Vivek Ramaswamy embraces being the center of attention at a debate without Trump

MILWAUKEE — Just like many expected heading into the first Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday, a candidate at center stage faced withering criticism and lashed out at rivals who dissed him.

Only it wasn’t Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, long the candidate who has registered a distant second behind former President Donald Trump in most GOP presidential primary polls. It was Vivek Ramaswamy, the upstart entrepreneur aligning himself closely with Trump who is catching up to DeSantis in some of those surveys.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blasted Ramaswamy as “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here.” Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said his policy proposals on Ukraine, China and Israel would make America less safe. And former Vice President Mike Pence called him a “rookie” who had no relevant experience.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, threw punches left and right. He claimed Christie was merely angling for a cable news contributor contract. He sarcastically offered well wishes to Haley “in your future career on the boards of [defense contractors] Lockheed [Martin] and Raytheon.” And in a response to Pence, he ridiculed his rivals as “super PAC puppets” — though he himself has a super PAC backing him.

An NBC News tracker showed Ramaswamy launched more attacks than anyone on stage — and also received more attacks than any of his rivals.

A charismatic public speaker, Ramaswamy, 38, has risen from relative obscurity to the top tier of the Republican presidential primary by embracing Trump wholeheartedly, engaging with media outlets across the spectrum and promising to take the loose ideology of Trumpism further than its namesake could. But as the debate showcased, others — including his rivals — see a candidate who is out-of-his depth, willing to say anything without weighing repercussions and has apparent contradictions with his current positions within the past couple years.

“If you love Trump, you love Vivek, and those folks will say he was amazing,” said one veteran GOP strategist who is unaffiliated with any candidate or campaign. “To the rest of the world he came off as a petulant, know-it-all child.”

Speaking in the spin room after the debate, Ramaswamy said he “took it as a badge of honor” that he was the candidate who was most focused on during Wednesday’s bout, adding that “at least three to four different establishment politicians had their fire trained on me.”

“I think I did benefit from frankly, the fact that the other folks on the stage seem very threatened by me,” Ramaswamy said when asked if he benefitted from Trump’s absence.

Interestingly, Trump’s campaign and allies seemed to relish Ramaswamy’s performance, delighting in the businessman earning more of the focus than the Florida governor who has received most of Trump’s ire.

“Vivek clearly showed that he wanted to be up there and that he wanted to be a part of it and took the opportunity that was presented to him and really made a fight for it,” Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to Trump, told NBC News. “It was literally a debate between the former vice president, Vivek, and occasionally Nikki and Chris Christie. And everybody else was sort of an afterthought.”

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., a Trump backer, told reporters he joked to a colleague that Ramaswamy was the missile many expected Christie to be on stage.

“The Chris Christie campaign is [what] everybody thought was like the Kamikaze campaign,” he said. “But it was Vivek [who] basically kind of took out Christie, survived the attack that went ahead and took out Mike Pence.”

Yet Ramaswamy’s rivals saw their tangles with him as some of their greatest moments of the night. Pence’s campaign was quick to push out criticism of Ramaswamy’s call to eliminate the FBI, equating it with defunding the police, saying he adopted “the Radical Left’s pro-crime, anti-cop” agenda. A Haley campaign release read: “Nikki Haley Will Make America Strong, Ramaswamy Will Make America Weak.”

When Haley blasted Ramaswamy for lacking foreign policy experience, members of the audience could be seen on the Fox News broadcast standing and clapping.

“Vivek’s ego is too big for such a limited resume,” one Haley ally said. “And it shows.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis allies said they did not worry over Ramaswamy taking attention away from their candidate.

“Gov. DeSantis did not beclown himself,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a DeSantis backer, told reporters in the spin room. “He demonstrated his ability to be presidential and that he deserves to sit behind the resolute desk. I think some showed a certain level of naïveté on the stage. I’ll leave it at that.”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, another DeSantis backer, said he felt Ramaswamy “sounded a little naive and kind of a little childish.”

“I don’t know, it was kind of weird how he was kind of attacking everybody on stage,” Stitt said, “saying everybody up there was bought off, which I know that’s not true.”

Addressing his dust-ups with Ramaswamy, Pence told reporters following the debate that he blasted the upstart candidate because he didn’t like his agenda.

“I mean, frankly, he has an agenda of appeasement on the world stage,” Pence said. “I hope viewers got a better sense. Vivek Ramaswamy’s view of American leadership is to let [Russian President] Vladimir Putin have whatever he wants. Give him all the promises he wants and hope that’ll satisfy.”

Tricia McLaughlin, a Ramaswamy spokesperson, said the onslaught the candidate faced showed he is viewed as “a direct threat to the GOP establishment.”

“Today really was Vivek Ramaswamy versus the GOP establishment,” she said. “And he dominated.”

Wednesday’s debate did end with some questions left unanswered, though. As Ramaswamy was leaving the spin room, he was asked by a reporter whether he would have done the same as Pence on Jan. 6, 2021 — a question that was put to candidates on the debate stage.

“So I had a detailed answer to that question that but … I was also trying to be respectful of the rules as best I could,” he said. “And so I look forward to taking that on a future debate, because we’re on the run right now. But tell Bret [Baier] to ask me that in the September debate.”

He added: “I would have done it very differently.”

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