First Read: High Stakes for Clinton, GOP on Benghazi Hearing Day

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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.

High stakes for both Clinton, GOP at Benghazi hearing

Today’s highly anticipated hearing before the Select Benghazi Committee is an important event -- for both Hillary Clinton and the House Republicans leading the hearing. For Clinton, the goal isn’t necessarily to win the day; instead, it’s to survive and emerge unscathed. (One way you’ll be able to tell if she survived or not is by the number of Dem/media references whether Joe Biden made a mistake in not running.) Dogged by her email controversy and negative perceptions about her (just 26% of all voters gave her high marks for being honest and straightforward in the new NBC/WSJ poll), Clinton has plenty to gain -- and lots to lose. Meanwhile, for House Republicans, today is an opportunity to redeem themselves after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (and other GOPers) admitted that this Benghazi committee was all about dragging down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. One way for them to look more credible is by spending more time on the subjects of embassy security and Libya policy instead of Clinton’s emails and Sidney Blumenthal. But House Republicans might have the more difficult job today: How do they come across as not looking political when parts of the base demand blood?

But will anyone’s mind change?

That’s a legitimate to question to ask even before today’s 10:00 am ET hearing begins. After all, our NBC/WSJ poll shows a HUGE difference by party line on questions about Benghazi and Clinton’s emails. In the poll, 44% of Americans say that they’re not satisfied with Clinton’s response to the Benghazi attack in 2012 -- including 77% of Republican respondents, 40% of independents but just 14% of Democrats. In addition, 36% of Americans think the current congressional investigation into the Benghazi attacks is unfair and too partisan (that includes 53% of Democrats); 29% of Americans believe it’s fair and impartial (including 50% of Republicans); and another 35% don’t know enough. And regarding Clinton’s private email server, 47% say it will be an important factor in their upcoming vote, versus 44% who disagree. But once again, these numbers are divided by party: 76% of Republicans believe Clinton’s private server is important to their vote, while 70% of Democrats say it isn’t important.

Your other essential Benghazi Hearing Day reading

To catch up on your Benghazi Hearing Day reading, here are three pieces to read

  • MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald: “Hillary Clinton is on a roll. By the end of the day Thursday, she could be closer to winning the White House than she’s ever come. But first she’ll have to traverse a grueling eight-hour congressional grilling where anything less than perfection may not be good enough. Even though Clinton heads into her much-anticipated testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi with a strong wind at her back, the former secretary of state knows better than anyone that even a fleeting slip-up could bring her testimony and charmed month crashing back down to earth.
  • NBC’s Elizabeth Chuck’s “Benghazi 101: What You Need to Know Ahead of Clinton’s Testimony”
  • NBC’s Andrew Rafferty on the nine people to know ahead of today’s hearing.

What Biden’s no-go means: Hillary has clear command of the Democratic race

There are three immediate impacts to Joe Biden’s decision yesterday to forgo a presidential bid:

1. The Democratic race all but becomes a two-person contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

2. Hillary Clinton *likely* will see a bump in the polls: In our NBC/WSJ poll, Hillary's lead over Sanders is 20 points with Biden in the race (49%-29%); 25 points without him (58%-33%). And see below for how Biden’s absence impacts the field in Iowa.

3. It frees up President Obama (and other on-the-fence Democrats) to possibly endorse Hillary Clinton before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.

While this has been an incredibly unpredictable campaign season so far, those developments will give Hillary Clinton clear command of the Democratic presidential race.

80-Plus Days of Indecision

Be sure to read NBC’s Alex Jaffe’s tick-tock on the 82 days of intense speculation about Biden’s presidential intentions, which all started with that Aug. 1 Maureen Dowd column. “For more than 80 days, Vice President Joe Biden kept America guessing about his next steps.

But in the end, even with 80 days of indecision, Biden's aides and allies echoed the vice president, acknowledging, as he did on Wednesday, ‘we're out of time.’ One South Carolina operative with Draft Biden, the group setting up the pre-campaign early-state infrastructure for Biden in case of a run, noted the sheer size of Hillary Clinton's operation would be tough to challenge. ‘A concern that we had at this point in the game was that we were coming in so late against such a massive machine [for frontrunner Hillary Clinton] that we may not have the time to build what we need to build,’ the operative said.” Our take: Biden decided yesterday with his head (the race was unwinnable) rather than his heart.

Two new Iowa polls out this morning

And we have our first poll since Biden’s exit -- well, kind of. A Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll has Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders in Iowa among likely caucus-goers by seven points, 48%-41%. But the poll was conducted before Biden’s announcement. With him in the race, Clinton’s lead was five points, 42%-37%. But when Biden’s 12% was reallocated, Clinton’s percentage jumped up six points and Sanders went up four. Again: Clinton’s numbers tend to go up with Biden out of the race. Meanwhile, an Iowa poll from Quinnipiac shows Ben Carson ahead of Donald Trump by eight points in the Hawkeye State, 28%-20% -- followed by Rubio at 13%, Ted Cruz at 10%, Rand Paul at 6%, and Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush at 5% each. A month ago, Trump led Carson by six points in the poll, 27%-21%. And with the caveat that it’s just one poll, don’t be surprised by Carson being in the lead in Iowa – a contest (due to its heavy concentration of evangelical voters) that Carson is more built for than Trump is.

Ryan looks to have the votes to be speaker -- but it appears he’ll inherit the same dynamic Boehner faced

Finally, after last night, it appears that Paul Ryan has the GOP votes to be speaker. But it also looks like he’ll inherit a dynamic that isn’t too different than what House Speaker John Boehner faced. Here is the statement the House Freedom Caucus issues last night, per NBC’s Frank Thorp: “A supermajority of the House Freedom Caucus has voted to support Paul Ryan's bid to become the next Speaker of the House… While no consensus exists among members of the House Freedom Caucus regarding Chairman Ryan's preconditions for serving, we believe that these issues can be resolved within our Conference in due time. We all know that Washington needs to change the way it does business, and we look forward to working with Paul and all our colleagues to enact process reforms that empower individual representatives and restore respect to our institution.” Bottom line: The House Freedom Caucus isn’t agreeing to (at least for now) changing the rule on vacating the chair, which is what forced Boehner to resign.

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