California’s governor said he would choose a 100-year-old Joe Biden as president to Republican Ron DeSantis “at any age” in a prime time debate on Thursday night.
Gavin Newsom, who has become increasingly prominent within the Democratic party, had challenged the Florida governor and presidential candidate to the debate on the conservative network Fox News.
It has fuelled speculation that Mr Newsom has 2024 ambitions of his own, amid polls showing widespread unease over the 81-year-old Mr Biden’s re-election bid.
But senior Democrats said the White House had opted against vetoing the clash and were pleased with Mr Newsom’s vociferous defence of the president.
Asked if Mr Biden was experiencing cognitive decline, Mr DeSantis, 45, said: “Yes he’s in decline, he’s a danger to the country” Before adding: “Gavin Newsom agrees with that, that’s why he’s running a shadow campaign.”
The California governor, 56, shot back: “I will take Joe Biden at 100 versus Ron DeSantis any day of the week, at any age.”
DeSantis gets airtime ahead of fourth Republican debate
The governors’ clash was the most intriguing debate of the 2024 campaign yet, in what was dubbed the “Great Red vs Blue State Debate” by Fox News.
Mr DeSantis, who is polling second in the Republican primary race, agreed to face Mr Newsom ahead of the first caucus in Iowa next month. It guaranteed him significant air time on the most popular conservative cable news network ahead of the fourth Republican candidates’ debate next in Alabama next Wednesday.
The debate was moderated by Sean Hannity, one of America’s best known TV anchors, who repeatedly dwelt on the question of Mr Biden’s cognitive state, underscoring Democrats’ concerns over the Fox personality’s motivation for agreeing to host the debate.
Highlighting some Democrats’ desire for a new leader, Mr Hannity asked Mr Newsom about the possibility that the party’s delegates could attempt to nominate him at the party’s convention next summer.
Mr Newsom said that was “not even” an option, adding he was “unequivocally” backing Mr Biden.
Mr DeSantis said: “He says Joe Biden is 100 per cent up to the job. You know that’s not true… he wants you to believe him over your own lyin’ eyes”.
Trump video attacks DeSantis
Donald Trump, 77, who holds a commanding lead over the Republican field has declined to attend any of the debates so far. But he released a digitally altered video of Mr DeSantis and Mr Newsom’s confrontation mocking the Florida governor as a “short, insecure little man” and accusing him of betrayal.
The Trump video claims Mr DeSantis has been using height-boosting footwear. Mr DeSantis’ campaign has vehemently denied the reports.
With Mr DeSantis trailing a distant second to Mr Trump, and Mr Newsom vowing to back Mr Biden in 2024, Thursday night’s debate may have offered a glimpse of the next generation of both parties’ leaders. The event saw the two men argue over which of their states had performed better on various economic and social metrics, as well as how the 2024 campaign was shaping up.
Bizarre stunts interspersed the moments of substantive debate on Thursday night, with Mr DeSantis holding up a map of “human faeces”.
It came after Mr Newsom mocked the Florida governor for his position in the primary polls, telling Hannity: “There’s one thing that we have in common. Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024.”
Mr Newsom, who is widely expected to mount a presidential run in 2028, has been operating as a high profile “surrogate” of the Biden campaign, defending the president on news programmes as his popularity wanes with American voters.
He previously denied that he was considering challenging the president in a Democratic primary race, and argued that if Mr Biden is forced to drop out due to ill health, then Kamala Harris should take his place.
Mr DeSantis currently has the support of around 12.6 per cent of Republican voters, according to the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregator. Mr Trump has 60 per cent support, while Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy trail with 9.5 per cent and 5.1 per cent respectively.