U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) arrives for a campaign event at the Oakbrook Preparatory School in Spartanburg, S.C., Feb. 17, 2016. 
Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

First Read: Is South Carolina getting closer?

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.

Is South Carolina Getting Closer?

Well, that’s the conclusion from our new NBC News/Wall Street/Marist poll, which shows that Donald Trump’s lead in Saturday’s South Carolina primary has declined from 16 points to five. Trump gets support from 28% of likely Republican primary voters in the state, while Ted Cruz gets 23%. They’re followed by Marco Rubio at 15%, Jeb Bush at 13%, and John Kasich and Ben Carson at 9% each.

In the January NBC/WSJ/Marist poll - conducted before this month’s Iowa and New Hampshire contests - Trump was ahead of Cruz, 36%-20%, with Rubio at 14% and Bush at 9%. All other recent public polling in South Carolina has shown Trump with a strong double-digit lead in the state. Note: This survey was conducted by a different pollster (Marist) than the one from earlier this week (Hart/McInturff) showing Trump losing his national lead.

Setting South Carolina Expectations on the GOP Side

This weekend’s contests have major consequences for the race on both sides. Here’s how the table is set for the Republicans in South Carolina Saturday:

  • Trump: Yes, most of the *other* polls out there haven’t been showing the race tightening. And yes, there’s no doubt that we could be an outlier here. But when you look at how the campaigns are actually acting, their body language matches what our poll shows: a race that isn’t necessarily a slam dunk for Trump. South Carolina is going to offer a big reveal on what’s actually going on under the hood of Trump’s frontrunner status. By the way: Don’t assume that Trump’s new war of words with Pope Francis is automatically a losing argument for him in the short term. Think about recent history: Anytime that immigration has come front and center, Trump’s numbers have been helped. Don’t be shocked if THIS particular fight on THIS particular issue oddly gives him a primary bump rather than a bust.
  • Cruz: Second place in South Carolina would be powerful, but first place is definitely preferable for him, and he certainly can’t afford to be in third. A disappointing showing for Cruz here would bring to mind parallels to past Iowa winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, and Cruz would face serious questions about how limited his room for growth beyond his base really is.
  • Rubio: Real talk here: Marco Rubio can’t have a pile of big-name endorsements, finish in third place and call it a victory. It’s simply hard to imagine how he translates a third place finish – after not breaking into the top two in either Iowa or New Hampshire – into an eventual nomination win.
  • Bush: Even his campaign is telegraphing that they can’t finish behind Rubio. As a tough new POLITICO piece points out this morning, the strong week his supporters were banking on in South Carolina just isn’t panning out, and even loyalists are finally conceding that the end could be near.
  • Kasich: Even though he has no expectations in the state, single digits in South Carolina would be a bad look for him. But a strong fourth place finish could give him some legitimacy as a candidate who could actually be built to last after his New Hampshire showing.

Clinton Still Has a Big Lead in South Carolina

In our new NBC/WSJ/Marist poll in advance of South Carolina’s Democratic primary - which will be held on Feb. 27 - Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders among likely voters by 28 points, 60%-32%. That’s down slightly from Clinton’s 64%-to-27% advantage last month. In the current poll, Sanders leads Clinton among white Democrats, 51% -46%. But Clinton crushes him among African Americans in the state, 68%-21%. Even among African Americans under the age of 45, Clinton is ahead of Sanders by 17 points, 52%-35%.

And Setting Nevada Expectations on the Democratic Side

Saturday’s Nevada contest on the Democratic side obviously has huge implications for the race going forward. If Bernie Sanders is going to puncture the idea that Clinton is the ultimate inevitable winner of this Democratic brawl, Nevada’s the state for him to prove it. The fact that he’s making it this close is impressive, but if he’s actually going to beat Clinton for the nomination, he has got to prove that he can outperform her when the electorate isn’t 90 percent white. This contest is set up as well as it can be for Sanders to win in a diverse state, so can he actually pull it off? For Clinton, it’s pretty simple. If she hangs on in Nevada, the question becomes if Sanders couldn’t beat her here, where else could he best her in a diverse state? A loss for her would mean yet another week of back-and-forth and one-upmanship when it comes to appealing to minorities. But a win would calm a lot of nervous folks in her camp.

About Last Night

The MSNBC/Telemundo Democratic forum in Las Vegas, NV featured plenty of news from both candidates on immigration, health care, and more. Here were some of the most noteworthy exchanges:

  • Clinton went there on Sanders and party affiliation: For the first time, we saw Hillary Clinton make this argument: Responding to Sanders’ criticisms of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, she said “Maybe it’s because Sen. Sanders wasn’t really a Democrat until he decided to run for president.” Now that it’s pretty clear that Sanders is winning the argument with progressives at this stage, it’s interesting that she’s making the party purity case. The question is: What do these voters care more about – who’s the true progressive or who’s the true Democrat?
  • Sanders struggled on a health care rationing question: Imagine a world where candidate Barack Obama said this phrase, uttered by Sanders last night about his health care plan: “[I]f you needed a knee replacement, or something like that, you might have to wait for that.” Every anti-Obamacare ad campaign in the country would have blasted that quote out every day. It’s the kind of question that’s going to keep haunting Sanders through this contest.
  • Clinton promised to push immigration reform in her first 100 days: She previously hadn’t made this pledge, but with two days to go til the Nevada caucuses – and in a room full of questioners with very personal and painful experiences with the immigration system, she did.
  • Clinton’s transcripts answer: I’ll release when everyone else does: Asked by a Sanders supporter about releasing her Goldman Sachs transcripts, she said “I am happy to release anything I have whenever everybody else does the same, because everybody in this race, including Sen. Sanders, has given speeches to private groups.” Our question: So, when is another candidate going to call her bluff?

Countdown to Dem Nevada caucuses: 1 day

Countdown to GOP South Carolina primary: 1 day

Countdown to GOP Nevada caucuses: 4 days

Countdown to Dem South Carolina primary: 8 days

This article first appeared on NBCNews.com

Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz

First Read: Is South Carolina getting closer?