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Politics & Policy

Newsom-DeSantis debate: The best, worst moments of a weird night

A side by side composite image of Republican presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gesticulating in the direction of California Governor Gavin Newsom who is gesticulating in the direction of Ron DeSantis.
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom debated each other on Fox News on Thursday. | Source: Getty, AP

Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis finally faced off in a much-ballyhooed debate Thursday night on Fox News, and the verbal slugfest had no shortage of pettiness, preening and poop maps.

But in between some rather unusual moments, the governors of California and Florida also showed the strengths and weaknesses of their respective states and parties ahead of the 2024 elections.

Let’s not waste any time diving into the messiness.

What Was Ron DeSantis’s Best Moment?

Much of Thursday’s debate was designed to pit Florida against California as a way of showing the two very different visions Democrats and Republicans have for the United States going into the 2024 elections. 

Fox News host and moderator Sean Hannity cheerfully put up stats over the course of 90 minutes showing an imbalance favoring Florida when it came to crime, cost of living, education and state-to-state migration. The implication of the conservative media outlet’s stats, of course, was that California is a failed state.

Sean Hannity host a live taping of Hannity at Fox News Channel Studios on Sept. 13, 2023, in New York City.
Sean Hannity host a live taping of "Hannity" at Fox News Channel Studios in New York City on Sept. 13. | Source: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

To prove that point, DeSantis not once but twice pulled out folded pieces of paper from his ill-fitting suit—one showing a drawing depicting oral sex to slam an LGBTQ book allegedly circulating in California public schools, and the other showing a heat map of feces that can be found on San Francisco’s streets. Both moments were … weird.

READ MORE: How ‘Center-Right’ San Francisco Republicans Want To Bring Their Party Back to Life

A key issue repeated throughout the debate was an exodus of Californians. In 2021 to 2022, the state lost 750,000 residents while Florida picked up 454,000, according to Fox News. DeSantis deftly attacked questions about these numbers like the softballs they were, but he also did a nice job of peppering in personal anecdotes. 

Newsom disputed many of Fox News’ numbers as cherry-picked, and he suggested more Floridians have come to California in recent years than vice versa. Overall, Newsom performed admirably in combating the tag-teaming DeSantis and Hannity, thanks to his unique talent for recalling statistics.

But Newsom has almost as many weaknesses as he does strengths due to the many skeletons hanging in his glass-encased closet. On Thursday, DeSantis repeatedly noted the notorious French Laundry dinner, but he also pounced on an unexpected weakness: Newsom’s in-laws.

“So, I was talking to a fella who had made the move from California out to Florida, and he was telling me that Florida is much better governed, safer, better budget, lower taxes—all this stuff,” DeSantis said. “He was really happy with the quality of life. And then he paused, and he said, ‘You know, by the way, I’m Gavin Newsom’s father-in-law.’ So, we do count Gavin’s in-laws as some of the people that have fled California for the state of Florida.”

At the very least, the fact that Newsom’s in-laws don’t seem to like him makes him more relatable.

What Was Newsom’s Best Moment?

Newsom’s peacocking was distracting—during the debate, he repeatedly capped answers with a diva shake of his head before reverting into a Blue Steel pout. And he also had a tendency to smile at inopportune moments. Perhaps that smirk was an external cue of Newsom identifying his retorts and growing excited for his turn to talk.

On the issue of immigration, Newsom managed to drown out both DeSantis and Hannity to lay down the hammer without throwing President Joe Biden under the bus. He called DeSantis’ decision to send planes full of migrants from the southern border to Sacramento a “type of gamesmanship” that should be disqualifying.

DeSantis grimaced like some other life form was attempting to flee the host.

“I support border security. I think the asylum system is broken. I’m the only guy here who’s a border-state governor,” Newsom said, before turning on DeSantis. “You’re trolling folks and trying to find money for political gains to try to get some news attention so you can out-trump Trump. And by the way, how’s that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own home state on the issue of immigration.”

However, this wasn’t Newsom’s strongest moment. 

READ MORE: Dirty San Francisco Streets Star in DeSantis, Kennedy Campaign Ads

The highlight of the debate for California’s governor was a rare glimpse of empathy, a moment that, however foolish this might sound, didn’t seem particularly staged. Newsom appeared to show emotion when talking about the banning of books in Florida schools and DeSantis’ ongoing culture war against the LGBTQ community.

“I don’t like the way you demean people. 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,” Newsom said. “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.”

Newsom also honed in on what will be one of the biggest issues in next year’s elections: women's reproductive rights. DeSantis refused to answer Newsom’s question when the Florida governor was asked if he would sign a national law banning abortions after six weeks. Newsom then turned directly to the camera and said that’s exactly what DeSantis would do if president.

“The American people should know that,” Newsom said.

What Did Trump Think of the Debate?

Before the brouhaha even got started, Trump’s campaign put out a statement with a headline calling DeSantis “Thirsty AF” for debating a “Grade A loser like Gavin Newsom.”

The juvenile statement focused almost exclusively on DeSantis, noting that he would “flail his arms and bobble his head wildly, looking more like a San Francisco crackhead than the governor of Florida.”

Who’s ready for 2024?!

So, Who Won the Debate?

Going by a Fox News panel’s post-debate scorecards, DeSantis won by taking the fight to Newsom on the records of Florida and California. But none of the Fox News panelists saw DeSantis making up significant ground in catching Trump in the polls, or even former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, for that matter.

Newsom and Democrats could be seen as a winner in the debate on multiple levels, as he more than adequately filled the role of a competent Biden surrogate who was able to recite the positive stats on new jobs and low unemployment post-pandemic. Newsom also used the event to raise more than $300,000 for the president’s campaign.

But in some ways, Newsom’s performance could be a double-edged sword for the Biden administration. The California governor took the fight to his conservative opponent in a way that the president almost certainly will be incapable of doing when it’s time to face off with Trump next year. DeSantis repeatedly accused Newsom of using the moment to elevate himself ahead of 2024 while saying Biden is suffering from cognitive decline and is “a danger to the country.” Newsom defended the president, saying he would back him at any age.

The only clear-cut winner in an event dubbed “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate” is you, the dear reader who went out and lived their life on a Thursday evening and just now skimmed this story to get up to speed.

Josh Koehn can be reached at josh@sfstandard.com