--WHAT TO WATCH FOR TONIGHT: The first Republican debate of 2016 takes place tonight in South Carolina -- just 18 days before the Iowa caucuses. Among the things to watch for when the Republicans take the stage, according to ABC’s VERONICA STRACQUALURSI and PAOLA CHAVEZ: Will Trump Take On Cruz? Trump said in an interview on Wednesday: “I’m not going to attack anybody that I know, but if they attack me, I’ll attack them back times five.” The big question: Does that apply to Ted Cruz? Ever since Cruz has become a bigger threat -- especially in Iowa -- Trump has stopped playing nice and has started questioning the Canadian-born Cruz’s eligibility to be president. For his part, Cruz said he is “not interested in throwing rocks” at Trump (though we’ve already seen some indications he might toss a few pebbles).
--BATTLE OF THE GOVERNORS: Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush -- two current and one former governor -- are all hovering in the single digits nationally and are looking to New Hampshire as the state that will likely make or break their candidacies. Among the three, there may be only one ticket out of the Granite State. Will this game of survivor play out on the debate stage?
--A LOAN TO REMEMBER: The New York Times reported last night that Ted Cruz did not properly disclose a loan from Goldman Sachs he used to fund his Senate run. Cruz called it a “technical and inadvertent filing error” and his press secretary said they've reached out to the FEC to see if they need to amend their filings. The misstep could leave Cruz fighting a multi-front war tonight with the loan -- as well as the citizenship issue -- likely to become a talking point for the moderators and the candidates.
--DEBATE SHRINKAGE: It will also be the smallest group we've seen on the main stage, ABC’s SHUSHANNAH WALSHE notes. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Ben Carson get top billing at 9pm. The undercard debate at 6pm will feature Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum. After being demoted to the "kids table," Rand Paul is boycotting the debate.
--ANALYSIS -- ABC’s RICK KLEIN: If Hillary Clinton truly isn’t nervous about Bernie Sanders closing fast, she might want to tell her campaign manager before he sends another exclamation-point fundraising appeal hyping concerns about the polls. Then she could think about telling her daughter, who is now responsible for one of the most brazen attacks of the Democratic race this year. “Sen. Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance,” Chelsea Clinton said this week. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s only true if you realize he would simultaneously replace those programs with something so broad (and yes, expensive) that it would make them all obsolete: single-payer universal health care. You don’t have to go back into the archives to find Clinton’s previous support for single payer – or his attacks on Barack Obama for attacking her on health care, in 2008 – to recognize that this is at best a highly misleading claim to make about the independent socialist senator. (It would even be an inaccurate thing to say about Sen. Mitch McConnell, beyond the first phrase.) It may actually miss the mark more by more, though, on the politics: the Democrats’ liberal base isn’t likely to buy Sanders as insufficiently committed to universal health care. If anything, there’s lingering frustration that Obamacare didn’t go far enough, and that lawmakers like Clinton are responsible for those concessions. The Clinton campaign can defend Chelsea Clinton’s comments on technical points about what governors may or may not do under single payer. But this was a broadside against Sanders borne out of campaign concerns the candidate herself claims publicly not to have.
TODAY ON THE TRAIL with ABC’s SHUSHANNAH WALSHE: Most of the Republicans are down today doing last minute debate preparation, but the undercard debaters are taking advantage of being in the early state of South Carolina. Carly Fiorina holds an afternoon town hall in Charleston while both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum will address the Palmetto Senior Show this morning in Columbia. Santorum holds an afternoon event in Charleston as well. On the other side of the aisle don't expect the attacks and barbs between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to let up. As she hits him on gun control and health care, a new Des Moines Register poll out this morning shows Sanders gaining and essentially tying Clinton getting 40 percent to her 42 percent. Clinton is off the trail today, but will appear on MSNBC tonight before going on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Sanders is back in New Hampshire and this evening holds a press conference and town hall in Hanover. Martin O'Malley is in Des Moines, Iowa today and will meet with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register this afternoon before holding an evening event.
IN THE NOTE’S INBOX: The D.C. Council will hold a hearing on Universal Paid Family Leave. Experts will testify on the overall costs and benefits of paid family and medical leave. The nation’s capital is on track to become the first city in America to guarantee paid family and medical leave. The D.C. Paid Family Leave Coalition seeks to enact this legislation in 2016 and launch the program as early as 2017, joining Rhode Island, New Jersey and California. The hearing takes place at 10:30 AM at the Wilson Building in downtown Washington.
YESTERDAY ON THE TRAIL with ABC's VERONICA STRACQUALURSI and PAOLA CHAVEZ
NIKKI HALEY TO TRUMP: ‘YOU SHOULDN’T TAKE THESE THINGS PERSONALLY.’ Gov. Nikki Haley has a message for Donald Trump after making a veiled swipe at him during the response to President Obama's last State of the Union address: “You shouldn’t take these things personally.” Trump reportedly came out swinging against Haley Wednesday, attacking her on immigration and saying he wasn't worried about alienating her, ABC’s JORDYN PHELPS notes. The South Carolina governor said she considers Trump a friend but noted that her other friends “don’t throw stones” over political disagreements, she told ABC’s JONATHAN KARL. “What I say about my other friends who are running for president, they don’t throw stones,” she said. “So what I would say to Mr. Trump is don’t take it personally. This is just something that we learned in South Carolina that I’m passing along. Take it if you want, take if you don’t but I think our country would be better if you take it.” http://abcn.ws/1SP2Xzo
WHAT REPUBLICAN INSIDERS SAY ABOUT HALEY TAKING ON TRUMP. Most State of the Union responses take direct aim at the sitting President, criticizing him for his leadership and agenda. But Nikki Haley’s speech last night had a second target: the "angriest voices" in her own party. The South Carolina Governor said her remarks were at least partially aimed at presidential frontrunner Donald Trump – an attack that got the attention of Republican insiders gathered for their winter meeting in her home state. For the most part, Republican National Committee members were buzzing with accolades for the 43-year-old governor’s performance – and boosting talk of her as a potential vice-presidential pick. And while they agreed with her call to a more civil tone of discourse, they were hesitant to target the real estate mogul. ABC’s RYAN STRUYK has more. http://abcn.ws/1RmwCR4 \
TRUMP GETS ANGRY WITH ‘TERRIBLE, STUPID’ MICROPHONE DURING RALLY. Donald Trump had a new enemy during a campaign stop Wednesday night –- his microphone. The real estate mogul at one point during his packed rally in Pensacola, FL paused and went on a rant, according to ABC’s JOHN SANTUCCI. “And by the way I don’t like this mic, whoever the hell brought this mic system don’t pay the son of a b**** who brought it in,” the crowd laughed but the Donald was visibly annoyed. “No this mic is terrible, stupid mic keeps popping...Don’t pay him. You know I believe in paying but when somebody does a bad job like this you shouldn’t pay the b******,” Trump said -- with a few mic pops. Ahead of the first GOP debate of the year, the Republican frontrunner declared he will win the Sunshine State. “I am kicking a** in Florida,” Trump told the crowd. http://abcn.ws/1ROdABK
TED CRUZ PICKS UP 'DUCK DYNASTY' PATRIARCH PHIL ROBERTSON'S ENDORSEMENT. Ted Cruz picked up the endorsement of "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson not only because he’s “the man for the job,” but because Cruz “will go duck hunting.” The campaign announced the endorsement in a video released Tuesday showing Cruz and Robertson in hunting clothes with their faces painted. Robertson, star of the A&E reality series "Duck Dynasty," begins the video by ticking through the list that led him to his decision. ABC’s JESSICA HOPPER has more. http://abcn.ws/1Sj81Nb
BUSH SWEEPS ASIDE POLICE VIOLENCE TO DISCUSS BLACK-ON-BLACK CRIME. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush sat down with the influential Des Moines Register Editorial Board Tuesday, discussing a plethora of topics including the shootings of unarmed African Americans by police officers. ABC’s CANDACE SMITH reports Bush was asked if he sees a role for the federal government in investigating such cases. He expressed support for the idea if there was "overt discrimination" by the officers. “Putting aside a police officer shooting a black man, most of the crimes are black on black in the communities. Most by far," he said. "The police shooting of unarmed black males, which is what the conversation is about as I understand, it is very small." http://abcn.ws/22ZVUbH
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SOUTH CAROLINA GOV. NIKKI HALEY. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s final State of the Union Tuesday night. “Soon, the Obama presidency will end, and America will have the chance to turn in a new direction,” she said. ABC’s PAOLA CHAVEZ and VERONICA STRACQUALURSI have more on the five things you need to know about the Republican governor. http://abcn.ws/1PrTc4R
@ryanstruyk: What Republican Insiders Say About Haley Taking on Trump http://abcn.ws/1RmwCR4
@jonward11: Rubio evangelicals have ideas about how to live in a post-Christian America. Cruz evangelicals think thats defeatism https://www.yahoo.com/politics/rubio-s-evangelical-appeal-stronger-1342653440983094.html …
@JustinBarasky: "Priorities USA...is going after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in their first candidate specific web ad" http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/14/politics/ted-cruz-clinton-super-pac-ad/index.html …