MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Heading into Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate, 55 percent of Republican voters were backing Donald Trump, who didn’t even bother to show up. So why did millions of viewers tune in?
Simple. To find out if any of the other eight Republicans who made it onto the debate stage has a chance of unseating him.
One way to judge the answer was to spend five minutes in the spin room with the press gaggle after the two-hour debate. Former and current governors were ignored. A staffer for one of those campaigns tried to offer an interview to a CNN reporter, who politely declined: “Sorry, they really want Vivek.”
And immediately, when the man himself walked out, he was mobbed. Only a few months ago, most of this crowd didn’t know his name, but now they were screaming it at full volume.
“Vivek, what’s your takeaway?!”
“How do you think you did tonight?!”
“What comes next for the campaign—how do you build upon this momentum?”
Another way to gauge it is to watch who took the most heat over the two-hour brawl. That lightning rod would be Vivek Ramaswamy—the 38-year-old political neophyte who dominated the night in Milwaukee. (And who was the most googled person last night in America other than Yevgeny Prigozhin).
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie compared Ramaswamy to Barack Obama, calling him an “amateur.” At another point, he jabbed: “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.”
Former vice president Mike Pence called Ramaswamy a “rookie.” He rubbed it in: “Let me explain it to you, Vivek, if I can. I’ll go slower this time. Now is not the time for on-the-job training.”
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley slammed him: “He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel,” she said. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.” (She drew blood and loud cheers from the audience.)
It went on like this all night. But none of it seemed to bother Vivek, who—unlike Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who seemed to keep reminding himself to look happy—could not wipe the shit-eating grin off his face.
He seemed to be having a spectacular time.
And why shouldn’t he?
Ramaswamy, the founder of the biotechnology firm Roivant Sciences, was polling around one percent a few months ago. Now he’s at just under ten percent, which puts him in third behind Trump, polling at 52.1 percent, and DeSantis, at 15.2 percent.
Back in November, DeSantis was being hailed as the future of the Republican Party—a more palatable inheritor of Trumpism. But despite being the early favorite and raising $20 million in his campaign’s first six weeks, he is now polling at 15.2 percent. That number seems to get worse the more voters see of him.
Ahead of the debate, The New York Times reported that a trove of documents revealing the DeSantis debate strategy was posted on a website affiliated with his super PAC, Never Back Down. One key note urged him “to take a sledgehammer” to Vivek. Others cued him to “Call him ‘Fake Vivek’ or ‘Vivek the Fake.’ ”
But DeSantis barely made a mark last night. He had a single compelling opening line: “Our country is in decline,” he said. “The decline is a choice.” But the rest of the debate, he slipped into the shadows. There were stretches of time when he didn’t make a peep—until he popped back up, either to make a dig at Fauci or Hunter Biden. Once, he didn’t seem to understand it was his turn to answer—he just stood there wide-eyed, blinking, until the moderator prompted him again.
In contrast, by the end of the first hour, Ramaswamy was trending on Twitter. For what? It could’ve been any of the following: Saying Ukrainian president Zelensky was the “pope” of professional politicians. Saying “more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.” Saying he wanted to dismantle the Department of Education and the FBI.
“The real choice we face in this primary is this. Do you want a super PAC puppet, or do you want a patriot who speaks the truth? Do you want incremental reform, which is what you’re hearing about, or do you want revolution?”
The only candidate who came out looking stronger from the evening was Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, looked and sounded presidential, and ripped into Ramaswamy, saying he lacked “moral clarity” and was “choosing a murderer”—Russian president Vladimir Putin—over the forces of democracy.
But for the most part it was as if there were really two kinds of candidates on stage—Ramaswamy and everyone else. The candidate who got that the game had been changed metabolically by the 2016 presidential election, and pretty much everyone else (starting with Pence, Christie, and DeSantis), who seemed to think GOP voters still care about their résumés.
“You hand it over to a new generation to actually fix the problem. That’s why I’m in this race, and we’re just getting warmed up,” Ramaswamy said, taking a swipe at everyone else on stage and—more importantly—making the case to the millions of Trump voters out there that, sure, the former president may be a force for good, but he’s pushing eighty. Maybe his best years are behind him. Plus, he has those four indictments and an inability to fight without name-calling. What Vivek promises is an “America First 2.0” agenda, as he’s branded it, but in the package of a Harvard man with a private plane, prepared to quote both the Founding Fathers and the Bible. (Like Trump, he also has his own hat. Instead of MAGA, it’s labeled TRUTH.)
And, like the former president, he easily goes viral.
He started the week by posting a video of himself, shirtless on a tennis court, grunting and leaping to hit balls like his candidacy depended on it. “Three hours of solid debate prep this morning,” he captioned the clip, now seen over seven million times.
“That was my tennis court,” his neighbor from back home in Columbus, Ohio, proudly tells me at a rally Tuesday night in downtown Milwaukee (she asked to withhold her name out of fear that it could reveal Ramaswamy’s home address).
“He can use it whenever he wants—he’s a great tennis player. But he uses it rarely now; he’s been busy.”
When did she realize she might be living next door to the next president of the United States of America? Oh, the first time she met him, she says—about two years ago, when he came to their local country club to talk about his new book, Woke, Inc., his takedown of corporate America’s social policies that earned him airtime on Fox News.
“I knew he was special,” she says about their initial meeting. “You could hear a pin drop.”
Her friend, a blonde woman who also lives in the neighborhood, jumps in. “That’s when he inspired all of us,” she says. “His message was so inspiring that we felt like, ‘This is somebody who can unite us, not further divide us.’ There’s so much acrimony in our country, and it’s not just about a party. It’s about a message.”
That’s the vision Ramaswamy is trying to sell to more than just his neighbors: that his America First 2.0 agenda stems from a positive playbook that doesn’t just harp on everything wrong with the country but encourages Americans to envision what could go right, too. At campaign events like his pre-debate event, Ramaswamy passes out pamphlets meant to look like an aged document like the Constitution, that list “Ten Truths.”
“We’re not just running from something,” the booklet, which Ramaswamy says he wrote while overcome with an epiphany on his private plane, proclaims. “We’re running to something.”
This is what he says will achieve national unity: “God is real, there are two genders, human flourishing requires fossil fuels,” and so on, and so forth. By the time he gets to the tenth “truth,” he’s touched every hot-button topic: affirmative action, capitalism, the FBI, and American exceptionalism.
But perhaps he’s looking for “truth” in the wrong places. A few days ago, the candidate got into hot water when The Atlantic published a profile of him, in which he questioned “how many police were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers.”
“Maybe the answer is zero,” he said about the 9/11 attacks. “It probably is zero for all I know, right? I have no reason to think it was anything other than zero.”
When questioned by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins this week, he claimed the quote was “taken out of context,” even though the Atlantic reporter had published audio of the exchange online. One Wisconsin voter I met told me this whole ordeal is why Ramaswamy “is not a serious candidate.”
“I think it’s embarrassing,” says Logan Sajdowitz, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (he prefers DeSantis). “It’s weird.”
But Sajdowitz also is no fan of Trump. For those who are, Ramaswamy is seeming more and more like an appealing alternative to an ex-president weighed down with way too much baggage.
Back at Ramaswamy’s pre-debate rally, I spotted one of those voters. As soon as the young candidate thanked the crowd, a man in a MAGA hat and muddy Crocs pulled him in for a photo.
“We’ve gotta swap that out for a Truth hat,” Ramaswamy joked, patting the guy on the back.
That’s when the man replied: “Oh, I have one already.”
Olivia Reingold is a writer for The Free Press. Listen for more of her thoughts on the debate at our media roundtable moderated by Bari, which drops on Honestly later today.
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