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Manchin’s presidential flirtation raises big 2024 questions

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.
Senator Joe Manchin during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol
Senator Joe Manchin during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, on March 3, 2022. Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

If it’s MONDAY … Former President Donald Trump is traveling to New York City, where he is expected to be arraigned Tuesday in hush money probe … Biden will discuss his economic agenda at 2:35 p.m. ET at a power facility in Minnesota … GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley is traveling to Texas for an event at the southern border … The Chinese spy balloon gathered intelligence from “several sensitive American military sites,” NBC’s Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee report … and there’s one day until the Wisconsin state Supreme Court election and the Chicago mayoral runoff. 

But FIRST … Democrats are desperately hoping Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., will run for Senate. Now it seems they’ll also have to hope he won’t run for president. 

Manchin certainly sounded like a presidential candidate on Sunday’s Meet the Press when he didn’t rule out joining a possible No Labels ticket, a contingency plan being shopped around by the independent group in the event both parties nominate someone who caters to a “partisan minority.”

“When you’re asking me what I’m going to do and what my political ambitions would be, it’s to make the country work together and be a United States and not the divided states,” Manchin said. 

While anything can happen before the two parties select their nominees, both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump remain their parties’ clear frontrunners.

Trump is unapologetically not aiming toward the middle — he’s referred to his 2024 bid as “retribution” for those who have wronged him and his supporters. But Biden ran his 2020 campaign pitching himself as the candidate of the moderate middle. And he’s tried to sharpen that message ahead of 2024.

Even so, neither Manchin nor another key No Labels ally, former Independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, seem convinced Biden v. Trump would provide a stark enough difference to dissuade them from launching a third-party bid. 

How to evaluate that dynamic is one key question facing No Labels over the next year. But we have some others: 

What exactly would make No Labels stand down? 

In a memo published on Sunday, No Labels said it will stand down if one of the major parties nominates someone with positions “that cater to the needs of this majority, instead of the wants of a partisan minority.” But how will they define that subjective label? 

How can No Labels guarantee their candidates wouldn’t be spoilers? 

Manchin was clear on one thing in his Meet the Press interview: “I would never intend to be a spoiler of anything.” 

But even if No Labels could prove their candidates have an actual path to victory — and that’s a big “if” — there’s no predicting exactly who they’ll pull votes from, or what could happen in the final stretch of an election.

What happens when there’s an actual candidate? 

Right now the prospect of a third-party candidate is just theoretical. No Labels says their own polling suggests people are open to an independent candidate, but what happens when that candidate has a name? 

Last year’s race for governor in Oregon could provide some clues. Independent Betsy Johnson appeared to be a real threat to Democrats. But as Democratic partisans attacked her in a blue state, voters eventually came home. Johnson won just 9% of the vote.

Will their efforts bear any down-ballot fruit? 

And if No Labels decides to take a pass on a presidential campaign, will they decide to play down-ballot? Perhaps maybe in Arizona, where Democrat-turned Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema may run again without the backing of a major party?

On that question, No Labels chief executive Nancy Jacobson told the Washington Post, “It could happen, but no plans at this time. It is one ticket, one time. We are not a political party.”

Headline of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is ... more than $5 million

That’s how much money former President Donald Trump’s campaign says it raised since news of his indictment broke Thursday night, per NBC News’ Garrett Haake. Trump’s campaign announced it raised more than $4 million in the first 24 hours since the news broke. A campaign official told Haake on Sunday that the campaign raised an additional $1 million in the next 24 hours (which was first reported by Axios). 

 It won’t be possible to verify those claims until fundraising reports are filed with the Federal Election Commission on April 15. Friday was also the last day of the first fundraising quarter, when campaigns typically make a final push before closing their books on the first three months of the year. 

But the Trump campaign is clearly trying to send the message that the indictment is helping — not hurting — Trump’s presidential bid. The campaign noted in a press release that in the first 24 hours after the indictment, 25% of contributions came from first-time donors. 

Other numbers you need to know today:

At least 30: The number of people dead across the South and Midwest after a brutal storm system moved through the region.

31: The number of Republican-held House seats Democrats will aggressively target to flip in 2024, NBC News’ Sahil Kapur reports.

10 years: The amount of prison time for which a far-right influencer convicted of voter suppression could be sentenced later this year, Politico reports.

45%: The share of the American public who believes Trump should have been charged by a Manhattan grand jury investigating the alleged hush money payment, per a new ABC News/Ipsos poll.

47%: The share in that same poll who say the charges are politically motivated.

4: The number of astronauts who will head to the moon in 2024 on a new NASA mission — the crew will be announced Monday

500,000: The amount of barrels per day by which Saudi Arabia will cut oil production through the end of the year, a move that could raise oil prices around the globe.

25: The number of cars on a freight train that derailed in Western Montana on Sunday.

40,000:  The number of people left without internet service in Connecticut after two people cut more than 2,000 fiber optic cables.

Eyes on 2024: And then there was another (GOP presidential hopeful)

Amid the whirlwind of news around former President Donald Trump’s indictment, another Republican is officially entering the presidential race — former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. 

“I’m convinced that people want leaders that appeal to the best of America, and not simply appeal to our worst instincts,” Hutchinson told ABC News Sunday.

He’s the fourth big-name Republican to launch a presidential bid, but of them, he’s the closest to an anti-Trump campaign there is in the current field. He’s said Trump “should” step aside amid his legal issues, drew flack from Trump and others for vetoing a ban on gender-affirming medical care for transgender children, and criticized Republican skepticism of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

The big question is: Will enough Republican primary voters buy what he’s selling, especially as he lacks the national following of many other Trump alternatives? 

In other campaign news…

Mark your calendars: Trump plans to make a public address from his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida after his expected arraignment on Tuesday.  

More investigations, more problems: The Washington Post reports that the Justice Department believes it has new evidence about Trump potentially obstructing justice, including that after the department subpoenaed boxes, Trump looked through some of those boxes before they were turned over. 

Trump talk: Potential GOP Senate candidates in some must-win states for Republicans looking to flip the chamber rushed to defend Trump after his indictment, NBC News’ Henry Gomez reports. But Republicans representing House districts that Biden carried in 2020 had more mixed reactions, per Roll Call. 

Tired of Trump?: While GOP politicians mostly rallied behind Trump after his indictment last week, the New York Times reports that for some GOP voters “the rush to defend was weighed down by scandal fatigue and a sense that Mr. Trump’s time has passed.”

Super charged: A senior official with a super PAC supporting Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis’ expected presidential bid told the New York Times the group has raised $30 million so far. 

Question marks: The Associated Press unpacks the persistent questions surrounding Biden’s expected re-election campaign, including when he will announce and who will run it.

Scott skepticism: Plenty of Republicans on Capitol Hill would like to see Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., run for president, but Politico reports that they’re also skeptical about his prospects.

Keystone State visit: Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at a political conference in Pennsylvania over the weekend, previewing his potential presidential campaign pitch in a crucial swing state, per the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Colleagues turned rivals: Politico reports on the campaign trail rivalry between former Vice President Mike Pence and former Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Suarez weighs a run: Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is traveling to New Hampshire this week after a recent stop in Iowa as he weighs a run for the GOP presidential nomination, per Fox News.

New Mexico re-run: Former GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell is expected to launch another run for her old House seat, with Speaker Kevin McCarthy slated to attend a campaign rally for her next month, per the Associated Press.

Chicago test: Tuesday’s mayoral runoff in Chicago is an opportunity for some key groups to test their influence. The Washington Post delves into the role Latinos could play in the race, and Politico explores how the race is testing teachers’ “political might.” 

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world?

Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John Fetterman spoke to CBS News days before his release from Walter Reed, where he was being treated for depression. 

A federal judge in Tennessee halted the state’s new ban on drag shows just before it went into effect on Friday night, writing that “when the legislature passed this Statute, it missed the mark.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in New York on Thursday. 

 A group of centrist Democrats are quietly building a plan to deal with the impending debt ceiling fight, but the White House doesn’t want to be involved, Politico reports.