As the playing field shrinks in the Republican presidential primary campaign, no two candidates have been at each other’s throats quite like Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley. 

At Wednesday night’s debate hosted by NBC News in Miami, the two Indian Americans sparred in one of their fieriest exchanges yet, peaking when Ramaswamy questioned Haley’s daughter’s presence on TikTok and ending with Haley retorting, “Keep my daughter’s name out of your voice. … You’re just scum.” 

The two left the stage after having shaken hands with everyone but each other. The hostility has been building for months, with jabs more biting and personal than those levied at any of the other candidates. Ramaswamy has invoked Haley’s Indian legal first name, Nimarata, in a way that could be read as schoolyard taunting. It’s significant, experts say, that the two South Asians in the race are going the hardest at each other

The similarities in their backgrounds make their constant back-and-forths feel almost familial, psychologists and community experts said. 

“In terms of the optics, there are times in which it looks like an extended family argument, even the kind of argument that might happen over a family dinner or something like that,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, the founder of the nonprofit group AAPI Data. 

While competition is inherent to politics, Indian American clinical psychologist Jyothsna Bhat sees another layer beneath the surface of Haley and Ramaswamy’s exchanges. 

“It hits differently when it’s South Asian individuals because of that mentality of there’s just not enough room for the two,” she said. “It’s ingrained in us, whether we have to do better than our friends, than our cousins, than other family members. … Because think about it, it’s been such a competition even to come to this country.”

The ‘audacity’ of the attacks

When Ramaswamy and Haley argue onstage, they often tend to go “below the belt,” Bhat said. 

In Wednesday’s debate, Ramaswamy took aim at Haley with the question: “Do you want a leader from a different generation who’s going to put this country first? Or do you want Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels?”

Meanwhile, in the first debate, she told him, “Your ego is bigger than your résumé,” and in the second debate, she said: “Every time I hear you talk, I feel a little bit dumber. … We can’t trust you.” 

Ramaswamy has made his mark on the 2024 campaign season with attacks on fellow candidates, debate moderators and other members of the media. But Haley has emerged as his clear rival.

Bhat said invoking Haley’s daughter was particularly biting and revealing from a psychological perspective. “Boldly calling out her daughter, that’s almost like a South Asian uncle,” she said. “The audacity of that is very interesting.” 

Ramaswamy’s team defended his remarks, saying in a message: “He didn’t criticize her daughter. He [sic] daughter is 25 years old and he pointed out she uses tik tok, just like he does.”

Haley’s team declined to comment on the dynamic between the two, referring NBC News to her real-time response when she called him “scum.” 

“Look, I’m a mom, so the second that you go and you start saying something about my 25-year-old daughter, I’m going to get my back up,” she said in a post-debate interview with NBC News anchors. “I don’t even give him the time of day. He has proven he is just not worthy of being president of the United States.”

But it’s far from the first time Ramaswamy has made it personal with Haley. He has made multiple digs at her having changed her name, including in a memo in August on his website in which he wrote, “Keep lying, Nimarata Randhawa.”

At the time, Ramaswamy’s team said the purpose of the comment was to point out “her lies on Israel.”

He also referred to her name and religion changes at a town hall in New Hampshire.

“An easy thing for me to do being a politician to follow this track is shorten my name, profess to be a Christian and then run,” Ramaswamy said. “Let’s be honest — it happens. Make Vivek ‘Vikki’ or whatever.”

Surface-level pettiness masks a strategy in this instance, Ramakrishnan said. 

“Yes, you can say that he’s being petty, but he’s also pointing to something to contrast his candidacy with hers and somehow implying that he’s being more genuine by keeping his name,” he said. “He decries identity politics but selectively engages in identity politics himself to score political points.”

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Haley has hit back with escalating intensity, as well, calling Ramaswamy “childish” for name-calling. When he’s speaking about her onstage, Haley can sometimes be seen shaking her head or rolling her eyes. 

Ramaswamy’s senior adviser and communications director, Tricia McLaughlin, team didn’t comment further on the escalating tension between the two candidates beyond saying the following: “By the standards Nikki and her team apply about family, I fully expect she will stop invoking Hunter Biden’s name.”

Their comments and reactions are unlike what’s directed at the other candidates onstage, Bhat said. 

“I think she wouldn’t have done that if it was DeSantis or something. It would have been a different reaction,” she said. “I think it’s that familiarity because it’s a fellow South Asian. I think it’s stemming from ‘I know who you are; don’t try to pull that one.’”

Bhat reflected on the debate stages of the 2020 election and the camaraderie between candidates who had similar backgrounds, like Sen. Cory Booker and Vice President Kamala Harris. 

“That sort of ‘we’re in this together’ type of attitude, that’s just not the case here,” she said. “They could be a formidable pair.”

Not representative of the diaspora

But polling in third and fourth place, far behind former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, they’re both long shots in this primary, according to experts.

“The folks on the stage yesterday were not running for president. They were running for vice president,” said Varun Nikore, the founding executive director of the Democratic-aligned AAPI Victory Alliance.

He said a vastly Democratic Indian American community might not even be watching Haley and Ramaswamy spar for anything other than entertainment value. 

“The way that they swiped at each other is such a complete embarrassment for our culture and our people,” Nikore said. “And it really does not represent who we all are in this country.”

In his personal attacks, Ramaswamy isn’t gaining fans among mainstream Republican voters, Nikore said, and it’s being reflected in the polls. 

“He tends to have a lot of applause lines when he says very extremist things that, frankly, sound like something Donald Trump would say,” Nikore said. “But there’s a difference between getting applause in an audience of hard-core partisans and then trying to appeal to the first voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and [South] Carolina. It’s not translatable.”

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