First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Cruz's and Rubio's last stand to stop Trump
Tonight's Republican presidential debate is in Houston, but as NBC's Hallie Jackson has suggested, San Antonio would have been a more fitting location -- given that the debate is an Alamo-like last stand of sorts for both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. It's why tonight and this coming Tuesday is a last stand for Cruz: He has to win his home state to stay alive in the GOP contest. But it's a last stand for Rubio, too: Can he afford to ignore Trump and cede Super Tuesday to the GOP frontrunner as time starts to run out? Many Republicans and plenty of GOP donors will be watching tonight's debate and asking: "If you aren't tough enough to take on Trump, are you tough enough to take on Hillary Clinton?" Call it the Christie debate hangover. As Ross Douthat writes, "There isn't going to be a long wintry war of attrition against Trump for Rubio; the time for that is gone. Instead, after Super Tuesday, assuming that Rubio does edge Cruz consistently, he'll have to beat Trump in two pitched battles — the Detroit and Miami Republican debates, on March 3 and March 10. And he'll have to do so in the shadow of screaming headlines that stress, not delegate counts, but Trump's overall winning streak." Of course, as we remember from our Texas history, the side that made the Alamo a last stand -- and was defeated -- still won the war in the end.
WaPo editorial page calls out GOP leaders: "You must do everything in your power to stop Trump"
We don't know what Cruz and Rubio will do regarding Trump, but the Washington Post editorial page absolutely unloads on the GOP frontrunner and the Republican Party. The headline: "GOP leaders, you must do everything in your power to stop Trump." Inside the piece: "Absent an extraordinary effort from people who understand the menace he represents, Donald Trump is likely to be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. At this stage, even an extraordinary effort might fall short. But history will not look kindly on GOP leaders who fail to do everything in their power to prevent a bullying demagogue from becoming their standard-bearer." Interestingly, we saw Mitt Romney make an effort to ding/troll Trump. But here's the thing: To stop Trump, you can't just engage in a drive-by shooting -- the attacks must be sustained. And so far, no Republican entity has been able to sustain a campaign against Trump of any kind.
Yet some Republicans are already waving the white flag
But NBC's Leigh Ann Caldwell writes that there are some cracks in the GOP establishment's opposition to Trump. "Bob Grand, managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis, was a financial supporter and bundler for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He hasn't yet decided if he's going to throw his support behind Sen. Marco Rubio or another candidate with Bush out of the race. What Grand won't do, however, is fund efforts to take down Trump. The influential establishment donor who raised more than $1 million for Mitt Romney in 2012, believes that Trump is better than the Democratic alternative. 'It might be interesting to see what (Trump) does' if he does become the party's nominee, Grand said. Another longtime Republican donor, Fred Malek, an adviser to four Republican presidents, all but dismissed efforts to try and stop Trump at this point. He noted there is no central organization for anti-Trump donors to rally around and that it would be a bad idea even if there were. 'If you did that I think there'd be deep-seated resentment at a group of wealthy donors telling people what to do,' Malek said in an interview Tuesday."
Mr. and Mrs. Unpopular
If we're on the precipice of a Clinton-Trump general election, it's worth pointing out that means both parties would be nominating their most UNPOPULAR candidates. Just look at the fav/unfav numbers from last week's national NBC/WSJ poll:
The unintended consequences of both parties nominating their most unpopular or polarizing figures means we are headed for the most divisive and scorched earth style general election in modern history. When you start with negatives at 50% or above, it means the only way to win is to become the lesser of two evils. It will also mean the next president will start in a deep hole, with little shot at a real honeymoon.
This doesn't help the GOP's PR effort in its blockade to prevent President Obama from making any Supreme Court pick. The New York Times: "Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee and has backed Democratic Supreme Court picks in the past, said the court fight was payback for the 2013 decision by Senate Democrats to unilaterally change Senate rules to make it easier to break Republican filibusters against executive branch nominations. They then pushed more Obama administration nominees onto the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, perhaps the most important court below the Supreme Court. 'This is the consequence of an abuse of power,' Mr. Graham said. "Don't ask for fairness if you are not going to give it.'" And that's maybe how best to view the leak that Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval -- a Republican -- is being vetted for the Supreme Court. It's all about Democrats extracting maximum PR pain to capitalize on the GOP play not to hold any hearings or meetings with Obama's eventual pick. But we wonder: Would Obama be willing to potentially let down the Dem base by picking a Republican?
On the trail
Hillary Clinton makes three stops in South Carolina, hitting Kingstree, Florence, and Myrtle Beach… Bill Clinton makes three South Carolina stops of his own -- in Rock Hill, Spartanburg, and Winnsboro… Bernie Sanders campaigns in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, where he participates in a town hall with MSNBC's Chris Matthews.
- Countdown to Dem South Carolina primary: 2 days
- Countdown to Super Tuesday: 5 days