Ramaswamy faces curiosity and skepticism in Iowa after center-stage performance in GOP debate

Vivek Ramaswamy has charged back into Iowa after his attention-grabbing performance in the first Republican presidential debate

Thomas Beaumont
Saturday 26 August 2023 00:04 EDT

Vivek Ramaswamy has charged back into Iowa, stoking curiosity and skepticism after his attention-grabbing performance in the first Republican presidential debate.

The charismatic 38-year-old businessman was met Friday by hundreds of GOP activists in small central cities near Des Moines, with more events planned in the coming days.

He is drawing new interest from Republicans who will participate in the nation's first caucuses next year, but also apprehension from attendees at his events and pointed criticism from a former GOP governor. Much of the negative feedback is about his foreign policy ideas, notably his argument that the U.S. should stop providing arms and funding to Ukraine as it fights Russia's invasion.

“I like that he's young and energetic, and wants to tear the whole thing down,” said Thomas Bean, a 23-year-old who attended a morning event south of Des Moines. He was referring to Ramaswamy's goal of reducing the federal bureaucracy by 75 percent.

“I like what he's proposing. They're not status quo,” said Bean, a public relations professional. “I just don't know how much of what he's proposing is realistic.”

Like Bean, several people who came to see Ramaswamy cited his youth, energy and outsider profile — punctuated by his criticism of and by better-known rivals Wednesday in Milwaukee. He drew larger than expected audiences on Friday, first to the Indianola breakfast restaurant and later a lunchtime event at a Pella brew pub.

Ramaswamy introduced himself as the son of poor Indian immigrants. But he spent most of his time speaking for what he describes as a frustrated generation seeking meaning in a nation that he says has lost its patriotism. The Ohio businessman has a background in investing and biotechnology.

“So what does it mean to be American? It means we believe in the ideals that set this nation into motion 250 years ago," Ramaswamy said, drawing applause. “That you get ahead in this country, not on the color of your skin, but on the content of your character and your contributions.”

He mostly took a more inspirational tone than on Wednesday, when he confronted veteran politicians such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Vice President Mike Pence.

Ramaswamy’s argument that the U.S. should suspend financial aid to Ukraine was met with sharp rebukes from Pence and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. Haley on Wednesday likened Ramaswamy’s position to siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin and thus “choosing a murderer.”

The crosstalk and jabs during the debate, Ramaswamy said, were like “some banter on the basketball court.”

Still, Ramaswamy's campaign was seizing on his rising profile. His campaign said it raised $450,000 in the first hours after the debate. And he is scheduled to appear Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press and CNN's State of the Union.

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who has not endorsed a candidate, said in an interview that Ramaswamy “brings some real enthusiasm and commitment to traditional values that Americans are really clamoring for,” but described his foreign policy as “a real problem.”

“I don’t think he’s really thought that through. And I thought that Nikki Haley really took him to task on that,” said Branstad, who served as ambassador to China under former President Donald Trump. “Rightly so.”

Janice Johnson, a 72-year-old from Indianola, Iowa, said she wanted someone from Ramaswamy's generation to take the nation's reins. But speaking before one of his events, Johnson described Ramaswamy as “sometimes a little too enthusiastic.”

Jim Jones, a former county GOP official from nearby Carlisle, said he viewed Ramaswamy with equal parts intrigue and apprehension.

“The intrigue is about, how does this guy come off appearing so strong and come from nowhere so quickly?" said Jones, 75. “The apprehension comes from his idea of abandoning Ukraine. That's a little bit scary.”

Ramaswamy said Friday that he was trying to protect Ukraine by seeking an ending in which Russia would retain territory it took by force.

“I personally think that actually is the best, reasonable outcome for Ukraine. At least it comes out with its sovereignty intact — and saving a lot of Ukrainian lives in the process,” he told reporters when asked about the criticism. “That's the best case, realistic scenario for Ukraine.”

Others with more vested interests have also piled on Ramaswamy.

Hal Lambert, a donor to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, questioned Ramaswamy's credentials and reason for running, noting Ramaswamy's frequent praise during the debate for Trump, who remains the heavy favorite for the nomination.

“Either he thinks Trump is going to go to prison or he thinks at 38 years old and with less experience than an average city councilman, he’d be better than ‘the greatest president of the 21st century,’” Lambert said. “Which is it? Either way he shouldn’t be running.”

Ken Cuccinelli, chairman of the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC, predicted last week that Ramaswamy would get more scrutiny as interest in him rises. Never Back Down issued a strategy memo before the debate urging DeSantis to attack Ramaswamy — something the Florida governor did not do, opting instead to largely stay out of the infighting between others on stage.

“So, I’m not backing off ‘Vivek the fake,’” Cuccinelli said, referencing a catchphrase that Never Back Down wanted DeSantis to use. "He’s the most inconsistent candidate in the field, and he’s getting no scrutiny.”

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Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Michelle Price contributed from New York and Bill Barrow contributed from Atlanta.

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