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Debating Ron DeSantis could benefit Gavin Newsom's political ambitions

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a Clean California event in San Francisco, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.
Jeff Chiu
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AP
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a Clean California event in San Francisco, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is not currently running for president. But that's not stopping him from facing off in a debate Thursday evening with a governor who is waging a 2024 presidential campaign: Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It's the culmination of a long standing feud between the two men. With the debate airing in primetime at 9 p.m. EST on Fox News Channel, it will give them both a platform to appear presidential, even though Newsom has sworn, again and again, that he's simply out there helping Democrats keep the White House for President Biden.

A supporting role that could turn into a leading act

But in recent months, Newsom has repeatedly made forays into both national and foreign affairs.

Last month, he traveled to both Israel and China to meet with top leaders. This spring, Newsom took his family on a tour of Southern red states. He's also run TV ads in Florida and Washington, D.C., attacking Florida's new abortion law, which would ban abortions after six weeks.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (R) is interviewed by Sean Hannity in the spin room following the Fox Business Republican Primary Debate in Simi Valley, Calif. on September 27, 2023.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
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Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (R) is interviewed by Sean Hannity in the spin room following the Fox Business Republican Primary Debate in Simi Valley, Calif. on September 27, 2023.

And in September, he showed up in the spin room at the GOP presidential debate in Simi Valley, California to spar with Sean Hannity on Hannity's Fox News show.

"He's become the face of the loyal opposition," said Democratic political strategist Dane Strother, who works on races across the country. "When he went to the Republican debate he was, in essence, the Democratic response."

Strother is an outspoken fan of Newsom who predicts that the California governor "will be president. The only question is when." He said at this point, it's all an upside for Newsom as he travels around being one of Biden's top surrogates and positioning himself for an eventual run.

"It's like getting in the right place for a rebound on a basketball court. You're just waiting for the ball to come. You're getting in the right place," Strother said. "You know, does that get under the skin of the Biden people? I don't think so, because Gavin has been so overboard in support of the president."

California Governor Gavin Newsom greets US President Joe Biden during a campaign event at Long Beach City Collage in Long Beach, Calif. on September 13, 2021.
/ Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
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Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom greets President Biden during a campaign event at Long Beach City College in Long Beach, Calif., on Sept. 13, 2021.

Newsom's enthusiastic support for Biden does seem to know no bounds. Again and again, he demurs when asked about his own White House ambitions, like when he appeared on Chris Cuomo's News Nation show in September and was pressed on the issue.

"I have deep respect, reverence for Joe Biden as a person — his character, his decency and his capacity to do great things," Newsom said. "That's why I am not worthy of that conversation. This guy deserves it and we as members of his party deserve to have his back."

Newsom could help Biden with progressive voters

Those close to Newsom say that the governor is in constant contact with Biden's inner circle and has sought the president's blessing before undertaking high profile events, like the China trip. But Newsom's youth (he's 56, to Biden's 81) has raised some questions about whether his visibility could draw a negative contrast with the president.

Robin Swanson, a political consultant in California, said while Newsom clearly is taking the steps to prepare for an eventual White House run, she doesn't think the president's campaign is worried about Newsom eclipsing Biden.

In this photo released by Office of the Governor of California, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Oct. 25, 2023.
/ Office of the Governor of California via AP
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APOffice of the Governor of California via AP
In this photo released by Office of the Governor of California, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, last month.

Rather, Swanson thinks the Biden campaign likely sees him as an asset who can speak directly to a certain type of voter.

"The president has to appeal to a pretty broad audience," she said. "And at the moment, Governor Newsom brings you ... a state of almost 40 million people. And he can talk about really progressive policies that President Biden might not be able to talk about right now."

Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego, agreed, noting that Newsom has made himself a spokesman for progressive values, from abortion access to LGBTQ rights. That's particularly important, he said, since some data and polls are showing that Biden is weaker with young voters and voters of color who may be more excited by a more unabashedly liberal message.

"This is what a proxy does for you, right? A proxy can rally the base and energize your base without worrying about turning off the middle," Kousser said. "His base is not yet — is not excited and solidly behind him. And so Joe Biden will welcome anything that keeps progressives, younger voters in the fold."

Gavin Newsom has to walk the line of running a shadow campaign while being President Biden's biggest cheerleader. And the funny thing is, if anyone understands that and all of the politics behind that, it's Joe Biden. That was a man who waited in the wings for a very long time.

Swanson also pointed out that Biden knows what it's like to be surrogate.

"Gavin Newsom has to walk the line of running a shadow campaign while being President Biden's biggest cheerleader. And the funny thing is, if anyone understands that and all of the politics behind that, it's Joe Biden. That was a man who waited in the wings for a very long time," she said.

President Joe Biden shakes hands with California Gov. Gavin Newsom as they visit the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center and Preserve in Palo Alto, Calif. on June 19, 2023.
Susan Walsh / AP
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AP
President Biden shakes hands with California Gov. Gavin Newsom as they visit the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center and Preserve in Palo Alto, Calif. on June 19.

On the Republican side, DeSantis is also positioning himself as the standard bearer of conservative values — the mirror image of Newsom on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights.

That means at this matchup — unlike most presidential debates — both could come out as winners, said Salena Zito, a national political reporter at the conservative Washington Examiner and columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"I think it's smart for both Newsom and DeSantis to do this debate. It's in the spirit of the Lincoln-Douglas debates," she said, which took place when both men were competing not for the presidency but for the U.S. Senate. "Both men are the future of their parties. Both men run prosperous, successful states. ... They could both walk out of this and both gain support."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom unveils his 2022-2023 state budget revision during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, May 13, 2022.
Rich Pedroncelli / AP
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AP
California Gov. Gavin Newsom unveils his 2022-2023 state budget revision during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., on May 13, 2022.

Zito believes Newsom is playing a long game, by continually showing up on Fox News and in red and purple states. That could lead to some swing voters considering him — whenever he's on the ballot.

"A good politician goes there. In other words, they show up and they show up in places where you least expect them to show up," she said. "There are going to be people that look at that and say, you know what? I appreciate that."

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