At the conclusion of Vivek Ramaswamy’s second campaign stop here on Saturday – his sixth event out of eight over two days in Iowa – his staff rushed him towards their campaign bus. The businessman-turned-politician was late for a flight across the state to his next event. But as reporters and camera crews crowded the bus to see him off, Ramaswamy stopped and took time for questions.
It was hardly a new occurrence. He’d held impromptu press availabilities after nearly every event on this tour up to that point. More striking was that, nearly 72 hours after playing a starring role in Wednesday’s heated and highly combative Republican primary debate, he was still taking stock of the defining moment of his campaign thus far.
“I think it’s a major accomplishment that many people are able to pronounce my name now. That’s the true mark of a real milestone on this campaign,” Ramaswamy joked. “If we got there, anything’s possible.”
Ramaswamy’s ascent from political unknown to attention-grabbing insurgent has been one of the most unexpected developments of the Republican primary so far. The only candidate in the race with no previous role in public life, he became a central figure in the first primary debate, standing in the middle of the stage and receiving sharp attacks from several Republican rivals after pre-debate nationwide polls of Republican voters put him in third place behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump, who did not attend the event.
For many voters in Iowa, the debate was their introduction to the 38-year-old candidate. Some told CNN they came away intrigued, if not entirely convinced, by his message.
“I’m really intrigued by this new candidate. He’s very young, very personable. There’s a spark there,” Mara Brown, a retired teacher from Des Moines, Iowa, said.
Brown considered herself a “dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter” heading into Wednesday night’s debate. But after seeing Ramaswamy speak, she said she’s giving his candidacy further consideration. She felt she was able to connect with Ramaswamy personally when he spoke and commended him for how he handled the barrage of attacks.
“When it was dished out, he was able to very calmly and compassionately turn it around on the other candidates,” she said. “He is absolutely the biggest standout out of all the candidates.”
Those who tuned in saw Ramaswamy’s policies and perspective under intense scrutiny from the other candidates on stage. Former Vice President Mike Pence called Ramaswamy a “rookie” and frequently emphasized his lack of experience in public office. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie poked at his verbose rhetorical style, comparing him to the ChatGPT artificial intelligence tool. Arguably the most piercing blow came from former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who forcefully attacked Ramaswamy’s polarizing proposals to amend US foreign policy toward Russia, China and the Middle East at the expense of Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel respectively.
“Under your watch, you will make America less safe,” Haley said to Ramaswamy. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
Yet despite being the subject of a deluge of criticisms, early indications show voters thought Ramaswamy made a strong impression. A survey of potential Republican primary voters who watched the debate conducted by The Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos showed 26% of voters thought Ramaswamy won the debate, second highest behind DeSantis. Ramaswamy’s favorability ratings rose among voters who watched the debate compared to their views beforehand, but his unfavorability ratings rose, too. Still, the Ramaswamy campaign said it raised $600,000 in the day after the debate, the largest single-day total since its launch.
After the debate concluded, Ramaswamy told CNN in the spin room that he viewed the critiques against him as an indicator of the strength of his campaign.
“I took it as a badge of honor,” he said in Milwaukee on Wednesday. “To be at center stage and see a lot of establishment politicians that threatened by my rise, I am thrilled that it actually gave me an opportunity to introduce myself to the people of this country.”
In his first campaign stops after the debate, Iowans packed into restaurants and event halls, looking to hear more about his vision for the country. Melissa Berry, a nurse from Winterset, Iowa, came to see Ramaswamy speak in her hometown because she’d never heard his views prior to the debate but liked what she saw in his performance. She said economic issues and safety were her two biggest concerns and connected with how Ramaswamy talked about those issues.
“I feel like all the principles that he brings forth is what I support and there wasn’t anything that I really disagreed with,” Berry said. “I like what he stands for and he’s been very successful, and I felt like that can bring a lot to our country and help our country flourish.”
Jake Chapman, Ramaswamy’s Iowa co-chair, said the candidate’s impassioned delivery and highly-charged message are creating a unique atmosphere at his recent campaign stops.
“There is an energy level in these rooms where people come out of the room inspired and wanting to do something,” Chapman said. “It’s one thing to go hear a boring political speech. That’s not what you get with Vivek Ramaswamy.”
Ramaswamy’s recent rise in the polls was among the biggest storylines heading into Wednesday night’s debate. A former biotechnology CEO, he first stepped into politics when he found an investment management firm that specialized in “anti-woke” asset management and refused to consider environmental, social and corporate governance factors when investing. His wife, Apoorva, told The Atlantic magazine recently that Ramaswamy hadn’t mentioned running for political office until December 2022, when he floated the idea of running for president.
When his campaign launched in February, many Republicans didn’t seriously consider the Ohio-based entrepreneur amid a wide field of possible presidential hopefuls. A Quinnipiac poll from March showed Ramaswamy with less than 1% support from Republicans and Republican-leaning voters nationally.
But since then, Ramaswamy has catapulted himself from unknown outsider to center stage, largely through a combination of non-stop interviews and cross-country campaign travel mixed with a willingness to embrace and engage with ideas that fall outside the mainstream principles of many of his Republican rivals.
Milt Van Grundy, a retired physician from Marshalltown, Iowa, started to seriously consider Ramaswamy after seeing him at the debate. His wife had been intrigued by him before Wednesday, but he said he liked hearing Ramaswamy propose a forward-looking vision for the country.
“He’s offering a new way of trying to do business in Washington, DC, that I think is good for the country,” he said.
Van Grundy voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but said Ramaswamy’s youth and Trump’s age have turned his head away from the former president, self-effacingly referencing his own age in explaining his thinking.
“I’m 77, and I don’t want to be president,” he joked. “These guys that are 80 and up, not interested.”
Ramaswamy has closely tied himself to Trump’s ideology, and, at times, to Trump himself. He has referred to the former president as a “friend” and credited him with redefining conservative thinking on a number of issues, from immigration and foreign policy to the federal bureaucracy. He has also gone further than any other candidate in defending Trump amid the multiple state and federal indictments he currently faces. Ahead of Trump’s arraignment hearing in Florida following the former president’s indictment for retaining classified documents, Ramaswamy held a news conference outside the courthouse where he pledged as president to fully pardon Trump and called on other candidates to do the same. During Wednesday’s debate, Ramaswamy praised Trump as “the best president of the 21st century.”
When he does distance himself from Trump, he does so primarily to pitch himself as the candidate who can advance Trump’s agenda more successfully than the former president. Ramaswamy told reporters after speaking to a crowded restaurant in Indianola on Friday he believes his background – and Trump’s baggage – make him more likely to bring their overlapping worldview to a broader group of voters.
“President Trump, through no fault of his own in my view, in large part is – when he’s in office, about 30% of this country loses their mind. They become psychiatrically ill, disagreeing with things they once agreed with, agreeing with things they never agreed with,” Ramaswamy said. “I’m not having that effect on people. I think it’s because I’m a member of a different generation, because I’m somebody who’s lived the American dream, because I speak about the country for what is possible for where we can go even though I do recognize the downward slide we’ve long been in.”
“I think that positions me to not only unite the country, but to go further than Trump did with the America first agenda,” he added.
Haloti Tukuafu grew up in Maui but moved to Clarion, Iowa, after his wife got a job nearby. He said he sees Ramaswamy as a “mini-Trump,” and likes that he’s reaching out to younger voters. He supported Trump in 2016 and 2020, but currently he’s split between Trump and Ramaswamy and concerned the multiple indictments against Trump could negatively affect his chances of beating President Joe Biden.
“Trump didn’t have the younger voters. Vivek has that connection with the younger crowd to bring in more in the Republican party than anybody else,” Tukuafu said.
Despite their different faiths, Pam McCumber – a Christian from Newton, Iowa, who came to see Ramaswamy, a practicing Hindu, speak at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in her hometown – said she feels she can connect with the Ohio-based entrepreneur, and recognizes some characteristics of the former president in him.
“He’s got the energy that Trump does, but then he’s also got the personality that most, I say, hometown Christians want. You know, don’t have to be worried about what he’s going to say next,” McCumber said.
His willing alignment with Trump made Ramaswamy a focal point for many of his rivals even before the debate. A strategy and research memo released by a research firm aligned with the super PAC backing DeSantis urged the Florida governor to “hammer” Ramaswamy and outlined various contradictory statements he’s made on several issues. Haley tipped off her forthcoming attack on Ramaswamy’s foreign policy views with a statement ahead of the debate highlighting his proposal to withdraw aid from Israel. And Pence helped elevate a podcast interview Ramaswamy gave earlier this month where he suggested an openness to conspiracy theories about the September 11 attacks, an issue that resurfaced just ahead of the debate when The Atlantic published an interview he gave questioning whether federal officials may have been involved in the attacks.
The underlying criticisms made by his rivals have left lingering questions in the minds of some, including Gene Smith, a retiree from Des Moines. She and her husband, Terry, like Ramaswamy’s message, but she’s concerned his lack of government experience would make it difficult for him to execute his policy vision if he became president. She cited the pushback Trump received during his four years in office toward some of the policies he tried, but ultimately failed, to enact.
“He’s never held political office, and it is truly a swamp in DC,” she said. “I think even Trump, who’s a very experienced person, was I think blindsided by it. I think when you get into politics you are blindsided by the corruption.”
Gay Lee Wilson, a retiree from Pleasant Hill, Iowa, and a Christian, cares deeply about Israel, and was confused by Ramaswamy’s proposal to suspend aid to the US’ strongest ally in the Middle East, a proposal Ramaswamy has since backed away from.
“That is a big deal for me. And I thought, well, maybe somebody’s misstating, misquoting him. But then he said it himself. But then he was saying, ‘no, that isn’t exactly –’ So, I don’t know where he stands,” Wilson said.
To her, the questions about his policy toward Israel raise questions about his broader foreign policy judgment and his commitment to protecting Judeo-Christian values.
“I think if his thought process is of backing away from our support of Israel, that I want to know why he’s thinking that. Because as a believer, I don’t think you would think that if you knew biblically, and if you knew world politics and everything, I think you would think differently about that,” she said.
After Ramaswamy’s prepared remarks in Winterset, Iowa, Ramaswamy took a question from Cory Christensen, who had traveled a half hour from Waukee, Iowa, to hear him speak. He said he responded to almost everything Ramaswamy said at the event but had “one residual doubt” about his proposal to negotiate a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine that would see Russia take control of territory they currently occupy in Ukraine.
“I’m hard pressed to believe that allowing Russia’s aggression to stand is in our American interests, so can you help me understand your policy?” Christensen asked.
Ramaswamy proceeded to give a winding, intricate, nearly 10-minute long answer to Christensen’s question, touching on former President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy strategy, criticizing the US aid packages to Ukraine, warning of Chinese technology inside US critical infrastructure systems, and portraying the stark danger of a nuclear war with either Russia or China before ultimately laying out the details of his proposal to allow Russia to claim Ukrainian territory and receive assurance Ukraine would not join NATO in exchange for commitment from Russia to “exit its military alliance” with China.
After the event, Christensen said he found Ramaswamy’s answer “persuasive.” He said he’s nearly ready to commit to caucusing for Ramaswamy and has already donated to his campaign but is holding out for now with the caucuses still over four months away.
“I found it pretty persuasive,” Christensen said. “I’m not 100% of the way there yet, but well on the way.”
Christensen said he much preferred to hear him speak in an unrestricted format like the event in Winterset, as opposed to hearing him at the debate, which left him with unanswered questions following his back-and-forth with Haley.
“The tagline and attacking Nikki on you know, you’ve got your Raytheon board seat or whatever – that doesn’t help me. It didn’t help me at all. And I want to like him,” Christensen said.
“I would have loved to see it in the debate, something, even if he condensed his argument here on Ukraine into like, five bullet points. I would rather see that than sort of just attacking her on ‘Hey, you’re just a part of the establishment,’ and those sort of superficial answers,’ he added.
Ramaswamy acknowledged the downsides of being an inexperienced politician while speaking to reporters after an event in Clarion, Iowa, but also highlighted the benefits of approaching issues with a different perspective.
“There’s always going to be tradeoffs, but with experience comes tiredness, defeat, status quo, biases, corruption. I don’t have any of that. And I think that that’s both an advantage and – and also, in some ways, you don’t know what you don’t know. So, I’ll admit that,” he said.
The Ramaswamy campaign plans to continue visiting Iowa and answering voter questions like Christensen’s around the state, Chapman told CNN. He dismissed state polling that showed Ramaswamy lagging behind where he stands in the national polls and said Ramaswamy will continue to show up in towns around the state to carry his post-debate momentum forward.
“We go from having 20 people in a room to now hitting max capacity of some of these rooms, and we’re going to continue to build that energy,” Chapman said.
“I think here in Iowa, ultimately, we reward people who are willing to put in the hard work. And he’s willing to do that,” he added.
Chapman says the campaign doesn’t plan on advancing Ramaswamy’s message in the state through television advertising any time soon, dismissing the traditional campaign strategy as a “short-lived tactic” that he believes only helps some candidates marginally.
“You have career politicians that they believe they can buy elections. The more money they spend, they can get more votes, and sure, that has helped some of them here and there. But Iowans see right through that,” he said.
Hillary Ferrer, a former teacher and writer from Pella, Iowa, said she really likes Ramaswamy’s ideas, but is concerned about his appeal to a mainstream audience and wants to support a candidate she sees as electable. She thinks more exposure to voters around the state could help him leapfrog DeSantis and Trump, but acknowledged one built-in disadvantage for Ramaswamy she encountered when spreading his message to her circle of friends.
“I mean, he’s not lying. He’s got a hard name to say,” Ferrer said. “I couldn’t spell it out when I posted something today.”