Entrepreneur and GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy had a big night Wednesday on the primary's first debate stage. Now, he'll have to capitalize.
Ramaswamy has seen a rise in the polls in recent weeks, and he got the lion's share of attention Wednesday after several candidates went after him. While being the target of attacks may not seem like a plus, Ramaswamy needs to be further introduced to voters given his lack of prior public service. The barbs helped put him the middle of the debate's grabbier moments and gave him the aura of someone other candidates may fear.
Sources in and around the campaign told ABC News they hope the debate will serve as a springboard and that Ramaswamy will keep up the frenetic campaign pace that helped fuel his pre-debate polling bump.
"I think you'll see this campaign capitalize on the performance of the debate to the highest extent possible and build a constituency and solidify the groundwork for real grassroots movement," said one source close to the campaign. "I think you'll see different endorsements come out of the woodwork over the next couple of weeks."
Ramaswamy, thanks to his polling position and the absence of former President Donald Trump, was at center stage Wednesday night, right next to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was viewed as Trump's most serious primary rival, but has been unable to establish himself as the unequivocal second place contender. And Ramaswamy's position made his back-and-forths all the more visible.
Ramaswamy mixed it up mainly with former Vice President Mike Pence, who went after him unprompted near the start of the debate, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, all of whom knocked his political experience.
"Now is not the time for on-the-job training," Pence said. "We don't need to bring in a rookie. We don't need to bring in people without experience."
Christie later said the Ramaswamy of sounding "like ChatGPT," referring to the popular AI tool, and Haley cast him as insufficiently supportive of Ukraine and other allies, saying he had "no foreign policy experience, and it shows."
Ramaswamy fought back, boasting that a new generation is needed in Washington and that voters support a more domestic-focused president, throwing back elbows with the kind of pugnacious tone that has made him a media darling and boosted his social media presence -- while also alienating some in the GOP establishment.
"Well, @NikkiHaley just stuffed Vivek in a locker," GOP strategist Kevin McLaughlin wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, during the debate.
"Ramaswamy comes across like the guy in high school that everyone wanted to beat up. In fact, I thought Christie was going to slug him at one point," GOP strategist Bob Heckman said on ABC News Wednesday night.
Still, his campaign viewed the exchanges as a boon as he increases his name recognition.
"I think it was Vivek versus the entire GOP establishment. Clearly, they were threatened by him," Ramaswamy spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin told ABC News Thursday.
"He did introduce himself to the to the American people [Wednesday] night," she added. "Most people had no idea who Vivek was even four months ago, much less before that. People take some time to warm up and to gain trust, and that's what we're working to do."
It's unclear just how much of an introduction the debate served for Ramaswamy in the absence of any new polling since Wednesday night, but the event undoubtedly got his name in front of more voters, offering him a chance to continue his support.
Ramaswamy was already deploying a go-everywhere strategy, keeping up a frenzied travel pace and accepting seemingly every interview request, a plan that'll likely go into hyperdrive now. He's already gone to places few national Republicans venture, including the south side of Chicago and the impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington. Ramaswamy is campaigning in Iowa Friday.
"... Then Saturday, and then next week, we'll be in New Hampshire and Iowa," Tricia McLaughlin said. "We're going to capture this lightning in a bottle and run with it."
"It's ground and pound," said New Hampshire state Rep. Fred Doucette, who is a strategist for Ramaswamy's campaign in the state. "He's willing to meet anyone, anywhere, speak to anyone, anywhere because he knows that's where it matters. It's not about the political pundits. It's not about the polling. The real polling is the eye contact."
As he presses the flesh, Ramaswamy will have to continue pounding his controversial policy positions, which were on full display Wednesday. The entrepreneur is running on a platform pushing a revamp of the federal government and called the "climate agenda" a "hoax" at the debate, with critics casting him as out of the mainstream as too combative.
"Vivek was a disaster," said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard, who is working for DeSantis' campaign. "Let Pence and Vivek hurt each other, who cares."
But Ramaswamy's supporters insist his policies match up with voters' beliefs.
"We have a multitude of events planned, and my phone has been blowing up since [Wednesday] night, quite frankly," Doucette said.
"Somebody who's coming with solid policy, solid solutions to big problems that we face as a nation, I think, will play well."
Beyond policy, Ramaswamy is also anticipated to continue defending Trump. Ramaswamy doubled down on his defense during the debate, saying Trump was the "best president of the 21st century," an effort that could make Ramaswamy appealing to Trump's hardcore base -- and one that didn't go unnoticed from the man himself.
"This answer gave Vivek Ramaswamy a big WIN in the debate because of a thing called TRUTH," Trump posted on Truth Social early Thursday morning. "Thank you Vivek!"
Still, should Trump's legal problems not keep him off the campaign trail, the former president remains the overwhelming primary front-runner, potentially minimizing the impact the debate could have going forward -- giving strategists flashbacks to the two-tiered debate system in the 2016 primary that gave unfavorable billing to lower-polling candidates whose campaigns were on life support and ended up failing.
"This reminded me of the undercard debates of 2015," said one unaffiliated GOP strategist Wednesday night. "It's the hospice debate of 2023."