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First Read: What Has Changed Heading Into the Second GOP Debate

Image: Top-Polling GOP Candidates Participate In First Republican Presidential Debate

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 06: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appears on the large video screen hanging abouve the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The top-ten GOP candidates were selected to participate in the debate based on their rank in an average of the five most recent national political polls. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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.

What has changed heading into the second GOP debate

This week’s big political event is the second Republican debate on Wednesday. And it’s worth recapping what has changed in the month since the first one:

  • Donald Trump has solidified his lead in the polls, and the critical coverage he received in July/August has been replaced by a perception that he’s bulletproof -- at least for now;
  • Ben Carson has surged into second place, despite what originally seemed like a lackluster performance at the first debate and despite very little campaign activity;
  • Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have dropped -- with Walker’s fall even more striking than Hillary Clinton’s decline over the past month;
  • On the issues front, the Iran deal is essentially a done deal, while the odds of a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood have increased;
  • Carly Fiorina has made it to the main debate stage, with CNN changing its debate criteria to allow for 11 to participate in the main debate, instead of the 10 we saw last month;
  • And Rick Perry became the first casualty of the GOP race after he dropped out on Friday afternoon. That means that there will be one fewer Republican on the smaller debate stage Wednesday.

One other thing worth noting: There is going to be a significant time gap between Wednesday’s debate and the next one (in late October). That means some extra pressure on the GOP candidates -- and maybe even more incentive to go a bit negative. Remember, the current fundraising quarter ends on Sept. 30.

If he wants to win, Biden doesn’t have until October/November to make up his mind

On the Democratic side, something has changed, too, in the last month: The increased buzz and chatter that Vice President Joe Biden might jump into the race amid Hillary Clinton’s declining poll numbers. Bloomberg News reports that Biden met with a top Obama bundler, but it also contains this news: “[A]ccording to multiple sources familiar with the planning under way, Bidenworld is now gaming out, and perhaps even leaning towards, a new timetable—with the vice president waiting until late October or early November to join the race.” But as we’ve said before, Biden potentially waiting another month to start raising money limits how credible of a campaign he could mount. Remember, a sitting vice president running for the White House is an EXPENSIVE endeavor -- with his security apparatus, Biden can't fly coach on Southwest Airlines to Iowa and New Hampshire. If he’s going to run and build the organization that would make him a credible candidate (built for the general), he needs to get in ASAP.

Christie: “Let’s stop reading the newspapers”

On “Meet the Press” yesterday, Chris Christie downplayed an alleged quid pro quo involving his former head of the New Jersey/New York Port Authority, David Samson, and United Airlines (which forced the resignation of United’s CEO). When one of us asked Christie about this story -- as well as his other former aides who were ensnared by the Bridge-gate scandal -- Christie replied, “I've set an incredibly high standard for all of our people to have to reach every day. And I hold them to that standard. And here's what a real leader does: You can't, when you have 60,000 people working for you…” But that prompted this immediate follow-up: Samson, described as Christie’s political mentor, was no ordinary state employee. Christie’s answer: “First of all, you have absolutely no idea. You have no idea, as you sit here today, that he did anything wrong. Nor does anybody else. And so let's stop just reading the newspapers… Let's stop reading the newspapers and just blathering back what that is, okay?... When you have all these folks working for you, and David included, the fact is that you hold them to high standards. And if they don't meet those high standards, what a decisive leader does is you take action and you terminate them.”

By that standard, the GOP should no longer criticize Hillary over her emails

Stop reading the newspapers? There’s no proof yet that Samson did anything wrong? By those same standards, then the Republican Party shouldn’t be criticizing Hillary Clinton over her emails -- since those stories have been advanced by the newspapers and since Clinton hasn’t been charged of any crime.

Polls galore!

According to results from a new national MSNBC/Marist poll, Hillary Clinton defeats Donald Trump (53%-40%), Jeb Bush (49%-45%), Marco Rubio (50%-44%), and Ted Cruz (52%-41%) in hypothetical general-election matchups. But Biden’s leads over the same Republicans is even bigger – 56%-38% vs. Trump, 50%-42% vs. Bush, 50%-42% vs. Rubio, and 54%-39% over Cruz. Meanwhile, a new national Washington Post/ABC poll shows Trump (at 33%) and Carson (at 20%) leading the GOP field, as Clinton (at 42%), Sanders (at 24%), and Biden (at 21%) top the Dem field.

Walker goes after the unions

Per the AP: "At a town hall meeting in Las Vegas, Walker will propose:

  • Eliminating unions for employees of the federal government.
  • Making all workplaces right-to-work unless individual states vote otherwise.
  • Scrapping the federal agency that oversees unfair labor practices.
  • Making it more difficult for unions to organize.

Many of Walker’s proposals are focused on unions for workers at all levels of government, while others would also affect private-sector unions. Labor law experts said such an effort, if successful, would substantially reduce the power of organized labor in America."

Perry becomes first candidate to drop out of 2016 contest

On Friday afternoon, Rick Perry became the first presidential candidate -- Republican or Democrat -- to drop out of the 2016 race, winnowing the GOP field from 17 candidates to 16. “We have a tremendous field – the best in a generation – so I step aside knowing our party is in good hands, and as long as we listen to the grassroots, the cause of conservatism will be, too,” he said on Friday at the Eagle Forum confab in Missouri. “I share this news with no regrets. It has been a privilege and an honor to travel this country, to speak with the American people about their hopes and dreams, to see a sense of optimism prevalent despite a season of cynical politics.” The reality is that Perry was a MUCH better candidate this time than in 2011-2012. But to quote the 21st Century philosopher Eminem, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime…”

On the trail

Hillary Clinton stumps in Iowa, hitting Cedar Falls and Decorah… Donald Trump holds a 7:00 pm ET rally in Dallas, TX… Chris Christie is in New Hampshire… Scott Walker outlines his plans on unions at 7:30 pm ET in Las Vegas… And Bernie Sanders campaigns in Virginia.

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