Leading presidential contenders tend to attract the majority of attacks from their rivals. At the first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday, it was Vivek Ramaswamy, a relatively unknown political newcomer, who got the front-runner treatment instead.
The two leaders in the race ― former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ― seemed to recede into the shadows as the rest of the candidates turned their guns on Ramaswamy, a biotech millionaire who has emulated Trump on just about every issue. It was yet more evidence of the 2024 GOP race turning into a race for second place, with many of the candidates avoiding going directly at the man who is leading by such a big margin that he didn’t even think it was worth attending the debate.
“It looked a bit like an undercard debate,” Reince Priebus, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said on Fox News after the event, which Trump skipped entirely. “Not having the prizefighter on stage, I think, took down the temperature and made it a little less attractive.”
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley landed perhaps the biggest blow against Ramaswamy during a heated exchange over aid to Ukraine. Ramaswamy argued that U.S. support for Ukraine against Russian aggression should be used for defending the U.S. border instead.
“You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country. ... You would make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience and it shows. It shows,” Haley said, drawing an eruption of applause from the debate audience.
The broadside is the closest Haley has come to a breakout moment during the race so far. The former South Carolina governor has struggled to gain traction in early nominating states.
Former Vice President Mike Pence also took the opportunity to light up Ramaswamy, taking repeated digs at his youth and inexperience.
“Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Pence said to the 38-year-old at one point, adding later that the U.S. doesn’t need a president “who’s too young.”
Ramaswamy parried by saying “we do need somebody of a different generation to lead this nation forward,” winning applause from the crowd.
But former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed straight-up annoyed by Ramaswamy, likening him at one point to the AI tool ChatGPT.
“I’ve heard enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” Christie said, going on to criticize Ramaswamy for appearing to crib a memorable line from a speech by former President Barack Obama.
“The last person in one of these debates ... who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama,” Christie noted.
It wasn’t just the candidates ganging up on Ramaswamy, either. In a bit of a surprise, the Fox News debate audience actually booed him after he called climate change a hoax.
Ramaswamy was already gaining in the polls before he stepped foot onstage in Milwaukee, and Wednesday’s debate is likely to fuel additional interest in his campaign.
But the fact that nearly every other 2024 candidate was going after Ramaswamy and not DeSantis, Trump’s leading rival, is yet another sign of DeSantis’ weakened position six months before the Iowa caucuses.