Ben Carson addresses CPAC.
Washington CNN  — 

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson took his clearest step yet towards a presidential bid with the launch of an exploratory committee on Monday.

Terry Giles, Carson’s campaign chief executive, told The Wall Street Journal that the potential candidate opened the committee, which will allow him to raise money that could eventually be transferred to an official presidential campaign.

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The move indicates Carson is right on track with stated plans to formally announce his bid in May. He’s made a number of staff hires in recent weeks, including a national fundraising director, that suggest he’s ramping up in preparation for an announcement this spring.

Carson rose to conservative stardom after sharply criticizing President Barack Obama, sitting just feet away from him, at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. His no-nonsense, frank speaking style and outsider credentials — he’s never run for public office before — have kept him near the front of the pack in a number of early GOP primary polls. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has him in fourth place, just one point behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

This past weekend, he came in fourth in the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll, an annual gauge of grassroots conservative sentiment, nearly tying Sen. Ted Cruz with just over 11% support.