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Will Republicans overplay their hand on Benghazi?

Republicans are under incredible pressure not to overplay their hand in a high-stakes, televised, hours-long questioning of Hillary Clinton this week.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a town hall meeting, Oct. 16, 2015, in Keene, N.H. (Photo by Mary Schwalm/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a town hall meeting, Oct. 16, 2015, in Keene, N.H.

It's Benghazi week

Hillary Clinton cleared a big hurdle last week with a dominant performance in the first Democratic debate, but the bigger challenge looms on Thursday, when she'll appear before the Benghazi panel. And the appearance comes as tensions between the panel's partisan members are close to a boiling point. Just check out what some of the committee members had to say on Sunday, including to one of us(!) yesterday on Meet the Press. Republican Mike Pompeo called the Clinton email issue "worse in some ways" than the Watergate scandal. Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said the revelation of the Clinton email server "doesn't tell us anything about Benghazi." Elijah Cummings blasted the upcoming testimony as a "sad day" for the families of those killed in the attacks. And committee head Trey Gowdy advised GOP colleagues who have been weighing in about the panels' political impact to "shut up." Eesh. Here's the long tail of those Kevin McCarthy comments about Clinton's poll numbers and the Benghazi investigation: Republicans had long faced plenty of pressure not to overplay their hand in a high-stakes, televised, hours-long questioning of the Democratic frontrunner. How much more intense is that pressure now?

Trump's pressure points

Sniping raged throughout the weekend between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump over the issue of blame for the 9/11 attacks, with Bush accusing Trump of failing to be a "a serious person as it relates to being commander in chief" and Trump insisting that his strict immigration stance would have prevented the 2001 assault. So, by now, this spat has now kept debate over George W. Bush's leadership on foreign policy in the news cycle since Friday. Trump's influence in the race has already pushed plenty of the party's painful internal struggles into the spotlight, like the huge divide between the grassroots and the establishment on immigration and populist vs. traditional economic policy. But now the Trump vs. Bush feud is pitting Republicans against each other about a day in history that's usually been a rallying cry.

Spoiling for a fight

Why the aggressive response from Bush now? One thing that's clear from Team Jeb's big reaction on the Trump comments is that this a campaign that's been looking for a fight. NBC's Peter Alexander reports that Bush's new ad hammering Trump's "judgment" on foreign policy and military issues has been in the can for more than a month; the Bush team was just waiting for the right moment to blast it out. The campaign has been treading water, and they're hoping that this is the spark that jolts them into a dominant position.

Paul Ryan's choice

Congress returns this week, so after a week of deliberations at home, the barrage of questions about Paul Ryan's path starts anew. CBS reported Sunday night that Ryan is open to running but won't engage in "horse trading" with the 40 or so members of the House Freedom Caucus over the changes to House rules they've been advocating. It's a job he's made clear that he doesn't want, so it seems that if he serves, he's not going to negotiate away his power to do things his way. (Our question: What's the House Speaker job if it's NOT a high-level exercise in horse trading much of the time?) By the way, Mitt Romney - who called Ryan to talk over the job when Kevin McCarthy first backed out - seemed to affirm the idea this weekend that the House Speaker gig could undercut Ryan's ability to win the party's presidential nomination down the line. "You know, there haven't been a lot of people that have gone on from speaker to the White House, so I'd hate to lose him as a potential contender down the road for the White House," Romney said on CNN.

Ted Cruz on "Meet the Press"

Don't miss GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz's interview with one of us(!) this Sunday on Meet the Press. "The truth of the matter is Republican leadership are the most effective Democrat leaders we've ever seen. They've passed more Democratic priorities than Harry Reid ever could," he said. He wouldn't say whether or not he thinks Paul Ryan is a true conservative, saying he'd "leave that for House Republicans" - even though he said he *would* unequivocally call conservative radio host "a true conservative" when asked the same question. And he wouldn't go so far as to call for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to step down. Cruz is in the same place as plenty of Republicans when it comes to his skepticism of party leaders; remember our NBC/ WSJ poll last month showing that 72 percent of GOP primary voters said they were dissatisfied with the leadership of McConnell and John Boehner. But here's Cruz's challenge: his argument is that he's the best equipped to take on the "Washington cartel" because he's fought those party leaders from the inside. But as much as he's tried to stymie the congressional leaders he's railed against, whether on Planned Parenthood or Obamacare, can he point to an unequivocal success? Also, don't miss Cruz's comments on Syria and Assad, too. "Look, we have no business stickin' our nose in that civil war."

Biden watch

Another week begins, anotherround of "is this the week?" questions come for Joe Biden. NBC's Kristen Welker reported over the weekend that Biden spent 20 minutes on the phone Friday with International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, a top labor leader. From Welker's report: "Biden and Schaitberger discussed strategy, infrastructure and fundraising, another source familiar with the call said. Schaitberger was left with the impression that Biden likely would run, and that the vice president is confident he can raise the funds needed for a campaign, the second source said." And/but: A new CNN/ORC poll out this morning shows that Biden has lost - not gained - ground since last month, getting 18 percent support from registered Democrats now, compared to 22 percent this time in September.

Heads up: New poll!

New NBC/WSJ poll numbers coming, starting today: And speaking of polls, we're going to have brand new NBC/WSJ poll numbers out starting this afternoon, with a look at the GOP 2016 field. Tune in to MTP Daily on MSNBC, NBC Nightly News and TODAY for all the latest

On the trail

Bernie Sanders holds a town meeting at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa.Donald Trump is in Anderson, SC for an evening campaign rally. Marco Rubio rallies supporters in Salt Lake City.