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DeSantis v Newsom debate: governors clash on crime, abortion, guns and more

<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

Ron DeSantis, a hard-right contender for the Republican presidential nomination, took the stage in Georgia on Thursday for a debate one eager website dubbed “The Vendetta in Alpharetta.”

But the Florida governor’s opponent was not Donald Trump, the former president and clear primary frontrunner, or any other Republican contender. His opponent was Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California,who is not seeking his party’s nomination next year, given Joe Biden’s grip on the White House.

Related: As Gavin Newsom’s political star rises, some Californians are wary of his ‘new persona’

Both governors smiled for the cameras then attacked from the off, often seeking to tie their opponent to the looming presidential race.

DeSantis said: “I think California has more natural advantages than any state in the country. You almost have to try to mess California up. Yet, that’s what Gavin Newsom has done.

“… They have failed because of his leftist ideology. And the choice for America is this. What [Joe] Biden and [Kamala] Harris and Newsom want to do is take the California model and do that nationally. In Florida we show conservative principles work. This country must choose freedom over failure.”

Newsom said he was “here to tell the truth about the Biden-Harris record and also compare and contrast.

“… Ron discusses his record in a Republican state. As a point of contrast that is different as daylight and darkness. You want to bring us back to the pre-1960s or older, America in reverse. You want to roll back hard-earned national rights on voting rights and civil rights, human rights and women’s rights, not just access to abortion, but also access to contraception.

“You want to weaponise grievance, you are focused on false separateness. You in particular run on a banning binge, a cultural purge, intimidating and humiliating people you disagree with. You and [former] President Trump are really trying to light democracy on fire.”

Journalists watch Ron DeSantis debate Gavin Newsom on a screen in the media room, in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Journalists watch Ron DeSantis debate Gavin Newsom on a screen in the media room, in Alpharetta, Georgia. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Fox News organisers called it a “slugfest” even before it began and that was what unfolded, both men throwing rhetorical jabs, but more often talking over each other in a series of windmilling brawls.

It was moderated, such as it could be, by Sean Hannity. Long close to Trump, the prime time anchor and “culture war” warrior called his Trump-less project The Great Red v Blue State Debate. Fox News said it would highlight issues “including the economy, the border, immigration, crime and inflation”. It also said that without a studio audience, the governors would have “equal opportunity to respond and address each issue”.

In the event, Hannity confessed immediately to being a conservative, then asked about internal migration, citing high numbers leaving California and half as many leaving Florida. Newsom cited his own statistics. DeSantis liked those from Fox. Another pattern was established.

For both men, the debate carried risk. DeSantis, in reverse in the polls, risked being seen as desperate and, perhaps, lacking in political and physical stature. Subject to reports of lifts in his shoes, the 5ft 11in governor squared up to a 6ft 3in opponent who seemed to smile more naturally too.

But Newsom risked – and duly received – repeated questions about what exactly he is up to, given Biden’s seat in the Oval Office but also polling which shows voters think the president too old for a second term. At 56, Newsom is 25 years younger than Biden. Of course, that most likely means his target is 2028, a post-Biden primary.

You in particular run on a banning binge, a cultural purge, intimidating and humiliating people you disagree with

Gavin Newsom

Newsom defended Biden’s record and mental fitness, insisting he was not positioning himself to succeed. DeSantis insisted his rival was mounting a “shadow campaign”, and mocked Biden as old and infirm.

Crosstalk and accusations of lying persisted. Newsom scored one early blow by using DeSantis’s bluster. “As he continues to talk over me,” he said, “I’ll talk to the American people.” That won him a spell straight to camera. On a question about Covid policies, Newsom scored again by focusing on DeSantis’s change in tactics, from following the science to waging culture wars.

But DeSantis hit back, using Hannity’s questions as most seemed intended: as tee-ups, hitting Newsom on crime, immigration and particularly alleged elitism in any policy to hand.

When Newsom hit DeSantis on gun control, regarding loosened laws, DeSantis responded: “People are leaving California in droves, largely because public safety is catastrophic.” Newsom responded with more statistics. DeSantis talked over him, saying, “I know you like to jabber, I know you like to lie.” Hannity fought for control.

Asked about Florida’s controversial “don’t say gay law”, regarding LGBTQ+ issues in schools, DeSantis produced a book he called “Gender Queer” [in fact Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe], censors’ blocks applied to cartoon appendages, which the governor said he’d removed from schools. Newsom dismissed the claim such books were on the curriculum in California and asked about bans affecting Black authors including Toni Morrison and Amanda Gorman.

In Florida we show conservative principles work ... choose freedom over failure

Ron DeSantis

“What you’re doing is using education as a source for your cultural scourge,” Newsom said, adding: “I don’t like the way you demean people, I don’t like the way you demean the LGBTQ+ community.”

Each man called the other a bully. DeSantis held up another visual aid: a map he said showed San Francisco covered in “human feces”. Newsom laughed. Hannity switched the subject to Israel and Hamas, then China.

On abortion – a losing issue for Republicans since the supreme court removed the federal right – Newsom hammered DeSantis for signing a six-week ban. Hannity gave DeSantis the floor, to explain why he introduced it. Would DeSantis support a national six-week ban, Newsom repeated. DeSantis did not answer.

“It’d be great if you guys co-operated,” Hannity pleaded. “I’m not a potted plant here.”

Neither man showed much interest in that. Then, a surprise. After what seemed a closing question, seeking good things about each others’ states, the governors agreed to stay onstage for some more.

Only, they didn’t. When Hannity came back from an ad break, DeSantis and Newsom were gone.