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Opinion: The Ramaswamy town hall showed why he will never be as popular as Trump

Opinion by Bill Carter

(CNN) — After overwrought debate performances that led critics and some of his opponents for the Republican presidential nomination to call him a “huckster,” “dangerous,” “the most obnoxious blowhard in America” and “scum,” Vivek Ramaswamy needed a town hall TV appearance like Linus needed his blanky.

He got one in Iowa Wednesday night (a town hall, not a blanky), moderated on CNN with a firm and fair hand by Abby Phillip. And Ramaswamy’s effort to present himself as more temperate and reasoned looked to be both an obvious strategy and a somewhat effective one — until he started talking about the January 6 insurrection as though it was a new installment of “The X-Files,” with the “Smoking Man” scheming to use federal agents to besmirch a MAGA love-in on the Capitol steps.

Then Ramaswamy’s natural gift for ire and fire flashed as he lost a hinge or two, exposing the jagged foundation under the slick surface of his personality.

Asked by Phillip about his recent comment that January 6 was an “inside job,” Ramaswamy managed to larder in some conspiracy-theory greatest hits (which he called “hard facts”) about federal agents supposedly ginning up the crowd, the kidnapping plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer being bogus, and of course Hunter Biden’s laptop.

But the thing about a town hall during a party’s primary season is that the crowd invited to participate always consists of a party’s base voters. That tends to insulate the candidate from harsh questions and reactions, and basically guarantees some enthusiastic applause.

And conspiracy theory talk just plain plays with many Republican voters. That is especially true in the case of the January 6 events — most people instinctively know a violent riot unfolding live on TV is not a good thing, and it makes them feel bad to be associated with it. So efforts to deflect blame onto somebody not representing your party is a welcome thing.

But on CNN, the national TV audience is not going to mirror exactly the nice Iowa Republican folk in attendance at Grand View University in Des Moines. So unpacking more debunked theories to justify the January 6 riot may have had limited value for Ramaswamy.

That might even be said of this town hall as a whole, as he has slid in the polls after some early pan-flash. And every Republican candidate not named Donald Trump is still looking as futile a pursuer as Wile E. Coyote.

Indeed, in this campaign, Trump’s appeal has been generally judged too potent to take on, except in mild innuendo: hope the voters get the message and hope Trump doesn’t.

Ramaswamy is especially poorly positioned to be the counter-Trump because he is trying so hard to be his clone. That was apparent Wednesday night in attacks on undocumented immigrants and his pledges to deport them, along with his dismissal of climate change and abandonment of Ukraine in favor of some double-reverse, flea-flicker, Hail Mary deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin and China.

Ramaswamy also boasted about being an outsider businessman, as he often has on the campaign trail. But any real resemblance to Trump ends with the extra tie length.

Sure, Trump has none of Ramaswamy’s talent for spewing historical references and minutia. But he far outshines him in showmanship. Trump works a crowd like a classic carnival barker, mean-spirited but with a feral feel for how to make the mob laugh — and empty their pockets for the snake oil.

Ramaswamy cannot match Trump’s native skill at theater and spectacle. He comes across more like the over-aggressive street hustler, constantly bantering and staying in your face as you walk away down the street.

Another obvious difference, especially in terms of Iowa, is the pass Trump gets from evangelicals, even after egregious immoral behavior. He has already been found legally liable for sexual abuse (which he has denied). But he will command a large percentage of Iowa’s Christian vote.

Meanwhile, Ramaswamy, who even quoted from the Book of Isaiah (which Trump likely couldn’t even name), was actually compelled to entertain a question about how he would respond to those who believe he can’t be president because he isn’t a Christian. He tried to talk around that little awkwardness by praising shared religious values.

And he seemed initially flummoxed about what to say when asked about his biggest takeaway on Iowans before coming up with their “candor.”

That sounded like he may have heard a few critical evaluations from Iowans too, though probably well short of “obnoxious blowhard.”

In the end, even the warm blanky of a town hall with nice Iowan Republicans may not have provided the comfort Ramaswamy needs to be as popular as Trump — or Linus.

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