Next week Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy will head to Alabama to square off in yet another contest between the four GOP presidential hopefuls.
While none of them are within easy striking distance of former President Donald Trump, over the past few weeks, momentum has shifted noticeably in Haley’s favor. Polls show her nudging up to second place in the New Hampshire primary, and big money — including from the Koch Foundation — is now being sent her way. In Florida, which both Trump and DeSantis call home, the 45th president is supported by nearly 6 out of 10 Republican primary voters. Oddsmakers give DeSantis only a 3 percent chance of winning the 2024 election and becoming the nation’s 47th president.
It’s hardly the year-end news wanted by DeSantis, who, for a brief moment a year ago, after he was resoundingly reelected as Florida governor, was widely viewed by Republican voters as a stronger candidate than Trump.
When you’re a presidential hopeful with a rapidly deflating popularity bubble, you don’t have very much to lose, which is likely why DeSantis agreed to debate California Gov Gavin Newsom on Fox News Thursday night. The marquee event, two months in the planning, was promoted as being a clash of young titans, an ideological sparring match between DeSantis, a declared presidential hopeful, and Newsom — who routinely pays homage to the Biden administration, even while methodically seeding the ground for a presidential run in case the octogenarian president decides to step aside. (Those same oddsmakers currently give Newsom a 15 percent chance of being the White House’s occupant come January 2025.)
Yesterday’s televised debate, which was moderated by Fox News’s Sean Hannity and held in a studio devoid of a live audience in Alpharetta, Georgia, produced 90 minutes of sometimes surprising political back and forth as the two governors shouted over each other much of the time. Hannity rolled out plenty of data suggesting that the Sunshine State now had the edge over the Golden State — after all, Florida has lower unemployment, lower violent crime rates, fewer people experiencing homelessness, a lower tax burden on residents, better education results, and an inflow of people (in contrast to the net loss of hundreds of thousands of California residents during the pandemic).
Yet at no point did Governor Newsom seem flustered or on the defensive. Instead, he methodically pushed back against charges that California, under his leadership, was in decline. He talked about the sheer heft of California’s economy: “We’re the number one manufacturing state. We dominate,” he said, speaking to the cutting-edge fields in which the state has the lead. He referred to the billions of dollars his administration was investing in tackling the state’s decades-long homelessness crisis; he touted his efforts to enact sensible gun control; he aggressively defended the pandemic-era quarantine orders and other public health measures that he implemented back in 2020 and 2021 in the face of the COVID crisis. At times, as Governor DeSantis tried to shout over him, Newsom simply looked into the camera and said he would address the United States people directly.
When DeSantis accused him of favoring “abortion on demand right up until the moment of birth,” Newsom fired back, accusing his opponent of having passed “the most extreme anti-abortion bills in America.”
When the Floridian pulled pages from the book Gender Queer (a coming-of-age memoir written by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe) out of his pocket and inaccurately asserted that Newsom favored peddling “pornography” to elementary schoolers, the Californian was ready with a barrage of attacks on DeSantis for pushing wholesale book censorship, for bullying the LGBTQ community, for seeking to impose a “cultural purge,” and for “intimidating and humiliating people you disagree with.”
There was no mistaking the loathing that the two men have for each other. When they traded insults, there was nothing pro forma in the activity. Newsom made it clear that he sees DeSantis as an autocratic culture war fighter who has no compunction in using his office to go after vulnerable groups. The Floridian, in turn, smeared Newsom by portraying him as a proponent of unaccountable Big Government, invoked public discontent over COVID-related school shutdowns in California, blamed Newsom’s policies for the rise in homelessness and addiction issues in California, and at one point, even pulled out a map purporting to show all the areas of San Francisco in which human feces had been found on city streets in recent months. While the concept certainly triggered an ick-response, it was not a particularly effective prop.
Overall, the debate probably didn’t directly move the needle for either of the men much. I doubt that any diehard followers of either DeSantis or Newsom will switch allegiances after this joust. But in more subtle ways it was important: DeSantis clearly didn’t land the knockout punches that he needed in order to convince undecided GOP primary voters that he has the wherewithal to take Trump down and win a general election — and in failing to do so, he likely gave Haley a huge boost. Meanwhile, Newsom clearly showed that he has the debate skills to run for national office should Biden at some point in the next several months decide to pass the baton to a younger candidate.
Even if Biden stays in the race, Newsom clearly established his value as a surrogate, effectively touting the administration’s economic accomplishments and pushing back against the notion that nothing economically good has come out of Biden’s agenda. In many ways, he showed himself far more capable than the president and his team at explaining how and why the economy is doing better than so many voters believe to be the case.
If DeSantis had hoped that Newsom would prove to be an easy foil, Thursday’s debate didn’t really go according to the script. If he’s to rescue his sinking campaign, he’s going to have to somehow deliver knockout blows to his GOP competition on the debate stage in Alabama on December 6. More likely than not, he won’t deliver.
Thursday night didn’t mark the end for DeSantis’s national aspirations, but it likely marked at least the beginning of the end. It’s increasingly hard to see how the Florida governor can plausibly claim to be the one candidate with the political skills and mass following that would allow him to cut Trump down to size.