Opinion by Bill Carter
(CNN) — Every televised political debate is followed immediately by a question: Who won?
Last night’s debate on Fox News between two governors with presidential aspirations — either declared or implied for the future — also led quickly to a second question: What was the point?
The principals were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is a current candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, though one with declining support, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has unstintingly disavowed any interest in the Democratic nomination but who seems to be enjoying the persistent speculation (a lot of it coming from Fox) that he is still an available free agent.
Created for television, the event was billed as a pugilistic match between two heavyweights of the red state-blue state divide and was even depicted in promos with overt prize-fight themes (red gloves, blue gloves).
It lived up to the metaphor to a point, but if this was a boxing match, it definitively belonged on the undercard. (The reigning title holder, President Joe Biden, and his top-ranked challenger, former President Donald Trump, were mentioned but not in the arena.)
That didn’t mean it wasn’t fun. It certainly beat what has passed for debates so far in the Republican race, where a panel of five or more entrants scratching to reach 10% in national GOP primary polls have taken turns dissing each other instead of the guy 40 points ahead of them, whom all but one of them have essentially treated as an absentee grandee.
Surely DeSantis had something to gain, if for no other reason than getting half the airtime instead of a fifth; but also because he got to be on the attack rather than his standard tiptoeing around Trump’s appeal in the party.
Less clear was what was in it for Newsom, except to burnish his credentials as talented understudy waiting in the wings. He did that with aplomb, and apparent glee (as well as plenty of hair gel).
The event also contained some humor, much of it provided by the moderator, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, who affected the insouciance of a genial, neutral questioner — which he had laughably indicated he’d be — even as he framed every question in terms pulled word-for-word from the conservative, anti-Biden grievance narrative.
It played a bit like the famous SNL sketch about the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton 2008 primary debate in which reporters smitten by Obama lobbed him fawning softballs while firing vicious beanballs at Clinton.
The litany of questions boiled down to: “What about all that crime, illegal immigration, homelessness, high taxation, street feces, unrestricted abortion and other societal collapse going on in the state of California?”
Maybe Hannity walked away thinking he had bent over backward for Newsom because he didn’t ask one question about Hunter Biden’s laptop.
The latest vogue in debates — relentless shouting over the opponent — was heavily featured, as well as grinning one’s way past harsh attacks, ferocious denials (“Lies, lies!” “False, false!”), unintelligible statistics, pre-tested lines (“Slick! Slippery!” “Using human beings as pawns!”) and even shots below the belt. (DeSantis said Newsom’s in-laws had moved to Florida; Newsom offered the true but gratuitous slam that DeSantis was 41 points behind Trump in his home state.)
Given how stiff DeSantis has been in the presidential primary debates, and even at some campaign events, he managed himself reasonably well, especially early on. He lost energy as Newsom revved up and got into areas more fertile for assailing DeSantis, like his sending migrants off to Martha’s Vineyard, supporting an abortion ban at just six weeks and referencing Florida schools that removed books with LGTBQ themes.
“I don’t like how you demean people,” Newsom said, a line that obviously scored because DeSantis’s grin got even more awkward than usual.
DeSantis struck themes he knew would play well to the Fox audience, like high gas prices in California and what bullies teachers unions are.
Interestingly, DeSantis did not once dredge up his previous go-to word: “woke.” Less surprisingly, since it mirrors previous debates, DeSantis said nothing critical about the man who leads the GOP presidential polls.
Newsom was full-throated in his defense of Biden, while DeSantis steadfastly gave the president failing grades and even took a full swing at another Hannity slo-pitch softball on whether Biden was in “cognitive decline,” saying that he was.
One of the weirder aspects of the event was the emphasis on Newsom as the heir-in-waiting, as though Fox et al would like to elbow Biden out of the race in favor of this much younger, with-it, dynamic guy who was having no trouble fighting the two opponents on stage at once.
That was the most obvious reason to declare Newsom the winner, for those keeping score at home. Far from damaging his future national prospects, he took great advantage of his underdog status. He faced a double dose of conservative rhetoric from Hannity and DeSantis and didn’t flinch. Newsom no doubt expected just that, got his licks in and still proved he could be a “contend-ah.” (If he actually wants to be, which, he swore again, he doesn’t. Really.)
He was, in a word, slick.
When DeSantis kept lobbing the charge at Newsom that he’s slick, he meant to sound disdainful; truthfully, he sounded a little jealous.
Perhaps the best thing about the debate — and every network thinking of hosting one should take note — was that it was accompanied by exactly zero applause, gasps, laughter or other electioneering from an audience. Nobody needs that stuff.
So, was there a point?
They might have been easy to miss, but I spied two of them: One was that actually confronting an opponent can make a candidate look and sound more confident and competent than cringing at the mention of his name.
Two was how effective a surrogate could be in using energy and rope-a-dope skills in the debate ring. But for some watching at home from the reigning champ’s corner, maybe too effective?
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