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Vivek Ramaswamy picked up steam at the GOP debate. How far could he go?

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy took center stage at the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday.
Kamil Krzaczynski
AFP via Getty Images
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy took center stage at the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

Updated August 28, 2023 at 3:25 PM ET

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is suddenly getting a lot of buzz, especially after last week's debate.

The 38-year-old entrepreneur has positioned himself as a political outsider and "anti-woke" crusader since entering the race in February. He described himself in an NPR interview earlier this year as a nationalist who believes that America needs to rebuild its sense of civic pride.

And his strategy seemed successful at the GOP primary debate, with Ramaswamy getting thesecond-most airtime of any candidate. Hetraded barbs with the majority of his GOP rivals,impressing many voters who hadn't heard of him before, according to polls. His campaign even said that he raised $450,000 on Wednesday night alone.

Former President Donald Trump maintains a sizable lead in national polls, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis still in second place. But Ramaswamy has surged to third place in recent weeks. And his numbers appear to be growing — at least for now.

"He's had tremendous success so far going from ... zero point zero in the polls to the third place, or in some polls, second place," GOP strategist Dave Carney told Morning Edition. "The problem is [his] ideas limit — cap — his growth."

A younger, more extreme Trump

Ramaswamy's controversial positions include calling climate change a hoax, saying he would cut funding for Ukraine, raising questionsabout potential government involvement in 9/11, and wanting to raise the voting age to 25 — a proposal that's gotten pushback even from his own staff.

"God is real. There are two genders," he said in part of his closing statement. "Fossil fuels are a requirement for human prosperity. Reverse racism is racism. An open border is not a border."

Ramaswamy has positioned himself as his party's next Donald Trump, though younger and further to the right. He's also a defender of Trump, calling him "the best president of the 21st century" and vowing that, as president, he would pardon him if he were convicted. He's also called on other candidates to pledge the same.

He said over the weekend he would make Trump an adviser or mentor if elected, telling Meet the Press that he wants to "build on the foundation" that Trump laid and "pick up where he left off in taking on the administrative state."

But Ramaswamy's embrace — and emulation — of the front-runner is likely to work against him, Carney says. He argues that Ramaswamy has built himself a ceiling. "He'll never surpass Trump by trying to mimic Trump," said Carney.

"The majority of Republican primary voters want President Trump," he added. "And being the 'mini me' Trump, even if you're more outrageous, doesn't seem, to me, to be a strategy that's going to get you to be the No. 1 opponent of Trump and then get you across the finish line."

Ramaswamy appears to be trying to re-create the energy then-candidate Trump brought to the campaign trail in 2016, Carney says. He compares his bold ideas to Trump repeatedly promising to build a border wall and get Mexico to pay for it — which it did not.

But why, Carney asks, would someone vote for the person talking about such an idea, when they could go with the person they like who actually tried to do it?

Both a long shot and a threat

That doesn't mean that other GOP candidates aren't taking Ramaswamy seriously, despite their lines of attack on the debate stage.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he "sounds like ChatGPT." Former U.N. ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said he has "no foreign policy experience and it shows." Former Vice President Mike Pence called him a rookie, adding "now is not the time for on-the-job training."

They may see him as shallow and a showboat, Carney says, without the policy ideas or political experience needed to address serious economic and foreign policy issues. But, Carney adds, they also see him as a threat.

Half of the vote is still available to non-Trump voters, he explains, and Ramaswamy is "taking up oxygen" right now.

"He is dominating a lot of conversation, non-Trump conversation," Carney said. "So it makes it more difficult for anyone else to get their message out."

And isn't being a rookie — or at least not a D.C. insider — considered a plus for many Republican voters? Not necessarily anymore.

"The MAGA crowd is for Donald Trump, period," Carney said. "They're now for an experienced president who will drain the swamp."

What about VP?

Given Ramaswamy's uphill battle and his views on Trump, some have wondered whether he's campaigning less for the presidency and more for a spot in a potential second Trump administration.

Elon Musk has already publicly endorsed the idea of Ramaswamy becoming Trump's running mate. Trump has expressed openness to picking one of his primary challengers. As of last month he seemed more excited about South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, though he did take to social media to praise Ramaswamy's debate performance.

Ramaswamy has repeatedly said he's not interested in the running mate role, telling NPR, "I'm not looking at this as building my own career." And earlier this month, he told Fox News that he's "not interested in a different position in the government."

"Frankly, I'd drive change through the private sector sooner than becoming a No. 2 or a No. 3 in the federal government," he said. "Donald Trump and I share something in common and that is that neither of us would do well in a No. 2 position."

The broadcast interview was edited by Ally Schweitzer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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