- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2014

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who polls near the top of the potential 2016 GOP presidential field, will take a trip to Israel next week, checking off one of several must-do boxes for Republicans pondering a run at the White House.

“It’s a fact-finding mission,” said Mr. Carson, who told The Washington Times he looks forward to immersing himself in the country’s history as well as its current situation, “which is always different than what you read, so that will provide firsthand knowledge.”

Such trips are frequently used as a way for potential candidates to burnish their foreign policy credentials and reaffirm support for the key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Then-candidate Barack Obama took such a trip in 2008, and it’s become a popular destination for GOP candidates as fealty to the U.S.-Israel relationship has increasingly become a litmus test in Republican politics. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have all made trips there, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence announced this week he’s heading to Israel on a nine-day trip later this month.

With former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton leading the field of potential 2016 Democratic candidates, the trips offer potential GOP candidates the chance to contrast themselves with Mrs. Clinton, said GOP strategist Keith Appell.

“These trips give Republican candidates an opportunity to not only raise their stature level to be even with Hillary Clinton, but also contrast their vision with her spectacular failures on the international stage,” the strategist said.

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Mr. Carson acknowledged that some would see his visit as a precursor to an official 2016 run for the White House.

“Well, certainly if I’m considering that, Israel would be an excellent place to go to and get the kind of perspective that I was just talking about,” said Mr. Carson.

Mr. Carson, who is planning to make a decision on whether or not to run by May, formed a federal political action committee earlier in the year called USA First PAC and supported Republican candidates in the midterms such as Sens.-elect Joni Ernst of Iowa and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

Mr. Carson, who writes a column for The Washington Times, also made the move last month to officially change his party registration from independent to Republican, calling it a “pragmatic move” since running as an independent candidate risks splitting the electorate.

His itinerary in Israel includes meetings with local religious leaders and tours, including a visit to Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem and a meeting with the head of neurosurgery there.

“If you’re not going to start in North America, there’s no better place to start” than Israel, said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “We need someone who can have that statesmanlike stature when pitted against Hillary Clinton.”

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Mrs. Clinton is well traveled owing to her position as first lady and later as State Department secretary.

A poll from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling released Wednesday showed Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Carson leading their respective parties’ nominating contests in North Carolina, though Mrs. Clinton had a much more sizable advantage.

Mr. Carson got 19 percent of the vote, followed by 15 percent for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and 14 percent apiece for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Mrs. Clinton was at 52 percent among Democrats, with Vice President Joseph R. Biden second at 18 percent and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts next at 7 percent.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Carson were tied at 44 percent apiece in a head-to-head matchup.

Mr. Biden, who traveled to Israel earlier this year, also has years of foreign policy experience accumulated during his time as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And Ms. Warren made a trek to Israel last month but has thus far resisted pleas from liberal groups to enter the 2016 field.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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