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First Read: The Summer of Outsiders

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 Outsiders Club

Of the 2016 candidates who can be said to be having a “moment” this August, all of them have something in common: They’re outsiders who upend what we traditionally think about politics. There’s Trump, who’s, well, Trump. Then there are Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, neither of whom have held public office before, showing signs of post-debate mini-surges. And Ted Cruz, famed for jamming a wrench in the government’s gears, is on the move upwards too in the latest series of polls, including the CNN/ORC poll of Iowa Republicans out yesterday. Here’s a number we noticed inside the new CNN poll: Asked which candidate is most likely to change the way things work in Washington, here were the top four: Trump (44 percent!), Carson (9 percent), Cruz (8 percent), Fiorina (7 percent). And by the way, the Democrat who’s enjoying his own moment right now is Bernie Sanders, who’s operated outside of the two-party system for most of his career. More than any policy positions, any previous experience, or any personal narratives, this is a top criteria that voters are hinging their early choices upon: Who can smash up D.C. and drive its politicos and eggheads the most crazy?

War (with Trump). What is it good for?

One name we didn’t mention in the category of “outsider” was the candidate who started off believing he’d be the party’s big maverick: Rand Paul. It’s dark days for Team Paul – he’s struggling in polls, dealing with a close ally’s indictment, and engaging in a full-throttle war with Donald Trump. In the most direct and personal challenge to Trump yet, Paul is on the stump doing his best impressions of Trump’s bluster (“You know the reason I tell woman they’re ugly is because I’m so good-lookin!”) and accusing him of “purchasing access.” Here’s the thing: Donald Trump likes to say that the last two candidates who tried to take him on, Lindsey Graham and Rick Perry, are in a worse position NOW than they were before. Does he have a point? And if he does, could the end result for Rand Paul look different?

Critical acclaim, but no bump

Speaking of the aforementioned politicos and eggheads, plenty of them gave Marco Rubio and John Kasich the best reviews for their debate performance last week (including us, by the way.) Both men stood out in Cleveland for getting their messages across and smartly leveraging their political assets, but the payoff just has not been there in the polls. The latest CNN/ORC Iowa poll shows Rubio stuck at five percent; he’s at just four percent in the newest FPU/Herald New Hampshire poll. Yes, we know that Kasich has jumped to third place in New Hampshire, but that’s probably a lot more about his team dropping $4 million in ads in the Granite State and drowning out all of his competition than it is about his debate chops. Right now, it’s all about the outsiders – and it’s a good reminder that how professionals judge a debate vs how primary voters assess it can reflect two completely different world views.

Hillary Clinton gets a good headline out of Iowa

The latest CNN/ORC poll of Iowa Democrats won Clinton a relieving headline after yesterday’s double-whammy of one tough poll in New Hampshire and a new round of email dustups. She’s way ahead in the key state, sitting at 50 percent with likely caucus-goers, compared to 31 percent for Bernie Sanders. But there are two ways to look at these numbers: 1) it’s a commanding lead that shows that Democrats are standing by their frontrunner, or 2) Clinton’s only at 50 percent against rivals with a fraction of her fundraising haul (Sanders) or with no official 2016 infrastructure at all (Joe Biden.) One thing worth noting: Joe Biden’s inclusion in these recent polls might be depressing Clinton’s number a little bit; if Biden doesn’t run, CNN notes that a majority of his supporters in Iowa would be poised to reallocate to Team Hillary.

Dispatches from the trail

NBC’s Jordan Frasier reports that Jeb Bush was interrupted by ‘Black Lives Matter’ protesters last night in Las Vegas. NBC’s Danny Freeman talks to a voter in Iowa who explains why she switched from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. And NBC’s Kailani Koenig reports that Rand Paul blasted Donald Trump in New Hampshire as a “reality star” who claims “I must be smart, I’m rich!”

A programming note

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so First Read is going to take a breather tomorrow. We’ll be back on Monday. Have a great weekend, folks.

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