Trying to beat Trump by embracing him: Vivek Ramaswamy's 2024 strategy is unusual to other Republicans

"It's not diet Donald Trump. ... My case is bolder than that," he told ABC News.

June 21, 2023, 1:27 PM

Vivek Ramaswamy has emerged as one of the most vocal defenders of Donald Trump -- which has some other Republicans scratching their heads, because Ramaswamy and Trump are technically rivals in the 2024 primary race.

Since launching his long shot presidential campaign in February, Ramaswamy, a biotech founder, has regularly rallied to Trump's side, including issuing a challenge last week for his fellow GOP primary candidates to vow to pardon Trump if Trump is convicted of mishandling government secrets, an allegation he denies.

When heckled earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Ramaswamy said, "I love the man" -- though, by way of differentiating himself from Trump, he argues that he would be more effective as president at building on Trump's first-term policies.

That strategy has Republicans questioning the lack of a consistent contrast posed by Ramaswamy and wondering if he in fact has ambitions outside the Oval Office.

"He's very much in the zeitgeist of some of the more esoteric cultural conversations happening in the party and in the country. But I don't understand this strategy of running against Donald Trump while not running against Donald Trump," said Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel. "If you think you're gonna be a better president, then you have to make the case of why you're going to be a better president. And if you're not doing that, then what are you doing?"

Ramaswamy, who has written several books lamenting liberalism and what he sees as the decay of a national identity, has leaned deep into the culture wars in his campaign so far.

He has vowed to eliminate both the U.S. Department of Education and the FBI, use the military to stem illegal border crossings and ban gender-affirming care for minors. He has also supported raising the voting age to 25 -- a pledge that would require amending the Constitution -- with exceptions for those who serve in the military, for first responders and for those who pass the civics test used to grant citizenship.

In an interview with ABC News, Ramaswamy said he was running for the White House in part to fill a national "moral vacuum" that "the left" is seeking to fill with "a vision of identity grounded in race, sexuality, gender, climate."

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks outside the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse on June 13, 2023.
Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel via Polaris

When given the opportunity to go after Trump on policy, Ramaswamy took his shots, suggesting he would go "further" in office than Trump did during his four years in the White House and that the former president has veered from his initial appeal.

"I'm taking the 'America first' agenda further than Donald Trump did, far further than Donald Trump, because I'm doing it based on, first, principles and moral authority, not just vengeance and grievance," he said. "That's the case I make to our base is, it's not diet Donald Trump or Trump without the drama. There are others making that case. My case is bolder than that."

"I think Trump is not the same person today that he was eight years ago," he added. "I'm closer to Trump in 2015 than Trump today is to Trump in 2015. I'm 37. I've got fresh legs. I'm not yet jaded and cynical and tired and defeated. Maybe I will be, in some ways, eight years from now. Trump made his contributions." (A Trump campaign spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on this criticism from ABC News.)

On personality, though, Ramaswamy was more equivocal. On top of vowing to pardon Trump if elected president, Ramaswamy suggested the allegations about Trump's handling of sensitive documents were reflective of possible bad judgement but not criminal offenses.

"I'm especially skeptical here," he said of the 37-count indictment against Trump. "If the facts described in there are true, I think this is reflective of very poor judgment on President Trump's part. I would have made different judgments than he made. But a bad judgment is not the same thing as breaking the law."

Prosecutors describe their case very differently. The indictment describes in detail how Trump allegedly held onto government secrets after leaving office and refused to return them, even, prosecutors claim, disclosing some of the classified information to unauthorized people.

On the campaign trail, Ramaswamy and his allies don't see a contradiction between his jabs on Trump's policy and defense of Trump himself.

Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican presidential candidate, speaks during the Georgia GOP State Convention at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center in Columbus, Ga, on June 9, 2023.
Jon Cherry/The New York Times via Redux

"It's not a matter of taking a position for President Trump, it's taking a position on the rule of law and the fact of how this is all transpiring. So, he states his position clearly, and it's not coddling to President Trump or coddling to the Trump's voters. He speaks what he believes is the truth," said New Hampshire state Rep. Fred Doucette, who is a strategist for Ramaswamy's campaign in the state.

While early polls show Ramaswamy is not receiving anywhere near the same GOP voter support as Trump, the front-runner, or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, he is around the same level as former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, according to FiveThirtyEight's average of surveys.

At Pence's campaign launch this month in Iowa, several attendees organically brought up Ramaswamy in conversations with ABC News.

What's more, Ramaswamy claims to have already clinched a spot on the debate stages later this year by getting the necessary donors: at least 40,000 national contributors and at least 200 unique donors per state or territory in no fewer than 20 states or territories -- a threshold other candidates are anticipated to struggle to meet. (Ramaswamy's fundraising will not be publicly verified until after his campaign's first Federal Election Commission filings are due on July 15.)

"I think it's going great for someone who has basically zero name recognition to be polling where he is because of his voice, his positions," Doucette said. "I think we're in a really great spot."

Ramaswamy's strategy has also won fans among Trump's supporters -- even if they're still pulling for the former president.

"I think Vivek has been the best messenger to the base of the non-Trump candidates in this race," said one GOP operative who is supporting Trump and asked not to be quoted by name.

Still, this person conceded, "I don't know that it actually matters in the end, because I think the race is so baked in for Trump right now."

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy discusses FOIA request regarding former President Donald Trump's indictment outside of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. United States Federal Courthouse
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy discusses FOIA request regarding former President Donald Trump's indictment outside of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. United States Federal Courthouse where Trump is scheduled to be arraigned later in the day, June 13, 2023 in Miami.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Other Republicans question the philosophy of flicking at differences with Trump in one sentence while supporting him in another.

"They may have a great plan that they're not talking about, they may have thought this through, but it's hard to be the biggest cheerleader in the race for President Trump and somehow get votes," New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Dave Carney said. "From the non-Trump people, it's not gonna happen, and from the Trump people, it's not gonna happen."

"Trump's appeal is his personality," Carney added. "It isn't based on policy. You're not going to out-Trump Trump. The inconsistencies that people point out, this isn't The Oxford Union where you can score points."

That view, which is shared by a half-dozen Republican strategists who spoke with ABC News for this story, has led some to think Ramaswamy's ambitions actually lie in some future Cabinet position or media role.

One source familiar with Ramaswamy's campaign told ABC News that "he's a true believer in what he thinks" but scoffed at the idea that Ramaswamy would ever occupy the Oval Office.

"I think he's running to be Tucker Carlson's replacement," the source said, "not Donald Trump's replacement."