Everyone involved knows how odd it would be to have the California governor, who is seen as a potential future Democratic presidential candidate but is very adamantly not one currently, debating the Florida governor, who launched his Republican presidential run in the spring with the air of a front-runner but has seen his campaign stall through the summer months.
DeSantis has gone from starting out as a worrisome contrast for some Biden aides to a monthlong campaign reboot, with his own advisers fretting they may not be able to turn his political fortunes around and looking for high-profile opportunities for him to stand out. Newsom has gone from inspiring eye rolls and suspicion from many in and around the White House a year ago to coordinating with Biden aides as he attempts to goad the Republican into more problems.
The debate, which Newsom agreed to almost on a lark after the Fox News host pressed him, and later DeSantis, on camera to agree to an event he would host – has the two governors with very different interpersonal styles fencing over debate rules and logistics, dates and locations.
“Boy,” Newsom said in an exclusive interview with CNN as he embraced his trolling of his Florida counterpart, “if I was running his campaign, I would be quietly asking, ‘What did you just do, Gov. DeSantis? Why did you agree to this? We have other things we should be doing, more important things, than debating this guy out there in California.’”
Responding to the DeSantis team’s proposal for a live debate audience and to substitute a two-minute-long video for opening statements, Newsom said he was not impressed.
“No notes, no holds barred, no parameters. Just make sure we both have equal time and see where it goes, see where it takes us. No games, no shows, no videos, no cheering sections. Just an honest back-and-forth comparing, contrasting visions,” the California governor said. “And he can defend his rhetoric and record and vision, and I’ll do my best to defend mine and promote Joe Biden.”
A topic Newsom said he is ready to discuss includes what he called the “ruthlessness” of Republicans attacking presidential son Hunter Biden, a friend of his for years and now the subject of a special counsel investigation.
“Some of the stuff that the way the right has mocked someone with substance abuse, addictions and other demons, it sickens me to my core as a father,” Newsom said. “They’re having a difficult time debating the success of this administration, as well as the CHIPS and the infrastructure bills, the investments that are coming in, the unemployment rate dropping.”
Newsom said he was surprised when DeSantis told Hannity in an interview that he would accept the debate.
DeSantis was not surprised. A person close to the Republican’s campaign told CNN that the governor had fully expected the topic to come up in the interview.
The day after the interview aired, DeSantis’ campaign emailed donors a short memo touting its eagerness for the debate, pointing to statistics about crime rates and population growth and insisting that “California embodies American decline, while Florida is the blueprint for the Great American Comeback.”
“Ron DeSantis is debating Gavin Newsom to highlight the choice facing American voters next year. The left wants America to follow the path of California’s decline – Ron DeSantis wants to reignite the American Dream, restore sanity, and ensure our nation’s best days are ahead,” reads the memo, obtained by CNN.
A DeSantis aide pointed to the candidate telling NBC that he thought “it would be a good debate” and that he was eager to lay out a “very different approach to crime, very different approach to illegal immigration, and very different approach to taxes, government regulation.”
The DeSantis campaign declined to comment further on the matter.
Newsom knows he makes the perfect boogeyman for Republicans – the high-taxing, gun-banning, Covid lockdown-proselytizing California governor with the slicked-back hair, who first got famous in 2004 for going against state law and issuing gay marriage licenses when he was mayor of San Francisco.
For Newsom, the whole point of the debate proposal is the asymmetric warfare. He isn’t running for president. He doesn’t have to worry about how this comes off to voters in Iowa or New Hampshire or anywhere else. He’s catering to a Democratic base and social media ecosystem that throws money and adds followers whenever a punch is thrown – like the $85,000 that went into the Biden campaign off an email Newsom sent to his email list announcing that DeSantis had accepted the debate.
And if the debate does happen, all Newsom sees is upside. Best case: He embarrasses DeSantis, adding to the doubts over whether his presidential campaign can survive. Worst case: He is the one who gets embarrassed, and DeSantis gets his moment – but against someone who isn’t running for president and can absorb blows that otherwise might have landed on Biden.
The day before DeSantis accepted the Newsom debate, for example, Vice President Kamala Harris dismissed his invitation for a public session head-to-head over the new Florida middle-school curriculum, which includes a mention of slaves developing certain skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit.” A spokesperson for Harris did not respond to a question about what she thought of Newsom’s actions, but, at a fundraiser on Saturday, she said, “Let us not be distracted by an undebatable point, such as whether the enslaved people benefited from slavery.”
Or Newsom could just keep poking DeSantis for not agreeing to a debate.
Being “the reelected, term limited governor of California, he feels an enormous degree of freedom to go out and fight these fights, because someone’s got to do it,” said a Newsom adviser.
DeSantis had wanted his big debate moment to be about taking on Donald Trump, not Newsom.
But the governor has been unable so far to coalesce support from Republicans as Trump’s poll numbers continue to rise – a fact he’ll be reminded of later this month when he is joined on a Milwaukee debate stage by at least six other candidates, with Trump in the midst of a weekslong will-he-or-won’t-he tease about whether he will participate.
DeSantis’ campaign also severely underestimated how Trump’s multiple indictments would galvanize Republicans and overshadow the GOP race, leaving other contenders straining for attention.
Rather than entering the fall in a position of strength, DeSantis has limped through the summer. His team now acknowledges internally it botched a chance to consolidate support at a time when Trump has barely campaigned. Support has stalled, several donors have publicly expressed concern and withheld additional resources for now, and the campaign has frantically shed expenses after overextending on payroll and event costs. Last week, in the latest overhaul, he replaced his embattled campaign manager with his gubernatorial office chief of staff, who had already been a key adviser.
What, in any other context, would have likely been an unimaginable sideshow, the debate with Newsom started looking like the rare chance for a breakout, a high-upside gamble for DeSantis, according to the source close to the campaign. If nothing else, it would put DeSantis in front of Fox News’ audience of Republican primary voters without Trump or anyone else in the field.
“Right now, Trump is dominating the news, and this is a way to get in front of Republicans,” the source said. “With Trump sucking up so much oxygen, this is a way to get back some of the oxygen.”
Last July, Newsom flew to Washington largely so he could tell then-White House chief of staff Ron Klain and first lady Jill Biden that he really meant what he had first said publicly to CNN: He was not going to run against the president despite his talk about how Democrats needed to be fighting harder than Biden appeared to be doing and despite breezing across the White House driveway with his suit jacket tossed over his shoulder as concerns circulated about the president’s age.
When Klain, long a Newsom booster, walked him around the West Wing to introduce him to other aides, several did not do much to mask their disinterest.
Biden made his reelection plans clear, it became easier for his loyalists to warm to the governor. Some still see Newsom as mugging for attention, but they have stayed in close contact, including giving the green light when Newsom’s team alerted them that he wanted to do a one-on-one interview with Hannity and push for the debate with DeSantis.
If it happens, a Biden campaign aide said, “from our perspective, we’ve got one of our most high-profile surrogates going on Fox for 90 minutes, advocating not for his own policies and not for his own candidacy, but for the president. That’s a net positive.”
Asked about the turnaround, Klain – now an informal outside adviser to Biden’s reelection campaign – told CNN that “the president and his team are grateful for all the things the governor does to advance their shared agenda.”
A Newsom aide told CNN the coordination – between emails he has put his name on and in-person events – has produced almost $3 million in fundraising for Biden since April, which makes up about 4% of the reelection campaign’s total fundraising to date. Emails with Newsom’s name on them generate some of the highest response rates, according to people familiar with the fundraising. The Biden campaign declined comment on the fundraising.
Newsom said he knows that many people will see his actions as an attempt to stay relevant. Advisers say he clams up even privately when talk turns to a possible future presidential run, and the governor told CNN that positioning for 2028 is a “trivial consideration.”
He said he is driven by not wanting to have any regrets about not being involved – and if that means an ongoing series of debates with other Republicans after DeSantis, he’d be ready.
“To the extent these presidential candidates want a debate, I’m happy to debate them,” Newsom said. “And if that’s where they feel they can get their best bang for the buck as they run for president, fine by me, and I’ll have the president’s back.”