DeSantis, Newsom set to battle over ideologies with White House implications

'They simply reflect the polarized nature of American politics right now,' Dr. Susan MacManus says
Posted at 3:51 PM, Nov 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-29 15:51:49-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — They're probably the best-known governors in America, and they'll square off in an Atlanta suburb for a nationally televised debate Thursday.

The event is being billed as a battle between ideologies, but California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., each have their reasons for being there — the White House.

It started with an online post by former newsman Dan Rather in August of last year, which Newsom elevated days later, challenging DeSantis to a debate following his controversial migrant relocation flights.

"Hey @GovRonDeSantis, clearly you're struggling, distracted, and busy playing politics with people's lives," Newsom wrote in a post to the social network X, formerly known as Twitter. "Since you have only one overriding need — attention — let's take this up & debate. I'll bring my hair gel. You bring your hairspray. Name the time before Election Day. @CNN"

A back-and-forth followed that has become a full-fledged reality, set for Fox News, on Thursday evening. DeSantis, Newsom and moderator Sean Hannity, a conservative television host.

The war of words between the two is expected to focus on who has run their state better, but both politicians have other motives.

Newsom is an anticipated 2028 presidential candidate, if not sooner. That's as some have speculated he might step in if President Joe Biden dropped out. The California Democrat using the stage to flex viability to prospective donors in either case.

DeSantis, meanwhile, is trying everything to generate attention and keep his, at times, flagging bid for the GOP nomination from flatlining.

Florida's governor came into the 2024 cycle as a solid alternative to former President Donald Trump, but over the summer, DeSantis' polling numbers have softened. Many no longer consider him a chief rival to Trump as other Republicans, like former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, have surged.

DeSantis supporters, like Florida's House Speaker Paul Renner, see the debate as an opportunity to take the spotlight back and highlight the Florida governor's legislative victories.

"Facts are facts, and people vote with their feet. And so this debate has already been had — it's already been won," Renner said. "Not by politicians, but by people who have made a choice to leave places like California and come to places like Florida, and the governor deserves great credit for the success we're now experiencing."

Renner has remained a staunch supporter of DeSantis, joining 98 other Republicans in Florida's Legislature, almost the entire caucus, in a massive May endorsement of this presidential bid. A handful of them have since switched their support to Trump in recent months.

Even so, Renner expected a blowout on Thursday.

"[DeSantis'] performance, his leadership is far superior to that of Gavin Newsom, and what Gavin Newsom represents, which is really the course and direction of the Biden administration should he get another four years," Renner said. "We can't let that happen."

Florida Democrats, like state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, considered the event a distraction. She said this week DeSantis seemed more focused on the White House than the Sunshine State.

"As he galavants around the country and does debates with people who are not even running for president — property insurance rates are out of control here in Florida," Eskamani said. "People cannot afford to live in our state, and we need attention to these real-life problems our constituents are navigating."

Pundits see the event as a win for both politicians.

Dr. Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida politics professor emerita, expected Newsom and DeSantis would target different audiences for different reasons — and likely strike a chord with supporters no matter what the other says.

"They're going to be debating with a different base and perspective," MacManus said. "They simply reflect the polarized nature of American politics right now."

The 90-minute debate starts at 9 p.m. and will air on Fox News.