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Debate 2016: Six Themes to Watch in Tonight's GOP Debate

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
Image: A combination photo of U.S. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has waded back into the topic of eligibility for the U.S. presidency, telling the Washington Post that rival Ted Cruz could run into trouble if he won the party's nomination because he was born in Canada. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich (L) and Brian Snyder (R)/FilesReuters / Reuters

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.

Six storylines to watch at tonight’s GOP debate

Tonight’s debate -- in North Charleston, SC -- is the Republicans’ sixth overall debate, their first one of 2016, and their next-to-last one before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. And here are the six storylines we’re watching:

  1. Donald Trump vs. Ted Cruz: As we put it yesterday, the bromance is over. It started when Trump began raising questions about Cruz’s eligibility to be president, given his birth in Canada. (“Supposing he runs and everybody's banking on him, and then the courts rule that he can’t run? That’s not so good,” Trump said at last night’s campaign rally in Florida, per NBC’s Alex Stambaugh. “What do you do, concede the election to Hillary Clinton or to crazy Bernie?). Then Cruz FINALLY started pushing back at Trump when he talked about Trump’s “New York values.” The question we have for tonight: Do the GOP frontrunners play nice? Or do they go to war?
  2. The Establishment vs. The Outsiders: This GOP civil war saw a new battle erupt, as NBC’s Hallie Jackson put it on “Nightly News,” after Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response, which she used to take on Donald Trump. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said, later telling NBC’s Matt Lauer that she was definitely referencing Trump. Two points on Haley: One, she just happens to be the governor of the state hosting tonight’s GOP debate. And two, we’re old enough to remember when Haley was once considered a Tea Party rising star. So it’s striking who is considered establishment nowadays (Haley, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio).
  3. Marco Rubio In The Spotlight: Speaking of Rubio, he’s another storyline to watch -- given his solid past debate performances, given his poll standing (in the low double digits, but with room to grow), and given that he’s been the recipient of attacks from much of the rest of the field (Cruz, Christie, Jeb). We aren’t the only ones with the feeling that Team Marco is continuing to run in place in this race. Does tonight change that perception?
  4. Which Governor Emerges? There are three governors (or ex-governors) on the main stage – Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich -- who all are vying with Rubio in that establishment lane. Be sure to watch if Christie is as much of a target as he was a few weeks ago. That might give you an indication if he’s still climbing a bit in the New Hampshire polls or if he’s fading a bit. By the way, Christie has a new TV ad hitting Hillary Clinton and President Obama on foreign policy, while Jeb Bush has a new ad going after Trump for being “a jerk.”
  5. Whither Ben Carson? Remember Ben Carson? Tonight will be one of his final opportunities to demonstrate that he continues to have a pulse in this race. Sure, polling continues to have him in low double digits or high single digits. But he’s become an afterthought since last month.
  6. The No-Show: There’s a final storyline to watch tonight: the GOP candidate who won’t be there at all -- Rand Paul. After he didn’t meet Fox Business’ standards to participate on the main debate stage, Paul said he wouldn’t attend the undercard. Given Paul’s views on foreign policy and given how he mixed it up with Rubio in the last debate, that no-show could be a big factor tonight. There will be only seven Republicans on the main stage -- Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Carson, Bush, Christie, and Kasich. The only woman in the GOP race (Carly Fiorina) also has been relegated back to the undercard stage.

Cruz’s Goldman Sachs loan

This New York Times piece is more fodder for tonight’s GOP debate: “As Ted Cruz tells it, the story of how he financed his upstart campaign for the United States Senate four years ago is an endearing example of loyalty and shared sacrifice between a married couple. ‘Sweetheart, I’d like us to liquidate our entire net worth, liquid net worth, and put it into the campaign,’ he says he told his wife, Heidi, who readily agreed. But the couple’s decision to pump more than $1 million into Mr. Cruz’s successful Tea Party-darling Senate bid in Texas was made easier by a large loan from Goldman Sachs, where Mrs. Cruz works. That loan was not disclosed in campaign finance reports.” Cruz addressed the story in a gaggle with reporters last night, according to NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard. “It is an inadvertent filing question,” Cruz said. “If it was the case that it was not filed exactly as the FEC requires, we’ll amend the filings. But all of the information has been public and transparent for many years.” But the story is potentially damaging because it reminds voters of Cruz’s ties to Goldman Sachs and Wall Street -- as Cruz is campaigning as the GOP’s grassroots champion. Can't help but wonder if Cruz or his aides wanted to keep the Goldman loan quiet during that Senate race to avoid the Wall Street storyline then as well. This hit isn't devastating to Cruz, but it hurts.

Trump responds to Obama, Haley

During his rally in Florida last night, Donald Trump fired back at the not-so-veiled criticism he received Tuesday from both President Obama and Nikki Haley. On Obama: “If we had a real president, not the president who made a speech last night where everybody fell asleep and what he said, hey look, so sad.” On Haley, per NBC’s Ali Vitali: “Nikki Haley, a very nice woman, she said I’m an angry person, and they said to me, ‘They said you were an angry person,’ I thought, I said, ‘I am, I'm very angry because I hate what's happening to our country. I am angry, I’m very angry.’” And it wasn’t just Obama and Haley whom Trump singled out. “I don't like this mic, whoever the hell brought this mic system, don’t pay this son of a bitch to put it in, I'll tell you, these people, no this mic is terrible. Stupid mic keeps popping, do you hear that George? Don't pay him, don’t pay him.”

Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll of Iowa

Hillary 42%, Bernie 40%: Turning to the Democratic race, remember when we told you yesterday that Hillary Clinton is feeling the pressure? Well, the new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll of Iowa shows almost EXACTLY what our NBC/WSJ/Marist poll showed earlier this week: Hillary Clinton is barely ahead in the Hawkeye State, 42%-40%, with Martin O’Malley at 4%. From the Des Moines Register: “The tightening race is not because of a surge in support for Sanders, the poll indicates. His support has risen just 1 percentage point in the past month. But Clinton has seen her support slide from 48 percent to 42 percent. The big shift has been in the number of likely Democratic caucusgoers who say they are undecided or who plan to stand up for ‘uncommitted.’ Fourteen percent now say that, up from 8 percent a month ago.” How that undecided breaks is going to be a big story.

A tax increase or an “income-based premium”?

The Clinton and Sanders campaigns sparred over health care and Sanders’ single-payer proposal on “MTP Daily” yesterday. And one thing caught our eye: When asked if Americans’ taxes would go up under Sanders’ single-payer idea, Campaign Manager Jeff Weaver said that “income-based premiums” might been increased. The Clinton campaign argues to us that if Sanders REALLY isn’t an ordinary politician, his campaign should flatly admit that taxes -- not “income-based premiums” -- are going to go up for everyone to pay for a single-payer plan. Then again, this is tough terrain for the Clinton campaign to prosecute with Democratic and liberal voters. Discussing tax increases, Weaver said, is engaging in “Republican talking points. This is a Democratic primary.”

On the trail

Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee, who will participate in the undercard debate tonight, have earlier events in South Carolina… Bernie Sanders stumps in New Hampshire… And Martin O’Malley is in Iowa.

Countdown to NBC/YouTube debate in SC: 3 days

Countdown to Iowa: 18 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 26 days

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