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Ben Carson supporters meet in Tampa to spread the word about his candidacy

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This past Saturday afternoon, two dozen supporters of Dr. Ben Carson gathered at the Quality Inn and Suites in East Tampa to hear how they can help get the recently declared Republican presidential candidate elected president — or at least much better known in Hillsborough County.

And while the retired neurosurgeon may not be as well known or considered by elites to be in the top tier of GOP presidential candidates for 2016, there is no doubt that those who know his story believe he is the man they are ready to devote themselves to.

“To me, I say he’s the Reagan we’ve been looking for,” said Hillsborough County businesswoman Becky Hicka, who met Carson when he came to town for a book-signing event at Inwood Books in South Tampa last year. “And I would go as far to say he’s better than the Reagan we’re waiting for. I mean, I did a marathon last night watching YouTube videos with him, to catch the Prayer Breakfast, and I’m just in awe. It’s phenomenal. He speaks a refreshing truth and he’s not politically correct. He’s intelligent beyond words. But he’s humble. And he’s a Christian. And he’s a Constitutionalist.”

Carson was already a nationally known figure due to the success of his 1996 memoir Gifted Hands, which was subsequently made into a made-for-television movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. in 1999. The memoir told his uniquely inspiring story of escaping poverty in Detroit to becoming a world-renown pediatric neurosurgeon.

But it was his speech at the National Prayer Day Breakfast in February of 2013 where he blasted President Obama, sitting just a few feet away from him, that made him an instant conservative icon, and many if not most of those in attendance on Saturday said it was that speech that compelled them to get behind him, and now his improbable quest to become president, or at least someone whose voice is heard from.

The get-together was called for by organizers with Run, Ben, Run, a Carson super PAC  that morphed from its original incarnation as the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee after Carson officially declared he was a candidate for the Republican nomination last month in Detroit.

Although Carson is already unique in being the only black man running for the highest level in the land this election cycle, he’s also the only one to respond affirmatively to a campaign to draft him to run for president. It came after some not-so-strong denials in 2014 as momentum was generated for his unlikely candidacy, spurred in retrospect by a Wall Street Journal editorial called, “Ben Carson for President,” that ran right after the prayer breakfast speech.

Taking command of the room on Saturday was Vernon Robinson, the somewhat controversial campaign director for Run, Ben, Run. He was joined by Gray Delany, the organization’s national coalition director. Tampa was one of six stops that the pair were making in Florida this weekend to organize teams on the ground to talk up the Carson candidacy.

Robinson began the nearly two-hour meeting on Saturday by praising those who attended.

“You need to pat yourselves on the back, because many of the people in this room, (you have) engineered only the second successful grassroots presidential draft in American history,” he began, saying that the only previous candidate to do so was Barry Goldwater back in 1964.

The first part of the meeting was spent having those in attendance identify themselves and what had led them to coming to this nondescript motel conference room on a Saturday. The group was mostly white and over 60 years of age, though there were some definite exceptions. There were several married couples in the room as well.

Retired U.S. Army Officer David Oliver said that after 30 years with the military, he now spends much of his time caring for his granddaughter.  He said he believed Carson has real answers to issues that plague the country, “not just political regurgitation of problems. ” He added that as soon as he had the opportunity to put energy behind somebody he believed in, he was all in. “So that’s why I’m here.”

Many of those in attendance mentioned the National Prayer Breakfast as the catalyst that put them on Team Carson.

Rebecca DeBoer is president of the North Hillsborough County Republican Club and a former state legislator in Oregon in the 1980s.  “I believe that Ben Carson will bring out people that did not vote in the two previous elections because of his honesty. He’s a proven leader,” she said. “He’s probably saved more lives than most of the people running and I can probably ask those whom he operated on, I think he has integrity. I’m glad he’s not a politician. I think that also he has the intelligence to surround himself with the right people to help in foreign policy, so that doesn’t concern me. And I think he’s just a refreshing candidate.”

Her husband, Bob, agreed. “Dr. Carson’s message is straight and true,” said Bob DeBoer. “He’s a strong Christian, as I am too. He’s the kind of person we need in our government to save this nation. We will be behind any candidate who wins the nomination. …look at what divided got us, twice. Obama, and Hillary is just another Obama, if not worse.”

Sharon Vincent is a  retired manager of a public library in Michigan, who moved a year ago to Pinellas County. “I read Gifted Hands when it first came out. Fell in love with his story. We went to the  Detroit announcement. Every time I hear him speak, I just can’t believe what kind of person he is. And we personally have friends whose daughter was saved by him 25-30 years ago, and they have nothing but great things to say about him.

Bob McInnis is the CEO of Tampa Bay Steel. He said he backs Carson because he’s a fellow Christian, and because he’s not a politician. “He’s not tainted by politics,” he said. “We need somebody who’s not a politician.”

Eleanor McInnis heard him speak six years ago. “I said, ‘oh my goodness, we need this man to run for president,’ and so it’s so neat that he’s a candidate. Just want him to win.”

At the end of the meeting, Robinson told the audience that it was up to them now to “run the ball.” He distributed a paper with a list of actions for them to do, which include promoting public support for Carson, posting/sharing/liking “all good news  you find online about Dr. Ben Carson.”

Robinson himself has been the subject of scrutiny, with BuzzFeed reporting last year that he made over $236,000 leading the Super PAC. The other big player with Run, Ben, Run,  John Philip Sousa IV, has also done well for himself financially. According to Open Secrets, the PAC raised over $13 million in 2014 and spent most of that money, ending the year with $649,000 cash on hand.

In the early going of the 2015 campaign, Dr. Carson is absolutely holding his own in polls taken in Iowa and nationally. A recent Quinnipiac poll has Carson tied with Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee with 10 percent of the national GOP vote.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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