CONTOOCOOK, N.H. —Visiting the Hopkinton State Fair is an annual tradition for Michael O’Malley and his family, who drive more than two hours from their home in Duxbury, Mass., to attend the event every summer.
But this year, O’Malley, who turns eighteen in October, insisted on planning the trip around seeing Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy, whose appearance at the fair on Saturday was one of eleven stops on a packed campaign blitz across New Hampshire over Labor Day weekend.
“Vivek’s young, he’s energetic, and he seems very loyal and truthful to the United States,” said O’Malley, who is eagerly shopping for candidates ahead of the first major election in which he’ll vote, and was impressed by Ramaswamy’s debate performance. “He’s really showing what it means to live the American dream.”
A previously unknown political outsider, the 38-year-old entrepreneur has shot to national attention in recent weeks, fueled by a breakout performance during the first GOP debate. His campaign is trying to sustain the momentum with a steady drumbeat of campaigning, TV appearances, and provocative remarks, including outright denial of the existence of structural racism and white supremacy in the United States today. But many political analysts doubt whether Ramaswamy, who has sought to closely align himself with former president Donald Trump, will be able to distinguish himself enough from his chief rival to mount a serious challenge to his dominant lead.
“I don’t think anybody who supports Donald Trump at this point is going to say, ‘Oh, boy, I really liked that Vivek Ramaswamy and I’m going to vote for him now,’ ” said Jon McHenry, a Republican strategist and pollster. “It’s like being the second-best flavor of vanilla. Nobody’s gonna switch away from their favorite; there’s no real point.”
Dismissing such predictions, Ramaswamy is pushing ahead, maintaining a fast-paced schedule and building a solid campaign infrastructure in first-in-the-nation New Hampshire.
“We’re putting the time, money, and resources really into getting here on the ground,” said Tricia McLaughlin, Ramaswamy’s senior advisor and communications director. “In New Hampshire, Iowa, that ground game really matters and these people take this responsibility seriously.”
Running his state campaign is Josh Whitehouse, a senior Trump aide in the 2016 New Hampshire primary who later joined the administration. Along with him are three New Hampshire campaign co-chairpersons, each from different ideological backgrounds. They include Fred Doucette, who was among Trump’s state co-chairpersons in 2016, as well as Bruce Fenton, a Libertarian-minded Republican who ran for the Senate in 2022, and Kevin Smith, a more traditional Republican who has run for governor and Senate and once ran a powerful social conservative organization.
Ahead of his New Hampshire campaign swing, Ramaswamy also released a lengthy list of endorsements; notable names included Andrew Hemingway, who ran for governor and was the state director for Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign, and Pamela Ean, a well-known conservative activist from Concord.
At this point, only Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Trump may have deeper teams on the ground in the state.
State Representative Tim McGough, a Republican from Merrimack, hinted that more could be on the way after watching Ramaswamy hold the rapt attention of dozens of fair-goers at the Hopkinton State Fair Saturday. McGough, who has not yet endorsed anyone in the Republican primary, says he believes Ramaswamy’s youth, energy, and eloquence are incredibly compelling for undecided Republican or independent voters.
“I’ll tell you, this is the first time I’ve worn his hat, and it wasn’t just because it was hot,” said McGough. “I’m definitely leaning one way. He’s more and more impressive.”
From the Hopkinton State Fair, to packing Robie’s Country Store, and hosting multiple town hall events, Ramaswamy stumped in front of hundreds of voters throughout the weekend. Many appeared swayed by his message of “revolution” over “incremental reform.”
For Maureen and Michael Reilly, Thornton, N.H. residents who identify as independents but voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, Ramaswamy seemed to be a “breath of fresh air.”
“He’s not a politician; he speaks his mind,” said Michael Reilly, after listening to Ramaswamy. “He’s sincere, he believes in the country, the Constitution, he wants a revolution in that we need to get back our country, and he’s got a roadmap to do it.”
Maureen Reilly said Ramaswamy’s optimism sold her on his vision for the country, and as an alternative to Trump.
“I feel like Trump had his chance, and now there’s so much negative — not necessarily warranted — but there’s so much negative associated with Trump,” Maureen Reilly said. “When Ronald Reagan was president, you actually felt great about the country, felt great about yourself, and you kind of get that feeling again with Vivek.”
Throughout the weekend, Ramaswamy boldly courted supporters of the former president, whom he has called the “greatest president of the 21st century.”
Quite a few pundits and analysts have speculated that Ramaswamy, with his lavish praise for Trump and vows to pardon him should he win the White House, is angling for the VP slot on Trump’s ticket. Ramaswamy, however, told voters at a town hall in Newport, N.H., Saturday that he is “not looking for a number two position.”
“I’m actually leading us to the next level of the America first agenda,” Ramaswamy said. “I’m taking it further than Donald Trump is, but I’m going to do it by uniting this country. I’m younger — I’m 38 years old, I’d be the youngest US president ever elected if elected, and I think that puts me in a unique position to reach young Americans to reunite this country.”
But Ramaswamy’s extreme policy positions, which include ending military aid to Ukraine and eliminating 75 percent of federal bureaucrats, are divisive, even among Republicans. State Representative Fred Plett, a Republican from Goffstown, who previously endorsed Ramaswamy, told the Globe he is considering endorsing a different candidate after watching the GOP debate and disagreeing with Ramaswamy’s foreign policy stance.
Donna Morin, a high school teacher from Hooksett who listened to Ramaswamy speak to a packed Robie’s Country Store on Saturday, expressed particular hesitation over Ramaswamy’s promise to entirely eliminate the IRS, FBI, and Department of Education.
“Personally, I think he’s a dangerous man,” Morin said. “A lot of things that he’s saying is scary.”
Ramaswamy has also faced intense scrutiny over his far-right position on social issues, including his blatant denial of the concept of systemic racism. He recently drew sharp criticism for comparing Massachusetts congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and author Ibram X. Kendi to “modern grand wizards of the modern KKK,” a white supremacist organization with an extensive history of committing violence against Black and other nonwhite people, over their efforts to advance racial justice. Pressley slammed the comments as “deeply offensive” and “dangerous.” Ramaswamy has also doubted the existence of white supremacists in today’s society, even after a recent racially motivated fatal shooting of three Black men in Jacksonville, Fla.
While the policy points and inflammatory language that Ramaswamy weaved into his stump speech over the weekend frequently earned him cheers and standing ovations, Fergus Cullen, a former chairperson of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, expressed skepticism that Ramaswamy will be able to translate crowd energy into a lead in the polls.
“There’s a difference between getting a rise out of people and actually being taken seriously,” Cullen said. “I do think that Ramaswamy gets the entertainment aspect of politics,” and has studied Trump’s approach in the 2016 election and beyond, “and recognizes that voters aren’t assessing candidates on the nuances of their policy positions.”
“There’s a certain portion of the population that wants to be entertained and will still go for politicians who tell them what they want to hear, like, ‘We can and we should fire 75 percent of bureaucrats,’ but that doesn’t mean that they’re a serious person or someone who’s about to become President of the United States.”
But for some voters, including O’Malley and the Reillys, Ramaswamy’s appearances over the weekend had them sold. “I’m voting for Vivek,” Maureen Reilly said. “I just think it’s time for change.”
James Pindell of Globe staff contributed to this story.