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First Read: 2016 Hopefuls Court Religious Conservatives

Image: GOP Candidate For President Donald Trump Campaigns In Columbia, South Carolina

COLUMBIA, SC - SEPTEMBER 23: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to voters at a campaign event September 23, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Earlier today, Trump tweeted "FoxNews has been treating me very unfairly & I have therefore decided that I won't be doing any more Fox shows for the foreseeable future." (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images) Sean Rayford / Getty Images

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.

Why today’s Values Voter gathering will be fascinating to watch

Today’s Values Voter summit in DC, sponsored by the socially conservative Family Research Council, couldn’t be coming at a more fascinating time politically -- sandwiched between Pope Francis’ address to Congress yesterday and the congressional action against Planned Parenthood that could lead to a government shutdown. Given Francis’ admonition against polarization, just how heated will the rhetoric against Planned Parenthood be at the Values Voters gathering, especially from the GOP presidential candidates? And given that no one yesterday was on Cloud Nine more than House Speaker John Boehner (see all of the tears he had to wipe away), does the brewing conservative GOP insurrection against him subside for a few days? Or have things already snapped back? Those are the questions we have this morning before the Values Voter speeches get started this morning. And here’s the lineup: Marco Rubio speaks at 9:25 am ET, Ted Cruz at 10:15 am, Rick Santorum at 11:00 am, Donald Trump at 11:40 am, Mike Huckabee at 2:40 pm, Ben Carson 3:00 pm, as well as Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry (who is no longer in the GOP race).

Rubio to propose tax credit for paid family leave

By the way, Rubio plans to start things off at the Values Voter summit by proposing a tax credit for family paid leave -- an issue that Democrats (but not Republicans) have devoted so much attention to. “Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio wants to give a tax break to employers who give their workers paid family leave,” the AP writes. “The Florida senator says he will introduce his plan Friday morning when he speaks before the Values Voter Summit in Washington… Under his proposal, Rubio would give businesses a 25 percent tax credit for providing at least four weeks of paid family leave. It would be limited to 12 weeks of leave and $4,000 per employee.”

Understanding Pope Francis’ politics

If you want to understand Pope Francis’ politics, look no further than the two American Catholics he singled out in his speech yesterday -- Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, who are hardly conservatives. Also note the issues where he was specific (abolishing the death penalty, calling for action against global warming, demanding tolerance for immigrants) and where he was vague (on life and family). No doubt, Pope Francis had something for everyone in that speech. But to us, it was revealing what he underscored and what he didn’t.

Boehner to delay effort to defund Planned Parenthood -- by moving it to the reconciliation process?

As for the congressional action on keeping the government open -- and what to do about Planned Parenthood -- here’s a dispatch from NBC’s Alex Moe: “House Republicans will gather behind closed doors this morning to hear how leadership wants to move forward on Planned Parenthood and funding the government. A leadership aide says the current plan involves moving ahead on a clean continuing resolution (CR) to prevent shutting down the government but also ‘immediately activating the reconciliation process to defund Planned Parenthood with the goal of putting a bill to defund Planned Parenthood on the president’s desk and making him defend these grisly practices.’ The question is: Will this be enough for conservative members, especially with some members wanting Speaker John Boehner to vacate the chair? Boehner called a meeting Thursday afternoon with a handful of members of the House Freedom Caucus to discuss funding the government. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) told reporters after the private meeting that at least 50 Republicans would vote AGAINST a clean continuing resolution but wouldn't say if conservatives would try to oust Boehner from the speakership if he put did put a clean CR on the floor.”

Senate set to vote on clean CR on Monday and Tuesday

Meanwhile, here’s the Senate action, per NBC’s Frank Thorp: “The Senate will hold a procedural vote at 5:30 pm on Monday on a short-term government funding bill that does NOT defund Planned Parenthood, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said yesterday afternoon. The Monday vote would likely set up a final vote on the bill on Tuesday, unless there is an agreement to move the vote earlier… The move by Senate Republicans was not unexpected, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has called the strategy of using a government funding bill to defund Planned Parenthood an ‘exercise in futility’ -- because they not only don't have the votes to advance that measure in the Senate, but President Obama has vowed to veto any bill which did so. Earlier on Thursday, a bill that funded the government through Dec. 11th but that stripped federal funding of Planned Parenthood for a year failed to cross the 60-vote threshold needed to advance, failing 47-52.

Hillary is losing to Sanders by 16 points (!!!) in New Hampshire, per CNN/WMUR poll

Yes, it’s one poll. Yes, the ones showing Hillary Clinton leading (sometimes comfortably) don’t get as much attention. And yes, Bernie Sanders has an built-in advantage in New Hampshire because he hails from next-door Vermont. But yesterday’s CNN-WMUR poll that has Hillary down to Sanders in New Hampshire by 16 points (!!!) is both noteworthy and downright shocking. Hillary right now is losing to someone who isn’t even a registered Democrat in a state she won in 2008!!! It’s easy to downplay some of Clinton’s current problems right now -- she has a majority of Democrats endorsing her, she’s received the toughest press and most scrutiny of any presidential candidate out there, and she still has the easiest path to winning the nomination of any candidate (GOP or Dem). But it would also be a BIG mistake to understate her current difficulties right now. The CNN-WMUR numbers on the GOP side: Trump 26%, Fiorina 16%, Rubio 9%.

Des Moines Register editorial on Hillary’s strengths and weaknesses

Speaking of Clinton’s difficulties and challenges, the Des Moines Register’s editorial page sums them up well: “Hillary Clinton may be the most knowledgeable and capable candidate now running for president of the United States. The former senator and secretary of state met with The Des Moines Register’s editorial board for almost two hours this week and fielded questions on a wide range of subjects that demonstrated the depth and the breadth of her knowledge on foreign affairs, health care, the tax code, the economy and other matters.” More: But she also was defensive and, in some respects, evasive, when discussing her use of a private email server to conduct State Department business… [L]ike most politicians, Clinton’s greatest weakness seems to be her inability to recognize, or at least acknowledge, her own weaknesses. It’s an affliction that plagues almost everyone who dares to run for president, but it’s one that could, if she’s elected, greatly undermine Clinton’s performance in office — just as it has her campaign.”

Biden Watch

Guess who’s coming to dinner: By the way, guess who will be delivering the keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign on Oct. 3 – Vice President Joe Biden. Hillary Clinton will be speaking to the group earlier that morning.

Jeb: I’ll offer black voters hope, not “free stuff”

From one of us: “Jeb Bush suggested on Thursday that he wants to promise African-American voters ‘hope and aspiration’ rather than ‘free stuff.’ Asked by a white man at a South Carolina event how he planned to reach out to the black community, Bush responded: ‘Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn't one of division and get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting — that says you can achieve earned success.’ The comment, which was first highlighted by the Washington Post, is akin to remarks made by Mitt Romney during his 2012 bid for president.”

U.S. and China will announce steps to curb climate change

With all of the news out there, don’t lose sight of Chinese President Xi’s state visit to the United States. The Wall Street Journal: “The U.S. and China Friday will announce significant new steps in their efforts to combat climate change, including a pledge by China to launch a program by 2017 to cap some emissions and put a price on carbon, senior Obama administration officials said Thursday, the day Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the capital for meetings with President Barack Obama. Mr. Xi’s decision to put a price on CO2 emissions with a cap-and-trade system marks the first time China has launched such an initiative. The announcements will detail the two countries’ strategies for reaching emissions targets and aim to bolster efforts to complete an international accord to reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions, which is meant to be wrapped up in December.” Obama holds a joint news conference with Xi at 12:00 pm ET, and the state dinner is later tonight.

On “Meet” this Sunday

NBC’s Chuck Todd will interview Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.

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