For months now, Vivek Ramaswamy has been crisscrossing the early primary states of the 2024 presidential cycle, attracting good crowds with offbeat proposals and a penchant for the media spotlight while gaining little serious attention from his Republican rivals.
But after a recent surge in the polls — and a newly revealed debate strategy memo from allies of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida that singles him out — he is having a well-timed moment, before next week’s first Republican primary debate.
The staying power of the Ramaswamy Rise will now be tested by rival candidates loath to see a political novice elevated as the alternative to Donald J. Trump, the front-runner whose legal troubles have snowballed.
Polling at this stage of a primary campaign can be fickle, but in polling averages, Mr. Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and author, has grabbed third place, behind Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump, the former president now facing four criminal indictments.
More telling, Mr. Ramaswamy’s national poll numbers are rising while Mr. DeSantis’s slide, putting him just behind the candidate most often seen as the strongest Trump challenger. In a new Fox News poll, support for Mr. Ramaswamy more than doubled since the previous poll, to 11 percent, compared with Mr. DeSantis’s 16 percent and Mr. Trump’s 53 percent. And Mr. Ramaswamy closed the gap between himself and Mr. DeSantis from 17 percentage points to 5.
“Those numbers, no matter how you weigh polling, speak for themselves,” said Fred Doucette, a member of the New Hampshire State House and Mr. Ramaswamy’s state party chairman.
The DeSantis campaign dismisses those numbers, saying that Mr. DeSantis has weathered more attack advertising than any other candidate, but is still standing in second place.
“This primary is a two-man race,” said Bryan Griffin, the DeSantis campaign press secretary, “but only Ron DeSantis can beat Joe Biden.”
But documents posted by Axiom Strategies, a company owned by Jeff Roe, the chief strategist of the DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, make clear that Mr. Ramaswamy is viewed as a threat. The memos detail how Mr. Ramaswamy has attacked Mr. DeSantis and outline key vulnerabilities for Mr. Ramaswamy now that he is gaining prominence.
Some of those attack lines focus on his past: support in his 2022 book for “very high” inheritance taxes with “real teeth”; a business partnership in 2018 with a Chinese state-owned firm; and economic and social positions no longer in favor with most Republican voters, including free trade and transgender rights. His business ventures, which made him a wealthy man but left others financially smarting, are only now beginning to garner attention.
Other vulnerabilities are more current. Mr. Ramaswamy raised eyebrows this week by saying to Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host, that under a Ramaswamy presidency, the United States would defend Taiwan militarily against Chinese aggression, but “only as far as 2028” when the United States is less reliant on Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing.
It is not unusual for political newcomers to have their moments early in primary campaigns. In the 2012 Republican primary cycle, then-Representative Michele Bachmann traded polling leads with the pizza executive Herman Cain before Republican voters settled on the safest choice, Mitt Romney.
Mr. Ramaswamy did not mention the DeSantis memos during a nearly hourlong foreign policy speech at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Thursday evening. But he emphasized his age — 38 — and pointed out that he is the youngest Republican to run for president.
“What’s going on with the millennials? We are hungry for a cause. We are starved for purpose and meaning and identity,” Mr. Ramaswamy said, adding, “That is our opportunity to step up and to fill that void with a vision of what it means to be an American.”
Mr. Ramaswamy’s youth, creativity and enthusiasm are making an impression, especially in the early states. Internal polling by Mr. DeSantis’s super PAC had him at 1 percent in New Hampshire in April — and 11 percent in an early August survey.
Debbie O’Leary, a 66-year-old from Des Moines, said at the Iowa State Fair that she had voted for Mr. Trump in 2020 but would “prefer someone more gracious” as the Republican nominee. Mr. Ramaswamy is top of mind.
“He’s refreshing, he’s articulate, he’s obviously smart and he’s not tied to any political machine,” she said.
But Mr. Ramaswamy has a potential liability that the DeSantis campaign appears ready to exploit with the heavily white, Christian conservative voting base of the G.O.P. — his background. His parents are immigrants from India. He maintains his Hindu faith, and as the DeSantis super PAC memo put it, he “was very much ingrained in India’s caste system” — his family is Brahmin, the highest caste in the Hindu hierarchy.
Even voters who like him sometimes find his name a mouthful. At the Iowa State Fair this week, Pete Dallman of Iowa City said he was interested in “that Indian guy,” and paused for a moment, before adding, “I can’t say his name even.”
Anjali Huynh contributed reporting from Des Moines, and Jennifer Medina contributed from Los Angeles.