As GOP presidential candidates debate, Democrats unleash a top attack dog: Gov. Gavin Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom has largely served as a cheerleader on the sidelines of President Biden’s reelection bid this year, fawning over his record in the White House to Democratic donors and slapping down criticism about the president’s age on the national news.

On Wednesday, Newsom graduated to the starting lineup. The Biden campaign deployed Newsom to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, site of the Republican presidential debate, as the president’s chief defender and leader of the Democratic offense.

Before the debate began and after it wrapped up, Newsom held court among reporters answering every question volleyed. His appearance came on the heels of more than a dozen one-on-one media interviews staged at a nearby hotel Wednesday.

“This is maybe a vice presidential debate. These guys are getting lapped by Donald Trump. It’s not even close. It’s not even interesting,” Newsom said before the debate—adding that he’s baffled that the candidates haven’t done more to run against Trump.

“I enjoy defending our values and freedom. I enjoy defending democracy. I enjoy exposing the hypocrisy of the other side, that claims freedom and yet they’re denying young women the right to reproductive care,” Newsom said of the antiabortion stances of the GOP candidates on stage.

The decision to tap him as a surrogate for Biden, tasked with rebutting a GOP narrative about the president’s failed leadership by touting the country’s economic growth over the last three years, underscores his elevated role within the reelection campaign. The strategy allows the president to take advantage of the governor’s strength as an unabashed fighter for Democratic values and could put to rest speculation about Newsom’s 2024 presidential aspirations.

For Newsom, the role culminates his journey from rogue agitator who angered national Democrats last year, when he said his allies had no game plan against Republicans, to a new position as a team player trying to coalesce support around Biden.

“It works to their mutual benefit,” said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Biden takes a potential party critic and turns him into an ally, and Newsom gets abundant national exposure. So it’s a win-win.”

Careful not to get too far in front of the Democratic Party’s leader, the governor has kept the president’s team abreast of his multiple forays into national politics since last year, aides to both men said.

Biden’s campaign was made aware before Newsom kicked off his “Campaign for Democracy” in March to support Democratic candidates across the country and boost his profile among national voters.

The governor’s team also spoke with Biden’s staff before he appeared on Sean Hannity’s show over the summer, in which he fiercely defended the president.

At the time, the Biden campaign had already tapped Newsom to serve on a committee of surrogates, which was put together shortly after the president announced in April his plans to run for reelection. His performance during the Hannity interview gave Biden’s team more confidence in Newsom’s effectiveness.

More recently, Newsom’s advisors checked in with the president’s campaign before sending a formal proposal to Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis for a one-on-one debate.

The debate with the Florida governor, which Fox announced will take place in late November, will give Newsom another opportunity to continue to demonstrate his support for the president, bash DeSantis on the national stage and show other Democrats how to forcefully and aggressively defend a progressive worldview.

Newsom surrounded by cameras, lights and journalists

Gov. Newsom at the Reagan library, site of Wednesday’s GOP debate.

(Gilbert Flores / Variety via Getty Images)

Ahead of the presidential election, the California governor has sought to define DeSantis to voters as a right-wing “bully” intent on rolling back abortion, immigration and LGTBQ+ rights. Before and after Wednesday’s debate, Newsom taunted DeSantis for his declining poll numbers, saying that even though he challenged the Florida governor to the forum, “it’s disqualifying” for DeSantis to do it because he took his eye off the ball of running for president.

“If you can goad someone this easy, can you imagine what Kim Jong Un or [Vladimir] Putin could do with this guy?” Newsom said, referring to the leaders of North Korea and Russia.

On Tuesday, while standing in a field of parsley in Ventura County to announce the United Farm Workers’ endorsement of the president, Biden campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodriguez called Newsom an asset to the campaign.

“He’s been tremendously helpful in helping to raise money, getting out on the airwaves and making sure people know what this president has done and what’s at stake in this election.”

Chávez Rodriguez said Newsom and other governors were especially well positioned to speak about the benefits states received from legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act — both of which will end up sending billions of dollars in federal assistance to California.

Though it’s possible that Newsom, with his young family and youthful enthusiasm, could inadvertently draw attention to the president’s age by comparison, Pitney said most voters are already aware that Biden is an octogenarian.

The position continues to boost Newsom’s national profile and leaves him in a prime position to step up if for some reason Biden cannot continue his campaign. Newsom took advantage of the spotlight, even as he emphasized to anyone who asked that he wasn’t running for president next year and that he was here at the Biden campaign’s request.

A woman sits at an outdoor table across from other people next to farmland

Julie Chávez Rodriguez, front left, President Biden’s campaign manager, meets with farmworkers in Moorpark on Tuesday, as the United Farm Workers announced its endorsement of his reelection.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“I think it’s pretty clear that unless there’s a medical issue, Biden will be the nominee,” Pitney said. “But both parties are running very elderly men, and medical issues could happen. Newsom is maintaining his viability for some future role in the Democratic Party, whatever that may be.”

Newsom’s campaigning for Biden came after he criticized the national Democratic Party last year for not doing enough to criticize the Republican agenda. Though he was careful to say he wasn’t talking about Biden, his comments stung some in his party, as the president is its leader.

Some of Newsom’s most pointed critiques came after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which allowed states to outlaw abortion for the first time in half a century.

“We wouldn’t be the Democratic Party if we didn’t have some sort of disagreement on what we should do and how we should do it,” said Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Danielle Cendejas. She said that candidates from her party had previously been reluctant to lead with messaging that centers on reproductive rights, which proved to be a crucial issue in propelling Democrats in last year’s midterm elections.

“He was very outspoken and trying to push the party in a certain direction. I think he’s always had a bit of an edge and a point on. This is just part of who he is and it’s in his DNA, and I think it kind of worked out in 2022.”

Cendejas and other strategists noted that California has been on the policy forefront on a number of important issues — whether abortion or climate policy. Before Biden took office, the state took a leading role in rebutting President Trump’s policies on matters including immigration.

“As the governor of the state, there’s a responsibility to defend the policies we’ve pushed here in California, whether it’s protecting reproductive rights, protecting workers’ rights and being a leader on climate action,” Cendejas said. “Newsom is the perfect person to say: ‘If we want to continue to see the progress, Joe Biden is the answer.’”

After the debate in Simi Valley, Newsom spoke to Hannity and hugged several other Fox News personalities, including Steve Hilton, who is planning a state ballot measure on homelessness. Former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway showed reporters a photo of them together before saying it was malpractice for Biden to send Newsom as a surrogate.

Still, Newsom did multiple television appearances reiterating one point: Biden won the debate, and all these candidates are also-rans.

“Objectively, he was the winner tonight,” Newsom said. “That’s not spin. These guys identified problems. And Biden actually has not only identified solutions, he’s gotten bipartisan deals to begin the process of implementing those.”

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