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First Read: What to Expect From Tonight’s GOP Debate

Republican debate: Donald Trump calls for a ‘civil’ event 2:30

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.

Republicans -- and Trump -- take center stage, and here’s what to expect

CLEVELAND -- One of us is here just outside of the first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential cycle, and the atmosphere is … electric. All of the media, TV trucks, conversation -- it feels more like a political convention or general-election debate than your first primary-season debate. And rest assured, it will probably get the largest TV audience for a primary-season debate, at least for one held on cable TV. Here is what to expect from each of the 10 GOP candidates participating:

  • Donald Trump: With all eyes on him, he’s smartly downplayed expectations and has emphasized that he intends to play nice. But he also has to deliver the same toughness and channel the same anger fueling his rise in the GOP polls.
  • Jeb Bush: As we wrote yesterday, maybe no one has more on the line than Bush does. He’s had a rough last week -- especially as Hillary Clinton has used him as a punching bag. And here’s the thing: He’s the most well-known unknown person (due to his last name) on that debate stage.
  • Scott Walker: He has the buzz and the record, but does he look the part? That will be his biggest challenge of the night.
  • Marco Rubio: Ditto. And he can’t afford to disappear at the debate -- as he has disappeared from the 2016 scene these past few weeks.
  • Mike Huckabee: If you want to place an early bet on the best performer of the night, Huckabee would be a smart call. He is the only one of the 10 who has actually participated in a presidential debate before. And he was routinely the best performer in the 2007-2008 debates.
  • Ted Cruz: Can he handle the 60-second time limits and come across a bite more likeable than his perception, especially in DC?
  • Ben Carson: His low-key demeanor could be a weakness. Can he display some fire and passion that don’t come across in his interviews?
  • Chris Christie: He’s used to being the center of attention, but can he handle being on the outside looking in? How does he assert himself?
  • John Kasich: Ditto.
  • Rand Paul: Make no mistake: The Jesse Benton indictment has rocked the Ron/Rand Paul World, and the campaign needs a major pick-me-up from this debate.

First impressions are everything

Remember, while we’ve been following these GOP candidates for months, this debate is going to be the first impression that many Americans -- and Republican voters -- get of them. As a result, there’s a fine line between trying to be the Alpha Dog and looking desperate. This is maybe one of the reasons why first debates TYPICALLY have so few actual fireworks. The fireworks usually come at the later debates. One last point here: So far, the normal rules haven’t applied to Donald Trump. Just look at the two Republicans who tried to pick a fight with him: Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham. They didn’t make the main debate. Let’s rock-n-roll in Cleveland. The main debate starts on Fox News at 9:00 pm ET, and the earlier debate (for the candidates who didn’t make the main event) starts at 5:00 pm ET.

On the issues and the tactics

Outside of the personalities and strategies, tonight’s debate will be about the issues, too. Immigration is the issue that divides the GOP field the most. And with Rand Paul on stage, foreign policy will have a disagreement or two, as well. But the main disagreement from the candidates is likely to be over tactics. Do they support shutting down the government in the effort to defund Planned Parenthood? Do they promise to rip up the Iran deal on their first day in office -- no matter the consequences from the rest of the international community?

The Republican Party warms up to Trump

Maybe the most fascinating polling results from our recent NBC/WSJ survey is tracking the Republicans who say they COULDN’T SUPPORT Trump – and seeing that percentage decrease.

  • March 2015 NBC/WSJ poll: 74% of GOP primary voters said they couldn’t see themselves backing Trump
  • June 2015 NBC/WSJ: 66% of GOP primary voters said that
  • July 2015 NBC/WSJ: 49% of GOP primary voters said that.

Tonight’s debate will help determine if that trend continues. Or does it stop? By the way, don’t miss the piece by Bloomberg’s Josh Green on how tonight’s debate will signal Trump’s transformation from celebrity to Republican.

Where America and the parties stand on what to do with the undocumented immigrants in the country

One of the main issues that will be discussed tonight, as wrote said above, is immigration. And here is where the country at large stands on the issue, per this week’s NBC/WSJ poll: 47% of Americans support allowing undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, and that includes 58% of Democrats, 58% of Latinos, 45% of independents, but just 36% of Republicans. Another 19% of all Americans support allowing undocumented immigrants have legal status, and that includes 19% of Dems, 22% of Latinos, 17% independents, and 17% of Republicans. And 32% say these undocumented immigrants should instead be deported, and that includes 20% of Democrats, 15% of Latinos, 32% of independents, and 43% of Republicans.

Obama tries to turn Iran deal into D-vs-R issue, but is he missing an opportunity to win over more of the public?

Finally, our takeaway from President Obama’s big speech yesterday on the Iran deal is that he tried to turn the debate into a Democrat-vs-Republican issue. He was responding to Tom Cotton, not Chuck Schumer. And given that his objective is keeping enough Democrats on his side on a veto-override vote, that’s probably the smartest strategy. But what was missing from his speech was an acknowledgement of how TOUGH a call this Iran deal is for many. It seems he’s missing an opportunity to get many Americans to the same point where former Defense Secretary Bob Gates is -- highly skeptical of the deal, but knowing that the United States can’t walk away from it.

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