Political novice Vivek Ramaswamy’s contrarian aggression won him outsized attention in the first Republican presidential debate Wednesday night.
But former President Donald Trump remained a central focus throughout the two-hour debate, even though he skipped the event and attempted to undermine its ratings.
Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, defended Trump as he delivered, and received, more attacks than any other candidate on the Milwaukee stage.
Ramaswamy lashed out 16 times, including one moment where he accused all seven of his debate rivals of being “bought and paid for” by special interests. In turn, he weathered attacks from his rivals 11 times, according to an NBC News analysis.
Despite being considered a long shot for the GOP nomination, Ramaswamy stole much of the spotlight from higher-profile contenders, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
DeSantis, who has received massive media coverage as Trump’s apparent top rival in the primary field, spent surprisingly little time in his opponents’ crosshairs. He spoke less than three other candidates and was attacked directly just twice, per NBC.
Former Vice President Mike Pence took up the most speaking time at more than 12 minutes, while Ramaswamy and his frequent interlocutor, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, each spoke for more than 11 minutes, according to The New York Times.
Scott spoke for just over eight minutes, falling behind former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and barely exceeding the speaking times of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The candidates clashed over a range of issues, with abortion policy taking up the most airtime, according to the Times.
But the second-most-discussed topic was Trump, the absentee frontrunner who boasts double-digit leads over his primary competitors in most national polls.
Trump refused to participate in the debate, arguing that it wasn’t worth it to subject himself to attacks from candidates who are so far behind him in the polls. Instead, Trump pre-taped an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who released the video on social media just before the debate began.
But despite Trump’s efforts to counter-program the debate, his presence still loomed over it: The former president was mentioned 23 times in the Milwaukee auditorium, according to NBC.
The debate moderators spent a whole segment asking the candidates about Trump, who is set to travel to Georgia on Thursday evening to surrender on charges linked to his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden.
The debaters, who all signed a pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee, were asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump even if he is convicted of crimes “in a court of law” stemming from his four active criminal cases.
Six hands rose up on the stage. Hutchinson kept his hand down and Christie appeared to wag his finger.