His Debate With Gavin Newsom Showed Ron DeSantis Will Never Be President

Lloyd Green / Guardian UK
His Debate With Gavin Newsom Showed Ron DeSantis Will Never Be President Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. (photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The fight between two of America’s most powerful governors, billed by Fox as ‘The Great Red v Blue State Debate’, mostly hurt DeSantis

On Thursday night, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, reminded the US why he will never be president. His voice grates, his visage a cross between a squinted grimace and scowl. He looks like Manuel Noriega, the ex-Panamanian dictator, without the scarring. On a personal level, he lacks humor, warmth, wit or uplift. He is ham-handed, an awkward social warrior.

DeSantis comes across as too hot. This is the guy who picked a fight with Mickey Mouse, his state’s largest employer. He holds degrees from Yale and Harvard, but repeatedly flashes clouded judgment. In other words, there are plenty of reasons why he is getting walloped among Republicans by Donald Trump.

“You’re down 41 points in your own home state,” California’s Gavin Newsom happily reminded DeSantis during their televised debate, which Fox moderated.

And if you can’t win your own state, you are going nowhere. Recall: Senator Elizabeth Warren lost to Joe Biden in 2020’s Massachusetts primary and never regained her former stature.

The dust-up was organized and moderated by Fox’s Sean Hannity, with Fox advertising the gubernatorial cage match – between the governors of two of the US’s largest states – as “DeSantis vs Newsom: The Great Red v Blue State Debate”.

Over 90-plus minutes, DeSantis attacked Newsom – whose Republican ex-wife Kimberly Guilfoyle is engaged to Don Jr – without lasting impact. He ran through a litany of California’s woes but couldn’t make them stick. Then again, he carries a ton of baggage, from crime and abortion to January 6 and needless Covid-related deaths. A recent court settlement over Florida’s improper withholding of Covid records highlights the fact that DeSantis’s boasts were empty.

Florida is plagued by high murder and gun mortality – as Trump, DeSantis’s bitter rival, is fond of reminding Republican primary voters. DeSantis has dangled the prospect of pardoning January 6 defendants but claims to love the police.

By the numbers, Florida’s homicide rate tops California’s (and New York’s, for that matter). Beyond that, Christian Ziegler, the chair of the Florida Republican party, is under investigation for rape and sexual assault. Law and order; traditional family values; whatever.

On the debate stage, DeSantis failed to land the blows he needed to rejuvenate his formerly promising campaign. His one-on-one confrontation did nothing to dent Nikki Haley’s rise or bring him any closer to Trump. Air continues to exit DeSantis’s low-flying balloon.

He recently received the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader in Iowa, but that gain has yet to move the dial. On the other hand, Haley just this week scored the endorsement of the Kochs’ political network, which translates into money and campaign foot-soldiers, as DeSantis knows from personal experience.

“DeSantis wins formal Koch backing as momentum continues to shift,” a Politico headline from 2018 blared. Those days are so gone.

“When are you going to drop out and give Nikki Haley a shot to win?” Newsom zinged. Great question, one that DeSantis failed to answer in front of the Trump fan boy Sean Hannity. DeSantis – a Rupert Murdoch personal favorite – fell flat on Murdoch’s own network. Meanwhile, the Fox board member and ex-House speaker Paul Ryan was touting Haley to whoever would listen.

Much like Mike Pence, the former vice-president and former presidential wannabe, DeSantis is bogged down in abortion and Dobbs, the gift the right wing prayed for but is now living to regret. For Pence, it was a matter of conviction; for DeSantis it looks like a case of expedience that quickly headed south.

In July last year, Florida enacted a 15-week cut-off for abortion. For DeSantis that wasn’t enough. He doubled down on the issue and lost. To burnish his rightwing credentials, he then pressed the Florida legislature to adopt a six-week abortion ban and it backfired. Tremendously.

He got what he demanded and is now living with its consequences. A majority of Floridians are pro-choice, by a 56-39 margin. Florida isn’t Mississippi, to DeSantis’s chagrin.

“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,” Newsom fired. The US is still waiting for DeSantis’s retort.

Here, Trump smells blood. He has privately derided anti-abortion leaders as lacking “leverage” to force his hand while tweaking them for having nowhere else to go once the supreme court struck down Roe v Wade. He has also reportedly mocked as “disloyal” and “out of touch” those evangelicals who cast their lot with DeSantis.

Simply put, Vander Plaats won’t be receiving a Christmas card from the Trumps later this month. In that same vein, the evangelical rank and file has parted ways with its leadership. These days, Nascar and Florida’s Daytona are their spiritual homes; church pews on Sunday, not so much.

In a sense, DeSantis is stuck in the past, rerunning yesteryear’s campaigns. Right now, Trump demonstrates traction with younger voters and is making inroads with minority communities. By contrast, DeSantis is picking losing fights.

Gasping for attention, he unfurled a “poop map” of San Francisco to highlight the magnitude of the city’s homeless problem. The stunt backfired. Right now, it’s DeSantis’s campaign that seems to be the raging dung heap. The words “Florida man” usually precede a punchline or something gruesome.

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