RNC chairman's troubles with Trump

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Story highlights

  • New Hampshire's heroin problem creates a drug test for candidates
  • Trump and Clinton could collide at the Iowa State Fair
  • Scramble to make the debate stage is nationalizing the GOP nominating process

Washington (CNN) A college exam for Hillary Clinton, a drug test for all the candidates, a state fair challenge, and the questions facing the Republican leadership as its Trump-dominated presidential process plays out -- those stories filled our Sunday trip around the "Inside Politics" table.

1. Higher education is an opportunity and a challenge for Clinton

College costs are a huge middle-class issue and an emerging dividing line in the Democratic presidential race.
    Hillary Clinton is poised to detail her plan to reduce costs on Monday, and The Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler detailed both the policy and political test for the Democratic front-runner.
    "One of the biggest issues in the Democratic primary is college affordability -- a source of incredible anxiety for the middle class and a huge issue for young voters, who the Democrats really need to turn out big for them again," said Meckler.
    "Her competitors Gov. O'Malley and Sen. Sanders have already laid out plans for this. And the question from the left really is whether her plan will be sort of a big, bold idea that really gets at it. She's under a lot of pressure from her left flank in order to come up with some big-risk government solutions to big problems like this. So we'll see what she has to say."

    2. Heroin and the New Hampshire primary

    Being credible as a potential commander in chief is a defining test for presidential candidates. So is proving you can manage the economy.
    But sometimes a local issue in a big nominating state can also become an important point of the debate, and a heroin problem in New Hampshire is emerging this year. CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson notes it is more and more a topic as the candidates ask for votes in the first presidential primary state.
    "One of the things candidates need to do when it comes to New Hampshire is study up on the heroin epidemic that's plaguing that state," said Henderson. "It's now the leading cause of death, along with other drugs; more than traffic deaths, heroin is taking people's lives."
    "Kelly Ayotte has taken to the Senate floor talking about the scourge of heroin and next week Hillary Clinton will be in Keene, New Hampshire, at an opiate forum, where it will also come up."

    3. Trumped at the Iowa State Fair?

    Bacon-wrapped Oreos? Deep-fried Twinkies? Candidates on a soapbox?
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    The Iowa State Fair is upon us, and that means two things: a test for any visitor's calorie count and a bigger test for the presidential candidates who honor the tradition of showing up to give a speech and field some questions.
    CNN's Jeff Zeleny notes the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are among those planning to visit the fair hunting for votes.
    "We've heard a lot of talk about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and this week we actually could see them at least in the same environment, the Iowa State Fair," said Zeleny.
    "The Des Moines Register soapbox is still a venue where every candidate or most candidates stop by to give policy speeches."
    "Several candidates along the way have -- we've gotten glimpses of what's wrong with their campaigns. Fred Thompson is one example. So I think we should keep our eye on Des Moines this week."

    4. Nationalizing the 2016 GOP nominating process

    Yes, Iowa and New Hampshire vote first, but the scramble to make the debate stage is scrambling the traditional priorities.
    You will often hear pundits say -- and rightly so -- that state polls matter a lot more than national polls. Especially if the states in question are Iowa and New Hampshire.
    But with 17 candidates running for the GOP presidential nomination, cracking the top 10 in national polls is so important it is rewriting the rules a bit. National Journal's Ron Fournier isn't so sure that is healthy for the process.
    "Where your mettle is really tested being replaced by a more nationalized system where folks are jockeying to get into national polls -- where they're doing outrageous things like eating bacon off of machine guns, where they're saying outrageous things like the president is the equivalent of Hitler and marching Jews to the ovens -- they're desperate for attention."
    "Less noticed are things like John Kasich putting $2 million into New Hampshire just to get his national poll numbers up to get into the debate. That's $2 million he's not going to have when Jeb Bush decides to go after him on Obamacare in New Hampshire."

    5. Trump is the issue, but Priebus is somewhat of a target

    Donald Trump isn't the only one facing criticism because of a "Trump effect" that many GOP leaders and strategists believe could do significant damage to the Republican brand.
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    In the days after the first big GOP debate, there was noticeable grumbling about Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
    One area of complaint: a Priebus statement last week on NBC that he believes, despite the current chaos in the GOP race, that the party will know its presidential nominee by March or early April at the latest.
    A good number of party leaders and operatives think that timetable is wishful thinking in any event, because of calendar changes and the early state delegate selection rules. Now, when you add in Trump upending the race, many believe the race could extend deeper into the spring, and, as one put it, thought Priebus was "out over his skis" to suggest otherwise.
    Then, there was grumbling after Priebus played down Trump's debate stage refusal to rule out a third party run if he doesn't win the Republican nomination.
    Priebus told CNN he isn't worried, and played down Trump remarks that other Republicans suggested were proof the billionaire couldn't care less about the GOP brand or standing.
    To be fair to the chairman, he is hardly the first person in politics to put the best spin on things when interviewed on television -- even if that spin might stretch the facts or mood a bit. And much of this can be chalked up to jittery Republicans looking for someone to blame, and/or looking for some magic solution to what they see as a growing Trump problem.
    But this much is not in dispute: How Priebus handles Trump is now a big piece of how party leaders will evaluate the performance of their national party chairman -- a challenge Priebus could not have predicted would become such a critical part of his job description.