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Gavin Newsom went to South Carolina to stump for Biden. Voters eyed him for 2028.

In World
January 26, 2024

BLUFFTON, South Carolina — Gavin Newsom flew clear across the country to extol the character and candor and competence of President Joe Biden, to warmly embrace his “old friend,” Vice President Kamala Harris.

But under a steamy retirement community gazebo in Bluffton, as rain beat down in the heart of the Lowcountry, Newsom was being objectified, albeit with Southern charm.

“Doesn’t he look much better in person?” asked state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, a Democrat from Walterboro. Onlookers roared at the backhanded compliment, as she continued to swoon. “Oh my God, as we say in the South, ‘that’s a nice glass of tea.’”

There was California’s governor, in a distant land — 2,700 miles from home and still not adjusted to Wednesday morning’s Eastern time-zone change, yet finally in the nerve center of early state presidential politicking. And already, some of his party’s most important voters were sizing him up as a White House aspirant — consuming themselves with the distant election when November is still months away. It went beyond his appearance, with some convinced he was too progressive for the South.

“He’s a liberal,” said Democrat Mary Anne Gnage, ahead of Newsom’s remarks to residents at Sun City Hilton Head, the sprawling retirement community. Gnage likes Newsom, but she was blunt when asked about her initial skepticism of his future prospects here. “Maybe sometimes he’s too liberal.”

It’s a perennial issue — and often a fatal one at that — for elected officials from California who try to export their emerging brands beyond the Golden State’s borders. And it’s one that Newsom was confronting directly, even as he worked to spread the gospel of Biden-Harris.

Newsom wanted to give stump speeches ahead of the state’s new, first-in-the-nation Democratic primary, appearing there for the first time as a headliner and getting early exposure to its powerful blocs of Black voters and rural Democrats. They, meanwhile wanted to test his 2028 chops.

Jimmy Sutton, a high school baseball coach, surveyed his players about what to ask Newsom, while he toured the Coastal Plains. Over supper Wednesday at Cliff’s Seafood in Bamberg, Stutton said they weren’t interested in baseball, or Biden, for that matter.

Rather, the teens were curious if the governor who counts Hollywood icons as constituents knows Snoop Dogg. Newsom, hunched over a plate brimming with fried fish and hush puppies, retrieved his iPhone, showing Sutton the text he received just Monday evening. He delivered on the surprising ask.

“Gov.,” the message read. “it’s snoop.”

Newsom took the food in a to-go box.

***

At town halls, inside a historically black college in Sumter and another university in Orangeburg, posing for selfies with a gospel choir, and inside the fish joint, Newsom worked the political equivalent of the National Football League combine.

It’s not that people didn’t know him. Many had seen him on Fox News, sparring with conservative host Sean Hannity, or debating Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (and Hannity, at the same time). They wanted to know whether the smooth-talking pol from über-liberal San Francisco who texts with Snoop could also get on with guys like coach Jimmy Sutton.

Maybe he can’t take them to church, at least not yet. But could Newsom, a rare wine collector deep in sweet tea territory, sing from the same hymnal? The question came up everywhere. A few days before setting off on the tour of rural South Carolina, Newsom appeared on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” The contrarian host relayed the same concern from his friend, broadcaster Tavis Smiley. He argued Newsom was too progressive to win where it matters most, in the South and midwestern battleground states.

Newsom, on the program, called California “an interesting case study.” Its population is the size of 21 other states combined, with two-thirds of its land mass deeply red. He offered a similar assessment to an older couple that stopped in to see him at Cliff’s Seafood in Bamberg, the hometown of Nikki Haley. The couple asked about Bakersfield, the hometown of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, until recently California’s top Republican. The couple nodded as Newsom tore into McCarthy for criticizing Biden and Harris over crime when McCarthy’s own Kern County had stubbornly high crime rates.

At another table, Newsom was introducing himself. They learned he was a fourth-generation San Franciscan, the son of a judge and an average student with a 960 SAT score. He talked about his own teachers and baseball coaches.

In 1996, Newsom was appointed to a city commission, then the board of supervisors. He mentioned the appointment later in a roomful of students and administrators at Claflin University, noting that his political benefactor was the legendary politician Willie Brown, who is Black. Newsom said he came up as a voice for small businesses. When he ran for mayor in 2003, he said, his background as a wine shop owner and restaurateur set him apart from the others.

“It was always with that backdrop when I ran for office,” he said. Others, he said, were different: “kind of versions of Bernie Sanders.”

Newsom raised the elephant in the room before anyone could say more.

“Then I went crazy in people’s minds because a few weeks later I started marrying same-sex couples,” he said. Nobody much seemed to mind at the table. “And then people were like, ‘Wait, I thought you were’” less aggressive on issues like gay marriage. “They never asked me for my opinion.”

Coach Sutton interjected to ask about Snoop. Newsom said they met through a mutual friend, Marshawn Lynch, who went to the University of California and played in the NFL. He sought counsel from the rapper after unrest erupted on the streets of Los Angeles over police violence. “I called him a number of times, just dealing with all the protests: ‘How should I handle it, tone and tenor?’” Newsom recalled asking Snoop, whose birth name is Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr. “He was incredibly insightful, next level in terms of nuance and understanding,” he said.

Reflecting that night on the coach’s question, Newsom said it was sobering that the young ballplayers could have asked about anything and chose Snoop. He first called it a “conundrum,” then changed the word to an “opportunity.” The father of four said he still has work to do to meet people where they are. He wondered about enlisting Snoop.

“How do we get Snoop to talk about the importance of this election?” Newsom asked. “Maybe that’s someone they’re going to listen to.”

***

The Biden campaign is putting dozens of surrogates on the road ahead of South Carolina’s Feb. 3 primary. The president moved the state to the front of the line, believing that despite it being deeply red, it’s a better representation of the country writ large than the deposed states of Iowa and New Hampshire. South Carolina holds a special place for the president, hosting Biden family vacations and putting him on a glide path to the nomination in 2020, on the strength Black and older voters.

“It’s not hyperbole to say that no one can be the nominee without the support of our electorate,” said Christale Spain, chair of the state Democratic Party. “Because South Carolina picks presidents.”

In recent days, Newsom has been comparing former President Donald Trump’s pecking order in the Republican Party to a Tyrannosaurus rex. “You either mate with him, or he devours you.”

But Newsom views the former president as weaker in the general election than the conventional wisdom. Newsom “likes,” and sometimes he even “loves” Democrats’ odds against Trump.

“I know some people are a little pessimistic about November. I have no pessimism,” Newsom told the students at Claflin. “You have the most damaged candidate in Donald Trump in my lifetime running for president, who literally is going on campaign stops to the courthouse.” The line got consistent laughs. He described Trump as “more damaged and, with respect, more deranged than he was in 2020 and 2016.”

Instead, Newsom said the moment demands some bragging, even when it feels uncomfortable. He played Biden’s biggest hits — from the social spending plan, Build Back Better, to infrastructure and microchips and the long-elusive deal on guns.

“I know Democrats get all shy about the stock market. I get it. But imagine what Trump would say,” he said, pointing to the record market, a rise in retirement accounts and improving consumer sentiment. “We just have to get out of this doomloop.”

“We have to remind people of that progress,” he said. “Then we have to push the contrast. It’s not even a complicated election.”

For Newsom, the contrast is what he calls the Republican-led “rights regression.” He mentioned some of those rights, starting with Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices eliminating abortion protections, saying the difference is “daylight and darkness.”

“They tried to erase Rosa Parks’ race in social studies books as if that didn’t merit any consideration in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Slavery somehow is a Workforce Development program,” he said to audible exasperation and a few “amens” from attendees.

Even Gnage, who paused earlier over fears of Newsom’s liberalness, said he fired her up, standing in a Bluffton audience far larger than organizers anticipated.

Nobody raised their concerns about Newsom’s politics to his face. He went to lengths to describe his friendship with Harris, explaining his use of “old friend” as meant to convey the decades they’ve known each other, not their ages. (He’s 56. She’s 59). He didn’t escape some pointed concerns about Biden, however.

***

In Allendale, the poorest county in the state, Newsom joined a group of Democrats, most of them Black and older in age, for a meeting in the local party’s aging headquarters. Large vats of fish prepared by the sheriff awaited them on back tables.

Mayor Larry Cohen approached Newsom and said he’s worried about the “narrative” that Biden is not mentally fit to stand for reelection.

“Fox [News] is just wearing them out,” Cohen said. He sees that coverage bleeding onto other networks, and it worries him. Sometimes, Cohen said, he wonders if there’s truth to it. “With you seeing him on occasion, give us your take,” he said.

Newsom prefaced his answer about the 81-year-old president. “This is on my mom and dad’s grave.”

“I’ve been on Air Force One and Marine One with him. I’ve been in the back of them in quiet times, and loud times. I’ve been there when he’s prepping. I’ve been there when he’s two hours on a photo line and is winding up and he’s got two more events after that,” Newsom said. “If he was in a room like this, he’d light you guys up. His ability to connect. We all know Bill Clinton’s ability to connect. I think it’s right up there.”

When they talked about artificial intelligence policy, he said Biden went deep with no notes. Newsom said he would take Biden “at 100” versus everybody else no matter their age.

“Father time, none of us have ever escaped, at least to my knowledge. It is what it is.”

South Carolina is a siren song for would-be 2028 hopefuls, and people on the ground seem to love distracting themselves with talk about the presidential election after the one this year.

Ken and Liz Kupperman were excited to see him. They rushed up to say Newsom reminded them of John F. Kennedy. Janice Blevins texted a picture to her adult son in Chicago. She loves Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and would like to see both run.

In Allendale, a former state representative announced to the room of Democrats that he expected they would see Newsom again in a few years — as a presidential candidate.

That was on the mind of Arnetta Hulan, who relayed the same thought as he finished.

“It’s a feeling that you get when people are in your presence,” explained Hulan, an Air Force retiree. She graduated high school in 1967, Newsom’s birth year.

“It doesn’t matter whether they are tall, dark, handsome. It doesn’t matter what race they are,” she said.

Cohen, the mayor, was standing closeby. He said Newsom’s answer about Biden’s age and abilities was fine. He wished the governor could have gone into even more detail.

“I think that’s going to be our next president in 2028,” the mayor said. someone asked him about Harris. Cohen listened, and repeated the line about Newsom.

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