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First Read: A Race Without a Frontrunner

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

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

“It’s Anybody’s Ballgame” in GOP Race

After a week in which Jeb Bush badly stumbled -- giving four different answers on Iraq in four days -- our colleague Kasie Hunt makes an important point: There is NO Republican frontrunner in the 2016 race. It is wide open. “Jeb Bush has fallen from the man to beat to the richest member of the pack. Scott Walker seems to have gone underground. Marco Rubio is exciting but untested. And the Republican establishment is growing increasingly nervous that the party is facing a long, bloody primary fight that could drag into next summer,” Hunt writes, reporting from the RNC meeting in Arizona. “[H]allway conversations, interviews and casual discussions over two days reveal [party operatives] largely reached the same conclusion about the state of the race: ‘It’s anybody’s ballgame,’ as one longtime RNC member put it, bluntly.” And it’s just not Bush’s stumble; it’s also Scott Walker’s absence. “Now he’s running the Hillary strategy,” an RNC member supporting a different candidate told Hunt about Walker. “It’s the right strategy for him, but it’s not a good situation.”

Karl Rove on Jeb: Mistakes were made

On the “Today” Show this morning, Karl Rove -- who masterminded George W. Bush’s two presidential victories -- acknowledged that Jeb had made mistakes this week. "The good news for him: He's had a bad week, and he has 36 more weeks" until the first nominating contests begin. "When you get in to this kind of contest, you find out that more is required of you, and you're going to make mistakes," he said. "I went through two key presidential campaigns where mistakes were made, and yet at the end of the day, the fellow who made the mistakes won."

The GOP’s Iraq conundrum

Now that almost EVERY Republican 2016er has said that -- knowing what they know now -- they wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, Time magazine asks a good question: Can you be a strong foreign-policy hawk (like every GOP ‘16er except for Paul), but also so quickly disavow the Iraq war? “In a campaign dominated so far by foreign policy themes, GOP presidential hopefuls are increasingly torn between the need to project toughness and the need to acknowledge what many voters see as the defining error of the last Republican commander-in-chief.” Democrats in 2008 who ran against the Iraq war, including Obama, faced a similar conundrum: Obama desperately didn’t want to be perceived as anti-war; he wanted to be perceived as anti-IRAQ. And it was during the campaign that Obama ended up making hawkish promises about Afghanistan and al Qaeda, which at the time certainly appeared to be related to combatting the DOVE perception that was developing. How will the GOP field in 2016 react to the conundrum?

Even better questions to ask about Iraq

Indeed, as Jill Lawrence writes, there are much better questions about Iraq and foreign policy in general. “For instance, what if the intelligence had been solid and Iraq really did have WMD? Knowing what we know now, not about WMD but about the geopolitical consequences of our intervention, would you still have gone into Iraq? Or would you have tried to find another way to contain Saddam?... [W]hat do you think about pre-emptive warfare, on the premise that a nation or a leader is an imminent threat? Was George W. Bush justified in viewing Iraq as an imminent threat? Do you agree? What other countries would you attack or invade on that basis? Syria, which had and may still have chemical weapons? North Korea, which has nuclear weapons? What about Iran?”

Why watching Obama’s approval rating is so important in the 2016 race

Our good friend Amy Walter at the Cook Political Report makes an important point when thinking about 2016: So much hinges on the CURRENT occupant of the White House, President Barack Obama. “Every presidential election is a response to the current president, even when the current president isn’t seeking re-election. If people don't like the guy in the White House, it’s almost impossible for a member of his party to be elected to succeed him. Even when voters are happy with their incumbent president, it’s not always a guarantee of success for the party’s nominee” -- see Al Gore. More Walter: “The magic number for Obama – and ultimately Hillary’s chances – is somewhere around 47 percent. If Obama’s job approval rating is above that, a Democrat has a decent to a good chance of winning in 2016. Below that number, especially if Obama is in the 45 percent range or below, it will be hard for a Democrat to gain entry to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Obama’s approval rating in the most recent NBC/WSJ poll? 48%.

Look at that -- trade bill clears 60-vote hurdle in Senate

Remember when we told you not to over-read the Elizabeth Warren vs. Obama drama in the Senate battle over trade? As it turned out, the key players in the trade debate weren’t Warren and progressives, but rather the free-trade Dems who were looking for leverage. Roll Call: “President Barack Obama’s fast-track trade bill is officially back on track in the Senate, after easily topping the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster and open debate… Democrats who backed advancing the bill included Michael Bennet of Colorado, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, Chris Coons of Delaware, Dianne Feinstein of California, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Patty Murray of Washington, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Warner of Virginia and Ron Wyden of Oregon. Carper is the only one who backed the president on Tuesday.” Getting the same trade legislation out of the House, however, could be a bigger lift.

GOP amendment strips provision to study options for giving legal status to undocumented immigrants enlisting in the U.S. military

Don’t be surprised if this vote yesterday makes its way into the 2016 presidential bloodstream. “A bipartisan coalition came close Thursday to protecting immigration-related language in the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act — but not close enough,” Roll Call writes. “A 221-202 vote on an amendment, offered by Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., stripped a provision in the underlying bill encouraging the Pentagon to study options for enlisting undocumented immigrants into the military in exchange for a pathway to legal status. All 182 Democrats voted ‘no,’ joined by 20 Republicans.”

On “Meet” this Sunday

In an exclusive interview, NBC’s Chuck Todd will interview Rand Paul.

On the trail today

Chris Christie is in Georgia… Ted Cruz is also in the Peach State, speaking at a GOP Victory Dinner in Athens… Mike Huckabee addresses the RNC meeting in Arizona… And Rand Paul is in Iowa.

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