Carson’s supporters say doctor defies expectations

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Keego Harbor — Like many Republicans supporting Dr. Ben Carson’s presidential campaign, Novi resident Michael Allie is attracted to the famed neurosurgeon’s outsider appeal and “self-made man” life story that began in poverty on Detroit’s southwest side.

But the retired software development executive is not quite convinced Carson can win the 2016 general election.

“That’s a concern,” Allie said about Carson’s electability. “I’m still sorting that out. Because the only the thing that matters to me is winning the general election. I’m not locked in.”

Allie’s uneasiness with Carson’s longevity in an unwieldy Republican presidential candidate field is a reflection of the challenges the political novice faces as he has risen to the top of polls conducted nationally and in Iowa, which hosts the first-in-the-nation nominating contest with its Feb. 1 caucuses.

“I want to see enough people relate to him that he can be a winner,” Allie said.

But Carson’s strongest supporters, who watched the third GOP presidential debate in four Michigan cities Wednesday night, argue he will continue to defy expectations when the early primaries begin in February, followed by Michigan’s March 8 primary.

“He’s maybe not the most polished speaker, but he’s resolved in his answers, he’s able to think on his feet and I think that’s what Washington needs in leadership now,” said John Taylor, a Farm Bureau agent from Davisburg and self-described independent voter.

Taylor and Allie were among 18 Carson supporters who gathered Wednesday night at the Harbor Steak House in Keego Harbor to watch the GOP debate.

Like their preferred candidate, the cadre of Carson supporters were mostly quiet during the opening hour of the debate as Carson fended off an attack by Ohio Gov. John Kasich on his proposed 15 percent flat income tax rate plan.

The crowd clapped when Carson bashed political correctness — a theme of his campaign.

“I am so bloody sick of politics,” said Joan Nasly of Farmington. “I want a doctor to fix our country.”

The Carson fans cheered when he dismissed a CNBC debate moderator’s question contrasting his opposition to gay marriage to the gay-friendly policies of big box retailer Costco, where Carson has been a board member for the past six years.

“I think he handled it very dignified, like he always does,” said Rose Heffernan of Bloomfield Hills, who organized the Keego Harbor gathering.

Later in the debate, Carson admitted “I was wrong” to voice support for subsidies of ethanol over oil production.

“I have studied that issue in great detail and what I’ve concluded is the best policy is to get rid of all government subsidies and get the government out of our lives,” Carson said. “All this too-big-to-fail stuff and picking winners and losers, this is a bunch of crap.”

Carson’s answers drew a round of applause in the basement meeting room of the Harbor Steak House on Orchard Lake Road.

Linda Husted, a retired office manager from Dearborn Heights, said Carson’s willingness to admit he was wrong adds to his non-politician character.

“That’s what politicians aren’t willing to do — say ‘I made a mistake,’ ” said Husted.

Nasly and her husband, Bud, were involved in the original grassroots campaign that drafted Carson to run for president. For the Naslys, it’s their first foray into organized politics.

“I’ve never done anything like this,” said Bud Nasly, a commercial printer. “I don’t think I was ever impressed up to this point in the idea that there’s a radical change that’s needed and that there was a viable candidate to do that.”

Despite their domination in GOP primary polls, political experts and Republican strategists continue to contend the candidacies of Carson and billionaire Donald Trump are fraught with general election land mines in a year when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains the favorite to win the Democratic nomination.

“You assume in the end the party’s base will want to choose someone who will win in November,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “They don’t have to do that. They chose Barry Goldwater in ’64 and he won 38 percent. There’s no law that says you have to nominate a winner.”

Allie said Carson’s background as a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon is a shield against attacks by Democrats.

“He’d be hard for a Hillary Clinton to demonize,” Allie said. “I mean, how can you demonize a guy who spent his life saving children?”

Bud Nasly isn’t listening to the pundits who contend Carson won’t be able to compete with Clinton.

“Even if he doesn’t win, he will change the conversation, and that’s a very important thing,” Nasly said.

Enthusiasm among Carson’s loyal followers has risen with his standing in the polls since he launched his bid for the White House on May 4 at a rally in downtown Detroit.

Carson backers held four separate Michigan debate watch parties Wednesday night in Keego Harbor, Jackson, Farmington and Shelby Township. The four groups are part of the 2016 super political action committee supporting Carson’s candidacy.

“I trust the man. I don’t trust the government,” Husted said. “I just love this man.”

Many of the grassroots activists in these groups have become part of Carson’s growing base of small-dollar supporters who helped him raise more money than any other Republican candidate from July 1 through September 30.

Among the Carson fans gathered in Keego Harbor Wednesday night, several expressed interest in Trump if Carson’s candidacy falters.

Heffernan, who volunteered for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign four years ago, said a Trump-Carson ticket would be her dream team.

“Trump has got the business sense, and Carson has got the common sense,” Heffernan said.

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