The unusual debate between Govs. Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom Thursday night featured a variety of topics and lots of testy, often-inaudible cross-talk.
The meeting of the Florida and California governors was billed as a showdown between red vs. blue state ideas. But with both men constantly talking about President Joe Biden plus debate moderator and Fox News host Sean Hannity peppering in questions on foreign policy, that pretense was often replaced with a focus on national politics.
Held in the swing state of Georgia on a stage with no audience, the men both called each other bullies and wrangled over education, taxes, crime, guns, homelessness, unemployment and more. The evening provided an opportunity for both governors to present themselves as the next generation of standard-bearers for their parties.
The debate also came at a vulnerable moment for DeSantis’ presidential campaign, which needs momentum after a particularly stinging few weeks of bad news, even for a team that has grown accustomed to national skepticism surrounding the Florida governor’s candidacy.
Polls continue to show former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley edging closer and closer to DeSantis’ hold on second place in the GOP presidential primary. Last week, Chris Jankowski, the chief executive of the super PAC that has been providing enormous support for DeSantis’ cash-strapped campaign, resigned. The news happened less than two months before the Iowa caucuses, considered a make-or-break state for DeSantis.
Here are three takeaways from the night:
1. The statistics-heavy debate was not easy to follow.
Hannity started many of his questions with a statistic that almost always featured Florida looking better than California. That often launched DeSantis and Newsom into arguments over which statistics mattered or were even accurate.
That made much of the debate difficult to digest for viewers at home, and left the evening void of many zinger moments typical of these high-profile contests. Hannity struggled to reign in the cross-talk.
Both men came armed with talking points and data about the other’s state. At one point in the debate, DeSantis pulled out a paper map as a prop, which he said plotted all the points where human feces had been found on the streets of San Francisco.
2. It was all about President Joe Biden.
Almost immediately, Newsom took up the mantle of defending Biden’s policies, making himself a surrogate for the president.
That seemed to fit perfectly with DeSantis’ strategy of positioning himself as a foil to Newsom and, by extension, trying to show himself capable of taking on Biden as an opponent.
“This is the vision of Biden-Harris-Newsom: open borders, Americans suffer,” DeSantis said at one point during a discussion of immigration.
“Let’s talk a little bit about Bidenomics,” Newsom said during a different segment on taxes. “I’m happy to take that on.”
That theme repeated itself throughout the night, and played to both men’s desire to appear as national-caliber candidates willing to embrace big fights.
3. Each accused the other of blind ambition.
Newsom seemed to land a hit against DeSantis when he brought up the GOP presidential candidate’s struggling poll numbers, after saying DeSantis orchestrated the flights of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard to seek attention.
“And by the way, how is that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own home state,” he said.
DeSantis smiled at the camera and did not respond directly to the attack.
But several times during the night, he accused Newsom of secretly wanting to be president.
“(Biden) has no business running for president,” DeSantis said, referring to the president’s age. “And you know Gavin Newsom agrees with that. He won’t say that, but that’s why he’s running his shadow campaign.”
While Newsom is viewed as a likely candidate for future presidential races, he repeated Thursday night that he had no intention of running in 2024 and is supporting Biden.
“There’s one thing ... that we have in common,” Newsom said. “Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024.”