Hollywood conservatives are watching with intrigue and skepticism as Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson rises in the polls to challenge frontrunner Donald Trump.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Carson, a neurosurgeon who’s never held office before, in second place in the wide GOP field after Trump. A Monmouth University survey of Iowa Republicans on Monday show Carson tied with the real-estate mogul, while a Des Moines Register and Bloomberg poll had both candidates running neck and neck within the poll’s margin of error.
“What’s especially impressive about Ben Carson is that wry sense of humor,” Dave Berg, former co-producer of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and member of Hollywood conservative group Friends of Abe, told TheWrap.
Berg, who’s been rooting for former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, said he’s now considering switching over. “I do think that there is great potential in someone like Ben Carson.”
Others told TheWrap they’re not sure Carson has what it takes to be president.
“Obviously, he’s appealing to people,” said FOA member and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd. “Carson is a hell of a lot more elegant [than Trump], but we have enough of bloody elegant politicians. The question is, ‘Can he get it done?'”
While Trump has said many times that he intends to bankroll his own campaign, Carson will need substantial financial support to mount a viable challenge — including any cash the entertainment industry can dispense.
As of now, two Hollywood A-listers have publicly thrown their support behind Carson. Roger McGuinn, former lead singer and guitarist for The Byrds, gave $1,000 to the Carson campaign. And Kid Rock announced earlier this year that he supports Carson, but did not donate in the second quarter.
Still, Carson’s campaign managed to raised $6 million in August, more than twice what it collected in July. But experts say conservative Hollywood donors are taking a wait-and-see approach, at least for the time being.
“Hollywood folks want to make sure that they back the right horse,” Ford O’Connell, Republican strategist and adviser to John McCain in 2008, told TheWrap. “Ben Carson is someone who would be a formidable opponent against Hillary Clinton just because of his story.”
Born in Detroit, Carson went on to Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School. As director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he performed the first successful separation of twins joined at the head. In 2008, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
But so far, he’s been slow to attract the spotlight. During the GOP debate in Ohio last month, the soft-spoken candidate was barely asked any questions. Since then, he has called for the use of drones to step up surveillance and destroy caves that smugglers use to move people and drugs along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But it’s his medical background that could be his biggest asset when it comes to potential donors in the entertainment industry.
“Healthcare is such an important issue among folks in Hollywood,” O’Connell said. “Carson is seen as someone who could right the ship of Obamacare. He’s been the head of John Hopkins and has spent his whole life in medicine he knows best how to fix it.”
The fact that he’s the only African-American in the GOP primary race is also a plus for showbiz bigwigs. “There’s an undercurrent in among Hollywood conservatives who are sick and tired of the Republican Party being seen as being anti-minority,” O’Connell said. “Carson is someone that they love who also happens to be black.”
Whether or not he manages to dispel the “Summer of Trump” remains to be seen. But insiders say he’s got all the right stuff, at least when it comes to Hollywood.
“You’re talking about a guy who grew up in blue collar Michigan and who wound up going to Yale,” O’Connell said. “I mean, this is like a Hallmark special.”