Two big-state governors with presidential ambitions, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, argued Thursday over the economy, pandemic restrictions and President Joe Biden's leadership in a prime-time showdown filled with fiery clashes over policy and personal insults.
“This is a slick, slippery politician whose state is failing,” DeSantis charged.
Newsom defended California but seemed to take delight in highlighting DeSantis' lagging presidential bid ahead of next year's election.
“How’s that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own home state," said Newsom, who is backing Biden for president. “Neither of us will be the nominee for a party in 2024."
The host, Fox News Channel, billed the 90-minute affair hosted by Sean Hannity as “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate.” 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 fall's general election.
As leaders of two of the three most populous states, DeSantis and Newsom have spent much of the past year poking each other's 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.
DeSantis, a 45-year-old Republican governor elected to his second and final term last fall, is trying to build momentum in a 2024 campaign to defeat former President Donald Trump, who remains the overwhelming front-runner in the GOP primary.
Newsom, California’s 56-year-old term-limited Democratic governor, has positioned himself to seek the presidency someday, but like the rest of his party’s most ambitious leaders, he declined to challenge President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2024. Instead, he’s emerged as a leading defender of Biden and a formal campaign adviser.
He embraced that role Thursday night after DeSantis said he was "joined at the hip with Biden and (Vice President Kamala) Harris.”
“I’m proud of the work Biden and Harris have done,” Newsom said, ticking through unemployment statistics.
Both Newsom and DeSantis saw Thursday night’s meeting as a real opportunity to strengthen their political standing in the short and longer term.
DeSantis' allies have been talking up the event in recent days as a rare opportunity to prove his strength against one of the nation's most prominent Democrats. DeSantis’ Republican rivals privately acknowledged he would likely raise a significant amount of money through online donations as a result of the appearance.
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 — or sooner, should the 81-year-old Biden unexpectedly drop out. Newsom has repeatedly shut down whispers about his interest in a 2024 bid.
Newsom has paid particular attention to Florida as DeSantis racked up conservative policy wins in recent years that pushed the purple state farther and farther to the right. In turn, DeSantis traveled to California earlier in the year and posted a video to social media highlighting drug use and homelessness in San Francisco, blaming the state's “leftist policies.”
When Thursday's conversation turned to the pandemic, DeSantis called Newsom “a lockdown governor” who did “damage” to working people in California while his own kids went to private school.
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 DeSantis’ later opposition to public health restrictions led to unnecessary deaths in Florida.
“Tens of thousands of people lost their lives. And for what, Ron?” Newsom asked.
Trump’s 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, in a statement shortly before it began.
“Ron DeSanctimonious is acting more like a thirsty, third-rate OnlyFans wannabe model than an actual presidential candidate,” the Trump campaign wrote, using one of the many nicknames the former president has given his rival. “Instead of actually campaigning and trying to turn around his dismal poll numbers, DeSanctus is now so desperate for attention that he’s debating a Grade A loser like Gavin Newsom.”
Mark Swanson ✉
Mark Swanson, a Newsmax writer and editor, has nearly three decades of experience covering news, culture and politics.
Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.