ANALYSIS: Ramaswamy Steals the Spotlight at GOP Debate

Candidates in the first Republican primary, hosted by Fox News on Aug. 23, sought to spin performances into clear-cut wins.
ANALYSIS: Ramaswamy Steals the Spotlight at GOP Debate
Republican presidential candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy (L) and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season, hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, on Aug. 23, 2023. (Win McNamee /Getty Images)
Nathan Worcester
News Analysis

After the first Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, surrogates for the various candidates did what any good supporter should: They sought to spin performances into clear-cut wins.

“[Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis] has no peer up there in terms of his conservative consistency,” Ken Cuccinelli, a veteran of the Trump administration who is now with the Never Back Down super PAC that supports Mr. DeSantis’s presidential run, said in an interview with The Epoch Times.

“[Former Gov. Nikki Haley] showed tonight that she can stand toe-to-toe, being the only woman on the presidential stage for 2024,” Katon Dawson, a supporter of Ms. Haley who formerly chaired the South Carolina Republican Party, told The Epoch Times.

Yet, as the dust settles after the two-hour, former President Donald Trump-free spectacle on Aug. 23, it’s crucial to look beyond the spin.

By Drawing Attacks, Ramaswamy Scores Victories

President Trump’s absence from the Fiserv Forum, normally home to the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, meant that one man stood in as the next best thing: biotech entrepreneur, anti-“woke” investor, and occasional rapper Vivek G. Ramaswamy, whose Trump-like stances and Trump-friendly rhetoric painted a bright target on his back.

On foreign policy, climate change, and other issues, Mr. Ramaswamy took fire from many opponents—most notably, Ms. Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Mr. Christie compared the energetic millennial to ChatGPT. Mr. Pence, meanwhile, dismissed Mr. Ramaswamy as a “rookie,” while Ms. Haley accused him of failing to support U.S. allies.

That pattern contradicted the predictions of some insiders, who told The Epoch Times that Mr. DeSantis would probably attract the most heat as the favorite for the nomination after President Trump. Yet, Mr. Ramaswamy’s rapid ascent in the past few months makes what happened more understandable: Acceleration is easier to spot and attack than a relatively steady velocity.

If Mr. Ramaswamy aimed to win by playing the underdog, he appears to have succeeded. Time and time again, he stole the show, even by drawing a swipe from one rival through effusive praise of the last Republican to reach the White House.

“President Trump was, I believe, the best president of the 21st century,” Mr. Ramaswamy told Mr. Christie to cheers from the audience, adding that he believes that the former New Jersey governor’s crusade against his onetime boss is motivated by “vengeance and grievance.”

“You make me laugh,” Mr. Christie responded before the audience’s boos drowned him out.

“Vivek Ramaswamy, 1. Establishment politicians, 0,” Chris Grant, senior adviser to the Ramaswamy campaign, told The Epoch Times in a spin room interview.

“I think the reason career politicians like Nikki Haley and Mike Pence get so upset is because of jealousy,” Mr. Grant said.

Others offered a more guarded response to the entrepreneur.

Sean Spicer, a press secretary during Trump’s presidency, said that it remains to be seen how Mr. Ramaswamy’s aggressiveness will “go over with a lot of grassroots voters.”

Mr. Spicer told The Epoch Times that Mr. Ramaswamy “landed some really good punches.”

Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel

Some of the biggest disputes concerned foreign policy. Most candidates staked out positions at odds with that of the race’s current front-runner.

When the candidates were asked if they oppose the Biden administration’s latest request for billions in Ukraine funding, Mr. Ramaswamy held his hand high, while Mr. DeSantis’s wavered midway in the air. The other six contenders did nothing.

“I would not support it,” Mr. Ramaswamy said.

“I would have Europe step up,” said Mr. DeSantis, adding that U.S. backing “should be contingent” on additional contributions from U.S. allies closer to Ukraine.

Mr. Pence characterized Mr. Ramaswamy’s foreign policy proposal, which would see the United States cede parts of Ukraine to Russia in exchange for ending its alliance with China, as a “giveaway ... to Putin.”

“Vice President Pence, I have a newsflash: The USSR does not exist anymore,” Mr. Ramaswamy responded.

Ms. Haley jumped in, too.

She said Mr. Ramaswamy “wants to hand Ukraine to Russia,” “wants let China eat Taiwan,” and “wants to go and stop funding Israel.”

“You have no foreign policy experience,” said Ms. Haley, who served as United Nations ambassador under President Trump.

“It’s not that Israel needs America, America needs Israel,” she said.

Mr. Ramaswamy described the relationship between Israel and the United States as “a friendship.”

“You know what friends do? Friends help each other stand on their own two feet,” he said, adding that he would work with the Middle Eastern state to “make sure Iran never is nuclear armed.”

“You know what I love about Israel?” Mr. Ramaswamy asked. “I love their border policies. I love tough-on-crime policies. I love that they have a national identity and an Iron Dome to protect their homeland.”

Hopefuls Spar on Abortion

The feasibility of national restrictions on abortion also divided the candidates.

Mr. Pence indicated that he would support such a limit on abortions past 15 weeks, describing it as “an idea whose time has come.”

“It’s not a states-only issue. It’s a moral issue,” said the former vice president, long known as a pro-life stalwart.

“When you’re talking about a federal ban, be honest with the American people,” Ms. Haley responded, saying that there weren’t enough pro-life senators to make it a reality.

“Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue,” she told Mr. Pence, echoing a frequent complaint about the reputed causes of the GOP’s lackluster midterm performance.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said he has pro-life views but opposes a federal ban, citing the 10th Amendment’s granting of unenumerated rights to the states by default.

“We can’t have Republicans, who fight for 50 years for this great cause to return it back to the states, [the] next day they turn around and go, ‘No, the feds should do that,’” he said.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) stressed his support for a 15-week abortion ban.

No One Escapes Trump’s Shadow

While every candidate would say they’re in it to win it, many informed observers have speculated that Ms. Haley, Mr. Scott, and others are gunning for vice presidential slots, most plausibly on a ticket led by President Trump.

Another voice in that chorus is Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Brexit Party.

In a pre-debate interview near Rumble’s studio on the Forum campus, Mr. Farage told The Epoch Times that the event was “almost a beauty contest” for vice presidential contestants.

As the base’s loyalty to President Trump grows with each new indictment, he looks increasingly difficult to unseat from the nomination. Not only that, but also in keeping with the past eight years of news, President Trump has come to dominate the information ecosystem, this time partly through the airing of an interview with former Fox News journalist Tucker Carlson at the same time as the debate.

In line with this, some of the fiercest comments concerned whether Mr. Pence “did the right thing” when he certified the results of the 2020 election.

After first deflecting, Mr. DeSantis eventually conceded that “Mike [Pence] did his duty.” At the opposite extreme, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson suggested that the 14th Amendment may prevent President Trump from becoming president again because of what Mr. Hutchinson called “the insurrection”—the breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Mr. Ramaswamy scored points by highlighting his commitment to pardon President Trump “on day 1” as president, challenging Mr. Pence on the issue.

“That’s the difference between you and me. I’ve actually given pardons when I was governor of the State of Indiana. It usually follows a finding of guilt and contrition by the individual that’s been convicted,” President Trump’s former vice president responded.

Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesperson who has worked on all of his presidential campaigns, told The Epoch Times in the spin room that President Trump was the “one winner for tonight,” citing the many tens of millions of views that his interview with Mr. Carlson has already drawn.

He said President Trump is unlikely to appear at the next Fox/GOP debate, scheduled for September at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, “unless he says otherwise.”

Mr. Cheung dismissed the significance of the first debate in light of President Trump’s strong polling.

“Will anyone ever really remember what happened on the stage tonight? No,” he said.

“Right now, this is President Trump’s to lose,” Mr. Spicer said.

“Trump’s the only one right now that is on a path to accumulate the delegates that will be necessary [for the nomination].”

If nothing else, the debate showed that a future Trump-free Republican Party might not belong to those such as Ms. Haley, Mr. Pence, Mr. Scott, or even Mr. DeSantis.

The biggest moments on the night of Aug. 23 belonged to Mr. Ramaswamy’s GOP.

Nathan Worcester covers national politics for The Epoch Times and has also focused on energy and the environment. Nathan has written about everything from fusion energy and ESG to Biden's classified documents and international conservative politics. He lives and works in Chicago. Nathan can be reached at [email protected].