WASHINGTON — Well, that was a livelier Democratic debate than we had been expecting just days before Christmas.

Elizabeth Warren took swings at Pete Buttigieg (over fundraisers with wine caves), and so did Amy Klobuchar (over Buttigieg’s record as a candidate).

Buttigieg gladly swung back, arguing that Warren had no problems accepting maxed-out checks during her Senate campaigns, and responding to Klobuchar with this line: “If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”

But more than anything else, what stood out was Joe Biden having his best performance of any debate — from start to finish. Not only was he able to stand back and watch Warren and Buttigieg duke it out, but he also delivered some of his best answers on his vulnerabilities, such as his desire to work with Republicans if elected.

“I refuse to accept the notion, as some on this stage do, that we can never, never get to a place where we have cooperation again. If that’s the case, we’re dead as a country,” Biden said. “We need to be able to reach a consensus. And if anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans and not want to cooperate it’s me, the way they’ve attacked me, my son, and my family.”

What also stood out was Warren’s rough night.

The fundraising attack on Buttigieg felt small, especially given everything else happening in the country. And she looked like a candidate trying to regain her footing.

That said, she had a great line response to the question about her being the oldest president ever inaugurated if she wins: “I’d also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated.” Touché.

Other takeaways: Bernie Sanders was Bernie Sanders, and Klobuchar enjoyed more moments in the spotlight than she’s gotten in previous debates.

That happens when the debate stage gets smaller.

Meet the voters who could decide the 2020 election

In our most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 48 percent of registered voters say they are certain to vote against President Trump, and 34 percent say they’re certain to vote for him.

In the middle are 18 percent of voters who say they might vote either way depending on the Democratic nominee.

Who are these 18 percent of voters — given that Trump needs to win two-thirds of them to reach the national 46 percent he won in 2016, or four-in-five of them to get to 48 percent?

Our NBC/WSJ pollsters call them “squishy Republicans” or “nominal Republicans.” They’re disproportionately younger men who identify as independents or moderates.

Trump’s job rating with them is 55 percent (compared to 44 percent overall in the poll); they favor Republicans by 20 points in congressional preference (versus the D 7 lead overall); and a plurality of them believe Trump did something wrong regarding Ukraine — but that it doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment.

So the name of the game for 2020 is Trump trying to win as many of these squishy/nominal Republicans as possible to get to assemble a winning coalition, or the eventual Democratic nominee cutting into enough of these voters to deny the president that coalition.

And how do these up-for-grabs view the Democratic contenders? Check out these numbers:

  • Trump: 40 percent are either enthusiastic/comfortable, versus 59 percent who have reservations or are uncomfortable (-19) – with 21 percent saying “very uncomfortable.”
  • Sanders: 37 percent are enthusiastic/comfortable, versus 59 percent who have reservations/uncomfortable (-22) – with 34 percent “very comfortable.”
  • Biden: 30 percent are enthusiastic/comfortable, versus 67 percent reservations/uncomfortable (-37) – with 32 percent who are “very uncomfortable.”
  • Yang: 23 percent are enthusiastic/comfortable, versus 24 percent reservations/uncomfortable (-1) – with 9 percent who are “very uncomfortable.”
  • Bloomberg: 18 percent are enthusiastic/comfortable, versus 49 percent reservations/uncomfortable (-31) – with 19 percent “very uncomfortable.”
  • Buttigieg: 18 percent enthusiastic/comfortable, versus 32 percent reservations/uncomfortable (-14) – with 17 percent “very uncomfortable.”
  • Warren: 17 percent enthusiastic/comfortable, versus 60 percent reservations/uncomfortable (-43) – with 33 percent “very uncomfortable.”
  • Klobuchar: 12 percent enthusiastic/comfortable, versus 26 percent reservations/uncomfortable (-14), with 12 percent “very uncomfortable.”

Among all of those numbers, Warren’s really stand out.

“Putin told me”

If you want to know why President Trump’s belief that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election is so concerning, and why Republican members of Congress defending him on it is even more jaw-dropping, here’s your answer:

“The president’s intense resistance to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia systematically interfered in the 2016 campaign — and the blame he cast instead on a rival country — led many of his advisers to think that Putin himself helped spur the idea of Ukraine’s culpability, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions,” the Washington Post writes.

“One former senior White House official said Trump even stated so explicitly at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because ‘Putin told me.'”

“Two other former officials said the senior White House official described Trump’s comment to them.”

And if Putin told Trump that – and the president ate it up – what else has Russia’s president told him?

2020 Vision: Van Drew makes his switch to the GOP official

“President Donald Trump, with Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-N.J., by his side at the White House, said Thursday that Democrats had ‘put the arm on’ lawmakers like Drew and ‘forced’ them to vote for his impeachment,” NBC’s Shannon Pettypiece writes.

“Van Drew, who was one of only two Democrats to vote against impeachment Wednesday, confirmed the widely reported news that he plans to leave the party and caucus with Republicans. ‘This is just a better fit for me,’ he said.”

On the campaign trail today

The day after last night’s debate in Los Angeles, many of the candidates remain in California… Joe Biden makes a local stop in LA… Bernie Sanders holds a Green New Deal town hall in Moreno Valley… And Pete Buttigieg hits Walnut, Calif. and Las Vegas… Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker are in Iowa… Michael Bennet hits New Hampshire… Michael Bloomberg stumps in Ohio… And Julian Castro is in Washington state.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

NBC News’ Gary Grumbach and Deepa Shivaram have the big takeaways from the Democratic debate spin room where some candidates and their staffers spoke with NBC News: “NBC’s Ali Vitali asked Elizabeth Warren about USMCA. ‘I am still taking a look at it. I am reading through it,’ Warren said. ‘My concern is that it has nothing on the environment and that is really important especially for the competition with our own companies and we have a global climate crisis.'”

As an editorial note, Bernie Sanders came out against the USMCA during the debate, and Amy Klobuchar said she would support it. “Andrew Yang was asked about why his fundraisers were closed to the press, to which he responded with some snark, ‘People have smart phones,’ he said. ‘I thought they were open.’ And Sanders surrogate and campaign co-chair Nina Turner talked about Pete Buttigieg’s ‘wine cave’ — Sanders’ campaign bought the online domain ‘peteswinecave’ after Buttigieg held a fundraiser in California wine country. ‘The Senator has a great record, he needs to contrast his record, this is a contest, this ain’t tiddlywinks, we need to contrast people’s records,” Sanders said. “There is only one candidate up there who has taken zero dollars, count it with me, zero dollars from billionaires.'”

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … 34 percent

34 percent.

That’s the share of Americans who say that 2019 was one of the best years for the United States (12 percent) or at least above average (22 percent), according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

That’s a high in the NBC/WSJ poll since 1991. Those most likely to call 2019 an above-average or great year were Republicans (69 percent) and white men (48 percent). Those least likely: Democrats (6 percent) and African-Americans (7 percent).

The Lid: Stuck in the middle with you

Don’t miss the pod from Thursday, when we sliced and diced the 2020 Democratic numbers in the new NBC/WSJ poll.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Mitch McConnell is declaring an impasse with Democrats over what happens next in the impeachment process.

Evangelical magazine Christianity Today writes that Trump should be removed from office.

Plenty of people are speaking out about President Trump’s dig at the late John Dingell.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year

This is our last First Read newsletter of the year. We’ll be back after the New Year!

Trump Agenda: USMCA passes the House

The House has passed the new trade deal, setting up Senate passage early next year.

The White House is getting ready for Mick Mulvaney’s departure.

2020: About last night

Here’s Shannon Pettypiece’s take on who fared best in the debate.

POLITICO writes that Pete Buttigieg is finally taking incoming criticism from the other candidates.

Sarah Sanders took a lot of heat over a tweet about Joe Biden.

Cory Booker has a primary challenge for his Senate job.

Tulsi Gabbard is facing some heat back in Hawaii over her “present” impeachment vote.

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