Fox News host Sean Hannity set Gavin Newsom up, and let Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis knock him down. The duo ganged up on California’s governor and, unfortunately, Newsom sometimes responded with weak defenses. But we give him credit: He was game for a fight Hannity and DeSantis were determined he wouldn’t win. He was articulate and quick-witted.
Too bad the governors wasted so much time talking over each other.
Like a student whose grades are heading south, Gov. Ron DeSantis needed this bonus debate with Newsom for extra credit. And he got an A, but only because he was the teacher’s pet all along.
As moderator, Hannity gave Florida’s governor all the love. He asked Newsom loaded questions. The host presented crime, education and homelessness stats that made California look pretty bad. He accused California schools of letting students read LGBTQ pornography, and as Newsom tried to respond, Hannity let DeSantis swoop in for the kill.
Hannity demanded Newsom justify his position on abortion. In California, a pregnant woman has the legal right to have an abortion before viability. The host’s softball question to DeSantis about Florida’s hyper-restrictive abortion ban? “What was the reason for you to go from 15 weeks to six weeks?”
Florida’s governor needed an outright win to, perhaps, persuade both solid Trumpers and Never Trumpers to give him a second look before the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses kick off the Republican primary season. His poll numbers have tanked, his campaign is imploding and some polls have former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley looking at DeSantis in her rear-view mirror. Plus, Donald Trump is way out ahead of them both.
DeSantis was much more in his element at Thursday ‘s event in Alpharetta, Georgia, crossing swords with the ideological enemy — for DeSantis, red meat from a blue state. So far, he’s had to try to differentiate himself from a gaggle of fellow Republicans on the debate stage, with whom there’s some, but not a lot, of ideological disagreement. But in Newsom, he got a tailor-made nemesis, saddled by a state where crime — especially shoplifting — makes national news and with off-the-charts housing costs. Newsom also had to defend low-polling Joe Biden, even as he jockeys to replace him.
At first, it seemed as if Newsom hadn’t done his homework, but he gained his footing quickly, gigging DeSantis on his migrants-to-Martha’s-Vineyard stunt, his abortion policy and book bans. DeSantis gave as good as he got, however, strongly pointing out the issues Newsom couldn’t run from: homeless encampments — DeSantis even pulled out a map purporting to show how far and wide human poop was found on the streets of one California city — and public safety. “Women say they have to take off all their jewelry before they go shopping so they don’t get mugged,” he claimed he was told when he was in California for the second GOP debate.
It was an unusual event in that Newsom isn’t even a candidate for the Oval Office — but he sure wants to be. He’s looking for an opening should Biden somehow not wind up the Democratic nominee.
And DeSantis, once seen at the only Republican brawny enough to successfully take on Donald Trump, needed a similar opportunity. He’s just not resonating, not his “war on woke” in Florida, not his blood-thirsty rhetoric — “slitting throats”?! — not his transparent attempts to pretend he likes people. He’s trailing Trump by at least 35 points.
Red vs. blue
Newsom first proposed a debate with DeSantis in September 2022 on CNN. Then, Fox News’ Sean Hannity raised the idea again in a June 2023 interview with Newsom, and he agreed to it. In August, DeSantis, likely attracted by the friendly audience and even friendlier host, said to Hannity, “Let’s get it done.”
The debate was billed as “DeSantis vs. Newsom: The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate.” But it clearly was more than that with each man laying out his vision for America and its place in the world.
As for winners and losers? Hard to tell. Newsom, though vulnerable on a few issues, was in there punching and landed some good lines. “Using human beings as pawns is disqualifying to be president,” he said about DeSantis’ migrant flights.
Again, the host and the audience — if they stuck around — were ready-made for DeSantis, and he stood to benefit from the uneven playing field. How could he lose? He didn’t have to try very hard. He got all his campaign talking points in without being challenged by Hannity.
But it wasn’t fair; with all the raucous interrupting and overtalk, it wasn’t even a debate. No, it was a circus.
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