The political spotlight Tuesday was firmly set on Vivek Ramaswamy, the upstart millennial Republican candidate hoping to take advantage of former President Trump’s absence and use Wednesday’s debate as a springboard for his ascendant campaign.
The spotlight is on Ramaswamy because of some positive polls, but also because of his first bona fide campaign controversy. Ramaswamy in an interview with The Atlantic discussed whether federal agents had been on the planes that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The 38-year-old spent much of Monday and Tuesday cleaning up the mess, arguing he’d been misquoted and was talking about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
GOP rivals are almost certain to go on the attack at Wednesday’s critical debate, but it’s unclear whether the controversy is hurting Ramaswamy or just giving him more attention at the best of times.
Either way, strategists say the Ohio native has a clear chance to use the debate as a launching pad — provided he can parry the expected criticism.
“He has a great opportunity on Wednesday night to blow it apart or to blow up, and he is somebody who has a lot riding on the debate, because this will be the first time that millions of eyeballs will be watching him,” said New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Dave Carney.
Ramaswamy has recently climbed to third and even second place in some national polls, suggesting he has some momentum. While he is further behind in other polls, it’s been enough to draw the attention of other candidates.
A firm connected to a super PAC backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s campaign in a leaked memo suggested DeSantis go after Ramaswamy with a “sledgehammer” at Wednesday’s debate. The memo suggested some close to DeSantis see Ramaswamy as a real threat.
But the leaked memo appears to have helped Ramaswamy while further hurting DeSantis.
“[Vivek] has benefited, I think, by the Jeff Roe memo, encouraging DeSantis to go after Vivek,” said GOP strategist and Trump campaign alum Brian Seitchik, referring to the individual who leads the firm behind the memo urging DeSantis to go after Ramaswamy.
With Trump skipping Wednesday’s debate, many expect DeSantis and Ramaswamy to come under attacks from the other six Republicans with them on the stage. There could also be fire between DeSantis and Ramaswamy.
Ramaswamy is almost certain to be asked about his views on the Sept. 11 attacks.
In an interview with the conservative BlazeTV in early August, the candidate said: “I don’t believe the government has told us the truth.”
“Again, I’m driven by evidence and data. What I’ve seen in the last several years is we have to be skeptical of what the government does tell us,” Ramaswamy said during the interview when asked if the 9/11 terrorist attack was an “inside job or exactly what the government tells us.”
Separately, in an interview with The Atlantic published Monday about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Ramaswamy said: “I think it is legitimate to say, ‘How many police, how many federal agents were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers?’”
“Like, I think we want — maybe the answer is zero, probably is zero for all I know, right? I have no reason to think it was anything other than zero. But if we’re doing a comprehensive assessment of what happened on 9/11, we have a 9/11 commission, absolutely that should be an answer the public knows the answer to,” Ramaswamy added to The Atlantic.
Ramaswamy defended his comments to CNN’s Kaitlan Collins in an interview Monday, explaining that he was suggesting that the U.S. had lied about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the terrorist attack. The 2024 contender said “of course not” when pressed whether he believed the Sept. 11 attacks were an “inside job.”
This isn’t the only Ramaswamy controversy likely to come up Wednesday.
The biotech entrepreneur has also recently taken heat from fellow GOP candidate Nikki Haley over comments he made during an interview with British actor Russell Brand earlier this month, in which he suggested he would negotiate an “Abraham Accords 2.0” that would “get Israel to the place where it is negotiated back into the infrastructure of the rest of the Middle East” such that further aid to Israel “won’t be necessary” after 2028.
Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, blasted Ramaswamy saying he “is completely wrong to call for ending America’s special bond with Israel.”
Tricia McLaughlin, a senior adviser to Ramaswamy, brushed off the pushback from Ramaswamy’s remarks on 9/11, arguing the contender was only being targeted because he was seeing momentum.
“Vivek is doing very well in the polls and is clearly showing some momentum. So I mean, if people want to buy into what our opponents are pushing out there, they’re free, very free to do that,” McLaughlin told The Hill. “But this campaign is about the truth. And that’s what Vivek has delivered every step of the way. So we’re not really concerned about the trash that other people are planting.”
McLaughlin also argued that Haley had mischaracterized Ramaswamy’s comments, saying, “I think she’ll take her shots where she can take them.”
At least one campaign is planning to go on the offensive about Ramaswamy’s 9/11 remarks. One adviser to a rival campaign said to expect Ramaswamy’s repeated comments about the terrorist attacks to come up at Wednesday’s debate.
Republicans, too, believe his gaffes on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks aren’t helpful for the candidate. But some believe the 38-year-old GOP millennial can maneuver around the issue.
“It presents an opportunity for candidates like Nikki Haley to potentially attack him, but I think he’s tried to get out in front of it,” said Ryan Williams, who worked on Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) 2012 presidential campaign.
“I think anybody who attacks him in this debate, he’ll just liken them to the mainstream media, distorting his words. That’s what I would do if I were him,” Williams said. “You know as they say, the media is a familiar and effective punching bag for conservatives, and you don’t want to look like you’re aligned with them if you’re trying to win a Republican primary.”
While Republicans believe that Trump’s absence Wednesday night offers other candidates more airtime to make their case to voters, it’s also a high-stakes environment that lends itself to memorable gaffes that have gone on to dog past presidential candidates.
Ramaswamy does not have as much experience at political debates as some rivals, such as DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“He’ll play up running as an outsider and things like that. What he should avoid is the obvious stuff. Don’t be a 9/11 truther … don’t show that you’re weak on Israel – those kinds of things that leave him very open for very valid criticism and leave open the question, which will be answered tomorrow night, is this guy a flash in the pan or … Is he a real thing?” GOP strategist Doug Heye said.
Brett Samuels also contributed to this report.