The suburban Atlanta setting is no accident. Georgia is one of the few competitive states on the 2024 roadmap to the White House, and Republicans consider it a must-win to defeat President Joe Biden next year.
The debate, which will air at 9 p.m., could also offer a glimpse of a showdown to come. DeSantis’ campaign for president has struggled to gain traction, though he could remain a political force even in defeat. Newsom is already positioning himself for a White House bid in 2028.
“This is a high school version of American Idol. It makes no difference for 2024, but it’s a chance to spot talent for a future presidential race,” said Republican strategist Brian Robinson, who noted that the Georgia setting is an example of the state’s “center of the political universe” status.
Both governors insist their focus is on the short term. For Newsom, it’s a way to burnish the Democratic brand in a hostile environment and press the case for Biden’s policies before a national audience.
The stakes are higher for DeSantis, who is badly trailing former President Donald Trump in polls and, in some surveys, is losing ground to former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Still, there’s ample potential payoff. DeSantis hopes to draw attention away from Trump and other GOP contenders while pummeling a rival who some Republicans insist could wind up the eventual Democratic nominee if Biden drops out of the race.
On the campaign trail, DeSantis has used Newsom as a proxy for Democratic policies that energize the conservative base. He’s eager to draw contrasts between their stances on illegal immigration, taxation, U.S. foreign aid to Ukraine and the war between Israel and Hamas.
The Florida governor recently told reporters in New Hampshire that Newsom “caters to a very far-left slice of the electorate” in his West Coast bubble, promising that he’ll put that “on display when we have the debate.”
Robinson said GOP animosity toward California’s liberal policies give DeSantis a chance to score easy points before a sympathetic audience, but added: “A spectacular dunk can launch you; a missed dunk can ruin you.”
As for Newsom, his decision to participate has surprised even some of his advisers. One of them, Sean Clegg, told The New York Times that it’s bound to be “one of the most interesting events of 2023.”
“It’s a debate between two of the premier governors of the country,” Clegg said. “Exhibition games can be highly satisfying in their own ways.”
It also shines a brighter spotlight on Hannity, who worked for WGST in Atlanta in the 1990s before joining Fox News. He’s now the longest-running host in cable news history.
It’s rare for two high-profile politicians who aren’t competing against each other to agree to this sort of debate, particularly on an outlet geared toward a conservative audience.
(Another notable example of a televised political spectacle featuring rival politicians who weren’t running against each other took place in 1967 when Ronald Reagan, who was California’s governor at the time, met then-U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in a CBS forum.)
Hannity told the AJC that he was impressed by Newsom’s willingness to spar with him over the years, including a pair of recent interviews on Fox News.
“He was willing to go three hours, according to what he said to me,” Hannity said of Newsom. “He’s very upfront with the fact that he watches Fox News. He wants to know what the other side thinks and how they frame issues. And I’d say to Republicans that they shouldn’t always be picking friendly venues as well.”
When the dust settles after the debate, Hannity said he hopes viewers are left with a “deeper understanding of the underlying philosophical differences” that divide the country.
“And,” he added, “maybe that understanding can translate into something other than contempt or hatred.”