Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has created an exploratory committee to run for president, becoming the first Republican candidate to formally enter the 2016 presidential contest.
Carson, the only African-American expected to enter the race, rose to national prominence after criticizing President Barack Obama's health care law at the 2013 National Prayer breakfast. He quickly developed a loyal following among the GOP's most conservative voters.
"Obviously, this is a very big step,'' committee chairman Terry Giles said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Today we begin the formal process of exploring whether or not Ben can win the presidency.''
In the eyes of the law, there is little difference between a presidential campaign committee and an exploratory committee, which allows Carson to begin raising money for a White House bid.
Carson, 63, becomes the first in a large group of Republicans expected to enter the 2016 election. The first GOP primary debate is set for August.
While popular among conservatives, Carson remains virtually unknown to many voters.
"We realize we have to build a bridge from the far right to what I call the center-Democrats,'' Giles said.
Carson's committee will begin announcing the names of his senior political team on Tuesday. The group includes Ed Brookover, who previously worked on various Washington-based Republican campaign committees. Carson will also name a likely communications director, campaign manager and two deputy campaign managers, Giles said, adding that they are also building teams in Iowa and South Carolina.
His national headquarters will be in the Virginia suburbs just outside Washington.
While the exploratory committee doesn't compel Carson to run, he is expected to launch a formal campaign in late spring.
"I'm certainly very hopeful that he will announce in May,'' Giles. "I think there's a great likelihood he will.''