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Gov. DeSantis wins new fans on right in '60 Minutes' fight

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisSunday shows preview: Russia, US exchange sanctions; tensions over policing rise; vaccination campaign continues American expats returning to US to get COVID-19 shots Oddsmakers say Harris, not Biden, most likely to win 2024 nomination, election MORE is bolstering his position as a potential leading 2024 Republican presidential contender amid a high-profile battle with CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

The newsmagazine received widespread backlash from Republicans and some Democrats after it aired a piece Sunday alleging that DeSantis funneled COVID-19 vaccines to affluent Florida communities and privatized the vaccine rollout to benefit donors.

DeSantis vehemently denied any wrongdoing in the vaccine rollout, calling the claim “a fake narrative,” but his insiders are relishing the fight with “60 Minutes,” which has long been a target of the right. They say the fallout over the report will likely help bolster the governor’s profile as he is increasingly seen as an heir apparent to former President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham: 'I could not disagree more' with Trump support of Afghanistan troop withdrawal GOP believes Democrats handing them winning 2022 campaign Former GOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer resigns MORE.

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“He’s making immense political capital because he was a target of a journalistic hit job,” said former Trump administration official Alexei Woltornist. “Not only did he catch them, he exposed them.”

DeSantis doubled down on his criticism of the piece at a news conference Tuesday, calling the segment “horse manure.”

“I know corporate media thinks that they can just run over people; you ain’t running over this governor. I’m punching back,” DeSantis said.

The governor also made the rounds on conservative-leaning television shows, including “Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonFox News's Bret Baier posts vaccination selfie Facebook prevents sharing of New York Post Black Lives Matter story Carlson hits back at Fauci: 'Never for a minute doubted' vaccines work MORE Tonight” and “Fox & Friends,” to blast the report. That provides an opportunity for DeSantis to reach out to conservatives and build his brand.

“It certainly has given him yet another reason to appear before a national audience that leans conservative,” said Florida-based Republican consultant Shawn Frost.

DeSantis has been a controversial figure throughout his term as governor as his fortunes have waxed and waned with the pandemic.

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Polling shows that the governor’s approval rating has risen in recent weeks. A survey from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy released last month found the governor with a 53 percent approval rating, up from his 45 percent approval rating in July.

DeSantis has presented a fiery and confrontational persona with his critics and certain members of the news media as he’s battled critics of his stewardship of the state during the pandemic. The style appears to mirror the no-holds-barred approach Trump took with the news media throughout his presidency.

“If there is anything that Trump taught us it’s that culture wars and fighting with media are winning fights for Republicans,” Woltornist said.

One of the most notable examples of this took place in February when the governor threatened to divert vaccines from Manatee County after he was asked about criticism over the vaccine distribution process in parts of the state.

“I mean, if Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said at a news conference.

DeSantis’s response to the pandemic and his approach to the news media has only endeared him to Trump’s base, who could look to him as the GOP standard-bearer in 2024 — if Trump does not run.

“He’s a serious contender,” said Nelson Diaz, the former chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party. “His approach has been proven correct. We did not have to destroy people’s lives and shut down the economy to slow the spread, and I think that’s terrifying to Democrats, the fact that he was right.”

The “60 Minutes” report homed in on the distribution process in Palm Beach County, painting a picture of a “free for all” in the area, with the wealthier areas, like the town of Palm Beach, getting more access to the vaccine than less affluent areas, like West Palm Beach.

Arguably the biggest takeaway from the story was the allegation that DeSantis gave a contract to distribute coronavirus vaccines to the popular Florida-based grocery store chain Publix after the corporation made a $100,000 donation to his political action committee.

Critics of the media were quick to point out Publix’s strong 817-store presence in the Sunshine State, saying the move would have been a no-brainer for any administration looking to distribute the vaccine.

“I think them attacking Publix is the biggest mistake they can make in Florida,” Frost said. “It’s the fourth estate here, honestly.”

Critics of the partnership with Publix say the chain’s stores tend to be located in or in closer proximity to middle- and upper-class communities, making it difficult for members of lower income communities to receive their shot at a Publix location.

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Some Democrats came to DeSantis’s defense after the report. Florida Division of Emergency Management head Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat, tweeted Sunday that the governor’s office did not suggest Publix as a vaccine distribution site.

“Publix was recommended by [Florida Division of Emergency Management] and [Florida Department of Health] as the other pharmacies were not ready to start. Period! Full Stop! No one from the Governors office suggested Publix. It’s just absolute malarkey,” Moskowitz said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, the Democratic mayor of Palm Beach County, Dave Kerner, said in a statement that it was the county that requested the state’s partnership with Publix be expanded.

“We also discussed our own local plans to expand mass vaccinations centers throughout the county, which the governor has been incredibly supportive. We asked and he delivered. They had that information, and they left it out because it kneecaps their narrative,” Kerner said.

DeSantis has found himself in a defensive position during various points of the pandemic.

The governor caught backlash at the start of the public health crisis last year for waiting weeks to issue a stay-at-home order despite facing pressure from state and federal officials. He also took heat for moving to reopen Florida despite a surge in coronavirus cases.

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More recently, DeSantis has been accused of favoring wealthier communities, which tend to be whiter, in the state as a part of the vaccine distribution process. White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiSullivan: White House 'absolutely committed' to raising refugee cap Biden on refugee cap: 'We couldn't do two things at once' Biden, Japan's PM focus on China, North Korea in first bilateral meeting MORE said Monday the administration would keep an eye on the situation in Florida, saying it found that while African Americans make up 17 percent of the state’s population, only 7 percent had been vaccinated.

Some observers noted the irony that the “60 Minutes” report on DeSantis’s partnership with Publix had overshadowed inequity in the vaccine rollout process.

“I do think that there was a watchdog to play here, but that was just simply the equity of the vaccine distribution, and they did bring that up a little in this story, but that’s not what seemed to be the core of the story,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “Nor did it seem to be obviously what’s getting all of the attention here in the aftermath.”