One big question after Thursday night's hyped red-vs.-blue states debate is whether California Gov. Gavin Newsom is helping President Joe Biden or hurting him.
Or maybe he's having no impact on the president. Maybe Newsom is just helping himself. Or not.
Sure, Newsom is locked in as a dedicated Biden surrogate, loyally defending the president and promoting his reelection. But does the telegenic governor's very appearance on the national stage cause Democratic voters to long for a younger, robust alternative to the 81-year-old incumbent who looks frail?
How could it not?
And if so, that surely would increase Democratic voter pressure on the president to step down and not run again — as President Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1968 when he doubted his ability to win reelection.
Biden seems fully committed to seeking a second term. But it's not inconceivable, and wouldn't be a huge surprise, if he decided he'd had enough.
If that happened, "the support for Newsom among Democrats would rise to a crescendo very quickly," longtime national Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen told me Friday, the day after the Fox News debate between Newsom and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a struggling Republican presidential candidate.
"You'd see the elite of the Democratic Party rush to Sacramento to persuade Gavin Newsom to enter the presidential race."
I called Schoen after he issued a post-debate statement asserting that "Newsom established himself as a compelling, credible and aggressive advocate and future presidential candidate should Biden not run or in 2028."
But didn't the 56-year-old Newsom encourage physical comparisons between him and Biden, increasing dissatisfaction with the incumbent? No, the pollster replied, because the vast majority of voters already think there should be an alternative.
He said that Newsom is better at promoting Biden than either the president or Vice President Kamala Harris.
"He's helping Biden and helping himself," Schoen said. "But make no mistake. His principal reason for this is to establish himself on the national stage for '24 or '28."
"Newsom was a breath of fresh air" during the debate, he added. "This was a seminal moment on the national stage."
OK, that's a respected national pollster's view.
I came away thinking that if Newsom is really going to run for president sometime, he needs to hire a speech coach — one he'll listen to and not interrupt.
Newsom is an articulate and passionate speaker with a mind full of well-organized data. But he can be long-winded and repetitive. That wasn't his problem in the debate, however.
The Californian badly hurt himself by frequently interrupting DeSantis, with the Floridian later committing the same sin. They incessantly talked over each other so intensely that no viewer could possibly understand anything they were mouthing.
Newsom at times sounded like a spoiled, rude rich kid — remindful of entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy in the Republican presidential debates. Well, not that bad.
But their repeatedly calling each other liars and bullies compounded the incivility. I'm not sure if I had young kids whether I'd have wanted them to watch this show. Bad role models.
Fox host Sean Hannity unsuccessfully pleaded for constraint.
"Yada, yada, yada. It was annoying watching those two talk over each other — like a shouting match, screaming at each other," said Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio.
"It was awful," Republican consultant Rob Stutzman said. "Their talking over each other really made it unwatchable.
"It was hard at times to like either one of those guys and think they're a potential presidential choice. … Neither one looked like a viable alternative.
"At the end of the day, both their [support] bases will be happy with them. But for the rest of Americans, it's 'Did you see anything you like?' Probably not."
Most of the rest of America was probably watching the NFL football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Seattle Seahawks.
The news media must have set a record for pre-debate hype. Presumably there was a consumer appetite for that, a reflection of how bored voters everywhere view the current presidential candidates. There's an excitement vacuum and a desire for fresh faces.
Newsom has consistently denied any interest in running next year. And he genuinely does not want to. The governor has privately told people he'd be seen as a party pariah if he competed against fellow Californian Harris, the next in line if Biden dropped out. He'd certainly alienate Black voters that the party can't afford to lose in a close election.
But his name keeps popping up. DeSantis insisted during the debate that Newsom is "running a shadow campaign."
Professional oddsmakers have consistently rated Newsom as the third best bet to win the presidency in 2024, behind only Biden and former President Trump. One sportsbook Thursday placed the probability of Trump winning at 40% and Biden at 37%, with Newsom a distant 12%. Former South Carolina Gov.Nikki Haley was at 9% and DeSantis had fallen to 5%.
A recent poll of American adults conducted by YouGov showed the debate's potential benefit for Newsom: More than a third of those surveyed didn't know enough about the governor to have an opinion about him. Among those who did, it was 27% favorable and 38% unfavorable.
So Newsom introduced himself to a lot of non-Californians. Progressives probably liked what they saw. Conservatives were disgusted. And many viewers changed the channel to football.
The debate I'd like to watch would be between Newsom and Haley —without their rudely interrupting each other.
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