WASHINGTON â In an alternate reality, the prime-time showdown between California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday could have been a preview of a 2024 general election debate.
Instead, it was a hard-to-explain 90-minute clash that pitted one struggling Republican presidential hopeful against a Democratic rival who may or may not seek the presidency in four years.
But for a night, at least, the big-state governors were eager to represent their parties on the national stage as they battled over the economy, pandemic restrictions and President Joe Bidenâs leadership in a Fox News faceoff peppered with fiery policy disputes and personal insults.
âThis is a slick, slippery politician whose state is failing,â DeSantis said of Newsom.
The California Democrat defended his state, but was equally eager to shift the discussion to DeSantisâ stagnant 2024 presidential bid.
âHowâs that going for you, Ron? Youâre down 41 points in your own home state,â said Newsom, who is backing Biden for president. âNeither of us will be the nominee for a party in 2024.â
The host, Fox News Channel, billed the event hosted by Sean Hannity as âThe Great Red vs. Blue State Debate.â Yet it was held in a television studio with no audience in Georgia, a location chosen for its key swing-state implications in national politics. And it played out in the heart of presidential primary season with voters in both parties paying closer attention to their 2024 options heading into next fallâs general election.
As leaders of two of the three most populous states, DeSantis and Newsom have spent much of the past year poking each otherâs policy choices and leadership style from afar. But on Thursday night, they got their first chance to challenge each other on the same national stage.
It was hard to watch at times.
The two participants, standing at podiums alone onstage, accused each other of lying repeatedly and talked over each other throughout. And while they largely focused on policy differences, the debate was also deeply personal at times.
DeSantis called Newsom âa liberal bully.â Of DeSantis, Newsom said, âI donât like the way you demean and humiliate people you disagree with.â
Hannity struggled to control the action. Over and over, he encouraged the men to give each other âbreathing room.â
DeSantis, a 45-year-old Republican governor elected to his second and final term last fall, is grasping for momentum in a 2024 campaign plagued by missteps in his bid to defeat former President Donald Trump, who remains the overwhelming front-runner in the GOP primary.
Newsom, Californiaâs 56-year-old term-limited Democratic governor, has positioned himself to seek the presidency someday, but like the rest of his partyâs most ambitious leaders, he declined to challenge Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2024. Instead, heâs emerged as a leading defender of Biden and a formal campaign adviser.
He embraced that role Thursday night after DeSantis said he was âjoined at the hip with Biden and (Vice President Kamala) Harris.â Later, the Florida governor said Biden, at 81 years old, is âin declineâ and represents âa danger to the country.â
âIâm proud of the work Biden and Harris have done,â Newsom said, ticking through unemployment statistics. âI will take Joe Biden at 100 rather than Ron DeSantis any day of the week at any age.â
Throughout the event, the Biden campaign was sending out video clips of Newsomâs performance. And afterward, Newsom issued a fundraising appeal on Bidenâs behalf. DeSantisâ team, too, issued a steady stream of his own highlights, just as it would during a traditional presidential debate.
Indeed, both Newsom and DeSantis saw Thursday nightâs meeting as a real opportunity to strengthen their political standing in the short and longer term.
DeSantisâ allies talked up the event in recent days as a rare opportunity to prove his strength against one of the nationâs most prominent Democrats â a sharp contrast from recent Republican presidential debates where heâs struggled to break through on a stage where the candidates agree on most issues. And even some of DeSantisâ Republican rivals privately acknowledged he would likely raise a significant amount of money through online donations as a result of the appearance.
Just minutes after the event concluded, DeSantisâ campaign sent out a statement from his campaign manager with the headline, âDeSantis Crushes Newsom and Biden, Unites Republicans in Debate Win.â
Meanwhile, Newsom, who, like DeSantis, will be out of a job come January 2027, has been eager to broaden his political profile ahead of a possible presidential bid in 2028 â or sooner, should the 81-year-old Biden unexpectedly drop out. But as he has for much of the year, Newsom on Thursday reiterated his support for the Democratic presidentâs reelection.
He was certainly not speaking to the Democratic base by appearing on the conservative-friendly Fox News, although the move was in line with his recent political strategy. In March, Newsom launched the âCampaign for Democracyâ committee, which has allowed him to travel to red states that Democrats typically avoid.
When Thursdayâs conversation turned to the pandemic, DeSantis called Newsom âa lockdown governorâ who hurt working people in California while his own kids went to private school.
Newsom was ready for the attack.
Echoing a criticism from Trump, the California Democrat reminded viewers that DeSantis initially backed many of the same pandemic restrictions that he now condemns. He also said DeSantisâ later opposition to public health restrictions led to unnecessary deaths in Florida.
âTens of thousands of people lost their lives. And for what, Ron?â Newsom asked.
Trumpâs campaign, aware that the unusual event was drawing national attention, unleashed a slew of fresh insults at DeSantis, one of his strongest Republican primary rivals, shortly before it began.
âRon DeSanctimonious is acting more like a thirsty, third-rate OnlyFans wannabe model than an actual presidential candidate,â the Trump campaign wrote, using one of the many nicknames the former president has given his rival. âInstead of actually campaigning and trying to turn around his dismal poll numbers, DeSanctus is now so desperate for attention that heâs debating a Grade A loser like Gavin Newsom.â