Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis battle for the presidency — in one election or the next newsbhunt


When California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis square off in a televised debate Thursday night in Georgia, viewers could be forgiven for wondering which presidential election they’re watching unfold: 2024’s or 2028’s.

DeSantis, of course, is running in the primaries for the 2024 Republican nomination. Newsom isn’t on the ballot at all. But he is widely viewed as a potential 2028 Democratic candidate, and, at one time, his eagerness to find and hold a national platform had some Democrats worried that he was trying to nudge President Joe Biden out of seeking re-election.

Newsom’s decision to debate DeSantis on Fox News is a “brilliant strategy” for keeping himself at the forefront of voters’ minds in this election cycle “if Biden were to pull out,” said another Democrat who is often mentioned as a possible candidate next time around. But, this person argued, Newsom runs the risk of making himself stale four years from now.

DeSantis is breaking an iron rule of conventional politics: Never get in a fight with someone who isn’t running. But, as he continues to trail former President Donald Trump by wide polling margins and has to contend with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s surge, the matchup offers DeSantis an opening to show Republican voters he can land blows on a Democratic proxy for Biden.

There’s nothing at all conventional about this unique moment in American politics. Presidential aspirants know already that a Biden-Trump rematch would leave an open seat in 2028, because this is the first time since the 22nd Amendment limited presidents to two terms in 1951 that a defeated former president is seeking to succeed the man who beat him.

Even though most Americans don’t want a rematch, Trump and Biden have holds on their respective primary electorates, creating logjams at the top of both parties.

All of that has left the brightest next-generation stars feeling around in the dark. At times, they have to strain to explain that what looks like jockeying for the next election is really about this one.

On Wednesday, the two governors backing DeSantis’ campaign, Republicans Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Examiner that framed the debate in terms of the 2024 election.

“DeSantis is the only candidate who can get the job done, especially in a possible matchup against Newsom,” they wrote. “Newsom ran California into the ground. … Were Newsom to replace President Joe Biden at the top of the Democrat ticket, we expect the same results and the same treatment for our citizens on a national scale.”

At the same time, Newsom maintains he has sought a national platform to elevate the Democratic Party’s message and help Biden win re-election. If he’s looking at a presidential run, in his telling, it’s not this time.

“We need to move past this notion that [Biden is] not going to run,” Newsom said in an interview in September. “President Biden is going to run, and I’m looking forward to him getting re-elected.”

So, for one night, in a time warp, a 2024 candidate will debate a potential 2028 candidate — if what everyone says is to be taken at face value. What’s truly amazing is that it’s not even the first time that has happened this year, or even this month.

In early November, 2024 Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy debated a potential 2028 Democratic hopeful, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., in New Hampshire.

Khanna, sensitive to the perception that he could undermine Biden, wanted to avoid the theatrics of a debate hosted by a major cable network, and Ramaswamy, intent on showing that the event was about his current campaign, wanted to hold it in the early primary state of New Hampshire, according to people familiar with the discussions.

They were able to come to an agreement over a civil back-and-forth at St. Anselm College in Manchester, open to cameras but not hosted by MSNBC, Fox or CNN.

By contrast, the DeSantis-Newsom matchup is “designed for a cable TV spectacle,” a Ramaswamy aide said.

There’s a long history of candidates’ losing primary campaigns and coming back to win nominations on their second or third go-rounds. Biden lost primary campaigns in 1988 and 2008 before he became the Democratic pick in 2020. The late Sen. John McCain of Arizona took the GOP nod in 2008 after having lost in 2000. And Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah lost in his bid for the Republican nomination in 2008 only to come back and win it four years later.

Still, political operatives say it’s difficult to run an effective campaign while keeping an eye on the next election.

“You can’t think about that, because you’ll play it so safe you’ll hurt yourself,” said Matt Gorman, who was an aide on the since-suspended 2024 campaign of Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. “You need to run like heck and avoid taking massive reputational hits.”

The latter is a peril for both DeSantis and Newsom when they debate Thursday night. But they wouldn’t be taking that risk if they didn’t think it would pay off in 2024 — or 2028.


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