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Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom face off in Fox News event

WASHINGTON (AP) — In an alternate reality, the prime-time showdown between California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday could have been a preview of a 2024 general election debate.

Instead, the 90-minute meeting was a hard-to-explain event that pitted one struggling Republican presidential hopeful against a Democratic rival who may or may not seek the presidency in four years.

But for a night, at least, the big-state governors were eager to represent their parties on the national stage as they battled over the economy, pandemic restrictions and President Joe Biden’s leadership in a Fox News showdown peppered with fiery policy clashes and personal insults.

“This is a slick, slippery politician whose state is failing,” DeSantis said of Newsom.

Newsom defended California but also highlighted DeSantis’ stagnant 2024 presidential bid.

“How’s that going for you, Ron? You’re down 41 points in your own home state,” said Newsom, who is backing Biden for president. “Neither of us will be the nominee for a party in 2024.”

The host, Fox News Channel, billed the 90-minute affair hosted by Sean Hannity as “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate.” Yet it was held in a television studio with no audience in Georgia, a location chosen for its key swing-state implications in national politics. And it played out in the heart of presidential primary season with voters in both parties paying closer attention to their 2024 options heading into next fall’s general election.

As leaders of two of the three most populous states, DeSantis and Newsom have spent much of the past year poking each other’s policy choices and leadership style from afar. But on Thursday night, they got their first chance to challenge each other on the same national stage.

It was hard to watch at times.

The two participants, standing at podiums alone onstage, talked over each other often. Hannity struggled to control the action. Over and over, he encouraged the men to give each other “breathing room.”

DeSantis, a 45-year-old Republican governor elected to his second and final term last fall, is grasping for momentum in a 2024 campaign plagued by missteps in his bid