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Ben Carson, gifted surgeon and political neophyte, announces presidential bid

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(Bloomberg Politics) — Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has become a grassroots conservative favorite on the strength of his motivational life story and strong opposition to President Barack Obama, said Sunday that he is entering the crowded Republican race for the presidential nomination.

“I’m willing to be part of the equation and therefore, I’m announcing my candidacy for president of the United States of America,” Carson told WKRC, a Cincinnati, Ohio, television station, one day before he was expected to kick off his campaign in Detroit.

The announcement puts Carson, 63, the black former head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, into his first political campaign following what his aides have described as a crash course on everything from economic issues to foreign policy. 

See also: Bernie Sanders says he is running for president

Carson has portrayed himself in speeches and interviews as a fighter against political correctness and of politicians on the whole. It’s a position reflected in his policy ideas, many of which are laid out in his six published books that don’t necessarily follow straight conservative orthodoxy.

He’s a fierce opponent of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) who, as a world class surgeon, says health insurance companies should be turned into utilities with profit limits.

He’s a free-market advocate who points to the deregulation of Wall Street in the 1990s as the root cause of the financial crisis. He relied on food stamps during periods of his youth, yet points to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society era as the start of the steady fall of the country’s individualism and independence.

“I’m not going to do and say what’s politically expedient, I’m going to say what’s right,” Carson said in an interview with Bloomberg before his announcement. “If that’s something that resonates with the people great and if it doesn’t, that’s who I am and I’m not going to change.”

Carson addressed his supporters at an event in Detroit, the battered city where he spent much of his youth—a period defined by points when his family relied heavily on government assistance. According to his best-selling autobiography, Gifted Hands, Carson had to overcome personal bouts with anger and educational apathy.

His backstory, though, was only a piece of what Carson himself acknowledges as an unexpected political rise that resulted in speaking engagements across the country, regular appearances on Fox News, and, most importantly, viable poll numbers in early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. While he remains a long-shot candidate in a deep Republican field, Carson has consistently pulled 5 percent or 6 percent in those early state polls, which his advisers say was enough to lure him into the race, especially given still-low name identification around the country.

The goal, according to Carson and his aides, is to use the campaign launch as a springboard in the weeks ahead, with each day that follows packed with events in early primary states. “The plan is to be able to speak in a very public forum,” Carson said, adding that he’s targeting the debate stage, where he’d face off with at least a half-dozen other Republican hopefuls, as his time to hit the national mainstream.

Carson spoke to supporters today in the face of looming personal tragedy. His mother, Sonya, whom he cites each time he speaks publicly as the driving force behind his ability to rise from poverty to become a world-class surgeon, is near death, according to Carson senior adviser Armstrong Williams.

Carson will postpone his first official campaign trip to Iowa and instead travel to Dallas after his campaign announcement to be by her side as she battles Alzheimer’s, Williams said.

See also: AARP: Republicans back caregiver support

The turn in his mother’s health was unexpected: Carson became aware of her worsening condition during rehearsals Sunday night for his announcement in Detroit.

See also: Every Republican running for president votes against paid family leave

His political launch can be traced back to February 2013, with a single speech at the National Prayer Breakfast challenging Obama on health care, taxes, spending, and the country’s direction—all with the president and first lady sitting a few feet away.

The next day the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “Ben Carson for President.” Just a few months before his retirement from the medical profession, the speech set off a whirlwind two years for Carson. He has criss-crossed the country, sometimes delivering four to five paid speeches a week, and building grassroots support that has filled his campaign bank accounts. In the first 28 days after launching his exploratory committee in March, Carson raised more than $2 million. A super-political action committee established by outside supporters to push Carson toward a run raised more than $13.5 million in less than two years as of the end of 2014, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

While enthusiasm in conservative circles continued to rise, he also drew unwelcome attention for a series of controversial comments. He’s equated what he sees as the loss of personal freedom under Obama’s health care law with slavery. He called citizens who refused to stand up against the Obama administration the equivalent of those who stood by and did nothing in Nazi Germany. While defending his belief that marriage should only be defined as between one man and one women, his loose phrasing made it appear he was comparing homosexuality to bestiality. (He later apologized.)

See also: Ryan, out of 2016 race, sets committee as command central.

Those comments, and the topline economic policy platform Carson has pursued, have cost him the support of many of the same people who looked up to him as a community leader and role model in Baltimore.

Joshua DuBois, the former head of Obama’s faith-based initiative in the White House, wrote in March 2014 at the Daily Beast that Carson’s life story had “floored” him. It became “embedded in the back of my mind, a device I could pull from at low moments,” he said. Now, DuBois said, Carson’s story “has become an American tragedy.”

“The problem is that, when exposed to the political limelight, Carson’s ‘gifted hands’ have become careless, callous,” DuBois wrote. “And that’s a huge problem for former admirers like me.”

Yet Carson’s positions also have been one of his top selling points to his supporters. As some in the Republican establishment have urged a move away from the focus on social issues, or sought to hedge positions as public opinion has shifted, Carson’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion, a pair of socially divisive issues that are always a key component of his remarks.

The presidential campaign marks the latest chapter in a life that registers as a political consultant’s dream (or Hollywood director’s—Cuba Gooding Jr. played Carson in the television adaptation of Gifted Hands, his autobiography). With the support and prodding of his mother, he rose from poor grades, a single-parent home, and poverty to attend Yale University and medical school at the University of Michigan.

He became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, all while becoming the first surgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the back of the head.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, has more than 60 honorary doctorate degrees, and has served on corporate boards including Kellogg Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. (He will now resign from the boards, he says.) His foundation, Carson Scholars Fund, is operating in all 50 states and has given out nearly $6 million in scholarships to students for academic and humanitarian achievement.

Carson, who has three sons, is rarely without his wife, Candy, by his side. Though she has no official title, she’s described by aides as a senior adviser on his team, a group that has hired a mix of businessmen and political veterans in recent months in preparation for a run. Before he decided to postpone travel to join his mother in ailing health, Carson was set to hit the road to early-voting states after his Detroit speech, with appearances in Iowa, South Carolina this weekend, and New Hampshire next week—a cycle aides say will be repeated often in the months ahead as Carson seeks to identify his path forward in the race.

See also: View: Another 2016 contender takes Obamacare money


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