The star of the first few minutes of the Republican debate on Wednesday was not a candidate, not a moderator and not a notable moment from the crowd.
It was a song.
To frame their first few questions, the Fox News moderators played a few lyrics from “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a folksy ballad about a narrator who is “working all day” while rich elites in Washington — an hour north of Richmond — keep him stuck in place.
“It is by a singer from Farmville, Va., named Oliver Anthony — his lyrics speak of alienation, of deep frustration with the state of government and of this country,” Martha MacCallum, one of the moderators, said before asking, “So, Governor DeSantis, why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida seized on the relatively benign question with what amounted to an opening statement contrasting his economic record with President Biden’s.
“We also cannot succeed when the Congress spends trillions and trillions of dollars,” Mr. DeSantis said. “Those rich men north of Richmond have put us in this situation.”
The song made an unusual and sudden leap straight to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart this week, fueled in part by influential conservative pundits and media figures.
It quickly struck a chord with Republicans. Its relatively unpolished music video, with Mr. Anthony singing into a lone microphone with a resonator acoustic guitar, racked up 36 million views.
While it is not overtly political, the song’s lyrics appeal to conservatives in language and theme, and it is quickly becoming an anthem for Republicans as it takes aim at policies related to climate change and the social safety net.
“I wish politicians would look out for miners,” Mr. Anthony sings, “and not just minors on an island somewhere. Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat, and the obese milkin’ welfare.”
Mr. Anthony has tried to stay out of the political fray surrounding his song.
“I sit pretty dead center down the aisle on politics and always have,” he said in an introductory video posted to YouTube this month.