MILWAUKEE—Ben Carson came out to address the media after Tuesday night’s debate, emerging in the spin room with his typical air of beatific nonchalance. He was immediately engulfed by dozens of microphones and cameras; a reporter for the Daily Mail began shouting questions about new factual discrepancies in his autobiography. “Did you attack your mother with a hammer, or did she attack you?” the reporter shouted. “Are you running away from this question?” Carson simply ignored him and kept walking.
Off to the side of the surging mass of media, Carson’s campaign manager, a heavyset career operative named Barry Bennett, was exuberant. Had Carson won the debate? “I only care about the bank account, and we did well with that,” he said. The former neurosurgeon’s campaign had already taken in $6 million since the beginning of the month, $1 million the day of the debate alone.
The media are starting to call Carson the new frontrunner. He had a one-point lead over Donald Trump in the latest national poll. The past week saw him pass his first major test with surprising deftness, making a plausible defense against accusations he stretched the truth in his bestselling memoir and turning the episode into a crowd-pleasing attack on the liberal media. (Politico ran a story claiming Carson “fabricated” a scholarship offer from West Point, but the memoir acknowledges that he didn’t apply to the school, and “scholarship” is the school’s common term for its tuition-free offers of admission.) Carson is less deft when it comes to policy, but policy is not at the core of his appeal—rather, it is his status as an inspirational figure.
In the debate, no other candidate attacked Carson, and Carson didn’t attack the other candidates. He parried a question about his past with a good line—“I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about”—and segued to accusing Hillary Clinton of having lied about the 2012 attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. He also flip-flopped on the minimum wage (he’s now against it) and floundered around on questions about foreign policy and banking.
Bennett said it didn’t matter. “He’s just so much more likable than all the other guys,” he told me. “That’s a big deal. No one’s going to vote for an abrasive asshole. People voted for Ronald Reagan because they liked him. Nobody voted for Barack Obama because of his tax plan.”
Carson’s climb into first place is the latest weird wrinkle in a surpassingly weird political year. He is beloved by social conservatives and home-schoolers who’ve long consumed his books, movie, and speeches, all of which revolve around his tale of coming up from inner-city poverty to world-beating medical success, and taking on President Obama from the standpoint of a health-care expert and African American man of faith. Like Obama, his near-messianic persona allows him to evade the usual standards applied to other politicians.
Oddly, Carson’s rise hasn’t inspired the sort of full-scale freakout that Trump has caused among the long-suffering GOP establishment. This might be because Carson seems to fit a more familiar, and perennial, type: the social-conservative challenger who gives the frontrunner a scare in Iowa but eventually fades. Or it could be because, after Trump, the establishment has hit freakout fatigue. Or maybe, as Bennett has it, Carson just seems so doggone nice.
That very quality—the calm, smiling, steady bearing—has enabled Carson to creep into first place without being perceived as a threat. And it could make him hard to dislodge. Despite questionable campaign spending, he has plenty of money. His nutty statements and snake-oil salesmanship don’t shake his followers’ faith, and the first round of questions about his trustworthiness only strengthened him in their eyes. They want to believe.
The other candidates appear to understand that attacking Carson could backfire on them. And if there’s anything Trump’s sustained success has shown, it’s that a lot of regular Republican voters don’t see any good options among the traditional, government-experienced candidates. Pundits are praising Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio for their clever debating skills; Jeb Bush’s agonizing clumsiness has turned his campaign into an angst-ridden saga. But it’s Ben Carson who is taking the lead, and unless something changes, he could be there for a while.