DeSantis vs. Newsom: Watch out for these weaknesses in their debate | Opinion

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

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is running behind former president Donald Trump for the Republican nomination in the 2024 presidential election, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom isn’t running - yet - for the Democratic nomination. But Thursday’s “The Great Red vs. Blue Debate,” hosted by Sean Hannity on Fox News, could shift voter perceptions in either primary.

We asked two McClatchy writers - Miami Herald Opinion writer Isadora Rangel and Sacramento Bee Opinion Writer Tom Philp - to break down the five biggest debate weaknesses of the governor each knows well.

5 DeSantis weaknesses

Debating California Gov. Gavin Newsom should give Gov. Ron DeSantis free publicity before the crucial Iowa caucuses in seven weeks. Both governors are eager for the spotlight, but only one of them actually needs it right now — DeSantis, who’s losing badly in primary polls.

With Donald Trump’s continued domination in presidential polls, Thursday’s “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate” hosted by Sean Hannity on Fox News might allow DeSantis to comes across as a champion of conservatism against a liberal California guy. But DeSantis also has plenty of weaknesses that Newsom will no doubt capitalize on. They include:

Abortion: Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, abortion has turned out to be a tricky issue for Republicans and a gift to Democrats who outperformed in the 2022 and 2023 elections nationwide.

DeSantis is telling Republicans he can reverse the party’s poor electoral showing. But he also exemplifies anti-abortion extremism that may appeal to Christian voters but turns off many moderate Republicans. After Florida passed a 15-week ban last year, DeSantis forced through a six-week ban, one of the most restrictive in the nation and, essentially, an outright ban because most women don’t even know they’re pregnant that early.

Newsom is already running ads attacking DeSantis’ on this Achilles heel. It’ll be hard for the Florida governor to look anything but callous to women stripped of their reproductive choices.

War on woke: DeSantis rode his antipathy to anything that felt “woke” into a second term in Florida. But his anti-gay, anti-DEI, anti-political correctness platform has fallen flat nationally. In fact, it backfired after his campaign promoted online videos that included Nazi imagery and a bizarre montage of memes and apparent homoerotic references meant to paint Trump as being too friendly to the LGBTQ+ community.

His culture wars turned Florida into a pariah thanks to laws like “Don’t say gay” and African-American history standards that teach students slaves benefited from skills they learned in captivity. DeSantis will be in a tough position. If he defends his anti-woke attitudes, he won’t gain much traction. If he backs down, he’ll look worse.

Antisemitism: DeSantis has come out strongly for Israel after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas by chartering planes to bring back Americans stranded there. He also signed laws to combat antisemitism.

But he has failed, over and over, to strongly denounce the ugly rise of antisemitism in his own state. When asked about neo-Nazi demonstrations near Orlando last year, he accused Democrats of trying to smear him. In a CNN interview last week, he fumbled the opportunity to disavow Elon Musk’s endorsement of a known anti-Jewish conspiracy.

Newsom should ask DeSantis to, once and for all, condemn the stomach-turning displays in Florida.

Housing: California is expensive, but Florida is no longer the land of affordable living, and a homeowner insurance crisis has dogged DeSantis. Coupled with higher housing prices, home ownership is out of reach for many people.

Trump, a Florida resident, even said on the campaign trail that DeSantis should “get home” to deal with the out-of-control insurance market. The governor did call a special legislative session last year to lower insurance companies’ litigation costs. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers promised those savings would eventually trickle down to consumers, but recent industry analyses predict premiums will not drop anytime soon.

DeSantis cannot control extreme weather that contributes to rising insurance costs. But he does control much of Florida’s legislative agenda. Yet he shows more concern for drag queen shows than solving this real crisis.

Charisma: Finally, DeSantis himself has been a problem on the campaign trail. Often, his actions seem forced when trying to connect with voters. Sometimes, he appears to be impatient or angry.

Internet speculation about whether he wears heeled boots to appear taller continues. His latest debate performance was good, but the contrived DeSantis doesn’t have Trump’s unscripted magnetism or Nikki Haley’s quick wit.

That makes the stakes higher for DeSantis on Thursday. His only viable option is to “own” the liberal Newsom — and even then, his chances of winning the GOP nomination are looking smaller by the day.

Isadora Rangel

5 Newsom weaknesses

Debating Ron DeSantis is a lose-lose proposition for California Gov. Gavin Newsom. He may enjoy some memorable exchanges in clobbering the Florida governor. But Newsom undoubtedly will answer some questions that will further expose the Democratic Party’s increasingly divided political base.

Fox News personality Sean Hannity, the architect of the Nov. 30 debate in Alpharetta, Georgia, isn’t doing this event to help Newsom or to hurt former President Donald Trump. Hannity seems willing to make some collateral damage out of DeSantis to extract some Newsom snippets that will hurt him with some core audiences for whenever the California governor runs next.


Here are Newsom’s five greatest weaknesses:

Joe Biden: Ron DeSantis does not have to defend Trump. DeSantis can use the debate to strategically create some political distance between himself and the Republican party’s leading candidate.

Newsom has no harbor other than to offer a full-throated defense of the 81-year-old Biden. The notion that age is not an issue for Biden simply does not resonate with most voters and won’t work. It particularly does not with younger voters, a coveted demographic for Newsom. The longer DeSantis can make Biden the topic, the better.

Housing: Newsom is known for his remarkable capacity to cite statistics and spontaneously spew them out when the right question comes along. DeSantis can out-Newsom the California governor when it comes to housing — if the Florida governor does his homework.

When it comes to these two states and housing, DeSantis has run laps around Newsom. And the numbers to prove it- they exist and are irrefutable.

Housing starts. Housing prices. Homeownership rate. Rental vacancy rate. They all point to a healthier Florida and a California in crisis.

Study after study demonstrates how the lack of affordable housing drives homelessness in this country. With about half of the nation’s unsheltered homeless population living in California (while it has been dropping in recent years in Florida), DeSantis should have his nerdy numbers debate moment with housing. Florida does have its own affordable housing challenges, but with the median housing price in California 62 percent higher than in Florida last month, this is still fertile territory for DeSantis.

Israel: Here is a topic where the two candidates will likely agree, and that will hurt Newsom. The California governor must support Biden, who has been an unequivocal supporter of Israel after the savage attack on the country by the terrorist group Hamas and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza.

The Democratic Party got a flavor of how the Israeli-Gaza conflict is deeply dividing the party at the recent California convention in Sacramento, where events were curtailed due to a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Supporting Israel runs little risk for DeSantis. Supporting Biden’s Middle East positions will further alienate Newsom from the Democrat’s next generation of voters.

Reparations: Because of legislation Newsom signed, California is poised to be the first state in the nation to debate reparations for its descendants of slavery. A task force to study reparations (created by a bill that Newsom signed) completed its work in July. California’s Legislative Black Caucus has signaled it plans to introduce 12 bills in the next legislative session.

Newsom already signaled to Hannity in a June interview that the governor believes that reparations are “more than just about money.” While opposing direct financial reparations may be a popular position with the public at large, it begs the question of why Newsom opened up the issue in the first place and what reparations he specifically has in mind.

While DeSantis has free range on this topic, Newsom risks further alienating Black voters, particularly Black men, who are showing signs of souring on Biden and Democrats.

Shoplifting: California has the two leading cities in the nation (Los Angeles and San Francisco/Oakland) when it comes to retail theft, with Sacramento in the top ten as well. The visuals of organized invasions of high-end retail stores have been endlessly repeated throughout the media.

The homeless crisis has contributed to California’s worsening theft problem. So has a 2014 voter-passed initiative that allows a shoplifter to theoretically steal every day up to $949 worth of merchandise and never face a felony because the law prevents prosecutors from adding up the crimes.

California Democrats so far have few solutions to the theft epidemic while facing a fed-up public. DeSantis doesn’t have a shoplifting city in the nation’s top 10. It’s hard to imagine Newsom stealing a victory on this topic.

Tom Philp