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Trump’s GOP rivals align with him on policy at latest debate

First Read is your briefing from the NBC News Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
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From left, Republican presidential candidates former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the NewsNation Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Wednesday.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Happening this Friday: Hunter Biden gets hit with nine tax-related charges in new indictment… President Biden holds an infrastructure event in Las Vegas at 5:45 pm ET before hitting a fundraiser in Los Angeles… New York Democrats pick Tom Souzzi as their candidate for George Santos’ old seat… Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy campaign in Iowa, while Chris Christie and Dean Phillips are in New Hampshire… And on Saturday, Donald Trump speaks to the New York Young Republican Club.

But FIRST… What stands out from Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate is how Donald Trump’s top rivals criticized him on his style, his age and his lack of follow-through — yet they didn’t really break from the former president on policy. 

When asked for a response to Trump’s call to ideologically screen immigrants, Ron DeSantis said he largely agreed. “We’re not taking anyone from Gaza because of the antisemitism and because they reject American culture. So we’ve got to get smarter about this. We cannot let the United States be like Europe.”

Nikki Haley said, “I don’t think that you have a straight-up Muslim ban — as much as you look at the countries that have terrorist activity that want to hurt Americans. You do, you can ban those people from those countries.” 

And when asked to react to Trump’s “dictator on Day 1” remarks on the border and drilling, DeSantis downplayed the comments, saying they would amount to another broken promise by Trump. 

“I would just remind people that is not how he governed. He didn’t even fire Dr. Fauci; he didn’t fire Christopher Wray; he didn’t clean up the swamp.”

Now Haley did object to Trump’s deficit spending. And Chris Christie, as we wrote yesterday, objected to almost everything related to Trump. 

But less than six weeks until the Iowa caucuses, Trump has already won inside in the Republican Party before a single vote has been cast, because neither DeSantis nor Haley wants to distance themselves from Trump’s most controversial policies and programs.  

Then again, as Vivek Ramaswamy said Wednesday, it’s hard for both Trump’s former U.N. ambassador and the gubernatorial candidate he endorsed to 100% break away from the ex-president. 

“Ron DeSantis, you’ve been a great governor, but you would have never been one without actually begging Donald Trump for that endorsement. Same thing for Nikki Haley,” he said.

Headline of the day

The number of the day is … 9

That’s how many new tax-related charges Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son, is facing, according to new documents filed Thursday in Los Angeles. 

The charges allege that Hunter Biden “failed to pay taxes, failed to file, evaded an assessment and filed a fraudulent form,” write NBC News’ Sarah Fitzpatrick, Ken Dilanian, Tom Winter and Megan Lebowitz. 

In a statement, special counsel David Weiss, who brought the charges, said, “[Biden] chose not to pay at least $1.4 million in self-assessed federal taxes he owed for tax years 2016 through 2019 and to evade the assessment of taxes for tax year 2018 when he filed false returns.”

The White House did not comment on the charges, but Hunter Biden’s attorney claimed he paid his taxes in full more than two years ago and that if his “last name was anything other than Biden, the charges in Delaware, and now California, would not have been brought.”

Eyes on 2024: More debate drama for the GOP 

The future of 2024 GOP primary debates remains in flux as two TV networks announced Thursday that they plan to hold debates that are not sanctioned by the Republican National Committee. 

CNN announced that it plans to hold a debate in Iowa on Jan. 10 and New Hampshire on Jan. 21 ahead of those states’ contests, and ABC announced its own plans for a New Hampshire debate with WMUR-TV three days earlier, on Jan.18, five days before the state’s primary. 

The announcements came shortly after DeSantis said Thursday that he hopes for a one-on-one debate with Haley, per NBC News’ Alex Tabet. 

DeSantis signaled that he could participate in the debates next month, sharing the debate announcements on X and writing that he is looking forward to debating.  

The RNC currently bars candidates who want to participate in RNC debates from participating in unsanctioned debates, but the committee is considering lifting that prohibition. Tabet and NBC’s Garrett Haake write that the RNC “is expected to let candidates decide whether they want to participate in additional debates,” per a source familiar with the committee’s deliberations.  

In other campaign news …  

Staff shifts: Americans for Prosperity staffers upset with the group’s decision to endorse Haley have joined the super PAC backing DeSantis, including a New Hampshire operative becoming the latest staffer to make the jump, per NBC’s Katherine Doyle.  

Trump trials: A federal judge in Arizona dismissed a lawsuit this week that aimed to keep Trump off the state’s ballot for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. And Trump was back in court Thursday, attending his civil fraud trial in New York. 

Fact check: NBC’s David Ingram digs into Haley’s claim during Wednesday’s debate that TikTok users are more likely to become antisemitic and support Hamas. 

Phillips’ fight: Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., plans to file challenges with the Democratic National Committee and state parties that have left him off of the Democratic primary ballot, per Semafor. 

Taking sides: The National Republican Senatorial Committee's chairman, Steve Daines, R-Mont., told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the committee will support businessman Eric Hovde’s Senate bid. Hovde has yet to announce a run, but Daines said Hovde will jump into the race. 

A special pick for Suozzi: New York Democrats on Thursday selected former Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi as their nominee for the special election to replace former GOP Rep. George Santos. Republicans are expected to select their nominee early next week. GOP leaders are interviewing more than 20 candidates, and they’re working with a firm to conduct background research on the contenders after Santos fabricated much of his background.  

New map: Georgia Republicans approved a new congressional map Thursday, dismantling one majority-minority district to create a court-ordered majority-Black district, NBC News’ Jane C. Timm reports.  

Open seat alert: Rep. Kathy Manning, D-N.C., announced that she will not seek re-election, after North Carolina Republicans drew a new congressional map that makes her seat Republican-leaning.

Tomorrow’s Election Day: Voters will head to the polls Saturday in Houston’s mayoral runoff election, selecting between two Democratic candidates — Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire.

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world  

NBC News’ Scott Wong and Julie Tsirkin explore Speaker Mike Johnson’s inner circle, which includes Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

The House on Thursday voted to censure Rep. Jamaal Bowman for pulling a fire alarm in a congressional building in September.

A Texas judge on Thursday granted a temporary restraining order against the state’s strict abortion ban, allowing a pregnant woman to get an abortion in the state because her fetus has a fatal diagnosis.