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Biden advisers bristle at Gavin Newsom's plan to debate DeSantis

Vice President Kamala Harris' allies are particularly annoyed by the California governor's move into the spotlight ahead of a possible 2028 Democratic nomination fight.
President Joe Biden listens to California Gov. Gavin Newsom deliver remarks after looking at storm damage in Seacliff, Calif., on Jan. 19, 2023.
President Joe Biden listens to California Gov. Gavin Newsom deliver remarks after having looked at storm damage in Seacliff, Calif., on Jan. 19.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is increasingly being viewed as a nuisance to some of President Joe Biden’s political advisers, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Though Biden's camp no longer sees Newsom as a wannabe challenger — and some in Biden's orbit praise him for acting as a top campaign surrogate — Newsom’s plan to debate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on television carries more risk than potential reward, these people say. 

That has caused consternation within Biden's operation and among Vice President Kamala Harris' allies.

Some Biden advisers have complained privately that the planned debate, which Fox News host Sean Hannity would moderate, could make voters think Newsom is running a shadow 2024 campaign at a time when most Democrats say they’d prefer a different candidate at the top of the ticket. They also argue that it could elevate DeSantis, whom White House advisers initially perceived as a greater threat to Biden’s re-election hopes than the GOP front-runner, former President Donald Trump. (Others have insisted that there is no harm in their debating and that, in fact, it could be a net positive.)

Harris allies take particular umbrage at what they see as Newsom's attempt to position himself for the 2028 Democratic presidential primarily at her expense.

"It's disrespectful," an outside adviser to Harris said. "Joe Biden is running with Kamala Harris. That's the Democratic ticket."

It's not clear yet that the debate will actually go forward: The two camps have been haggling over proposed rules since DeSantis accepted Newsom's standing challenge this month. But the specter of the two governors going head to head has highlighted the degree to which Biden's interests aren't always clear and can diverge from Harris' interests.

Newsom is expected to be a top surrogate for Biden's campaign at the second Republican presidential primary debate in Simi Valley, California, in September, said a Democratic aide familiar with the plans. 

Just as some Biden advisers are irked by Newsom's move, others see potential benefit in a high-profile Democrat's defending his record and agenda against a prominent Republican hopeful.

"What he's doing here is appropriate for a surrogate. It would not be appropriate for the president or the vice president," said a Biden adviser who lauded Newsom for taking on DeSantis and for sharing a donor list with Biden's re-election campaign.

"We're in close touch with him," this adviser said. "This is the kind of thing we want surrogates to do."

Newsom didn't respond to a text message seeking comment on what he learned about DeSantis from Wednesday's Republican primary debate and whether he thinks the two men will end up debating.

Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Biden's re-election team, said the campaign is on board with the debate.

"Governor Newsom is a strong partner and surrogate for the Biden-Harris campaign," he said in a text message. "We coordinate closely on campaigning, whether it's fundraising or media. When he brought the debate idea to us, we endorsed it."

Munoz declined to say specifically when the endorsement came or who gave it.

It isn't the first time the White House has had to contemplate whether Biden and Harris are collateral damage in Newsom's efforts to elevate himself.

Last year, Biden advisers closely tracked Newsom's national political activity, concerned that he might be laying the groundwork to run in 2024. He reassured then-White House chief of staff Ron Klain that he was "not interested" in a 2024 bid, said a person familiar with the conversation.

With many Democrats looking for an alternative to Biden, who turned 80 in November, some of Newsom's maneuvers into the national spotlight were perceived as promoting him at the cost of stoking concerns about the president.

But since Biden announced his re-election campaign in April, Newsom has become a top surrogate, and most of Biden’s advisers have welcomed his help. One set of Biden's advisers is content with a potential Newsom-DeSantis showdown, seeing political upside for Biden and the party if DeSantis falters, people familiar with the discussions said.

On the other hand, a strong DeSantis showing could strengthen him and weaken Democratic arguments. DeSantis exchanged barbs with Harris this summer as she harshly criticized a state education mandate to teach Florida schoolchildren about the "benefits" of slavery.

She declined DeSantis' entreaty last month to engage with him directly on the issue, and then he agreed to debate Newsom. Though the challenge had been issued much earlier, Newsom's decision to move forward came in the shadow of Harris' arm's-length back-and-forth with DeSantis.

While the two governors tussle over the rules and timing of a debate — it could happen this fall, possibly in November — DeSantis is trying to gain traction in his uphill fight to beat Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination. 

DeSantis and Newsom already have sparred over a variety of issues, including crime, Covid, abortion rights, education and migrant policy. Newsom has run ads in Florida targeting DeSantis’ positions. 

A Biden adviser bristled at the message the possible debate sends about Harris and about the early jockeying for the 2028 nomination.

“It could either look one of two ways: like he tried to defend her because she couldn’t defend herself or that he was being thirsty for attention or to get in the fight,” the Biden adviser said. “And it was at a time when the VP had completely dismissed and won the fight with DeSantis, and I think Gavin gave him a second life.”