Nov 30, 2023 - Politics & Policy

How DeSantis can win his debate against Gavin Newsom

Gov, Ron DeSantis (left) and Gov. Gavin Newsom. Photos: Joe Raedle; Liu Guanguan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faces a fraught challenge in his showdown with California Gov. Gavin Newsom — one that's raised scrutiny over the strategic wisdom of debating an opponent who claims he has nothing to lose.

What we're watching: DeSantis must make an argument for his leadership that's less about Florida and more about the future, GOP strategists tell Axios. That's a tall order for a face-off billed as "The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate" — and for a governor plenty proud of his Florida story.

The big picture: DeSantis' unusual decision to debate Newsom, a skilled orator viewed as one of President Biden's top surrogates, is a risky gambit for the 45-year-old governor seeking to become the new face of the Republican Party.

  • But whether it's a sideshow or a presidential preview, plenty of eyeballs are set to tune in to the live, 90-minute debate moderated by Fox News' Sean Hannity and kicking off at 9pm ET in Alpharetta, Georgia.
  • And after a month of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley climbing in the polls and collecting donors who snubbed DeSantis, the former Yale baseball player needs a hit.

What we're hearing: GOP strategists say two things about DeSantis's debating skills: They were underwhelming in 2022, but have steadily improved.

  • Throughout the campaign, DeSantis has learned to talk less about what he accomplished in Florida and more about his vision for the entire country.
  • But that learning curve has come at a steep price: DeSantis began the year with some polls showing him ahead of former President Trump.
  • He's heading into December down by nearly 50 points to Trump, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, and has slid to third or worse in recent early state polls.

What they're saying: Call it "The Vendetta in Alpharetta." Team DeSantis is gleefully hyping the confrontation with "Tale of the Tape" graphics and paid ads on X.

  • This debate "will be the biggest one yet," said James Uthmeier, DeSantis's campaign manager, suggesting that Newsom will replace President Biden as the likely Democratic nominee next year. "A Newsom presidency would accelerate America's decline."
  • DeSantis is preparing to hit Newsom on the economy, crime and immigration.
  • "Gavin Newsom's California is the model for American decline," Andrew Romeo, the campaign's communication director, said in talking points emailed to DeSantis surrogates.

The other side: Newsom is also spoiling for the limelight — and a fight.

  • "I have nothing to lose. I'm not running for president. Period. Full stop. He is. He has a lot to lose. And even if he wins, he loses," Newsom told Axios' Alex Thompson ahead of the GOP debate in California.
  • "You think Trump is not going to have a field day on this? Trump's gonna make him look so small."
  • Newsom's natural disdain for DeSantis will be difficult to hide: "He's unserious, he's so easily distracted," the California governor said. "It's so easy to get under his skin."

Zoom out: Look past the canned and planned one-liners of a primary debate. Ignore the personal animosity and personal insults. ("You're just scum," Haley jabbed at Vivek Ramaswamy earlier this month.)

  • On the actual issues, the policy differences on any primary stage are quite small. Candidates tend to echo each other.
  • With little difference on substance, the trick is to win on style and finesse.
  • That dynamic is more apparent this cycle, with all the candidates on the GOP undercard fighting to prove that they have the mettle to challenge Trump.

Zoom in: In a general election debate — especially one where neither side is trying to appeal to centrist voters weeks before election day — it's an entirely different dynamic.

  • There's no need for contrast dye. The differences will be obvious from the opening questions.
  • Thursday's contest will be short on "yes, but" answers. Instead, it will be defined by "No. Wrong. No."
  • And for DeSantis, he'll receive roughly 50% of the time, instead of waiting for the likes of Ramaswamy or Haley to finish talking.

Be smart: The Fox face-off will resemble every other debate this cycle in one obvious way: Both sides will claim victory.

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