Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom duked it out in a roughly two-hour debate Thursday that was heavy on contrasts between their leadership of two of the nation’s largest states but lighter on references to the ongoing presidential primaries — the race one of the men is currently running in.
“There are profound differences tonight,” Newsom said in his opening statement to Fox News host Sean Hannity, who moderated the contest. “And I look forward to engaging [on them]. But there’s one thing in closing that we have in common ... neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024.”
It was an assertion that DeSantis, who interjected and pushed back against Newsom throughout the night, didn't counter.
The showdown — dubbed "The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate" by Fox News — featured spirited exchanges on tax, education, abortion, energy, immigration, Covid and crime policy, with both DeSantis and Newsom warning that their opponent's models would be disastrous for the country if they were exported nationwide.
"Gavin Newsom was mayor of San Francisco," DeSantis said. "So he took the San Francisco model, turned that into a template for California’s collapse. Now the left wants to take the California model and use that as a template for America’s collapse."
The two men agreed to debate each other in August, setting up a contest between DeSantis — a current presidential candidate and possibly a future one if he fails to nab the Republican presidential nomination this cycle — and Newsom, a governor who is considered a likely future presidential contender and is serving now as a top surrogate for President Joe Biden.
The debate came with roughly six weeks to go until January's Iowa caucuses, a must-win contest for DeSantis, who trails former President Donald Trump by large margins in both state and national surveys.
Newsom made note of DeSantis' polling deficit at multiple points and repeated attacks that both Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a fellow contender in the GOP primary, have made against him.
During an exchange on immigration policy, Newsom said DeSantis' strategy was merely "trolling folks" and "trying to find migrants to play political games, trying to get some news and attention so you can out-Trump Trump."
"And by the way, how’s that going for you, Ron?" Newsom said. "You’re down 41 points in your own home state."
For much of the past two years, DeSantis and Newsom have pointed to each other's governance as a foil for their leadership at home, with both taking each other on on his home turf.
At the forefront for both men were strong differences over Covid and education policy, which were at the center of Thursday's debate.
DeSantis talked up keeping businesses like Walt Disney World open early in the pandemic while blasting Newsom for school and business closings.
"You were not following science," DeSantis said. "You were a lockdown governor. You did a lot of damage to your people."
Newsom countered that DeSantis had initially closed down businesses at the onset of the outbreak and followed guidance from Dr. Anthony Fauci, then the nation's top infectious diseases expert, whom DeSantis has railed against over the past few years.
"You followed science; you followed Fauci," Newsom said, adding that DeSantis had also previously worn a mask and promoted Covid vaccines. "He decided to fall prey to the fringe of his party, and as a consequence of that, Ron, tens of thousands of people lost their lives."
DeSantis hit back by talking about California's lengthy public school closings and adding that Newsom acts at the behest of teachers unions, major supporters of the Democratic Party.
"That’s why the kids were locked out of school for so long," he said. "Joe Biden is in the pocket of the teachers union, and so is Kamala Harris."
Newsom jumped in to correct DeSantis' mispronunciation of Harris' first name. It wasn't the only time the two men sought to correct each other or spoke over each other. Both accused the other of frequently lying about the other's record, with DeSantis calling his California counterpart "a slick, slippery politician." At one point, the two men took turns lamenting each other for browbeating others.
“You’re nothing but a bully," Newsom said.
“You’re a bully," DeSantis responded.
DeSantis, at two points, used props to help back up his assertions. In one instance, he held up a map purporting to show documented instances of human feces that were reported on the streets of San Francisco. At another moment, he held up imagery of cartoon depictions of sex acts from the book "Gender Queer," which was removed from Florida school districts.
Newsom took issue with DeSantis' framing of restrictions on books in public schools and said his education platform was a "sword" he used to launch broader attacks on LGBTQ Americans.
"I don’t like the way you demean people," Newsom said. "I don’t like the way you demean the LGBTQ community. I don’t like the way you demean and humiliate people you disagree with, Ron. I really find this fundamentally offensive, and this is a core value that distinguishes the values of my state and, frankly, the vast majority of Americans against the weaponization of education.”
The two battled over the economy, as well, with DeSantis pointing to high prices and the cost of living in California, as well as Newsom's embrace of Biden's economic agenda.
"I'll give Gavin credit, he did at least admit in his first answer he's joined at the hip with Biden and Harris," DeSantis said. "He thinks Biden and Harris have done a great job. He thinks the economy is working because of their policies for Americans, and they are not. And so what California represents is the Biden-Harris agenda on steroids."
Newsom countered that DeSantis promoted $28 million in investments in semiconductor and chip manufacturing made possible by legislation Biden signed. And, taking issue with how Hannity framed some questions, he said Fox News viewers weren't being presented with positive economic news, including wage growth, cooling inflation and substantial growth in the gross domestic product in the previous quarter.
While the presidential campaign played a secondary role in the debate, both candidates were pressed about whether they felt Biden was up for four more years.
"Yes, he’s in decline," DeSantis said. "Yes, it’s a danger to the country. He has no business running for president. And you know, Gavin Newsom agrees with that. He won’t say that. That’s why he’s running his shadow campaign. [Biden] should not be running. He is not up to the job. and it is dangerous for this country."
Newsom disagreed that he's running a shadow campaign for president, saying DeSantis was "making this stuff up." He said he "will take Joe Biden at 100 vs. Ron DeSantis any day of the week at any age."
Biden "will be our nominee in a matter of weeks," Newsom said. "And in a matter of weeks, Sean, [DeSantis will] be endorsing Donald Trump as the nominee for the Republican Party."
In closing, Hannity praised both men for taking part in the debate and asked whether they would agree to battle again at some point in the near future.
"Joe Biden should show up to a debate," DeSantis said. "Donald Trump should show up to a debate."