WASHINGTON - Ben Carson was speaking just above a whisper in the late-afternoon hubbub of the Willard Hotel lobby, but his words landed like slaps.
"People feel that our nation is becoming something else," Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon and conservative sensation, said in an interview last week. "They feel they can't really talk about what they believe. That the future is being squandered by unbridled spending. That our country doesn't stand for anything anymore."
On the verge of running for the Republican presidential nomination, Carson has been making noise with blunt attacks on big government and political correctness - and a few gaffes. For almost two years, he's been traveling to four or five states a week, speaking, signing copies of his book, raising his profile.
The odyssey began at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, when Carson ripped federal spending, criticized the health-care law, and advocated a flat tax as President Obama sat an arm's length away. A star was born.
Carson, 63, of West Palm Beach, Fla., finishes in the top tier in early polls of the GOP field, and he has begun hiring staff for a possible presidential campaign. The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee has raised $12 million and gathered reams of data from potential supporters, information the campaign could buy if Carson decides to proceed. His book, One Nation, has outsold Democrat Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices.
The question, analysts say, is whether someone like Carson, who has never run for public office, can build the necessary machinery to go along with a strong message and a passionate fan base.
Carson said he would announce his decision by May 1 but called a campaign likely.
Newcomers face long odds in presidential races. No political rookie has won the presidency since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952; of course, all he did before that campaign was liberate Europe in World War II.
Wendell Willkie, a corporate lawyer and utility executive with zero electoral experience, won the Republican nomination in 1940, and businessman Ross Perot ran an independent campaign under the banner of the Reform Party in 1992 and 1996.
Carson, who became head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore at 33, has a personal story so compelling it was made into a TV movie. He was born into poverty in Detroit and was pushed by his mother, who had only a third-grade education, to read and learn. He went to Yale University and the University of Michigan medical school and in 1987 was the first surgeon to separate twins conjoined at the head.
Being a Washington outsider is an asset, Carson believes.
"Someone has got to be the representative of the people, not the political class," said Carson, a married father of three. "If we continue to cater to the special-interest groups, then those who have given up are right. And I don't want them to be right."
Though Carson's rhetoric fires up many in the GOP base, he also has stirred controversy. He called Obama's health-care law "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery" and once seemed to compare same-sex marriage to bestiality. He has said Americans who don't stand up to the expanding power of federal government are like Germans who did not try to stop the Nazis.
At the Republican National Committee winter meeting last month, Carson suggested the United States had something to learn from the terrorist group ISIS. "They've got the wrong philosophy, but they're willing to die for what they believe in, while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness," he said.
Political correctness is a "scourge on our society" because it stifles free thought and expression, Carson said in the interview. He also said he was learning to be less "caustic" so he doesn't obscure the larger points he is making. Critics, he said, "call me 'hateful' and this or that" to avoid debate.
Take gay marriage. "I don't see why any two people can't have a legal relationship that allows them property rights or visitation rights, or the things they say they want - but that doesn't require changing the definition of marriage," Carson said.
Yet, for all the red meat, Carson also expresses a can't-we-all-get-along wish that sounds similar to the centrist group "No Labels," which wants to transcend partisanship.
"Where we've gone wrong as a society is we've concentrated more on unanimity of speech and unanimity of thought and not so much on civil discussion," Carson said. "You know, if we have a disagreement, why can't we have a civil discussion about it? Why does it mean we have to be enemies, that we have to demonize the other person, castigate their character?"
Carson recently registered as a Republican after spending years as an independent. "I'm not a terribly partisan person," he said.
Last week, Carson was mobbed at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a kind of three-day Woodstock for right-wing activists and a mandatory stop for would-be GOP presidential candidates.
Janet Nelson of Seattle said she had been a fan of Carson's since the 2013 prayer breakfast. "He wants the poor to get off entitlements and feel responsible for themselves," she said. "What he's accomplished is monumental."
Karen Clarke, a mother of two from Niceville, Fla., said Carson struck her as a strong leader.
"He's just going to do what needs to be done, with ISIS or anything else," Clarke said Friday. "That's what he's about. . . . He's not someone who is going to be swayed by popular opinion."
She also likes Carson's reliance on his Christian faith, a crucial attribute in a long-shot bid for the presidency. "I feel it's a David and Goliath," Clarke said. "But it doesn't matter. If God wants him there, he's going to get there."
Running for president was not on Carson's retirement list. He wanted to learn to play Bach on the organ, study foreign languages, and golf.
He said he never thought of entering politics.
"I don't want to do it now, to be honest with you," Carson said. "Sometimes you just have to respond to a call. You know, I was placed in a relatively unique position, there's no question about that."
Inquirer staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.