Gavin Newsom has a scant history of tough debates over his two decades as governor and lieutenant governor of California and mayor of San Francisco.
But he is nevertheless unusually prepared for his nationally televised face-off on Thursday with Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida: Over the past few months, Mr. Newsom has lived through something of a debate boot camp on how to respond to attacks on California, President Biden, the Democratic Party and his own mistakes over the years.
It came in the form of two lively interviews with Sean Hannity, the conservative Fox News host who will moderate the debate on Thursday. From the moment they sat down, he pressed Mr. Newsom on the differences between them on issues as varied as immigration and law enforcement.
“I want border security,” Mr. Newsom said, disputing the premise of Mr. Hannity’s question in the opening minutes of their first encounter. “Democrats want border security.”
“You don’t want any walls,” Mr. Hannity responded, referring to the wall former President Donald J. Trump set out to build along the Mexican border. Mr. Newsom kept talking.
“I want comprehensive immigration reform,” Mr. Newsom said. “I want to actually address the issue more comprehensively — just like Ronald Reagan did in 1989.” He added, “I don’t need to be educated on the issue of the border or issues of immigration policy.”
On Thursday, Mr. Newsom will be sparring on Fox News not with Mr. Hannity but with Mr. DeSantis for 90 minutes in a studio in Alpharetta, Ga., with no audience on hand. The stakes will be high for both Mr. DeSantis, 45, whose candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination has appeared to fade in recent weeks, and Mr. Newsom, 56, who has positioned himself for a potential White House run in 2028.
The debate between these two relatively youthful national leaders, one from a Republican state, the other from a Democratic one, will offer sharply contrasting views of America’s future during polarized times. Not incidentally, it offers a glimpse at what could potentially be two leading candidates in the next presidential contest.
“These are two of the most dominant governors in the country,” Mr. Hannity said in an interview on Monday. “Two very smart, well-educated, highly opinionated, philosophically different governors. They are diametrically opposed.”
For Mr. DeSantis, this will be his fourth debate since entering the presidential race. In onstage meetings with Republican opponents like Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, he has sought to display a command of conservative policy priorities and has clashed with his rivals only occasionally, and on the edges.
Now, he will be debating a leader of the opposing party, ready to draw sharp differences over U.S. assistance to help Ukraine battle Russia, the turmoil in the Middle East, immigration — and over Mr. Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination.
Mr. DeSantis has dismissed the idea that Mr. Newsom has toughened himself up for this debate through his sessions with Mr. Hannity. The Florida governor told reporters in New Hampshire last week that his California counterpart was operating in a “left-wing cocoon,” and had little sense of voters’ concerns and the politics of the nation beyond the West Coast.
“I think he caters to a very far-left slice of the electorate,” Mr. DeSantis said. “I think that that will be on display when we have the debate.”
Still, that Newsom-Hannity encounter in June, as well as an encore after the Republican presidential candidates debated at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in September, offer a primer of how Mr. Newsom may approach this moment: assertive, engaging, armed with statistics and catchy phrases, plowing ahead to talk over an opponent or disparage a question he finds specious, and not easy to corner into a mistake.
“He came into that interview very prepared,” Mr. Hannity told a New York Times reporter in September. “I’ve interviewed people that come in totally unprepared.”
“This is complimentary in every way: He’s out of central casting,” Mr. Hannity said, speaking shortly after finishing his appearance with Mr. Newsom. “He has a lovely family. He’s young. Compare his energy level to Joe Biden’s.”
If those earlier sessions are any clue, Mr. Newsom will be combative when confronted with questions about people and corporations leaving California. “We are on the way to becoming the world’s fourth-largest economy,” he has told Mr. Hannity. “Eat your heart out, Germany.”
He will defend California against attacks from Republicans, Mr. DeSantis among them, as a place in moral, economic or political decline: “I’ve been hearing this nonsense for half a century — literally half a century.”
He will be contrite if asked about homelessness (“Disgraceful. We own this.”) or about his unmasked dinner with lobbyists at the French Laundry, a luxury Yountville restaurant, at the height of the Covid crisis. (“It was dumb.”)
And he might even agree with some attacks on Democratic policy in his state, such as the new “mansion tax” on property sales above $5 million recently imposed in Los Angeles. “I opposed it when I was mayor of San Francisco, so I don’t disagree,” Mr. Newsom said when Mr. Hannity questioned the wisdom of such a tax.
Mr. DeSantis is not Mr. Hannity, with whom Mr. Newsom has what both men have described as a something of a friendship, albeit a jostling one. (They text each other at night.) Mr. DeSantis has, over the course of the Republican debates, proved to be disciplined, at times almost scripted, and more likely to offer a flash of anger than humor.
Mr. Newsom has had his ups and downs with California voters, and it is far from clear how a politician who looks like a Hollywood actor and often seems to be walking the line between sharp and glib — or self-assured and arrogant — will come across to a national audience.
But he has proved an elusive target for his state’s beleaguered Republican Party. He easily survived a recall effort in 2021, with support from 62 percent of voters, and was re-elected to a second term with 59 percent of the vote in 2022.
“I think Gavin Newsom is going to be the smooth-talking used-car salesman that he always is,” said Jessica Millan Patterson, the chairwoman of the California Republican Party, suggesting what Mr. DeSantis should expect. “Unfortunately, a lot of people still fall for that.”
“The facts are on DeSantis’s side,” she said. “What helps Newsom is his charm and his quote-unquote likability. It doesn’t work for me, but it works for a lot of folks.”
Mr. DeSantis’s agreement to debate someone who will not be on the Iowa ballot in January has baffled some Democrats as well as Republicans. “We were all frankly surprised he took the offer,” said Sean Clegg, a political adviser to Mr. Newsom.
That said, the debate gives Mr. DeSantis an opportunity to draw attention to his candidacy at a time when Mr. Trump has overshadowed him and Ms. Haley threatens to eclipse him.
And the debate could provide viewers a sneak preview of key 2028 players.
“It’s going to be one of the more interesting events of 2023,” Mr. Clegg said. “It’s a debate between two of the premier governors of the country. Exhibition games can be highly satisfying in their own ways.”
Max Scheinblum contributed reporting.