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First Read’s Morning Clips: About Last Night

OFF TO THE RACES: About last night

Miss the debate? You can follow along with our NBC News Political Unit's blow-by-blow here.

Perry Bacon Jr. asks if Republicans made a mistake by going relatively easy on the absent Trump during last night's debate. "Allies of Cruz, seeing Trump move ahead of him in Iowa polls, have started running ads highlighting some of the mogul's past liberal stances on policy issues. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, on the eve of the debate, had been suggesting Trump was being disrespectful to Iowa voters by not appearing at the Des Moines debate Neither man made these arguments against Trump on Thursday night."

Trump says he skipped the Fox News event "out of respect for myself."

NBC's Benjy Sarlin looks at what we learned from the Trump-less contest.

Msnbc.com's Emma Margolin examines how the Republicans on stage tried to thread the needle on religious liberty questions.

The Des Moines Register's take: "With Trump benched, Cruz got body-checked, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush got hot, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio ran around a lot but exuded energy, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie scored some great points, Iowans said. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Ohio Gov. John Kasich faded during the final GOP presidential debate before voting begins, observers said."

And the DMR's headline in the print edition: "ROUGH NIGHT FOR CRUZ."

The AP's debate lede: "For the Republican candidates for president, it was a glimpse of what could have been."

The New York Times: "If the debate began on a surreal note, with the candidates poking fun at the absence of the field’s leader, Mr. Trump, it quickly turned conventional as the contenders tried to undercut one another in hopes of gaining favor with Iowa voters. But the added attention may not have been particularly helpful. There was more time for Mr. Cruz’s image as a consistent conservative to come under relentless attack. There was more time for Mr. Rubio’s past alliance with Democrats on an immigration overhaul to come under scrutiny. There was more time for former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio to discuss policy, in hopes of helping their chances in New Hampshire, but neither man had particularly electrifying moments.

The Wall Street Journal picks up on the important theme from we wrote about last week: In a caucus, some votes matter more than others.

POLITICO sums up the debate over debates on the Democratic side.

RUBIO: His camp has concluded that a win for Trump in Iowa could help the senator's chances, the New York Times writes. "The Florida senator and his advisers have concluded that a head-to-head battle with Mr. Trump over the next several weeks would be much more advantageous than one with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whose success would greatly complicate Mr. Rubio’s hopes of consolidating his support inside the Republican Party."

SANDERS: His doctor vouched yesterday for his "very good health."

TRUMP: The New York Times on his veterans' event: "It was supposed to be about the veterans. It was not really about the veterans. Donald J. Trump was putting on a show — and it was entirely about him: his hurt, his feelings, his vanity and his revenge."

POLITICO writes that Jeff Sessions is torn about whether to back Trump or Cruz.

PROGRAMMING NOTES.

*** Friday’s “MSNBC Live with Tamron Hall” line-up: Tamron Hall interviews at 11:00am ET – Clinton supporter former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Des Moines register columnist Kathie Obradovich and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. Plus live reports from the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire.

*** Friday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: Andrea Mitchell hosts the show live from Des Moines, Iowa! NBC's Hallie Jackson, Kasie Hunt, Katy Tur , Kristen Welker and Chris Jansing will join us for the countdown to the caucuses! The New York Times’ Jeremy Peters and Julie Pace from the Associated Press will join to dissect last night’s debate and today’s campaign events. Iowa legend David Yepsen will join us with his preview of Monday’s caucus.