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Why California Gov. Gavin Newsom is debating Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

On Thursday evening in Georgia, two ambitious young presidential hopefuls will face off in a highly anticipated prime-time debate on Fox News, but only one of them is running in 2024. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Marisa Lagos reports on why California Governor Gavin Newsom is debating Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: When Democrat Newsom arrives Thursday to debate Republican DeSantis, it will hardly be the California governor's first foray into national politics. Last month, he traveled to both Israel and China to meet with top leaders. This spring, Newsom took his family on a tour of southern red states. And in September, he showed up in the spin room at the GOP presidential debate in Simi Valley, Calif., to appear on Sean Hannity's Fox News show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

SEAN HANNITY: You have basically gone on a media tour sucking up to Joe Biden, and you know he's a cognitive mess. You know it.

GAVIN NEWSOM: I also know he's got an extraordinary record to run on.

HANNITY: Oh, yeah? Really?

NEWSOM: And I couldn't be more proud. By the way...

HANNITY: How's his record on the border?

NEWSOM: Objectively, he was the winner tonight.

LAGOS: It's become a familiar role for Newsom - Joe Biden's surrogate.

DANE STROTHER: He's become the face of the whole opposition. When he went to the Republican debate, he was, in essence, the Democratic response, right?

LAGOS: Dane Strother is a Democratic political strategist who works across the country and is an outspoken fan of the California governor. He says it's all upside for Newsom right now as he prepares a run for the White House - someday.

STROTHER: Gavin Newsom will be president. The only question is when. And that's what he's doing. He's positioning himself. You know, does that get under the skin of the Biden people? I don't think so because Gavin has been so overboard in support of the president.

LAGOS: For his part, Newsom has repeatedly insisted he's not running. And when he's asked, like on NewsNation in September, he almost always pivots to talking up the current Democratic president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWSOM: I have deep respect, reverence for Joe Biden as a person, his character, his decency and his capacity to do great things. That's why I'm not worthy of that conversation.

LAGOS: But Robin Swanson, a political consultant in California, agrees that Newsom is preparing for an eventual run and says in the meantime, he's making himself useful to the Biden campaign.

ROBIN SWANSON: Gavin Newsom has to walk the line of running a shadow campaign while being President Biden's biggest cheerleader. And the funny thing is, if anyone understands that and all of the politics behind that, it's Joe Biden. That was a man who waited in the wings for a very long time.

LAGOS: Swanson and other observers say that as a surrogate from the most populous state in the nation, Newsom brings a lot to the table for Biden and national Democrats. Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego, notes that Newsom has made himself a spokesman for progressive values, from abortion access to LGBT rights.

THAD KOUSSER: This is what a proxy does for you, right? A proxy can rally the base and energize your base without worrying about turning off the middle.

LAGOS: That's particularly important, he says, since polls are showing that Biden is weak with young voters and voters of color who may be more excited by a progressive message.

KOUSSER: His base is not yet - is not excited and solidly behind him. And so Joe Biden will welcome anything that keeps progressives, younger voters in the fold.

LAGOS: On the Republican side, DeSantis is also positioning himself as the standard-bearer of conservative values, the mirror image of Newsom on issues like abortion and LGBT rights. That means that at this matchup, unlike most presidential debates, both could come out as a winner, says Salena Zito. She's a national political reporter at the conservative Washington Examiner and columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

SALENA ZITO: I think it's smart for both men. Both men are the future of their parties. They could both walk out of this and both gain support.

LAGOS: Zito says Newsom's habit of showing up in red states and on Fox News could even win him some swing voters when he's actually on the ballot for president.

For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marisa Lagos