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 — A debate about gender has erupted right before tonight's Democratic debate in Iowa.
Can a woman defeat Trump in 2020? (Elizabeth Warren claims Bernie Sanders told her no in a Dec. 2018 meeting; Sanders denies saying it.)
But this flare-up sidesteps an important question about 2016: Did Hillary Clinton lose because of her first name (Hillary)? Or her last name (Clinton)? Or both?
Because what happened in the last month of the 2016 election — the Comey letter, the WikiLeaks disclosures (especially regarding "Clinton Inc."), the Trump campaign parading Bill Clinton's accusers after the "Access Hollywood" tape of Trump — certainly suggests that her last name played a big role.
Clinton's last name, despite her qualifications for the job, screamed establishment, scandal and controversy — all of which the Trump campaign seized on to its benefit in 2016.
And yes, the Trump campaign also created an environment where ugly gender commentary was hardly stifled. (Remember the "Trump that ****" swag? The "woman card" and "nasty woman" lines? Trump's talk about Clinton's "look" and "stamina"?)
Gender politics played a role.
But it wasn't the whole ballgame, especially regarding what happened in the final weeks of the 2016 race.
Three questions for tonight's debate
As for tonight's debate, both Sanders and Warren are playing with matches regarding their increasingly conflict.
Can Warren really be seen as the "unity candidate" when she and her supporters were quick to divulge this story ahead of tonight's debate?
Can Sanders afford to rekindle memories from 2016 by picking fights against both Warren and Biden? (And in the gender debate above, Sanders needs to be careful of implying that he's the candidate who can win over sexists. The suggestion here: There are voters who might support Dem policies but who don't want a woman as president?)
And how does this Warren-versus-Sanders feud not benefit Joe Biden — with just 20 days before the Iowa caucuses) and right before the likely start of the Senate impeachment trial against Trump?
Data Download: The number of the day is … four
That's the number of candidates Monday's Monmouth poll of Iowa reduces the Democratic field to — in asking likely Iowa caucus-goers whom they would support if the only viable Democrats (reaching the required 15 percent support) were Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg.
The horserace numbers when the race boils down to just four candidates:
- Biden: 28 percent
- Buttigieg: 25 percent
- Sanders: 24 percent
- Warren: 16 percent
Tweet of the day
"Russia, if you're listening…"
Another subject ahead of tonight's debate: "The Ukrainian natural gas company that prompted President Donald Trump to seek investigations from Ukraine's president over its hiring of former Vice President Joe Biden's son was hacked by Russian spies, security experts said in a report released Monday," per NBC News.
The Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army, or GRU, "launched a phishing campaign targeting Burisma Holdings" as early as November, according to the cybersecurity firm Area 1 Security.
What was going on in November?
Answer: The House impeachment inquiry into Trump over Ukraine?
"It doesn't really matter"
Well, so much for the all the attempts by Trump administration officials to argue that the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was based on an "imminent" security threat.
The president yesterday tweeted out that whether it was "imminent" or not doesn't really matter.
"The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was "imminent" or not, & was my team in agreement. The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn't really matter because of his horrible past!"
On the campaign trail today
The Democratic debate from Iowa starts at 9:00 pm ET… President Trump holds a rally in Milwaukee at 8:00 pm ET… Also today, Andrew Yang has a town hall in Ames, Iowa… Julian Castro campaigns for Elizabeth Warren in Clive, Iowa… Jill Biden, also in the Hawkeye State, stumps for her husband in Rockwell City and Boone… And Tulsi Gabbard is in New Hampshire.
Dispatches from NBC's campaign embeds
Deval Patrick, who is now the only African-American candidate remaining in the 2020 Democratic race, yesterday reacted to both Cory Booker ending his presidential campaign and what Tuesday's debate stage will look like, NBC's Amanda Golden reports. "America needs to know that America is not going to see itself on that debate stage, and sadly I think the debates have become a marker of the progress of campaigns," Patrick said. He added, "I mean there was always going to be a winnowing. Like, that's supposed to happen, but I don't think that the rules are necessarily serving as a way to demonstrate this broad talent in the field reflecting the Democratic Party and reflecting America today… It's certainly concerning to me that the candidates who've been leaving are highly talented voices and overwhelmingly voices of color."
And three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Joe Biden is stressing to caucus-goers that the race is a toss-up, NBC's Marianna Sotomayor reports from Des Moines: "'I think we're going to do well here in Iowa. It's because of you. People are beginning to make up their minds now and this is a critical moment,' Biden said at his campaign office. He remarked on the latest Iowa polls too, saying, 'All the polling data that I've read and seen is all - it's a toss-up. The latest Monmouth poll out which has me ahead now. But they're all close. This is a real toss-up. And the last couple weeks here makes a gigantic difference.'"
Talking Policy with Benjy
President Trump has a long history of misrepresenting his health-care position, but even by those standards a tweet on Monday stood out in which he claimed he had "saved" protections for pre-existing conditions. In fact, he's actively trying to overturn them in the courts and has sought to weaken them through legislation, NBC's Benjy Sarlin writes.
Current law requires insurers to take on customers regardless of any pre-existing condition and charge them the same premiums as healthy clients. But these rules were part of the Affordable Care Act signed by President Obama — and the Trump administration is currently asking courts to throw the law out in its entirety.
In addition, the president previously backed several ACA repeal bills in Congress that would have rolled back at least some related protections, and his administration has championed new rules that expand the use of short-term plans that don't cover pre-existing conditions.
While "Obamacare" has long been divisive, polls have found majority support even among Republicans for its rules on pre-existing conditions, giving Trump plenty of motive to misrepresent his position in an election year. Recently, the administration's lawyers urged the Supreme Court to hold off on a ruling on the pending ACA lawsuit, which would push a final decision on its fate until after November.
The Lid: Good news and bad news
Don't miss the pod from yesterday, when we broke down the good news and the bad news for major candidates in the latest Des Moines Register poll.
ICYMI: News clips you shouldn't miss
Here's what you need to know from that new Monmouth poll out of Iowa yesterday.
No, Trump did not "save" pre-existing conditions.
What might the Senate impeachment trial look like? We'restarting to get some answers.
One thing we do know about the trial: Even Trump's allies don't want a vote to dismiss the charges entirely.
Trump Agenda: Bridgegate returns
The Supreme Court will take up a piece of the Bridgegate case today — and itcould have far-reaching implications.
Iran says it has made arrests over the downing of a commercial passenger plane.
European countries are moving toward holding Iran "accountable" for violating the nuclear deal.
Trump is planning to divert even more Pentagon funds for the border wall.
After days of dispute, Trump says the precise justification for targeting Soleimani "doesn't really matter" because his "horrible past."
2020: Expect fireworks
There could actually be some fireworks at tonight's debate.
Why couldn't Cory Booker break through?
It's do-or-die time for Bernie Sanders.
POLITICO looks at Trump's relationship with Catholics. It's complicated.