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First Read: Hillary Clinton Clears October Hurdles

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.

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.

Hillary’s big 10 days in October

She came. She saw. She -- take your pick -- conquered/thrived/survived. As a matter of pure political theater, yesterday’s Benghazi committee hearing was a victory for Hillary Clinton and an overwhelming defeat for House Republicans. And perhaps more importantly, it caps off the best 10-day stretch Clinton could have asked for, which includes the Oct. 13 Democratic debate (where she stood out from the Democratic pack), the Oct. 21 announcement by Joe Biden that he wasn’t running (which eliminated her biggest demographic threat), and the Oct. 22 Benghazi hearing.

At the beginning of this month, we told you how important October was going to be for Clinton’s presidential bid after her summer struggles: If she doesn’t end up as the nominee, we’ll be able to trace it back to the events in October. Conversely, if she DOES end up the nominee, it will be because of what happened in October. And so -- with the reminder that anything can happen in politics -- we think we have our answer to our October question. By the way, there’s one more important event for Clinton this month: Tomorrow’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa. Don’t be surprised if Clinton uses what happened yesterday at the Benghazi committee as a rallying cry for the Democrats in the Hawkeye State. Indeed, on-the-fence Democrats are already climbing onboard. “Hillary was ‘meh’ with a significant portion of the activist left,” Markos Moulitsas tweeted last night. “Thanks GOP, for helping change that!”

A very poor showing for House Republicans

Hillary Clinton’s goal yesterday was to survive (which she more than accomplished), while Republicans’ goal was to justify the legitimacy of the Benghazi Committee (which they failed to do). Yesterday was a really poor showing for House Republicans. What did they accomplish? They re-litigated the actual Benghazi attack, which has been debated and examined over the past three years. They almost turned Sidney Blumenthal into a sympathetic figure (which, trust us, is hard to do).

They really had no understanding of how the State Department bureaucracy works in wondering why Chris Stevens never emailed Clinton while Blumenthal did (as former Russia ambassador Michael McFaul tweeted, “I enjoyed multiple ways to communicate with Secretary Clinton. Email was never one of them”). And then Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), after the 11-hour event, had a difficult time answering the question what new was learned. How else do we know that yesterday was a disaster for Republicans? We saw more Republicans wanting to talk about President Obama’s Defense veto than what was occurring at the Benghazi committee. Bottom line: Just like at last week’s Democratic debate, Clinton was good yesterday -- not great. But she looked great compared with her opposition.

On Elijah Cummings and yesterday’s 11-hour ordeal

Here are two other points we want to make about yesterday: One, if Elijah Cummings (D-MD) decides to run for Maryland Senate, he’ll be the automatic frontrunner after yesterday, which should scare the other two Democrats running (Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen). Two, the hearing was excruciatingly long. The totals per NBC’s Frank Thorp:

  • Time including breaks: 10 hours, 59 minutes
  • Time not counting breaks: 8 hours, 17 minutes

By comparison, here are the hearing times for the past three Benghazi committee hearings:

  • Hearing 1 (9/17/2014): 2 hours, 48 minutes
  • Hearing 2 (12/10/2014): 2 hours 36 minutes
  • Hearing 3 (1/27/2015): 2 hours, 20 minutes
  • TOTAL: 7 hours, 44 minutes

But Hillary still isn’t out of the woods

A final point on Clinton and yesterday: Hillary is still not out of the woods – she still has that FBI probe. And she never really was fully held to account for supporting what is now clearly a failed Libya policy. That's what made yesterday so odd. The House Republicans spent more time on Blumenthal than on the larger policy failure. Why?

Meet your new Iowa frontrunner -- Ben Carson

For a second-straight day, an Iowa poll shows that Ben Carson is leading in the Hawkeye State. The new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll: Ben Carson 28%, Donald Trump 19%, Ted Cruz 10%, Marco Rubio 9%, and Jeb Bush and Rand Paul at 5% each. And this new poll position for Carson comes as his campaign is going up with a $500,000 buy in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada with two TV ads, NBC’s Hallie Jackson reports. While Carson is certainly not your typical politician, these TV ads are a reminder than he’s not your typical Iowa insurgent, either. Neither Mike Huckabee (in 2008) nor Rick Santorum (in 2012) had the kind of money that Ben Carson now has at his disposal.

An guess who will be Chuck Todd’s guest on this Sunday's “Meet the Press”: You got it -- Ben Carson.

Trump’s retreat on the retweet (say this three times really fast)

And by the way, Carson’s new frontrunner status in Iowa comes after Donald Trump retweeted this apparent insult at the Hawkeye State (which is now deleted): “#BenCarson is now leading in the #polls in #Iowa. Too much #Monsanto in the #corn crates issues in the brain?” Trump later blamed it on an intern: “The young intern who accidentally did a Retweet apologizes.”

And then there were just three Democrats

Finally, Lincoln Chafee this morning announced his withdrawal from the 2016 race, making him the THIRD Democrat to exit in one way or another (Jim Webb, Joe Biden, and now Chafee).

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