Aug 24, 2023 - Politics & Policy

In Trump's absence, Ramaswamy drives the GOP debate

Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley clash during the GOP presidential debate Wednesday. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

MILWAUKEE — Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy has been rising in GOP presidential polls — and judging by the target on his back here Wednesday night, his rivals have noticed.

Why it matters: The first Republican debate was a raucous affair in which several candidates — namely Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie — scrapped with Ramaswamy, casting the fast-talking political novice as naive.

  • Pence, the former vice president, called him a "rookie" and said the country can't take "on-the-job training."
  • Haley, the former UN ambassador, told Ramaswamy: "You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows!"
  • Christie, the former New Jersey governor, said he was an "amateur" who "sounds like ChatGPT."

Zoom in: The jabs at Ramaswamy, and the sharp elbows he threw in return, so dominated the debate that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who's running a distant second to absent frontrunner Donald Trump — avoided the "dog-pile on Ron" scenario his campaign had predicted.

  • But the sparring also left DeSantis in the background as many of the debate's most memorable moments played out.
  • Haley and Pence's aggressiveness, meanwhile, gave them some of their highest profile moments of the campaign so far.

While Trump counter-programmed the debate with an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Ramaswamy essentially bear-hugged the former president.

  • Ramaswamy called Trump the "best president of the 21st century" and repeatedly defended him.
  • Ramaswamy drew fire from Haley, Pence and Christie by echoing Trump's positions on issues such as the Ukraine-Russia war. He said that as president, he'd end U.S. military aid to Ukraine because he believes it’s not strategic.
  • Haley then took aim, accusing Ramaswamy of favoring Russian President Vladimir Putin — "a thug and a murderer" — over U.S. interests in Europe.

Between the lines: Trump wasn't there, but some of his aides were. They praised Ramaswamy's performance.

  • Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said Ramaswamy "availed himself pretty well. I think he laid out a clear framework of what he wants to do."
  • "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what any of these candidates say. It really doesn't. It matters what Trump says."

DeSantis' team spun his performance as White House-ready.

  • "There was a lot of fighting in the mud, and he was the guy that looked presidential," DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier said.
  • As for Ramaswamy, Uthmeier said: "I think everybody at home probably wished he got a little bit less time at the microphone tonight."

Trump's team, which has targeted DeSantis for months, chided the Florida governor.

  • "August 23 2023 in Milwaukee, Wis., is the day that the DeSantis for President campaign died," senior Trump adviser Chris LaCivita said. "You can't win a debate by making a cameo appearance."
  • After Axios relayed those comments, Uthmeier responded: "That surprises me to hear. I think it probably would surprise most people at home."

Haley and Pence, who were both in Trump's Cabinet, repeatedly challenged other candidates as well as Trump.

  • Haley criticized Trump for ballooning the national debt by $8 trillion and said he "is the most disliked politician in America." (President Biden's team quickly turned a clip of her remark on Trump ballooning the deficit into an online video.)
  • In blasting Ramaswamy over his opposition to U.S. military aid to Ukraine, Haley said Putin "is a murderer and you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country."
  • Ramaswamy quipped that he hoped Haley enjoyed her "future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon" and criticized his rivals for making "a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope," Ukrainian President Volodymy — "without doing to same thing for the people in Maui, or the South Side of Chicago, or Kensington," Pennsylvania.
  • Haley and Pence did clash over abortion: She called for a "national consensus" on abortion laws, prompting Pence — who supports a national abortion ban — to call Haley's approach "the opposite of leadership."

Pence received support — at times tepid — from his rivals for rejecting Trump's demand that he stop the certification of electoral votes for the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021.

  • Much as he had earlier on a question about climate change, DeSantis seemed reluctant to talk about Pence's role on Jan. 6 before finally saying: "Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him."
  • Christie, who throughout the night targeted Trump for criticism, gave a full-throated endorsement of Pence's actions:
  • "He deserves not grudging credit, he deserves our thanks as Americans for putting his oath of office and the Constitution of the United States before personal, political and unfair pressure."

Zoom out: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott took a non-combative approach to the debate, which made it difficult for him to cut through the noise.

  • "A debate does not have to be a shouting match," Scott campaign manager Jennifer DeCasper said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson focused more on introducing themselves than picking fights with other candidates.

  • That also made it difficult for them to get in a word.
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