Even before Ben Carson shot to the lead of the Republican presidential race in Iowa, rival campaigns from Donald Trump down began grappling with the question: How to defeat the genial, soft-spoken, African-American brain surgeon who has quietly captured the imagination of so many GOP voters?
The answer: very carefully. "I don't think we run against Carson," said a strategist for a GOP campaign recently. "He's just so well-liked that it is tough." The problem, of course, is that if Carson remains atop the polls in Iowa, and sits in a solid second place in the national polls, other candidates will likely feel compelled to go after him.
And it's not just because that's the way campaigns work. It's because rival operatives see Carson as ultimately vulnerable. As much as they respect Carson as a human being, and are awed by his record of medical achievement, many rival operatives firmly believe Carson knows next to nothing when it comes to governing.
"The lack of knowledge Carson has is staggering," said the strategist. "Where are his voters going to go when people realize that Carson doesn't know anything about policy?"
With any other candidate, competitors might pounce now. But not with Ben Carson. For three reasons.
The first is likability. Carson's personal favorability ratings with Republican voters are through the roof, easily the best in the field. Whoever attacks him would by definition have a lower favorability rating than Carson, and the fear is that such an attack would just drive the attacker's rating lower and Carson's higher.
The second is fairness. Carson hasn't gone after his fellow candidates. Indeed, part of his appeal is that he has specifically eschewed Republican-on-Republican violence.
"I really refuse to really get into the mud pit," Carson said on Fox News recently. Voters respond well to that, even if they also sometimes reward candidate attacks. So far, at least, Carson has particularly impressed those voters who want to see Republicans attack Democrats, and not each other.
The third reason is race, and it is by far the most complicated. Carson is the only black candidate in the contest. Republican voters admire his rise-from-poverty life story, and Carson represents a chance for the GOP to connect with black voters in a way the party hasn't done in generations.
Perhaps more importantly, in the years of Barack Obama's presidency, many Republican voters have deeply resented the accusation from the left that they oppose the president because of his race; they are intensely frustrated by what they view as Democrats repeatedly playing the race card against them. To those Republicans, supporting Carson is proof that the slanders aren't true: Here's a black candidate who shares our beliefs, and we support him wholeheartedly.
In addition, Carson offers Republican voters a broader sort of absolution on race. In the first GOP debate, in Cleveland in August, Carson made a statement on race that has since become wildly popular with Republicans, shared millions of times on social media: "When I take someone to the operating room, I'm actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are," Carson said. "The skin doesn't make them who they are. The hair doesn't make them who they are. And it's time for us to move beyond that. Because our strength as a nation comes in our unity."
After the debate, pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group of Republican voters and was struck by the off-the-scale positive response to Carson's remarks.
"Ben Carson represents a powerful vehicle for conservatives to be able to say out loud -- I am a conservative, and that does not make me a racist," Luntz said. "When Carson said in the first debate that he doesn't see ethnicity in his patients, our focus group dials shot through the roof. 'Finally!' several participants said. 'Finally we have a credible conservative who thinks like we do, and you can't use the race card against him.'"
So beyond agreeing with him on issues, or admiring his personal story, many Republicans are grateful to Ben Carson for relieving them of the burden of all those accumulated accusations of racism. That's a big deal.
Which is why rival campaigns almost instinctively sense that they should tread lightly with Carson. "I'm not sure I have the best answer for it," says another strategist with another GOP campaign when asked how to deal with Carson. The hope in his camp is that Carson will begin to attract the normal, heightened scrutiny that comes with leading a race, even if it's just in one state.
So Republican candidates have a Ben Carson problem. He's ahead of most of them. They want to win. But how do they defeat him without offending the voters who admire him? No one has yet found the answer.