Palmetto Political Stock Index: GOP Presidential Debate Edition

Who has the most to gain? The most to lose?

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Those who follow our weekly Palmetto Political Stock Index – published every Sunday morning – know it closely monitors South Carolina’s political pulse ahead of the upcoming “First in the South” presidential primary election. This week, we are tracking that pulse even closer as we approach the first “make or break” moment in the 2024 GOP primary race.

With the curtain set to rise tomorrow night at an unusually early high-stakes GOP presidential debate, nine candidates officially met the Republican National Committee’s qualifications to participate in this cattle call.

Eight of them are attending … one, former U.S. president Donald Trump, is not.



Who has the most to gain at the debate? The most to lose? That’s where our index comes in …

For those of you who don’t follow the Palmetto Political Stock Index, FITSNews founding editor Will Folks and political columnist Mark Powell assemble it each week – tracking the rising and falling fortunes of individuals and institutions as well as the interplay of state and national politics in our early-voting South Carolina home, which quadrennially hosts the “First in the South” presidential primary.

To view last week’s edition, click here. And to get your historical fix, click here.

Wednesday night’s debate will be held at the Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It will be televised nationally on Fox News at 6:00 p.m. EST.



The candidate with the most to gain in the first Republican debate is Florida governor Ron DeSantis. The candidate with the most to lose? Also, Ron DeSantis. With Trump taking a pass, the spotlight will be squarely on him – for good or bad. The expectations bar for DeSantis was set incredibly high following his roaring reelection victory as Florida governor last November – a huge win which came against the backdrop of underwhelming Republican advances. Unfortunately for DeSantis, it’s been a steady downward spiral ever since. After starting the year poised as a potentially serious threat to Trump, delays, misfires, and flat-out blunders now have him clinging to the No. 2 spot by a hair (and a fraying hair at that).

His initial message – “I can give you Trump policies without the baggage of Trump’s divisiveness” – was a flop. Many GOP primary voters wondered, “Why would I want a Trump substitute when I can have the real thing?”



All eyes may be on DeSantis, but Vivek Ramaswamy is the one to watch. With his favorables spiking recently, we’re hearing more and more conservatives sharing, “I really like what that Vivek guy is saying.” That was confirmed by last week’s leaked internal campaign debate memo urging DeSantis to “take a sledgehammer to” the Ohio entrepreneur.

Candidates don’t focus that degree of firepower on someone who doesn’t pose a threat.

Ramaswamy has been the Ideas Man in this campaign so far. His fresh approach and eagerness to advocate outside-the-box thinking have provided a stark contrast to other Republicans serving up little more than warmed-over stale Reagan pablum.

Each candidate on the Milwaukee stage has a chance to experience a magical moment – to deliver a memorable, resonating remark that captures the essence of the moment and propels them above the pack. Going into the debate, the smart money says such a memorable moment is most likely to come from Ramaswamy.

No pressure, Vivek.



South Carolina’s junior senator has a unique opportunity. He has run on being Mr. Nice Guy, expressing disapproval without dumping, opposing without trashing, looking ahead instead of back. It has played well because Tim Scott is, indeed, a genuinely nice guy. His conservative bona fides are well-established, and he has trimmed his religious sails just enough to play to the prevailing political winds.

Scott could very well stand out for what he won’t be saying: His avoidance of going negative. Will that appeal to enough GOP voters who are tired of name-calling and hard-hitting attacks on opponents? And are there enough of them to matter? Fair questions; and Scott is positioned to provide answers to both.

Of course he may be called to answer for his campaign’s opaque campaign finances … which could potentially paint him as yet another “do as I say, not as I do” politician.

Still, as is the case with Ramaswamy, there is tremendous upside for Scott on Wednesday night … as he is one of the candidates best positioned for a breakthrough.



The former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador has spent her career as a political Sybil, the famous TV movie character with multiple personalities. One minute Nikki Haley comes off as a sweet sorority sister; the next, she’s channeling her inner Otto von Bismarck with bombastic saber rattling — throwing in a healthy dose of Hillary Clinton-esque “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” identitypolitik for good measure.

Such a textbook case of multiple political personality disorder (ahem, flexibility?) might actually be a political asset for Haley were it not for her chronic inability to remain consistent on the issues – especially where she stands on Trump. Haley has been the definitional weather vane on the former president – which has undercut her potential appeal across the GOP spectrum and kept her mired at the bottom of the GOP field.

That’s unfortunate, too, as the South Carolina native has actually done a good job driving some of the important fiscal issues in this election …

Haley may be able to bob and weave around her perpetual political opportunism and rank hypocrisy at campaign events, but it’s much harder to walk that tightrope during a nationally broadcast debate with moderators and opposing candidates throwing grenades in her direction. She must pick one personality and stick with it. How well she does will likely hinge on which “Nikki Haley” she selects – and whether she is able to navigate several potential landmines (here and here).

“Once this debate happens this week, it’s off to the races,” Haley said this week.

Indeed … but will she remain in that race? Or get left behind?



The question is not, “Will he bash Trump?” but “Will he be able to answer any question posed to him without bashing Trump?” Trash-talking former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has made it abundantly clear he’s in this race for one reason and one reason only: To kamikaze into the former president.

“He’s a coward,” Christie said of Trump’s refusal to participate in the forum. “With a yellow streak all the way down his back.”

Clearly, we can count on Christie being the Mouth that Roared in Milwaukee. But will that appeal to anyone beyond #NeverTrumpers?



It’s become a matter of relevance for the former vice president, whose 2024 candidacy remains mired in single digits. Mike Pence “has yet to indicate he has anything resembling a path to relevance – let alone a path to victory in a presidential election,” as we noted in our last index.

Loathed by Trump supporters for his decision to fulfill his constitutional duty and certify the disputed results of the 2020 presidential election, Pence became a pariah to broad swaths of the GOP base on January 6, 2021. Meanwhile, #NeverTrumpers seem to be looking elsewhere for alternatives to the former president.

Where does that leave Pence in the 2024 mix? Good question … but like the others on the stage he will be looking for a big breakout moment. Also, Pence has already qualified for the second GOP debate in California next month – which will impose tougher qualifications on campaigns seeking to participate.

So it looks like his candidacy will at least maintain a faint pulse for the time being …



Earlier this week, the Democratic governor of Minnesota – Tim Walz – took a potshot at the GOP debate field.

“That’s a pretty weird group of folks going to be on the debate stage,” Walz told moderator Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Walz did manage to summon some kind words for one of the candidates – North Dakota governor Doug Burgum.

“I do believe that Doug is probably the most normal,” Walz added. “Doug’s a pretty good guy, but he’s trapped in a Republican Party with no ideas.”

Burgum, a billionaire entrepreneur, employed some unique methods to qualify for the debate – including giving out $20.00 gift cards to anyone who gave $1.00 to his campaign so he could meet the GOP’s donor threshold.

Basically, Burgum purchased his spot on the stage … now it remains to be seen if the investment will pay dividends.



Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson qualified for this debate by the skin of his teeth – the very last candidate to make the cutoff. Of course making the stage – and making an impact on it – are two totally different things.

So far, Hutchinson’s job in this race appears to be targeting social conservative voters and turning them against Trump, arguing “we need to have a different type of leadership in the future.”

Hutchinson – 72, of Bentonville, Arkansas – served two terms as governor of his state from 2015-2023. During that stint, he spent one year as chairman of the National Governors Association (NGA). A three-term congressman from Arkansas’ third district, Hutchinson initially gained fame (infamy?) as one of the thirteen U.S. House managers during the impeachment trial of former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

The only good thing going for Hutchinson heading into the debate? Trump acknowledged his existence.

“‘Aida’ Hutchinson is too boring,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform early Tuesday. “He’s at less than 1 percent and heading south. Zero chance.”



Trump will not be in Milwaukee tomorrow night.

“The public knows who I am and what a successful presidency I had,” he decreed earlier this week. “I will, therefore, NOT be doing the debates!”

Instead, Trump taped an extended interview with former Fox News’ host Tucker Carlson that’s set to air around the same time the eight challengers take the stage in Milwaukee. Talk about stealing thunder, right?

GOP leaders pleaded with Trump to participate in the forum, but the former president declined. That’s not surprising. Trump has bickered with Fox ever since the network tried unsuccessfully to kneecap his candidacy during his first GOP debate way back in 2016.

Want to know who the real winner is Wednesday night? It’ll be whomever Trump is attacking Thursday morning …

Of course, there’s an argument to be made Trump has already won this debate in absentia. Remember, one of the conditions imposed upon each of the eight candidates participating tomorrow night is that they sign a “loyalty oath” vowing to endorse the eventual GOP nominee.

As of this writing, Trump is backed by a staggering 55.9 percent of GOP primary voters, according to the latest aggregate data from RealClear Politics. That puts him 41.6 percent ahead of his nearest rival (DeSantis).



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#winning August 22, 2023 at 10:20 am

No Republican has a chance at winning the White House after years spent bumbling around sucking up to Trump.

Especially when Trump is treating all his fellow Republicans like complete enemies.

It was a smart move to convince trump to run as a Republican back on 2016. Short term pain, long term successful destruction of the GQP.

Nanker Phelge August 22, 2023 at 11:30 am

What a worthless post about a worthless debate.

I’m surprised Trump isn’t turning himself in to Fulton County jail during the debate.

For Our Entertainment August 22, 2023 at 12:20 pm

Can the debate happen in a wrestling ring?

Throw a few folding chairs in there?

God help whoever Christie does a leg drop on.

George Johnson Top fan August 23, 2023 at 7:36 am

When writing about “the GOP spectrum,” don’t forget just how narrow that spectrum has become. Trump and a band of Trump wannabes without a new idea among them.

Carol Bishop Top fan August 23, 2023 at 8:24 am

I am afraid we are pretty much screwed.

Todd August 23, 2023 at 3:36 pm


No Republican will be in the White House in 2025 and they will likely lose the House as well.

You’ll be fine….we’ll, maybe not in SC.

Elizabeth J Farkas August 23, 2023 at 8:00 pm

I’ll be a happy Democrat in SC if as one commentor said, ‘no Republican will be in the W.H. in 2025 and they will likely lose the House as well.’
Let’s just all hope and pray a more viable option for a Democratic president appears. I believe President Biden has done a great job thus far, but realistically speaking, will he be able to survive a second term?

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VERITAS Top fan August 25, 2023 at 6:19 pm

You state that you … “believe President Biden has done a great job … ” WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

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VERITAS Top fan August 25, 2023 at 6:17 pm

I lived in North Dakota from 1960 – 2003, when I moved into the “Welfare State” known as Minnesota, only because I remarried and my spouse had a business there. I am counting the days when I can move back to North Dakota. I am here to tell you that if you want a president who thinks and acts like a president, Doug Burgum is the man. NOT a culture warrior. NOT a micro-manager. Wants to give power back to the states. Intelligent. Business savvy. The genuine article. He is NOT your cookie-cutter Republican. Wants to move forward only and leave the rest of the nit wit feuding Republicans behind. Solid governor. The fact that the lefty culture warrior columnists writing for the state’s largest newspaper continually attack him tells me that they know there’s a good possibility this guy could do it. I’m betting on Burgum.


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