- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

RANDLEMAN, N.C. (AP) - She had never before given more than a few hundred dollars to a politician. But two weeks ago, Jacquelyn Monroe, a single mother who plays the piano for a living, decided to raise $100,000 for Ben Carson.

Inspired by a brief meeting at the hotel where she works, the 45-year-old Georgia woman joined an army of middle-class Americans fueling the fundraising juggernaut that is Carson’s Republican presidential campaign.

“It’s not something that I would normally set out to do,” said Monroe, who added she was moved by Carson’s authenticity and Christian faith and coaxed into collecting money from friends and business associates by his ambitious campaign staff. “$100,000-plus is a big deal for me.”

While the GOP establishment remains deeply skeptical of the retired neurosurgeon’s chances in 2016, even the most seasoned political operatives concede that Carson’s ability to raise money, if not his rising poll numbers, exceeds their expectations and ensures him a prominent place in the packed Republican contest four months before voting begins.

Carson’s team confirmed Wednesday he has raised more than $20 million in the three-month period that ended Wednesday and $31 million overall since he entered the race in May - much of it from small-dollar donors or newcomers to presidential politics.

Senior campaign staffers had a special cake made Wednesday to celebrate their fundraising haul, which was more money than what was raised by the GOP’s entire White House field combined over the same period four years ago.

Flush with cash, Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett said he has initiated plans to begin reserving television ad space across the South for primary contests scheduled for early March.

“Sooner or later, they’ll have to realize there’s a new reality or they’ll pay the price,” Bennett said in a message aimed at the Republican establishment. “The outsiders are not going away.”

But for all the fundraising success, Carson’s campaign was burning through donor money faster than almost anyone else in the race through June. Bennett estimated the campaign had at least $12 million in the bank as of Wednesday.

He declined to say how much money the campaign has spent on fundraising, details that will be included in a financial report due to federal regulators in two weeks.

It’s unclear if any of Carson’s 2016 Republican rivals will hit the $20 million mark for the quarter, which ended Wednesday. The two leading Democrat have: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign said late Wednesday it had raised $28 million, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ team said it had pulled in roughly $26 million.

Carson, who has never held elected office, has relied largely on creative techniques designed by his team to capitalize on tremendous interest from disaffected voters drawn to his underdog bid.

He quickly raised $250,000 by listing the names of his supporters’ children on the side of his campaign bus for $50 each. The campaign will soon make available the other side of the bus. An email solicitation sent to Carson’s ballooning email list on his Sept. 18 birthday netted $2 million. And Monroe was coaxed into becoming a Carson “bundler” when the candidate’s son, a former cellist, promised to join one of her musical performances if she generated $100,000 for his dad.

“We’re creating bundlers out of piano players,” said Carson’s national finance chairman, Dean Parker, a former technology executive and newcomer to national politics himself. “We’ve convinced the average person to say, ‘I can raise money to support Ben Carson.’ “

Carson’s fortunes surged even after he said recently he would not support a Muslim president, drawing condemnation from Republicans and Democrats. His campaign raised roughly $700,000 in the 36 hours after he made the comment, Bennett said.

Carson will continue to embrace the issue. On Thursday, Bennett said, Carson would call for the revocation of the non-profit tax status of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group, whose leader called on Carson to leave the race last month.

“The Judeo-Christian values upon which America was built allowed us to become the greatest force for good on the planet,” Carson says in a fundraising appeal distributed this week that repeats his criticism of a prospective Muslim president who supports Sharia law.

Donors interviewed in recent days explained their motivation in remarkably similar terms. They cite Carson’s authenticity, outsider status and Christian faith as major draws.

People were almost literally throwing money at him this week as his campaign bus greeted a handful of supporters on the side of the road after a stop in North Carolina. Dean Barney, a 63-year-old truck driver, waved two $20 bills at Carson as he walked off the bus.

“He sounds like a man who believes we need to get back to our Christian heritage,” said Barney, who lives in Asheboro, North Carolina, when asked what inspired him to donate. “I like his humility. And he’s no politician.”

Meanwhile, Monroe says she just got her fundraising website up and running a few days ago. She concedes the $100,000 goal is ambitious, but she wants to aim big.

“Politics is not necessarily my forte,” said Monroe, a single mother who isn’t registered with any political party. “But you see someone like Ben Carson come along, you want to see someone like that leading.”

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Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Exeter, New Hampshire and Julie Bykowicz in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Steve Peoples on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/sppeoples

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