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The GOP Civil War: A Party Divided Cannot Stand

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.

Hillary Clinton's lead over Donald Trump up to double digits 0:40

A divided party cannot stand

To demonstrate the Republican Party’s dicey situation up and down the ballot with just four weeks until Election Day, just look at the NBC/WSJ poll we released on Monday. According to the poll, two-thirds of GOP voters -- 67% -- say that Republican congressional candidates should continue to support Donald Trump after his lewd 2005 comments about women. Another 9% of Republican voters say these GOP candidates should no longer support Trump, and an additional 14% believe they should call on him to drop out of the presidential race. While that overall 67%-23% margin seems like good news for Trump, you can’t win a national election when nearly a quarter of your party thinks its candidates should dump Trump. Maybe more importantly, if you’re a Republican candidate who DOES want to discard Trump, you have two-thirds of your party’s voters disagreeing with you. It’s an unsustainable position for the Republican Party – and it explains why Republican members of Congress up for re-election are so conflicted about how to thread this needle.

(Civil) war, what is it good for?

Reporting from Wilkes-Barre, Penn., NBC’s Benjy Sarlin captures how Trump supporters are preparing to retaliate against GOP dissenters. “The recent defections from Trump amount to an unprecedented rejection of a nominee by their own party, but it was only the first volley in the GOP's civil war. Trump and his supporters are now returning fire themselves by lashing out at defectors, promising political retribution, and finding new targets for his base's rage as election day nears.” This morning, Trump is clearly embracing that narrative and even naming House Speaker Paul Ryan specifically as the man to blame, tweeting: “Desite winning the second debate in a landslide (every poll), it is hard to do well when Paul Ryan and others give zero support!”

Donald Trump, Zombie Candidate?

Yes, there are four weeks to go, and we’ll have to see what polls show after Debate Number Two (see below for more on that.) But at this point, Trump is on the verge of becoming a zombie candidate: Unable to win but too strong to eliminate. NBC’s Ali Vitali reports that Trump’s rally last night was another set of greatest hits for his base – complete with an egging on of a “lock her up!” chant – as well as a pointed criticism of Republicans running away from him. "Isn't it really sad that we don't have stronger leadership, on both sides?" Trump said. By fueling his devoted audience, he’s building just the amount of strength he needs to take out the Republicans in his path.

Trump's path to victory with 4 weeks to go: He needs to win 'everything' 5:44

More NBC/WSJ poll data from after the debate to be released later today

It’s important to note that the poll numbers we released yesterday were from interviews conducted after the release of Trump’s 2005 audio but before the Sunday night debate. (Another poll, from PRRI and The Atlantic, similarly showed Clinton with a double-digit lead before the debate, by the way.) Trump supporters argue that the GOP nominee’s improved performance in his matchup against Hillary Clinton on Sunday shored up his support with doubting Republicans, galvanizing his base and reinforcing party unity against the Democratic nominee. So never fear: We’ll have new numbers later today that include interviews conducted AFTER the debate, giving us a clearer picture of how Sunday night may have changed the trajectory of the race after a very bad Friday/Saturday for Trump.

McCain explains his reversal: “I do not see a scenario where the finger would be on the button”

If you’re looking for an explanation of the Republican Party’s tortured relationship with its own nominee, Sen. John McCain tried to lay out his decision-making process last night in a debate against challenger Ann Kirkpatrick. “It’s not pleasant for me to renounce the nominee of my party. He won the nomination fair and square,” McCain said after acknowledging that he can no longer support Trump because of his comments about women, NBC’s Alex Jaffe reports. “When Mr. Trump attacks women and demeans the women in our nation and our society, that is a point where I just have to part company.” And then, challenged on whether he had supported Trump being in a position to control the nation’s nuclear weapons, McCain appeared to acknowledge that he expects Trump to lose, saying “I do not see a scenario where the finger would be on the button.” McCain, who’s fighting to retain his seat, says he’s writing in Lindsey Graham’s name for president.

Erick Erickson: “Doing what’s right is always more important than doing what’s liked”

To further highlight the GOP’s divide over Trump, don’t miss conservative writer and radio host Erick Erickson’s reflective essay. “I have gotten lots of praise this year for being so strongly against Trump, but the truth is that I should have done it sooner. But I was worried. My wife’s health is an issue. I knew I was leaving RedState and headed to a new site. I didn’t want to give up being behind the golden EIB microphone. I worked for a company that had a business relationship with Trump. It was far easier to say I could support Trump as the nominee when I thought he never really would be,” Erickson says. “I hope my children know that winning isn’t everything. Not losing yourself to the world is vastly more important. Pressure will be brought to bear and it can be unpleasant. But integrity has to matter. Doing what’s right is always more important than doing what’s liked.” (Erickson also took direct aim at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Ralph Reed, a Trump loyalist, in another piece: “Christians, if you go down Ralph Reed’s path, do not expect a more moral person in the next election. Ralph Reed would tell you Satan is just a retired angel if someone wrote him a big enough check.”)

Christianity Today: Trump “violates all that is sacred to us”

And then there’s Christianity Today’s own essay on Trump and the 2016 race: “Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.” To be sure, the essay isn’t kind to Hillary Clinton. “The Democratic nominee has pursued unaccountable power through secrecy—most evidently in the form of an email server designed to shield her communications while in public service, but also in lavishly compensated speeches.” But it is pretty jaw-dropping that the publication calls Trump someone who “violates all that is sacred to us.” (By the way, our poll last month showed Trump’s approval rating with white evangelicals at 60 percent positive, 28 percent negative.)

On the trail

Hillary Clinton, in Florida, campaigns with Al Gore at the University of Miami at 3:00 pm ET… Donald Trump holds a rally in Panama City, FL at 7:30 pm ET… Mike Pence stumps in Iowa… President Obama hits Greensboro, NC at 6:00 pm ET… And Bill Clinton spends his day in Florida.

Countdown to third presidential debate: 8 days

Countdown to Election Day: 28 days