MILWAUKEE — As widely anticipated prior to the initial Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday, a candidate positioned at the center stage encountered significant criticism and responded with a vigorous defense against rivals who had criticized him.
However, the anticipated focal point was not Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who consistently ranks a distant second to former President Donald Trump in most GOP presidential primary polls. Surprisingly, it was Vivek Ramaswamy, an emerging entrepreneur closely aligning with Trump, who is gradually narrowing the gap with DeSantis in certain surveys.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie strongly criticized Ramaswamy, drawing a parallel between him and “a person who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here.” Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley expressed concerns that Ramaswamy’s policy propositions on issues such as Ukraine, China, and Israel could potentially jeopardize America’s security. Meanwhile, former Vice President Mike Pence labeled him a “rookie” lacking pertinent experience.
In response, Ramaswamy launched a barrage of counterarguments. He contended that Christie was merely pursuing a role as a cable news contributor. In a satirical tone, he extended ironic well-wishes to Haley for her potential future role on the boards of defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Responding to Pence, he ridiculed his opponents as “super PAC puppets,” despite having a super PAC supporting him.
An NBC News tracker revealed that Ramaswamy initiated more attacks than any other participant on stage and was also the target of more attacks than any of his rivals.
With charisma as his strong suit, Ramaswamy, 38, has ascended from relative obscurity to the upper echelons of the Republican presidential primary by wholeheartedly embracing Trump’s ideology. He has engaged with a diverse range of media outlets and pledged to extend the expansive principles of Trumpism beyond its originator. However, as the debate unfolded, other participants, including his fellow contenders, perceived Ramaswamy as lacking depth, being prone to impulsive statements without assessing consequences, and displaying contradictions within his recent stances.
“While fervent Trump supporters may applaud Vivek’s performance,” commented a seasoned GOP strategist unaffiliated with any candidate or campaign, “to a broader audience, he came across as petulant and overconfident.”
Reflecting on the debate in the post-debate discussions, Ramaswamy expressed a sense of pride in being the most scrutinized candidate during Wednesday’s event. He interpreted the heightened attention directed at him as a reflection of other establishment politicians feeling threatened by his presence.
“Frankly, I consider it an accolade that I received the most focus among the candidates on stage,” Ramaswamy remarked, acknowledging that “several prominent establishment figures aimed their criticisms at me.”
Responding to queries about whether he benefited from Trump’s absence, Ramaswamy stated, “I believe I did gain an advantage from the evident discomfort displayed by the other participants toward me.”
Interestingly, Trump’s campaign and allies appeared to revel in Ramaswamy’s performance, finding delight in the businessman garnering more attention than the Florida governor, who has historically been a target of Trump’s criticisms.
“Vivek’s clear intention to engage and actively participate resonated with us,” observed Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to Trump, in a conversation with. “Effectively, the debate revolved around the former vice president, Vivek, with intermittent involvement from Nikki and Chris Christie. The rest seemed to fade into the background.”
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., a staunch supporter of Trump, humorously shared a jest with fellow reporters, likening Ramaswamy to the missile that many had anticipated Christie to embody on stage.
“In a way, the Chris Christie campaign was what everyone thought would be a kamikaze approach,” Donalds remarked, “yet it was Vivek who strategically confronted Christie, weathered the onslaught, and effectively countered Mike Pence’s attacks.”