Two men. 90 minutes. One stage. A national spotlight. And all the hype they could want coming in.
Team DeSantis bet heavily on this event, messaging about it for weeks ahead of the 9 p.m. start time, dispatching Attorney General Ashley Moody to hold a press conference before the event with Californians who had moved to Florida, and enlisting Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez for a prayer meeting on Zoom Thursday afternoon.
Not to be outdone, the Florida Democrats and Chair Nikki Fried got into the act, with the former Agriculture Commissioner claiming she and her party had helped Team Newsom with prep.
After the preamble, one laden with potential 2024 implications, haymakers and hot quotes were expected.
But Newsom and DeSantis delivered a performance more akin to lucha libre than a shoot fight, with nothing really at stake, and both men embracing both the spectacle of the event and the concept of the debate serving as a teaser for a potential 2024 General Election face off, though the latter is complicated by the Floridian’s struggle in Primary polls and the Californian not actually running for President.
Despite or perhaps because of the lack of real stakes, DeSantis was looser than he’d been in any of the three GOP primary debates up until now. And just like in professional wrestling, both men hit their spots, giving partisans on each side enough ammunition to declare their favorite was the runaway victor, even though there was no chance at victory because it was, ultimately, a television spectacle driven by a manic energy akin to the old Crossfire show.
The debate began with a familiar topic — migration to Florida. And DeSantis’ familiar case that Newsom was responsible for California “running out of U-Hauls” and blaming him for “going to the French Laundry” during COVID-19 mitigation (which was his first but not last reference to that bygone scandal), and charging him with being willing to tell a “blizzard of lies.”
Newsom offered “contrast as different as daylight and darkness,” accusing DeSantis of wanting to “bring us back to a pre-1960s world,” rolling back rights and working to “weaponize grievance” amid a “cultural purge.”
“You and President Trump are looking to light democracy on fire,” Newsom said, before being reminded of the original question.
From there, Newsom painted a picture of a California that “dominates” the country in myriad sectors.
“It’s an interesting campaign strategy for Ron DeSantis to be bashing a state of 40 million when California has no peers,” Newsom contended.
DeSantis then offered new material, as he told a story about Newsom’s “father-in-law” as one of those that “fled California” for Florida, before revisiting the story of cops thanking him when he was in Newsom’s state for “supporting law enforcement.”
Taxation was the next topic up. Newsom said Florida was the “#3 most regressive” taxing state in America, drawing a contrast between that and his state to counter Hannity’s contention that taxes are higher in his state.
DeSantis fired back, describing California as riddled with “inequality” and a “hollowed-out middle class” and describing it as the “Biden-Harris agenda on steroids,” leading to the two Governors delivering cascades of cross talk about which state failed its residents the most.
The two soon enough sparred about Disney and COVID, with DeSantis dragging Newsom for keeping the theme park closed when Florida’s Disney World was open.
Newsom then came back, noting that during COVID, DeSantis “passed an emergency declaration,” “closed down the beaches, your bars, your restaurants,” and imposed “quarantines” and “checkpoints.”
“You followed science. You followed Fauci,” Newsom said, noting that DeSantis “wore a mask outside in Sept. 2020” and “did all that until he decided to fall prey to the fringe of his party.”
A discussion of death stats followed, with DeSantis saying he “re-opened the state very quickly,” seemingly a tacit admission that he closed it.
Border policy also got its time in the spotlight, with Newsom defending the status quo and DeSantis on the attack.
The Californian accused DeSantis of supporting “amnesty” in Congress, which the Florida Governor said was “false.”
From there, Newsom described DeSantis “using human beings as pawns” during the decision to ship “migrants” to Martha’s Vineyard, juxtaposing DeSantis’ support of “reforms” in Congress with now saying “he’s going to shoot people with backpacks” and potentially “invade” Mexico.
DeSantis charged Newsom with a “flurry of lies,” saying he didn’t support immigration reform in Congress. He also noted, as he did at the time, that Martha’s Vineyard claimed to be a “sanctuary jurisdiction.”
Newsom charged DeSantis with “trolling folks” with bravado on the immigration issue, “trying to out-Trump Trump.”
“How’s that working for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own state,” Newsom said, referring to recent polling that has found DeSantis around 20% as a not-so-favorite son.
Crime was the next topic in which the two leaders drew diametric contrasts fizzing with rehearsed zingers.
Newsom dragged DeSantis on a murder rate “66% higher than the state of California.”
“Go to places like Jacksonville, go to places like Orlando, go to places like Tampa. The murder rate’s off the charts compared compared to cities like San Francisco.”
From there, Newsom referenced the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, noting that DeSantis “made it easier for felons to get guns” due to the state’s permitless carry bill due to a lack of background checks; he quoted Fred Guttenburg as saying that law would make more Parklands likely.
“This is the slick politician,” DeSantis said, not addressing the claims about local murder rates or the likelihood of more mass murders, instead rehashing old lines about “crimes leading to a collapse in a quality of life” in California.
DeSantis slammed “San Francisco,” leading Newsom to again contrast that city’s murder rate with Jacksonville (126% higher), Orlando (84% higher), and Tampa (75% higher), with DeSantis again calling Newsom a liar.
As he has before, DeSantis went on to say women in California have to “take off their jewelry” while shopping so they don’t “get mugged.”
Newsom flipped the topic to the Jan. 6 “insurrection” — and DeSantis’ support of pardons for dozens of people convicted of crimes that fateful day.
“You talk a big game about backing the blue,” he said, but noted those rioters “attacked law enforcement.”
DeSantis dodged the insurrectionist trope, pivoting to his removal of “Soros” prosecutors to draw contrast with the Golden State yet again.
Parental rights got a hearing also, with the state’s “Parental Rights in Education” law referred to by Hannity as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
DeSantis said school was to “educate not indoctrinate” kids and showed a page of “Gender Queer” to the camera, noting that “pornography, cartoons aimed at children” is in schools in Newsom’s state.
“You’ve been on a banning binge,” Newsom countered, saying DeSantis had banned 1,406 books. “What’s wrong with Toni Morrison’s book? Amanda Gorman’s?”
Newsom charged DeSantis with a “cultural purge,” accusing him of trying to “demean and humiliate” LGBTQ people and others he disagrees with in a “weaponization of education” and a culture war driven “weaponization of grievance.”
DeSantis said the book bans were a “local issue” and the “poem book wasn’t” banned, seemingly referring to Miami-Dade relegating the National Youth Poet Laureate’s work to middle schools. DeSantis then went on to say “ethnic studies” classes were driven by a desire to impose a liberal agenda.
Education continued to be the nominal topic, but both men effectively got to make the same arguments about each other’s records on COVID-19 again for a second time in the debate — an indication that perhaps the debate needed stronger moderation, or that the candidates only had an hour’s worth of talking points between them.
The two went on to draw vivid contrasts on abortion. Hannity goaded Newsom to specify abortion restrictions he supported, including third-trimester abortions.
Newsom ducked that question to blast Florida’s two abortion law changes — last year’s 15-week ban and this year’s 6-week ban, which he noted “even Donald Trump said was too extreme.” He then finally said he supported third-trimester abortion in the case of medical necessity for the mother, as an “extreme, extreme exception” up to “the mother and her doctor and her conscience.”
DeSantis again told the story of Penny Hopper, a tale he’d told in a primary debate, as an example of why he opposes late-term abortion. But this time he changed details.
“They left her on the table there to basically wither away. Her grandmother came, saved her, brought her to a hospital, and she ended up living, living a good life.
He’d described it this way previously: “She was left discarded in a pan. Fortunately, her grandmother saved her and brought her to a different hospital.”
In both cases, he elided the key detail that doctors believe she may have been thought to be a stillbirth back in 1955.
DeSantis went on to claim that in Florida, 85% of abortions after the 15-week mark were “elective.” Hopper’s complicated birth, it should be noted, was induced at 23 weeks.
DeSantis was then taken to task for his environmentalist stance in 2018 and early in his first term, with Newsom saying DeSantis called the climate crisis “human caused,” and “campaigned for a fracking ban, campaigned to oppose offshore oil drilling,” before signing “an executive order doubling down saying you’re adamantly opposed to fracking, adamantly opposed to offshore oil drilling.”
“You were celebrated by the Sierra Club for that action until you weren’t,” Newsom said. “Now you’re running away from climate change as things have gotten worse: hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and floods.”
Homelessness had a hearing also, with DeSantis again returning to familiar motifs, such as describing people “defecating” on San Francisco streets — a theme he first established nearly six months ago, when his presidential campaign was a stronger bet than it is today, a point Newsom made after another cascade of cross talk between the two.
“The blueprint for Florida has put Ron DeSantis 41 points behind Donald Trump,” the Californian said, as DeSantis continued to lose his cool on the other side of the stage.
DeSantis countered with a picture of a map purporting to show feces caking the streets of San Francisco, which some cynics may say is a representation of this debate itself, and others, perhaps including Newsom, would say depicts the state of the Floridian’s campaign.
“I think it’s a question some people are probably asking. I know Nikki Haley’s campaign is asking, when are you going to drop out and at least give Nikki Haley a shot to take down Donald Trump in this nomination,” Newsom said as the debate neared a close. “She laid you out.”