Schoen: DeSantis-Newsom debate could boost both pols

No rivalry embodies the current divide in American politics more than the one between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and California Governor Gavin Newsom. The two big-state governors, diametrically opposed to what the other stands for, have spent the past year escalating their attacks on one another – and soon, their contention will come to a head in a much anticipated live debate.

While the final rules and topics are up in the air, Fox News’ Sean Hannity is set to moderate the discussion this fall in the swing-state of Georgia. We can expect the event to be a no-holds-barred slugfest, as both governors are desperately seeking the national spotlight and vying to sell themselves to their respective parties as the ‘Plan B’ 2024 presidential candidate.

There is little chance that Democrats will nominate someone other than President Biden, just as Former President Trump appears poised to win the Republican primary in a landslide. However, should any one of the multiple indictments and investigations facing Trump disqualify or dissuade him from seeking the presidency, DeSantis’ high-profile fight with Newsom helps assure his position as Trump’s successor.

Likewise, Biden’s age, declining mental acuity, and stubbornly low job approval, along with Vice President Kamala Harris’ deep unpopularity, have set the stage for someone like Newsom to mount an eleventh-hour campaign.

Matt Rexroad, a Republican political consultant, aptly summarized the mutually beneficial scenario to Politico: “The best thing that could happen to Ron DeSantis is the liberal governor of California attacks him as he’s running for president. And the best thing for Gavin Newsom, who wants to be ‘plan B’ for the nomination this time or ‘plan A’ next time, would be to be attacked by the governor of Florida.”

DeSantis, despite his early promise following a historic win in the 2022 midterms, has struggled to step out of Trump’s shadow, causing high profile donors to defect and prompting a number of campaign staff shakeups. His efforts to win over MAGA voters – by advancing conservative abortion and guns laws in Florida and waging a public fight with Disney over LGBTQ issues – have been to no avail, and if anything, have dissuaded establishment and moderate Republicans.

It’s reasonable that the Florida governor sees a showdown with the highest-profile Democratic governor in the country as an opportunity to – once again – resurrect his flailing presidential campaign. After being considered an early frontrunner, DeSantis trails Trump by 38-points nationally, according to the RealClearPolitics average, and is behind by 20-plus-points in the all-important early primary states.

For his part, Newsom, who has been quietly setting the stage to launch a last-minute presidential bid, if by chance President Biden steps aside due to his age, clearly sees the debate as a way to attract visibility and enhance his image with the Democratic base. The California governor has been traveling the country to campaign for President Biden in red states with well over a year until the presidential election – something he would not be doing if he did not see a potential opening in 2024.

Should President Biden bow out of the race, Democratic voters will be seeking a competent, strong-willed leader who can take the fight to the Republican Party. A nationally-televised debate with the one man that Democrats have more disdain for than Trump – DeSantis – is the ideal way for Newsom to prematurely throw his hat in the ring for 2024 if the opportunity presents, or at the very least, become an early favorite for 2028.

To be sure, DeSantis’ and Newsom’s not-so-subtle motives have been put on full-blast by the other: DeSantis called on Newsom to stop “pussyfooting around” his 2024 presidential ambitions, and has highlighted the tens of thousands of Californians who have moved to Florida as fleeing from the negative impacts of Newsom’s liberal agenda.

Newsom’s camp has not taken these attacks lying down. A spokesman for the governor recently added fuel to the fire after DeSantis tried to change the debate rules, saying: “Ron should be able to stand on his own two feet. It’s no wonder Trump is kicking his ass.”

Notwithstanding these personal attacks, the debate – at its best – has the potential to turn into a legitimate proxy debate between blue America versus red America at a time when the 2024 presidential race – between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump – is set to be more about personalities and scandals than the issues.

While neither DeSantis nor Newsom are unwilling to criticize the other personally, their disagreements have largely been about the issues. Newsom ran ads in Florida warning Floridians that “freedom is under attack in your state,” due to DeSantis’ conservative agenda. To counter, DeSantis ran ads in San Francisco that blamed Newsom’s “leftist policies” for the city’s homelessness and drug crises.

By bringing their years-long conflict to a head in prime-time, both men can personify their party’s vision for the future of the country – the loud, indignant, conservative culture warrior versus the liberal-lite leader of the state with the largest economy – at a time when neither is the actual face of that party.

Douglas Schoen is a political consultant. 

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