AIKEN, S.C. — For those Republicans looking for a calm, cool and collected presidential nominee, there are few better options than Ben Carson.
That was the takeaway from Carson’s GOP supporters in Aiken, S.C. on Saturday, where he stopped to speak at the Aiken Republican Club’s September luncheon during a two-day swing through the state.
“He’s smart, he’s intelligent, he’s confident and he gives you that feeling that he’s going to change America,” said Barbara Taylor, a 70-year-old retiree who came to see the retired neurosurgeon speak about his campaign.
She said in particular she appreciates “the way he talks, and he’s so calm about everything.”
Another Carson supporter, James Wittig, praised him as “low-key, but he’s firm in his positions.”
Carson has climbed to second place in the Republican primary in national and early state polling with his signature style — a calm gaze that borders on sleepy at times, a measured cadence to conversational speeches delivered with a smile. And it was on display on Saturday for a crowd of about 250 receptive seniors in the deep-red alcove of Aiken, S.C., which has already seen a steady trickle of Republican contenders come through over the past few months.
Carson shared with the crowd his up-from-poverty story, telling them how his mother would scrimp and save to make sure her sons never wanted for much.
He said books taught him that he could create his own future, and that "there is no more liberating feeling than to understand that.” He also leaned heavily on his faith, questioning the theory of the Big Bang and emphasizing his belief that God created man.
Carson also laid out some of his policy proposals — the idea of a proportional tax based on Biblical tithing; replacing Obamacare with health savings accounts; allowing seniors to swap Social Security benefits for tax cuts, and raising the retirement age for those under 55; and offering businesses a tax holiday to repatriate their earnings to the U.S.
And he dismissed critics who’ve questioned how he’ll run a campaign without any billionaire backers — Carson said by the time of next week's Republican debate, he’ll have 500,000 donations from “normal, average people."
"I have made it my business not to go around licking the boots of billionaires – it’s one of the reasons that all the pundits said you’ll never be successful,” he said. “But see, they forgot about one thing – they forgot about ‘We the people.’”
Indeed, a half-dozen attendees surveyed at the luncheon said they had given to Carson, and repeatedly named his outsider status as part of his appeal.
“I like the fact that he’s outside of the established political profession — he’s someone who wants to unite the country, rather than divide,” Wittig said.
But Carson’s calm delivery has also masked some of the controversial comments that have landed him in hot water in the past, like comparing Obamacare to slavery. Though Carson’s made a clear effort to improve his message discipline on the trail, he at times strayed towards controversy on Saturday, at one point drawing a parallel between the militiamen of the American Revolution and his supporters today.
"[During the American Revolution, the patriots called] town meetings, they invited everybody, even the loyalists – and they said, what kind of a nation do you want to pass on to your children and your grandchildren? What are you willing to fight for? What are you willing to die for? They encouraged each other…and that’s how a ragtag bunch of militiamen was able to defeat the most powerful military force on earth,” he said, adding: “And we can do the same thing today.”
Carson asked attendees to register their friends to vote, rather than take up arms against the government.
He also ticked off a litany of policies implemented or advocated by the Obama Administration — including free college and cell phones for poor people — and suggested those were all policies he’d implement if “I was in charge and I were trying to destroy America.”
And he decried “secular progressives,” promising to stand up against their “crap."
"I absolutely refuse to submit to their foolishness, I refuse to submit to their political correctness and all of their crap, I will not do it, they hate me, but I hope you will join me,” he said.
But Carson missed the mark on at least one major political issue: The Iran Deal, which he called a “very unfortunate piece of garbage” and said that, because it was an “executive agreement,” would be nullified after President Obama leaves office.
“Since it is in fact an executive arrangement, the good thing is, the day Obama leaves office it no longer has any effect, unless the next president says I want this, and if I’m the next president that certainly wont be the case,” he said.
Carson’s grasp of foreign policy has yet to be tested at any significant level, but he’s certain to face scrutiny during the second GOP debate this week. Spokeswoman Deana Bass said he’ll be in Washington on Monday for debate preparation, but said the candidate didn’t seem fazed.
“When you’ve held someone’s brain in your hands, debate preparation doesn’t seem like that big of a deal,” she said.
He’ll be sharing center stage with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump this time around — a reversal in fortunes for Carson, who was last time positioned off to the sides and got so little attention he joked that he wasn’t sure he’d get to talk again.
But on Saturday, he seemed ready for the spotlight.
“The nice thing [about the next debate] is I’ll be center stage this time, so it'll be more difficult for them to ignore me,” he said. “So I’m sure I’ll get more questions, and that'll be a good thing.”