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2020: Waiting on Biden, Beto, Bernie and Bloomberg

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

WASHINGTON — On Monday, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., became the latest Democrat to jump into the 2020 waters, joining Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as well as former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and current/former Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and John Delaney, D-Md.

And it means that there are four big questions left about the emerging Democratic presidential field. Call them the four Bs — Biden, Bernie, Beto and Bloomberg.

The first: Does former Vice President Joe Biden get into the race?

At an MLK Day breakfast in Washington yesterday, Biden confessed that he hasn’t always been right on criminal justice matters, like his authorship of the 1994 crime bill. “I haven’t always been right, I know we haven’t always done things the right way. But I’ve always tried,” he said, per NBC’s Mike Memoli.

If he enters the race, Biden would have the highest name ID and fav/unfav numbers in the field. But a lot has changed in American politics — views on criminal justice, #MeToo, the media, Trump — since his last individual contest a decade ago.

The second: Does Bernie Sanders run again?

For MLK Day, he was in South Carolina, where he seemed more like a 2020 candidate than not. (It was interesting to us that his campaign infrastructure, not his Senate office, released his prepared remarks.)

But in 2020, his progressive/anti-establishment lane will be much more crowded than it was in 2016 — with ’16 supporter Gabbard already in the contest; with another supporter, Jeff Merkley, also looking like a possibility; and, of course, with Elizabeth Warren.

The third: Does Beto O’Rourke run?

While his “Eat, Pray, Govern” road trip has generated plenty of ridicule and questions, it’s also *lowered* expectations for him, at least for the time being. If he runs, O’Rourke would be the youngest major candidate in the field, and he’d have the ability to compete for support among African American and Latino Democrats. But he’s also never faced this level of scrutiny.

And the fourth: Does former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg throw his hat into the ring?

His past Republican/independent credentials, as well as his business/Wall Street background, would definitely be a liability in a Democratic contest. But make no mistake: The millions he would be willing to spend would have an impact on the race if he runs.

None of this is to say that other Democrats thinking about entering the 2020 contest — Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown, etc. — can’t influence the Dem race or even win the nomination.

But when it comes to the overall composition of the Dem field — and the different possible lanes of support — the four Bs (Biden, Bernie, Beto and Bloomberg) are the ones to watch.

Their decisions to run — or not to run — will have an enormous impact on the race.

Kamala Harris’ three strengths and three weaknesses

As for Harris’ entry, she has three strengths and weaknesses that she’d bring to the 2020 Dem field, as one of us writes.

Strength #1: As an African-American (and Indian American), Harris has the potential to replicate the path that helped Barack Obama win the 2008 Democratic race: Win — or overperform — in Iowa, use that as a springboard to win the African-American-dominated South Carolina primary, and then run up the score in the early primaries in the South.

Strength #2: With California moving up its primary to March, Harris has the ability to rack up a significant number of delegates in her home state. The South + California strategy could be a potent combination in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Strength #3: While not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, Harris has solid progressive credentials — she supports Medicare For All, said in 2017 that she wasn’t going to vote to keep the government open unless Congress protected the DACA recipients, and was on the front lines opposing Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Bottom line: No one would mistake her as a centrist.

Weakness #1: Where progressives had taken aim, however, is Harris’s record as a prosecutor in California. “Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent,” law professor Lara Bazelon recently wrote in the New York Times.

Weakness #2: When Harris was on the statewide ballot in California in 2010, she underperformed Jerry Brown (who won his race by 13 points) and Barbara Boxer (10 points) by winning by less than a percentage point, 46.1 percent to 45.3 percent. But in 2016, Harris beat fellow Dem Loretta Sanchez by 20-plus points in the state’s Top 2 race for Senate.

Weakness #3: As a progressive Democrat from California, Harris might *not* have the ability to have an appeal to independent and swing voters as potential 2020 Dems from other states might (Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Texas’ Beto O’Rourke).

McConnell’s bill to re-open the government would change the asylum process for Central American minors

Per NBC’s Frank Thorp, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office has released the legislation representing President Donald Trump’s deal to end the government shutdown, which now begins its second month (we’re on Day 32). The major components: $5.7 billion for Trump’s border wall, as well as three years of protection for DACA recipients and those who fled certain countries and are covered under the “Temporary Protected Status” programs.

But Thorp flags something else in the legislation: It would change the asylum process for Central American minors. And that could ensure that Democrats — who are already opposed to Trump’s deal, or who demand to re-open the government first before negotiating — would be “no” votes on this bill. Remember, to pass, Republicans would need to get at least seven Dem votes in this 53-47 Senate.

NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell also flags that McConnell’s bill gives ICE an additional $1.3 billion (which many Democrats won’t like), as well as more money for disaster relief (which they would like).

Bottom line: Is McConnell’s bill a good-faith effort to resolve the government shutdown? Or is it a way to demonstrate that Trump’s border wall can’t get 60 votes in the Senate?

Giuliani retracts what he said on Sunday. How seriously should the political world take him?

On Sunday, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said on “Meet the Press” that Team Trump had conversations about the Trump Tower Moscow project throughout 2016. As we wrote yesterday:

“The conversations lasted throughout parts of 2016. The president is not sure exactly when they ended. I would say Michael Cohen would have a much better recollection of it than the president.”

When one us of pressed him on what he meant by “throughout 2016, Giuliani added, “Could be up to as far as October, November. Our answers cover until the election.”

But then yesterday afternoon — more than 24 hours later — Giuliani appeared to retract his comments:

“My recent statements about discussions during the 2016 campaign between Michael Cohen and then-candidate Donald Trump about a potential Trump Moscow ‘project’ were hypothetical and not based on conversations I had with the president. My comments did not represent the actual timing or circumstances of any such discussions. The point is that the proposal was in the earliest stage and did not advance beyond a free non-binding letter of intent.”

For all of the debate we had about that BuzzFeed story from Friday (and BuzzFeed continues to stand behind its reporting), shouldn’t we be having the same debate about Giuliani’s credibility?

How can you be the president’s lawyer and surrogate on TV if you’re going to say one thing one day, and then retract it the next?