First Read: As Rubio Ascends, Scrutiny Increases

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By Mark Murray, Chuck Todd 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.

Marco Rubio takes center stage -- as the attacks and scrutiny increase

When the Republican presidential race first started (and before Donald Trump and later Ben Carson took off), there were three co-frontrunners -- Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker. Well, Walker dropped out of the contest in September. Bush now finds his campaign on the ropes. And that now leaves us with Rubio, who campaigns today in Iowa and who very well might be your sole “establishment” frontrunner in the 2016 race. But, of course, with that new spotlight and designation come more scrutiny and attacks. US News got its hands on a 112-page report from the Bush campaign that’s largely an oppo dump on Rubio. One slide is entitled “Marco Is A Risky Bet,” and “it bullet-points Rubio's ‘misuse of state party credit cards, taxpayer funds and ties to scandal-tarred former Congressman David Rivera.’… Another bullet point says Rubio's ‘closeness with Norman Braman, who doubles as personal benefactor[,] raises major ethical questions.’… The most cryptic slight is left for last: ‘Those who have looked into Marco's background in the past have been concerned with what they have found.’” Yet Beth Myers, who led Mitt Romney’s VP vetting process, emailed Politico that Rubio “passed” the campaign’s vetting (but Rubio ultimately wasn’t a top finalist to be Romney’s VP pick). Our take: With this report to U.S. News, is the Bush campaign doing ANOTHER favor for Rubio -- by telegraphing the attacks coming his way? After all, we saw how that played out in Wednesday’s debate.

Harry Reid: “I think [Rubio] abandoned the Senate, and the state of Florida deserves two senators, not one senator”

And the attacks on Rubio aren’t just coming from the Bush campaign. Here’s Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, per NBC’s Frank Thorp: "It's not a question of missing the votes, that's only part of the deal," Reid told NBC News in an interview, "But to compare himself to Bob Dole, to John McCain, to John Kerry, to Barack Obama, that takes a lot of gall, a lot of chutzpah." More Reid: "I think he abandoned the Senate, and the state of Florida deserves two senators, not one senator.”

Jeb Bush -- stuck in the past? That’s the assessment from Politico’s Marc Caputo

“These days, the campaign trail for Bush runs down memory lane. His events are about what happened a decade ago. Or more. His candidacy is the amalgamation of yesterday's stories. Bush's campaign web videos resemble tributes to retirees. Or the dead.”

Bush: "I'm going to have to do what other candidates do -- which is rudely interrupt, not answer the questions”

NBC’s Kasie Hunt caught up with Jeb Bush while campaigning in New Hampshire yesterday, and she asked him how he’ll become a better candidate. His answer: "I'm going to have to do what other candidates do: which is rudely interrupt, not answer the questions that are asked, and hopefully the debate moderators will actually ask more substantive questions as well. It's going fine." Then she asked him if he was having fun. Bush’s response: "Yes -- you saw it -- having lots of fun," which didn’t exude with excitement. Before that, Bush told reporters that his campaign “is not on life support,” saying, per NBC’s Kailani Koenig: "We have the most money. We have the greatest organization. We are doing fine."

GOP campaigns unhappy with debate process

Kasie Hunt also confirmed a Politico report that GOP campaigns are planning to meet Sunday in Washington to discuss their unhappiness with the debate process -- and that they plan to exclude the Republican National Committee. Jeb Bush's campaign says it's been invited to the gathering, but that they haven't decided whether to send a representative. Our take: On these types of things, the different campaigns USUALLY can’t agree on how to proceed, which is why you often need institutions like the RNC. The only way debates die is whenever the frontrunner(s) decides not to attend.

Senate passes budget deal, goes to president’s desk for signature

The Senate late last night passed a budget deal that sets government funding levels through Sept. 2017, as well as suspends the nation’s debt ceiling until March of 2017. The bill passed 64-35, with 18 Republicans joining all Democrats in supporting the measure, NBC’s Frank Thorp reports. The bill, which passed in the House by a vote of 266-167 on Wednesday, now goes to President Obama’s desk for his signature. More from Thorp on the ’16 activity around the deal: Rand Paul publically said in speeches and fundraising emails that he would be ‘filibustering’ the deal when he came back to Capitol Hill, but Paul gave three separate speeches totaling just over one hour and 22 minutes on the Senate floor. Ted Cruz cancelled campaign events and returned to Washington to speak out against the deal, telling NBC News as he left that he had returned “because this budget deal is a disaster, it's Republican leadership joining with Democrats to fund all of President Obama's big government priorities.” And Rubio also made an appearance on the Senate floor, voting against the budget measure but not giving a speech. Rubio had not voted since Oct. 20, and before today had missed 18 of 19 votes the Senate had taken in the month of October.

On the trail

Hillary Clinton makes stops in Atlanta and South Carolina… Ben Carson holds a rally in Arkansas… Jeb Bush hits a Florida high-school football game in Florida… Marco Rubio stumps in Iowa and later attends a Northwest Iowa Republican rally along with Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and Rick Santorum… Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Bobby Jindal also are in the Hawkeye State, as is Martin O’Malley… And Bernie Sanders and Lindsey Graham campaign in New Hampshire.

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