First Read Debate 2016: Donald Trump's Big Debate Gamble

Image: Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Roundhouse Gymnasium, on Jan. 26, 2016, in Marshalltown, Iowa.Mary Altaffer / AP

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

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.

Trump’s big debate gamble

Well, guess who’s dominating another news cycle for a controversial move. If you answered Donald Trump, you’ve been paying attention to the past six months. Trump’s announcement last night that he will skip Thursday’s Fox News debate in Iowa is a big gamble that could be brilliant or disastrous for his campaign. Here are four reasons why it’s potentially smart:

  1. It essentially freezes a race that he’s leading;
  2. It turns Ted Cruz into the candidate with the target on his back at the debate;
  3. It allows Trump to dominate another news cycle with just five days to go until Iowa;
  4. And it gives Trump the opportunity to demonstrate strength -- if he thinks he’s being treated unfairly, he has the power to walk away, which other GOP candidates don’t have.

But there is one significant risk for Trump here: It allows his critics -- and he’s got plenty of them -- to make it look like he’s scared on the tough questions coming his way. “If Donald is afraid of [Fox’s] Megyn Kelly, I would like to invite him in your show to participate in a 1-on-1 debate between me and Donald,” Ted Cruz told conservative radio host Mark Levin, per NBC’s Hallie Jackson. More Cruz: "If he thinks Megyn Kelly is so scary, what would he do with Vladimir Putin?" Conservative pundit Erick Erickson: “So Donald Trump can't handle tough questions from Megyn Kelly, but he'll be able to handle Hillary Clinton. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.”

Trump vs. Fox News

In fairness to Trump, if you review the transcript of that first Fox News debate in Aug. 2015 -- moderated by the same hosts, including Kelly -- you probably wouldn’t trust what’s likely coming your way. And anytime there’s a debate about the moderators, it’s a problem; you want the debate to be about the candidates, not the folks asking the questions. On the other hand, you can’t let the candidates pick and choose who moderates the debates. “Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards,” Fox said in a statement last night. We agree 100% with this. Unfortunately for Fox, the Republican National Committee hasn’t stood the same ground with other debates. Indeed, the RNC has empowered Trump to believe that he can pick and choose which networks will host GOP debates and which other news organizations can be debate partners.

Bernie’s meeting with Obama

At 11:45 am ET today at the White House, Bernie Sanders meets with President Obama. White House Press Secretary announced the meeting last night: “The president and Sen. Sanders first discussed this meeting last December when Sen. Sanders attended the Congressional Holiday Ball. The two will meet privately in the Oval Office and there will be no formal agenda." Of course, this comes after President Obama’s interview with Politico, in which he said A LOT of nice things about Hillary and SOME nice things about Sanders. So consider today’s meeting a way to make him look more neutral in a contest between one candidate who’s running on continuity (Clinton) and another on revolution (Sanders). And make no mistake: This meeting is a big benefit to Sanders, because it allows him to move beyond the storyline from the Politico interview.

Quinnipiac poll of Iowa: Sanders 49%, Clinton 45%

The latest poll of the Democratic race in Iowa -- via Quinnipiac -- shows Sanders ahead of Clinton by four points, 49%-45%, with Martin O’Malley at 4%. That’s essentially unchanged from the poll’s results from earlier this month, which had it Sanders 49%, Clinton 44%, O’Malley 4%. Two quick notes on the poll:

  • It finds -- once again -- that Clinton leads among Iowa Democrats who have caucused before (54%-38%), while Sanders leads among first-time caucus-goers (72%-26%). So turnout among young, first-time caucus-goers since ’08 is going to be a big factor in who wins this race.
  • It continues the trend that polls using Random Digit Dialing (RDD) like Quinnipiac show Sanders doing better, while polls that use voter lists from the party show Clinton doing better (like Monday’s Fox poll, which had Clinton leading Sanders, 48%-42%).
  • It all comes down to turnout: Yes, this is a cliché -- but it’s also true: Trump and Sanders need a new turnout to win Iowa, while Clinton and Cruz need a traditional turnout. That’s what all of the polling backs up, including today’s Quinnipiac poll. By the way, we’ll have Iowa/New Hampshire/South Carolina results from a brand-new NBC/WSJ/Marist poll coming out tomorrow at 6:00 am ET.

Clinton camp open to participating in Union Leader/NBC/MSNBC debate, Sanders camp not so much

Speaking of debates, the New Hampshire Union Leader has partnered with NBC News and MSNBC for a debate on Feb. 4 in New Hampshire. The Clinton campaign seems to want to participate. "Hillary Clinton would be happy to participate in a debate in New Hampshire if the other candidates agree, which would allow the DNC to sanction the debate," Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri said, per the AP. But the Sanders camp doesn’t seem too keen on it. "The DNC has said this would be an unsanctioned debate so we would not want to jeopardize our ability to participate in future debates," Sanders' campaign manager Jeff Weaver said.

On the trail

Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Gilbert, SC at 7:00 pm ET… Hillary Clinton stumps in Iowa and later attends a fundraiser with Bon Jovi in Philadelphia… Bill Clinton also stumps for his wife in the Hawkeye State… Ted Cruz attends a rally with Rick Perry in West Des Moines, IA… Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are also in the Des Moines area… Chris Christie hits Dubuque, IA… John Kasich is in Davenport, IA… And Bernie Sanders campaigns in Mason City, IA later tonight.

Countdown to Iowa: 5 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 13 days