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.
The invisible frontrunner in GOP race? Try Ted Cruz
Today's political spotlight -- once again -- is fixed on Donald Trump, given the three new polls (national NYT/CBS, Fox News of South Carolina, Winthrop of South Carolina) that show him leading the Republican presidential race. But now 53 days out from the first nominating contest, it's time to consider Ted Cruz another frontrunner in the GOP race at least when it comes to the Iowa caucuses. "Ted Cruz, the no-compromise conservative purist, is on the verge of securing the Christian conservative bloc, a linchpin that could secure victory in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, GOP insiders say," per the Des Moines Register. "The question is whether Cruz can siphon enough tea party voters from front-runner Donald Trump to vault Cruz into the No. 1 slot when votes are counted less than two months from now, they say." The Washington Post's Cillizza adds that Cruz is also set up well for the March 1 contests. "Assuming Cruz is one of those candidates who makes it to March, the calendar starts to look very favorable to him. On March 1 is what's being referred to as the 'SEC primary'; Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas will all vote on that first Tuesday in March."
Why Cruz is set up well in Iowa
NBC's Vaughn Hillyard has more on Cruz and his position in Iowa: "Cruz intends to hit all 99 counties by February 1, the day of the Iowa caucus. He has hit 50 so far. And last weekend in Des Moines, the campaign opened 'Cruz Camp,' an old college dorm with 48 beds for volunteers coming in from across the country to stay for free while organizing locally for the campaign. He has now earned what many consider to be the 'big three' of conservative endorsements in the state: Radio host Steve Deace, U.S. Rep. Steve King of northwestern Iowa and -- as expected to be announced on Thursday -- The Family Leader, a socially-conservative, Christian group." And Hillyard adds that the Iowa campaign events in the last two months are telling: Cruz 41, Rubio 14.
53 days until Iowa and five possibilities
Indeed, it increasingly looks like there are five possibilities about how the Republican race shakes out:
- Possibility #1: Trump wins one or both of Iowa and New Hampshire, and runs through all of the establishment GOP efforts to stop him on his way to the Republican nomination.
- Possibility #2: Cruz wins Iowa, is set for South Carolina, and racks up wins through the March 1 states - and he emerges as the odds-on favorite to be the GOP nominee.
- Possibility #3: Despite whoever wins Iowa or New Hampshire, the establishment/acceptable Republican who comes closest in those two states -- Marco Rubio? -- is set up to coalesce the Republicans who are against Trump or Cruz in a winnowed race.
- Possibility #4: Rubio wins Iowa and is positioned to put away the GOP race early.
- Possibility #5: Cruz wins Iowa, Trump wins New Hampshire, and Rubio (or someone else) stays alive for a three-way grudge match until GOP convention in Cleveland.
Breaking down the new 2016 horserace polls
- National NYT/CBS poll (conducted Dec. 4-8): Trump 35%, Cruz 16%, Carson 13%, Rubio 9%
- Fox News poll of South Carolina (conducted Dec. 5-8): Trump 35%, Carson 15%, Cruz 14%, Rubio 14%
- Winthrop poll of South Carolina (conducted Nov. 30-Dec. 7): Trump 24%, Cruz 16%, Carson 14%, Rubio 11%, Bush 9%
- On the Democratic side, meanwhile, the national NYT/CBS poll has it: Clinton 52%, Sanders 32%, O'Malley 2%
- Fox News poll of South Carolina: Clinton 65%, Sanders 21%, O'Malley 3%
Trump says he's postponing trip to Israel
"A day after being criticized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his comments about Muslims, Donald Trump abruptly announced Thursday that he is "postponing" a planned trip to Israel and rescheduling a meeting with the country's leader until 'after I become President of the U.S.' Trump had previously promised to travel to Israel before the end of the year, and he was slated to meet with Netanyahu on December 28," one of us writes.
On the trail
Donald Trump attends a police event in Portsmouth, NH at 7:00 pm ET… Marco Rubio spends his day in Iowa… Ben Carson is in Illinois and Indiana… Ted Cruz gives a national security speech in DC… Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Lindsey Graham are all in New Hampshire.
Click here to sign up for First Read emails. Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone. Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics, @carrienbcnews