Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom went head to head in an energetic — and at times ferocious — debate on Thursday that saw the two men spar over taxes, the Covid-19 pandemic, immigration and abortion rights.
The debate, which was aired by Fox News and moderated by conservative host Sean Hannity, offered a distraction from the ongoing 2024 Republican presidential primary, while also highlighting the records of two of the country’s most ambitious governors.
Here are five takeaways from the showdown between DeSantis and Newsom:
DeSantis faced the most direct challenge to his record yet
Thursday night’s debate wasn’t DeSantis’ first nationally televised showdown, yet he faced more direct attacks on his record as governor from Newsom than he has in any Republican primary debate so far.
Newsom went after the Florida governor on everything from his decision to sign a six-week ban on abortions to a program led by the DeSantis administration to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.
“You’re nothing but a bully,” Newsom said to DeSantis.
Newsom’s attacks weren’t unique coming from a Democrat. Still, the debate marked a substantial shift for DeSantis, who has spent more time over the past six months sifting through policy minutiae with fellow Republicans rather than drawing a true contrast with Democrats.
But if DeSantis faced attacks on his record as governor, so did Newsom. DeSantis repeatedly hammered California as an example of liberal policies run amok and claimed that the same fate awaits the entire U.S. if President Joe Biden wins a second term.
“What California represents is the Biden-Harris agenda on steroids,” DeSantis said. “They would love nothing more than to get four more years in order to take the California model nationally.”
DeSantis’ presidential run weighed on his performance
Heading into Thursday’s debate, it was clear that the stakes were higher for DeSantis than Newsom. The Florida governor is actively seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination and is struggling more than ever to hold onto his claim that he’s the most viable Republican alternative to former President Donald Trump.
Indeed, the pressure to stand out showed during the debate. DeSantis showcased a more aggressive side of himself than voters have seen in months, especially compared to his performance in the three Republican primary debates that he’s participated in.
He repeatedly went on the attack against Newsom, saying that while California “has more natural advantages than any state in the country,” it had been spoiled by poor policymaking that had driven residents to leave the state in favor of places like Florida.
But DeSantis’ presidential run also exposed some vulnerabilities. At several points in the debate, Newsom mocked DeSantis’ flagging White House prospects, even asking the Florida governor when he would drop out of the race and give former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley a chance to take on Trump.
Newsom is sticking with Biden in 2024
Newsom left no doubt that regardless of Biden’s lagging approval ratings, and speculation that Biden should not run, he’s with him all the way.
“I will tell you why I’m here. I’m here to tell the truth about the Biden/Harris record and also compare and contrast Ron DeSantis’ record and the Republican Party’s record as a point of contrast that’s as different as daylight and darkness,” Newsom said.
Should he run for president in 2028, his chief rival could be Vice President Kamala Harris. Newsom gave a vigorous defense of Harris, noting how DeSantis mispronounced her name.
“Stop insulting her,” Newsom told DeSantis.
But Newsom may still have higher ambitions
Newsom has taken all the steps that a potential presidential candidate takes. He’s set up fundraising committees, traveled to conservative states, and now went one-on-one on Fox News Channel with DeSantis.
Newsom reiterated he’s not running this year. But he previewed what a possible 2028 campaign could be like, as he not only passionately defended California, but the national Democratic policy.
On immigration, for instance, he cited Biden’s plan last month to provide $14 billion to help boost border security, and cited congressional inaction as a reason it was stalled. He tried to get DeSantis to react to the plan but the governor never did.
No room for moderates
Neither governor tried to move to the center, and each tried to paint the other as an extremist.
“These liberal elites, they like to impose burdens on you. They don’t want to have to face the consequences of their actions. So, we’ve got a lot of elites who want open borders, who lecture everybody else about it, then the minute they have to deal with any of the consequences, oh, man, all hell breaks loose and they get upset,” DeSantis said.
Newsom “I love the rant on freedom. I mean, here’s a guy who’s criminalizing teachers, criminalizing doctors, criminalizing librarians and criminalizing women that seek their reproductive care. You’re making it harder to vote, you’re banning books.”