DeSantis-Newsom Debate: What We Learned and Key Takeaways

For an hour and a half on Thursday night, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California shouted at and interrupted each other, trying to leave an impression on Fox News viewers beyond the din of their slugfest.

The debate in Alpharetta, Ga., was a chance for Mr. DeSantis to hold the spotlight without other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination on the stage. It was a chance for Mr. Newsom to bring his smooth persona and quick wit to a national — and conservative — audience.

Here are five takeaways.

The debate’s moderator, Sean Hannity, wanted the night to be a showdown between the liberal governor of the most populous state in the nation and the conservative governor of the third most populous state over starkly different views of governance.

From the beginning, Mr. Hannity pressed Mr. Newsom on his state’s high tax rates, its loss of residents over the past two years and its relatively higher crime rate. And Mr. DeSantis backed up the moderator in his challenges to how California is run.

It was an odd, mismatched conversation, since Mr. Newsom, who is not running for president, tried hard to focus on the 2024 campaign in which Mr. DeSantis is currently running. Mr. Newsom talked up President Biden’s record on the economy, health care and immigration and took swipes at Mr. DeSantis’s flagging campaign in the face of former President Donald J. Trump’s dominance.

“We have one thing in common: Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024,” Mr. Newsom said early in the debate, only to follow later with a left hook about Mr. Trump’s polling lead in Florida. “How’s that going for you, Ron?” he taunted. “You’re down 41 points in your own state.”

An exasperated Mr. Hannity asked Mr. Newsom at one point: “Is Joe Biden paying you tonight? I thought this was state versus state.”

Through three Republican primary debates, Mr. DeSantis has struggled to make an impression on a crowded stage with several deft campaigners. On Thursday night, a different Mr. DeSantis was onstage.

He kept Mr. Newsom on his heels for much of the night. With Mr. Hannity’s help, he hit Mr. Newsom on subject after subject: crime, immigration, taxes, education.

And he appeared prepared. When Mr. Newsom predictably brought up Mr. DeSantis’s fruitless war with Disney, the Florida governor didn’t defend his actions but went after his California counterpart over his Covid policies: “You had Disney closed inexplicably for more than a year,” he said.

If Mr. DeSantis wanted to take the sheen off the Golden State, Mr. Newsom seemed determined to bury Mr. DeSantis’s White House aspirations. The Californian was definitive in dismissing speculation that he was running for president, and was just as definitive in saying the Floridian was going nowhere.

“Joe Biden will be our nominee in a matter of weeks,” Mr. Newsom said before adding of Mr. DeSantis, “In a matter of weeks, he will be endorsing Donald Trump.”

It was not a one-off jab. Mr. Newsom told his onstage rival that “Donald Trump laid you out” on Florida’s initial Covid restrictions. He accused Mr. DeSantis of caving to the far right in lifting the restrictions and allowing tens of thousands of Floridians to die.

Mr. Newsom invoked Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and one of Mr. DeSantis’s competitors for the Republican nomination, when he said the Florida governor opposed fracking.

“You were celebrated by the Sierra Club for that action until you weren’t,” he said.

To conclude the debate, Newsom stuck in the knife: “When are you going to drop out and give Nikki Haley a chance to take on Donald Trump?” he asked. “She laid you out.”

As the debate began, Mr. Hannity allowed that he was a conservative, but stipulated that as a moderator, he would be fair and nonpartisan.

About an hour later, he began one question with this assertion: “Joe Biden has experienced significant cognitive decline.”

Fair he wasn’t.

Protestations aside, Mr. Hannity didn’t even try to be evenhanded. Again and again, he served up softballs to Mr. DeSantis, while shutting down Mr. Newsom’s attempts to defend himself.

And he trotted out a series of well-prepared graphics to show Florida in the best possible light, and California in the worst: on education, crime, tax rates and population loss and gain. Mr. Newsom tried to rebut those graphics, but all Mr. DeSantis had to do was turn to the graphics to say the Californian was a slick spinmeister.

The California governor wanted to shine a rosy light on Mr. Biden’s record before a Fox News audience unused to hearing anything positive about the president.

Inflation was down to 3.2 percent, he noted. Wage growth had topped 4 percent, and economic growth in the last quarter was a blistering 5.2 percent, he said, adding, “Those are facts you don’t hear on Fox News.”

But in a two-on-one fight, those facts probably didn’t get through, especially when both the moderator and the Florida governor were double-teaming Mr. Newsom on their repeated assertions of the president’s cognitive decline. Mr. Newsom did not come up with a particularly good defense on the matter, though he did say he would take Mr. Biden at 100 years old over Mr. DeSantis at any age in the White House.

Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Hannity also teamed up on the dangers of an uncontrolled border, and when Mr. Newsom tried to hit Mr. DeSantis on having gladly taken money from Mr. Biden’s signature achievements, including millions of dollars from the law he signed to promote a domestic semiconductor industry and revive commercial science, Mr. Hannity just moved the conversation along.

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