In Georgia suburbs, Newsom defends his odd debate with DeSantis as an 'opportunity and responsibility'

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Hours before his showdown Thursday night with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, California Gov. Gavin Newsom sat at a doughnut shop where no one seemed to recognize him thousands of miles from his home state and begrudgingly predicted what lay ahead.

As a Democrat stepping into a debate held in the Deep South and moderated by conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity, Newsom said he knew the cards were stacked against him. The much-hyped televised event was “the equivalent” of pitting a Republican against progressive actor and activist Jane Fonda in a debate held in Berkeley hosted by MSNBC’s liberal Rachel Maddow, Newsom said.

“I’m used to taking lumps, and I’ll take lumps on behalf of” President Biden, Newsom told The Times on Thursday ahead of the debate, calling it a “privilege” to act as a surrogate for the Democratic president as DeSantis clings to a GOP presidential campaign in a primary dominated by former President Trump. “But hopefully I’ll get a little bit of an ‘atta boy’ for at least even showing up to this damn thing.”

While Newsom called his opponent’s participation in the debate “desperate,” he painted his own participation as a necessary evil to cut through the “doom loop” of Fox News’ right wing spin and to take a one-of-a-kind chance to combat the “extremism” of DeSantis in his own echo chamber.

What ensued at the debate that night, in an empty building that usually serves as a child-care center in Alpharetta, a suburb of 67,000 people north of Atlanta, was a sort of echo chamber of its own.

The odd political face-off between someone who is running for president and someone who isn’t has been difficult even for political insiders to grasp. But in the part of America that hosted the debate purportedly about the country’s future, residents of Fulton County were especially confused.

“Well that’s different,” laughed Irwin Westmoreland, who was working at the Salty, the doughnut shop that Newsom visited earlier that day. The Georgia resident had heard nothing of the debate and did not know Newsom, but said he had a hunch he was important because of his swagger.

Later, when 90 minutes of loud, chaotic sparring on TV was over, Newsom would say it was worth it — and call on fellow Democrats to do more of the same.

As Newsom and DeSantis and their respective gaggle of staffers barreled into Fulton County, once a Republican stronghold that helped elect Biden in 2020 and solidified Georgia as a battleground state, locals showed no signs of fanfare about the prime-time duel.

When the governors took over ballrooms in hotels a half of a mile apart, where they held news conferences and erected state and American flags and streamed the debate on TVs, outside, in one hotel lobby, people watched the Dallas Cowboys beat the Seattle Seahawks instead.

“It’s kind of flown under the radar,” Jim Gilvin, the conservative mayor of Alpharetta, said of the debate.

“The majority of people in the country — not just Alpharetta, which is affluent and highly educated — don’t really follow politics day by day like that. They aren’t too absorbed in that; they’re just trying to keep a roof over their head.”

On Thursday, DeSantis staffers hung a sign at a lectern that promised “the debate America deserves.” Florida versus California meant “revival vs. decline,” it read. “DeSantis is READY to win on the debate stage,” an automated text replied to those who sent the word “debate” to a phone number promoted by his campaign.

Ashley Moody holds news conference
Florida Republican Atty. Gen. Ashley Moody holds a news conference in Alpharetta, Ga., before the Newsom-DeSantis debate alongside Floridians who say they fled California because of its liberal policies. (Mackenzie Mays / Los Angeles Times )

Florida GOP Atty. Gen. Ashley Moody held a news conference with Floridians who said they had fled the Golden State because of its left-leaning policies. Rep. Rich McCormick (R-Ga.) celebrated with DeSantis afterward. Supporters sipped beer and wine.

In his spin room after the debate, DeSantis explained to media his logic for engaging with a politician who is not a presidential candidate: There was not enough time for him to get his points across in larger debates with other Republican primary contestants. During the first Republican debate, he said, he didn’t get to respond to a question for 25 minutes.

DeSantis said he was initially doubtful when Hannity came to him with the idea of debating Newsom.

But then he thought about it. “I’m in a race where one candidate gets a disproportionate amount of media coverage, and so I have to be able to get my message out,” he said, referring to Trump. “To have 90 minutes on national TV, where I’m able to go and box somebody who was on the far left, that is good exposure for me.”

Both sides walked away feeling they had won, though what they had won, exactly, was still elusive.

“Why? Why is that?” said Gabby Byrd, a 24-year-old Democrat working at a bookstore in Alpharetta when she learned that the politicians were in her hometown for a debate but weren’t running for the same office. She voted in 2020 for Biden, as well as Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Byrd had not heard of Newsom — “I guess it’s just too far west” — but knows, and dislikes, DeSantis, whose Tallahassee home is about a five-hour drive south. Most Americans are more familiar with DeSantis than Newsom, according to a new YouGov poll that shows 35% have no opinion of the California governor, while 18% have no opinion about Florida’s leader.

Newsom himself had asked the same question as Byrd that day. “I think that’s my opening question: Why are we here?” he said, planning for the debate earlier Thursday at the coffee shop in Atlanta.

But when it was over, Newsom wasn’t just resolute in his reasoning for participating in the debate — to defend Biden’s economic policies and stump for his reelection — but was calling on his fellow Democrats to be more like him.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom meets with national media in Alpharetta GA following a debate with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Gov. Gavin Newsom meets with reporters at a hotel after his debate with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday night in Georgia. (Mackenzie Mays / Los Angeles Times)

With Biden’s approval lagging in polls, there’s an “opportunity and responsibility” for Democrats to “get more aggressive” running up to 2024, he told reporters late Thursday at a Hilton hotel after the debate.

“That’s not just the job of the White House, that’s the job of the Democratic Party. That’s why I went on Fox,” Newsom said. “People don’t go on there for a reason. ... But we have to. We don’t have a choice. We’ve got to go. We’ve got to tell the truth. We’ve got to get into that platform.”

While he said he personally “had nothing to lose,” Newsom acknowledged that he had to “claw my way” through a biased format in order to pierce through what he sees as a system of misinformation harmful to democracy.

But it wasn’t all so serious.

“That was a lot of fun,” Newsom told reporters before calling it a night. “I really enjoyed myself.”

Times staff writer Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.