Republican DeSantis faces risks in debate against Democrat Newsom amid struggling US presidential bid By Reuters
© Reuters. Governor of U.S. state of California Gavin Newsom speaks at a press conference in Beijing, China October 25, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/File Photo
By Tim Reid and Alexandra Ulmer
(Reuters) – U.S. presidential candidate Ron DeSantis will use a televised debate against California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday night to try to prove he’s the best Republican to take on President Joe Biden in next year’s election.
The square-off with Newsom, a prominent Biden ally who is widely expected to pursue a future White House bid, will give DeSantis a chance to contrast his conservative vision for the country with the Democrats’ more liberal agenda in a preview of 2024 general election debates.
It’s a high-risk gambit for the Florida governor, Republican strategists said. Just weeks before the Republican nominating contest kicks off in Iowa on Jan. 15, DeSantis trails former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner by far, in opinion polls – and he can’t afford to slip up against Newsom, a skilled debater looking to raise his own national profile.
“He wants to show he’s got the ability to take on a high-quality Democrat,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns. “But if he stumbles, it will be a blow to his campaign when he really needs to perform well so close to the first nominating contest in Iowa.”
The 90-minute debate in Georgia, moderated by Fox News host Sean Hannity, will start at 9 p.m. EST. DeSantis and Newsom have frequently attacked each other over how they govern their states, and the event is expected to highlight their wildly different approaches.
Though DeSantis is due to meet several of his Republican rivals in Alabama next week for their fourth debate, his aides called his matchup with Newsom the “biggest one yet.” They insist Newsom could be a presidential contender as early as next year, though the governor has pledged to stand behind Biden’s bid.
“Ron DeSantis looks forward to sharing the stark contrast between his vision to revive our nation and Newsom’s blueprint for failure,” DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier said in an email.
Nathan Click, a Newsom adviser, said his team was “shocked” when DeSantis agreed to the California governor’s proposal to debate.
“The fact that he finally accepted as his campaign was circling the drain shows just how bad DeSantis needs to distract from his disaster of a candidacy,” Click said.
DeSantis was once viewed as Trump’s most formidable challenger, but his campaign has been plagued by infighting, staff turnover and shifts in direction, and he has failed to peel away many of the former president’s supporters.
The Trump campaign did not comment on the debate.
Several Republicans said the unusual event was an important opportunity for DeSantis, even if some voters might view it as a sideshow.
He badly needs a breakout moment. DeSantis is more than 40 percentage points behind Trump in national polls. And he’s tied with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in Iowa and is trailing her in New Hampshire, whose nomination contest follows Iowa’s.
“He needs to make the case that he is the best at taking the debate to liberals,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist not affiliated with any of the campaigns.