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First Read: The GOP Establishment Lane is Crowded -- and Flawed

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.

GOP's establishment lane is crowded -- and flawed

Not only is there a pile up in the establishment lane of the Republican presidential contest in New Hampshire; it's also worth pointing out how flawed the candidates in this lane are. While there's newfound buzz around Chris Christie, he has very little money (just $1.4 million in the bank as of Sept. 30), and he expanded Medicaid and hugged Barack Obama in 2012. John Kasich also has little cash on hand ($2.7 million) and he, too, expanded Medicaid. While Marco Rubio still has a good shot at winning the GOP nomination, he hasn't focused as aggressively on New Hampshire (or Iowa) until recently. And as for Jeb Bush -- he and his allies have already spent nearly $50 million in TV ads, including $23 million in New Hampshire, and his poll position remains in the single digits. How flawed are these establishment candidates? With the BIG exception of Rubio, a majority of GOP primary voters say they can't see themselves supporting these establishment candidates, according to our Dec. 2015 NBC/WSJ poll:

  • Rubio: 64% said they could see themselves supporting him, 29% couldn't (+35)
  • Christie: 43% said they could see themselves supporting him, 50% couldn't (-7)
  • Bush: 45% said they could see themselves supporting him, 53% couldn't (-8)
  • Kasich: 22% said they could see themselves supporting him, 53% couldn't (-31)

Folks, those were the numbers before these candidates starting attacking each other, so it's likely that they will get worse. How does this end well? These numbers also suggest that Rubio is maybe the strongest in this establishment lane. Then again, he doesn't appear (for now) to have an easy path to victory in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Christie TV ad responds to Rubio Super PAC attack

Speaking of the establishment fight, Christie's campaign is up with a TV ad responding to this week's attack from Rubio's Super PAC, which essentially threw the kitchen sink at the New Jersey governor. "Marco Rubio is attacking Gov. Chris Christie," the ad begins -- and then turns to Christie speaking on the stump. "Do not be fooled: Any significant division within the Republican Party leads to the same awful result - Hillary Rodham Clinton in January of 2017 taking the oath of office as president of the United States," Christie says. "This country cannot afford that outcome, and thus we Republicans have a duty - I believe a profound, moral duty - to work together."

Trump's latest birther charge is another example of how he continues to dominate the news cycle

Well, Donald Trump the Birther is back -- after he said it was a "problem" that Ted Cruz was born in Canada. "It's a problem for him, and it's a problem obviously for the Republicans because if the -- let's assume he got a nomination and the Democrats bring suit, the suit takes two to three years to solve, so how do you run?" Trump told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" team. "So, it's certainly a concern, I guess, for the party, but I hope that's not the case. I'm not involved in that, but a lot of people are bringing it up, absolutely." And on Fox News this morning, Trump added: "I want to beat [Cruz] on its own merit. I don't want to have a thing like this happen. But I will say though that the Democrats, if they bring a lawsuit on it, I mean, you have to get it solved." Is there anything to this? No. Every constitutional and legal expert believes that being the child of American citizen (even if the father wasn't a citizen and even if the birth occurred on foreign soil) qualifies you meeting the constitutional requirement of being a natural-born citizen. But did this throw Ted Cruz off message for a day? Absolutely. And does it continue to suck oxygen from the rest of the GOP field? Of course. This is Trump's media brilliance in a nutshell. Throw something controversial (no matter how outlandish) into the mix, wash, rinse, and repeat.

Cruz Fires Back Over Trump's 'Birther' Claim 0:56

Hillary's closing argument: electability and the election's big stakes

Turning to the Democratic contest, MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald and Benjy Sarlin make this important observation. "As the calendar turned to the new year, Clinton seemed to zero in on one message: The stakes of this year's presidential election. And her opening argument of 2016 is also her closing argument of the Democratic presidential primary. By reminding Democrats of the stakes, she invites voters to question whether they're willing to risk so much in an untested candidate like Sanders." And NBC's Monica Alba and Danny Freeman follow up from Clinton's events yesterday in Iowa. "Now let me ask you all to think hard about this job that you're interviewing for. Think hard about the people who are presenting themselves to you, their experience, their qualifications, their positions. And particularly for those of us who are Democrats, their electability," Clinton said.

Bernie hits Hillary on Wall Street

While Clinton yesterday was stressing electability and the election's stakes, Bernie Sanders focused on Wall Street. "Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in a fiery speech on Tuesday laid out his plan to break up 'too big to fail' commercial banks and pointedly attacked Hillary Clinton for taking speaking fees from the financial industry and, in his view, not going far enough in her plan to regulate Wall Street," the New York Times says. "'My opponent says that as a senator, she told bankers to "cut it out" and end their destructive behavior," Mr. Sanders said of Mrs. Clinton. 'But, in my view, establishment politicians are the ones who need to cut it out. The reality is that Congress doesn't regulate Wall Street. Wall Street and their lobbyists regulate Congress. We must change that reality, and as president, I will.'"

Hillary still isn't taking the bait in talking about Trump

By the way, here's coverage of Chris Matthews' interview with Clinton yesterday. "In her first national television interview of the year following a campaign stop Tuesday in Osage, Iowa, the Democratic presidential front-runner refused to respond to the more pointed barbs from her Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, choosing instead to repeatedly stress a message of unity on issues ranging from gun control to international terrorism. The exclusive interview with Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's "Hardball," came one day after Clinton told voters in Cedar Rapids that her New Year's resolution was to avoid any slugfests with the sharp-tongued real estate mogul. So far, so good. Asked whether Trump's musings about her "stamina" were sexist, Clinton smiled wryly and replied: 'I have a New Year's resolution. I will not respond to his personal attacks.'"

Vanity Fair takes on Huma Abedin

Finally, Vanity Fair profiles Clinton aide Huma Abedin, and it's not the most flattering of pieces -- and could make Abedin even more of a target on the right.

On the trail

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley all attend a Nevada Democrats Dinner in Las Vegas… Clinton holds two additional events in Nevada, while Sanders holds a rally in Las Vegas... Marco Rubio stumps in Iowa and Texas… Ted Cruz holds five events in Iowa… Ben Carson also is in the Hawkeye State… And Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich are all in New Hampshire.

Countdown to NBC/YouTube debate in SC: 11 days

Countdown to Iowa: 26 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 34 days

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