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GOP Debate: One candidate earned rebukes onstage but praise from Elon Musk

The head of Tesla called Vivek Ramaswamy 'impressive' and 'increasingly compelling' after a polarizing performance.

Onstage Wednesday night, the contempt for Vivek Ramaswamy and his debate performance was palpable with figures from Nikki Haley to Chris Christie to Mike Pence all attacking him as a lightweight.

But he earned praise online from Donald Trump and a range of the former president’s allies, even as the first-time candidate took positions that are unpopular with many Americans and even a sizable number of Republicans.

Ramaswamy also got a further nod from a notable clean energy billionaire in spite of calling the climate change agenda a hoax. “Vivek is increasingly compelling,” posted Elon Musk while the debate was still happening, adding a few hours later “[h]e was impressive.”

It wasn’t Musk’s first time expressing interest in the biotech entrepreneur, but it was one of the Tesla (TSLA) CEO’s only reactions to the debate as he was much more focused on former President Donald Trump’s rival interview with Tucker Carlson on X, Musk’s own platform.

The reaction from Musk — he posted three times about Ramaswamy in total — echoed a larger split Thursday morning in how Ramaswamy's polarizing performance was received.

The campaign also reported an influx of donors following the debate performance with an aide to Ramaswamy telling Yahoo Finance that the campaign raised about $450,000 overnight with an average donation of $38.

To the surprise of many, Ramaswamy was at the center of the action throughout the two-hour debate, mixing it up with his fellow candidates on nearly every issue. Meanwhile Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis often hung back and ended up speaking much less than others in spite of his second-place position in the polls behind Trump.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 23: Republican presidential candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy (L) and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eight presidential hopefuls squared off in the first Republican debate as former U.S. President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined to participate in the event. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley during the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News in Milwaukee. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) (Win McNamee via Getty Images)

On the one hand, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went after Ramaswamy on stage as an amateur and mocked his seeming determination to echo the views of the GOP base, saying he "sounds like ChatGPT."

Meanwhile former President Trump — and a range of Trump-aligned figures — weighed in on Vivek’s side. "Thank you Vivek!" Trump wrote on Truth Social. The clip Trump decided to highlight Thursday morning was — perhaps not surprisingly — when Ramaswamy called him "the best president of the 21st century."

While Trump and Ramaswamy remain rivals for the GOP nomination, there is a growing alliance of sorts between the two candidates. Ramaswamy went out of his way Wednesday night to praise the former president, echo his political positions, and even seemed to channel Trump onstage.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Ramaswamy appeared to make further inroads with GOP voters who have begun to gravitate to his candidacy and boosted him to third in most polls. A CNN panel of potential Republican caucus-goers in Iowa Wednesday night found Ramaswamy the clear winner when the question of who won the debate was posed.

The praise for Ramasamy in conservative corners was of course far from unanimous. Many conservatives called him smart-alecky with Fox News contributor Liz Peek deeming him "the biggest loser of the night." Meanwhile others across the political spectrum took note that Ramaswamy opened the debate with a line about being a "skinny guy with a funny last name," which echoed nearly word for word a line from Barack Obama in 2004.

A more complicated picture on issues

While Ramaswamy got praise from certain wings of the Republican party thanks to his lively performance, the range of positions he took could be problematic down the road.

He took the hardest line on stage Wednesday against further support for Ukraine, saying the war-torn country that was invaded by Russia 18 months ago "is not a priority for the United States of America."

That led to one of the most remarkable rebukes of the night with former UN ambassador Nikki Haley shooting back, "You have no foreign policy experience — and it shows" and former Vice President Mike Pence and others making a heated case for standing up to Vladimir Putin.

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 23:  Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum are introduced before a debate hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US, on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023 at the Fiserv Forum. Republican presidential contenders, minus former president Donald Trump, will face off tonight in their first debate of the primary season. 
(Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Americans are split on the issue, with a growing number of Americans — a majority in a CNN poll earlier this month — opposing additional aid for Ukraine.

On the issue of climate change, Ramaswamy's line about climate change earned boos in the auditorium and a rebuke from the moderators.

"I’m the only person on the stage who isn't bought and paid for, so I can say this — the climate change agenda is a hoax," he said.

It's also a position at odds with the broader electorate and deeply unpopular with independents. According to polling from Pew, two-thirds of US adults say the country should prioritize developing renewable energy sources, with 42% of Republicans in agreement.

Overall, about 1 in 4 Republicans consider climate change to be a major threat. Ramaswamy has nevertheless tried to double down on the position in the hours since the debate, mixing it up online with President Biden on the issue.

But his position in the middle of a climate debate could prove complicated with one of Ramaswamy’s new supporters. Elon Musk is clearly intrigued by Ramaswamy but also of course head of the EV carmaker Tesla.

Musk offered Ramaswamy a small tweak on that issue, posting online that climate change is "possibly overstated in the short term, but we should be concerned about it long term."

Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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