Vivek Ramaswamy had a good debate. But can he survive the spotlight?

He praised Pence's resolve on Jan. 6 and called Trump a "sore loser" in his 2022 book but now critiques Pence while calling Trump the best president of the 21st century.

At the first Republican presidential debate Wednesday night, Vivek Ramaswamy elevated himself from an unknown to a legitimate player in the primary.

But that success has already invited a new and uncomfortable level of scrutiny that he has never experienced during his brief time in the public eye.

Former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the first Republican candidates' debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 23, 2023. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the first Republican candidates' debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 23, 2023. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A Mike Pence flip-flop?

Ramaswamy, who was eager to weigh in on many things in the debate, was noticeably quiet when candidates were asked whether they agreed with former Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to overturn the 2020 election, under pressure from former President Donald Trump and as Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, yelling about hanging Pence.

Every candidate who answered the question said they agreed with and supported Pence’s actions. Ramaswamy did not answer.

But National Review’s John McCormack tracked him down in the media room after the debate and asked him to give his answer to that query.

Vivek Ramaswamy makes his way through a crowd of reporters after the first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee.
Former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy after the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

At first Ramaswamy tried to duck it and said he would answer it “in a future debate.” McCormack pressed him, prompting Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old tech entrepreneur with no experience in government or politics, to give a rambling, nonsensical explanation of how he would have done things differently than Pence.

It sounded like he would have tried to extract concessions from Democrats in return for certifying Joe Biden’s election victory, although the answer was so lengthy and muddled that it’s hard to discern what he was trying to say.

But in his 2022 book “Nation of Victims,” Ramaswamy defended Pence’s decision to certify the 2020 election results.

“Mike Pence, a man I have great respect for, decided it was his constitutional duty to resist the president’s attempts to get him to unilaterally overturn the results of the election, even in the face of the January 6 Capitol riot,” he wrote. “Our institutions did hold, in the end. But they shouldn’t have been tested.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy arrive onstage at the start of the debate.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Ramaswamy arrive onstage at the start of the debate. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Stolen or not stolen?

In that same 2022 book, Ramaswamy condemned Jan. 6 as a “dark day for democracy” and dismissed Trump’s lies that the election had been stolen or rigged. He also called Trump a “sore loser.”

Now that he is running for president, Ramaswamy has flip-flopped and says he does think the election was “stolen in a limited sense.” During the debate he called Trump the “best president of the 21st century.”

The “2020 election would have been different if the Hunter Biden laptop story had not been suppressed,” he told ABC News. (This is a dubious argument. At least one study has shown that Twitter’s decision to briefly prohibit the sharing of the New York Post’s October 2020 scoop on Hunter Biden’s laptop inadvertently gave the story a tremendous amount of free publicity.)

Former Vice President Mike Pence and former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy point and gesture toward each other across Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the first Republican primary debate.
Pence and Ramaswamy have a lively exchange across DeSantis during the debate Wednesday night. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Unforced errors when talking about 9/11

Earlier this week in an interview with the Atlantic, Ramaswamy made remarks about the 9/11 attacks that raised eyebrows.

“I think it is legitimate to say how many police, how many federal agents, were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers. Maybe the answer is zero. It probably is zero for all I know, right? I have no reason to think it was anything other than zero,” he told the magazine, essentially unprompted.

Ramaswamy had said earlier this month that he thinks there is a “very real possibility … that al-Qaida’s attack was undertaken with support from Saudi intelligence officials.” But when asked by CNN about what he told the Atlantic about the 9/11 attacks, Ramaswamy said the magazine had misquoted him.

“I’m telling you the quote is wrong, actually,” he told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins.

Then, just before the debate, the Atlantic released audio of the quote in question, proving that Ramaswamy had not been misquoted.

Vivek Ramaswamy speaks to reporters in the spin room after the debate.
Ramaswamy in the spin room after the debate Wednesday night. (Morry Gash/AP)