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The first GOP debate could make or break these 10 candidates

Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and six other top GOP contenders take the stage tonight in Cleveland for the first big debate of the campaign.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and possible Republican presidential candidate speaks during the Rick Scott's Economic Growth Summit held at the Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Convention Center on June 2, 2015 in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and possible Republican presidential candidate speaks during the Rick Scott's Economic Growth Summit held at the Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Convention Center on June 2, 2015 in Orlando, Fla.

Republicans -- and Trump -- take center stage, and here’s what to expect… Remember, first impressions are everything… On the issues and the tactics… The NBC/WSJ poll on how the GOP has warmed up to Trump… Where America and the parties stand on what to do with the undocumented immigrants in the country… And Obama tries to turn Iran deal into D-vs-R issue, but is he missing an opportunity to win over more of the public?

FIRST THOUGHTS: Republicans -- and Trump -- take center stage, and here’s what to expect

CLEVELAND -- One of us is here just outside of the first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential cycle, and the atmosphere is … electric. All of the media, TV trucks, conversation -- it feels more like a political convention or general-election debate than your first primary-season debate. And rest assured, it will probably get the largest TV audience for a primary-season debate, at least for one held on cable TV. Here is what to expect from each of the 10 GOP candidates participating:

  • Donald Trump: With all eyes on him, he’s smartly downplayed expectations and has emphasized that he intends to play nice. But he also has to deliver the same toughness and channel the same anger fueling his rise in the GOP polls.
  • Jeb Bush: As we wrote yesterday, maybe no one has more on the line than Bush does. He’s had a rough last week -- especially as Hillary Clinton has used him as a punching bag. And here’s the thing: He’s the most well-known unknown person (due to his last name) on that debate stage.
  • Scott Walker: He has the buzz and the record, but does he look the part? That will be his biggest challenge of the night.
  • Marco Rubio: Ditto. And he can’t afford to disappear at the debate -- as he has disappeared from the 2016 scene these past few weeks.
  • Mike Huckabee: If you want to place an early bet on the best performer of the night, Huckabee would be a smart call. He is the only one of the 10 who has actually participated in a presidential debate before. And he was routinely the best performer in the 2007-2008 debates.
  • Ted Cruz: Can he handle the 60-second time limits and come across a bite more likeable than his perception, especially in DC?
  • Ben Carson: His low-key demeanor could be a weakness. Can he display some fire and passion that don’t come across in his interviews?
  • Chris Christie: He’s used to being the center of attention, but can he handle being on the outside looking in? How does he assert himself?
  • John Kasich: Ditto.
  • Rand Paul: Make no mistake: The Jesse Benton indictment has rocked the Ron/Rand Paul World, and the campaign needs a major pick-me-up from this debate.

*** First impressions are everything: Remember, while we’ve been following these GOP candidates for months, this debate is going to be the first impression that many Americans -- and Republican voters -- get of them. As a result, there’s a fine line between trying to be the Alpha Dog and looking desperate. This is maybe one of the reasons why first debates TYPICALLY have so few actual fireworks. The fireworks usually come at the later debates. One last point here: So far, the normal rules haven’t applied to Donald Trump. Just look at the two Republicans who tried to pick a fight with him: Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham. They didn’t make the main debate. Let’s rock-n-roll in Cleveland. The main debate starts on Fox News at 9:00 pm ET, and the earlier debate (for the candidates who didn’t make the main event) starts at 5:00 pm ET.

*** On the issues and the tactics: Outside of the personalities and strategies, tonight’s debate will be about the issues, too. Immigration is the issue that divides the GOP field the most. And with Rand Paul on stage, foreign policy will have a disagreement or two, as well. But the main disagreement from the candidates is likely to be over tactics. Do they support shutting down the government in the effort to defund Planned Parenthood? Do they promise to rip up the Iran deal on their first day in office -- no matter the consequences from the rest of the international community?

*** The Republican Party warms up to Trump: Maybe the most fascinating polling results from our recent NBC/WSJ survey is tracking the Republicans who say they COULDN’T SUPPORT Trump – and seeing that percentage decrease.

  • March 2015 NBC/WSJ poll: 74% of GOP primary voters said they couldn’t see themselves backing Trump
  • June 2015 NBC/WSJ: 66% of GOP primary voters said that
  • July 2015 NBC/WSJ: 49% of GOP primary voters said that.

Tonight’s debate will help determine if that trend continues. Or does it stop? By the way, don’t miss the piece by Bloomberg’s Josh Green on how tonight’s debate will signal Trump’s transformation from celebrity to Republican.

*** Where America and the parties stand on what to do with the undocumented immigrants in the country: One of the main issues that will be discussed tonight, as wrote said above, is immigration. And here is where the country at large stands on the issue, per this week’s NBC/WSJ poll: 47% of Americans support allowing undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, and that includes 58% of Democrats, 58% of Latinos, 45% of independents, but just 36% of Republicans. Another 19% of all Americans support allowing undocumented immigrants have legal status, and that includes 19% of Dems, 22% of Latinos, 17% independents, and 17% of Republicans. And 32% say these undocumented immigrants should instead be deported, and that includes 20% of Democrats, 15% of Latinos, 32% of independents, and 43% of Republicans.

*** Obama tries to turn Iran deal into D-vs-R issue, but is he missing an opportunity to win over more of the public? Finally, our takeaway from President Obama’s big speech yesterday on the Iran deal is that he tried to turn the debate into a Democrat-vs-Republican issue. He was responding to Tom Cotton, not Chuck Schumer. And given that his objective is keeping enough Democrats on his side on a veto-override vote, that’s probably the smartest strategy. But what was missing from his speech was an acknowledgement of how TOUGH a call this Iran deal is for many. It seems he’s missing an opportunity to get many Americans to the same point where former Defense Secretary Bob Gates is -- highly skeptical of the deal, but knowing that the United States can’t walk away from it.

OFF THE RACES: Debate Night!

It’s Debate Day! NBC's Matt Rivera envisioned what would happen if there was a debate playoff a-la March Madness. Check it out.

Here’s a keeper: the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (Note the sidebar story, too – not a boost for the governor on debate night: “Report: Median income in Ohio falls.”)

Buzzy site IJReview has a video preview of what the candidates do to prepare for debates.

Ashley Parker of The New York Times previews what the debate moderators are hoping to accomplish tonight -- and how they hope to keep candidates on their toes.

On a day full of flash, The New York Times nudges us to remember to consider the invisible primary.

From POLITICO: "Only 10 of the top Republican donors from the 2014 cycle have so far contributed at least $1 million to the presidential hopefuls and the outside groups that can raise unlimited sums on their behalf. Meanwhile, 45 deep-pocketed donors who didn’t give much in 2014 have stepped up and written those checks early in the race, including Toby Neugebauer, co-founder of a private equity firm and son of GOP Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas, energy company executive Kelcy Warren and Dallas entrepreneur Darwin Deason."

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, whose name has been floated as a possible candidate for president, writes in The New York Times: "Despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray. I’m not done serving at Starbucks ... Our country deserves a candidate courageous enough to select a member of the other party as a running mate. Our country deserves a president humble enough to see leadership not as an entitlement but as a privilege."

(So what happens if that candidate wins the White House and dies? The other party controls the presidency?)

BUSH: POLITICO has a look at "how the Jeb and the GOP got Trumped," noting that Bush has voiced plenty of private skepticism about Trump. “Seriously, what’s this guy’s problem?” he asked one party donor he ran into recently according to accounts provided by several sources close to Bush—and he went on to describe the publicity seeking real estate developer now surging in public polls far ahead of Bush and all the 15 others in the Republican field as “a buffoon,” “clown” and “asshole.”

Via the Bush campaign, he has announced county chairs in all 17 Nevada counties.

CLINTON: She's won the endorsement of Rep. Xavier Becerra (CA-34), NBC's Frank Thorp reports.

KASICH: Bloomberg writes that his presence on the debate stage could be awkward for his opponents. "Over the years, the governor has developed a reputation as a moderate (or a RINO, as conservative critics have labeled him) for his willingness to work with Democrats on immigration reform, his support of Common Core (he’s called conservative opposition to the national education standards “hysteria”), and, most controversially, his state’s acceptance of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. Kasich’s presence at Thursday's debate in Cleveland serves as a reminder that the GOP’s best chance for winning the bellwether state might be found in the moderate stances candidates tend to take during the general election, and Kasich has taken his share. "

Chief Kasich strategist John Weaver tells NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell that Ohio Gov. Kasich has “tremendous upside” going into tonight’s ten man scrum because “we probably have the lowest name ID nationally of anyone on the stage.”

PAUL: Jesse Benton, a key backer of Ron and Rand Paul, has been indicted over allegations that he and two other aides to Ron Paul in 2012 concealed payments to a state senator in exchange for his endorsement.

The Des Moines Register talks to Iowa activists, who say the Benton scandal could hurt Rand Paul there.

O'MALLEY: He's upset with the Democratic Party for "trying to tilt the primary contest in Hillary Clinton’s favor," The Hill writes.

RUBIO: The campaign emailed this to supporters: “At 9pm EDT tonight, Marco will join nine other candidates for his first presidential debate. As one of our strongest supporters, I’m asking you to join us in our online debate war-room. I have no doubt that Marco’s going to do great – but it’s our job to help amplify his message. That’s why our campaign set up an online debate war-room that will offer real-time fact checking, video highlights and commentary during the debate. Check it out:”

TRUMP: He's reiterating that he's going to "keep it on a high level" and only counterpunch if attacked.

The Washington Post reported yesterday - and NBC News confirmed - that Donald Trump and Bill Clinton spoke by phone shortly before Trump entered the 2016 race. 

Carrie Dann contributed reporting.