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Six weeks until Iowa, it’s still Trump and then everyone else

First Read is your briefing from the NBC News Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
The third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami.
The third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami on Nov. 8, 2023.Shuran Huang for NBC News

Happening this Wednesday: Republicans hold their fourth presidential debate at 8:00 pm ET in Tuscaloosa, Ala…. The Biden campaign conducts a news conference at noon ET before the debate… Republicans storm out of briefing as Congress battles over aid package for Israel, Ukraine… Senate confirms 425 military nominees after Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., drops his hold… And NBC’s Chuck Todd gets his hands on a poll showing a wide difference in opinion between former GOP members of Congress and Republican voters.

 But FIRST… The last time a member of Congress endorsed a Republican presidential candidate other than Donald Trump was back in June — when Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., endorsed former Vice President Mike Pence. 

Pence, of course, dropped out of the presidential contest back in October. 

That’s the glaring political reality to tonight’s fourth GOP presidential debate that once again will be without frontrunner Trump: It feels less like a race for second place, and more like a contest to avoid getting lapped on the track or in the swimming pool. 

After all, Trump is leading his rivals by 40 or more points in the national polls, and he’s ahead by close to 30 points in Iowa. 

Trump, moreover, now holds endorsements from 95 U.S. House/Senate members, versus five for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and one for former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. (DeSantis does have a key endorsement from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.) 

And even a former Republican member of Congress who voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6 — former Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., who’s now running for a Senate seat — says he’d be willing to vote for Trump if he’s the GOP presidential nominee. 

“My overarching goal is to make Joe Biden a one-term president,” Meijer said

That’s the real state of the Republican presidential race, versus tonight’s debate featuring DeSantis, Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. 

 At least right now. 

Still, NBC’s Alan Smith and Dasha Burns write that there is value to being a strong second-place finisher to Trump. 

“A handful of GOP donors and strategists acknowledged in recent conversations with NBC News that insiders are starting to put more stock in a strong second-place finish, thinking that, should Trump’s legal woes or his advanced age catch up to him, the next best finisher would have the most legitimate claim to be the nominee at next year’s convention.” 

But there’s this other possibility: Trump runs away with the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — and there is no strong second-place finisher. 

Headline of the day

The number of the day is … 425

That’s how many military promotions the Senate approved Tuesday afternoon after Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., lifted his hold on all military promotions at three-star rank and below. 

Tuberville told reporters that he was maintaining his hold on 11 four-star generals, “but other than that, it’s over.”

The senator had maintained a months-long hold on these military promotions in protest of a Defense Department policy that allows members of the military to seek reimbursement for travel related to abortion care.

In a statement Tuesday, Biden said that the “confirmations are long overdue, and should never have been held up in the first place.”

Eyes on 2024: What Trump and Biden said Tuesday night

On Tuesday night, Fox News host Sean Hannity teed up former President Donald Trump to respond to recent media reports about another Trump presidency and his calls for retribution, asking the former president, “Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?”

“Except for Day One,” Trump responded, later adding, “I want to close the border, and I want to drill, drill, drill.”

“I love this guy,” Trump said of Hannity. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said: ‘No, no, no. Other than Day One.’ We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.”

Biden’s campaign responded with a statement saying “Americans should believe Trump” when he says he will be a dictator. Trump’s comments also underscored Biden’s earlier remarks at a Boston campaign event, where Biden said he wasn’t sure he would be running without Trump in the race, noting he cannot let Trump win. 

Trump, meanwhile, is expected to be back in court on Thursday as part of his civil fraud trial in New York. 

In other campaign news … 

Governors’ abortion advice: Some Democratic governors cautioned that Biden might not be the party’s best messenger on abortion as Democrats look to leverage the issue in 2024.

Vivek on the trail: Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has increasingly focused on the issue of “carbon capture,” or building pipelines to move carbon dioxide in the Midwest, as he has campaigned in Iowa, per NBC’s Jillian Frankel and Alex Tabet.

Cash dash: Wall Street executives gathered Monday to support Haley, raising more than $500,000 for the presidential hopeful, CNBC’s Brian Schwartz reports. And the pro-Haley super PAC got a boost from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, a prominent Democratic donor, per the New York Times. 

Ballot drama: A federal judge in Arizona rejected an effort to bar Trump from the state’s ballot due to his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, per NBC’s Megan Lebowitz.

Thinking about it: Most of Iowa’s congressional delegation is staying neutral in the GOP primary, but Rep. Randy Feenstra, who represents the most Republican district in the state, is still thinking about endorsing in the race. Feenstra told NBC News he is interviewing candidates this weekend.

Heading for the exit: Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who briefly served as the temporary speaker, announced Tuesday that he is not running for re-election

Kissing the ring: A special election to replace former New York GOP Rep. George Santos has been set for Feb. 13. The New York Times reports that the congressman who represented the district before Santos — Democrat Tom Suozzi — visited Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday to seek her support, apologize for mounting his bitter primary challenge against her last year and to promise that he’ll support abortion rights if elected.

He’s running: Westchester County Executive George Latimer will launch a primary against Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman in the New York City suburbs, highlighting the divide between the Latimer’s staunchly pro-Israel views and Bowman’s pro-Palestine stances, Politico reports.

A split between voters and members of Congress: A new survey finds a remarkable split between what former GOP members of Congress believe and what the GOP electorate believes, per NBC’s Chuck Todd.

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world

The White House on Tuesday called House Republicans’ plan to pursue an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden “illegitimate,” while House GOP leaders said they plan to vote to formalize the inquiry as soon as next week

House Republicans on Tuesday also announced that they will launch an investigation into any “cooperation” between Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis and the former House committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.

A Pennsylvania chapter of Moms for Liberty is splitting off from the group after leaders came out in support of Florida Republican Party Chairman Christian Ziegler and his wife, Bridget, who co-founded Moms for Liberty. Ziegler is under investigation after a rape allegation was made public last week.