“First, let me address the question that is on everybody’s mind at home tonight,” said Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old first-time candidate who was front and center in Wednesday’s Republican primary debate. “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name?”
It was a reference to the former political wunderkind Barack Obama, which former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey quickly pointed out, adding, “I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same kind of amateur.”
But Mr. Ramaswamy, the first Republican millennial presidential candidate, quickly made it clear that he wasn’t going to leave the stage without leaving an impression. He came in hot, slamming his rivals, smiling wide and showing little deference to the more experienced candidates onstage.
“I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this,” Mr. Ramaswamy said early on before calling the “climate change agenda” a “hoax.” It was a savvy seven-way shot from the entrepreneur and podcast host, one that made it clear he intended to fight with everyone onstage, and invited them to attack him in return.
He succeeded in baiting nearly every one of his opponents into tussling with him. By the end of the night, Mr. Ramaswamy’s self-introduction looked quaint. He sapped attention from Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and spoke the second most of anyone, behind only former Vice President Mike Pence.
“If you have wondered what Trumpism after Trump looks like, ask no further,” the political writer David Freedlander wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.
Like Donald J. Trump in 2016, Mr. Ramaswamy made his newcomer status a rallying cry and used it to attack the incumbent political class he was taking on.
But in one crucial way, Mr. Ramaswamy differentiated himself from the former president he is running against but regularly defends. He wanted voters to know he was young, vigorous — and did he mention young?
Pointedly, he referred to his small children and suggested that voters needed to “hand it over to a new generation to actually fix the problem.” Later, he told Mr. Pence, “The U.S.S.R. does not exist anymore. It fell back in 1990,” as if explaining the modern world to Rip Van Winkle.
The Republican Party, Mr. Ramaswamy said to a question about whether there should be a mental acuity test for older candidates, needs “someone of a different generation to lead this nation forward.”
And, in case he hadn’t sledgehammered home his point by then, he began his closing remarks with “I was born in 1985.”
This all came after debate preparation that included releasing videos of himself playing tennis shirtless — he has said, in a reminder of his young legs, that he likes to hit with college players around the country while on the trail — and doing burpees to T.I.’s “Bring ’Em Out,” a party hit from 2004, when Mr. Ramaswamy was just an Eminem-impersonating underclassman at Harvard.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s views are largely out of step with his generation and the one behind him, which both skew Democratic. But, said Charlotte Alter, the author of “The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America”: “The only way the G.O.P. is attracting any young voters is on culture war issues like anti-woke posturing and contrarian hot takes. And that’s where Vivek has planted his flag.”
By one measure, Mr. Ramaswamy succeeded, even if he couldn’t get anyone to say his name right. (It’s Vivek, “like cake,” he likes to say.) Though other candidates — notably including the 44-year-old Mr. DeSantis and the 51-year-old former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina — also cast themselves in contrast to an older generation of Republicans, the image of Mr. Ramaswamy as young and fresh became one of the recurring themes of the debate, and not just coming from him.
The other candidates took turns flipping his inexperience back in his face. Mr. Christie compared him to “ChatGPT standing up here,” suggesting that Mr. Ramaswamy spit out fast answers that didn’t always make sense.
“You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” Ms. Haley told Mr. Ramaswamy.
She was greeted with perhaps the largest round of applause she had gotten all night.