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DeSantis sports strong numbers even before entering W.H. race. Will it last?

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on Feb. 15, 2023, at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Wednesday at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach.Wilfredo Lee / AP

WASHINGTON — If it’s Friday ... President Biden tells NBC’s Peter Alexander that China’s Xi doesn’t want to damage relations with the U.S. after spy balloon. ... NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Vice President Harris in Munich: “We shot [Chinese balloon] down because it needed to be shot down, because we were confident that it was used by China to spy on the American people.”… Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., checks himself into hospital for clinical depression. ... And note: Our newsletter will be off on Monday, returning on Tuesday.

But first: He’s not even officially in the race yet, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis starts the 2024 GOP presidential contest as a co-frontrunner with Donald Trump, according to multiple polls (see here, here and here) of this still-early nomination fight. 

In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2008 — Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton on the Dem side, John McCain vs. Rudy Giuliani on the GOP side — as the last time you had two clear frontrunners from the same wing of the party at this early stage.

And we have two questions about DeSantis’ potential staying power.

One, can he withstand the inevitable Trump attacks coming his way?

DeSantis starts with sky-high fav/unfav ratings among Republicans (74%-4% per Quinnipiac, 80%-6% in Monmouth), which have nowhere to go but down once the mud starts slinging.

Two, how will conservative media cover the coming Trump vs. DeSantis fights? Will they give DeSantis the benefit of the doubt (much like Obama ended up getting in ’08 from the liberal side of the internet)? Or will they stand back and let the co-frontrunners work it out?

(The conservative media’s role in the coming 2024 race takes on additional importance after reading those internal communications over at Fox News.)

Our friend Benjy Sarlin makes an additional point about Trump opponents — like Nikki Haley and probably DeSantis — calling for new blood and a new generation versus Trump: Are you also tying that to new policies and a new approach to politics?

Because if you’re calling for similar policies and pretty much the same approach to politics, aren’t Republicans ultimately going to fall in line with Trump?

Headline of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … 9

That’s how many pages were released from the special grand jury report in Fulton County, Georgia, examining whether former President Donald Trump and his associates tried to illegally overturn the 2020 election. 

The parts of the report that were released revealed that the grand jury spoke with more than 75 witnesses, and that a majority of the members of the grand jury believe that there were witnesses who lied under oath.

Only nine pages of the final report were released, including the introduction and conclusion — even though multiple news organizations pressed for the entire report to be released.

Read the full nine pages here

Other numbers to know:

More than 400%: The increase in the number of early ballots returned in the Chicago mayoral election compared to the amount returned by this point in the 2019 race. 

2: The number of legally purchased guns that were found with the shooter who killed three people at Michigan State University’s campus on Monday night. 

72: The number of mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. since the start of the year, meaning there have been more mass shootings than days of the year. 

30: The number of former Tesla employees who filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging they were fired after they tried to unionize. 

10 days: The amount of time a teenager was stuck under the rubble in Turkey following an earthquake before she was rescued alive on Thursday.

13 million: How many people remain at risk of severe thunderstorms across the U.S.

Eyes on 2024: NH trip reveals Haley’s 2020 tightrope

When former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley spoke with TODAY after her presidential announcement this week, she tried to distance herself from former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.  

“Is Joe Biden the president? Yes. Joe Biden is the president. And we shouldn’t question that,” she said. 

Now, as she heads to campaign in New Hampshire, she’s receiving the endorsement of Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc — the 2022 GOP Senate nominee who repeatedly touted his false belief Trump won the 2020 election while on the trail (even while sometimes trying to walk that back).

Haley campaigned with Bolduc in 2022, along with a handful of other candidates who actively cast doubt on the 2020 election like Georgia Republican Herschel Walker and Nevada Republican Adam Laxalt.

When asked to explain why she campaigned with Laxalt, who called the 2020 election “rigged” and challenged Biden’s victory in Nevada as Trump’s campaign co-chair, Haley said she did so because of Laxalt’s policies on issues like the economy, education and immigration

“The problem is: You’re doing what everybody’s doing. They’re all living in the past,” she said. “What I’m telling you is we have got to start looking forward.” 

In other campaign news:

Romney warns Republicans: Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, is warning his party that Trump remains “by far the most likely to become our nominee” and that the best way to beat him is in a one-on-one race. Romney himself has not yet decided if he’s running for re-election next year, and he’s not expected to decide until the summer, per the Associated Press. 

Scott’s test run: Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., appeared to test drive a potential presidential campaign message during a speech on Thursday, NBC News’ Allan Smith reports. 

Culture club: Politico reports on how former Vice President Mike Pence is leaning into the culture war as he readies a likely presidential bid. 

Pledge allegiance to the party: Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel “plans to require all candidates on the official primary debate stages to first pledge their support to the party’s eventual nominee,” per the Washington Post.

Re-run headaches: Politico details how Republicans’ path to victory in 2024 congressional races could be complicated by controversial candidates who lost their 20222 races, but are weighing running again, including Arizona’s Blake Masters and Kari Lake, Ohio’s J.R. Majewski and Washington’s Joe Kent. 

Arizona dreamin’: Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego leads various Arizona Senate matchups in a new online poll from OH Predictive Insights, but a significant number of registered voters remain undecided. 

Manchin’s moneymen: Roll Call looks at the top donors, industries and lobbyists that have helped fill West Virginia Joe Manchin’s campaign coffers

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world

Ohio’s two senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican JD Vance, are calling on President Biden and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to take more action following a train derailment in the state that has led to a fire and a toxic chemical spill that is affecting residents in the area.

Kentucky’s Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the state’s near total ban on abortion can remain in place during ongoing litigation about the law. 

New court filings reveal that Fox News anchors privately admitted that there was no fraud in the 2020 election shortly after the election, but continued to promote the narrative that the election was stolen on the air.