Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is accustomed to crushing Democrats in his home state.
He romped to a re-election victory last year over a weak Democratic opponent, as Republicans also picked up supermajorities in the State Legislature. Since he became governor, Republican voter registration numbers have surged statewide, leapfrogging those of Democrats, who traditionally held the edge.
But on Thursday Mr. DeSantis will face something new: a brash, confident Democrat, in the form of his California counterpart, Gov. Gavin Newsom, in a debate this evening on Fox News. Mr. Newsom, who has feuded with Mr. DeSantis for years, has recently been sharpening his attacks, preparing for the encounter with appearances on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. (Mr. Hannity is set to moderate the debate.)
For Mr. DeSantis, taking on Mr. Newsom is fraught with risks at a time when his presidential campaign seems to be gasping for air. While Mr. Newsom has little to lose from a poor showing — he is not running for anything, few Democrats are likely to be watching Fox News, and he has plenty of time to live down any missteps — Mr. DeSantis is fighting for his survival as a serious Republican contender.
Having boastfully agreed to the matchup with Mr. Newsom, Mr. DeSantis now would seem to need to live up to the expectations that he has set for himself, by landing devastating rhetorical blows on the Californian, or at least by reaping a triumphant exchange or two that he can display to his social-media followers with pride. Should he come away embarrassed, by contrast, it would fuel his rivals’ arguments that he was a better candidate on paper than he has shown himself to be in real life.
“Unless DeSantis does great, it will be more of the same narrative that he’s underperforming,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican strategist. Still, Mr. Murphy said, given the state of the race, Mr. DeSantis could use the exposure. “There’s nowhere to go but up,” he said.
Although Mr. DeSantis entered the nomination contest as the strongest challenger to former President Donald J. Trump, he is now fighting former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina for second place. His personal mannerisms have been picked apart on the campaign trail and the debate stage. And the well-funded super PAC that was supposed to bolster his campaign has been splintered by infighting, leading to the resignation of the group’s chief executive.
Over the last few months, Mr. Trump, the front-runner, has cruelly punctured the aura of invincibility that Mr. DeSantis spent years building in Florida. Mr. Trump has mocked everything from Mr. DeSantis’s name and his height to his deflating poll numbers, giving Mr. Newsom ample ideas for targets to hit. Mr. Trump has also ridiculed the idea of debating Mr. DeSantis and the other Republican candidates, citing his large lead as a reason to skip the G.O.P. primary debates. News media coverage of those debates has centered almost as much on Mr. Trump’s presence elsewhere as on the arguments onstage.
Still, getting the better of Mr. Newsom in a one-on-one matchup could help Mr. DeSantis generate the positive headlines his campaign needs. His supporters say they expect Mr. DeSantis to burnish his image as a fighter against a well-known liberal opponent.
“This is going to be on Fox News with millions of conservative Republican voters watching it,” said Nick Iarossi, a Florida lobbyist and longtime DeSantis ally. “It gives Governor DeSantis the opportunity to once again show why he’s been such a successful governor and how he’s been able to take on folks on the left.”
But Mr. DeSantis, who is banking his campaign on winning the Iowa caucuses in January, is taking time out of his schedule to debate an opponent who is not even running against him. Their nationally televised debate is taking place in Georgia rather than in an early-nominating state like Iowa or New Hampshire. And hanging over the contest, as always, will be the specter of Mr. Trump, the man Mr. DeSantis actually needs to beat.