Analysis: Five key moments from the Newsom-DeSantis debate

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By Alexei Koseff 
CalMatters Political Writer 

They came, they saw, they yelled at each other. A lot. 

Somewhere in the 100 or so minutes of crosstalk and insults Thursday night was Fox News’ heavily promoted “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate” between Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

Touted by moderator Sean Hannity as a contest of ideas — an opportunity to sort through two clashing governing philosophies that have come to define this divided country — the event wound up as more of a verbal smackdown, with both DeSantis and Newsom at one point accusing the other of being a bully. 

“What are we actually doing here?” Newsom asked rhetorically early in the night. It was likely a question on many viewers’ minds as Hannity, begging not to be the “hall monitor,” repeatedly tried to cut through the jumble of shouting to urge his participants to let each other speak. 

The answer would be made clear before the telecast was over, when Hannity, finally turning the presidential campaign subtext of the whole affair into text, prodded Newsom: “Will you say, unequivocally, under no circumstances are you running?” 

Here are five key moments from the bitter, pugnacious, downright messy showdown: 

Presidential aspirations, stated and unstated 

It’s no coincidence that the head-to-head format — DeSantis and Newsom standing at lecterns in a television studio in Alpharetta, Georgia, sans live audience — resembled a presidential debate, underscoring the high stakes for a man now seeking the most powerful office in the land and another widely touted as a future contender. 

The implications of the event were far more immediately significant for DeSantis, who hoped that a knockout performance could rescue his floundering campaign for president. Once a serious threat to the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, former President Donald Trump, DeSantis has sharply faded in public polls with less than two months until the first contest in Iowa and now risks falling into third place behind former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. 

Many pundits were surprised when DeSantis accepted Newsom’s debate challenge in August, pitting him against someone who is not even in the presidential race. But lacking opportunities to face off directly against Trump, who has refused to participate in the GOP primary debates, DeSantis aimed to show Republican voters that he is best-equipped to take on Democratic President Joe Biden in the general election. 

“What Biden would do, the people around him, they would look to California for the model to go forward in the next four years. That would accelerate the decline of this country,” DeSantis said tonight. “The failures need to be left in the dustbin of history.” 

Newsom has repeatedly denied his own White House ambitions and instead become a top surrogate for Biden’s re-election, appearing on his behalf in the spin room at a GOP debate in Southern California this fall. Yet the governor’s increasingly national lens, positioning himself as a Democratic spokesperson, carries all the hallmarks of a politician eyeing higher office; this year he embarked on a “red-state tour” to boost Democrats in conservative communities and introduced a constitutional amendment on gun control. 

The Hannity debate gave Newsom another opportunity to introduce himself to a broader audience that has not been following his work in California — and, perhaps most valuably, to redefine himself for conservative and moderate voters who watch Fox News and could be crucial to winning swing states in a presidential election. 

Even as he once again shot down any notion that he was running a “shadow campaign” for the Democratic nomination — “I don’t know how many times I can say it,” Newsom told Hannity, “Joe Biden will be our nominee in a matter of weeks” — the very suggestion presented Newsom as someone who could be a legitimate candidate for the job. 

A leg up for DeSantis 

Before the debate, Newsom warned that it would be a two-on-one pile-on, with Hannity and DeSantis teaming up to make their liberal foe look bad. 

In the end, he wasn’t wrong. Though Hannity promised to serve as an impartial moderator, he framed most of the questions by highlighting something that he believed was wrong with California — high taxes, high gas prices, bad schools – and asking Newsom to defend it. 

A typical exchange: Fox News displayed a graphic showing the violent crime rate in California is higher than the national average and nearly twice that of Florida. (These rates are based on FBI data collected voluntarily from local law enforcement agencies, about half of which did not report in Florida.) 

“How do you explain that when safety and security, I would argue, is a prerequisite for the pursuit of happiness?” Hannity asked. 

Newsom tried to flip the question onto DeSantis, pointing out that Florida has far higher incidences of murder and gun violence than California, where gun control laws are much stricter. 

“Maybe spend a little more time back in your home state and address the murder and gun violence in your own backyard,” Newsom said. 

DeSantis, who filmed a campaign ad in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood this summer lamenting its widespread drug use and homelessness, said “public safety has collapsed” in California. 

“In a lot of these places in California, everything’s under lock and key because they’ve basically legalized retail theft,” he said. “They have chosen in California to put the interests of the criminals over public safety.” 

Liberal elites and conservative bullies 

The debate took almost no time to get personal, and was at moments simply nasty. DeSantis noted early on that Newsom’s own in-laws had relocated to Florida. Newsom later referred to DeSantis as “weak, pathetic and small.” 

But nothing seemed to bring out the animosity between the two governors quite like the coronavirus pandemic, which came up on multiple occasions during the telecast. 

DeSantis criticized California’s strict lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus, contrasting his own decision to reopen businesses and schools much sooner in Florida. He said Newsom “did huge damage to people” by shutting down the economy while he ate dinner at the French Laundry and should apologize for keeping students out of classrooms while his own children returned to their private school. 

“The only person who should apologize is Ron DeSantis for the tens of thousands of lives that died unnecessarily because he played to the fringe of his party,” Newsom responded, referring to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows more Floridians died per capita from COVID-19 than Californians. 

The conversation devolved into another shouting match when Newsom brought up that DeSantis threatened a $27.5 million fine against the Special Olympics last year unless they dropped their coronavirus vaccine requirement for athletes. The organization, which runs athletic competitions for disabled people, eventually reversed course. 

“They were discriminating against the athletes,” DeSantis said. “You’re a liberal elite. You wanted them to be ostracized.” 

“You attack vulnerable communities,” Newsom replied. “You’re nothing but a bully. I understand that intimidating and humiliating people, that’s your calling card.” 

The looming abortion question 

Newsom delighted throughout the debate in needling DeSantis about his sinking support in the presidential race, even urging DeSantis at the end to drop out and give Haley a better shot to stop Trump. 

He seemed determined to deliver a fatal blow during a segment on abortion, which Democrats hope will be a key issue in the 2024 election after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a constitutional right to abortion last year and which Republicans have taken pains to downplay on the campaign trail. 

In the week before the debate, Newsom put an ad on television in Florida highlighting a law that DeSantis signed this year banning abortion after six weeks. The spot accuses his Republican rival of criminalizing women who seek the procedure and doctors who perform it. 

“Will you or will you not support a national ban if it lands on your desk?” Newsom asked of a hypothetical DeSantis presidency. DeSantis repeatedly ducked the question, before Newsom turned straight to camera to speak to the viewers at home. 

“He will sign that extreme six-week national ban,” Newsom said. “The American people should know that.” 

A poop map of San Francisco 

Yes, a poop map. As the debate drew to a close, DeSantis actually whipped out a printout purportedly from a user-generated app tracking human feces found on the streets of San Francisco. 

It was intended to be his knockout punch at Newsom on the issue of California’s spiraling homelessness crisis, which he said has gotten so bad that “human feces is now a fact of life” for residents. DeSantis blamed Democrats’ lax attitude. 

“You have the freedom to defecate in public in California,” DeSantis said. “You have the freedom to pitch a tent on Sunset Boulevard. You have the freedom to create a homeless encampment under a freeway and even light it on fire.” 

“They’re not the freedoms our founding fathers envisioned,” he added, “but they have contributed to the destruction of the quality of life in California.” 

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