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First Read: Recapping Fight Night

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.

Recapping Fight Night in Vegas: Trump, Cruz remain the GOP heavyweights

Well, it was certainly Fight Night at last night’s Republican debate in Las Vegas -- the final GOP debate of the year. Jeb Bush, in his strongest performance to date, traded blows with frontrunner Donald Trump. Bush’s right hook at Trump: “Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners, but he is a Chaos Candidate and he'd be a Chaos President.” The uppercut from Trump: “All right, you're a tough guy Jeb. You're real tough. Well, let’s see I am at 42 [percent] and you’re at 3 [percent] so, so far I'm doing better.” In addition, we counted at least four times (over NSA surveillance, defense spending, Libya, and immigration) when Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio squared off against each other. And Rand Paul and Chris Christie battled over foreign policy, with Paul landing a jab on Bridge-gate. Yet despite all of those punches, the two heavyweights going into last night -- Trump and Cruz -- didn’t even touch each other. In fact, we saw more of a bromance between the two than a debate. “I've gotten to know him over the past few days and he has a wonderful temperament; he’s just fine,” Trump said of Cruz. And if the two frontrunners hugged it out, it’s hard to see how the debate changed the trajectory of the race as we head into a two-week hiatus for Christmas and New Year’s. If anything, the uncertainty in the race on the establishment side of the aisle is what’s new. Between a strong Christie, the immigration pile on of Rubio and Jeb’s new found life trolling Trump, it’s actually not as clear as it was 48 hours ago that Rubio is definitely going to be the establishment’s candidate. He’s still the favorite for that lane, but Christie and Bush have life.

Cruz vs. Rubio epitomizes the national security/immigration divides inside the GOP

Meanwhile, the multiple punches that Cruz and Rubio threw at each other last night were fascinating, because they highlighted the new internal party splits over national security and immigration. Here was Rubio attacking Cruz over voting for the legislation reforming the NSA surveillance program. “We are now at a time where we need more tools [in fighting terrorism], not less tools. And that tool we lost -- the metadata program -- was a valuable tool that we no longer have at our disposal.” Cruz responded by calling it an “Alinsky-like” attack. “What [Rubio] knows is the old program covered 20% to 30% of phone numbers to search for terrorists; the new program covers nearly 100%. That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism and he knows that’s the case.” And on immigration, Cruz whacked Rubio for his co-authorship of the “Gang of Eight” immigration-reform bill. “[Rubio] was fighting to grant amnesty and not to secure the border, I was fighting to secure the border.” Our take: Rubio seems to be where more Republicans are on national security, while Cruz seems to be where more conservatives are on immigration. But Rubio having to defend the “Rubio-Schumer Gang of Eight bill” is certainly a burden in a place like Iowa or South Carolina or, well, any state in the SEC Super Tuesday.

Did Jeb find a new way forward in the race -- to go after Trump?

This is certainly a storyline to watch. Politico: “Those who've been with Bush over the last week say he's been raring to go. At a Republican Party of Florida event at the Intercontinental Hotel in Tampa last week, Bush went on such an anti-Trump tear that Bush advisers were shocked it didn't leak. From then on, tackling Trump head on was the debate game plan - and became a central part of the former Florida governor's preparations. Bush has ramped up his rhetoric in private and public since -- calling Trump ‘unhinged’ after his plan to bar Muslims from entering the country.” Bush might very well see this line of attack as a public service to his party. Then again, Bush being the attack dog against Trump could make Trump’s insurgent pitch to Republicans/conservatives even stronger. BTW, remember when the Bush campaign boasted how it would NOT do the rest of the field the favor of being the campaign that focused solely on knocking down Trump?

On combating ISIS: Where’s the real substantive difference with Obama?

Yes, we heard Republican after Republican criticize President Obama’s handling of ISIS. But outside of the rhetoric, where are the substantial differences? The differences were more on style and tactics. But cut through the rhetoric and it is hard to find a big strategic difference, beyond Lindsey Graham who is calling for more substantial ground forces. Many of the other Republican candidates are calling for more attacks from the air. Well, Americans have been launching more attacks from the air. Republicans say there need to be U.S. special forces directing Arab/Kurdish ground forces against ISIS. Well, that’s what Obama has already proposed. Republicans believe there needs to be a Muslim face to any ground troops, so does this administration. Sure, the rhetoric is different. And the charge from many that this administration hasn’t managed the coalition well is fair game, but there isn’t a large policy gulf. In fact, take a look at Clinton’s speech yesterday and find the substantial POLICY differences. Again, we get the charge that EXECUTING the strategy is where some are critical but the blueprint isn’t all that different.

Graham gets positive reviews in undercard debate. But was it his last one?

Once again, Lindsey Graham received positive reviews of his performance in the undercard debate. But just a reminder: Graham has important deadline coming up. “South Carolina's State Election Commission has warned the state's Republican Party: If a candidate wants to stay off the ballot for the Feb. 20 presidential primary, they have until Dec. 21 to get out of the race,” NBC’s Kasie Hunt wrote earlier this month. “It's set a potentially critical deadline for South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who will have to weigh whether it's worth continuing his long shot presidential bid in the face of a potentially embarrassing showing in his home state.”

Fact-checking last night’s debate

Our partners at PolitiFact fact-checked some of the claims at last night’s GOP debate.

  • Rand Paul: Says Marco Rubio "is the one for an open border." --> Pants on Fire
  • Jeb Bush: "Two months ago, Donald Trump said that ISIS was not our fight." ---> Mostly True
  • Ted Cruz: "The head of the FBI has told Congress they cannot vet those [Syrian] refugees." ---> Mostly False
  • Carly Fiorina: "One of the things I would immediately do … is bring back the warrior class -- Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, Flynn…. Every one retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear." ---> Mostly False. Per PolitiFact, Fiorina is on solid ground with only two of her examples (Mattis and Flynn), while Keane retired in 2003 and Petraeus left the administration due to an affair.

Hillary pre-buts GOP debate

“Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton gave her response to Tuesday Night’s GOP date before it even began,” MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald writes. “Her campaign said almost nothing during the debate, but in a speech on ISIS and foreign policy in Minnesota just hours before the candidates took the stage in Las Vegas, Clinton sought to portray herself as the only grownup in the race capable of being commander-in-chief. The former secretary of state laid out what her campaign later touted as ‘serious’ and ‘sophisticated’ policy proposals, while suggesting that her potential Republican rivals have nothing more to offer on national security than schoolyard taunts and chicken-hawk chest thumping. ‘Shallow slogans don’t add up to a strategy,’ she said. ‘Bluster and bigotry are not credentials for becoming commander-in-chief.’”

Sanders blasts the press

As for Bernie Sanders, he complained about the news media during his campaign event in New Hampshire yesterday. Per NBC’s Kailani Koenig, Sanders typically criticizes the press. But she says he went extra hard, blasting one network for putting such a strong emphasis on Donald Trump, while only giving him 20 seconds. He added that other networks and newspapers were also guilty of not covering issues/policies Americans care about. One man in the audience cried out as a joke, “You just need to talk faster!” In addition, Sanders accused the network Sunday shows of not covering climate change because of fossil fuel advertisers, telling people to look at Exxon Mobile and other companies that advertise on the programs. And he complained that he could give a long speech on Social Security or Medicare that would affect a lot of people and get no coverage, while some politician could put out a “bombastic” tweet about something and get a ton of coverage.

On the trail

Donald Trump holds a rally in Mesa, AZ, where he’ll be introduced by controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio… Marco Rubio holds rallies in both Iowa (Ankeny) and New Hampshire (Manchester)… Ben Carson campaigns in Nevada… Ditto Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul… Hillary Clinton holds an event with Warren Buffet in Omaha, NE before heading to Iowa, where she makes two campaign stops… And Bernie Sanders attends an Interfaith Muslim roundtable in DC.

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