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In key statewide race, Donald Trump finds his 'mini-me'

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks on stage after signing autographs during a campaign stop at The Fox Theatre on June 15, 2016 in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo by Branden Camp/Getty)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks on stage after signing autographs during a campaign stop at The Fox Theatre on June 15, 2016 in Atlanta, Ga.

As he wraps up his second term, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has his eyes set on the U.S. Senate, creating an open gubernatorial race in the nation's largest swing state. The conventional wisdom suggested state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a former congressman, was the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

That's no longer true. Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) has very quickly risen to the top of GOP polls in Florida, thanks almost entirely to the endorsement he received from Donald Trump. The New York Times  reports today on how the largely unknown congressman, once seen as a longshot, positioned himself as the odds-on favorite to win Florida's Republican gubernatorial nomination.

By going on [Fox News] as often as he could to rail against [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller's investigation and defend Mr. Trump -- he has appeared on Fox prime-time shows at least 41 times since Mr. Trump was inaugurated -- Mr. DeSantis attracted the president's attention and his favor.After watching a Fox segment on Air Force One last December that featured Mr. DeSantis, 39, Mr. Trump tweeted favorably about the three-term congressman's campaign for governor but stopped short of a full-throated endorsement. Mr. Putnam's allies -- including his former House colleague, Vice President Mike Pence -- scrambled to stop the president from formalizing his support.

It was, evidently, too late. Trump saw the far-right congressman on Fox News, the congressman said what the president wanted to hear, and a formal endorsement soon followed.

While Putnam stuck to a traditional path -- meeting with local officials, securing endorsements from sheriffs and state lawmakers, etc. -- DeSantis read the White House's talking points on Fox News.

"You cannot run Florida from an out-of-state television studio," Putnam told the New York Times. And while that's true, you can, evidently, run for governor in Florida from an out-of-state television studio, so long as Donald Trump likes what he sees on his screen.

NBC News' First Read team this morning described DeSantis as "Trump's mini-me" -- a mantle the congressman seemed eager to embrace in an astonishing new ad.

If you haven't seen it, the DeSantis campaign yesterday released a commercial featuring the congressman's wife assuring voters that he's more than just Trump's man in Florida. The spot, however, is explicit in proving the exact opposite.

It shows DeSantis with his young children -- building a toy border wall, reading from one of Trump's ghost-written books, teaching a toddler to read with a Trump campaign sign, and putting an infant in a "Make America Great Again" outfit in a crib.

"Big league," the GOP lawmaker says to the camera, standing over the baby.

Just so we're clear, it's a real ad. This isn't a satirical video put together by the left to make the Florida congressman appear ridiculous. DeSantis and his team filmed and released the commercial on purpose.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) recently expressed concern that Republicans were inching closer to "a cult-like situation" toward the president. DeSantis, in a campaign message seemingly devoid of self-respect, seems eager to prove Corker right.

NBC News' Chuck Todd added, "This goes beyond doubling down on Trump. [We] need a whole new set of words to describe this strategy."

The president will be in Tampa tonight, headlining a rally for DeSantis. Watch this space.