NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—It's hard to miss the gospel of Ben Carson here at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, held annually just outside of Washington.
Every eager conservative activist who rides the free shuttle to the event will have to watch a video on the bus's screens of a descendant of John Philip Sousa explaining why Carson is the "the only candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton" in 2016. And the first 2,000 people who check into their hotel rooms here will find Carson on their room keys. He's on the CPAC straw poll, and his fans downstairs at the exhibition hall will tell you why he's a mathematical shoo-in for the presidency.
It's a major display in some of CPAC's most prime real estate for someone who has never held office and is not on most pundits' list of potential 2016 presidential candidates.
Before you laugh, consider this: The group that put Carson on the hotel keys has outraised Clinton's draft committee, Ready for Hillary; has been on the ground in Iowa; and is working from the playbook written by Howard Dean and Barack Obama.
It's all the work of the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, which is trying to get the conservative neurosurgeon to run for president. It's part fan club, part savvy campaign.
The case for Carson is all about math and race. Carson is African-American and his supporters think that will be his path to victory. He's "a respected figure among black Americans," the video explains, and if he can win just 17 percent of the black vote, it is "mathematically impossible" for a Democrat to win the White House.
Vernon Robinson, a former three-time congressional candidate and George H.W. Bush appointee, started the draft campaign with John Philip Sousa IV and others. He says Carson, who is scheduled to speak Saturday at CPAC, is the only candidate who can broaden the GOP base among minorities, while passing muster with conservative primary voters.
"At 17 percent, Hillary loses all of the swing states and the Roosevelt Democratic coalition is destroyed," Robinson explains. "In addition, Ben Carson is able to clearly and calmly articulate conservative positions in a way the average voter can understand.… He's the only guy who can bond with all of the American people."
The draft committee raised $2.83 million from 47,000 donors in its first six months of operation, which ended in late February. "We crushed Ready for Hillary in fundraising," Robinson gloats. The main group supporting the former secretary of State raised $1.25 million its first six months, and then $2.75 million in the next half-year.
"This isn't something that three drunks came up with at a bar," he continues.
The group is trying to run a sophisticated, if quixotic, campaign. They're modeling themselves not after a national Republican group, but Organizing for America, the pro-Obama group, and Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, which Robinson holds up as the model of responsiveness and agility.
There's a long history of draft campaigns in American politics, with former NATO leader Wesley Clark being perhaps the most recent semi-successful example.
But is Carson even interested? The famed neurosurgeon, who wrote controversial political books before emerging on the national scene last year when he challenged President Obama during the National Prayer Breakfast, has said he might be open to running if no satisfactory candidate emerges.
And "Carsonologists," as Robinson calls the devoted fans who parse every word from Carson's mouth like it was coming out of the Politburo, have noticed a subtle but potentially meaningful shift in his tense choice lately. Carson has gone from saying he "hopes" the right candidate will emerge to saying he "hoped" one would, perhaps indicating that he's moving toward a run. Robinson is trying to push Carson there by sending him 4,000 petitions a week urging him to get in the race.
Robinson, who proudly notes that he raised $6 million during his three runs for Congress, has spoken to Carson only three times, each of them brief. The first time, at a book signing, Robinson asked the would-be presidential candidate to sign not Carson's book, but Robinson's copy of a book about the successful campaign to draft Barry Goldwater.
At the second interaction, Robinson asked Carson if he had noticed the work of the draft committee. "'That'd be very helpful if someone was running for president,'" Robinson remembers Carson replying slyly.
And at the third meeting, Robinson got to sit next to Carson at a table the group bought at a charity event in Phoenix, where Robinson performed his best impersonation of Carson to the man himself. He also brought along a girl enrolled in the local Big Brothers Big Sisters, who wants to be a doctor and was thrilled to meet Carson.
In January, Robinson was on the ground during the midterm Iowa caucus to urge caucus-goers to keep Carson in mind in the next election. "'How do I know this isn't a scam?'" he recalls one potential donor asking. "I definitely wouldn't be campaigning in Iowa in the winter!" Robinson jokes.
Next up, the group will be in New Hampshire and California, and is hoping to build out chapters in every state.
"We're the Rodney Dangerfield of draft committees," Robinson says. Goofy, loud, and easy to underestimate.
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