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Has the Dem race become a referendum on Sanders, not Clinton?

The contest has turned into a referendum on Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton — or at least that's what the Clinton campaign is attempting.
Bernie Sanders arrives at a rally for students at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., Feb. 6, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)
Bernie Sanders arrives at a rally for students at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., Feb. 6, 2016.

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.

Has the Democratic race turned into a referendum on Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton?

A remarkable turn of events is now taking place in the Democratic presidential race: The contest has turned into a referendum on Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton -- or at least that's what the Clinton campaign is attempting. That's our takeaway from last night's debate, where Clinton tried to poke holes in Sanders' plans ("The numbers don't add up"), his grasp of foreign policy ("I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is"), his relationship with the president ("This is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama"), and his ability to be more than a one-dimensional president ("I do not believe we live in a single-issue country"). We get why the Clinton campaign wants this kind of fight -- they feel like it's the only way that Sanders will get the same kind of vetting and scrutiny that Clinton has received over the past several months. Still, it's a stunning development, even as it might be her best path to victory.

Clinton was the better debater, but Sanders is improving

As far as judging the individual performances at the debate, Clinton was the better debater last night. But Sanders is also improving at these events. In fact, he was much better on foreign policy than he was a week ago in New Hampshire (though he is still too reliant on bringing up the 2002 Iraq war vote even on questions that have nothing to do about it). You can see why Clinton wants more debates, but you can also see Sanders' improvement, too. By the way, their opening statements last night showed how each is trying to address their weakness. For Clinton, it was talking more about voters' frustrations about a rigged economy and about her overall vision. "I'm running for president to knock down all the barriers that are holding Americans back, and to rebuild the ladders of opportunity that will give every American a chance to advance, especially those who have been left out and left behind," she said. That was the closest thing we've heard in a while for a message-laden rationale for her candidacy. For Sanders, it was talking more about criminal-justice reform to appeal to minority voters. "They see kids getting arrested for marijuana, getting in prison, getting a criminal record, while they see executives on Wall Street who pay billions of dollars in settlements and get no prosecution at all." Both candidates made their pivots to addressing African-American voters obvious last night, sometimes painfully and ham-handedly so.

Donald Trump, alpha candidate

One of us last night observed a focus group of 10 South Carolina GOP voterssponsored by The Riley Institute at Furman University and moderated by NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). One big takeaway: While many of the participants had deep reservations about Donald Trump and what his rise says about the state of the party and the country, almost all were convinced that he would win the state's primary contest next Saturday, and all said that they would support him over Hillary Clinton in a general election matchup. A majority called Trump divisive, yet most also said he's had a net positive effect on the party by engaging disaffected voters in the political process. Asked to describe him in a single word, his detractors called him "flashy," "dogmatic," "narcissistic," "divisive," "greedy," and "braggadocio," while his pair of diehard supporters called him "inspirational" and a "leader." Only one named him as the most electable candidate in a general election, and none raised their hands when asked if Trump speaks to "our better angels." "Donald Trump is the alpha candidate. He's polarizing. He's exasperating. He's also mesmerizing," Hart told NBC News. "You can feel that even those people who are not voting for him in the primary, everyone seems to admit that he's going to win. There's sort of a foregone conclusion that there really isn't a second competitor or somebody who's crowding him."

Mixed reviews

One 2016 hopeful who didn't have a standout night with this focus group -- which was heavily tinged with references to evangelicalism and moral values -- was Ted Cruz. The words used to describe the Texas senator included: "negative," "divisive," "opportunist," "family," "doctrinaire," "new face," "car salesman," and "moral." "He's shady," said one Trump supporter of Cruz. "I wouldn't want to be in a foxhole with him." A majority worried about what his strained relationships in the Senate say about his electability. "Despite the importance of religion to this group, you didn't feel that Ted Cruz scored or that Donald Trump was penalized" for their respective religious views, said Hart. With the group, both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush received generally positive reviews -- and although Rubio's bad debate on Saturday night didn't go unnoticed, he also won descriptions as a "fresh face" and a palatable general election candidate who could help unite the party.

The word association game

Here are the word associations for each GOP candidate as well as for other state and national pols from last night's focus group:

  • Nikki Haley: strong great leader, leader, CEO, polished
  • Ted Cruz: negative, divisive, opportunist, family, doctrinaire, new face, car salesman, moral
  • Barack Obama: slimy, lame duck, problems, untruthful, professor, pants on fire, evil, glad it's over, indecisive
  • Jeb Bush: leader, old school, political family, good executive leader, doer, smart, practiced, as dumb as his brother
  • Tim Scott: really an honest guy, promising, great senator, future leader, great man
  • John Kasich: optimistic, good businessman, second choice, still learning about him, good governor
  • Donald Trump: leader, flashy, alpha dog, rich, dogmatic, narcissistic, inspirational, divisive, greedy, braggadocio
  • Lindsey Graham: foreign policy, fence-sitter, old school politician, good senator
  • Hillary Clinton: deceitful, damaged goods, murderer, liar, liar, strong-willed, sketchy, unethical, dishonest
  • Marco Rubio: rising star, fresh face, strong politician, flip-flopper, immigration, finish your time as senator first, needs experience
  • Ben Carson: wonderful, well spoken, role model, controls his spirit, smart, not politically experienced, fine gentleman
  • Bernie Sanders: idealist, loony, more honest than Hillary, socialist, communist, disruptor, dedicated, slimy

Team Cruz's creative ads

While Ted Cruz didn't get great reviews at last night's focus group, here's one thing you can say about his campaign: They're running some of the most creative ads, even if they have to pull one because it featured a former soft-porn actress (!!!). Here's the Cruz ad portraying Trump an action figure. And here's the adhitting Rubio (with a cameo from that soft-porn actress). The Cruz ads stand out because so many of the other campaigns are running cookie-cutter formulaic spots.

Hillary's Super PAC comes to the rescue in South Carolina -- but at a price

Turning back to the Democratic race, the Washington Post reports that the pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA is launching a radio ad ($500,000 buy) for Clinton in South Carolina, as well as spending $4.5 million to get out the vote among African Americans in the Palmetto State. "The early engagement by Priorities USA Action — which originally planned to hold its fire for the general election — marks the first major infusion of super-PAC money on Clinton's behalf and underscores how crucial South Carolina has become in her battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont." But this Super PAC involvement comes with a downside: It allows Sanders and his campaign to bring up the deep-pocketed contributors who are giving unlimited contributions to the Super PAC. And it's a reflection that Clinton needs the Super PAC's help just to keep up with Sanders' small-donor juggernaut. Speaking of outside groups, don't miss this Club for Growth TV ad hitting Trump in South Carolina.

On Meet the Press this weekend: Donald Trump and John Kasich

On the trail

Hillary Clinton campaigns in Denmark, SC… Bernie Sanders stumps in Minneapolis, MN before attending a dinner with Clinton in St. Paul, MN… Bill Clinton heads to Cincinnati, OH… Donald Trump holds an evening rally in Tampa, FL… Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz all attend a "Faith & Family" forum in Greenville, SC.

Countdown to Dem Nevada caucuses: 8 days

Countdown to GOP South Carolina primary: 8 days

Countdown to GOP Nevada caucuses: 11 days

Countdown to Dem South Carolina primary: 15 days 

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