Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's straw poll victory at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference wasn't unexpected for the presidential contender. In third place, however, was a surprise finisher.
Dr. Ben Carson is one of a handful of black Republicans that conservatives are buzzing about this year. While the GOP has made strides in cultivating viable black candidates, the party still has difficulty resonating with black voters.
He may not have the rock-star status of top conservatives like Paul or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, but Carson's following is growing.
"He has to win," says Helena Ciaramilla, who got her picture snapped with Carson at a book signing. Ciaramilla was passing out bumper stickers that said, "Run Ben Run."
"He's our destiny," she said. "He's the only man who can unite this country."
The world-renowned neurosurgeon won over legions of conservatives by denouncing Obamacare last year, with the president sitting just a few feet away. He attacks the media, preaches a message of self-reliance and shuns political correctness.
That's prompted some to urge Carson to run for the GOP nomination in 2016. He spoke Saturday on CPAC's final day.
"Of course, gay people should get the same rights as everyone else," he told conservatives. "But they don't get extra rights. They don't get to redefine marriage."
Carson is not the only black Republican building a national following. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is the current standard bearer for black conservatives. His call for smaller government, with a dig at the president, hit the right notes earlier this week.
"The success of our economy is seen in the size of our ideas, not in the size of our tax bills," Scott said. "We need to cut our taxes, not raise them, like President Obama wants to."
The conference attendees tend to skew younger and overwhelmingly white, which is why jokes like these go over so well:
"Some of y'all don't want Obamacare to increase the tax on tanning beds," Scott said. "Now please note, I said 'some of y'all.' I don't really care about that tax. Just joking, just joking. You got to have a some fun when you come to CPAC right?"
Those jokes, however, hide an awkward truth. Even as some black candidates are hitting their stride, the Republican Party's standing among African-Americans is abysmal. Mitt Romney won a mere 7 percent of the black vote in 2012.
The mood turned serious during a panel called "Reaching Out." GOP political consultant Jason Roe served as moderator.
"The way the demographics are changing in the United States," Roe said, "if we don't change, we won't be relevant to the national debate."
That's essentially the same conclusion the RNC came to in its autopsy report on the 2012 presidential election loss.
Antawan Copeland, an African-American who is attending his first CPAC, says he's been a Republican for at least 15 years.
"I don't think they've made any new strides in my neighborhood," Copeland said. "I don't see everyone in the black community rushing out to become Republicans."
So just how far does the GOP need to travel? Look no further than Copeland's fiance, Carol Smith. Carol is actually her middle name; she doesn't want to give her full name, she says.
"Because I'm not ready to be outted," she says. "I'm not ready to come out of the Democratic closet."
Smith says she's gotten a warm reception from CPAC attendees, but the social stigma of the Republican label is too much to bear right now.
It's hard, as a black woman, she says, to say she's no longer a die-hard Democrat.
"In private, no, but in public, yes," she says. "When I have these conversations with friends and family, I'm vilified."
Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.