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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News
By Mark Murray, Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann

First Read is the NBC Political Unit’s morning briefing on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter

The promise -- and pitfall -- of Paul running as the Washington outsider

Maybe the biggest takeaway from Rand Paul’s presidential announcement speech yesterday was that he’s trying to cast himself as the Washington outsider -- never a bad place to be, given Congress’ approval ratings. “The Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives must be stopped!” Paul also took a shot at his own party. “Too often, when Republicans have won, we've squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine. That's not who I am,” he said. The question, however, is whether Paul can pull this off (as a sitting senator whose father was a longtime congressman who himself ran for president three times). Remember, it was just eight years ago when another sitting senator was able to portray himself as a Washington outsider and the agent for change. And that person is now sitting in the Oval Office. But here’s the other question for Paul: How do you run against Washington when you’re ALSO still running for your current Senate seat at the same time? Don’t forget, he found a way to run for both offices, just in case the presidential bid doesn’t work out. The decision to essentially hedge his political bets here runs counter to his outsider messaging, and it’s a contradiction he’ll have to deal with at perhaps the most inopportune of times. Indeed, the Kentucky filing deadline for his Senate seat could be Jan. 26, 2016 -- potentially before the first contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Paul on “Today”

As he campaigns today in New Hampshire, Paul took questions this morning from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie on “Today.” Some of the highlights:

  • While he said he was skeptical about the Iran deal/framework, he added, “I’m going to keep an open mind… I do think negotiations are better than war.” (Essentially, he seemed to hint that if what the president said the deal was, was actually the deal, he could be for it. But he stopped short at answering that hypothetical directly.)
  • He said his past opposition to foreign aid for Israel changed, because while he opposes all foreign aid, he believes the elimination should start with countries that burn the American flag. And “Israel doesn’t burn our flag.”
  • And regarding his past statement that Iran wasn’t a threat back in 2007, Paul said that things change. “2007 was a long time ago, adding that he made that comment “when I was helping someone else run for office.” SOMEONE ELSE run for office? That’s an interesting way to refer to his father, no?

Paul the Clinton basher

Here’s a final point on Paul: He’s setting himself as the chief Clinton basher in the GOP field. Paul “repeatedly attacked the honesty of Hillary Clinton and what he called the ‘shenanigans’ of her family foundation - a window into his plan to make an issue of her character even during the Republican primaries,” Politico writes after its interview with Paul. ‘There's a lot of stuff there that is, I think, going to shake the confidence of Americans in her ability to lead in an honest fashion,’ Paul said.” And don’t forget, Paul was the first potential 2016er to bring up Monica Lewinsky a few months ago. There is a reason why Paul wants to be the early Clinton basher: It helps prove his GOP bona fides, especially when some of his views (on foreign policy, NSA spying, Cuba normalization) are VASTLY different from other Republicans.

Hillary has 16 reasons to campaign aggressively in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada

As we all wait for Hillary Clinton’s expected presidential movement this month (and possibly as early as next week!), there is a reason why you might see her campaign aggressively in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, even if she doesn’t face real primary opposition. In fact, there are 16 reasons -- the combined electoral-vote total of those early states. The logic: The money you spent and infrastructure you put into place will remain there for the general election.

Watching the Cuba story over the next week

As President Obama heads to the Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama, all eyes will be on whether he ends up meeting with Cuba’s Raul Castro -- now that the United States is pursuing normalized relations with Cuba. According to a new MSNBC/Telemundo poll, 59% of Americans approve of the United States’ diplomatic recognition of Cuba, as MSNBC’s Brooke Brower writes. Indeed, the Cuba story is something to watch over the next week – not only with Obama’s appearance at the Summit of the Americas, but also with Marco Rubio’s expected presidential announcement on Monday. The president’s Cuba rapprochement will be in the news at the same time he’s trying to sell the deal with Iran. It all certainly brings the president’s foreign-policy doctrine front and center into the presidential debate.

Watching the immigration story in 2016

Also in the MSNBC/Telemundo poll, 57% of Americans -- and 78% of Latinos -- say they approve of Obama’s executive action on immigration. And there’s news on this front, too: “A federal judge on Tuesday denied a Justice Department request to lift a temporary hold on President Barack Obama's executive action that sought to shield millions of immigrants from deportation. U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen refused to stay his Feb. 16 decision that granted a preliminary injunction requested by 26 states. The U.S. government wants the injunction lifted — allowing Obama's action to proceed — while it appeals Hanen's ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court in New Orleans.” One thing worth pointing out given how this challenge is moving through the court system: It’s VERY possible that we see a U.S. Supreme Court decision on Obama’s immigration action come in the midst of the 2016 general election, maybe even a couple of weeks before the Republican convention in Cleveland. All of this assumes whatever happens in the 5th Circuit, this case ends up in the hands of the Supremes and at this point, they likely wouldn’t take it up until the fall of this year, at the earliest, meaning it could delay a ruling until June of 2016, the end of that SCOTUS session.

Rahm wins re-election

Well, Rahm Emanuel pulled it out. NBC Chicago: “Rahm Emanuel won his re-election contest Tuesday night and bested challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to remain in charge of Chicago for another four years.” One way to look at Rahm’s ups and downs over the past couple of months: In the original round of voting, he was running against himself. But in the runoff, he got to run against someone -- and won. NBC Chicago has a great line to this effect: “It turns out voters favored the bully who talked the talk instead of the good guy who didn’t say much.”

Ferguson elects two African-American city council members

There was another election we were paying attention to last night – in Ferguson, MO. “Residents in Ferguson, Mo. Tuesday elected two black city council members, transforming the political body's racial composition after months of protests over racial profiling and police brutality,” USA Today says. “One sitting black member of the council was not up for re-election. When the two new African-American council members take their seats it will be the first time that blacks have controlled half of the council, despite the fact that two-thirds of the city's 21,000 residents are black.” It’s a reminder how things CAN change in America -- through the ballot box.

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