VAIL, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy was more than 40 minutes into a town hall in rural Iowa when a woman in the crowd posed a pointed question. Or perhaps it was a suggestion.
“I know you want to be president,” she said. “But would you consider being Trump’s vice president?”
The query drew light laughter from attendees and a lengthy response from Ramaswamy. (The short answer: No.)
It also highlighted the central challenge facing the wealthy entrepreneur, who has risen from little-known newcomer to as high as third in some Republican primary polls since joining the race nearly six months ago. While voters are increasingly interested in Ramaswamy, it’s former President Donald Trump who continues to be many conservatives’ favorite.
With the first Republican primary debate in just over a week and the leadoff Iowa caucus five months away, he is delicately working to convince more voters that he could be their nominee and — as much as he says he respects Trump — would be a better 2024 candidate and president.
“The debate will be important, but I think also just continuing on the trajectory we’ve been on,” Ramaswamy said after the town hall held in a cavernous welding company workshed in Vail, Iowa. He returns to Iowa on Saturday for the Iowa State Fair, a rite of passage for presidential candidates.
Ramaswamy described the months leading up to the first debate as “just the pre-season.”
“So we’re entering the regular season of this and I’m coming in with a running start,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it.”
He says his strategy heading into the debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is “speak the truth,” pointing to a banner emblazoned with the word “TRUTH” that serves as his backdrop and has become a campaign theme. The word — in all capital letters and a font and that resembles Trump campaign signage — is emblazoned on placards, T-shirts and stickers.
Ramaswamy says he and others cannot trust the government because the government doesn’t tell the truth. It was what motivated him, he says, to travel to the courthouse where Trump was to appear on charges earlier this month to announce he is suing the Justice Department and seeking all records the department has with information about why Trump was indicted.
Though such a lawsuit is unlikely to be successful before any GOP primary votes are cast, it was a move that struck a balance between defending Trump and drawing positive attention to his own candidacy, at least among the Republican primary electorate.
“That’s what this campaign is already all about, speaking the hard truths, the truth that you might speak at the dinner table, but you don’t feel free to speak in public,” Ramaswamy told the Iowa audience. If he is elected, he said, people will speak those truths again, such as “God is real” and “reverse racism is racism.”
Having just turned 38, Ramaswamy is the youngest person to be a major Republican presidential candidate. Born in Ohio to immigrant parents from India, he earned a biology degree from Harvard University and then finished Yale Law School.
He made his fortune after starting a biotech company, last year founded an asset management firm and is the author of several books, including “Woke, Inc.” His books helped Ramaswamy gain exposure in conservative circles, including on Fox News, as a critic of “ESG,” or looking not just at profit in investments, but also at environmental, social and governance issues, such as a company’s policies on climate. He bemoans that the United States has become a place full of “victims,” and says the country has lost its purpose and its focus on faith, patriotism, hard work and family.
On the stump, Ramaswamy is able to wax on issues ranging from digital currency to his stance on Israel, the U.S. Constitution and the civil service rules regarding mass layoffs of federal employees — rules he says he understands better than any other candidate. He is proud of not needing a teleprompter, and his mix of policy specifics and smooth delivery has won over some voters.
“He’s a great orator, he has a keen intellect and a lot of knowledge,” said Margarite Goodenow, a retiree from Council Bluffs who said she is so far supporting Ramaswamy over Trump. She described the former president as “too toxic” — a position she held before he was indicted in multiple criminal cases — though Goodenow said she will support Trump if he is the nominee.
Ramaswamy says he can use his deep knowledge to accomplish what Trump couldn’t and his other rivals wouldn’t be able to — laying off 75% of the federal “bureaucracy” in his first term, including 50% in year one.
Some 20,000 members of the FBI would be let go as he dismantles the agency, he said. The remaining 15,000 frontline agents would go to work for what he says are more effective agencies, such as the U.S. Marshals Service, to focus on crimes such as child sex trafficking. He also said that by March 31, 2025, he would station the military along the U.S.-Mexico border — positioned every half-mile — to protect against illegal immigration and drugs like fentanyl entering the country.
Those proposals all brought cheers during his recent Iowa stops.
Kelly and Amy Pieper were among the nearly 200 people — hailing from more than eight counties, according to organizers — who turned out for the Ramaswamy town hall in in the northwest Iowa community of Vail, which has a population of fewer than 400. They liked that Ramaswamy would carry forward many of Trump’s policies, but presents himself as more eloquent and optimistic.
“He gives you a sense of hope, not all doom and gloom,” Kelly Pieper said.
“It’s like he’s got Trump ideals but is a more eloquent version. Not this crazy uncle talking,” his wife, Amy Pieper, added. “That’s what we need.”
Not everyone is convinced he can pull it off, however, even if Iowa has been known to provide some surprises.
For Republicans, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum lodged an unexpected 2012 victory, though he later lost the GOP primary to Mitt Romney. On the Democratic side, it was then-Sen. Barack Obama whose 2008 defeat of Hillary Clinton threw that nomination battle into question. And in 2020, Pete Buttigieg, whose highest office was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, finished atop the field alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden later won the nomination and defeated Trump.
That has set up the rare presidential race with a former office holder seeking reelection, making Trump a formidable opponent whose rallies attract thousands more people. Trump’s closest challenger to be Republicans’ nominee so far is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has consistently polled a distant second, with Ramaswamy trailing.
Voters at the Ramaswamy events consistently said they were deciding between the two alternatives to Trump. But like the woman who intimated that Ramaswamy could be Trump’s running mate, Andrew Grove has his doubts about whether the first-time candidate can pull it off.
“His message is on spot. I just don’t know if he has the support to take him over the top, over Trump and DeSantis,” said Grove, 53. He added that DeSantis is “a proven leader” while Ramaswamy has not held public office.
Ramaswamy maintains that he is the only candidate in the GOP field who can deliver the landslide victory that the country needs in 2024 — something akin to Ronald Reagan’s wipeout of his 1984 rival — rather than the kind of tight race the nation saw in 2020. He says he is attracting support from young people and new donors that older candidates are not. Of his roughly 70,000 individual donors, he says, 40% of those making small-dollar contributions are giving to a Republican for the first time.
As for Trump, Ramaswamy responded to the question of being his running mate by speaking warmly of the former president. Ramaswamy was a “hardcore” supporter of the president in 2020, he said, adding that they talk “from time to time,” had dinner together a few years ago and that if he becomes president, Trump probably would be his most useful adviser and mentor.
But he says the America First movement belongs not just to Trump but to “we the people.” And he believes he can be more effective at accomplishing things Trump could not, saying a certain segment of the electorate automatically opposes Trump — through no fault of his own, he said.
“I’m not having that effect on people,” Ramaswamy said.
He noted another key difference as he made his case to top the ticket.
“He’s not the same person he was eight years ago,” Ramaswamy said of Trump.
“I hope certainly and pray that my best days are ahead of me. And I think we might just want a U.S. president whose best days aren’t behind him.”