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Journalists watch Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis debate California Governor Gavin Newsom on a screen in the media room, in Alpharetta, Georgia, U.S., Nov. 30, 2023.ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/Reuters

Neither Ron DeSantis nor Gavin Newsom is likely to be president next year. Mr. DeSantis, the Florida governor, badly trails Donald Trump in current polling for the Republican nomination. Mr Newsom, the California governor, is not even running.

But the two men provided a raucous preview of the arguments that will mark the fault lines in the U.S. presidential election next year – and, perhaps, in the next contest for the White House four years later – in an unusual 90-minute televised debate on Fox News, moderated by host Sean Hannity.

Few television spectacles have so deftly put on stage such contrasting visions for the United States: California, an economic colossus led by a smooth-talking governor armed with a seemingly inexhaustible reservoirs of facts; and Florida, a sunny destination for increasing numbers of Americans led by a governor adept at spinning an anecdote and expressing disdain for opponents.

“This is a slick, slippery, politician whose state is failing. People are leaving his state and he’s trying to run interference for his failure,” Mr. DeSantis said of Mr. Newsom, calling him a liberal bully, accusing him of lying and at one point dismissing him as “just jabbering.”

Florida has migration figures on its side: in 2021 and 2022, 750,000 people left California, while 454,000 moved to Florida. Among those who have arrived in Florida, Mr. DeSantis said, are Mr. Newsom’s own in-laws.

“Freedom is what works. The failures need to be left in the dustbin,” Mr. DeSantis said.

“Tell that ‘freedom’ to women that you’re trying to criminalize in your state,” Mr. Newsom responded, in a reference to a strict Florida abortion law that Mr. DeSantis signed.

“You want to bring us back to a pre-1960s world, America in reverse. You want to roll back hard-earned national rights,” Mr. Newsom said.

He offered a full-throated support for U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris, defending the White House in its attempts to pass immigration reform against Republican Congressional resistance and citing the gains to California’s economy under Bidenomics, which is “absolutely accelerating our dominance in manufacturing, accelerating our revitalization,” he said.

The debate gave Mr. DeSantis a chance to audition against a formidable liberal opponent, using California as a foil to advance a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in which he is struggling even for second place against Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina.

For Mr. Newsom, meanwhile, it offered a national stage and a chance to make his case to conservatives who make up much of the Fox News audience. He dismissed accusations that he is running a shadow campaign behind an aging Democratic president – “I will take Joe Biden at 100 versus Ron DeSantis any day of the week,” he said – even as he sought to tear down a Republican running for presidential office, accusing Mr. DeSantis of failing in his attempts to “out-Trump Trump.”

“When are you going to drop out and at least give Nikki Haley a shot to take down Donald Trump in this nomination?” he asked.

Mr. Newsom criticized Florida for banning books from schools and, he said, demeaning people of different sexual orientations.

“What’s wrong with Toni Morrison’s books? What’s wrong with Amanda Gorman’s?” he said.

“What you’re doing is using education as a sword for your cultural purge,” he said, rejecting accusations that his state exposes children to lewd content at school. California, he said, leaves sexual education until middle school. “We’re focusing on math and science. We’re focusing on reimagining our school system. He’s criminalizing teachers and criminalizing libraries.”

Mr. DeSantis received a measure of support from the Fox hosts, who marshalled statistics showing Florida as a place with cheaper gas prices, higher education scores, lower rates of violent crime, far lower unemployment and considerably fewer people without homes.

The Florida governor pointed to economic inequality in California, accusing the state of hollowing out its middle class.

“What California represents is the Biden-Harris agenda on steroids. They would love nothing more than to get four years to take the California model nationally. That would be disastrous for working people,” he said.

Mr. Newsom argued that California has lower taxes on those with lower incomes than 32 other states. “I’m against regressive taxes that advantage millionaires and billionaires over the working poor,” he said.

But Mr. DeSantis came armed with a prop that offered a visual rebuttal of a California gone wrong: a map of San Francisco blotted with marks that showed where human feces had been reported on that city’s streets. He blamed the state’s leftist policies.

“You have the freedom to defecate in public in California. You have the freedom to pitch a tent on Sunset Boulevard,” Mr. DeSantis said. Those are “not the freedoms our founding fathers have envisioned, but they have contributed to the destruction of quality of life in California,” he said, accusing Mr. Newsom of cleaning the city’s streets only for the arrival Chinese President Xi Jinping for the APEC summit earlier this month.

“They’re willing to do it for a Communist dictator, but not willing to do it for their own people,” he said.

“That is such nonsense,” Mr. Newsom responded.

He called his state’s homelessness a problem decades in the making, rooted in the shuttering of mental health institutions. California, he said, has gotten tens of thousands of people off the streets and removed thousands of encampments, while Florida has the worst system for mental health care outside of Texas and Mississippi.

The two men sparred on gasoline prices, with Mr. Newsom saying his state has been “ripped off by Big Oil,” and has in response passed an aggressive anti-gouging law.

If oil companies are gouging, Mr. DeSantis rejoined, “why aren’t they doing that to Florida or Georgia?”

On immigration, meanwhile, Mr. DeSantis accused Mr. Newsom of being too soft on those in the country illegally, offering the example of Herbert Nixon Flores, a man accused of killing his ex-girlfriend in 2021 in front of their three-year-old child. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement publicly criticized California’s sanctuary policy after the killing, saying the state had refused requests to hand over Mr. Flores for removal.

Mr. Newsom, however, accused Mr. DeSantis of using migrants for political theatre, pointing to the bussing of people to Martha’s Vineyard and California.

“That kind of gamesmanship – using human beings as pawns – I think is disqualifying,” he said.

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