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 the second-most airtime of any candidate. He traded 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 Trump maintains a sizable lead in national polls, while 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 questions about 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 farther 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 frontrunner 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 number one opponent of Trump and then get you across the finish line."

Ramaswamy appears to be trying to recreate 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 South Carolina Nikki Haley said he has "no foreign policy experience and it shows." Gov. 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 number 2 or a number 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 number 2 position."

The broadcast interview was edited by Ally Schweitzer.

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



During last week's Republican presidential primary debate, one candidate in particular seemed to get under the skin of almost everyone on stage. Vivek Ramaswamy, the self-proclaimed anti-woke businessman who made millions in the pharmaceutical industry, has pitched himself as a younger Donald Trump with more extreme right-wing views.


VIVEK RAMASWAMY: It is not morning in America. We live in a dark moment, and we have to confront the fact that we're in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war.


MARTÍNEZ: Ramaswamy remains far behind Trump in polls, but he has, at times, come close to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for second place. Joining us now is GOP strategist Dave Carney. Dave, Ramaswamy calls climate change a hoax. He says he would cut U.S. funding for Ukraine. He's even raised questions about what really happened on 9/11. How has that been playing with Republican voters?

DAVE CARNEY: He's had, you know, tremendous success so far going from, as he likes to say, 0.0% in the polls into the third place or, in some polls, second place. The problem is those ideas limit, cap his growth. And when - you know, voters - or, you know, the majority of Republican primary voters want President Trump. 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.

MARTÍNEZ: They cap him with Trump voters or Republicans in general?

CARNEY: With Republican primary voters.


CARNEY: I mean, the 9/11 stuff and, you know, the inconsistency with his foreign policy, you know, declarations. You know, what he wrote in his book about Trump, what he says now - I mean, there're so many inconsistencies. And this is why it's very difficult for a first-time candidate who's never been vetted by the media and opponents. You know, your whole - you know, all the things you've mused about in the past now, you know, could come back to roost.

But he has - he's building himself a ceiling where he'll never surpass Trump by trying to mimic Trump, you know, trying to recreate the '16 energy that Trump brought with a lot of, you know, bold ideas - Mexico is going to pay for the wall - things like that. Why would someone go with a person talking about it when they could go with a president that they like and thinks under duress from the Justice Department and accomplished a lot of the things he wanted to do, or try to...


CARNEY: ...Where Congress, you know, would let him?

MARTÍNEZ: You know, at several points during last week's debate, Ramaswamy seemed to irk some of his competitors. I know former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said that he sounds like a - like ChatGPT. And then Mike Pence called Ramaswamy a rookie. Do these better-known Republicans see him as a real threat? I mean, he's on stage, so he's a threat, but do they see him as a threat?

CARNEY: Oh, of course, because there's only - say there's, you know, half the vote available to the non-Trump voter. And, you know, when you have a guy who's a showboat, you know, who is, you know, they think, very shallow, who, you know, is sort of going from, you know, the - we're going to make you be 25 year old, you know, to vote - stuff like that. We're going to change the Constitution to - you know, to have a civics test, or you got to be 25 to vote.

And those kinds of - you know, those are not serious policies with the economy that we're facing, with inflation, with what's going on with China and in the rest of the world. So he - you know, he just - but he's taking up oxygen. He is dominating a lot of conversation, non-Trump conversation. And so it makes it more difficult for every - anyone else to get their message out.

MARTÍNEZ: Isn't rookie - 'cause I know Pence used the word rookie - I think he uses as a pejorative - isn't rookie a badge of honor with the MAGA crowd - not being a D.C. insider?

CARNEY: Yeah. But the MAGA crowd is for Donald Trump, you know? That's the point. You know, that's where they are. And they're now for an experienced president who will drain the swamp.

MARTÍNEZ: David Carney, Republican strategist. Thank you very much, David.

CARNEY: You bet. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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