COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (AP) — Ten minutes before Vivek Ramaswamy was to take the stage in a dated casino hotel in western Iowa, no one was in the conference room except for two staffers from the Iowa GOP, which organized the event, and a group of journalists.
Guests started trickling in at the time the event was scheduled. By the time Ramaswamy began his remarks an hour later, there were about 60 people.
While Ramaswamy is packing his schedule with stops across Iowa, he has failed to move up in the 2024 Republican primary race and is increasingly at risk of becoming an afterthought. He is polling in the mid to high single digits and has left critics asking what his endgame is or if he is staying in the race only to boost former President Donald Trump.
Ramaswamy is falling behind just as the GOP campaign enters the critical final weeks before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15. After an earlier flurry of attention, the 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur and first-time political candidate is gaining more notice for his provocations in debates than for signs that his campaign is resonating with voters.
“If viability were the reason to stay in a race, he’s long since left that behind,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist who advised Jeb Bush in his 2016 presidential bid. “If you like Vivek Ramaswamy and what he is saying in this campaign, you already have a candidate, and his name is Donald Trump.”
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are increasingly going after each other as they vie for a distant second place, competing for donors and voters open to a Trump alternative. Former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott dropped out after running Iowa-focused campaigns that didn’t gain traction.
Ramaswamy’s campaign said in early November that it would spend up to $8 million in advertising through the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15. So far, the campaign has booked just $162,000 in broadcast and digital ads for the rest of the Iowa campaign, according to data from the media tracking firm AdImpact.
Haley and her allied super PAC have reserved nearly $3.5 million over that same period, while DeSantis and his allied super PAC have booked more than $3.3 million.
Tricia McLaughlin, Ramaswamy’s campaign spokeswoman, said that events hosted by the campaign are drawing more people lately, noting that a sizable number of eventgoers are not registered as Republicans.
“We are reaching young people,” she said. “These people are taking the time and effort to come out. These people are not even being polled because they are not your typical caucusgoer.”
Ramaswamy has suggested policy ideas that he says carry on Trump’s “America First” legacy without the former president’s baggage.
At a Florida GOP event earlier this month, Ramaswamy arguably drew the most cheers when his pitch was that he was the Republican candidate who had been most supportive of Trump.
“I have respected Donald Trump more than anybody else in this race because he was the best president of the 21st century,” Ramaswamy said. “I said that before, and I will say it again because it’s the right thing to do. We will honor that legacy.”
After the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel, Ramaswamy has fielded criticism for not being as staunchly pro-Israel as the other GOP candidates. Two days after Hamas’ attack, he suggested the U.S. withhold aid to Israel until its government detailed plans for Gaza. Republican voters align heavily with Israel.
Voters and strategists critical of Ramaswamy bring up his position on Israel, but also his age and faith.
Ramaswamy is Hindu and would be the first non-Christian elected president. Iowa’s Republican voters are mostly white and Christian, with evangelicals carrying huge influence in the caucuses.
The gathering in the Council Bluffs hotel kicked off with an opening prayer that ended with “in the name of our savior Jesus Christ.” The crowd responded with a collective “amen.”
While he was cheered and applauded for some of his remarks, when he opened up about his religion, he was met with silence.
“I’d be the first Hindu president that we had in the United States,” he said. “I’ll tell you about my faith. I believe in one true God. I believe that God put each of us here for a purpose, that we have a moral duty to live out that purpose.”
Ramaswamy did not take questions from either the audience or reporters. Many people in the audience declined to speak to an Associated Press reporter afterward.
Rebecca Wilkerson, a 52-year-old voter from Mondamin, Iowa, said most of her friends and family are still supporting Trump like she did over the past seven years, but she is now looking for a change, saying Trump is too old for the White House at 77. She became a Ramaswamy supporter despite those around her feeling apprehensive about his religion.
“They can’t get past the fact that he’s Hindu,” Wilkerson said. “But I’m not voting based on that. I like his policies, and that’s what I care about in a president.”
The next day, Ramaswamy attended a roundtable with Haley and DeSantis hosted by Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa Christian activist. In what was billed as a “family discussion,” the three candidates addressed each other by first name and avoided going after each other. Vander Plaats asked each of them faith-related questions.
“I think it’s only fair to address what I believe is your highest hurdle from what I’m hearing,” Vander Plaats told Ramaswamy. “We don’t share the same faith. I’m a Christian. You’re a Hindu, and you centered your campaign on truth. So a question a lot of the caucusgoers have is, what truth?”
Ramaswamy said he was grateful for the question. Holding in his lap his 3-year-old son, Karthik, Ramaswamy repeated what he told the room in Council Bluffs, that he believed in one true God and that God “put each of us here for a purpose.”
“My faith teaches me that we have a duty, a moral duty, to realize that purpose, that we’re God’s instruments,” he said. “He works through us in different ways, but we are still equal because God resides in each of us.”
Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former top congressional aide, noted Ramaswamy has been trying to build off the momentum built in the first debate, when he grabbed the spotlight introducing himself as a skinny guy with a hard-to-pronounce name. He then declared he was the only person on the stage who wasn’t bought and paid for.
“He’s being aggressive. He’s trying to do all the right things to get noticed, to showcase to voters that he’s a Trump alternative,” Bonjean said, adding his effort is to be seen as a “Trump mini-me.”
“He is excellent at debating other candidates on stage, but he can’t back it up with real-world leadership and government experience,” he added.
Lisa Unnerstall, 63, a Republican voter from Fort Myers, Florida, said she likes Ramaswamy and would like to see him serve in Trump’s Cabinet because of his “forward thinking.” But she said her first and second choices are Trump and DeSantis.
“I’m concerned with his age,” Unnerstall said of Ramaswamy. “I don’t think that a person necessarily has to be a long-time politician in order to become president. Obviously, I voted for Trump. He was not a politician. So I really think it’s more about life experience.”
Gomez Licon reported from Miami. Associated Press writer Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.