Meet the Press

First Read: A Party Divided Going Into Tonight's Debate

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.

DURHAM, NH -- Tonight's Democratic debate -- the first one-on-one showdown between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders -- comes 1) after the thisclose race in Iowa, 2) five days before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, and 3) as the party appears more divided than at any point during the Obama Era.

Who is a progressive? (Sanders yesterday charged that anyone who takes money from Wall Street and has a Super PAC doesn't meet the standard, while Clinton replied that Sanders' purity test would disqualify many in her party.)

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ratchet up attacks before debate 2:23

Who is the *real* Democrat in this race? (Clinton has listed her long time working for the party, while Sanders has never associated with it until now.)

What is the best way to create political change? (Is it through Clinton's experience and perseverance? Or Sanders' revolution?)

And what is the top job for the next Democratic president? (Is it protecting the gains made over the last seven years and improving them at the margins? Or is it by going in a completely different direction?)

Related: How to Watch the New Hampshire Democratic Debate on Thursday

These are stark choices -- maybe starker than we ever saw during the Democratic primary race in 2008, when the choices boiled down more to biography than ideology and what it means to be a Democrat/progressive. If you don't want to take our word that the party is divided, just look again at the entrance polls in Iowa:

  • Clinton won among Democrats, 56%-39%
  • Sanders won among independents, 69%-26%
  • Sanders won among very liberal, 58%-39%
  • Clinton won among somewhat liberals, 50-44%, and moderates, 58%-35%
  • Clinton won among past caucus-goers, 59%-35%
  • Sanders won among first-time caucus-goers, 59%-37%
  • Sanders won among those ages 17-29, 84%-14%
  • Clinton won among those 65 and older, 69%-26%

The debate, which takes place here at the University of New Hampshire, will air on MSNBC at 9:00 pm ET and will be moderated by NBC's Chuck Todd and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.

Image: Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston, South Carolina
The stage at the Gaillard Center is prepared for tonight's Democratic debate on Jan. 17, 2016 in Charleston, South Carolina. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Trump vs. Cruz only helps Rubio

Remember the days when Donald Trump and Ted Cruz were playing patty cake, while the rest of the GOP field was piling on Marco Rubio? Well, those days are long gone. Reuters: "Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Wednesday accused rival Ted Cruz of stealing a victory in the Iowa caucuses and called for another vote or nullification of Cruz's win." More: "Trump … lit up Twitter on Wednesday with a series of posts saying the outcome was tainted because the Cruz campaign had deliberately spread misinformation about Trump's stand on Obamacare and an erroneous report that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race."

Cruz responded by accusing Trump of having a "Trumpertantrum," per NBC's Vaughn Hillyard. Folks, this is only helping Rubio. That said, the Christie campaign is ripping into Rubio, seizing on an interview by Rick Santorum (who had just endorsed Rubio) having a hard time describing the Florida senator's accomplishments in the Senate. "My feeling on Marco is someone who has tremendous potential, tremendous gifts. If you look at being a minority in the United States Senate in four years where nothing got done, I guess it's hard to say there are accomplishments. Tell me what happened during that four years that was accomplishment for anybody? I mean, it was a complete gridlock," Santorum said on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Ouch. The anti-Cruz efforts are more public. But the anti-Rubio world isn't small, either.

Rubio, Clinton gain in tracking poll

By the way, here's the latest New Hampshire tracking poll via UMass Lowell/News7 (which was conducted from Feb. 1-3 - so the day of the caucuses and two days after):

  • Trump 36% (-2)
  • Rubio 15% (+3)
  • Cruz 14% (unchanged)
  • Bush 8% (-1)
  • Kasich 7% (unchanged)
  • Christie 5% (-1)

And on the Democratic side:

  • Sanders 58% (-3)
  • Clinton 36% (+4)

NBC/WSJ/Marist poll to be released at 5:00 pm ET

And there's another New Hampshire poll to watch today - our NBC/WSJ/Marist that we're releasing at 5:00 pm ET on the Democratic side ahead of tonight's debate.

On the trail

All of the activity is in New Hampshire, not surprisingly: Donald Trump holds a town hall in Exeter at 12:00 pm ET and then a rally in Portsmouth at 7:00 pm ET… Ted Cruz has four events in the Granite State… Ditto Marco Rubio… And Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina also all campaign in the state.

Countdown to New Hampshire: 5 days