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First Read: Last Night's Debate Was All About Bernie Sanders

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.

CHARLESTON, SC -- Whether it was because of his neck-and-neck poll numbers in Iowa, or because of the Clinton campaign attacks on him, or because he released policy proposals in a 24-hour span to protect himself (on guns and health care), last night's debate here was largely about Bernie Sanders.

And that was both good and bad for his campaign: The good: Sanders gave his supporters more than enough to cheer about; he held his own in facing the attacks and tough questions; and he stuck to his script of talking about his issues (income inequality, Wall Street, campaign-finance reform). The bad: His new health-care plan is actually pretty thin on specifics, as Vox writes; his embrace of tax increases for all Americans is likely dead on arrival if you've been paying attention to American politics over the last 30 years; and the Republican National Committee was clearly rooting for Sanders during the debate. ("Clinton's Misleading Health-Care Attack," the RNC blasted out to reporters.) All of that said, giving your supporters something to cheer about is a pretty powerful force two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. The question we have: How does Sanders come across to persuadable voters -- those who might have their doubts about Clinton, but who aren't exactly diehard liberals? After all, he can seem a little hot on TV.

Chuck Todd: This was 'the Bernie Sanders debate' 2:10

Hillary's big bet on Obama

We've been telling you for days that the Democratic race was turning into a contest of Continuity (Hillary Clinton) vs. Revolution (Bernie Sanders). And that's precisely what we saw last night -- as Clinton hugged President Obama and his policies at almost every opportunity, while Sanders demanded bolder change (though he was still respectful toward Obama). Hillary's big bet in this contest is that Democratic voters are still enthusiastic about Obama and his policies, especially in the state that catapulted him to the presidency: Iowa. This is the path that both George HW Bush (in 1988) and Al Gore (2000) took, though Gore had to distance himself from Bill Clinton more than he would have liked due to the Lewinsky scandal. The drawback here: Even though one man captured the White House (Bush) and the other won the popular vote (Gore), their journeys were far from easy, even during strong economic times. By the way, here's a reminder about how our new NBC/WSJ poll perfectly demonstrates this Continuity vs. Revolution divide:

  • 55% of Democratic primary voters prefer experience in '16, while 40% want change (on the GOP side, it's 78% change, 20% experience)
  • Among the Dems who want experience, Clinton beats Sanders, 77%-19%
  • Among the Dems who want change, Sanders tops Hillary, 52%-39%.
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders spar at Democratic debate 3:27

O'Malley has his best debate -- by far

Even though he's sitting in the low single digits in the polls, Martin O'Malley had his best debate --- by far. He was funny and full of substance.

Here's What You Missed from the Democratic Debate (in 2 Minutes) 2:00

GOP establishment finally gets its opening

The Trump vs. Cruz battle is getting uglier and uglier. "He's a nasty guy. Nobody likes him," Trump said of Cruz yesterday on ABC. "Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him." (Remember the bromance?) If this continues over the next two weeks, then the GOP establishment has the opening it's been waiting for.

  • Countdown to Iowa: 14 days
  • Countdown to New Hampshire: 22 days