First Read: A Viewer's Guide for Tonight's GOP Debate

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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.

A Viewer’s Guide to Tonight’s Debate

Given just how much has changed in the GOP race after the first debate and given the upcoming end to the fundraising quarter (Sept. 30!), the pressure is on for the 11 Republican candidates to perform at tonight’s second debate in California at 8:00 pm ET. We’ll find out which of the second-tier candidates (who all thought they’d be first tier by now) moves up or falls back. Think Walker, Paul, Rubio, Christie, Huckabee, and Kasich. Here’s what each candidate needs to do:

  • Donald Trump: He needs to keep defying political gravity. Once again, he’s probably going to feel like Bruce Lee in a Kung Fu movie -- with everyone (opponents, moderators) coming after him. Can he fend them off once again? He’s also a candidate in need of a second act (we think). Can he put some policy meat on the bones?
  • Ben Carson: Can the mild-mannered Carson keep the momentum he has in the polls? Once you lose it, you often don’t get it back. And this is his first time FRONT and CENTER. So he can’t just disappear for periods of a time, even if he wants to.
  • Jeb Bush: Tagged as Mr. Low Energy by Trump, Jeb needs to be able to flex his muscles -- especially with Republicans looking to see how he might fare against Hillary. He also should be prepared for other candidates NOT named Trump to come after him as a way to show off their OWN anti-establishment bona fides.
  • Marco Rubio: Maybe no one had a better debate last time around but so little to show for it afterward. He might be the most talented unscripted pol in the stage. Can he show it again?
  • Scott Walker: Maybe no one needs a strong performance more than Walker does. From first or second in the polls to 10th place, Walker needs to turn things around ASAP. As aides told NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell: "If he gets the chance to mix it up, he's going to" do that.
  • Carly Fiorina: Like Carson, she needs to keep her momentum. And with a likely clash coming with Trump, she can’t back down. (As she told CNBC's John Harwood: "Mr. Trump's going to be hearing quite a lot from me.")
  • Ted Cruz: As he’s become Robin to Trump’s Batman, can Cruz steal the spotlight, especially with a possible government shutdown looming?
  • Mike Huckabee: He sure got his Kim Davis moment a few days ago (and largely shut out Cruz from sharing the stage). With a Davis question likely coming, can Huckabee demonstrate, like he did in 2007-2008, that he still has what it takes to be the GOP’s best debate performer?
  • Rand Paul: Paul was definitely feisty in the first debate, but it didn’t get much traction. What does he do to stand out this time? Like Walker, he’s a candidate who, financially speaking, badly needs a good showing.
  • John Kasich: His advertising push in New Hampshire has paid dividends so far. Can he use this debate to catapult himself in the national polls, too?
  • Chris Christie: In addition to Walker, Christie needs a strong performance -- just to avoid being left out of the conversation heading into October’s third GOP debate.

Hillary in 2015 = Al Gore in 1999?

For some of us with long memories, we couldn’t help but feel déjà vu about this Clinton campaign. But it’s not the campaign many are trying to compare it to (the 2008 race). We are reaching back to Al Gore. It’s not a far-fetched comparison. Just look at some of the headlines about Gore at this time 16 years ago:

  • The New York Times: “Clinton Admits to Concerns As Gore Campaign Stumbles” (May 14, 1999);
  • The New York Times: “As Candidate Struggles, Gore Campaign Second Guesses Early Decisions” (Oct. 9, 1999)
  • The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank: “He's Here! And There!; Heading in all directions won't get Al Gore where he wants to go” (Dec. 19, 1999);
  • The Wall Street Journal: “Despite Problems, Gore Still Holds Some Strong Cards” (Dec. 27, 1999)

In addition to these types of headlines, Hillary Clinton in 2015 and Al Gore in 1999 share these other similarities: running for their party to hold onto the White House for a third-consecutive term, getting almost no benefit of the doubt from the press, and being held to the same standards as Bill Clinton. Indeed, Hillary and Gore both inherited much of Bill’s baggage (“You can’t trust them!” “They’re pushing the limits of what’s acceptable”) without any of the benefits (“Why can’t they connect to voters as well as Bill did?” “Why are they trying so hard to be spontaneous and approachable?”). Hillary has the email server and “didn’t knowingly send classified info”, Gore had the Buddhist Temple and “No controlling legal authority.” It’s a tough act for any politician to follow in Bill Clinton’s footsteps -- or Barack Obama’s. But do remember this: Despite all of the tough headlines he received, despite all of the focus on “earth tones,” and despite all of the attention on his debate sighs, Al Gore won every single primary over Bill Bradley, he won the popular vote in the general election, and arguably a Ralph Nader and a Pat Buchanan kept him from winning the Electoral College.

Two key differences between now and 1999

Of course, there are two significant differences between now and 1999: One, there isn’t a huge sex scandal (Monica Lewinsky! Ken Starr! Impeachment!) dominating the headlines and national environment. And two, the U.S. economy, while definitely improving, isn’t humming along the way it was in 1999 or 2000. Still, the Hillary-Gore comparisons are hard to ignore. Perhaps the bottom line is that that both of them have/had a Bill problem. And since neither has the natural political talent/instincts to replicate Bill, neither ever quite convinces/convinced the party to totally fall in love with them.

Hillary’s big October

Speaking of Hillary, October is shaping up to be a very BIG month for her. There’s that first Democratic debate on Oct. 13; the Benghazi Committee hearing on Oct. 22; and the Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech in Iowa on Oct. 24. So October provides Clinton with opportunities to turn around the narrative of her campaign. Or it could attract more political buzzards. Or it could be somewhere in between.

Gator vs. Seminole fight!

If you like politics and college football, don’t miss this exchange via Political Wire:

Marco Rubio on KXNO-AM: “Look, I don’t have anything against Florida State. I think there has to be a school where people who can’t get into University of Florida can go to college.”

FSU President John Thrasher (who has endorsed Jeb Bush): “He’s a nice kid. I’m sure he’s frustrated by his low standing in the polls, which I believe could be a reflection of where he got his education.”

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