Analysis: The next generation of political stars in both parties have been debating one another, leading to a mixing of the 2024 and 2028 presidential contests.

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis square off in a televised debate Thursday night in Georgia, viewers could be forgiven for wondering which presidential election they’re watching unfold: 2024’s or 2028’s.

DeSantis, of course, is running in the primaries for the 2024 Republican nomination. Newsom isn’t on the ballot at all. But he is widely viewed as a potential 2028 Democratic candidate, and, at one time, his eagerness to find and hold a national platform had some Democrats worried that he was trying to nudge President Joe Biden out of seeking re-election.

Newsom’s decision to debate DeSantis on Fox News is a “brilliant strategy” for keeping himself at the forefront of voters’ minds in this election cycle “if Biden were to pull out,” said another Democrat who is often mentioned as a possible candidate next time around. But, this person argued, Newsom runs the risk of making himself stale four years from now.

DeSantis is breaking an iron rule of conventional politics: Never get in a fight with someone who isn’t running. But, as he continues to trail former President Donald Trump by wide polling margins and has to contend with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s surge, the matchup offers DeSantis an opening to show Republican voters he can land blows on a Democratic proxy for Biden.

There’s nothing at all conventional about this unique moment in American politics. Presidential aspirants know already that a Biden-Trump rematch would leave an open seat in 2028, because this is the first time since the 22nd Amendment limited presidents to two terms in 1951 that a defeated former president is seeking to succeed the man who beat him.

Even though most Americans don’t want a rematch, Trump and Biden have holds on their respective primary electorates, creating logjams at the top of both parties.

All of that has left the brightest next-generation stars feeling around in the dark. At times, they have to strain to explain that what looks like jockeying for the next election is really about this one.

On Wednesday, the two governors backing DeSantis’ campaign, Republicans Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Examiner that framed the debate in terms of the 2024 election.

“DeSantis is the only candidate who can get the job done, especially in a possible matchup against Newsom,” they wrote. “Newsom ran California into the ground. … Were Newsom to replace President Joe Biden at the top of the Democrat ticket, we expect the same results and the same treatment for our citizens on a national scale.”

At the same time, Newsom maintains he has sought a national platform to elevate the Democratic Party’s message and help Biden win re-election. If he’s looking at a presidential run, in his telling, it’s not this time.

“We need to move past this notion that [Biden is] not going to run,” Newsom said in an interview in September. “President Biden is going to run, and I’m looking forward to him getting re-elected.”

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