Vivek Ramaswamy embraces being the center of attention at a debate without Trump

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MILWAUKEE — Just like many expected heading into the first Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday, a candidate at center stage faced withering criticism and lashed out at rivals who dissed him.

Only it wasn’t Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, long the candidate who has registered a distant second behind former President Donald Trump in most GOP presidential primary polls. It was Vivek Ramaswamy, the upstart entrepreneur aligning himself closely with Trump who is catching up to DeSantis in some of those surveys.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blasted Ramaswamy as “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here.” Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said his policy proposals on Ukraine, China and Israel would make America less safe. And former Vice President Mike Pence called him a “rookie” who had no relevant experience.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, threw punches left and right. He claimed Christie was merely angling for a cable news contributor contract. He sarcastically offered well wishes to Haley “in your future career on the boards of [defense contractors] Lockheed [Martin] and Raytheon.” And in a response to Pence, he ridiculed his rivals as “super PAC puppets” — though he himself has a super PAC backing him.