CONROE — Cloaked in soft lighting and leaning casually against a podium, Ben Carson delivered a speech here that sounded more moralistic than motivational, more paternal than partisan — in other words, not all that political.
That's exactly the point as the retired neurosurgeon quietly rises to the top of the GOP field for president across the country, a trend with signs in Texas, where primary voters have long harbored a visceral aversion to Washington, D.C, and all its trappings. It was here Thursday night, in one of the reddest counties in one of the reddest states, that Carson sought to tap into that discontent, explicitly reminding his audience he is anything but a politician.
"You know, the fact of the matter is traditional politicians will not talk to you about the fiscal gap because it's too frightening, and they want to be re-elected," Carson said at one point, referring to the country's staggering debt. "But I'm not a politician, so I will talk about it — and can talk about it."
Some GOP hopefuls have promoted their Texas outreach as part of a long-game strategy involving the several southern states that are set to vote March 1 in what is being called the "SEC primary." But Carson's several trips to the state as a candidate — at least five, according to his campaign — have come and gone with relatively little fanfare, and his aides make no bones about where its priorities currently lie: the first four early voting states.
Still, Carson's team, well aware of the anti-Washington mood that has dominated the summer, is keeping an eye on Texas, where early, scant polling has shown Carson more than holding his own against GOP candidates with stronger ties to the state like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush.
"I don't know if there's a state in the country that is more anti-government, anti-Washington, anti-politician than Texas," said Doug Watts, a spokesman for Carson's campaign. "It's historically been that way, and that's why they've adopted Dr. Carson in such a strong way."
Carson's backers in Texas, like elsewhere, see him as having the same kind of outsider status as Trump, but without the confrontational flair that seems to characterize the billionaire's every move on the campaign trail. After listening to Carson in Conroe, Elvie Kingston took note of the key difference between the two men vying for the same voters fed up with Washington.
"I think Dr. Carson is soft in what he says, but I tell you what — the man's got a backbone," said Kingston, president of Texas Tea Party Republican Women. "You know, you don't have to just be in your face like I-wonder-who," she added with a laugh, alluding to Trump.
Carson has especially made inroads in Texas among the low-dollar donors fueling his presidential ambitions. On the list of his top 10 fundraising cities across the country, four in Texas make an appearance, according to his campaign: Houston at No. 1, San Antonio at No. 2, Dallas at No. 5 and Fort Worth at No. 10. Harris, Tarrant and Dallas counties are his fourth, sixth and eighth biggest counties nationwide for fundraising, respectively.
Carson's circle also has ample roots in Texas and its political scene. Michael Brown, the national political director for the Carson campaign, previously served as chief of staff for state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs. Carson counts General Robert Dees, who is from Dallas, among his advisers on national security. And Terry Giles, the former chairman of Carson's campaign who is now working to elect him from the outside, is an attorney based in Houston.
"Ben is experiencing some major-league popularity because there is a strong anti-establishment feel across the country but especially in an area like Texas, which I think has a strong belief in individualism," Giles said Friday. "We now know that it’s potentially a majority of the people out there who have basically come to the conclusion that we’re broken on both sides of the aisle."
But there is more to Carson's appeal to Texas Republicans than his outsider résumé, said Wally Wilkerson, chairman of the Montgomery County GOP. Wilkerson said Carson is low-key — "his demeanor, his temperament" — and that accentuates his differences with even the other Republican candidates claiming the anti-Washington mantle.
"He's not a rabble-rouser type. He's not making rash promises," Wilkerson said ahead of Carson's speech Thursday. "We've heard all that stuff for years and years. This man is speaking in a manner that's appealing to a lot of people."
That style was on full display Thursday in Conroe, where Carson drew well over 1,000 people to a high school auditorium and overflow area in an adjacent cafeteria. Standing in the same place for most his remarks, Carson eschewed sound bites and red meat for long, meandering recollections of his youth and calm broadsides against liberals, the media and other political foes.
In the days leading up to the Conroe event, he had made a few comments perceived as a long-awaited development: the soft-spoken Carson finally taking off the gloves and attacking the only candidate ahead of him in polls, the loud-mouthed Trump. But speaking with reporters in Texas, Carson quickly sought to reverse that narrative when asked about his recent remarks on Trump.
"I haven't really been increasingly critical of him. I've simply stated my opinion," Carson said, going on to draw a detail why he believes Trump's plan to curb illegal immigration is simply unworkable.
In Texas, Carson's anti-establishment appeal draws natural comparisons to another GOP hopeful: Cruz, the junior U.S. senator running on an unapologetically anti-Washington message. Carson's supporters recognize Cruz as a serious competitor for voters fed up with Washington, but they also note the senator, who previously ran for attorney general and worked in George W. Bush's presidential administration, is not exactly a stranger to political life.
"Ted Cruz is as close as you can get to someone who actually holds a political office and can claim he's anti-establishment," Giles said. Asked about the main differences between Carson and Cruz, especially in terms of their appeal to voters fed up with Washington, Giles would only say that "politicians got us into the mess, and it's probably not going to be a politician that gets us out."
Carson backer Dina Dwyer-Owens, a Waco-based author known for her role on Undercover Boss in 2012, agreed with Giles' assessment. She recalled when she and her daughter watched Carson's speech to the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, where he became a star among conservatives for criticizing U.S. fiscal policy while standing a short distance from Obama.
"When it finished, she said, 'Mom, why can't all politicians talk like that?'" Dwyer-Owens recalled. "I said that's because he's not a politician."