Gavin Newsom has never been afraid to throw an elbow.
During the surge of the COVID-19 delta variant, California's Democratic governor sat on the glossy sound stage of "The Late Late Show" with James Corden, surrounded by Christmas lights, and slammed Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis over what Newsom called his lax coronavirus policies.
"California's example versus Florida? It's not even close in terms out of the outcome if you care about life, and you care about the economy," Newsom told Corden, adding later that "clearly" DeSantis was running for president to scoop up the Trump-aligned Republican vote, pointing to DeSantis' policies as a "litmus test" to win attention from conservative-aligned news networks.
His criticism of DeSantis is one of many made over the course of the pandemic, but Newsom's recent $105,000 advertising buy that ran in Florida, certainly an unusual move for a politician who is running a reelection campaign of his own, has spun the question of presidential aspirations toward Newsom.
During an interview with ABC News' Zohreen Shah prior to the ad placement, Newsom, 54, insisted he had no White House ambitions, although several unaffiliated California-based political advisers told ABC News that claim doesn't totally hold water, and the ad campaign was a foolproof way to elevate his profile and test public appetite as President Joe Biden's stock with Democrats continues to dive.
On Wednesday while in Washington to accept an award on education, Newsom told reporters he emphatically supported a Biden reelection bid.
Still, during his remarks, he continued to speak out on national issues, criticizing what he called Republican efforts to regulate topics in the classroom: "I don't want to sugarcoat it. Education is under assault ... And we have an obligation, moral and ethical obligation, to call out what's going on as it relates to the suppression of free speech," he said.
Picking a fight across state lines is "very vintage" Newsom, consistent with his appetite to be a part of the national conversation in elevating California above other states, said Jessica Levinson, a California-based legal expert and former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
"He's always talking about California as a nation-state. And I think he fancies himself the executive of a nation-state in some ways. And he really wants to put a stake in the ground and say California is different and better and therefore, I am different and better," said Levinson.
His vision of his state as a shining "city on a hill" is clear from his Florida ad, in which he urges residents of the Sunshine State to "join the fight" against Republican leaders or "join us in California, where we still believe in freedom," a clear knock at DeSantis' "free state of Florida" mantra.
Levinson said Newsom has a penchant for wanting to be a beat ahead, almost defiant, of national Democrats on key issues, as when he began issuing same-sex marriage licenses as mayor of San Fransisco in 2004 to the chagrin of conservatives, and testing the waters with a high-profile attack on DeSantis is part of that calculus.
"And if that means my political career ends, so be it," Newsom said nearly a decade ago.
But that defiance propelled him to the governor's mansion, and now, possibly, if the tide shifts in his direction, toward the White House.
The idea that Newsom wouldn't run for president is "total bull---," said Levinson, who explained that he likely sees himself as the kind of lawmaker who could "fill a leadership vacuum" if given the opportunity.
And members of Newsom's party may be looking for candidates to fill that vacuum as well. New polling from The New York Times/Siena College shows that nearly three-quarters of the Democratic party want a new nominee at the top of the ticket. Even more bleak for the White House, 94% of Democrats under 30 said they'd prefer a fresh face.
Dan Schnur, a veteran strategist in California who worked on Sen. John McCain's presidential bid and former Gov. Pete Wilson's team, told ABC News that Newsom's toe-dip into the national news-cycle is great political posturing, given the uncertainty of the Democratic leadership.
"Whether Newsom runs in two years, or in 2028, he's now a part of that conversation. If Biden, 79, decides not to run again, Newsom is ready to pounce. And if Biden does run for reelection, Newsom certainly can lay the groundwork for four years after that," Schnur said.
Biden has made it clear he intends to run for reelection with Vice President Kamala Harris by his side, but slipping approval numbers and concerns over age and health are determinate factors that, coupled from pressure from within his own party, could force him to reconsider.
Some of that pressure has come from Newsom himself. A day after Politico reported the contents of a leaked Supreme Court draft that would overturn Roe, Newsom slammed Democrats for not taking decisive action to codify access to abortion with a biting exclamation: "Where the hell is my party? Where's the Democratic Party?"
"Why aren't we standing up more firmly, more resolutely?," Newsom questioned. "Why aren't we calling this out? "This is a concerted, coordinated effort and yes, they're winning. They are, they have been … We need to stand up, where is the counter offensive?"
And casting himself as a hero is what Newsom does best, said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who worked for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Where Newsom thrives is when he's able to be in contrast to a Republican that he can lead a progressive coalition against," said Stutzman. "He's going to go after the guy he perceives as the Republican frontrunner."
Stutzman pointed out that national focus will once again be on states and governors partly due to decisions handed down by the Supreme Court on guns and abortion access. He pointed to the spotlight of Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, too, who is lauded for his response to the deadly July 4 Highland Park shooting outside Chicago.
On Tuesday, weeks after the shooting, Florida Democrats announced Pritzker will keynote the state's leadership gala this weekend. Biden was the keynote speaker at the same event in 2017.
Stutzman says another theory floating around California is that Newsom may also be laying the groundwork to succeed veteran Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein, who is 88-years-old. She's yet to formally announce she's retiring, and has chided suggestions that her age limits her performance in any way.
It's likely that Newsom's team would have placed the ad in Florida regardless of Biden's standing, said Schnur, "but the fact that so many Democrats are disappointed that Biden wouldn't be combative right now just makes it even better for Newsom."
"This is the best hundred thousand dollars a California politician has ever spent," said Schnur.
In this way, experts agreed, Newsom is able to occupy a space in the Democratic party that puts him in contrast to those in Washington who are seen as slow, ineffective, but positions him in a less-radical space than Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
As Newsom is expected to win his bid for reelection after beating back a recall attempt, there's little to keep Newsom from leaving the state to campaign for other Democrats outside of California as DeSantis has done for down-ballot Republicans.
Seen from every angle, Newsom's strategy here would appear to be a winning one, and allows him to keep all potential political options on the table.
"If he's going to lock horns with DeSantis all of a sudden, is this a preview [for the 2024 election?," said Stutzman. "If this was a Week One NFL game, is this a preview of the Super Bowl? People can imagine it. It's plausible."