SIMI VALLEY, California—Nobody looks to be having more fun at the second Republican presidential debate than a certain prominent Democrat, Gov. Gavin Newsom.
California’s affable, telegenic chief executive holds court with reporters, spars with conservative activists, and mixes it up with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Newsom does it all with a seemingly permanent smile on his face, with the easygoing disposition of a politician enjoying the fruits of the pressure-free spotlight that accompanies promoting someone else’s White House bid. The governor was dispatched here, to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, by President Joe Biden, to do just that.
“I revere the president of the United States. I’m here having his back,” Newsom tells a throng of journalists Wednesday in the spin room at this Reagan shrine, site of the latest Republican debate, televised by Fox Business Network. The governor hasn’t been doing anything more than run-of-the-mill surrogate duty for Biden. But the president’s age—he turns 81 next month—leads to inevitable questions about which White House contest Newsom might have in mind: Biden’s in 2024 or his own in 2028?
Newsom, 55, is a smooth operator, difficult to pin into factually and politically uncomfortable corners. He’s always armed with a raft of data bolstering his position—or preferred narrative—on myriad topics, regularly challenging adversaries to “Google” the subject matter at hand and fact check his assertions. And when he wants to, such as last Wednesday, this demonstrably liberal governor knows how to speak swing-voter and drive a wedge into the heart of a fragmented Republican Party.