Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis are entering uncharted territory in their pursuit of political stardom.
A nationally televised debate between two politicians not running for office against one another is a rarity. About the closest modern parallel is the November 1993 faceoff between Vice President Al Gore and 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot over trade policy, moderated by CNN’s Larry King.
It means the risks and rewards are largely unknown.
Fox News announced Monday that Newsom and DeSantis will meet on Nov. 30 in Georgia with Fox News host Sean Hannity as moderator. The news channel is calling the event the “Red State vs. Blue State Debate.”
DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is running for the Republican presidential nomination next year. Newsom, the governor of California, is trying to establish himself as the leading Democratic voice in the post-Joe Biden era.
What they say — and how they look — is likely to fix their images in voters’ minds for a long time. Count on both to show up with a collection of carefully polished zingers.
“The thing we remember about these debates: the one-liners,” said Gibbs Knotts, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of Charleston.
“If it goes badly and you make a gaffe, in this day and age where something gets repeated, you have memes made about you,” he said. Gibbs is author of “First in the South: Why South Carolina’s Presidential Primary Matters.”
The biggest reward may come from simply showing up.
“Both candidates win the debate by the very nature of it occurring,” said Jacob Thompson, a presidential debate expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Their goal is both media attention and name recognition.”
Gaffes tend to be less important now, he said. That is particularly true in a debate like this one, where each candidate is trying to solidify his base by giving supporters plenty of highlights, talking points and rallying cries.
Politics is bitterly partisan, and “partisanship inspires people to vote against rather than for someone,” Thompson said. “You’re there to root against the other person doing well. How well your candidate does is a given for you. You think they are perfect.”
Both have the money and the expertise to shape their images via advertising as well as policy. What makes a debate between them so unpredictable is that it’s the rare event neither can completely shape or control.
DeSantis may be at a point where he has little to lose.
New polls show his standing eroding nationally and in early primary states. A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll last week found that he has lost about half of his support over the last two months.
He trails former President Donald Trump 39% to 10% and is essentially tied with Vivek Ramaswamy (13%), Nikki Haley (12%) and Chris Christie (11%). Polling among Iowa voters looks about the same.
But a strong debate showing against Newsom could help.
“If DeSantis does well, it’s rocket fuel for him,” said Tobe Berkovitz, professor emeritus, advertising at Boston University.
“DeSantis needs anything to get some momentum going and he’s got a 50-50 chance this is a momentum-builder,” said Berkovitz, a veteran campaign consultant. “If you can’t even debate Newsom, how are you gonna debate anyone else?”
DeSantis’ talking points should come easy, he said. “California is the flip side of Florida. If you’re looking at two polar opposites in terms of the economy and which state seems to be on the upswing and which is on the downswing.”
The Florida governor has shown an ability to rattle off facts to support his claims, the sort of style that “can rally the Republican base,” said Knotts.
The downside for DeSantis is getting too pedantic, too boring. And any slip, or perception that he’s dull, is likely to have short-term consequences for DeSantis, not Newsom.
“DeSantis inherently has more at stake because he’s the one who is actually a national candidate right now,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis firm.
The biggest unknown is just what DeSantis may need politically. That may become more clear this week, after the Republican Party holds its second presidential debate Wednesday evening at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
Will DeSantis have momentum and use the Newsom event to keep that energy going? Or will he be an also-ran facing a last-gasp effort to save his candidacy?
The California governor faces a different mix of risks and rewards. Outside of California, he’s barely known, which means whatever happens is likely to leave a strong impression.
“I don’t know he’s a presence in anybody’s mind at this point,” said Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines. Iowa had traditionally held the nation’s first presidential caucus, although Democrats are now shifting to elevate other states.
Newsom has been working hard to establish a national presence among insiders, traveling to conservative states and calling out DeSantis and other Republican governors. He even used his gubernatorial re-election money to fund television, print and billboard advertisements for California policies in Florida, Texas and other GOP strongholds.
He appeared on Hannity’s program twice in June, but taking on DeSantis could bring a bigger boost.
“Being a foil for Ron DeSantis builds your national profile,” said Scott Brennan, a Democratic National Committee member from Iowa. “It’s gotta be fun for Newsom to say, ‘Here are the policies we care about in California. We care about people and education.’”
Newsom, though, could stumble if the talk turns to federal matters. DeSantis was a congressman for about six years, chairing a national security subcommittee. He has experience considering legislation affecting national defense and the national debt.
“As governor you really haven’t had to take a stance on those issues,” said Knotts of Newsom. “He’s wading into new territory.”
Nationally televised appearances have a long history of establishing images that harden like cement.
The Florida governor risks alienating voters just weeks before the Jan. 15 Iowa caucus. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s a 2012 presidential candidacy was quickly upended when he couldn’t remember the third of three federal agencies he had proposed eliminating during a 2011 debate.
Sen. Mario Rubio, R-Florida, was an up-and-coming Republican star. But for years he was chided because he reached for a water bottle while delivering the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address 2013.
In the end, the debate has high stakes, period. Campaign strategies are an ever-shifting science, and a Newsom-DeSantis confrontation — a debate between two prominent politicians not directly competing against one another — could follow its own unique rules, even regarding missteps.
“History is replete with single gaffes turning into potential campaign ruining events,” said UNLV’s Thompson. “But in the current political environment that’s incredibly highly polarized, gaffes play a less important role, unless it damages his reputation with his base.”