Leading presidential candidates tend to draw the most attacks from their rivals. The first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday instead treated Vivek Ramaswamy, a relatively unknown political freshman, as the front runner.
The two frontrunners in the race — former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — appeared to be eclipsed, while the rest of the candidates turned their guns on Ramaswamy, a biotech millionaire who has emulated Trump on nearly every issue has. This was further evidence that the 2024 GOP race was shaping up to be a race for second place, with many of the contestants avoiding addressing the man so far ahead he couldn’t even call it for considered worthwhile to take part in the debate.
“It looked a bit like an undercard debate,” Reince Priebus, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said after the event on Fox News, which Trump skipped entirely. “The absence of the prizefighter on stage, I think, brought the temperature down and made it a little less attractive.”
Arguably the worst blow to Ramaswamy came from former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley during a heated exchange over aid to Ukraine. Ramaswamy argued that US support for Ukraine against Russian aggression should instead be used to defend the US border.
“They prefer a killer to a pro-American country. … They would make America less secure. You have no experience in foreign policy, and it shows. You can see that,” Haley said, drawing a burst of applause from the debate audience.
With the broadside, Haley has come closest to breaking out in the race so far. The former South Carolina governor has struggled to gain a foothold in the states that opted for the first nomination.
Former Vice President Mike Pence also took the opportunity to put Ramaswamy in the spotlight, repeatedly pointing to his youth and inexperience.
“Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Pence once told the 38-year-old, later adding that the US does not need a president “who is too young.”
Ramaswamy countered by saying, “We need someone from another generation to take this nation forward,” earning applause from the crowd.
But former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed downright annoyed by Ramaswamy, once comparing him to AI tool ChatGPT.
“I’ve heard enough tonight from a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” Christie said, slamming Ramaswamy for apparently borrowing a memorable line from a speech by former President Barack Obama.
“The last person in one of those debates… standing in the middle of the stage and saying, ‘What’s a skinny guy with a weird last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama,” Christie noted.
It wasn’t just the candidates who allied against Ramaswamy. Surprisingly, he was actually booed by viewers of the Fox News debate after calling climate change a hoax.
Ramaswamy was already rising in the polls before taking the stage in Milwaukee, and Wednesday’s debate is likely to add even more interest to his campaign.
But the fact that almost every other candidate for 2024 went for Ramaswamy and not DeSantis, Trump’s biggest rival, is another sign of DeSantis’ weakened position six months before the Iowa election.