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DeSantis-Newsom 'debate' offers window into the future of warring visions of America

People gather in San Francisco to watch a debate on Fox News between California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
People gather in San Francisco to watch a debate on Fox News between California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Lincoln-Douglas this was not — though either man would likely eagerly embrace even being mentioned in the same sentence.

There was a political debate Thursday night in Georgia, but not between two presidential candidates. Instead, it was between one governor and presidential candidate and another governor, who some think might be one.

On the one side, there was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is of course running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

It sure looked like a presidential debate. There were two politicians at lecterns, a moderator, even a whole set made to look like one.

But this was a product of TV, specifically of Fox News and host Sean Hannity. Newsom gained attention some months ago for a peppy interview with Hannity.

Hannity seemed to enjoy the back and forth, and the duo formed an unlikely cable bromance. Soon after, when DeSantis looked like the principal alternative to former President Trump, Hannity invited DeSantis to take part in a "debate" with Newsom — and he agreed.

And so this event was birthed. What did we learn?

Newsom again stressed he's not running — at least right now anyway.

The California governor hasn't been shy about making a case for a left-of-center vision for the country. His pearly whites and Pat Riley hair haven't seemed to meet a camera they haven't liked.

It has led to speculation that Newsom is really running a shadow campaign, waiting in the wings in case President Biden doesn't actually run for reelection — despite the fact that Biden is already doing exactly that.

Newsom tried to dismiss — again — that notion early and often in Thursday night's debate.

"There are profound differences tonight, and I'm happy to engage them," Newsom said, "but one thing we do have in common is neither of us will be the nominee of our party in 2024."

As he's done in all of his other public events and interviews this year, Newsom defended Biden, but some — even in his own party — still don't buy the loyal surrogate act.

"There are two additional Democrats running for ... president right now," Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, a Democrat, said earlier this month — ironically from the early caucus state of Iowa. "One is a congressman from Minnesota, the other one is the governor of California, but only one has the guts to announce it."

The congressman from Minnesota being Rep. Dean Phillips.

"I appreciate and respect the work the president is doing," Newsom said during the debate, adding, "I don't know how many times I can say it. They're just making this stuff up about a shadow campaign."

The reality is, Newsom has thrust himself into the conversation for the presidency. If he's not angling to run this cycle, as he says, he certainly appears to be doing so for 2028 — when the country is set to be clear of Trump and Biden.

Because DeSantis is actually running, the stakes were higher for him.

Time is running out for DeSantis.

He's trailing Trump by a lot, there are just 44 days until the Iowa caucuses, and DeSantis needs a strong showing there.

It's not clear he did enough with this appearance to help himself close the gap, though his team was happy with his performance and cited dozens of conservative commentators who praised him.

DeSantis' task was made tougher, though, because Newsom didn't just want to have a debate on which of theirs is a better governing philosophy, but also seemed intent on trying to tank DeSantis' campaign.

"Joe Biden will be our nominee in a matter of weeks," Newsom said, "and in a matter of weeks, Sean, he'll be endorsing Donald Trump as the nominee for the Republican Party."

At another point, this: "When are you going to drop out and at least give Nikki Haley a shot to take down Donald Trump in his nomination. She laid you out."

Newsom clearly seemed to be trying to get under DeSantis' skin — and he appeared to do so at times.

At one point, as both men were talking over each other and the volume got louder, Newsom played his best Joe Cool, threw his hands open, turned to DeSantis and said with a smile, "Hey, Ron, relax."

It's tough to debate a man with nothing to lose, but DeSantis tried.

Aside from the jabs, DeSantis went after Newsom on his record as California governor.

And it was a friendly environment for DeSantis to do so. The topics seemed to benefit his point of view, not unexpectedly, considering the platform. They ranged from:

  • why people are moving out of California,
  • taxes,
  • immigration,
  • violent crime,
  • parental rights in schools,
  • whether Newsom believed in any restrictions on abortion,
  • whether Biden is in "cognitive decline,"
  • if Newsom would step in as the nominee if asked at the Democratic convention next year,
  • why gas prices are so high in California and
  • homelessness.

You get the idea.

With that wind at his back, and on a conservative platform, DeSantis was more than happy to contrast his state with Newsom's.

The "California liberal" reputation is going to be a hurdle for Newsom, if he does decide to run at some point. And DeSantis got in a dig — with some family ties.

"I was talking to a fella who had made the move from California to Florida," DeSantis said before setting up his punch line. "He was telling me that Florida's much better governed, safer, better budget, lower taxes, then he paused and said, 'By the way, I'm Gavin Newsom's father-in-law.' "


Newsom's father-in-law, Kenneth F. Siebel Jr., is an investment manager and longtime GOP donor, according to a Fox News report. A family trust gave money to a pro-DeSantis PAC last year.

DeSantis stressed that Biden, whom he wants to take on in next year's general election, wants to replicate the California model for the nation.

Newsom was quick to counter, charging that Florida's tax system hurts working people, that DeSantis bullies the marginalized and that women's reproductive rights are under assault because of Florida's six-week abortion ban.

"He's lying to you about all these facts and figures," DeSantis charged, "throwing stuff out to see what sticks to the wall. This is a slippery, slick politician."

DeSantis also provocatively went after Newsom on the debate about books in schools and, as he called it, the uncleanliness of California's cities. He brought on stage with him, and displayed for the cameras, what appeared to be a page from a graphic novel with partially blacked-out images showing sexual acts that he claimed is in California schools, as well as a map of, well, poop that he said is from an app depicting parts of San Francisco.

If you liked one or the other coming in — or didn't like one or the other — you probably didn't have your mind changed.

There couldn't be two more ideologically opposite philosophies on how to govern than DeSantis' Florida and Newsom's California.

If you're a conservative, you likely hold up California as everything that's wrong with America — as outlined in the topics presented.

But if you're left of center, you likely see DeSantis and his governance as abhorrent.

That probably didn't change if you watched this debate.

In the end, neither man may be elected president in 2024, but this could be a preview of the next presidential cycle, when the country is past Trump and Biden, and there is the chance for an American political rebirth when candidates will have to debate — on an actual presidential debate stage — their starkly different for their visions of America in a clash of governing ideologies.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.