something else that's marked him as a black conservative non-politician politician cut from a different cloth. He has actually not run from race. He's talked about not it just to pander to GOP ultra conservatives and borderline unreconstructed bigots, but to blacks too. He's spouted his standard platitude about how liberal, Democratic policies have supposedly failed blacks and especially the black poor at stops in Harlem and in interviews on black talk shows. This will win him no new black converts to the GOP. But it has shown that he's capable of delivering his retrograde anti-government message to someone other than to the fawning packs of GOP ultraconservatives.
Carson's candidacy fits a triple bill. He gets even more attention for the GOP. He's African-American with that great personal story and this seemingly gives lie to the notion that the GOP is strictly a no-nothing party chock full of unreconstructed bigots. The notion of Carson as a presidential candidate touches a deep, dark and throbbing pulse among legions of ultraconservatives who think that Obama and many Democrats are communists, that gays are immoral, and that the healthcare-reform law is "slavery," as Carson infamously quipped, meaning a tyrannical intrusion by big government into Americans' lives. Mainstream GOP leaders can't utter this idiocy. They must always give the appearance that they are above the dirty, muddy, hate-slinging fray, so they leave it to a well-paid stalking horse like Carson to do their dirty work for them.
The problem with this is that Carson is no longer just a stalking horse for the "real" GOP party pros and establishment presidential contenders. He not only has stuck around far longer than anyone would ever have dreamed, he's the GOP presidential poll leader. This brings even more worry to GOP party leaders who are ratcheted by the incessant talk about an ideological war within the GOP that threatens to split the party into two, maybe even three wings if Carson or Trump is not the eventual GOP presidential nominee.
Carson's poll surges then shows how firmly he has the eye and ear of legions of GOP rank-and-file voters and much of the mainstream media. It also shows that in a season when voters again seem sick of the business-as-usual political crowd in Washington and want some real excitement on the political stump, Carson may well continue to be the GOP presidential contender that few ever thought he ever could or would be.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Torpedoing Hillary: The GOP Plan to Stop a Clinton White House (Amazon ebook). He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network