7 takeaways from Ron DeSantis' debate with Gavin Newsom

The two governors clashed on major issues, with 2024 in the background.

December 1, 2023, 1:25 AM

After more than 90 minutes of argument, insult, crosstalk and a few props, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom ended their debate on Fox News on Thursday night on a lighter note, trading compliments.

But much of what came before underlined their major differences (and different debate styles) on some of the biggest issues of the day, including abortion access, crime and public safety, the economy, immigration and more.

Sean Hannity moderated -- often pleading with the two governors to spend less time talking over one another and more time answering his questions.

Here are seven takeaways from the faceoff, billed as "The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate," though it also played out as one of the two participants is running for the White House and the other is discussed as a future presidential contender.

Newsom embraces role as Biden's big defender

Throughout the evening, Newsom served essentially as a stand-in surrogate for the White House and its policies, frequently heaping praise on President Joe Biden's economic agenda and defending him on border security as DeSantis hurled sharply worded attacks on how the administration has handled the cost of living and other problems.

DeSantis accused Newsom of running a "shadow campaign" for president in 2024 -- a premise the California governor has vigorously rejected and gone to great lengths to dispute.

Asked by Hannity if he would say unequivocally he would not run in 2024 under any circumstances, Newsom quickly shot back, "Correct."

"I don't know how many times I can say it -- just making this stuff up about a 'shadow campaign,'" he said. "I appreciate and respect the work the president is doing, and the vice president. It's the Biden-Harris campaign and team."

To that end, Newsom also interjected during one of DeSantis' answers to correct DeSantis on pronouncing Kamala Harris' first name, saying DeSantis should show more respect.

Speaking to reporters after the debate, Newsom emphasized that supporting the Biden campaign was a key part of his strategy going into Thursday night.

"I focused on defending and promoting, supporting, telling the truth about the Biden record. I was pleased to have that opportunity," he said, adding that he felt the 90-minute back-and-forth was part of an anti-Biden "doom loop."

2024 looms in the background

Fox News previewed the event as a debate between governors of two huge states with vastly different ideologies, but the presidential race remained central to the discussion.

Newsom at multiple points pointed out DeSantis' gaping polling deficit in the Republican primary, where he trails front-runner Donald Trump, even in his own state, despite entering the race with much fanfare and widespread goodwill among conservatives.

"How's that going for you, Ron?" Newsom asked after accusing the Florida governor of trying to "out-Trump Trump."

DeSantis, for his part, charged that Newsom was trying to quietly run his own race for the Democratic nomination next year.

"He is in decline, yes," DeSantis said of Biden. "It's a danger to the country. He has no business running for president, and, you know, Gavin Newsom agrees with that. He won't say that. That's why he's running his shadow campaign."

Newsom accused DeSantis of "just making this stuff up."

In one of the most notable jabs of the night, Newsom invoked DeSantis' struggling campaign.

"One thing ... that we have in common is: neither of us will be the nominee for our party in 2024," he said.

PHOTO: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (L) and Florida Gov. Ron Desantis
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (L) and Florida Gov. Ron Desantis
Getty Images

Crosstalk and claims of lying

The debate was replete with moments of the two talking over one another for minutes on end while claiming that the other was lying.

"He's been telling a lot of whoppers tonight," DeSantis said an hour into the night.

On COVID-19, the governors battled for space to accuse each other of implementing harmful policies during the height of the pandemic.

"You had quarantines, you had checkpoints," Newsom said.

"False," DeSantis fired back.

The exchange saw all three men speaking at once: DeSantis repeatedly asked Newsom why California was "closed," Newsom recounted instances where DeSantis wore a mask and Hannity asked the governors to "let it breathe."

The host urged them during the debate not to force him to be a "hall monitor," a plea that mostly went unheeded.

Elsewhere, Hannity noted how lively the exchanges were -- though he also cracked that he wasn't just a "potted plant" to be ignored.

To cap it all, the night ended awkwardly, with everyone involved appearing to agree to extend the debate for 20 more minutes until the end of the second hour. Fox News went to commercials on that tease, but when the programming returned, Hannity informed viewers that actually the governors "had other commitments" and the debate was over.

'This is pornography'

Perhaps one of the most spirited conversations of the night came amid the discussion of Florida's Parental Rights in Education Act -- frequently referred to by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" law, though its supporters say it's about shielding children from inappropriate topics.

DeSantis has campaigned on and avidly supported the legislation, which widely restricts discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 classrooms when not deemed appropriate.

At one point in the debate, during his defense of the law, DeSantis -- in apparent violation of the debate's rule against props -- pulled out a photo from the graphic novel "Gender Queer: A Memoir," which depicted a scene of oral sex.

"Some of it is blacked out. You would not probably be able to put this on air," DeSantis said, adding that it was not consistent with Florida's standards. "This is pornography. It's cartoons. ... This should not be in schools." (Another prop he brought out later was to illustrate a criticism of San Francisco: He said the map showed all the places where feces was seen on the streets.)

DeSantis also said that schools should "educate kids, not indoctrinate kids."

Newsom shot back that DeSantis was using the law to wage a culture war as DeSantis disputed how many books have been banned in his state.

Newsom said: "1,406 books have been banned just last year under Ron DeSantis' leadership. I love that he keeps pulling this out. I've seen this. He's been doing this all over the campaign." He went on to accuse the Florida governor of using "education as a sword for your cultural purge."

Newsom then invoked some of California's own history, referencing the 1978 state "Briggs initiative," a ballot measure that proposed banning gay and lesbian people from teaching which Newsom called "the original 'Don't Say Gay' bill."

The proposition failed, in part, because of opposition from then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Addressing DeSantis, Newsom said, "I don't like the way you demean the LGBTQ community. I don't like the way you demean and humiliate people you disagree with Ron. I really find this fundamentally offensive."

Comparing public safety

When the debate turned to crime in the U.S., Hannity pulled statistics from the FBI that showed the combined national rate of homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault in 2022.

When the combined rate was shown for DeSantis and Newsom's respective states, Florida was lower than the national average -- while California was above it.

Asked about California's crime rate, Newsom highlighted that the state has its lowest crime rate in 50 years.

Newsom also noted the murder rate, which was not mentioned in the provided statistics, stating that Florida has a higher murder rate than California.

He then invoked the Parkland, Florida, school shooting where 17 kids were killed, arguing DeSantis later made it easier for some people to purchase weapons, referencing legislation the Florida governor signed earlier this year that allows Floridians to be able to carry concealed guns without a permit.

Newsom also quoted Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jaime, died in the shooting and who called DeSantis "weak" and "pathetic" for signing the recent gun legislation.

DeSantis responded to Newsom, calling him a "slick politician" and redirected attention back to California's high crime rate.

"People are leaving California in droves, largely because public safety has collapsed," DeSantis said.

'Lying to migrants'?

As the two sparred over immigration and border management, Newsom accused DeSantis of luring migrants under false pretenses by offering jobs and housing -- an accusation stemming from DeSantis' efforts to organize flights for migrants to Martha's Vineyard.

His office organized similar flights to Sacramento, California, over the summer.

"That kind of gamesmanship, using human beings as pawns, I think is disqualifying," Newsom said.

DeSantis shot back repeatedly that Newsom was spouting false information, arguing that Martha's Vineyard had claimed to be a sanctuary jurisdiction.

"We've got a lot of elites who want open borders, who lecture everybody else about it, then the minute they have to deal with any of the consequences, oh man, all hell breaks loose," DeSantis retorted.

Newsom claimed that he was only making such moves for media attention.

"You're trolling folks and trying to find migrants to play political games," Newsom said.

Dueling views on abortion restrictions

Hannity pressed Newsom on abortion, asking the California governor if he supports any restrictions on it, particularly in the third trimester of pregnancy, after the fetus is viable.

Newsom avoided answering the question while noting that such procedures are very rare and usually in cases like fetal abnormalities. Instead, he focused on DeSantis’ signing a six-week abortion ban, which he called "extreme."

Hannity continued to press Newsom to answer the original question and eventually turned to DeSantis, asking the Florida governor what his reasoning was for signing a six-week abortion ban instead of maintaining the 15-week ban previously in place in Florida. DeSantis said it was because he believes in a “culture of life.”

“I think we're better off when everybody counts, when everybody has an opportunity to do well,” he said.

Newsom cut in and asked DeSantis if he would support a national abortion ban as president. DeSantis did not answer.

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