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Governors Ron DeSantis, Gavin Newsom face off in unusual debate

DeSantis campaigns after debate with Newsom
DeSantis campaigns in South Carolina after debate with Newsom 02:27

In what may be the most unorthodox match-up of the 2024 presidential primary campaign to date, Florida governor and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis and California's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, who is not running for president, faced against each other Thursday night in a testy debate moderated by Fox News' Sean Hannity.

The debate between the two aired on Fox News for just over 90 minutes in Alpharetta, Georgia. Oftent, DeSantis and Newsom spoke over each other, leaving Hannity the task of trying to corral the two. "It would be great if you guys cooperated. I'm not a potted plant here," Hannity said.

DeSantis, Newsom debate Biden administration

When explaining why he was taking part in the debate, Newsom said it was to "tell the truth about the Biden-Harris record and also compare and contrast Ron DeSantis' record." 

Asked what grade they would give Biden, the two governors offered unsurprising answers: an "A" from Newsom, who is a Biden campaign surrogate, and a "fail" from DeSantis.

DeSantis said Newsom is "joined at the hip with Biden and Harris." 

"He thinks Biden and Harris have done a great job," DeSantis said of Newsom. "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."

Florida Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis (L) and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (R), appear on screen from the press room during a debate held by Fox News, in Alpharetta, Georgia, on Nov. 30, 2023. CHRISTIAN MONTERROSA/AFP via Getty Images

The two traded barbs on the impact of President Biden's handling of the economy, with DeSantis arguing that his administration has failed to curb rising inflation, which has made it difficult for many Americans to afford basics such as groceries. Newsom pointed out that inflation has fallen to 3.4% and claimed that the Biden administration has created more jobs than the last three administrations. 

Newsom also made a reference to the polling gap between DeSantis and former President Donald Trump in the GOP presidential primary.  He accused him of using migrants to "play political games, to try to get some news and attention. "And by the way, how's that going for you, Ron? You're down 41 points in your own home state," Newsom said, taunting him.

"One thing that we have in common is neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024," Newsom said. 

Leading up to the debate, DeSantis had repeatedly suggested Newsom is running a "shadow campaign" to replace Mr. Biden on the November ballot.   

Asked whether he'd accept the presidential nomination if the Democratic Party asked him to run, Newsom said no.

"I appreciate and respect the work the president is doing...I don't know how many times I can say it. They're just making this stuff up about a shadow campaign," Newsom said.

"Biden will be our nominee in a matter of weeks in a matter of weeks. In a matter of weeks, Sean, he'll (DeSantis) be endorsing Donald Trump as the nominee for the Republican party," Newsom added.

And at one point, DeSantis mispronounced Vice President Kamala Harris' name.

"Shame on you," Newsom said.

Governors rehash responses to COVID-19

The governors of the most populated state, California, and third most populated, Florida, were eager to compare responses and records on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Newsom was one of the first governors to issue an emergency "stay-at-home" order in March of 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, while DeSantis was one of the first to reopen schools in August of that year. 

However, Hannity cited data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which showed the two states had similar COVID-19 death rates since the beginning of the pandemic through November, with Florida seeing 253 COVID deaths per 100,000 population, while California had 248 deaths per 100,000. 

Newsom criticized DeSantis for Florida's higher rate, saying that DeSantis is "running away from the fact tens of thousands of people died," and alleging that DeSantis' COVID policy was a play to the "fringe" of the Republican party. 

DeSantis argued Newsom "did huge damage to people in California" through lockdowns of businesses and schools. 

"He led the country in school closures, locking kids out of school while he had his own kids in private school," DeSantis argued. 

The two governors talked over each other often. As he has had to do throughout the debate, Hannity tried to halt the bickering, requesting that DeSantis and Newsom "breathe" and go "one at a time."

DeSantis, Newsom agree something needs to be done at border

Questions about what the pair believe should be done to address the migrant crisis were front and center.

Newsom doubled down on his support for the Biden administration's $14 billion border request to Congress, saying it would add thousands of border agents and law enforcement officers.

He said Republicans in Congress are the reason there hasn't been any movement on it.

"The Republican party didn't touch it," Newsom said. "They haven't moved on it. They play politics with this."

DeSantis alleged the White House's claim that the southern border is secure is false.

"Joe Biden is sitting on his hands," DeSantis said. "He refuses to take care of the border. He refuses to hold the drug cartels accountable. This is the vision of Biden Harris knew some open borders."

DeSantis also claimed he believes that there "will be a terrorist attack we'll be able to tie to our southern border."

Why did DeSantis and Newsom debate?

The rivalry between the two governors has been building for years, and their differences were highlighted by their opposing responses to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their public disagreements and spats over education, immigration and economic policy have also increased in the last two years. 

In September 2022, Newsom first proposed a debate with DeSantis on CNN. Then, Hannity raised the idea again in a June 2023 interview with Newsom, and he agreed to it. A couple of months later, in August, DeSantis told Hannity, "Let's get it done. Just tell me when and where." 

According to the Daily Mail, Hannity privately negotiated with both camps to finalize arrangements for the debate. 

Background on the governors

Both governors were first elected in 2018, and won reelection handily in 2022. Both have been touted as the future of their respective parties, though DeSantis' has been testing that claim since he launched his bid in May. Newsom is a staunch backer of and surrogate for President Biden and has repeatedly said he has no plans to run for president or challenge Mr. Biden in 2024. 

The two governors have been criticizing each other in ads and news conferences for over a year. In 2022, Newsom ran an ad against DeSantis' policies affecting the LGBTQ community and accused him of attacking freedom in his state. DeSantis responded by saying that California "is driving people away with their terrible governance." 

In recent months, DeSantis has repeatedly suggested that Newsom could end up replacing Mr. Biden on the 2024 general election ballot. The DeSantis campaign, in messaging guidance sent to supporters and donors by the DeSantis campaign this week, made several references to a "Newsom presidency" appear and wrote, "This will be the first chance for Republicans to contrast our vision for the future of the country with the failed agenda of someone who very well could become the Democrats' nominee."

The debate aired on Fox News and on Fox News radio.

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