Fox News debate with DeSantis puts Newsom on the defensive

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis turned their feud over blue and red state policies personal Thursday, clashing for more than 90 minutes over crime, taxes, COVID-19 pandemic policies, immigration, book bans and other divisive issues in an unorthodox debate that both men hoped would propel their national political ambitions.

California has “failed because of his leftist ideology,” DeSantis said of Newsom, whom he called a “slick politician.”

“There’s one thing … that we have in common,” Newsom said. “Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024.”

The forum in Georgia between the liberal Democrat and the conservative Republican, hosted by Sean Hannity on Fox News, culminated months of shadow boxing between the two governors, who have used their states’ opposing partisan approaches to governing to attack each other.

Newsom was on the defensive for much of the debate as Hannity focused on taxes, crime, late-term abortions, California’s high gas prices and other topics on which conservatives believe they have the upper hand politically. Newsom responded by ignoring or reframing many of the questions as the two men repeatedly spoke over one another in a chaotic back-and-forth.

DeSantis, who has seen his once-promising presidential campaign sag, recognized an opportunity to take down the leader of the most prominent Democratic-led state, which he attacked as a bastion of unhinged progressive policies that have led to lawlessness and mass departures.

Read more: California vs. Florida: The Newsom-DeSantis rivalry is part of an epic culture war

Newsom, who may run for president in 2028, saw an opportunity to cement his reputation as a warrior for Democratic values, unafraid of Fox News and Republicans, as he savaged DeSantis’ vision of freedom as phony in a state where books are banned and abortion rights are curtailed.

The risks for both men were clear. Some viewers may see the obvious downgrade in DeSantis’ campaign as he battles a governor who is not running for president, instead of former President Trump, the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP nomination, or President Biden, the man he hopes to ultimately unseat. Newsom could come off as too eager for attention and overconfident in believing he could dispatch DeSantis, who came well prepared, in a debate moderated by Hannity.

It’s unclear whether Thursday’s debate will change minds on policy. But viewers got a clear contrast in a nation where differences are more often being played out in the states, which are increasingly dominated by a single party.

Hannity stacks the deck and Newsom goes on the defense

The debate gave Newsom a national stage to show Democrats that he’s a fighter for the party, ready to go on the offensive against Republicans.

But with questions from Fox News host Sean Hannity aimed at California’s higher tax rates and crime rates, the governor was on the defense for much of the evening. Newsom sidestepped a question about California’s population losses, and Hannity called him out for it.

“People are leaving California in droves because he has failed to stand up for public safety,” DeSantis said.

Read more: Fox News’ Sean Hannity on his unlikely relationship with Gavin Newsom: ‘We just hit it off’

As a surrogate for Biden, Newsom faced the difficult challenge of responding to criticism about his own record and the president’s policy positions. Newsom, who faced renewed accusations during the debate that he is running a shadow presidential campaign, made clear numerous times that he was there to defend Biden, who he said he would take at age 100 over DeSantis.

In some of his strongest moments, Newsom chided DeSantis for Florida’s lax gun laws, for demeaning the LGBTQ+ community and for rolling back abortion rights.

“You’re nothing but a bully,” Newsom said. “Intimidating and humiliating people, that’s your calling.”

San Francisco takes a beating as a ‘template’ for Democrats’ America

San Francisco, a city of great views and some of the world’s best restaurants, has long been a punching bag for conservatives, including DeSantis, who claimed in a video this year that he saw people defecating in the streets and using drugs because of “leftist policies.”

DeSantis took that a step further Thursday, claiming Newsom, the former mayor, “turned that into a template for California’s collapse.”

“Now the left wants to take the California model and use that as a template for America’s collapse,” he said.

DeSantis painted the state as a den of crime, where toothpaste is locked in retail store cabinets and women hide their jewelry when shopping for fear of being mugged. At another point, he held up a map that he claimed charted reports of human feces on the Bay Area city’s streets.

“Don’t insult a great American city,” Newsom shot back.

“It’s an interesting campaign strategy for Ron DeSantis to be bashing the state of 40 million Americans,” Newsom said at another point, implying it would harm his presidential ambitions.

DeSantis alleged the Democratic governor has allowed the quality of life in California to deteriorate on his watch. He zeroed in on homelessness, Newsom’s greatest political vulnerability.

“In California, you have the freedom to pitch a tent on Sunset Boulevard,” DeSantis said. “You have the freedom to create a homeless encampment under a freeway and you can light it on fire. You have the freedom to have an open-air drug market and use drugs.”

Abortion is tougher political problem for DeSantis 

Abortion policy provided perhaps the most stark contrast of the night between the two governors.

“Ron DeSantis signed the most extreme antiabortion bills in America,” Newsom said. “So extreme is your ban that criminalizes women and criminalizes doctors that even Donald Trump said it was too extreme.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion last year, Newsom and legislative leaders asked California voters to enshrine a woman’s right to choose into the state constitution.

In the complete opposite approach, DeSantis signed a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, which is punishable in Florida by up to five years in prison.

Newsom seized on the issue in an ad he ran in Florida and Washington, D.C., days before the debate, sensing a potential political vulnerability for DeSantis. The ban might help the Florida governor in a Republican primary, but most Americans — and Floridians — do not support his policy position.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in the spring found that about 6 in 10 Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while a little more than a third said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Will DeSantis get a boost?

The Florida governor appeared much more confident debating Newsom than he has in Republican presidential primary debates, at which he has found it hard to get much time to speak or much traction in a field that largely agrees on the issues.

Thursday, he had Newsom, a clear ideological foe, all to himself. Plus he had the boost from Hannity, who geared the questions toward issues that benefited DeSantis.

The performance is likely to help DeSantis gain some attention, especially on Fox News and other conservative venues. But it could be hard to reverse his slide in the polls as Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and GOP rival, picks up steam and Trump remains the overwhelming front-runner for the nomination.

“When are you going to drop out and at least get Nikki Haley a shot to take down Donald Trump?” Newsom said in a taunt near the end of the debate.

DeSantis disagreed.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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