Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis took parallel paths from opposite ends of America's political spectrum to the front lines of the high-stakes battle between progressives and conservatives over the future of the nation.
But when they finally meet on stage Thursday in Georgia, the stakes are low for both politicians in a debate about their vastly different visions for the country.
"For both of them there is a significant amount of upside opportunity here," said Lanhee Chen, a former Republican candidate for state controller and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "It's kind of a brilliant move on both Newsom and DeSantis' part."
The long-awaited showdown on Fox News gives DeSantis, the governor of Florida, an opportunity to lift his fading presidential campaign. Once considered the heir apparent of Donald Trump, DeSantis' "anti-woke," right-wing campaign has languished in the shadow of the former president and failed to build a strong base of support in the crowded GOP president primary.
For Newsom, the debate helps burnish his image as a liberal firebrand leading Democrats into battle with Republicans for the soul of the country. The contest elevates the California governor's standing as a top surrogate for President Biden and cements Newsom's place on a list of potential future presidential nominees.
"In a worst case scenario, Democrats think he won and Republicans think he lost, so I don't think there's much risk," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist based in Washington, D.C. "It's a bold step and you know, some people may say it's political, but even if people think it's political they will love it when he's giving Ron DeSantis, who Democrats despise, a hard time."
Newsom's political team isn't worried that the debate could help DeSantis' campaign. Recent polls show DeSantis is vying against Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, for a distant second to Trump in the 2024 Republican primary.
"Let's call it like it is: The Republican race for president is essentially over," said Sean Clegg, one of Newsom's senior political advisors. "We're more concerned about the attack on democracy and the particular brand of anti-democratic, anti-freedom legislation coming out of the state of Florida, and I think we're going to have a robust discussion about that."
Newsom has been itching for the one-on-one debate with DeSantis for more than a year.
The California governor ran ads in Florida on the Fourth of July last year attacking DeSantis and his push to restrict civil rights and abortion and LGBTQ+ protections, accusing the Republican-led state of undercutting basic American freedoms.
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