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First Read is the NBC Political Unit’s morning briefing on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.

Cruz takes the social-conservative path in ‘16 GOP contest

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is the first major 2016 candidate to officially announce a presidential bid. And his kickoff speech this morning at Liberty University -- the school that the late conservative Christian leader Jerry Falwell founded -- is the big giveaway on his approach to relevancy in the GOP presidential contest. He is taking the evangelical/social conservative path. Since we’ve been covering American politics, the establishment path has been the tried and true way to win the GOP nomination. Think George H.W. Bush in ’88, Bob Dole in ’96, George W. Bush in ’00, John McCain in ’08, and Mitt Romney in ’12. You have to go all of the way back to ’80 with Ronald Reagan to see someone who took a more insurgent path to win the Republican nomination (and even Reagan by then was much more established and well known after his ’76 challenge against Ford). But taking the evangelical/social conservative path is certainly a way to achieve relevancy and a puncher’s shot at the nomination. Both Mike Huckabee in ’08 and Rick Santorum in ’12 took it -- by winning Iowa -- to become the major challenger to the eventual GOP nominee. And this time around, if Huckabee crashes and burns and if Scott Walker (who has the potential to win over social conservatives) doesn’t take off, this path could be wide open.

Cruz’s two challenges

But Cruz has two major challenges to overcome. One, can he raise enough money to compete? “Mr. Cruz will finance his campaign by looking to a mix of small-dollar contributors and a handful of wealthy patrons who could finance a super PAC. [Jason] Miller, the adviser to Mr. Cruz, confirmed the campaign would aim to raise at least $40 million,” the New York Times writes. And two, there’s the experience issue. Yes, there is certainly a precedent for a U.S. senator -- serving in just his third year in office -- to win the presidency. (See: Obama, Barack.) But do Republican primary voters have the appetite to nominate someone with a similar resume? All of this said, Cruz and his team deserve credit for generating 48 hours of buzz around the announcement. Given that other candidates are slated to announce next month (in order to show impressive 2nd quarter money hauls), going first certainly has its benefit.

Another reason why Cruz is such a longshot

Remember when we wrote last week that the BEST predictor of primary success during the “Invisible Primary” is endorsements from elected leaders (sitting senators, governors, House members)? Well, as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn argues, that factor is the chief reason why Cruz is such a longshot. “Mr. Cruz has done nothing to endear himself to the elites [in his own party]… A candidate with this sort of reputation is not going to have a serious shot at the nomination. If most conservative officials, operatives, leaders and pundits won’t take him seriously, voters won’t either. The elites would rally to defeat such a candidate if he ever seemed poised to win.” Indeed, can someone like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) endorse him? If not, who else will? Here is NBC’s Perry Bacon on whether Cruz can win.

The NBC/WSJ poll on where Cruz stands vs. the rest of the likely GOP field

By the way, here is our NBC/WSJ poll from earlier this month on where Cruz stands vs. the rest of the likely GOP field on the question of whether GOP primary could see themselves supporting this candidate or not. The results:

Scott Walker 53%-17% (+36)

Marco Rubio 56%-26% (+30)

Ben Carson 41%-18% (+23)

Mike Huckabee 52%-40% (+12)

Bobby Jindal 36%-25% (+11)

Rand Paul 49%-40% (+9)

Jeb Bush 49%-42% (+7)

Rick Perry 45%-40% (+5)

Ted Cruz 40%-38% (+2)

Rick Santorum 40%-40% (even)

Carly Fiorina 18%-25% (-7)

Chris Christie 32%-57% (-25)

Lindsey Graham 20%-51% (-31)

Donald Trump 23%-74% (-51)

Oh, Canada

Given that Cruz was born in Canada and given the sad chapter of “Birtherism” from our political conversation back in 2009-2011, a question some have today is: Can Cruz legally become president? The answer seems to be yes. “The weight of scholarly legal and historical opinion appears to support the notion that 'natural born Citizen' means one who is entitled under the Constitution or laws of the United States to U.S. citizenship 'at birth' or 'by birth,' including any child born 'in' the United States, the children of United States citizens born abroad, and those born abroad of one citizen parents who has met U.S. residency requirements," the Congressional Research Service wrote back in 2009, per the Atlantic. By the way, under those standards, Obama was legal to become president, even if he wasn’t born in Hawaii (although he was). Also, NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reminds us that Cruz renounced his dual Canadian citizenship back in 2014. And don’t forget: You can’t challenge someone’s eligibility to be presidential UNTIL they are president.

First Read’s Official State of the 2016 Field

Finally, with Cruz becoming the FIRST major candidate to announce a presidential bid for 2016, here is First Read’s official state of the 2016 field:

  • Presidential announcements (1): Ted Cruz (R)
  • Exploratory presidential committees filed with Federal Election Commission (1): Ben Carson (R)
  • Exploratory presidential committees NOT filed with Federal Election Commission (1): Jim Webb (D)
  • GOP Leadership PACs/527s (13): John Bolton, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker
  • Dem Leadership PACs/527s (2): Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders
  • No committees of any kind so far (2): Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton

Obama vs. Netanyahu

In an interview with Huffington Post, President Obama wasn’t buying Israeli Prime Minister’s walkback that he now supports a two-state solution -- if the conditions are right. “We take him at his word when he said [a Palestinian state] wouldn't happen during his prime ministership,” Obama said. “And so that's why we'd better evaluate what other options are available.” One of those options: The U.S. no longer blocking a two-state resolution at the United Nations. “Well, we hope that won’t happen,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer said on “Meet the Press” yesterday. “We know that the United States has stood for decades against all these anti-Israel resolutions at The United Nations. And we hope that policy continues.” The question for Israel: Does it try to fight such a resolution? Or does it try to shape it? If you missed “Meet the Press” yesterday, you can check out the highlights here in under two minutes in a segment we call ComPRESSed.

A big week for Boehner

The House speaker is trying to get two things through this week -- one, a Medicare doc-fix; two, finalizing the GOP House budget. Roll Call: “After days of closed-door whip checks and haggling on amendments, the House Budget Committee advanced its fiscal 2016 budget on March 19 by a 22-13 vote. Every Republican supported the measure in committee, but GOP leaders are unlikely to be so lucky if the bill comes to the floor next week, as leaders said it would. The Budget Committee did not vote, as defense hawks had wanted, on an amendment adding more money to an Overseas Contingency Operations fund. House Armed Services Committee Republicans have threatened to withhold their support for the budget if they don’t get additional dollars for the Pentagon, and if the 36 Republicans on the committee band together to vote against the budget, the measure would almost certainly fail. No Democrat is expected to vote for the GOP blueprint.” More Roll Call: “The ‘doc fix’ proposal has been championed by the speaker as a long-overdue first step to reining entitlement costs. A deal to come up with a more reliable Medicare payment formula for doctors had seemed in question for quite a while on Capitol Hill. But every day an agreement doesn’t blow up is a day closer to a deal.”

Murphy to run for FL SEN

Finally, as NBC’s Frank Thorp flagged, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL) is announcing his bid for Sen. Marco Rubio’s Senate seat.

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