- The Washington Times - Monday, January 25, 2016

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — If Ben Carson has a prayer of saving his presidential campaign from oblivion as the Iowa caucuses looms, he’ll need to put his faith in voters like Jim and Linda Mitchell.

Both are undecided voters from Sioux City who view the Republican candidates as essentially the same when it comes to the issues. Both are also churchgoers looking for “someone we can trust,” Mrs. Mitchell said as they waited for Mr. Carson to speak at Revive 714, a Christian prayer rally held here recently at the Orpheum Theatre.

In other words, they’re exactly the kind of Iowans that Mr. Carson seeks to bring into the fold. In the final weeks of his campaign, the retired neurosurgeon has gone back to what propelled him to the top of the Iowa polls before his skid to fourth place: his compelling life story, his patriotism, his unswerving belief in God.

During his half-hour talk at Revive 714, Mr. Carson never mentioned his stances on the issues. Instead, he held the audience of 2,000-plus riveted by his tale of growing up poor in Detroit, his violent temper as an adolescent, his rise to the top of the medical profession and the intersection of faith and politics in America.

“Josef Stalin, who was no fan of America, said of America, ‘You have to erode their pillars of strength and they will crumble from within. Those things are their spiritual life, their patriotism and their morality,’” Mr. Carson said. “Did you not notice that those are the very things that are under attack and have been for a few decades in our society?

“And I think it is the responsibility of the faith community to stand up now and oppose the deterioration that is going on in our society,” he said to booming applause.

At this point, analysts say even a third-place finish would come as a victory for Mr. Carson, but some voters say Mr. Carson could overtake billionaire businessman Donald Trump and pull off the win. “Oh, yeah, in a New York minute,” Mr. Mitchell said.

“He’s in line with Trump on a lot of the issues. Trump is up there because he’s flamboyant. Carson is not,” Mr. Mitchell said. “And I think when people go to the polls, and they look at the situation, they’re going to say, ‘Trump is just too much.’ And Carson is right down the middle of the road for us. I really believe he would be the man.”

It so happens that Mr. Carson is counting on the same dynamic to lift him over Mr. Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, all of whom are ahead of him just days before Monday’s caucuses.

“I’m just getting in front of people. That is the key,” Mr. Carson told reporters after Revive 714. “Every time I get in front of crowds, a bunch of people come up to me and say, ‘I changed my mind. I’m for you.’ It’s just a matter of getting in front of them, and they can hear you.”

His strategy may be bearing fruit: At least one poll released in the last week found him in third place, ahead of Mr. Rubio.

“I think when it comes down to the final analysis, I think people will begin to be very serious, and we’ll see what that yields,” Mr. Carson said.

His rise from political obscurity to the top of the Republican field in October was followed by an equally precipitous decline starting in November after stumbling over foreign policy as national security issues took center stage. Lackluster debate performances and cracks about his famously soft-spoken delivery were followed earlier this month by a publicized campaign shake-up.

At the same time, there’s something to be said for low expectations. If Mr. Carson manages to upset one of the top three candidates, his showing could be viewed as something of a victory and give his campaign a much-needed boost before the New Hampshire primary.

“If he were to inch back into third, that would exceed expectations at this point,” said Dennis Goldford, a political analyst and professor at Drake University in Des Moines.

One problem for Mr. Carson is that he’s far from the only candidate vying for the so-called values vote. In addition to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio have been intensifying their message with religious communities.

Mr. Carson’s ads on Iowa television emphasize his work as a surgeon saving infants along with the three pillars of his campaign: “courage, inner strength, belief in God.”

“It’s clear who he’s appealing to,” said Mr. Goldford. “Whether there are enough [Christian voters] to keep him in the race, particularly when Cruz is basing a huge element of his campaign on that constituency, it’s hard to say. I’d be surprised if it was enough to sustain him.”

He added that “Cruz looks to people like somebody who checks all the evangelical boxes, but he’s considered more of a full-service candidate, if you will.”

Although Mr. Trump isn’t seen as particularly appealing to Christians, several of those who attended Revive 714 said they were trying to decide between the New York real estate magnate and Mr. Carson. The common thread: Both are seen as political outsiders.

“Trump’s one of those who could go into Washington, D.C., and move the machinery,” said Mark Lehr of Sioux City, who attended Revive 714 with his wife Mary Lehr. “It’s just that we don’t know where his heart is.”

Ms. Lehr said she decided that day to vote for Mr. Carson, citing his ability throughout his career “to unite people and not divide them.”

“He represents what we believe in,” she added.

At the rally, Mr. Carson received shoutouts from Kirk Cameron, the former “Growing Pains” teen star who’s now a force in Christian entertainment, and the top Christian band Casting Crowns.

Dr. Carson has spent his whole life healing people, and became one of the great, most skilled and renowned surgeons in all the world,” Mr. Cameron told the audience.

In a not-so-subtle reference to Mr. Trump, Mr. Cameron added that, “Dr. Carson, by the way, will not shout at you. We don’t need loudmouths, we need leaders with resolve. Dr. Carson is one of those leaders, and anyone who meets him knows that.”

At the end of the day, however, Mr. Carson is his own best campaign asset. At Revive 714 he never mentioned his campaign or the issues directly, instead relaying his incredible life story, filled with both humor and shocking moments.

He recounted that he once tried to hit his mother with a hammer and was stopped by his brother. The turning point for him came when he struck another boy in the abdomen with a camping knife. Only the boy’s belt buckle prevented him from being wounded.

Afterward, he said, “I locked myself in the bathroom, and I just started contemplating my life. But I realized that had he not had that belt buckle, I’d be on my way to jail or reform school. And I realized I would never accomplish my goal of becoming a physician with a temper like that. And I fell on my knees and said, ‘Lord, I can’t control it. I cannot control my temper. My life is going to be wasted unless you intervene.’”

There was a Bible in the bathroom, and he opened it to the Book of Proverbs, with verse after verse about the importance of controlling one’s temper.

“And I came to an understanding after that three hours in the bathroom, that to lash out to somebody, to hit somebody in the face, to kick down a door was not a sign of strength, it was a sign of weakness,” Mr. Carson said.

Since that epiphany, he said, “It’s virtually impossible for anybody to make me angry now that I know that. I enjoy watching them try.”

Mr. Carson may be most famous for his landmark surgery separating conjoined twins, but there’s a biblical component to that story.

“The Book of Proverbs was written by who?” he asked the audience. “Solomon,” came the reply.

“My middle name is Solomon,” Mr. Carson said. “Remember the first thing that brought Solomon great fame as king? It was two women who came to him claiming to be the mother of the same baby. What did he advocate? Divide the baby. Isn’t that how I became well known, when I did that with babies?”
There were gasps from the audience, followed by cheers. “Clearly God has a sense of humor,” said Mr. Carson with a broad grin.

He stunned the crowd again after telling the story of a 4-year-old boy with a malignant brain stem tumor whose parents would not give up on him, even though Mr. Carson and other doctors said there was no hope. At their urging, Mr. Carson performed additional scans, and found that “the nature of the tumor had changed,” allowing him to remove the malignancy.

He then brought onstage Chris Pylant, a minister from Florida.

“I want to end with something special here tonight,” Mr. Carson said. “The young man who was 4 years old, today is his 35th birthday, and he is now a minister.”

Compared with such experiences, pulling off the upset in Iowa may seem for Mr. Carson less like a miracle than just another day at the office.

“None of the other stuff matters,” Mr. Carson said. “You know, people think that this political stuff or wealth or any of that stuff makes a difference — it makes absolutely no difference. It’s having a relationship with God, that’s what really gives you the strength.”

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