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First Read: Who Stood Out in the First GOP Primary Debate?

GOP debate: Donald Trump steals spotlight at rowdy event 3:21

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.

Rubio, Kasich stand out in first GOP debate

We’ve seen plenty of things in American politics over the years, but we’ve never seen a debate quite like that -- especially for a first primary-season debate. And the reason was pretty simple: It was Donald Trump’s debate. Yet given all of the attention on Trump, two Republicans stood out to us: Marco Rubio and John Kasich. What Rubio did was steal moments (when talking about immigration, the Democratic Party) and get his message across -- that he’s the generational contrast to Hillary Clinton. Kasich, meanwhile, certainly benefitted from the home-state crowd and used it to his advantage. If you’re Hillary Clinton, Rubio and Kasich standing out is probably not the result you wanted: Both are POTENTIALLY formidable general-election candidates, but they have difficult paths to winning the GOP nomination. That said, Democrats smelled blood on Rubio’s answer that he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

Marco Rubio: I don’t believe America is ‘losing to everyone’ 2:59

A little perspective on first debates

But don’t forget: Who was the winner of the first Democratic debate in 2007? From our recollection, it was John Edwards. And who didn’t quite look that great at that April 2007 showdown? Barack Obama. Translation: What’s more important is how these candidates improve over the course of the primary reason -- instead of how they performed in their first debate.

Trump vs. Fox News

Does he continue to defy political gravity? Or does he fall back down to earth? We’ll say this about Donald Trump: He didn’t change one iota in the debate, as NBC’s Perry Bacon writes. He was the only Republican who refused to rule out an independent presidential bid; he quipped, “Our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid”; when Fox’s Megyn Kelly asked him about past demeaning comments he’s made about women, he replied, “Only [about] Rosie O’Donnell”; and he stood by his past opposition to the Iraq war and support for universal health care. Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold. But make no mistake: Fox News and its moderators went after him from the get-go -- almost as if Roger Ailes wanted to knock him out of the GOP race. (That’s the way to look at the VERY first question about whether the GOP candidates, and especially Trump, would launch a third-party bid.) Trump fired back at Fox. “I think my questions were somewhat unfair, but it’s fine. I really enjoyed it,” he told “Morning Joe” earlier this morning. “I’m not sure that Fox is fair… I’ve been set up before, and I think I handled it well.” Here’s the question we have going forward: How does conservative media (Fox, others) cover Trump in the next 72 hours. That could help determine if he continues to defy political gravity, or if he comes back down to earth.

On Jeb Bush and Scott Walker

We’ve covered Rubio, Kasich, and Trump -- now it’s time to turn to Jeb Bush’s performance. He was hesitant and even looked a bit nervous at the tough questions that came his way. Jeb did get better as time went on, however. But Trump gave Jeb a big pass when he took the high road on their exchange over Trump’s tone. If Republican primary voters are going to demand that their eventual GOP nominee be a fighter (against Hillary, Obama, the Democratic Party), Jeb has some work to do on this front. As for Scott Walker, he had some nice answers for Iowa caucus-goers (on abortion, Planned Parenthood, his faith). But he seemed more of an afterthought than you’d expect from a co-frontrunner.

Christie vs. Paul

The national-security exchange between Chris Christie and Rand Paul was easily the most heated -- and personal – part of the debate. But it felt so familiar, since it seemed to be a sequel to the national-security fights between Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul, Rand’s father. Because their exchange seemed SO familiar, it didn’t stand out as much in retrospect.

Who didn’t stand out

So we were wrong about Mike Huckabee maybe being the surprise performer -- given his past presidential debating experience (and performances). The former Arkansas governor just didn’t stand out. Ted Cruz was Ted Cruz, but he didn’t have any moments. And then there’s Ben Carson. When maybe you’re best quip of the night in the first hour was “I wasn’t sure I was gonna get to talk again,” you had a bad night. By the way, here’s an NBC video on all of the different GOP zingers aimed at Hillary Clinton.

The undercard debate didn’t help any of the seven Republicans who participated, including Fiorina

Yes, Carly Fiorina performed best at the undercard debate. But make no mistake: The audience and format diminished everyone who was on that stage.

Schumer comes out against Iran deal, but it looks like the White House is going to have the votes it needs

The biggest news outside of the debate(s) last night was Sen. Chuck Schumer’s opposition to the Iran deal. His substance was scathing; he pretty much used Bibi Netanyahu’s rhetoric/rationale against the deal. But two points here. First, the announcement came smack dab in the middle of the GOP debate -- almost as if Schumer wanted to bury the news and its impact. Two, he doesn’t sound like someone willing to campaign forcefully against the Iran deal. “While I will certainly share my view and try to persuade them that the vote to disapprove is the right one, in my experience with matters of conscience and great consequence like this, each member ultimately comes to their own conclusion,” he said, per the New York Times. Bottom line: President Obama and the White House need just 34 votes to prevent a veto override, and it’s pretty clear those votes are there -- especially after folks like Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (Schumer’s NY colleague), Tim Kaine, and Angus King all now support the Iran deal. And here’s how to judge the extent of Schumer’s opposition: Does he stay off of weekend TV? That will be your big tell.

Yes, Hillary took a selfie with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West

Our final news about last night: Hillary Clinton took a selfie with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West at a California fundraiser.

On the trail

Jeb Bush holds a town hall in New Hampshire at 6:30 pm ET… Hillary Clinton hits fundraisers in La Jolla, CA and McAllen, TX… Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul campaign in South Carolina… Martin O’Malley stumps in Iowa… And Scott Walker makes a campaign stop in Cleveland at 11:30 am ET.

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