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DeSantis v. Newsom: The two Americas in heated debate on abortion, crime, and 2024 election

The governors of Florida and California laid out their antagonistic visions for the future of the United States in an unprecedented television face-off

The debate between Ron DeSantis (left) and Gavin Newsom was broadcast Thursday in the press room set up for accredited media in Alpharetta (Georgia).
The debate between Ron DeSantis (left) and Gavin Newsom was broadcast Thursday in the press room set up for accredited media in Alpharetta (Georgia).ELIJAH NOUVELAGE (REUTERS)
Iker Seisdedos

An unprecedented debate in U.S. politics pitted Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis against California’s Democrat Gavin Newsom Thursday. The idea had never been considered before, perhaps because never before had two personalities with such disparate agendas been at the helm of two of the three most populous states in the country. Both are, more or less, rising political stars, and both represent the two extremes of an unprecedentedly polarized United States.

The face-to-face, held without an audience, took place in Alpharetta, near Atlanta, Georgia - a swing state par excellence. It was broadcast during prime time by Fox News, and dubbed by veteran anchor Sean Hannity as “the Red vs. Blue State Debate.”

Hannity, in a dark suit and red tie, promised he would play a neutral role, despite having one of the most right-wing pedigrees in the cable TV ecosystem and while he was charming most of the time and kept the blunt anti-left views he shares daily on his show to himself, there were several occasions when he came to the aid of the Florida governor, whom he interrupted less frequently than his California counterpart, particularly when the debate touched on the issue of abortion.

DeSantis and Newsom also discussed taxes, the economy, immigration, crime, guns, the housing crisis, education, parental rights, and gas prices. On none of these fronts did agreement emerge in a debate characterized by its liveliness.

Hannity introduced the issues by showing data that usually showed California in a bad light. Then, Newsom would go on the attack, offering figures that proved otherwise, such as when he talked about crime and argued that Florida lost out if the homicide figures in the major cities were taken separately. He also accused his opponent of ignoring the pleas of the survivors of the Parkland massacre, who asked him to tighten access to firearms. DeSantis, who repeatedly called his opponent a “liar,” accused Newsom of “legalizing shoplifting and being soft on crime.”

The two went at each other relentlessly. DeSantis appeared tense, but less so than during the three Republican debates held to date in pursuit of the party’s nomination for next year’s presidential elections (the fourth is scheduled for next week). He gave the impression that the absence of an audience suited his aversion to social grandstanding. Newsom, for his part, appeared calm, as if he did not have too much to lose or gain, probably because that was true: he was playing in enemy territory, his seat is assured until 2027, and he is not planning to run in any elections for the time being, unlike DeSantis.

In defense of Joe Biden

Paradoxically, DeSantis, with all the cards of his national aspirations face up, was better adjusted to the script of the debate between two models of state, while Newsom attacked him and insisted that he was there with only one objective: to defend the agenda of the Biden-Harris Administration. He did so right from his opening remarks, in which he accused the GOP of wanting to “roll back hard-earned national rights on voting rights, on civil rights, and LGBTQ rights, on women’s rights, not just access to abortion, but also access to contraception,” he said, before letting loose the first broadside of the night: “One thing that we have in common is neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024.″

It was Newsom, who once defined the Florida governor as “a pathetic little man,” that challenged DeSantis to a debate in September 2022. Those were different times: then, fortune was smiling on the Florida governor, who was on the verge of sweeping his re-election to the governorship with little seeming to stand between him and his bid for the White House in 2024.

Today, with six weeks remaining before the Iowa caucuses begin the primary process, his campaign for the Republican nomination has stalled. DeSantis is well behind the frontrunner, Donald Trump, who has a huge lead over the rest of the contenders. Nikki Haley is gaining ground as the last hope of defeating the former president and has been nipping at DeSantis’ heels of late, buoyed by the support of influential conservative donors. At one point in the debate, Newsom invited his rival to accept his failure: “You’re down 41 points in your own home state,” and to endorse Haley’s efforts in order to turn the page on Trump. DeSantis, for his part, has accused Newsom of running a “shadow campaign” for the White House.

Many of the issues DeSantis has built his national image on by selling himself as a culture warrior on issues like LGBTQ rights or immigration came up. Newsom accused him of being a “bully.” And while DeSantis refrained from using one of his favorite words, “woke,” as much as he usually does, he turned to his own graphic evidence: a page from a comic book called Gender Queer, the most-banned book in America. This is a book that’s in some of the schools in California — in Florida, it’s not consistent with our standards — some of it’s blacked out. You probably would not be able to put this on air,” he said.

DeSantis presented California as a place infested with homelessness and ravaged by fentanyl; a state that is ceding its status as the spearhead of America to Florida. That would explain the census figures Hannity presented at the outset, according to which California has lost 750,000 residents compared to a 454,000 gain in Florida. " You almost have to try to mess California up. That is what Gavin Newsom has done since he has been governor,” DeSantis said, pointing out that California’s population has decreased for the first time under Newsom’s leadership. The demographic drain, DeSantis added, includes Newsom’s own father-in-law, who has apparently traded California for Florida.

In one of his final questions, Hannity asked both governors to pick something they appreciated about the rival state. DeSantis stammered out a response that highlighted California’s “excellent military installations and its natural resources.” Newsom, for his part, used a tactic he employed several times during the debate: not answering the question. Instead, he offered a compliment to the Florida governor’s passion for America and for his family, before rejecting the “red versus blue” rhetoric that served as the premise for the evening. His placed his faith “for the future,” he said, on three colors: “Red, white, and blue.”

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