In a Republican primary debate marked by the absence of former President Donald Trump, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy took center stage, clashing with several candidates. Ramaswamy, positioning himself as a defender of Trump, faced off against former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, among others. Despite being a newcomer to politics, recent polling has shown Ramaswamy rising in popularity. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was expected to be a focal point of the debate, largely went unscathed and did little to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack.
The absence of Trump allowed several candidates who have positioned themselves as critics of the former president to target Ramaswamy. Pence criticized Ramaswamy’s lack of experience, while Christie likened his answers to computer-generated responses. However, Ramaswamy held his ground and went on to critique Christie for his criticism of Trump. DeSantis, on the other hand, failed to make a significant impact during the debate and did not take any risks that could jeopardize his position in the polls. Despite the fierce exchanges, the debate is unlikely to alter the overall race, as Trump maintains a commanding lead in the polls.
Overall, the debate had the feel of an undercard event, with Trump’s absence leaving a void for rivals to directly challenge him. However, the pile-on targeting Ramaswamy was unexpected, considering his newcomer status. Nevertheless, recent polling has shown his rise in popularity, leading opponents to try and scuttle his momentum. DeSantis, who was expected to be the focus of the debate, did little to distinguish himself from the other candidates and played it safe throughout the discussion. The rowdy crowd’s reactions, including jeers and boos when candidates criticized Trump, at times overshadowed the moderators and highlighted the continued divide within the Republican party.