Politics & Government

Ben Carson tries to burnish his policy credentials, but Rock Hill supporters like him for who he is

GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at the Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill Wednesday. Ben Carsoin greets the crowd at the end of his appearance.
GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at the Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill Wednesday. Ben Carsoin greets the crowd at the end of his appearance. aburriss@heraldonline.com

After a long and successful career as one of the country’s top pediatric neurosurgeons, Ben Carson was looking forward to a quiet retirement. Then he was invited to speak in front of the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast.

That speech, in which Carson used a nonpartisan event to deliver some sharply critical remarks just feet from President Barack Obama, garnered the deeply religious doctor a lot of attention from conservative activists who suddenly had a new plan for Carson’s post-surgical career: They wanted him to run for president.

Carson relived that moment in front of some 2,000 people Wednesday in the Winthrop Coliseum, in the midst of his campaign to win the South Carolina Republican presidential primary.

“Lord, you’re going to have to open a door,” Carson prayed.

To people such as Wendy Stephenson of York, those prayers have been answered in the form of poll numbers that show Carson is one of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination less than three months before South Carolina voters head to the polls on Feb. 20, 2016.

“He’s been my candidate since I listened to him at the prayer breakfast,” Stephenson said. “He talks so much about his faith, like how he uses the Bible to talk about tithing as a guide (to tax policy). That’s important.”

Carson’s rise has flummoxed seasoned political observers as he’s surpassed more experienced national politicians despite a campaign that’s sometimes lacked any clear policy specifics.

“Four years ago, I would have said he’s the flavor of the month,” said Winthrop political science professor Karen Kedrowski. “But this has been the year of the outsider. His campaign seems to have staying power, barring some big mistake.”

If Carson wants to firm up his position in the race, Kedrowski said, he needs to show a stronger grasp of policy specifics, especially foreign policy.

Carson tried to do that Wednesday, telling the crowd he just got back from a trip to Jordan where he visited refugees from the civil war in Syria. Carson, like other Republican candidates, has opposed efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States.

“They told me they want to go back home,” Carson said. He argued admitting a “few thousand” refugees won’t solve the Mideast crisis and could threaten Americans’ security as well.

“We would expose our population to danger, because ISIS has said they will send people over here. ... It’s creating a problem just so we can say, ‘We’re nice people.’”

This has been the year of the outsider. His campaign seems to have staying power.

Karen Kedrowski, Winthrop political science professor

But Carson spoke more vaguely when he stressed the need to retake territory from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, saying the U.S. could drive the Islamic State out of its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, but without specifying if he wanted the fighting done by local Syrian forces – some of which have either been uncooperative with the U.S. or difficult for outsiders to coordinate – or if a U.S. ground invasion would be necessary to defeat the terrorist group.

Instead, Carson criticized Obama for attending a climate change conference in Paris while the threat from ISIS is ongoing.

“Is that supposed to scare the terrorists?” he asked. “Maybe the sun will burn them up.”

After some prepared remarks, S.C. Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York – who told the crowd ahead of time his wife is a big Carson supporter – asked Carson questions submitted by the Winthrop Coliseum audience.

In response to a question about his own humble background growing up in Detroit, Carson said he has “no intent of withdrawing government support from the people who need it” but wants to increase opportunities for those dependent on government. He suggested setting up health savings accounts for returning veterans that they could use at any medical facility, bypassing the VA health care system.

Referencing the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, he said “‘promoting the general welfare’ doesn’t mean putting everybody on welfare.’”

Later, Carson talked about the importance his Christian faith has played in his life, even when others said it was incompatible with his vocation as a scientist and a doctor. He also told Pope he’s faced “more prejudice” in his life for being a political conservative than for being black.

That kind of message, and the frank, unpolished way Carson delivers it, is key to supporters such as Michele Wilson of Rock Hill.

“You have to connect the dots (with other politicians),” she said. “They just don’t have the same authenticity.”

Carson told Pope he hopes to turn that kind of outsider appeal to his advantage.

“If everybody here could get three people to vote who didn’t vote last time,” he said, “it will make all the difference.”

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome