Vivek Ramaswamy does not shy away from his Indian heritage.

It is present in his name (his first name rhymes with “cake,” he explains) and his Hindu faith. He has explained on the campaign trail that he is vegetarian because of his family’s tradition. And during a Republican debate in August that was a breakout performance, he introduced himself as a “skinny guy with a funny last name,” echoing former President Barack Obama.

Still, Mr. Ramaswamy recently said in an interview that he does not identify as an Indian American. Being Hindu and Indian is “part of my cultural identity, for sure, and I’m proud of that and very comfortable with that,” he said after a campaign stop in Marshalltown, Iowa. “But I’m an American first.”

Mr. Ramaswamy, 38, a first-time presidential candidate and conservative author, is at once deeply in touch with his Indian roots and adamant that the growing focus on diversity and racial inequality in America has come at the cost of national unity.

His message is geared toward a Republican electorate that is heavily white and Christian, and he has tailored his personal story for his audience. When asked by voters about his Hindu faith, for instance, he is often quick to emphasize that it allows for him to hold “Judeo Christian” values.

Brimming with energy and brash talk, Mr. Ramaswamy seized enough attention at the party’s first debate in August to get a bump in polls — some briefly showed him leaping into second place, albeit well behind former President Donald Trump. He has since fallen back behind Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and Nikki Haley, who served as the ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Trump.

Still, Mr. Ramaswamy has attracted enough support to qualify for the third Republican debate on Wednesday in Miami.

Many Indian Americans, even those who are critical of Mr. Ramaswamy’s political beliefs, have said in interviews they have a special pride seeing him on the national stage — more so than they have had for other Republican presidential candidates of Indian descent, like Bobby Jindal and Ms. Haley, who converted to Christianity in their youth and adopted Anglicized names.

Mr. Ramaswamy’s story is emblematic of many Asian American millennials whose parents came to the country after immigration laws were liberalized in 1965 and migration from outside Europe grew dramatically. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the country, and Indian Americans now comprise the largest stand-alone group in the United States among them.

As a child, Mr. Ramaswamy was enmeshed in a small but tight-knit Indian community in a Greater Cincinnati region that was mostly white. He belonged to a Hindu temple but attended a private Catholic high school, where he has said he was the only Hindu student in his class. As a teenager, he co-founded an India Association at school and also worked for a local Indian radio station, according to a 2002 article in The Cincinnati Enquirer.

As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Mr. Ramaswamy seemed to comfortably move between different worlds, his classmates said in interviews. He studied biology, served as chair of the Harvard Political Union and rapped under a libertarian alter ego known as ‘Da Vek.’ (At the time, he told The Harvard Crimson that Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was his life’s theme song, which he unexpectedly reprised this summer at the Iowa State Fair.)

At Harvard, he took a comedic turn in the annual cultural show organized by the South Asian Association and was active in Dharma, the Hindu student association. And he served as a student liaison for Mr. Jindal, at the time a rising political star who was a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics in 2004 before he became governor of Louisiana and the first American of Indian descent to run for president.

“If you had asked me when we were in college if being an Indian American was a big part of his identity, I would have said yes,” said Saikat Chakrabarti, Mr. Ramaswamy’s classmate at Harvard and a former chief of staff to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York.

Mr. Ramaswamy went on to make a fortune as a biotech entrepreneur. After the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 propelled the racial justice movement, Mr. Ramaswamy made a name for himself in conservative circles by railing against identity politics and a corporate commitment to diversity and inclusion, which he referred to as “wokeism.” Since then, Mr. Ramaswamy has said he believes liberals have been fixated on skin color and race in a way that has contributed to divisiveness in the country.

Like many Republican candidates of color, he has spoken at times about his own experiences facing discrimination, but he has said the country does not have systemic racism.

“I’m sure the boogeyman white supremacist exists somewhere in America,” Mr. Ramaswamy told voters at a late August event in Pella, Iowa. “I’ve just never met him, never seen one, I’ve never met one in my life.”

At an event in late August with voters at Legends American Grill in Marshalltown, David Tracy, 37, an entrepreneur, asked Mr. Ramaswamy to elaborate on what it meant to him to be Hindu with “Judeo Christian” values. Mr. Ramaswamy responded by explaining that he had gone to a Christian school and shared the same values, and he wove in a biblical story as if to prove the point.

“I may not be qualified to be your pastor,” Mr. Ramaswamy told the overflow crowd of mostly white, older voters. “But I believe that I am able to be your commander in chief.”

Mr. Tracy, who lives in Des Moines, said in an interview last week that he understood why Mr. Ramaswamy has at times downplayed his Indian and Hindu roots in trying to appeal to Republican voters. But he also said that Mr. Ramaswamy has lost some authenticity in doing so. “He speaks more like a conservative white male than he does a Hindu son of immigrants,” Mr. Tracy said.

Mr. Tracy said that he did not think Mr. Ramaswamy was against diversity but that the candidate felt too many Americans were focusing on their individual identity.

“I think the point that Vivek is making is there’s personal identity and there’s national identity, and I think right now young people are collectively at a loss for what that national identity means,” he said.

Susan Kunkel, 65, an undecided Republican, said last week at a campaign event for Ms. Haley in Nashua, N.H., that she did not like Mr. Ramaswamy’s constant pandering to the Trump base. But she appreciated that he was a fresh face in the party and agreed with his opposition to affirmative action.

“It’s nice to have all different ages and sexes and genders, and you know, minorities, but it should be based on merit,” Ms. Kunkel, a practice administrator for a medical office, said of recent corporate diversity efforts.

On the stump, Mr. Ramaswamy has often cited his family’s bootstrap story as an example of how anyone can achieve the American dream and should not blame racism for holding them back. “My parents came to this country 40 years ago with no money,” he has said. “In a single generation, I have gone on to found multibillion-dollar companies.”

But many immigrants from India after 1965 arrived with advantages that other people of color have lacked, noted Devesh Kapur, a professor of South Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the book “The Other One Percent: Indians in America.” Mr. Ramaswamy’s parents came with advanced degrees; his father was an engineer at General Electric and his mother was a geriatric psychiatrist.

“It’s a severe underestimation and underplaying of his privileged background,” Mr. Kapur said of Mr. Ramaswamy’s back story.

In October, through posts on social media, Mr. Ramaswamy agreed to a debate with Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, that was held last Wednesday at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester, N.H. Mr. Khanna’s team had framed the event as a civil conversation between two children of immigrants who were rising Indian American political voices.

In an interview, Mr. Khanna, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, said that recognizing the history of racism and discrimination in America was crucial to building a cohesive, multiracial democracy. He said that not everyone in America was able to have “the opportunities that people like Vivek and I had,” referring to their middle-class upbringing.

Until “everyone has that opportunity, we can’t say that race and class don’t matter,” he added.

Tricia McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Ramaswamy campaign, said Mr. Ramaswamy’s decision to debate Mr. Khanna had little to do with their shared Indian identity.

It was more about Mr. Ramaswamy being Mr. Ramaswamy.

“Vivek does pretty much go on anything,” she said.

Jonathan Weisman and Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting.

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