Dr. Ben Carson is scrubbing in.
In a video released Tuesday, Carson—a retired neurosurgeon who has quickly become the most prominent black leader in the Republican Party—announced the launch of his exploratory committee to run for president.
"If I run for president, it will be because I know what it's like to grow up in a tough neighborhood and feel marginalized. If I run, it will be because I know firsthand that quality education is the ladder to climb out of poverty and dependence," Carson said in the video. "While I don't claim to have all the answers to every question that plagues us, I do have a passion to reach out, listen, and build commonsense solutions to the problems that are holding us back as a nation."
He is the first Republican considering a 2016 bid to set up an exploratory committee. In November, Jim Webb became the first (and, so far, only) prominent Democrat to do so.
While no other prominent Republican has formed an exploratory committee yet, nearly all of the politicians seriously considering a presidential run have either established vaguely named leadership PACs or tax-exempt 527 groups to start fundraising on a national scale. Carson himself has a leadership PAC, USA First, which he launched last fall.
It's worth noting that the presence of Carson's exploratory committee, Carson America, does not mean Carson is now an official presidential candidate—only that he is "exploring" that possibility. Carson has said he will officially decide whether he will run for president by May 1.
As Ron Elving wrote in 2006, the announcement of the exploratory committee is a long-held political tradition for garnering media attention and raising money without having to fully disclose the source of donations:
Candidates use an exploratory committee as not only a transitional phase for their bookkeeping but as an extra claim on media attention. Some of the most skillful handlers like to leak word that their candidate is testing the waters, then leak word that he or she is thinking about forming an exploratory committee. Additional "news" can be made when the same candidate actually forms such a committee and registers with the Federal Election Commission. Yet a fourth round of attention may be generated when the word exploratory gets dropped from the committee filing.
Carson's announcement comes shortly after his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he offered his take on Obamacare, Common Core, and Israel.
At the end of the day on Friday, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee—which changed its name on Monday to the "2016 Committee" to get ahead of campaign finance laws—hosted a cocktail reception for Carson supporters, offering swag such as Carson '16 bumper stickers and Carson-themed calendars. The crowd of supporters skewed older, with a handful of college students scattered throughout. As attendees noshed on cheese and crackers, beef kabobs, and mini empanadas, the leaders of the Draft Carson group trumpeted their accomplishments.
John Philip Sousa IV, the straight-talking chairman of the Draft Carson group—and great-grandson of the famous march composer—said his team has raised $15 million so far. "Eat your heart out, Hillary!" Sousa said on Friday. Tami Cali, a senior adviser to the draft committee, said the group was "more than certain" that Carson would soon announce an exploratory committee. She was right.
That trumpeting will surely continue this week. Vernon Robinson, the draft committee's campaign director, said his group's volunteers were essential to convincing Carson to take this step, and noted that this is the first successful conservative draft since the effort to draft Barry Goldwater in 1964.
"The 30,000 volunteers who played a central role in changing Dr. and Mrs. Carson's mind about running for president are the real heroes," Robinson told National Journal on Tuesday. "Nobody creates an exploratory committee now just to explore. If they create an exploratory committee, they're running."
Robinson partially credited the success of the draft campaign to Carson's book tour last summer.
"Thousands of our volunteers showed up at that book tour with Run Ben Run banners," Robinson said. "I think that the volunteers who rallied to the cause of drafting Ben Carson get almost all the credit for changing his mind."
Whether or not the draft committee had a significant impact on Carson's decision, it's clear that his camp intends to take his candidacy seriously. Carson's team recently hired three Republican operatives who worked on Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, and the hires keep rolling in. However, Carson will still have considerable hurdles to overcome, including the inevitable claims of his inexperience working in politics.
Liberals may scoff at the idea of Carson as a viable candidate, but as Fred Barnes recently wrote in The Weekly Standard, Carson should not be so easily dismissed. He has a compelling personal story—perhaps more so than any Republican he's up against—he's staffing up with veteran GOP operatives, and he has proven himself to be a formidable fundraiser. A Gallup Poll in December found that Carson is the sixth-most-admired man in the U.S., in between George W. Bush and Stephen Hawking.
Robinson said his group is "ecstatic" about the news, and he said it will help his group draft not only Carson, but also draft a message to push with media outlets and the group's 500,000 email subscribers.
"There's a Message of the Week meeting in 12 minutes," Robinson said. "Sometimes we don't have a Message of the Week, and we have to punt. At least we won't have to worry about that today."
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