DeSantis and Newsom clash in messy ‘red vs. blue’ Georgia debate

California Gov. Gavin Newsom interrupted a fierce clash with Gov. Ron DeSantis minutes into Thursday’s Fox News debate in Atlanta’s suburbs to declare that the two bitter rivals share at least one thing in common.

“Neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024,” the Democrat said.

The one-liner set the tone for an extraordinary – and extraordinarily messy – showdown between two party leaders who aren’t seeking the same office but nonetheless agreed to spar on national TV in Alpharetta.

The rivals staked out diverging stances on immigration, public safety, foreign policy and taxes as they tried to leverage the platform afforded by Sean Hannity, the conservative anchor who moderated the debate.

But what Fox News billed as the “great red vs. blue state debate” – complete with color-coded backdrops at a glitzy studio – frequently devolved into chaotic shouting.

Each were eager to exploit the one-on-one matchup, which gave them nearly two hours of airtime to make their arguments. Often, though, it devolved into angry and unintelligible crosstalk that vexed Hannity.

“I’m not a potted plant here,” Hannity vented near the end of the debate. Earlier, he lamented that the back-and-forth had become “rather dull.”

It was Newsom who was surprisingly aggressive, regularly steamrolling both Hannity and DeSantis in a showdown his adviser Nathan Click had framed as a “two on one match with the ref in the bag for the home team.”

Indeed, Hannity often prefaced his questions with sleek graphics or statistics favorable to DeSantis, who took a risk by participating in the high-stakes debate.

Still, DeSantis calculated it would help him reinvigorate his flailing campaign against former President Donald Trump, the unquestioned frontrunner, and a late charge by former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

                        FILE -- Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami, Nov. 8, 2023. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California will debate DeSantis for 90-minutes on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, in Alpharetta, Ga. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

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Credit: NYT

And Newsom used the platform to defend President Joe Biden before a hostile audience while sharpening his own standing for a potential 2028 run for the nation’s top job.

Both dripped with disdain for the other. DeSantis sought to make Newsom an avatar of liberal policies reviled by many in his party’s base, blaming the California governor for homelessness and economic inequity that have long plagued his state.

He described Newsom as a “slippery” politician who is hopelessly tied to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. California, he said, is “the Biden-Harris agenda on steroids.”

And DeSantis brought props to reinforce his attacks: A book he labeled as “pornography” that he argued should be banned from California’s public schools, and a “poop map” of San Francisco that purportedly plots where people have defecated on the street.

Newsom punched right back. He accused the Florida governor of “trying to light democracy on fire,” repeatedly called him a “bully” and mocked him for failing to “out-Trump Trump.”

“How’s that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your home state.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom attends a press conference in 2021 in Universal City, California. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images/TNS)

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Later, Newsom asked another loaded question: “When are you going to drop out and give Nikki Haley a shot to win?”

The debate had other hallmarks of a presidential showdown: Beyond the shouting matches, the two came armed with shrewdly tailored quips crafted for TV soundbites and routinely avoided directly answering key questions.

They clashed particularly sharply over DeSantis’ assertion that Newsom is waging a “shadow campaign” in case the 81-year-old president drops out. Bristling, Newsom said Biden is “doing fantastically” and that replacing him on the ballot “is not even an option.”

DeSantis sounded incredulous in firing back. The California governor, he said, “wants you to believe him over your own lying eyes” when it comes to the president’s health.

When Hannity approached his final commercial break, the two rivals flirted with extending the debate another 20 minutes. Their chagrined aides stepped in to end the affair. The two were then quickly ushered to separate hotels straddling Windward Parkway where each declared victory before banks of cameras.

The Alpharetta backdrop was no accident. North Fulton County was once reliably conservative territory that tilted Democratic during the Trump presidency. Georgia is once again considered a premier battleground state in 2024, and the Atlanta suburbs will be heavily contested.

“It’s just another example of how we’re the center of the political universe,” said Republican strategist Brian Robinson. After all, he added, “Georgia is not the meet-in-the-middle spot between California and Florida.”