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First Read: Three Nights of Unforced Errors

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.

Three nights of unforced errors

CLEVELAND – To recap what has been the most unpredictable, newsworthy, and mistake-filled political convention that we can remember:

  • Donald Trump’s campaign picked a fight with Ohio Gov. John Kasich for not attending the convention (Monday);
  • A delegate rebellion broke out on the convention floor (Monday);
  • Melania Trump’s speech lifted passages from Michelle Obama’s 2008 address (Monday);
  • The campaign and RNC denied there was plagiarism (Tuesday);
  • The campaign acknowledged there was plagiarism (Wednesday);
  • Ted Cruz refused to endorse Trump, and got booed from the stage (Wednesday).

And we still have one day -- today -- left. But what’s amazing about this list of mistakes is that all of them were preventable. Trump officials could have simply paid Kasich compliments (remember the importance of battleground Ohio!) instead of saying he was embarrassing his state; Team Trump didn’t need to steamroll over the #NeverTrump delegates, because they were no longer a threat to the nomination; the campaign could have tripled-check Melania’s speech; the campaign didn’t have to spend an entire day pretending there was no plagiarism; and it certainly didn’t have to let Cruz speak without an endorsement or a promise that he’d play nice. Every mistake, every error could have been easily prevented.

Another moment of division? Or a potentially unifying event?

After last night’s non-endorsement by Cruz -- Et Tu, Ted, the Ted Wedding, the Cruz Missile, the Boos Cruz, Cruz in the Punchbowl -- there’s a counter-intuitive take that the episode could end up uniting the party, especially ahead of tonight’s big speech by Trump. “Cruz accomplished what the Trump campaign has been unable to do,” Republican analyst Nicolle Wallace said on “Today” this morning. That could very well be true here in Cleveland. This convention has been lacking electricity, and we know that Trump feeds off it. But outside of Cleveland, consider everything else Cruz’s speech did. It overshadowed VP nominee Mike Pence’s fine speech. (How many different ways has he been stepped on?) It forced the other major primetime speaker (Newt Gingrich) to perform damage control and suggest that Cruz had actually kind of endorsed Trump. And it produced headlines like this:

So last night could very well fire up GOP delegates tonight, and create a good moment for Donald Trump’s speech. But the rest of America right now is seeing a fractured Republican Party.

Cruz’s big 2020 bet

A final point about Cruz: It’s hard to predict how his speech will play, especially when it comes to the NEXT presidential race, but he made a very big bet. If Trump loses big in November and if the GOP is scrambling to pick up the pieces in the aftermath, you could make a good case that Cruz is well positioned to grab the conservative mantle. He was the one who stood up to Trump, while Scott Walker, Marco Rubio (who addressed the convention by video), and Paul Ryan played nice. On the other hand, even if Trump loses, you could see rivals blaming Cruz for putting himself above party. Remember, Cruz isn’t exactly the most beloved member of the GOP. But we’ll say this about Cruz: He went all-in with his political future, and he’s gambling for a big Trump loss, because if Trump loses by just 2-3 points to Clinton in November, some Republicans might blame him for coming up short.

PHOTOS: Boos for Cruz and More Scenes from Convention Day 3

Trump needs to hit a home run to salvage this convention

Now we finally get to the main event -- Trump’s speech tonight accepting the GOP presidential nomination. Talk about the need for Trump to hit the ball out of the park on Day Four, because the other three days have been squandered. In the general election, a nominee gets three big moments to sell himself/herself to the public: 1) the VP rollout, 2) the convention speech, and 3) the debates. Well, that VP rollout didn’t go so smoothly, which only adds pressure to tonight’s convention speech. Here are the other major speakers for the final night, which has been billed “Make America One Again” -- Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, RNC Chair Reince Priebus, Silicon Valley businessman Peter Thiel, and Ivanka Trump.

Trump suggests that U.S. might not intervene if Russia attacks NATO allies

If it weren’t for Cruz, this might have been the biggest story of the night. And you could make a case that it could have bigger political reverberations than Cruz’s move. The New York Times: “Donald J. Trump, on the eve of accepting the Republican nomination for president, said Wednesday that if he were elected, he would not pressure Turkey or other authoritarian allies about conducting purges of their political adversaries or cracking down on civil liberties. The United States, he said, has to ‘fix our own mess’ before trying to alter the behavior of other nations. ‘I don’t think we have a right to lecture,’ Mr. Trump said in a wide-ranging interview in his suite in a downtown hotel here while keeping an eye on television broadcasts from the Republican National Convention. ‘Look at what is happening in our country,’ he said. ‘How are we going to lecture when people are shooting policemen in cold blood?’” And then there was this: “[A]sked about Russia’s threatening activities that have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations ‘have fulfilled their obligations to us.’”

Veepstakes Watch

NBC’s Monica Alba has a great roundup of the latest in the Dem veepstakes… Bill Clinton is said to be a fan of Tim Kaine… Vilsack is in Missouri today to talk about the opioid epidemic… Kaine said he doesn’t have a flight booked to Florida but joked that he’s checking out the Greyhound schedules.. Tom Perez got a standing ovation at the NAACP conference… And the Washington Post notes that Hispanics are bracing for disappointment again as Clinton’s top VP pick remain white men.

Countdown to Dem convention: 4 days