But on the stump, Carson comes alive.
The retired neurosurgeon-turned-presidential aspirant has slowly marched into the top tier in recent national and Iowa-specific GOP polls
. And, given 20 free minutes to talk rather than debate soundbites or interview questions on topics he can't control, he's able to impress. He awed a crowd of hundreds here at the Iowa State Fair with inspirational tales of his life-saving medical work and his hardscrabble Detroit upbringing.
Perhaps more important than what Carson says, though, is what he's not: an experienced office-holder.
If this has been the summer of Donald Trump
, it's also the August of outsiders. The Republican presidential field's two other non-politicians -- Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina
-- are also shimmying up the polls.
Carson is often running second, and Fiorina has morphed from an unknown to a top-five contender in both Iowa and New Hampshire in just two weeks on the strength of her breakout performance in the first round of GOP primary debates.
The two said they see an American electorate souring on its entire political class.
"(It) just means that people are starting to listen rather than just do blindly what pundits tell them to do, and that's a good thing. That bodes well for our country," Carson told CNN as he climbed down from the Des Moines Register's famous Soapbox stage at the Iowa State Fair on Sunday.
Fiorina, speaking to reporters just off the same stage Monday, said: "Whatever your issue, whatever your cause, whatever festering problem that you hoped would be resolved right now, the political class has failed you. And that's what I think you're seeing reflected in my candidacy, among others."
Polling numbers back up their popularity. Though the candidates might not be every GOP voter's first choice, both are well-liked by most Republicans, and disliked by very few.
Fiorina excelled in an opening round of the debate for lower-performing candidates and Carson delivered a memorable moment in the prime-time event with his tale of separating Siamese twins rather than working in politics. The two are seizing on a moment of wariness over an entire political establishment that might make possible another Bush vs. Clinton match-up.
Carson, in particular, excels when he's in control of the microphone. That, Republican operatives said, is when his talent shows.
"The Ben Carson I've seen on television is not the Ben Carson I've seen on the stump," said Pete Seat, an aide in President George W. Bush's White House press shop.
Seat said he saw Carson in April, at a Right to Life banquet in Evansville, Indiana. He said Carson can be "sleep inducing" on television, but in person, he'll have crowds "hanging on his every word" with stories of operating-room miracles.
"There's a reason why some voters are so passionate about his candidacy," Seat said. "The trick is to see him in person. You may not leave a supporter, but you'll definitely leave liking the guy -- a lot."
All three outsiders -- Trump, Carson and Fiorina -- hit the Iowa State Fair in recent days.
Trump stole the show Saturday, setting the fairgrounds abuzz when he landed in a helicopter emblazoned with his last name at nearby ball fields. But Carson attracted a massive crowd of his own to his turn on the Soapbox on Sunday. Hundreds of people spilled across Grand Avenue, the main thoroughfare, almost halting foot traffic in the area -- a turnaround that rivaled a Democratic candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
, for the biggest gathering at the Iowa State Fair staple.
"He doesn't seem as party-obsessed as all the other candidates do," said Alex Bennett, an 18-year-old student from Ankeny, Iowa, who plans to support Carson in February's caucuses.
She said Carson is like Trump -- who "just doesn't seem to get along with people as well as Ben Carson does" -- on decaf.
"Carson's a lot calmer. He's mellow, I feel like he knows what he's talking about -- whereas Trump is a loose cannon. He gets himself in trouble," Bennett said.
Then Fiorina appeared Monday, drawing a crowd that rivaled one Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
-- a former Iowa frontrunner -- had attracted that morning.
Garry Fredericksen, a 69-year-old retiree who drove from Indianapolis to Iowa to witness "the best retail politics in the United States," called Fiorina "awesome; fabulous."
"And even better in person," he said.
But Some voters say they are looking toward November.
Bill Duma, a 77-year-old retired businessman who spends his summers in Des Moines but lives in Nevada, another key early voting state, said he "would like to lean towards" Fiorina.
But two other candidates -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich
and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio
-- have caught his eye, because of their experience winning races in two key presidential swing states.
The top qualification he has in mind for a GOP nominee?
"Someone who can get elected -- obviously," Duma said.