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First Read: The Democratic Race Takes a Nastier Turn

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.
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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.

The Democratic race takes a nastier turn

The 2008 Barack Obama-vs.-Hillary Clinton presidential race was combative, competitive, and polarizing for Democratic voters. (“Shame on you, Barack Obama”; “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.”) But one thing that never happened was either Obama or Clinton directly saying that their rival wasn't qualified to be president. Yet that’s exactly what happened last night at Bernie Sanders’ event in Philadelphia. The dispatch from NBC’s Danny Freeman: “‘Now the other day, I think, Secretary Clinton appeared to be getting a little bit nervous,’ began Sanders in front of thousands at Philadelphia's Temple University Wednesday night. ‘And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, quote-unquote not qualified to be president,’ he said as the raucous crowd booed. ‘Well let me just say in response, to Secretary Clinton, I don't believe that she is qualified if she is…through her Super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds," Sanders declared… ‘I don't think that you are qualified if you get 15 million dollars from Wall Street through your Super PAC,’ said Sanders. ‘I don't think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don't think you are qualified if you've supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement, which has cost us millions of decent paying jobs.’” Wow. So long for the days when Clinton and Sanders were shaking hands on the debate stage, huh?

Fact-checking Unqualifed-Gate

But there are two important points to make in this dispute. One, Clinton never uttered the words “unqualified,” as Sanders charged last night (even though she and her campaign have been much more aggressive toward Sanders after losing Wisconsin). In fact, she dodged the question. Here’s what she said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” yesterday:

SCARBOROUGH: But do you think he is qualified? And do you think he is able to deliver on the things he is promising to all these Democratic voters?CLINTON: Well, let me put it this way, Joe. I think that what he has been saying about the core issue in his whole campaign doesn't seem to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done. And I will leave it to voters to decide who of us can do the job that the country needs, who can do all aspects of the job, both on the economic domestic issues and on national security and foreign policy.

And two, some of the things that he said makes Clinton unqualified to be president -- having a Super PAC, raising money from Wall Street, supporting trade agreements -- would also disqualify President Obama. There is no doubt that Sanders and his campaign have been facing extra scrutiny and heat, even after their big win in Wisconsin. But saying in response that Clinton is unqualified (for the same things that about 95% of Democratic politicians do) seems akin to a George Costanza moment when you realize that the insult you intended doesn’t go over that well.

Team Sanders stuck in No Man’s Land

Given the escalation in the Democratic race, Sanders and his campaign have a question to ask themselves: What is their campaign about -- the ideas they want to push, or capturing the Democratic nomination? Because right now, they’re not winning on either front. Sanders is significantly behind in the delegate race, and the ideas he might want to discuss are now getting buried in this war of words. As our colleague John Harwood puts it, “[It] seems as if Team Sanders has gotten itself stuck in no-man's land between message campaign and genuine threat for nomination.” Both campaigns are clearly frustrated right now -- Team Clinton got blown out in Wisconsin; Team Sanders, even after their win, realizes the math isn’t in its favor. And it’s showing.

Where the Democratic delegate race stands

In pledged delegates, Clinton holds a 246-delegate lead over Sanders (with Washington state delegates still to be allocated)

  • Clinton 1281 (55% of delegates won)
  • Sanders 1035 (45%)

In overall delegates (including superdelegates), Clinton holds a 673-delegate lead over Sanders

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Clinton must win 33% of remaining delegates to hit 2,383 magic number

Sanders must win 67% of remaining delegates to hit 2383 magic number (was 66%)

Ted Cruz has a New York problem

Turning to the Republican race, Ted Cruz probably regrets criticizing “New York values” like he did earlier in this campaign. Because Donald Trump last night unloaded on that line, per NBC’s Ali Vitali: “We all lived through it. We all know people that died [in the 9/11 terrorist attacks],” Trump recalled, before turning around to attack Ted Cruz for speaking badly of New York's values. "I’ve got this guy standing over there, looking at me, talking about New York values with scorn in his face, with hated, with hatred of New York." Folks, there are still 12 days to go until the New York primary, but it’s going to be hard to stop Trump from getting all – or close to all – of the state’s 95 delegates.

Where the GOP delegate race stands

Trump holds a 239-delegate lead over Cruz

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Trump must win 59% of remaining delegates to hit 1,237 magic number

Cruz must win 88% of remaining delegates to hit 1,237 magic number

Kasich must win 133% of remaining delegates to hit 1,237 magic number

Obama travels back to Chicago to make the case for Senate Republicans to consider his SCOTUS pick

At 3:30 pm ET from the University of Chicago Law School, where he once served as an instructor, President Obama will make his case why the Republican-led Senate should give Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland hearings and an up-or-down vote. According to last month’s NBC/WSJ poll, 48% of American voters said that the Senate should vote on a replacement this year, versus 37% who said it should wait until there’s a new president, as Republicans have argued. And 55% of voters said they disapproved of Senate Republicans’ decision not to even consider Obama’s nominee. But the downside for Team Obama: The Democratic doesn’t seem as fired up about this issue as the presidential race (and Trump and Cruz). The presidential race is helping Senate Majority Mitch McConnell here -- at least for now.

On the trail

Bernie Sanders speaks to the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia at 10:00 am ET… Bill Clinton also stumps for his wife in Pennsylvania… Ted Cruz campaigns in New York… As does John Kasich, who hits Brooklyn and the Bronx.