(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump and his allies have spent weeks praising Vivek Ramaswamy, a rival Republican 2024 contender, with members of the former president’s team believing the Ohio businessman’s outsider bid helps neutralize their greatest threat.
Ramaswamy emerged Wednesday as the central figure of the first Republican presidential debate, in what people familiar with the former president’s campaign strategy describe as a bid to undercut Ron DeSantis.
Trump’s allies see Ramaswamy as sapping support and attention from the Florida governor, compounding the narrative that his campaign is floundering, according to the people familiar who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. It’s unclear whether there have been any discussions between the two camps.
Moreover, Ramaswamy has echoed many of the policy priorities and political philosophies championed by Trump, helping popularize and legitimize dramatic proposals like eliminating huge swaths of the federal bureaucracy or pulling back from foreign alliances. Trump himself considered Ramaswamy a de facto surrogate on the debate stage and was delighted by his performance, according to one person familiar.
Trump’s team saw Wednesday’s debate as a validation of their strategy. Ramaswamy, a political newcomer, drew much of the attention and overshadowed DeSantis. The governor avoided any major missteps but the debate was a lost opportunity to solidify his standing with Trump skipping the event.
Ramaswamy did “very well” and that he “especially liked” it when his ostensible rival for the nomination named him the greatest president of the 21st century, Trump said in an interview with Newsmax on Thursday.
“I said, ‘Are you sure he’s running against me?’ But I thought he was very good,” Trump said.
Trump aides were more explicit in celebrating Ramaswamy’s surge at the expense of DeSantis.
“We saw the beginning of the end for Ron DeSantis tonight,” Jason Miller, a Trump senior adviser, said in an interview after the debate. “Ramaswamy, we saw him leapfrog Ron DeSanctimonious in real terms,” he added, using one of Trump’s derisive nicknames for his political rival.
Polls suggest the strategy may be working. While 29% of debate watchers told a Washington Post/FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll that DeSantis won Wednesday’s contest, 26% said the same of Ramaswamy, a signal the neophyte candidate was standing toe-to-toe with a two-term governor long favored by the Republican establishment.
Other surveys suggest Ramaswamy’s recent rise has come at the governor’s expense, with the RealClearPolitics national average putting him at 7.2% for third place, behind frontrunner Trump and DeSantis.
Trump’s gambit is not without benefit to Ramaswamy, who has never before held elected office and is angling for a higher political profile and career in Republican politics.
“All the pre-debate coverage talked about how important this debate was for Ron DeSantis, and the person who took advantage of the opportunity was Vivek,” senior Trump adviser Chris LaCivita said after the debate.
Read more: Trump’s Frontrunner Status Is Untouched by GOP Debate He Snubbed
DeSantis’s team dismissed the idea that the governor did not have a good debate showing.
“The governor demonstrated very clear leadership, he has a vision,” US Representative Chip Roy, a DeSantis surrogate, told reporters after the debate. “He didn’t get caught up in all the drama and noise and all the people who wanted to steal some sort of soundbite.”
Polls of early voting states show DeSantis performing better against Ramaswamy. The RealClearPolitics averages of state polls find the biotech entrepreneur in fourth place in Iowa and in fifth place in New Hampshire, where he trails Trump, DeSantis, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and US Senator Tim Scott.
Ramaswamy sought to dominate Wednesday’s debate, frequently speaking out of turn, a performance that contributed to him being the No. 1 trending search on Google yesterday.
During the debate, Ramaswamy suggested DeSantis was a “super PAC puppet,” a reference to a 400-page memo released by a DeSantis super PAC that urged the governor to confont fellow Republicans, including Ramaswamy. DeSantis allies dismissed the memo as unhelpful and the governor said he hadn’t read them. Ramaswamy also challenged DeSantis to commit to pardoning Trump if elected and if the former president is convicted in one of the four criminal cases he faces.
But Ramaswamy bore the brunt of attacks on stage, including ferocious barbs from Christie, who called him an “amateur” similar to former President Barack Obama, and from former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who said he had no foreign policy experience “and it shows.”
“The attacks from all angles show Vivek is a direct threat to the GOP establishment,” said Tricia McLaughlin, a spokesperson for Ramaswamy’s campaign.
Trump allies do not see Ramaswamy as a longterm threat, though, according to a person familiar. Even if Ramaswamy were to successfully overtake DeSantis, he would still face an uphill climb to catch Trump.
Ramaswamy has been asked repeatedly if he would consider serving as Trump’s running mate, but has largely brushed off the idea.
“I think he and I share something in common, which is that neither of us make a very good number two,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg News earlier this month.
–With assistance from Romy Varghese.