GEORGE SKELTON | CAPITOL JOURNAL COLUMNIST
Never mind the Republican presidential debate Wednesday. The more fascinating faceoff will likely be between the haggling governors of California and Florida in November.
If it actually occurs, that is. The two are still squabbling over debate rules. But I figure they’ll settle their relatively minor differences and go at it on national television, entertaining millions.
There’s too much potential benefit for both California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for them to pass up this golden opportunity to gain national attention.
A Newsom insider told me there’ll absolutely be a debate because both governors desire one. It was first proposed by Newsom last year and DeSantis has accepted. Fox TV host Sean Hannity would moderate.
The insider, who didn’t want to be named, dismissed the hassle over rules as typical pre-debate jockeying.
“It’ll be the most interesting debate in the next two years because it’ll be about the future,” the Newsom confidant said.
Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, including DeSantis, will debate Wednesday in Milwaukee and again Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. But those debates will mostly sound like echo chambers.
GOP candidates will largely reiterate the same basic conservative views with only hair-splitting differences in their scripted talking points.
And they’ll struggle to differentiate themselves from the multi-indicted former President Trump without riling his large and loyal voter base.
But in a debate with the liberal California governor, DeSantis — a distant GOP runner-up to Trump in polls — won’t need to pull his punches. He can blast away at Newsom, reminding viewers that the left coaster is a President Biden surrogate.
Meanwhile, Newsom isn’t running for anything — except good positioning to perhaps launch a presidential campaign in 2028. He can swing freely at DeSantis.
There’ll be no subtle differences in their philosophical views. They’re diametrically opposed on immigration, gun control, taxes, abortion, school textbooks and, fundamentally, the right course for America.
I’ll be eager to hear Newsom try to explain why there are now more homeless people in California than there were when he took office in 2019, despite his having spent billions in a failed attempt to solve the problem.
And it’ll be amusing — if agitating — to watch DeSantis try to answer for his crass, soulless stunt of flying desperate immigrants to California and dumping them on church steps.
“It would be interesting for the country to see a direct debate between two approaches to governing,” says Republican consultant Rob Stutzman. “Now, for two different perspectives, you have to flip between two different news channels.” Fox and MSNBC.
Voters would be winners by hearing unabridged arguments from both sides.
Both politicians also would be winners by attracting wide attention and enhancing their images among core party constituencies.
Not everyone agrees.
“If I were Gavin Newsom, I would not even be talking about a debate with DeSantis,” says longtime Democratic consultant Darry Sragow, who publishes the California Target Book, which chronicles state political races.
“He can get plenty of attention squaring off with DeSantis without being in the same studio. He can continue to travel this country far and wide using DeSantis as a foil.
“Unexpected stuff can happen in a debate that can totally turn around a career. Something like a facial gesture or looking at a watch. The risks are too great and there’s not sufficient upside.”
One place Newsom excels, however, is in face-to-face confrontations, as he did in a sit-down interview with Hannity in June. It was arguably Newsom’s best performance as governor. His answers were characteristically detailed but unusually crisp.
I recall another California governor debating a national politician 56 years ago and emerging the unanimous winner. That was Republican Ronald Reagan outperforming Democratic Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York over the divisive issue of the Vietnam War.
“Kennedy, after the debate, asked, ‘Who the f— got me into this?’” Reagan biographer Lou Cannon wrote in his book “Governor Reagan, His Rise to Power.”
Newsom is no Reagan. But neither is DeSantis Kennedyesque. I wouldn’t fret about putting the Californian in the ring with the Floridian.
Both governors have agreed on a date, Nov. 8, and a purple state, Georgia, for the Fox debate site. The main hangup is over whether the debate should be held in an empty TV studio or before a live audience of rooters.
Newsom wants only the two governors answering Hannity’s questions without an audience. DeSantis desires a room full of spectators, half chosen by him and half by Newsom.
The problem with rooting sections is they tend to interrupt the debaters’ presumably substantive answers to important questions. The event becomes a childish circus.
“It would be a great debate — a must-see debate — just them and no audience,” says Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist who now is director of the Center for the Political Future at USC.
“DeSantis wants a cheering section — extra help from the audience.”
Shrum doubts they’ll ever agree on details and doesn’t believe there’ll be a debate.
That would be a shame for everyone.
Newsom shouldn’t quibble over details. Just seize the opportunity to heroically venture into the lion’s den — Fox TV with a right-wing governor — and perform before millions.
“This is a gift from the political heavens for Newsom,” says former Republican operative Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley. “He gets a national stage with nothing to lose and everything to gain. He gets credibility for 2028.
“For Newsom, it’s just batting practice.”
Newsom and DeSantis have one thing in common. They’re former college baseball players. In their debate, both are practically guaranteed home runs.
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