The Memo: Newsom and DeSantis prepare to square off for Fox debate

The Memo: Newsom and DeSantis prepare to square off for Fox debate
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The most unusual debate of the 2024 election cycle so far is set for Thursday, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) takes on California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Fox News.

Adding to the spectacle, the moderator for the 90-minute clash will be Sean Hannity.

The debate, which will air at 9 p.m. ET, will have none of the formality of the three GOP primary debates so far. But there are real stakes for each man.

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For DeSantis, it is a rare opportunity to command center stage without anyone else stealing his thunder.

The Florida governor’s campaign has underperformed so far, and his polling deficit behind former President Trump has widened.

Meanwhile, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has outshined him at the debates, a key factor helping her move up in the polls and loosen DeSantis’s grip on the No. 2 spot.

Newsom, for his part, is clearly positioning himself as a national figure within the Democratic Party.

He has tamped down speculation that he would challenge President Biden for the nomination this year. But he would still be one of the most obvious alternatives if any serious mishap occurred for the 81-year-old Biden and, even if that does not happen, he has established himself as a top-tier candidate for the future.

Adding an extra frisson to Thursday evening’s clash is the perception that the two men truly don’t like each other.

They have been publicly feuding for well more than a year, at least since Newsom bought TV ad time in Florida to tweak DeSantis in mid-2022.

Newsom has hit DeSantis over the Florida governor’s support for more stringent abortion bans, his enthusiasm for purging “wokeness” from school curricula and for backing legislation that banned discussion of gender identity among young school students.

When DeSantis organized two flights of migrants to Sacramento, Calif., in June, Newsom suggested the Florida governor could face criminal liability and could be culpable of “kidnapping.” He also called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man.”

DeSantis, for his part, has mocked Newsom for grandstanding rather than taking the plunge into the presidential race.

In June, DeSantis suggested Newsom needed to stop “pussyfooting” around unless he was going to be content “to sit on the sidelines and chirp.”

The one-on-one clash between the two nemeses is likely to draw plenty of viewers.

But neutral observers feel it could end up being a win-win situation — in part because the two governors’ constituencies are so different that it seems plausible reaction to the debate will split along predictable lines with partisans cheering on their preferred fighter.

“Each of them has something to gain from it. It really is not a losing situation for each of them,” said Susan MacManus, a professor emerita in political science at the University of South Florida and a veteran political observer in the state.

“Gov. Newsom is trying to make himself better known across the country and, for Gov. DeSantis, he is hoping to pull more Republicans in to vote for him in the primary. If you think about the nation being polarized, there probably aren’t two more polarized people than these two.”

Newsom has been busy building his political profile despite his protestations that there is no way “on God’s green earth” — as he put it back in June — that he will challenge Biden.

He visited Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed around 1,200 Israelis and, later in October, met with Chinese premier Xi Jinping to talk about cooperation on climate issues.

Meanwhile, he has also seeded a new political action committee with $10 million and has contributed to the campaign of the Democratic candidate for the mayor of Charleston, S.C. — an office that would seem of limited interest to a California governor, except for South Carolina’s pivotal position on the presidential primary calendar.

Some experts in Newsom’s home state argue that his objectives in the feud with DeSantis may have become harder to reach as the Florida governor has fizzled in GOP presidential polling.

“I think for Newsom the opportunities may be a little bit less than initially anticipated,” said Eric Schickler, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. “When this first came about, it looked like DeSantis was going to be Trump’s main rival — and, because of that, DeSantis had established himself as the No. 2 enemy of people on the left.”

Conversely, Schickler noted, DeSantis’s stock has fallen so much that a strong performance on Thursday could be enough of a surprise to put some wind back in his sails.

“His situation has deteriorated so much since the summer that, certainly, if he was to come across clearly as besting Newsom or showing Newsom up, his campaign would try to use that as proof that he is the one best able to battle the Democrats — which was his original argument,” he said.

Still, for all the hype that exists around the debate, Newsom and DeSantis are seasoned politicians. One might slightly outperform the other on Thursday, but it is hard to envision either one suffering a real catastrophe.

Instead, it could end up being an emblematic battle between the nation’s largest deep-blue state and increasingly red Florida.

“The key question is really how effective they are as messengers — because it’s pretty clear what each message is,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor emeritus at Boston University who specializes in political communications.

The real interest lies in the battle between their different worldview, he suggested, rather than any major impact on the 2024 race.

“Three months ago, this would have been the main event. Now it’s the undercard of Campaign 2024,” he said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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