The first-time candidate’s performance was a breakout moment for him. His very appearance on the debate stage was a coup for his campaign, given that Ramaswamy has no prior experience as an elected official and had never before appeared at such an event. Ramaswamy, though, stood out in demonstrating his ability to jab at better-known and more experienced candidates, all while figuring out a way to praise Donald Trump as he competes to beat the former president in the 2024 Republican primary.
In short, the knives are out for Ramaswamy.
“Everyone is out there picking on poor Vivek,” said Michael Dennehy, a longtime Republican strategist who advised presidential candidates Rick Perry and John McCain and also served as a strategist for former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
“Vivek has an unlimited amount of resources, which obviously frustrates the candidates who have to raise money every single day. Secondly, he has a delivery and air about him that frustrates politicians – for lack of a better term. He is running very much like Donald Trump did in 2016. He’s running against the political status quo. So the other candidates take great afront to it. And finally, I will say because he’s worked hard, because he’s spent so much money, he’s gone up in the polls. He’s attracted a decent amount of grassroots support and, again, I believe it drives the other candidates crazy as a guy that has never entered the political arena in any form before,” Dennehy said.
Since Ramaswamy’s debate performance, his adversaries have begun to direct some of their public and private attacks away from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – second in polling only to Trump and further ahead than his rivals – and toward the tech entrepreneur.
Donors for other candidates have griped about the supercilious manner of the 38-year-old’s debate performance and oftentimes counterintuitive policy proposals and political arguments. An opposition research book on Ramaswamy has begun to circulate among rival campaigns and super PACs. Campaign staffs have begun digging into his business dealings. Candidates have been fundraising off the contrasts they made against Ramaswamy during the debate and have tried to use his own domestic or foreign policy positions against him.
“My view is that there was some design to take him on, but the way he started the debate attacking everyone else exacerbated the other candidates’ desire to take him on,” Barry Wynn, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman, said in an email to CNN.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign, for instance, looked to continue her debate critiques of Ramaswamy as a political lightweight after he told Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom on Monday that he would not order the US to intervene in military fighting between Israel and Iran.
“Vivek must have missed that the fanatical terrorist regime in Iran regularly calls for ‘Death to America,’” Haley said in a statement issued by her campaign. “If he doesn’t see a nuclear Iran as a threat to American security, then he should take his place beside (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and the Squad and get nowhere near the White House.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie similarly cited Ramaswamy’s position on Israel to frame him as a severe flip-flopper.
“He says something, he gets roundly criticized and practically laughed at over some of the stuff he said, and then he says, ‘I didn’t say that, I meant this,’” Christie said in a Tuesday interview with Fox News.
Meanwhile, over multiple campaign stops in Iowa on Wednesday, former Vice President Mike Pence said Ramaswamy is “just wrong. He’s wrong on foreign policy. He’s wrong on American leadership in the world. He’s wrong on how to get this economy moving again.”
In response to questions about these attacks, Ramaswamy told CNN, “I clearly am posing a threat to candidates that feel threatened enough to make a 360-degree amphitheater of attacks around me and I’m OK with that. My view is this is part of the process of becoming the next US president. I’m debunking a lot of the lies that are coming.”
That candidates like Christie, Pence, and Haley – all longtime, experienced politicians – have begun attacking Ramaswamy instead of Trump and DeSantis illustrates how the entrepreneur has managed to elbow his way into contention in the early months of the 2024 GOP presidential primary. He’s carved out a position as an ardent Trump supporter who wants to represent a new era of Republicanism without rebuking Trump’s time as the official and de facto leader of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
And he’s deferred more to Trumpism than any other kind of conservative identity. During a campaign stop Thursday in Iowa, he said, “I’m not a party man. Actually, I’m using the Republican Party as a vehicle for advancing an America First agenda.”
The presence of a candidate like Ramaswamy isn’t wholly unusual within a GOP primary contest. Every once in a while, a newcomer or out-of-nowhere candidate with raw oratory or state aptitude makes an outsize splash – and rubs his opponents the wrong way in the process. In this Republican primary, that candidate seems to be Ramaswamy, and the shift by his rivals to a more full-throated barrage of attacks is an indication that the entrepreneur might have staying power.
“Every cycle, we have candidates that come and go early in the process, and we’ll see if that’s the case with Vivek,” said David Tamasi, a longtime Christie donor.
It’s more than that, though. Ramaswamy’s critics are irked with the way the entrepreneur carries himself. It’s his swagger and slickness, they say.
“He has a back-and-forth with himself on policy and on issues. One day, it seems to be one thing, and the next day, he’s misquoted on a direct quote,” Tamasi said.
And it’s not just the campaigns that are worked up over Ramaswamy. The larger political ecosystem has begun warning about him. Republican political strategist Karl Rove devoted his most recent column in The Wall Street Journal to a scorching criticism of Ramaswamy, bashing him as a “performance artist who says outrageous things, smears his opponents and appeals to the dark parts of the American psyche.”
Similarly, Mike Murphy, another GOP consulting guru, panned Ramaswamy in an interview for “The Bulwark Podcast” for being “in the oddity lane,” harking back to the “Herman Cains, the Ben Carsons.”
“So he’s doing MAGA unfiltered,” Murphy said. “Ultimately, he’ll wind up as a MAGA profiteer somewhere down the line. He’s real as a curiosity, and my view is that he peaked at the debate and will start a slow decline because he’s an irritating pipsqueak.”