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First GOP Prez debate: Ramaswamy seizes spotlight as DeSantis hangs back

First GOP Prez debate: As Republican presidential candidates traded fire at their first debate, they mostly left their party's dominant front-runner unscathed

Vivek Ramaswamy

Vivek Ramaswamy

NYT

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Shane Goldmacher, Jonathan Swan & Maggie Haberman


One thing was clear when former President Donald J. Trump decided to skip the first debate of the 2024 Republican primary race: There would be a vacuum to fill.

But it was not  Trump’s chief rival in the polls, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who emerged at the epicentre of the first Trump-free showdown on Wednesday, but instead the political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, whose unlikely rise has revealed the remarkable degree to which the former president has remade the party.

DeSantis had stumbled heading into the debate and was widely seen as in need of a stabilising performance. He sought it by largely avoiding the scrum and sticking closely to the core case he makes on the stump, hoping to gain incremental ground in front of a national audience.

All eight candidates mostly jostled for position among themselves, and few targeted the front-runner who is set to surrender on Thursday after his fourth criminal indictment.

Six months ago, the idea that  Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, would be standing centre stage at a Republican presidential debate would have seemed unimaginable.

And yet there he was, leaning into that fact with a line echoing one used famously by Barack Obama, asking, “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?”

That skinny guy quickly became a punching bag for rivals, led by former Vice President Mike Pence, who invoked his experience to say that it wasn’t time for a “rookie” who needed “on-the-job training.” Former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey recalled the Obama line, quipping, “I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur.”

But Ramaswamy smiled his way through the night, delighting in the attention as he staked out positions that might be unpopular among his competitors — cutting funding for Ukraine’s war effort (he mocked the country’s president as “their pope”), and promising to pre-emptively pardon  Trump — but that resonate with the Republican base.

He hewed closely to  Trump not just on substance but also on style. He stirred controversy to soak up screen time, and lobbed some of the evening’s most strikingly personal slights: accusing Christie of auditioning for an MSNBC contract, Nikki Haley of having her eye on lucrative private-sector jobs and declaring — to some boos — that he was the only candidate not bought and paid for by special interests.

The Harvard-educated Ramaswamy came off at times as slick —  Christie dismissed him as “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT” — but he was the one everyone else was talking about, a victory in itself.

Before the debate,  DeSantis’s aides had predicted that he would be the centre of attacks. So much for that.

Rivals mostly ignored him, despite his status as the polling leader on the stage. It was a surprising turn of events that allowed DeSantis to make his own points without interruption or interrogation.
But it often relegated him to the sidelines. He spoke for two minutes less than Pence, only the fourth most speaking time of the eight candidates — hardly the expected outcome without Trump.

In fact, the moment when Mr. DeSantis most exerted his authority came against Fox News’s moderators, when he successfully steamrollered an attempt to have candidates raise their hands over whether they believed in human-caused climate change.

It felt like something of a fleeting alpha moment for a candidate in need of one.

But it was his hesitancy at another hand-raising question that captured one of the central conundrums of his candidacy: How to position himself versus Trump? When the moderators asked who would support Trump even if he were convicted in his criminal cases, DeSantis appeared to pause as each of the four candidates to his left, one by one, raised their hands before he did.

He did cite his biography in ways some advisers have wanted, unfurling a rare personal anecdote about seeing “the sonograms of all three of my kids” as he explained why he had signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida. But some core DeSantis lines were conspicuously absent: He did not talk about Disney or invoke his war on “woke.”

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First Published: Aug 24 2023 | 11:33 PM IST

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