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First Read: The Rubio Paradox

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.

The Rubio Paradox

After his strong debate performances, after the endorsements he’s picked up and after Jeb Bush’s weakened position, Marco Rubio looks to be the Republican frontrunner -- at least in the “establishment” bracket of the GOP race. And there’s the emerging perception that, if the early contests started tomorrow, Rubio would be the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination. But here’s what gives us a little pause: Is he built to win in either Iowa or New Hampshire? Remember, in this modern political era, every GOP nominee has won EITHER Iowa or New Hampshire. Right now, he's standing in third place in public polling in both states - behind both Trump and Carson. Here was the view of Rubio’s Iowa presence a month ago: "I've seen other campaigns be much more active and much more aggressive," Polk County Republican Party chairman Will Rogers told NBC’s Danny Freeman and Vaughn Hillyard. "After the debate, people realized he is presidential. But I just don't fully know or understand what the Rubio strategy is for Iowa." And when it comes to New Hampshire, consider that the recent GOP winners there have either had geographical ties (Romney) or appeal with independents (McCain, Buchanan).

Is the newly perceived frontrunner built to win in either Iowa or New Hampshire?

Of course, it’s more than possible that this newfound perception of Rubio creates momentum for him to surge ahead and win in either Iowa or New Hampshire (our NBC team in the two states says there’s evidence that his organization is getting stronger). What’s more, given the size of the GOP field, the winning percentage in Iowa or New Hampshire doesn’t have to be big. And as it stands right now, Rubio seems to be well-positioned in some other early states (Nevada, South Carolina). But here’s the question everyone should ask themselves: Can Rubio fall short in both Iowa and New Hampshire and still win the GOP nomination?

Cruz hits GOP field -- including Rubio -- on immigration

And when it comes to Rubio playing in Iowa and New Hampshire, remember that immigration is still a potent issue in both states – with majorities of Republicans in both states less likely to vote for a candidate who supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And here was Ted Cruz raising the issue yesterday: “[On Tuesday night], you listened to one Republican after another who said, ‘Gosh, it would be mean to enforce our immigration laws,’” Cruz said yesterday in New Hampshire, per MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin. “And I would point out, by the way, everyone talks about how compassionate it is to grant amnesty to 12 million people here illegally. They’re very compassionate, but it’s not very compassionate if I say, ‘I’m going to give away your job.’ That’s the opposite of compassion.” Asked by Sarlin how Cruz distinguished himself on immigration from Rubio, the Texas senator responded, “It is not complicated that on the seminal fight over amnesty in Congress, the Gang of Eight bill that was the brainchild of Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama, that would have granted amnesty to 12 million people here illegally, that I stood with the American people and led the fight to defeat it in the United States Congress,” Cruz said. Translation from Cruz: Rubio was a Gang of Eight author, while he was against it.

Tapping the brakes a bit on Cruz vs. Rubio

While we wrote yesterday morning about the coming Cruz vs. Rubio clash, and while others are writing about it today, let’s tap the brakes a bit on this showdown: Rubio needs to find an early state to win (as we mentioned above), and Cruz still has two outsiders ahead of him (Trump and Carson).

Carson accepts the premise of a third American Iraq war

Speaking of one of those outsiders, Ben Carson seemed to accept the premise of a THIRD American war in Iraq during an interview with NBC affiliate WWBT, per NBC’s Emily Gold. “I think we would require boots on the ground [against ISIS],” Carson said. “And the advantage of putting boots on the ground is that you provide leadership, because all the nations of the Arabian Peninsula and in that area, they have an interest in that area. But there's nobody leading them, so we're calling for a coalition to form to fight ISIS but there's nobody to lead it so it’s not forming.” When asked how he convinces Americans that there should be a third Iraq war in 25 years, Carson answered, “By explaining to them what the global jihad movement is and what its intentions are. Its intentions are to destroy America and everything that has to do with America and Israel. And we can sit around and put our heads in the sand and act like they’re the JV and that they’re not a problem or we can get serious.” Carson continued, “We need to recognize that this is very different situation then what was going on in 2003 -- Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda at that time were not an existential threat to us. This is, and if we can’t recognize the difference between the two, we're in tough shape.”

Is that a tough sell -- even in a GOP primary?

Carson’s shakiest answer in Tuesday night’s debate was in the area if the Middle East. He comes across as someone who is still getting comfortable with the material. Add to this the idea that he is essentially accepting the premise that his presidency will re-escalate troop levels in Iraq to a point that it would look like a third war, and he could find that position a tough sell, even in the GOP primary.

National NYT/CBS poll: Clinton ahead, 52%-33%

Before Saturday night’s Democratic debate in Iowa, a new New York Times/CBS poll shows Hillary Clinton with a 19-point national lead over Bernie Sanders, 52%-33% -- down slightly from Clinton’s 56%-32% advantage in early October. Meanwhile, per MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald, Bernie Sanders picked up a union endorsement from the American Postal Workers Union.

On the trail

Donald Trump stumps in Iowa… Jeb Bush hits Michigan and New Hampshire… Marco Rubio campaigns in South Carolina… Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Rick Santorum all file their paperwork to participate in the New Hampshire primary… John Kasich also stumps in the Granite State… And Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul are all in Iowa.

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