DeSantis looks to frame debate with Newsom as showdown with a potential 2024 rival

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Democratic counterpart in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, agreed in September to the terms of a one-on-one televised debate, it was billed as a chance for two ideological opposites to present their radically different approaches to governing to a national audience.

Now, for DeSantis, at least, it may be more than that.

For days, the Florida governor and his allies have been dropping hints that he sees the Thursday night debate with Newsom not just as a showdown with a blue state governor, but as a chance to take on a potential rival for the presidency, either in 2024 or some time in the future. The hour-and-a-half-long debate will take place in Alpharetta, Georgia, at 9 p.m. EST and will air on Fox News.

During a town hall on the conservative network Newsmax last week, DeSantis urged Republican voters not to “assume” that President Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee in 2024, and said that someone like Newsom or Vice President Kamala Harris may still step into the race.

A day later, he accused the California governor of running a “shadow campaign” for the White House, adding that Republicans have “got to be ready” for a scenario in which Newsom mounts a White House bid.

“A lot of Democrats want to move Biden out,” DeSantis said during an appearance on “Fox & Friends” last week. “You could have Harris, you could have Newsom, you can have a lot of different people. But I think it’s important that Republican voters get the sense that we may not be running against Biden.”

In a statement to the Miami Herald, DeSantis’ campaign manager James Uthmeier called the upcoming debate “the biggest one yet,” claiming that Democrats have become increasingly eager to replace Biden at the top of the ticket in 2024.

“A Newsom presidency would accelerate America’s decline, and November 30th will be the first chance to expose to a national audience just how dangerous his radical ideology would be for the country,” Uthmeier said. “Ron DeSantis will take this responsibility seriously and looks forward to sharing the stark contrast between his vision to revive our nation and Newsom’s blueprint for failure.”

Knocking down 2024 speculation

Newsom, for his part, has repeatedly shot down speculation that he’s angling to run for president in 2024 and has said that he’s all in on Biden’s reelection campaign. Still, his national profile has been on the rise.

Newsom has emerged as a top surrogate for Biden’s reelection bid, even appearing on the sidelines of the second Republican presidential debate in September on behalf of the president’s campaign. He’s also shown a willingness to appear on conservative-leaning networks, like Fox News, where he’s readily sparred with host Sean Hannity.

And in a surprise move, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing during a weeklong trip to China last month.

All that has fueled speculation that Newsom may be setting himself up for a presidential bid in 2028 — or even in 2024, should Biden decide against a run.

Nathan Click, a consultant for Newsom, said that the California governor plans to use the debate — which will be aired by Fox News and moderated by Hannity — to “defend” Biden’s record and push back against what he described as DeSantis’ “misinformation machine.”

“We are under no illusions. This is a 2 on 1 match with the refs in the tank for the home team,” Click said in a statement to the Herald. “But Gov. Newsom has long believed that Democrats have to go on offense in enemy territory, and that’s exactly what he intends to do.”

In need of a boost

Regardless, the debate offers both men the opportunity for a much-needed political lift.

Newsom is facing a souring electorate in California, where a recent poll from the University of California-Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found his approval rating underwater for the first time since he took office in 2019. As of late October, 49% of California voters disapprove of the job Newsom is doing, while 44% approve — an 11-point decline since February.

DeSantis’ challenges are even more glaring, given that he’s in the midst of a national campaign.

Once seen by Republicans as the candidate best-positioned to beat former President Donald Trump in the race for the GOP’s 2024 White House nomination, he’s now found himself competing with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for a distant second place in the primary contest. Back home in Florida, a recent Florida Atlantic University poll found DeSantis’ approval rating split; 50% of voters said they approve of his job performance, while 49% said they disapproved.

Click said those struggles are exactly why DeSantis accepted Newsom’s challenge to debate.

“We were shocked when he accepted,” Click said. “Newsom had been challenging DeSantis for months to debate, and the fact that he finally accepted as his campaign was circling the drain shows just how bad DeSantis needs to distract from his disaster of [a] candidacy.”

There’s plenty on the line for DeSantis on Thursday night. Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said that the debate will allow DeSantis to put himself and his message in front of millions of Republican voters — including influential political donors — just weeks before the 2024 presidential primary contest formally kicks off.

And for both DeSantis and Newsom, the debate is an opportunity to galvanize their parties’ respective bases.

“He’s on national television, and he gets an hour-and-a-half to fight against someone that Republicans universally dislike,” Naughton said. Anything Newsom attacks him on probably benefits him, and vice versa. It’s good for both of them.”

But even by many Republicans’ own admissions, Newsom is an adept debater, who’s well-practiced in parrying GOP attacks on his record as governor. He’s also already telegraphed at least one issue that he plans to hit DeSantis over. Last week, he released a TV ad accusing DeSantis of criminalizing women who pursue abortions and their doctors.

“You can say what you want about Gavin Newsom, but he’s one hell of a defensive communicator,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said. “This is not going to be easy for DeSantis.”