NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — – Johns Hopkins Hospital's Dr. Ben Carson tested the political waters Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where many said he would be a popular Republican contender for the White House.
Carson's speech was met with several standing ovations — with the most enthusiastic applause following a veiled comment about his plans after retiring from Hopkins. And he ranked well in a straw poll, where he was on the ballot against nearly two dozen of the nation's most prominent conservative voices.
"In 106 days I will be retiring," said the 61-year-old Carson, Hopkins' longtime director of pediatric neurosurgery and a Baltimore County resident. "I'd much rather quit when I'm at the top of my game. And there's so many more things that can be done."
Those at CPAC, from the main-stage speakers who invoked him as an example of American socio-economic mobility to young people who have never voted in a national election, said Carson is an unvarnished voice of conservatism. The clarity and certainty with which he speaks have the potential to bring people together from all sides of the fractured Republican Party, they said.
"I love his background. It shows you can go far in life without having much" at the beginning, said Michelle Pope, 20, of Courtland, Va. She, like many others at the conference, described him as "inspiring."
Grass-roots support for Carson, who entered the national political discourse last month by critiquing President Barack Obama's health care overhaul at the National Prayer Breakfast, could mean that Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, will not be the only Marylander mentioned as a potential candidate for the nation's highest office in 2016.
Carson, who told the Christian Post this month that he is not interested in elected office but that God may call on him to run in the future, was evasive in front of the audience of hundreds when he was pressed by another speaker, author Eric Metaxas, about his post-retirement plans.
"I'm very dedicated to education of the next generation," Carson told the audience at the conference, held in Prince George's County. "Once we get that taken care of, who knows?"
Earlier in his appearance, after bringing the crowd to its feet by setting up a hypothetical with the words, "Let's say you just magically put me into the White House," Carson quickly reversed course: "OK, I take it back. Let's say somebody were there... ."
Carson may be a bit old "to start on a presidential career," said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. But he said the Republican Party is trying hard to find minority candidates such as Carson, who is black, to "erase the impression that the are a party of old white males."
"It sounds like he is looking for some kind of political activity," Crenson said. But it may be that he "just wants a platform to express himself."
In a wide-ranging speech Saturday morning, Carson advocated for a flat income tax and called for an end to the "war on God." He also spoke passionately about the need to improve the American education system, the thing he attributed to leading him from an impoverished inner-city childhood in Detroit to a storied medical and writing career.
"Education worked for me," Carson said. After studying at Yale and the University of Michigan, Carson became the youngest person to lead a major division at Hopkins Hospital.
He was the first surgeon anywhere to separate conjoined twins. One of his books, "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," was made into a television movie. In 2008, President George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
"We can't afford to throw any of those young people away," said Carson, who with his wife set up a scholarship program for exceptional students. A better-educated populace means fewer people on welfare and more taxpayers, he argued.
The main points of Carson's CPAC speech echoed the comments he made at the prayer breakfast. Health savings accounts would suffice for most doctor-patient encounters, he said, and ensuring everyone pays an equal share of income in taxes is akin to biblical tithing. He railed against the government's lack of forethought to deal with the national debt.
"We're not planning for the future," Carson said. "If we continue to spend ourselves into oblivion, we are going to destroy this nation." He also said the government is treating corporations "as enemies" and that corporate taxes should be lowered to encourage growth. "Corporations are not in business to be social-welfare organizations; they are there to make money," Carson said.
Charities, he added, are better at providing for the needy than the government.
"Nobody is starving on the streets. We've always taken care of them," Carson said. "We take care of our own; we always have. It is not the government's responsibility."
His points of view resonated with the CPAC audience. In the Washington Times/CPAC 2013 Straw Poll, Carson tied for seventh place, with CPAC's keynote speaker, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. They each took 4 percent of the vote. Nearly 3,000 ballots were cast.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida each had more than 20 percent of the vote. The rest of those who placed ahead of Carson garnered 8 percent or less. Considering his lack of name recognition — of the 24 people on the ballot, Carson was the only one who has not been elected to office — such a high finish seemed unlikely.
But at CPAC, with its politically hyperactive attendees, it was easy to see where all those votes could be coming from. When conservative commentator Ann Coulter began listing her leading candidates for 2016, shouts of "Ben Carson" went up from the crowd. And it wasn't uncommon to see people carrying Carson's most recent book, "America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great."
"He is a refreshing voice," said Hannah Hughes, 20, who traveled to CPAC from Ohio with a college Republican organization. Hughes and her friends, waiting in a snaking line for Carson's book signing, hypothesized that the most natural path for Carson to take in retirement would for him to become a university president.
But if he decided to run for U.S. president instead, Hughes said, she would "absolutely" vote for him.
"He's a remarkable speaker, and I think he's got a nice, straight line as to where this country should be headed," said Bill Lawrence, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran. Lawrence said he decided to come from Albany, N.Y., for the conference after seeing Carson on television address the president at the prayer breakfast.
"He inspired me. … He sort of drove me here," said Lawrence, who supports Carson's belief that everyone should pay a share of their income in taxes. "Being successful not a crime," he said.
It becomes politically more difficult to raise taxes when everyone is paying a share, said Michael Douglas, a 24-year-old law student from Florida. Douglas said he was a patient of Carson's in the early-1990s and hearing him speak was a highlight of the conference.
"I'm trying to get a picture with him too," said Douglas. Like many others, he was still in the book signing line when former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin began speaking.
Brandon Posner, 17, said Carson was clearly the crowd favorite at the conference, which was in its last day Saturday. The line of people waiting to meet Carson at the book signing far exceeded the number who came out for the book signing by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, considered by many an early favorite for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
"He's a genius. He's lived the American dream," said Posner, chairman of the Bucks County Teenage Republicans in Bucks County, Pa. "He knows what made this country great."
"He's a normal person," Posner said, explaining Carson's appeal. He doesn't seem like a politician, he said. "You can tell he cares about people."
Crenson, the political science professor, said Carson's lack of political experience would likely help him in an election.
"These days it helps. Americans don't think very highly of their politicians," Crenson said. Also, Carson's occupation as a brain surgeon — a "healer" — would be seen as "compassionate," which many voters would find appealing, Crenson said.
Carson's major drawback is that he's a conservative from Maryland, the professor said. "Republicans rarely win here," Crenson said. "If he wants to have a successful career as a politician, he should move somewhere else."
Carson, stepping further into the limelight, is scheduled to appear on CNN's "State of the Union with Candy Crowley" on Sunday.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.
This story has been updated. An earlier version misstated the title of Carson's book that was made into a television movie. The Sun regrets the error.