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Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: He calls climate activism a "religious cult," but White House hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy is enjoying a moment in the sun as his provocative rhetoric heats up the US Republican primary contest.

And while some candidates are beginning to aim their fire at former president Donald Trump, the 38-year-old Ramaswamy has moved toward the front of the chasing pack by placing himself firmly in the frontrunner's slipstream.

"I think I'm best positioned to advance our America First agenda, take it even further than Trump did, but also unite the country in the process," the multimillionaire biotech entrepreneur recently told public broadcaster PBS.

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Ramaswamy trails Trump by a seemingly unbridgeable gap, but he has spent millions of his own money in his bid to be best placed should the presumptive nominee fall by the wayside amid his growing tangle of legal problems.

And the first-time candidate, a father of two young children, has been rewarded with higher poll numbers than most of his more experienced rivals.

'Cultural cancer'

A political novice by any measure, Ramaswamy started his campaign with no national profile but has shocked primary watchers by rising to third in the Republican primary field, five months ahead of the first vote in Iowa.

He is even snapping at the heels of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is lagging around 40 points behind Trump but until recently looked relatively secure in the runner-up spot.

On the ground, Ramaswamy has styled his politics on the agendas of the two men he hopes to usurp, making his stand against the "woke" ideology of the American left his signature policy issue.

"We are in the middle of a national identity crisis," he says darkly, accusing the country's elites of metastasizing a "cultural cancer" - particularly when it comes to LGBTQ issues.

His message has found an appreciative audience, and his book, "Woke, Inc.," in which he develops this thesis, is currently near the top of the New York Times list of bestselling nonfiction.

Burning coal

In an increasingly crowded field - 17 candidates have declared so far - Ramaswamy has been able to grab attention and headlines with a policy program that might be dismissed as too radical were his polling numbers lower.

The vegetarian pianist wants to raise the voting age to 25 and lay off 90 percent of the staff at the US central bank and the Department of Justice.

And his ready-made solution for reviving growth in the United States? Burning coal "unapologetically."

Still, he faces a steep uphill fight.

"Like all the other candidates, Ramaswamy's only chance is if Trump collapses," political scientist Kyle Kondik told AFP.

It is not unusual for Republican presidential candidates to pull their punches when it comes to Trump, who has always managed to retain the loyalty of at least a third of the party regardless of the prevailing political winds.

But Ramaswamy has bumped the deference up a level, turning up at the courthouses in Miami and the capital Washington where Trump was appearing with pledges to pardon the 77-year-old ex-president and demands that his rivals follow suit.

"We fought a revolution in this country, in 1776, for a simple idea that we the people determine how we select our leaders and have a government that is accountable to its people, rather than the other way around," he said in a video filmed this month outside Washington's federal court complex.

Trump, who is more accustomed to trampling his opponents underfoot, was quick to notice and showed his appreciation.

"He's doing well," the Republican billionaire said recently of his young rival.

Libertarian rap

Born in working-class Ohio, Ramaswamy is the son of Hindu immigrants from India.

Educated in Catholic schools, he studied biology at the prestigious Harvard University, where he honed his rhetorical skills in debates and by performing libertarian rap music as his alter ego, "Da Vek."

"If you think that debater-extraordinaire Vivek G. Ramaswamy '07 is intense, you obviously haven't met 'Da Vek,'" his university newspaper enthused in a humorous profile.

Showing that he's lost none of his skills, the energetic candidate appears in a recent video on social media rapping at an event in Iowa to the Eminem song "Lose Yourself."

After a spell at Yale, Ramaswamy founded the biotech company Roivant, amassing a personal fortune of over $600 million, according to Forbes magazine.

He left the company's board of directors in February to devote time to his campaign, which is largely self-financed.

"This isn't just a political campaign," he has said. "This is a cultural movement to build a new American Dream for the next generation."