If Wednesday’s US Republican debate was judged on applause alone, Vivek Ramaswamy won hands down, with Nikki Haley emerging as a pleasant “surprise” — at least at one Atlanta bar, where a group of young voters was trying to pick a candidate to back.
Gathered at a bar in the city’s trendy Buckhead district, more than a hundred people, including young Republicans, watched eight of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination with interest.
Former president Donald Trump was notable for his absence at the debate but was due in Atlanta on Thursday to present himself to authorities following his indictment for his attempts to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election.
At the viewing party, applause, cheers and incredulous cries rang out in between sips of beer.
For Riquet Caballero, 36, Ramaswamy — a climate change skeptic and entrepreneur who made his fortune in biotechnology — was the star of the show.
“It was the Vivek Show,” he told AFP. “People call him the Trump 2.0. and I think that’s the best thing we need right now.”
Caballero said he found ex-president Trump’s rants “tired”.
The rest of the bar seemed to agree: many of Ramaswamy’s interjections earned him loud shouts of approval or fists raised in support, as when he called for the continued burning of coal.
Andy Chopra, 46, already had a keen interest in Ramaswamy and said the candidate’s performance on Wednesday lived up to his expectations.
He said he was also “surprised” by Nikki Haley, who he found “very strong”.
Haley, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, repeatedly drew rounds of applause, notably for her support for Ukraine, her position on abortion and when she quoted Margaret Thatcher.
Allen English, president of the Atlanta Young Republicans and co-organizer of the evening, said before the debate that he backed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
But he said he came with an “open mind”, as his “biggest priority is making sure that we nominate the person who’s going to win.”
English was disappointed that Trump did not take part, although he said he understood the former president’s reasoning, being far ahead of his rivals in opinion polls.
Regardless, he said he would not vote for the 77-year-old tycoon because he wanted “somebody who can serve (as president) for eight years” — two full terms — to “fix all the issues”.
“I think that everybody can agree we’re sick of old people running this country,” he said, adding with a smile: “I mean, I love my old people, don’t get me wrong, but we got two guys (Trump and President Joe Biden) who you know, could be on canes or walkers.
“Let’s get down to somebody who maybe is not quite to the walker stage!”
He was also impressed with Haley, who he said “came out swinging”.
English appreciated Ramaswamy’s “energy” but was not convinced he was right for the role.
“I guess I don’t quite believe or I don’t quite have faith in his ability to lead the country at this time,” he said.
Trump commented on his rivals’ performance in a plethora of posts on his social media platform Truth Social late on Wednesday.
He lashed out in particular against Ron DeSantis and “horrible” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is one of his most bitter critics.
But he had a kind word for Ramaswamy, who called Trump “the best president of the 21st century” during the debate.
“Thank you Vivek!” Trump wrote.