For nearly a month, Pence has laid into Ramaswamy on everything from his views on tax policy and 9/11 to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Ramaswamy, meanwhile, suggested Pence blew a “historic opportunity” to usher in voting reform on Jan. 6, saying he would have “done it very differently.” Pence said Ramaswamy’s proposal was “incoherent and unconstitutional.”
It’s an ideological and generational conflict between the 64-year-old Pence, who boasts more than three decades in the conservative movement, and the 38-year-old Ramaswamy, who identified as a libertarian before transitioning to a MAGA brand of Republicanism. It personifies a broader dispute over the direction of the party. And it’s about the closest thing the 2024 presidential campaign has to the 2020 rivalry on the Democratic side between Sen. Amy Klobuchar and her millennial challenger Pete Buttigieg.
“We watched on the debate stage where Mike Pence, who’s known as a soft-spoken gentleman, showed more attitude for Vivek Ramaswamy and was more animated in that debate than even past conversations regarding former President Donald Trump. It looked personal. He was deeply offended on stage,” New Hampshire native and GOP consultant Matthew Bartlett said. “Flash forward a week or so and they’re both here in New Hampshire, several feet apart, and there is no breaking of the ice.”
Instead, he said, “There is just an absolute standoff.”
The feud between Pence and Ramaswamy captures a distinct dynamic of the 2024 primary, in which candidates fearful of offending Trump’s base trade fire with one another rather than assail the frontrunner. For Pence and Ramaswamy, the hostilities began early last month, when Pence broadsided Ramaswamy in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader over his comments on 9/11, saying that Ramaswamy’s comments that the government isn’t telling the whole truth about what happened that day “deeply offended” him.
“I understand he was probably in grade school on 9/11 and I was on Capitol Hill,” Pence said (Ramaswamy was, in fact, a 16-year-old in high school.). He added: “I think comments like that, conspiracy theories like that, dishonor the service and sacrifice of our armed forces who fought against our enemies determined to kill us.”
Then came the first primary debate, when Pence at one point said to Ramaswamy, “Let me explain it to you again if I can. I will go slower this time.”
In a call last week outlining his plan for executive orders on the first day of his presidency, Pence continued his criticism of what he called “the vague Ramaswamy foreign policy,” which he said “echoes the Obama Doctrine of appeasement to the world’s most ruthless regimes of Russia and China and Iran.”
Ramaswamy has responded in part by casting the GOP primary as a clear divide between the “neoconservative foreign policy establishment” of Pence and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations with which he’s also traded barbs in recent days, and “a new, unapologetically nationalistic view of how we advance American interests.”
Pence “clearly sees Vivek as insincere and lacking authenticity. That is an affront to Mike Pence as an American leader and he believes he needs to expose Vivek,” Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist not working for either campaign, said. “And Vivek doesn’t like being on the receiving end of so many missiles, so he is counterattacking and trying to diminish Pence’s credibility.”
The tension between Pence and Ramaswamy is partly a reflection of the different type of Republican voter they are courting. Ramaswamy’s appeal is rooted in no small part in his effort to cast himself as the heir apparent to Trump’s brand of MAGA populism. Or, as Salem GOP activist Tom Linehan put it at the Labor Day picnic, “he’s like Trump in a good way.”
The biotech entrepreneur is perhaps the former president’s staunchest defender in the GOP presidential field — going so far as to pledge to pardon Trump if he’s convicted of any of the myriad criminal charges he faces. Ramaswamy’s supporters and other New Hampshire voters open to his candidacy frequently say they’re interested in him in part because of his shared traits with Trump. Some even hope he’ll be Trump’s next running mate should he win the nomination for a third time.
“He speaks to the people. He’s kind of like how Trump started out,” Cynthia Perkins, an independent voter from Hudson, N.H., said as she sported a “Vivek 2024” pin at the Labor Day picnic on Monday.
Pence, meanwhile, was confronted by a Trump supporter at the same picnic who asked him to justify why he felt he didn’t have the authority to overturn the 2020 election results. If Pence had, the woman sporting a red MAGA baseball cap signed by Trump said, he would have guaranteed himself four more years in the White House.
The former vice president gave his stock answer: “I had no right to overturn the election and Kamala Harris won’t have any right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.” He cited the Constitution. He said he “did my duty that day.”
The voter walked away disappointed.
Ramaswamy and Pence crossed paths in New Hampshire as the former appears to be enjoying a post-debate bump here. The latter, meanwhile, is still struggling to connect with a GOP base that is still deferential to Trump and to sell his brand of religious conservatism to voters in this libertarian-leaning state. Though both are running in the single digits nationally, the two rivals have the widest polling gap in New Hampshire of any of the early nominating states, with Ramaswamy averaging 6 percentage points in polls here and Pence hovering just below 2 percent, according to Real Clear Politics. Trump, meanwhile, averages more than 44 percent support in New Hampshire primary polls.
“When you are trying to climb to the top you have to step on some other heads along the way,” Dennehy said. And right now, “Vivek is in front of Pence and showing some momentum.”
At the Labor Day picnic, Pence and Ramaswamy both downplayed the tension between them.
“Elections are about choices. And I had differences with a number of people on that stage and one person who wasn’t on that stage,” Pence told POLITICO, in a reference to Trump. “I’m going to continue to lay out my vision for the Republican Party and for America. And I’m going to draw the contrasts so that at the end of the day, Republican voters here in New Hampshire and across America are going to know that I’m the most consistent, the most qualified, the most tested conservative in this race.”
But as Pence sought to leave after addressing the crowd, Ramaswamy was still blocking the main exit from the picnic area. So Pence found another — ducking through a gap in the fence across the lawn and straight into his tinted-window SUV.
Asked later about Pence’s circuitous exit, Ramaswamy gave a slight shrug of a smile.
“Different people have different approaches to how we deal with events like this and voters,” he said. “He’s a good guy and I wish him well in his life as a family man and continue to do whatever he does — what’s in store next for him. But that’s not a principal concern of mine.”