He was animated, and grating. He drew roaring applause for praising Donald Trump — including from the former president himself — while somehow managing to get an arena of Republicans to boo him for discrediting climate change policies.
Vivek Ramaswamy’s opponents fumed and sighed and sneered — and kept mispronouncing “Vivek.” “I’ve had enough of a guy who sounds like chatGPT,” Chris Christie said. But viewers of the first Republican presidential debate Wednesday couldn’t stop Googling his name. And by the next morning, Ramaswamy had suddenly become a major factor in the race.
“He’s new, he’s very good. He’s very personable,” said Dave Carney, a veteran Republican strategist based in New Hampshire. “But over the course of the night, it just got to be annoying.”
Republicans may have to get used to it, something that not long ago would have seemed improbable, before the millionaire millennial political newcomer had his bump in the polls. But Ramaswamy is now inching closer in national polling averages to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose campaign has been floundering. His placement Wednesday was center stage.
Grinning widely, Ramaswamy stuck out his tongue, licked his finger and held it to the air to mimic DeSantis trying to determine the direction of wind. Projecting the kind of bluster that closes a deal in a boardroom, the biotech entrepreneur tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence into committing to pardon Trump, before getting a lesson from the former Indiana governor on just how pardons are issued.
“It was like the adult and the impetuous teenager,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime Pence friend and a former Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives. “Pence just very calmly, somewhat more forcefully than I’m seeing Pence, shut him down.”
Earlier in the night, in a dust-up with Pence over the president’s role and the national debt, Pence went in on Ramaswamy. “I’m not sure I understood Mike Pence’s comment,” Ramaswamy responded.
“Let me explain it to you again if I can. I will go slower this time,” Pence said, in one of their many fiery exchanges.
Privately, Pence world sees Ramaswamy as an ideological interloper, someone who appeals to a new online populism.
“He lives in and does well with a crowd that is very online,” said one Pence adviser, granted anonymity to speak frankly about the dynamics of the vice president and the upstart Midwesterner. “It’s a very myopic way of viewing the electorate.”
The view of Ramaswamy from critics in the broader political consultant class was no kinder.
“Say what you will about his performance tonight, Ramaswamy definitely locked up the ‘worst guy in your freshman year philosophy class’ vote,” said one senior Democratic strategist after the debate.
“Nikki Haley just stuffed Vivek in a locker,” as GOP strategist Kevin McLaughlin put it. Matt Whitlock, a Republican communications pro, mocked Ramaswamy’s new design scheme as something “from Harry Potter.”
But there was no denying Ramaswamy commanded the most attention in the debate, and in Trump’s absence, gave Republican voters the next closest thing stylistically to the current frontrunner. In 2016, Trump also made his mark with off-putting remarks, controversial policy proposals and a tenacity for making himself the center of attention.
“I don’t know, necessarily, that his presentation style is quite as appealing as Trump’s,” said Tim Miller, a former GOP strategist-turned-Trump critic, “and I can’t really get my head inside what the median MAGA person in Ottumwa, Iowa thinks about his style — the fact that he’s 38 and Hindu and has some other things going on. But on substance, he was the person most closely filling the Trump void, and that’s what Republican voters want now.”
He’s certainly getting a look. “Vivek Ramaswamy” had over 1 million Google searches in the last 24 hours (and that’s just counting the people who spelled his name correctly), with the largest search spike coming during the debate. That surge in interest put Ramaswamy at the top of Google’s daily search trends, above the Inter Miami soccer team’s anticipated U.S. Open match, Rudy Giuliani’s arrest and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s reported death.
“He’s got an unbelievable pulse on where the base is, and it’s coming from a place of conviction,” said Mike Biundo, senior adviser to the Ramaswamy-blessed American Exceptionalism super PAC. “He’s spent a lot of time on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he’s one-on-one with voters and doing these town halls. He understands where the base of the party is.”
In addition to Pence’s lecturing and Christie’s “ChatGPT” put-down, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador, told Ramaswamy he would “make America less safe,” scolding him for having “no foreign policy experience — and it shows.”
Haley had signaled even before the debate that she would come after Ramaswamy, issuing a statement on Monday condemning his proposal to dial back military support to Israel.
“She just thinks his foreign policy is ridiculous,” said one Haley adviser, calling Ramaswamy “an absurd excuse for a presidential candidate.”
Carney said that while some of Ramaswamy’s positions would be appealing to Trump-supporting Republican voters, he has “set the ceiling for himself” by trying to take on issues that are less likely to be widely embraced by conservatives — how he discusses Israel, questioning what happened on 9/11 and calling for raising the voting age.
“The problem we have is people trying to mimic the magic Donald Trump had in ‘15 and ‘16 — ‘Mexico is going to pay for the border wall’ — so they say things outside the norm that will get attention,” Carney said, noting no candidate has been able to pull off floating outlandish proposals like Trump.
But attention is a big part of the battle in a presidential primary, and some GOP consultants conceded Ramaswamy was bound to benefit, at least in the short-term, from being in the spotlight Wednesday.
“Ramaswamy probably gets a small bump,” said Republican strategist Bob Heckman, “but I don’t know how you get the nomination by insulting everyone in the room.”
Steven Overly contributed to this story.