Shane Goldmacher, Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman

One thing was clear when former President Donald J. Trump’s decision to skip the first debate of the 2024 Republican primary race will leave a void to be filled.

But Trump’s main rival in the polls was not Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who emerged at the center of an earlier Trump-free demonstration on Wednesday, but political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, whose unexpected rise has revealed the remarkable degree to which the former president has sided with the party. Has been rebuilt.

DeSantis had faltered heading into the debate and was widely seen as needing a steady performance. He hoped to gain incremental ground in front of a national audience by largely avoiding fracas and sticking closely to the main case made at stumps.

All eight candidates competed mostly among themselves for the position, and some targeted the frontrunner, who is set to surrender on Thursday following his fourth criminal indictment.

Six months ago, the idea that 38-year-old entrepreneur Ramaswamy would take center stage at a Republican presidential debate seemed unimaginable.

And yet he was calling attention to that fact, echoing a line famously used by Barack Obama, who asked, “Who is this skinny guy with the weird last name?”

That lanky guy soon became the punching bag for rivals led by former Vice President Mike Pence, who used his experience to say this was not the time for a “newbie” who needed “on-the-job training”. . Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie recalled Obama’s line, quipping, “I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of newbie.”

But Ramaswamy remained smiling through the night, drawing attention to positions he staked out that could be unpopular among his competitors—cutting funding for Ukraine’s war effort (he referred to the country’s president as “their Pope”). joked in), and promised ex- Pardon Trump for the obvious – but this one resonates with the Republican base.

He was close to Trump not only in substance but also in style. They sparked controversy for their screen time, and revealed some very personal details of the evening: accusing Christie of auditioning for an MSNBC contract, accusing Nikki Haley of eyeing lucrative private sector jobs, and declaring that he was the only candidate not bought or paid for by special interests, drawing criticism from some.

The Harvard-educated Ramaswamy sometimes seemed shrewd – Christie dismissed him as “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT” – but he was the one everyone else was talking about, that in itself I had a victory.

Prior to the debate, allies of DeSantis predicted that he would be the focus of the attacks. so much for that.

Despite his position as the poll leader on the platform, rivals mostly ignored him. It was a surprising turn of events that allowed DeSantis to speak without interruption or questioning.

But this often pushed them to the margins. He spoke for two minutes less than Pence, which is only the fourth most speaking time out of the eight candidates – hardly an expected result without Trump.

In fact, the moment Mr. DeSantis exercised most of his authority against Fox News moderators was when he successfully attempted to ask the candidates whether or not they believed in human-caused climate change.

It felt like a fleeting alpha moment for a candidate in need.

But it was his hesitation on another raised question that captured one of the central conundrums of his candidacy: How to position himself against Trump? When the moderator asked who would support Trump even if convicted of a criminal offense, DeSantis appeared to pause as each of the four candidates to his left raised their hands one by one.

He cited his biography the way some advisers wanted, revealing a rare personal anecdote about seeing “sonograms of all three of my children” as part of why he signed on to Florida’s six-week abortion ban. But some key lines from DeSantis were conspicuously absent: He didn’t talk about Disney or call out his war on “woke.”

©2023 The New York Times

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