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Poll pegs Menendez's lead in single digits

Don't look now, but there could be a burgeoning race in New Jersey, where Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez is looking to defend his seat against Republican Bob Hugin.

A new Quinnipiac University poll shows Menendez up 43 points to 37 points among registered voters, a much closer margin than the New Jersey political titan is used to.

One obvious reason for the tighter-than-expected margin could be Menendez's ethics woes — in a year where Democrats are running by blasting President Trump and the GOP as the party of corruption, Menendez was on trial for bribery less than a year ago.

Menendez's case ended in a mistrial and the government eventually dropped the charges against him after not being able to secure a conviction.

But Hugin has spent almost $6 million to ad television ads, most of which were attacks that referred to Menendez's indictment. He's also booked another almost $2 million through Election Day, according to Advertising Analytics data.

Against that backdrop, 49 percent of voters in Quinnipiac's poll said that Menendez was involved in "serious wrongdoing," and ethics in government is the top issue among voters overall, Quinnipiac found.

And Menendez isn't in good shape with the voters more broadly — just 29 percent view him favorably while 47 percent view him unfavorably. Hugin, by comparison, is viewed favorably by 24 percent of voters and unfavorably by 20 percent, with a majority unfamiliar with him.

Even so, Menendez still leads in the poll and has overwhelming support from non-white voters. And Democrats have blasted Hugin as a supporter of President Trump and looking out for big corporations as they look to cut him down a notch.

So while Menendez is still in the driver's seat running in a blue state with a positive national environment for Democrats, Republicans will not make it easy for him and are closer than they've been to taking him down than they've ever been.

Quinnipiac polled 908 registered New Jersey voters between August 15 and 20 on landlines and cell phones. The poll's margin of error is 4.6 percentage points.

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Marianne Williamson walks back skeptical comments about vaccinations

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson Thursday walked back comments expressing skepticism about government-mandated vaccinations.

Appearing on "The View,” Williamson was challenged on remarks she made at an art gallery reception in Manchester, N.H. on Wednesday evening.  When asked by an attendee about her perspective on medical freedom and choice, Williamson responded with her views on government-mandated vaccinations. “To me," she said, "it’s no different than the abortion debate. The U.S. government doesn't tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.”

She added, “I have met very sincere, very smart people on both sides of the vaccine issue. I understand infectious diseases are no small deal, but I have to say I know as a mother, if you're telling me that I have to put a needle into the arm of my baby and I don't feel good about what's in that needle, I'm not sure about that.”

"I’ve seen too many mothers with just tears in their eyes," she added, "with real fear. And that’s too draconian to me, it’s just too Orwellian to me."

On Thursday, Williamson said that as president, she would have a commission of scientists, not paid by “big pharma,” to research vaccines and infectious diseases. "The days of blind faith in big pharma are over," she said.

Pressed by "The View" co-host Meghan McCain on calling mandatory vaccines “draconian” and “Orwellian,” Williamson responded, “I think I misspoke in that one sentence.”

She later added, “I understand that public safety must come first, but I also understand that we must have a balance between public safety and the issues of individual freedom. I do not trust the propaganda on either side,” telling co-host Whoopi Goldberg, “I support vaccines.”

The latest Monmouth University poll released on Thursday shows Williamson at one percent, along with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Republicans launch anti-Medicare for All ad campaign tied to Dem debate

WASHINGTON — As Democratic presidential candidates prepare to debate issues like health care next week in Miami, Republicans are preparing a major national ad campaign to try to turn public opinion against Medicare for All.

One Nation, a GOP group tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is launching a $4 million campaign on national broadcast and cable TV, as well as radio and digital platforms around the debate to highlight what it calls "horror-stories" from Canada's single-payer health care system.

A handful of prominent Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris, are backing a Medicare-for-All approach to health care. 

The ad focuses on long wait times patients have had to endure for procedures like heart surgery, with a narrator warning, "Medicare for All would eliminate private insurance for 180 million people — you and every American waiting in the same government-run plan."

“We’re going to make sure every American understands that Medicare for All means paying more for lower-quality care, longer wait times and restricted choice,” said One Nation President and CEO Steven Law. “If you’re a union worker, a family dependent on employer insurance, or a senior relying on traditional Medicare, so-called Medicare for All will turn your world upside down.”

While many presidential candidates have said they support "Medicare for All," the term can actually apply to a wide variety of plans to overhaul the health care system.

Most candidates actually support an idea to give Americans the option to buy into a government-run system like Medicare, while Sanders calls for a more sweeping reform that would replace private insurance with a Canadian-style single-payer system like the ones described in the One Name ad.

The concept is a fairly new one to most Americans, which gives partisans on both sides have an opportunity to try to define it. Polls show a majority of Americans favor the idea of universal health care, but are confused about specifics of "Medicare for All."

One recent survey by a Democratic group found Americans favor an optional buy-in scheme, but are more hostile towards a full-blown Canadian-style system that would eliminate private insurance, giving Republicans an incentive to try to conflate the two in voters' minds.

Monica Alba

Mike Pence to headline pre-Democratic debate Miami event touting Hispanic support

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence will headline a speech on Tuesday night in Miami to tout Hispanic support for the Trump-Pence 2020 ticket, just 24 hours before the first Democratic presidential debate there, according to two sources familiar with the plans. 

The campaign is still finalizing the list of Latino leaders and business executives that Pence is expected to reveal in order to show support from a key demographic in the battleground state of Florida and beyond heading into next year’s election.

Tuesday night’s speech will also mark the official rollout of the Trump campaign coalition and Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez will be announced as national co-chair of the campaign, these sources said.

While President Trump won’t be traveling for any specific campaign events or rallies next week, he will be gearing up for a trip to Osaka, Japan for the G20, and will likely be aboard Air Force One for the first night of debates. 

On Wednesday night, the president told Sean Hannity he might live-tweet the back-to-back events, though initially he said he had not planned to and called a Wall Street Journal report that he might “fake news.” Moments later, Trump changed his tune and said “Maybe I will now.” 

It would not be surprising for Trump to use his favorite social media platform to react to the Democratic candidates on stage in Miami but it’s unclear whether he will be able to watch the second night of debates in real time while he’s on the ground in Osaka. 

Next week, the day before the debates, Trump is expected to speak at a closed press fundraiser in Washington D.C. The following morning, June 26, he will speak at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Washington. He’s expected to leave for Japan at some point after that.

Shaquille Brewster

Sanders’ staff expands in early states as Warren rises

CHICAGO — Sen. Bernie Sanders', I-Vt., presidential campaign has been expanding its field operation in early primary states, making dozens of hires as polls show his Democratic rivals surging.

His Iowa team has grown in recent days to include to 43 field organizers — a significant increase from just a few weeks ago. In New Hampshire, the campaign says it has more than doubled its staff and is planning new field office openings across the first in the nation primary state. Advisers say similar moves are taking place in South Carolina and Nevada. 

While the increases reflect significant growth, Sanders' state staffing and field office levels still lag behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has been rising in the polls. On Wednesday, Warren announced seven Iowa and four New Hampshire office openings.

Sanders’ advisers say the larger staff footprint will be used to better organize and mobilize volunteers as part of the “next phase of its organizing strategy.” 

“We are seeing a lot of energy in our volunteers,” Sanders Iowa state director Misty Rebik told NBC News. “They’re coming out, they’re showing up, not only at big events when the senator is here, they’re coming up when the senator is not here.”

While campaign manager Faiz Shakir told NBC News these changes simply reflect a planned “strategy to build up through the summer and the fall,” the growth comes as polls show the race shifting.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained a clear first-place position since entering the race, however multiple recent state and national polls have shown Warren challenging Sanders for second place.

When asked whether Warren's growth is threatening his position in the race, Sanders focuses on results that show him ahead when taking on President Trump. “Some of the polls have me doing a lot better than Elizabeth Warren, depending on the poll,” Sanders said to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

“If the American people are looking at the candidate who can defeat Trump, I’ll hope they’ll give serious consideration to our candidacy,” he said.

But Sanders has used his campaign to increasingly draw sharp contrasts with Biden, and most recently Warren. On Wednesday, Politico reported that "centrists" of the Democratic Party are warming to Warren. 

Sanders retweeted a link to the story, saying, “the cat is out of the bag. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is publicly ‘anybody but Bernie.’”

2020 spotlight will shift to South Carolina this weekend

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina will take center stage in the 2020 race this weekend, as 22 presidential hopefuls shift their focus away from Iowa and New Hampshire to this critical early primary state.

Nearly the entire field of Democratic candidates — aside from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska — are set to appear at House Majority Whip James Clyburn’s, D-S.C., annual fish fry, in what is likely to be the largest gathering of contenders before the first debate.

“This is going to be the biggest fish fry we’ve ever had,” Rep. Clyburn told NBC News, with a laugh. “I don’t know if they’re going to be able to produce enough fish for us.”

The fish fry, an event Rep. Clyburn started nearly three decades ago to say thank you to campaign workers, has become an important stop for Democrats seeking the nomination — offering the opportunity to woo voters, particularly those in the African American community.

While he could be a kingmaker in the state, Clyburn says he isn’t likely to endorse a candidate ahead of the primary, telling NBC News, “It would be a bit selfish for me to go out and please my political inclinations and threaten the foundation on which we are trying to build a new, vibrant South Carolina Democratic Party.”

Rep. Clyburn said he hopes candidates present specifics on how they intend to make the “greatnesses of our society accessible and affordable.”

“That's where we’re coming up short,” he said. “Why don't we connect with these people? … You can’t just can’t say, ‘I'm for you, but I can't come and hang out with you, I can’t come and be a part of the dreams and aspirations that you adhere to.’ That’s a big mistake we make.”

In addition to the fish fry, many of the candidates will also make appearances at the state party’s Blue Palmetto dinner, the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention and a Planned Parenthood Action Fund forum.

Some contenders — including Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass.— have also scheduled meet and greets and other weekend events in the state.

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Swing district Democrat Katie Porter announces support for impeachment proceedings

WASHINGTON — Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat from a swing district, announced her support for an impeachment inquiry Monday, providing more fuel for a growing number of Democrats who support at least beginning such proceedings and further pressuring reluctant House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Porter, a first-term Democrat representing Orange County, California, said in a social media post that she came to the decision after “weeks of study, deliberation, and conversations” with voters.

“I didn’t come to Congress to impeach the President,” Porter said. “But when faced with a crisis of this magnitude, I cannot with a clean conscience ignore my duty to defend the Constitution. I can’t claim to be committed to rooting out corruption and putting people over politics and then not apply those same principles and standards in all of the work I do.”

While more than 65 Democrats have officially backed impeachment proceedings, the vast majority are from safe, solidly Democratic districts. Porter joins Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey as the only two lawmakers who barely won their election against Republican incumbents in the last election to endorse an impeachment inquiry. Porter won her race with 52 percent of the vote and Malinowski with 51.7 percent. Both are on Republicans' target list of seats to win in 2020.

During a town hall discussion with voters in Tustin, Calif., last month, she said that there had been “a turning point” on the issue of impeachment after special counsel Robert Mueller’s public statement and after the repeated defiance of Congressional subpoenas by the administration.

“The question is not whether a crisis is in our midst, but rather whether we choose to fight against it,” Porter said Monday. “I’ve reached a point of clarity in my decision. Congress must continue the work of Special Counsel Mueller.”

Pelosi has resisted calls to open an impeachment inquiry, saying just last week that the idea is “not even close” to having the support in the Congress to move forward. She maintains the position that it’s best to “investigate, legislate and litigate.” She points to the judiciary successfully ruling in Congress' favor in court challenges.

But if more members in districts like Porter’s come out in support for impeachment, it could be more difficult for Pelosi to resist.

An NBC News/WSJ poll released on Sunday found that a growing number of people are supportive of impeachment proceedings, an increase of 10 points — to 27 percent — in the past month. The number of Democrats who support impeachment hearings has risen from 30 percent to 48 percent.

Democrat Cunningham joins list of Tillis challengers for 2020 Senate race

WASHINGTON — North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis got another Democratic challenger for his 2020 re-election bid Monday when former North Carolina State Senator Cal Cunningham announced his decision to drop his campaign for run for lieutenant governor and seek the Senate seat instead.  

Cunningham, an Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran, took direct aim at Tillis in his announcement video, saying the first-term incumbent is “part of the problem” and is standing in the way of progress for North Carolinians. He also said he’ll “go places that Democrats don’t always go” during his campaign. Cunningham ran for Senate once before in 2010, but finished second in the Democratic primary.

Cunningham’s announcement news follows leaked internal polling from President Trump’s 2020 campaign that showed him losing North Carolina to former Vice President Joe Biden by eight points — signaling North Carolina could become a state to watch up and down the ballot in 2020.  Tillis won the Senate seat in 2014 when he defeated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagen by just 1.7 points. And both Trump and Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper won the state in 2016.

Tillis is facing entrepreneur Sandy Smith and businessman Garland Tucker III in the GOP primary. Cunningham joins Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller and state senator Erica Smith in the Democratic race.

Buttigieg on concerns about sexuality and electability: Americans 'will not discriminate'

WASHINGTON — South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg downplayed the possibility that voters might be concerned about his sexuality, arguing Sunday that being gay will not hurt his standing with socially conservative voters. 

Some faith leaders have raised concerns about whether Buttigieg's sexuality could hurt his ability to gain traction, particularly among the more socially conservative black voters that make up a significant portion of the Democratic primary vote in the South. 

But during a Sunday interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Buttigieg noted that he won re-election by an overwhelming margin after he came out as gay in 2015 and said his experience combating "exclusion" helps him sympathize with a large swath of voters. 

"We have an opportunity to reach into our own distinctive identities and use them to build bridges. To reach out to people different from us, knowing that anybody who has been on short end of an equation of exclusion has a way to sympathize with people who've had different experiences with exclusion in this country," he said. 

"People, if you give them the chance, will evaluate you based on what you aim to do. What the results are, what the policies are. And I have every confidence that American voters, especially Democratic voters, will not discriminate when the opportunity comes up to choose the right leader for the future."

Watch the full interview from Buttigieg, who is running to be the first gay president in American history, in the video below. 

Harris gets South Carolina grassroots support

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former Richland County councilwoman Bernice Scott and her “Reckoning Crew” of community activists announced Thursday they are backing Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., in the state’s presidential primary.

In 2016, the grassroots group of volunteers — largely comprised of African American women — worked to help propel Hillary Clinton to victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., in the state by going door-to-door, speaking to voters in the most rural parts of South Carolina.

Harris trails both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders in recent polling, and the endorsement could help the senator build momentum and secure the votes of African Americans, the largest group of Democratic primary voters in many southern states.

Scott is the grandmother of Jalisa Washington-Price, the Harris campaign’s South Carolina state director, but Scott said she and her “Reckoning Crew” made the decision after a careful process of elimination.

“Jalisa will tell you, ‘Meemaw’s got her own mind,’” Scott told NBC News. “My group is here to serve. And I saw that in her. I saw her ability to make you feel like you’ve known her all her life. And that’s a comfortable feeling.”

Harris has visited South Carolina seven times since launching her campaign—and has held more events in the state than any other 2020 candidate.

This weekend, four of her fellow contenders — Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke — will all make stops in Charleston to highlight their own economic policies specific to the African American community.

Activist Lawrence Lessig was once a presidential candidate, now he's interviewing them

WASHINGTON — Lawrence Lessig has a twinge of regret about not joining the massive field of candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, so he’s doing the next best thing — starting a podcast to interview and cajole them to support his agenda of political reforms.

The prominent Harvard Law School professor and political activist briefly ran for president in 2016, an experience that he describes as both “the worst of times” and “the coolest thing I've ever done.”

He didn't make the Democratic debate stage last time, but thinks he would this year under new Democratic National Committee rules that prioritize small donors. "I kind of regret that in February when they announced the rules, I wasn't in a position to spin it up and try to run," he said during an interview over iced tea in Washington this week.

So instead, he’s using his new podcast to go deep with candidates on campaign finance reform, voting rights, gerrymandering and more, and to push what he calls "POTUS 1” — a play on the name of a similar bill House Democrats’ passed this year called HR1.

Lessig argues a future Democratic president should prioritize political reform before health care, climate change, immigration, or anything else, “because it makes everything else easier.”

The first episode of his podcast, sponsored by his group Equal Citizens, launches this week with an interview with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., whom Lessig praised as “better than I was” for her “democracy dollars” idea to give every American $600 to donate to candidates they support.

He’s not too impressed yet with the details put forward by the rest of the field, including his former Harvard Law colleague Elizabeth Warren, nor does he have much sympathy for the longshot candidates in the race, even though he once was one.

"I look at some of these candidates and I’m wondering why they’re running,” he said, saying he ran to advance a clear set of policy ideas, while some candidates today seem in it for themselves. “It’s like a vanity show.”