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.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- After covering the craziest and most dispiriting presidential race of our lifetimes, last night's gubernatorial debate here in one of the other key contests of 2016 was a reminder that politics can be much more civil. The debate between incumbent North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) and challenger Roy Cooper (D), which was moderated by one of us, produced clashes over the state's anti-LGBT law HB2, the state's economy, health care, policing, voting rights, and even Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And guess what: There were no below-the-belt insults, no conspiracies, and no pants-on-fire falsehoods. Indeed, at the end of the debate, both McCrory (the state's governor) and Cooper (the attorney general) pledged to work together in helping North Carolinians affected by Hurricane Matthew's aftermath. It was all a jolting reminder of what American politics can be -- and usually is.
Donald Trump unshackled
Meanwhile, back in the presidential race, here was Donald Trump's Tuesday. He tweeted that "the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to." He criticized House Speaker Paul Ryan for essentially declaring the presidential race over. ("Paul Ryan opened borders and amnesty and bad budgets by the way, very, very bad budgets," he told Fox's Bill O'Reilly.). He blasted John McCain for withdrawing his support after the 2005 Access Hollywood video. ("John McCain who has probably the dirtiest mouth in all of the Senate has never heard," he added to O'Reilly.) His campaign released a new TV ad seizing on Hillary Clinton's near-collapse when she was sick with pneumonia. He accused Clinton of invading his space in the last debate, per NBC's Ali Vitali (when it was Trump who was the invading Clinton's space). And to top it all off, Trump told voters at his rally in Florida last night to vote on Nov. 28. (Ummm, Election Day is Nov. 8.)
Clinton camp: Downballot Republican candidates are going to "have to answer" for an unshackled Trump
In a gaggle with reporters yesterday, Clinton campaign chair John Podesta talked about the unshackled Donald Trump. "I guess he fires up the people who got to Alex Jones and Breitbart. But I think it is very unbecoming and I think that the real question, I think, ends up being for down ballot Republicans, people running for the Senate, people running for the House. Are they going to stay in line with this unshackled Donald Trump? A lot of them are deserting him. But I would remind a lot of the people who are deserting him, they propped him up for a very long time. So they have to answer for that." Podesta added, "But they also have to answer about whether they are going to stand with him when he foments and runs a campaign of division, of bigotry and now a race in the sewer. Are they with him? Or are they against him? That is a question they will have to decide. We will be traveling around the country, but other people running or House seats and for people running for Senate seats, they are going to have to say do they subscribe to the Alex Jones, Brietbart, Dave Bossie theory of American politics or do they want something better for our kids and our future."
USA Today analysis: 26% of GOP governors and members of Congress are refusing to back Trump
"Twenty-six percent of Republican governors and members of Congress are refusing to endorse GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump," USA Today says. "Of the 31 Republican governors, 54 GOP senators and the 246 Republican members of the House (331 total), the survey identified 87 who are not endorsing Trump's candidacy as of late Tuesday."
Buzzfeed: Miss Teen USA contestants say Trump walked in while they were changing
"Four women who competed in the 1997 Miss Teen USA beauty pageant said Donald Trump walked into the dressing room while contestants — some as young as 15 — were changing. 'I remember putting on my dress really quick because I was like, "Oh my god, there's a man in here,"' said Mariah Billado, the former Miss Vermont Teen USA," Buzzfeed writes. More: "Trump, she recalled, said something like, 'Don't worry, ladies, I've seen it all before.' Three other women, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of getting engulfed in a media firestorm, also remembered Trump entering the dressing room while girls were changing. Two of them said the girls rushed to cover their bodies, with one calling it 'shocking' and 'creepy.' The third said she was clothed and introduced herself to Trump."
Early voting begins in battleground Ohio
Today, Arizona, Indiana, and Ohio join the states engaged in early in-person/no-excuse absentee voting. Here's the early-voting calendar:
Sept. 23: Idaho (thru 11/4), Minnesota (thru 11/7), South Dakota (thru 11/7), Vermont (thru 11/7), and Wyoming (thru 11/7)
Sept. 24: New Jersey (thru 11/7)
Sept. 29: Illinois (thru 11/7), Iowa (thru 11/8)
Oct. 9: Maine (thru 11/3)
Oct. 10: California (thru 11/8), Nebraska (thru 11/7)
Oct. 11: Montana (thru 11/7), New Mexico (thru 11/5)
Oct. 12: Arizona (thru 11/4), Indiana (thru 11/7), Ohio (thru 11/7)
Oct. 17: Georgia (thru 11/4)
Oct. 19: Kansas (thru 11/7), Tennessee (thru 11/3)
Oct. 20: North Carolina (thru 11/5)
Oct. 22: Nevada (thru 11/4), DC (thru 11/5)
Oct. 24: Alaska (thru 11/8), Arkansas (thru 11/7), Colorado (thru 11/8 mail), Massachusetts (thru 11/4), Texas (thru 11/4), Wisconsin (thru 11/4)
Oct. 25: Hawaii (thru 11/5), Louisiana (thru 11/1)
Oct. 26: Utah (thru 11/4), West Virginia (thru 11/5)
Oct. 27: Maryland (thru 11/3)
Oct. 29: Florida (thru 11/7)
Nov. 3: Oklahoma (thru 11/5)
On the trail
Hillary Clinton campaigns in Pueblo, CO at 3:45 pm ET and then in Las Vegas at 10:30 pm ET… Donald Trump stumps in Ocala, FL at noon ET and then in Lakeland, FL at 3:00 pm ET… Mike Pence hits Virginia and North Carolina… And Bill Clinton is in Iowa.
Countdown to third presidential debate: 7 days
Countdown to Election Day: 27 days