The Sept. 9 afternoon scene outside the Anaheim Convention Center looked like a holiday shopping rush inspired by a one-hour, 60 percent off coupon sale at a J.C. Penny. Herds of overwhelmingly senior Caucasians--many limping from assorted leg, knee, hip and foot ailments--adopted a pace that wasn't quite a jog but nonetheless demonstrated a geriatric urgency to see, yes, a physician. They'd come for Dr. Ben Carson, the underdog, surging Republican presidential candidate, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon from Maryland and an unabashed Christian.
In national television appearances--almost always with Fox News' doting, rah-rah questioners--Carson rarely shows charisma. Compared to the brash Donald Trump or even the syrupy drawl of South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, his answers are Heinz ketchup-slow, low-key, opaque and, ever since he compared gay relationships to bestiality and pedophilia, largely devoid of controversy. So how explain the 63-year-old's rapid rise in the Republican Party primary polls?
The answer was inside the aged, air conditioned-challenged convention center in the shadow of the Happy Place on Earth. During the last presidential election, a local elderly white Republican Party official in nearby Fullerton openly mocked Barack Obama's race, portraying him and his parents as jungle monkeys in an email that caught the attention of the Washington Post's Jonathan Capeheart. There were most likely supporters of that past racism in this crowd, but Carson's dark skin apparently isn't an issue for them.
Entertained by upbeat Republican activists Shawn and Michelle Steel (an OC Supervisor) as well as pre-recorded, progressive jazz heavy on soothingly hip, urban percussion, the middle-class crowd didn't just come to pledge allegiance to the flag, sing patriotic songs, hail the military and scoff at Obama's presidency. They came to celebrate Carson and his particular folksy brand of idealism that, to condense, calls on citizens to stop whining, work hard, overcome hurdles and never give up on their dreams. In his mind, such a philosophy will result in the pleasures of living in the most powerful, luxury-loaded society on the planet.
Having now seen Carson in person, I appreciate his attractiveness to anxious Orange County conservatives, forever craving the next Ronald Reagan and eternally disappointed. Without employing a teleprompter, he may not seem highly educated on world affairs or the intricacies of the federal bureaucracy, but he's articulate, funny and warm--quite an accomplishment for a man from a medical profession dominated by obnoxious turds.
"People are saying to me constantly, 'You know, no one like yourself--a political novice--has ever been successful in running for president of the United States," Carson said. "I'll tell ya' something. If I listened to all the people throughout my life who said, 'This has never been done before; this cannot be done,' I wouldn't be here talking to you today."
(Loud cheers and applause.)
"And then there are those who say, 'But you don't have any elected political experience.' Well, if you look at the collective experience of everybody in Congress, it comes out to about 8,700 years. Where has it gotten us?"
(More generous cheering and applause.)
At another point, Carson, standing in front of a gigantic U.S.A. flag, uttered a simple sentence. I forgot the exact words, but it had something to do with people not relying on government to solve their problems. My distraction? A white couple in their late 60s or early 70s overjoyed by the candidate's rhetoric. They turned to each other, smiled as if giddy on a first date and hugged tightly.
Orange County Republican Party boss Fred Whitaker had earlier told the crowd we're living in the "epicenter of the conservative movement in California." Whitaker also took a swipe at the parade of past GOP presidential candidate who came here, attended closed-door parties with ultra-rich, Newport Beach businessmen and immediately flew out carrying sizeable contribution checks. Carson's mission, however, was to "speak to the people," he observed.
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We've learned in recent months that Trump is a size queen, constantly celebrating what he claims are the largest campaign crowds everywhere he goes. But on this day, he and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), another presidential candidate, held a televised rally at the nation's capital in Washington, D.C. A couple hundred people attended, many of them reporters.
Hours later in Anaheim, Carson demonstrated his might isn't imaginary. There were 425 days to go before the 2016 general election--an eternity in presidential politics. But an estimated six thousand supporters, many wearing "Ben" buttons, showed up. If Trump's counting, that's about 12 times bigger.