In first Republican debate, Ramaswamy’s millennial Trumpism steals the spotlight from DeSantis

The governor of Florida missed the opportunity to close the gap with the former president, whose absence loomed large over the event

Miguel Jiménez
US Elections
Former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy (r) and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at the first Republican candidates debate of the United States presidential campaign in Milwaukee (United States), on Wednesday.BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)

Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a faithful ally of Donald Trump, said Wednesday in Milwaukee that the eight Republicans participating in the primary debate for the 2024 presidential elections should withdraw from the race and give their support to the former president, who has been indicted in four separate cases. None of the candidates backed down, but six of the eight raised their hands to say that if Trump is nominated, they will support him, even if he is convicted as a felon. This group included the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who seemed to hesitate and wait to see what the others were doing before raising his arm. His indecision turned into one of the viral moments of the debate, which turned into a missed opportunity for DeSantis to close the gap with Trump.

But Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old billionaire entrepreneur of Indian origin who is third in the polls, stole the limelight with his millennial Trumpism. And Trump, even though he did not take part in the debate, also came out stronger.

The DeSantis campaign had drawn up a strategy for the debate, according to a document that it posted online and later withdrew: “1. Attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times. 2. State GRD’s [Governor Ron DeSantis] positive vision 2-3 times. 3. Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response. 4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.” DeSantis was able to do the first two points, but was not very original. But he did not hammer Ramaswamy in a response — unlike former vice president Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Trump U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. And it was Ramaswamy, not DeSantis, who defended Trump when Christie attacked him.

DeSantis — who is second in the polls, although more than 35 points behind Trump — had the prerogative of opening and closing the debate, and was expected to be the center of attention. But he gave no memorable retort, his rivals seemed to ignore him, and his performance was reduced to a few intermittent monologues (on the economy, the use of “deadly force” on the border with Mexico and beyond, his management in Florida, especially during the pandemic; and his criticism of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who is under investigation). What’s more, he showed no charisma or naturalness. Worse still, he was boring. The debate — a Fox News blockbuster with thousands in attendance and an audience of millions — was a missed opportunity for him.

It was Ramaswamy who filled the void left by Trump. He was such a staunch supporter of the former president — declaring him “the best president of the United States of the 21st century” — that it was not entirely clear why he was running against him in the primaries. He supported the lie that climate change “is a hoax.” He vowed to stop supporting Ukraine and “their Pope Zelenskiy.” He presented himself as the defender and aspiring heir to Trump. It was a strategy that won over the Trump base, the majority among Republicans.

“Who the hell is this skinny kid with a funny last name?” That’s how he introduced himself, stealing a line used by Barack Obama when he was running in the Democratic primaries — plagiarism that Chris Christie pointed out. Indeed, the former governor of New Jersey had the sharpest comeback against Ramaswamy. “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” said Christie. Pence and Christie both called Ramaswamy an “amateur” and a “rookie,” to which he claimed he was free from the shackles of professional politicians. In the exchange on Ukraine, Haley also pointed out that Ramaswamy had “no foreign policy experience, and it shows.” She was applauded by the audience, but the fact that most of the attacks on Ramaswamy came from the two most unpopular candidates made him even stronger. Ramaswamy seemed to enjoy drawing the spotlight and putting on a show. And the U.S. media hailed him as the winner of the debate.

Haley, the only woman in the Republican race, scored points with her practical and rational messages, calling for a basic consensus on abortion and showcasing her foreign policy expertise. But foreign policy does not win elections. Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson made little impact.

Pence left the debate having achieved his goal of explaining to the Republicans that he had no power to annul Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential elections, as Trump requested, without violating the Constitution. Ramaswamy did not comment, but DeSantis, Burgum, Haley, Scott and, above all, Christie, expressly acknowledged this.

Christie was the most critical voice of Trump. He argued that regardless of whether the criminal charges against the magnate are justified or not, Trump’s “conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States” — a comment that was booed by the audience. Christie fulfilled his objective, but he doesn’t have the slimmest chance of winning the Republican nomination with that message, which ignited the debate in the scant quarter of an hour dedicated to the former president.

Trump came out of the debate unscathed. At the same time that the debate began, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson laid out the red carpet for him in a friendly pre-recorded interview that, as of Thursday morning, had been watched 200 million times on X, formerly known as Twitter. In the interview with the controversial presenter, Trump said he had no interest in getting “harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president.” Trump — who was arraigned on Thursday in Atlanta for his fourth indictment — will not take part in the second Republican presidential debate in Simi Valley (California) on September 27. Some of the candidates who qualified for the first debate may not qualify for the second, if they drop further in the polls.

Trump’s strategy to not attend the debate came with risks. The biggest was that that DeSantis, his main rival, would dominate the debate and surge in the polls. But that was far from the case. Ramaswamy, an avowed Trumpist, was the center of attention. No one was especially brilliant. And the fact that six of the eight candidates said they would support Trump, even if he was convicted, is another win for the former president.

For these reasons, Amy Walter, editor of the influential Cook Political Report, concluded that Trump won the first debate. “If Trump’s opponents don’t think that being convicted is disqualifying, why should any GOP voter?” she asked.

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