After centerpiecing GOP debate, Vivek Ramaswamy barnstorms Iowa looking for a boost

NEWTON, Iowa — Sara Woodcock had never heard of Vivek Ramaswamy until the Ohio biotech entrepreneur commanded the focus of his Republican presidential rivals during the first primary debate of the 2024 election cycle last Wednesday.

Two days later, she and her husband took an hour out of their Friday afternoon to see him campaign in Pella — an event that drew far more attendees than Ramaswamy’s typical election stops.

“I never knew who this guy was until the debate,” she said.

Woodcock said she was impressed by Ramaswamy and thinks he could reach Millennials in a way other candidates can’t. But she’s still planning to support former Republican President Donald Trump in the caucuses.

Her husband, David Woodcock, has previously supported Trump but is looking for someone new. He likes what he saw in Ramaswamy and said he’ll consider him moving forward.

“He really stood out at the debate,” he said.

After Ramaswamy captured national attention at the first GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee Aug. 23, he’s hoping to capitalize on his moment in the spotlight by barnstorming Iowa with the go-everywhere and talk-to-everyone strategy that has helped propel his rise so far.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy laughs at a joke during the Polk County Summer Sizzle fundraising event in Clive, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy laughs at a joke during the Polk County Summer Sizzle fundraising event in Clive, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

He’ll need to convert the newly interested — people like the Woodcocks — into firm supporters to help build momentum in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

Even though national polling shows him surging into third place ahead of better-known candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, that rise has yet to fully materialize in Iowa where Ramaswamy is not as well-known as his competitors.

He currently sits in seventh place at 4%, according to the latest Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll.

“I do show up here more than any other candidate,” Ramaswamy told reporters after a Friday evening event in Clive. “So we’re going to use time on the ground as one advantage. And then the fact that we now have the debate season beginning, more people will automatically hear about me and what I stand for. … As more people get to know who I am, I think we’re going to bring a lot of them with us.”

He said he’s aiming for a top-three finish in Iowa and expects a top-two finish in New Hampshire.

A Des Moines Register analysis of announced, public campaign events shows Ramaswamy has held more Iowa events than anyone else on the GOP debate stage.

Ramaswamy will add eight more events over two days in central Iowa over the next few days, traveling through Indianola, Pella, Newton, Clive, Winterset, Urbandale, Waterloo and Clarion — an aggressive swing that was met with energetic, curious crowds.

“You are the biggest breath of fresh air I’ve ever seen in my life,” Keith West, a Des Moines resident, told Ramaswamy during a question-and-answer session at a Newton Pizza Ranch. “… I appreciate your sensibility. You’ve got me jazzed.”

After the event, West said he doesn’t believe Trump is electable and he’s ready to support someone different in the caucuses. He worries Ramaswamy could be a little weak on foreign policy, but he said there’s “something special about this guy.”

Vivek Ramaswamy leans into support for Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy laughs at a joke during the Polk County Summer Sizzle fundraising event in Clive, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy laughs at a joke during the Polk County Summer Sizzle fundraising event in Clive, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

Ramaswamy has established himself on the debate stage and on the Iowa campaign trail as a Trump supporter, embracing the former president’s MAGA instincts and refusing, more than any other candidate, to criticize him.

“Let’s just speak the truth,” he said during the debate. “President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It’s a fact.”

He reiterated his promise to pardon Trump if voters give him the chance, and he called on his competitors to do the same.

When debate moderators asked candidates to raise their hands if they would still support Trump if he’s convicted in any of the legal cases that are advancing, Ramaswamy was the first to do so.

“That shows me that there’s some leadership skills there,” said state Sen. Brad Zaun, who spoke at the Polk County Summer Sizzle event where Ramaswamy also appeared in Clive Friday night. Zaun has endorsed Trump.

At that event, Ramaswamy sat at a table with former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who served in the Trump administration as the U.S. ambassador to China.

Currently, Trump dominates the Iowa caucus field, leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 42% to 19% among likely Republican caucus attendees, the Iowa Poll showed.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is in third place with 9%, Haley and Pence tie at 6%, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is at 5% and Ramaswamy follows with 4%. Seven other candidates are polling at 2% or lower.

In total, the poll showed 34% of respondents are considering supporting Ramaswamy in the caucuses. That includes the 4% who name him as their first choice for president, the 12% who say he is their second choice and another 18% who say they are actively considering him.

By that measure, Ramaswamy places fifth behind Trump, who has a total footprint of 63%, DeSantis (62%), Scott (53%) and Haley (40%).

But Ramaswamy is less well-known than those other top-tier candidates. According to the poll, 38% view him favorably, 20% view him unfavorably and 41% are not sure — an indication that they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion.

That may change after the debate, where Ramaswamy had the second-most speaking time of anyone on stage.

In Newton, Ramaswamy argued that the debate showed a clear divide between the candidates on stage and cast himself as the true change candidate.

“We had some banter on the basketball court a couple nights ago,” he joked, drawing chuckles. “And that’s OK. That’s a good thing. It makes our party stronger to have real, open debate. But I do think we face a choice — a choice between good people who I respect. Do you want incremental reform, or do you want revolution? I stand on the side of revolution.”

Ramaswamy delivers, withstands attacks on first debate stage

At the debate, Ramaswamy both delivered the most attacks and was the recipient of the most attacks, according to NBC News.

Pence repeatedly attacked Ramaswamy’s lack of experience calling him a “rookie” and Christie derided him as an “amateur.” Ramaswamy has never held elected office.

On the campaign trail in Iowa Friday, Ramaswamy addressed those critiques directly.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the Polk County Summer Sizzle fundraising event in Clive, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the Polk County Summer Sizzle fundraising event in Clive, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

“You know how old (Thomas Jefferson) was when he wrote the Declaration of Independence?” he asked. “Thirty-three. Thirty-three years old. I’m an old man compared to what he was.”

Much like Trump, Ramaswamy has cast his political inexperience as an asset, saying he’s the only candidate who isn’t “bought and paid for.”

“If you have a broken car, you don’t turn over the keys to the people who broke it again,” he said during the debate.

But those quips did little to stop the barrage of debate-night attacks.

Pence and Haley attacked Ramaswamy for saying he would freeze the current lines of control in Ukraine in return for a promise from Russia that it would not form a military alliance with China.

“Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” Ramaswamy argued, raising China as a bigger threat.

Haley argued that a win for Russia is a win for China and said Ukraine is the first line of defense. And she accused Ramaswamy of wanting to “go and defund Israel” after he said in an interview that the U.S. should aim to reduce its aid to Israel.

“You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” Haley told Ramaswamy.

One event attendee in Newton asked Ramaswamy to clarify his position on Israel after that debate exchange, calling it a “stumbling block” for her.

“I’m new to politics,” he said. “This is a dirty game. People will, maybe they’ll distort what you say. I did not expect people to literally make up things that you’ve never said. So I’ll be very clear about where I am on Israel.”

He said that in his original comments, he said it should be the goal to “get to a place where Israel is so strongly integrated back into the security and economic infrastructure of the Middle East, that they no longer even require the $30 billion in aid that we give them.”

He said he stands with Israel because “it is deeply in American interests to do so.”

“I come to it with my own conviction, which means we’re actually going to see it through rather than approaching it as a check-the-box transactional client relationship,” he said.

Information from USA Today and the Associated Press was used in this report.

Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.

Philip Joens covers retail, real estate and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-284-8184, or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Ramaswamy dominates debate conversation. Will it boost him in Iowa?

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