By CHUCK TODD, MARK MURRAY and CARRIE DANN, NBC News
CLEVELAND (NBC News) - 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:
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.
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.