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First Read: Chris Christie Becomes Top Target for Rivals in New Hampshire

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.
Image: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Merrimack
U.S. Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Merrimack, New Hampshire, January 3, 2016. REUTERS/Katherine TaylorKATHERINE TAYLOR / Reuters

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.

Rivals pounce on Christie in New Hampshire

A funny thing has happened in a Republican presidential race dominated by Donald Trump and (to a lesser extent) Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio: Chris Christie -- who’s stuck in single digits in national polls -- has become the target in New Hampshire. Just look at all of the TV ads in the Granite State, as NBC’s Kailani Koenig and Alex Jaffe have observed. John Kasich’s Super PAC has whacked Christie over New Jersey’s budget deficit; Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC jabbed the New Jersey governor (as well as Kasich); and yesterday, Marco Rubio’s Super PAC threw the kitchen sink at Christie. “One high-tax, Common Core, liberal-energy loving, Obamacare-Medicaid-expanding president is enough,” the Rubio Super PAC ad goes. Bottom line: It seems that the groups backing the other candidates in the Establishment Lane -- Bush, Kasich, Rubio -- see Christie as a threat in New Hampshire, where the New Jersey governor is polling higher than his national average. The challenge for Christie is whether or not he has the money to fight back. While the Super PAC supporting him has spent nearly $9 million over the airwaves (almost all in New Hampshire), his campaign had just $1.4 million in the bank as of Sept. 30. And our hunch is that Christie’s financial situation didn’t improve from October to December. Will the New York money crowd that pined for Christie four years ago come to the rescue?

As Trump and Cruz go (relatively) unscathed

If you want to see how a Trump or a Cruz has a legitimate path to the GOP nomination, it’s this pile up in the Establishment Lane. Kasich, Bush, and Rubio are hitting Christie in TV ads; Bush’s Super PAC is knocking Rubio over his missed votes; and Christie is doing the same to Rubio. And guess who is left untouched: Trump and Cruz.

Christie’s Super PAC, Cruz campaign up with new TV ads

Speaking of Christie and Super PACs, the outside group that’s backing him (America Leads) is up with a new TV ad focused on Christie’s call to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay. “Keep every rotten, dangerous terrorist who’s there and never let them go,” says Christie during one of his New Hampshire town halls. And Ted Cruz’s campaign has this new TV ad -- airing in New Hampshire -- on immigration.

Rubio’s shot at the nomination seems a bit more difficult than it did a month or two ago

As Christie sees his stature increase in the GOP race -- in terms of his New Hampshire poll numbers and the attention he’s getting from rival Super PACs -- it’s worth examining the state of the Rubio campaign four weeks out until Iowa. We wrote yesterday how Rubio has a path to success in the early states (the GOP establishment rallies around him, GOP voters care more about electability and a contrast with Hillary Clinton than anything else). But right now, that establishment cavalry hasn’t arrived -- it screams volumes that Rubio hasn’t released his 4th quarter fundraising totals. (You would have thought that Rubio’s impressive debate performances, plus Bush’s sinking chances, would have produced a stellar fundraising haul.) And while four weeks is a very long time in politics, GOP voters seem (for now) transfixed on Trump and Cruz. Don’t get us wrong: Rubio still has a good shot at winning the Republican nomination. But that shot doesn’t seem as easy to make as it looked a month ago. And it becomes harder when you have to fight a two-front war -- against the establishment in New Hampshire and against Cruz in Iowa.

NBC/SurveyMonkey Tracking Poll: Trump doesn’t seem to be fading away

Meanwhile, Trump continues to lead the GOP presidential race, according to new numbers from our first NBC News|SurveyMonkey online weekly tracking poll. Trump gets 35% among GOP voters -- followed by Cruz at 18%, Rubio at 13%, and Ben Carson at 9%. Maybe more revealing, half of Trump’s supporters (51%) are “absolutely certain” they will vote for him, versus 36% for Cruz and 26% for Rubio. That is a clear sign that Trump isn’t fading away, at least nationally. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by 17 points, 53%-36%, with Martin O’Malley at 2%. And 53% of Clinton’s supporters are “absolutely certain” to be voting for her, versus 44% for Sanders.

Substance vs. process in the gun-control fight

Finally, at 11:40 am ET today, President Obama delivers remarks at the White House on his executive actions on gun control. Despite the rhetoric, however, Obama’s actions are relatively small ball. “Mr. Obama will clarify that existing laws require anyone making a living by selling guns to register as a licensed gun dealer and conduct background checks. White House officials said the president would note that criminal penalties already exist for violating those laws,” the New York Times notes. Also: “Mr. Obama will hire more personnel to process background checks in a timely manner, direct officials to conduct more gun research, improve the information in the background check system, encourage more domestic violence prosecutions and order better tracking of lost guns.” If the gun fight is about substance (with overwhelming majorities supporting background checks), that’s a fight the Obama White House (and Democrats) can win. If it’s about the process (Obama going around Congress’ back and doing it his own way), that’s a fight Republicans and the gun lobby can win.

On the trail

Donald Trump holds a rally in Claremont, NH at 7:00 pm ET… Hillary Clinton remains in Iowa, making three stops in the Hawkeye State (as well as speaking with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews)… Jeb Bush campaigns in the Granite State… Ted Cruz stays in Iowa… Marco Rubio also holds three events in the Hawkeye State… Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina attend a New Hampshire forum on heroin addiction… And Rand Paul is in the Granite State, while Mike Huckabee campaigns in Iowa.

Countdown to NBC/YouTube debate in SC: 12 days

Countdown to Iowa: 27 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 35 days

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