“Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024,” he said.
The highly unusual debate — one moderated by Fox’s conservative host Sean Hannity and billed by the network as the “Great Red State vs. Blue State Debate” — was a window into an alternative political universe; one in which President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump were not on course for a 2024 rematch of the 2020 presidential race.
The odds were stacked against Newsom, the Democrat who faced both a Republican sparring partner and questions posed from conservative angles as he sought to play surrogate for Biden’s reelection effort.
But the stakes were much higher for DeSantis, whose flagging bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is in desperate need of a jolt with the Iowa caucuses less than seven weeks away.
Here are six takeaways from what Hannity and Fox News billed as the “Great Red State vs. Blue State Debate”:
Newsom serves as the Biden surrogate
DeSantis opened the debate by asserting that Newsom was seeking the national limelight as part of a shadow 2024 presidential run, built on the belief that the 81-year-old Biden won’t ultimately seek a second term.
“Why don’t you just admit it? You’re running,” DeSantis said.
But Newsom went to bat for Biden, defending the president’s record on the economy, immigration and more in front of Fox’s right-leaning audience.
“Fourteen million jobs, 10 times more than the last three Republican presidents combined,” Newsom said as he began to reel off a list of economic achievements after DeSantis called him a defender of “Bidenomics.”
DeSantis lambasted Biden’s handling of the US-Mexico border. “This is a guy who says the Biden administration is not lying to the public about the border,” he said of Newsom. “They are lying to you.”
Newsom, meanwhile, pointed to DeSantis sending buses of migrants from the Texas border to Martha’s Vineyard. He said DeSantis did so “so that you can out-Trump Trump.”
“And how’s that going for you, Ron? By the way, you’re down 41 points in your own state,” Newsom said.
Later, Newsom sneered at DeSantis for mispronouncing Vice President Kamala Harris’ name.
“Shame on you,” Newsom said, repeating the correct pronunciation of the vice president’s name. “It’s Madame Vice President to you.”
DeSantis faces attacks about shifting positions
Newsom also lobbed a series of attacks that sounded like they could have come from any of DeSantis’ primary opponents, accusing the Florida governor of shifting positions on issues like immigration and environmental protections as he began to eye a presidential run.
Those attacks — clearly designed to damage DeSantis in front of an audience of likely Republican presidential primary voters — were among the debate’s most memorable moments.
The most notable might have been on the subject of pandemic policies. DeSantis called Newsom a “lockdown governor,” criticizing his coronavirus pandemic-era decisions while pointing out that the California governor’s children attended a private school that had received a waiver to open for in-person education while public schools were shuttered.
Newsom shot back that DeSantis had “followed science,” closing bars and restaurants and heeding the advice of former top infectious disease official Anthony Fauci, and “promoted vaccines.”
“You passed an emergency declaration before the state of California did. You closed down your beaches, your bars, your restaurants,” Newsom said. “Donald Trump laid you out on this, dead to rights.”
“He did all of that until he decided to fall prey to the fringe of his party. And as a consequence of that, Ron, tens of thousands of people lost their lives,” he said.
DeSantis gets to show his general election mettle
With Trump skipping the Republican presidential primary debates, those clashes have provided limited opportunities for DeSantis and other contenders to move the needle.
Thursday night at least offered the Florida governor an opportunity to remind Republican viewers why they’d widely come to like him before the 2024 campaign — and why the pro-DeSantis super PAC is named “Never Back Down.”
He repeatedly used Newsom as a stand-in for Biden and called the California governor “slick.”
“He wants you to believe him over your own lying eyes,” DeSantis said.
For Newsom, who is not a presidential candidate, the job was easier.
“Joe Biden will be our nominee in a matter of weeks. And in a matter of weeks, Sean, he’ll be endorsing Donald Trump as the nominee of the Republican Party,” he said.
Hannity the ‘hall monitor’
Hannity, the long-time conservative Fox host, opened the debate pledging to play a neutral role Thursday night. He also told the debaters he didn’t intend to serve as a “hall monitor.”
That much was clear almost immediately, as both Newsom and DeSantis ran right past the 60-second marks Hannity had set for answers.
However, the questions were largely a continuation of what plays out on Hannity’s show on a regular basis — designed largely to put Newsom in a defensive posture.
The California governor often opted to sidestep the questions he was asked — potentially to his own detriment with the audience. And at times, Newsom attempted to become the moderator himself.
During a clash on abortion, he posed a question for DeSantis. “Ron DeSantis, will you or will you not sign a six-week ban in the unlikely case you become president of the United States?”
Sharp differences on abortion
Among the debate’s most pointed moments was the clash on abortion rights.
Newsom highlighted DeSantis signing into law a measure that bans most abortions in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy.
“So extreme is your ban that criminalizes women and criminalizes doctors that even Donald Trump said it was too extreme,” Newsom said.
Asked by Hannity why he had signed that bill into law, DeSantis said he believes “in a culture of life.”
Ultimately, DeSantis never answered Newsom’s repeated questions over whether he would sign a national abortion ban into law — and Hannity never followed up.
Newsom, meanwhile, was asked if he would support any limits to abortion rights. He said he supports abortion rights, noting that late-term abortions are “extremely rare” and come as a result of fetal anomalies or conditions that jeopardize the health of the mother.
“It is an extreme, extreme exception,” he said. “It should be up to the mother and the doctor and her conscience.”
What’s the value of a debate like this?
Whatever the merits of a clash of progressive, blue-state ideas and conservative, red-state policies might be, what played out Thursday night was something different.
Mostly, the more than 90-minute debate was DeSantis and Newsom accusing each other of lying and mischaracterizing the other’s records.
“You’re nothing but a bully,” Newsom told DeSantis in the debate’s closing minutes.
“You’re a bully,” DeSantis responded.
Hannity, near the end, attempted to shift to what he called a “lightning round,” seeking quick answers from both debaters.
“It’d be great if both of you guys cooperated. I’m not a potted plant here,” Hannity said.
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