The Thursday debate between California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Fox News — the talk of the political world this past week — delivered a decent bump in the channel's ratings.
Billed as the "The Great Red State vs. Blue State Debate," the event moderated by Fox News host Sean Hannity averaged 4.75 million viewers, according to Nielsen data.
The number was more than double the November average for "Hannity," which was 2.3 million viewers, as the debate pulled in people who do not typically watch his nightly diatribes against liberals and the Biden administration. The figure also accounted for 73% of the viewers watching cable news in the 9 p.m. ET time slot.
The event faced stiff competition, up against a close, high-scoring "Thursday Night Football" contest between the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks streaming on Amazon, and the finale of "The Golden Bachelor" on ABC, the most-watched TV program of the night.
The highly anticipated matchup staged in a suburb outside Atlanta was unusual for TV news, with DeSantis, a contender for the 2024 Republican nomination for president, facing off against a sitting governor who has repeatedly stated he is not running for national office.
Newsom, a leading surrogate for the Democratic Party, was also entering an arena where the moderator, Hannity, was clearly aligned politically with DeSantis.
Despite the efforts of Hannity to keep order — he pleaded on and off the air with both participants to not talk over each other — the 90-minute event became chaotic at times, making it difficult for viewers to understand either of them.
The questions offered up by the conservative host were mostly built around unfavorable comparisons of California to Florida on issues such as crime, handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness and gasoline prices, and put Newsom on the defense for much of the evening.
But Newsom entered the showdown with nothing to lose, as he is insistent he will not be Democratic candidate for president in 2024, despite chatter in right-wing circles. He largely used his time to defend the performance of President Joe Biden's administration while getting exposure in front of a national audience that may not have been familiar with him.
When Hannity served up a question stating emphatically that Biden was in cognitive decline, Newsom shot back that he will "take Joe Biden at 100 versus Ron DeSantis any day of the week at any age."
DeSantis needed the event to ignite his flagging presidential campaign, as he badly trails former President Donald Trump in polls and has fallen behind former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in some primary states.
DeSantis used props in his presentation, including a very brown map that depicted the volume of human fecal matter on the streets of San Francisco, where Newsom was once mayor.
Fox News used clips of the debate on its Friday opinion programs, touting it as a win for DeSantis, who up to now has failed to catch fire with the network's audience.
"This was a victory of conservatism over liberalism," said Kaleigh McEnany, the former Trump White House press secretary who is now a co-host of the Fox News daytime show "Outnumbered."
But McEnany said Newsom, whom she described as "sharp," cannot be written off as a political competitor.
"Watch out for him, because he's coming if not in '24, in '28," she said.
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