MANCHESTER, N.H. — Zach Hayes did not know much about businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, repeatedly mispronouncing his first name, but had seen a few videos online of him on the campaign trail and was eager to see how he would perform in the first debate of the Republican presidential primary.
By the end of the night, Hayes was pronouncing the political newcomer’s name correctly and praising him as the winner of the Wednesday night debate.
“I agree with a lot of what he says. I’m excited to see how he progresses,” said Hayes, 39, a software engineer.
Hayes joined more than 60 Republican voters here in the first-in-the-nation primary state for a watch party hosted by Americans for Prosperity, the network of donors and activist groups led by the conservative billionaire Charles Koch. The group is explicitly opposing the candidacy of former president Donald Trump but says it has not yet endorsed a candidate.
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After a night of sipping beers and eating fried mozzarella sticks at Murphy’s Taproom, a pub in downtown, it became clear that many voters who attended the event felt the same as Hayes: Ramaswamy captured their attention, making an early and strong impression against more experienced political figures, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who many thought would have garnered more of a spotlight during the two-hour debate.
Still, voters left the party mostly undecided about whom they ultimately would support in the primary early next year. Several said that it was still early in the cycle and that they were weighing their options, including Trump, the GOP front-runner, who was not on the stage.
Greg Moore, the state director for Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire, kicked off the event by asking attendees whether they had already settled on their candidates. A handful raised their hands. A few signaled that they were undecided. And a majority in the room shot up their hands to indicate that they had narrowed their picks to two or three candidates.
Ken Biel, 47, started the night naming Ramaswamy and DeSantis as his two favored candidates. Both remained his favorites after the debate. He thought Ramaswamy showed that he has good ideas and is quick on his feet. DeSantis, he thought, did better than expected, given the challenges his campaign has had since its launch, including criticism of the Florida governor’s awkwardness when interacting with voters on the trail and his move to cut more than one-third of the campaign staff.
But Biel is still figuring out how both candidates would fare against Trump.
“If it’s a choice between him and DeSantis or Vivek or somebody else, I’m still kind of up in the air about that,” said Biel, who voted for Trump twice and said he would vote for him again if he were the party’s nominee. “Nobody’s voting for him on policy. If I voted for him, it wouldn’t be on policy.”
Biel, who said he thought Washington had become “too powerful and too central to our lives,” also said he has always appreciated Trump’s going against the establishment.
Hayes, who moved here last year from Oregon, said he was not sure what he would do if Trump won the nomination. In 2016 and 2020, he said, he voted for third-party candidates. He said that he would prefer Trump to President Biden right now but that in a repeat matchup he was not sure whether he would pick one of the two, go for a third-party candidate or sit out the election.
Biel added that he felt putting Trump back in office would be “more chaotic” than electing someone like Ramaswamy, who was “more thoughtful.” He left the event leaning toward Ramaswamy — as did Hayes, whom Biel met at the watch party and with whom he ended up sharing a table.
Biel said he found it notable that the other candidates did not attack DeSantis, who, going into the debate, was ranked second in polls, and instead focused their criticisms on Ramaswamy.
“It tells you the other candidates don’t see [DeSantis] as a threat,” said Biel, a software engineer who brought his teenage daughter to the event. “They could have attacked some of his policies in Florida. There’s so much they could have done. It tells me they don’t see him as a threat right now, but maybe that could change.”
Ramaswamy might have generated buzz in the room, but not everyone was impressed with his performance. Jaime Prout, 35, listened closely to the candidates’ responses as she played debate bingo with her husband beside her and won.
“I think Vivek just likes to hear himself speak and doesn’t really have a logical opinion,” Prout, a molecular geneticist, said after the debate.
Instead, she is all in for Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, calling her the “calm voice of reason among all the bickering” in the debate.
Prout, a mother of four, said she supports abortion rights. Although Haley describes herself as pro-life, Prout said the former South Carolina governor was the only candidate who was open-minded on the issue. During the debate, Haley argued that Republicans should work to find a consensus and “stop demonizing this issue.”
Prout shook her head repeatedly as she watched DeSantis and Pence talk about their strict stances against abortion.
Prout said she never voted for Trump and would not be voting for him in 2024 if he were the nominee.
“I would vote for a third party if there was a good candidate, or I wouldn’t vote for president,” Prout said. “I just will not vote. I don’t believe in voting for the lesser of two evils.”
Victoria Sullivan, who is in her 50s, was not ready to back a candidate in the Republican presidential primary after just one debate. But she said she did think there was a clear candidate to watch: Ramaswamy.
“He’s very bold in what he believes in. He’s not wishy-washy or backing down, and I think that’s a part of Trump that a lot of people were drawn to,” she said, adding that Ramaswamy has the added advantage of being young, given that voters are tired of seeing old politicians.
“He’s fresh out of the gate,” she added.
Going into the debate, she was looking for who could be an alternative to Trump.
“We don’t know if President Trump will be a viable candidate down the road, so I think that each candidate needs to concentrate on their message and bring it to the American people,” said Sullivan, who works in education.
She floated the idea of Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) on the GOP ticket together.
Sullivan did not think Trump would have benefited from attending the debate. The ritual made more sense for the other candidates, who are trying to elevate their standings, but in the former president’s case “everyone already knows who Donald Trump is and what he stands for.”
Alicia Lekas, 67, was an early supporter of DeSantis, viewing him as the most likely to beat Trump. She said she liked a lot of what he has done in Florida, particularly his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m not so sure now,” she said after the debate, which she said Ramaswamy clearly won.
“If Trump gets the nomination, I think that’s bad for our state,” Lekas, a Republican state representative, said. “Looking at the way voters vote in New Hampshire, I think it would be bad down the ballot — and that’s what I’m concerned about.”
She views Ramaswamy and DeSantis as the candidates with the best chance of beating Trump.
“Can Trump be beat? I don’t know,” she said, wearing a top with the American flag. “But I gotta support whoever I think is most likely.” She had hoped Trump would not run again, but if he were the nominee, she would support him, she said.
For Norm Olsen, 71, the debate was about seeing who could really compete against Trump as the race heats up. Olsen said he has been against Trump since his first presidential bid. He said he voted for libertarian candidates in 2016 and 2020 and is convinced that the former president cannot win in 2024.
“He can’t win. He’s lost. He’ll lose the presidency. Republicans would not gain the Senate, they may lose the House, and it may affect governors’ races if he is on the top of the ticket,” said Olsen, a technology consultant. “So, from a conservative standpoint, from a moderate standpoint, from a Republican standpoint, Trump really should not be on that ticket.”
Sporting a ‘No Trump’ button, Olsen said he was pleased that Trump was not at the debate because it would have been “dominated by him” at a time when the other candidates “need more attention.”
As he sipped his beer, Olsen offered his assessment of the field: Ramaswamy has been a “surprise” and brings a good background to the race; Haley has “great international experience,” and DeSantis has a good record in Florida.
“I’d like to see one or two of them step forward and really be able to give Trump some competition,” Olsen said. “Some need to bow out already. But we’ve got to get one of these guys.”