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."