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Buzz Cut:
• GOP Power Index: It’s playoff time
• Obama moves forward on gun edict
• Sunni-Shia tensions trouble for Hillary
• Bubba stumps amid feud with old pal Trump
• What’s Kyrgyz for ‘I meant that in a good way’?

 

GOP POWER INDEX: IT’S PLAYOFF TIME
It would be unfair – cruel, even – to say that the previous year of reporting on the Republican nomination process was for naught. But, well…

Think of it this way, sports fans. What happened in the GOP field before Labor Day was like the preseason. Favorites are picked, ranked and predicted. Then, the real schedule starts.

And, like in football, the regular season is far better at telling us who won’t be the champion than who will be. Like the Indianapolis Colts or the Philadelphia Eagles in this NFL season, there are always some Jeb Bushes and Scott Walkers every political cycle.

Now, we’re in the final weeks of the season as the survivors, including some surprising standouts, fight desperately for their spots in the playoffs.

So it’s not that the months (and months and months) of campaign coverage have been for nothing at all. It’s just that it has all been for the purpose of determining what the next 12 weeks will look like. You can’t be in contention now if you had a bad 2015. But all a good 2015 can buy you is a chance to advance.

Like the pros, all the candidates need is a slot – even a wild card berth – to play for the title.

That’s why we offer the GOP Power Index.

The point is to see who has the best chance to come through the sprint from here to Super Tuesday on March 15 as the real frontrunner for the GOP nomination. And since we are now just 28 days from voters starting to have their say, we can expect interest to intensify as they get serious about choosing.

And what makes this so fascinating – other than the future of the republic and all that jazz – is that there is so much we can’t really know. But we can guess.

Will polling frontrunner Donald Trump be able to convert his support among non-Republicans into Republican primary votes? The fact that Trump is now airing television ads instead of just noshing on the all-you-can-eat buffet of free news coverage suggests that he’s starting to think more seriously about the need to mobilize his coalition.

Will Ted Cruz survive what is shaping up to be an all-out assault from his fellow conservatives looking to block him Iowa? And will Trump decide to attack Cruz if his longtime frenemy looks like a serious threat? Birtherism could suddenly become a bipartisan avocation for Trump.

Will Marco Rubio be able to outrun the chilly New Hampshire clutches of both Bush and, more dangerously, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie? Rubio stacks up well for a stretch run, but Bush and Christie would love to hobble him.

Our bet, for now, is that Bush and Christie are at least partially right and will be able to put enough of a dent into Rubio to deny him the nod. The two spurned former frontrunners have five ugly weeks to leave the GOP establishment divided heading into March. We also think that Cruz will have an easier time turning out the GOP base in primaries than Trump will have in re-engineering it.

And that’s why we continue to rank Cruz’s chances as best to be the nominee. Bush and Christie will keep the GOP establishment divided for too long and Cruz, who has tens of millions of dollars in reserve, will be set to take advantage of this unprecedented moment.

But, like they say: That’s why they play the game.

1) Ted Cruz; 2) Marco Rubio; 3) Donald Trump; 4) Chris Christie [+2]; 5) Jeb Bush [-1]; 6) Carly Fiorina [-1]

On the radar - Ben CarsonJohn Kasich and Rand Paul

[Watch Fox: Chris Stirewalt joins “The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson” in the 2 p.m. ET hour with the latest on who’s up and who’s down in the 2016 Power Index.]

What would you say? - Give us your take on the 2016 Power Index. We will share the best and brightest with the whole class. Send your thoughts to FOXNEWSFIRST@FOXNEWS.COM

Rubio hits rivals in national security speech - In an early release of Sen. Marco Rubio’s speech on national security today in New Hampshire, the Florida senator knocks rivals Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for their positions saying, “…we have Republican candidates who propose that rulers like Assad and Putin should be partners of the United States…We have isolationist candidates who are apparently more passionate about weakening our military and intelligence capabilities than about destroying our enemies.”

Jeb’s N.H. ad blitz continues with ISIS spot - In a new television ad airing in New Hampshire today, Jeb Bush talks about needing to get tough, and use force against ISIS. The ad comes ahead of Bush’s three-day swing in the state.

Santorum knocks Cruz in first television ad of the cycle – Former Sen. Rick Santorum is going negative on Iowa frontrunner Ted Cruz in Santorum’s bid for a Hawkeye State comeback. Santorum’s first television ad of the cycle mock’s Cruz’s reading of children’s books on the Senate floor saying, “You want someone to read one helluva bedtime story, Ted Cruz is your guy.”

Christie makes the case for his candidacy - In prepared remarks for a speech in New Hampshire today, Gov. Chris Christie intends to address the division within the GOP saying, “There’s been a lot of wild talk lately about third-party runs, or a brokered convention, or big GOP donors switching to the Democrats if they don’t like our nominee…any significant division within the Republican Party leads to the same awful result – Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office in January 2017.”

WITH YOUR SECOND CUP OF COFFEE…
Novelist Ian Fleming wanted an ordinary name for his extraordinary leading man.  Fleming was in Jamaica working on the book that would become “Casino Royale,” when the author, a bird watcher himself, came across a new book by a leading ornithologist on the birds of the West Indies. The name of the scholar? You guessed it: James Bond After the book was out, Fleming wrote the real Bond to ask his forgiveness for the appropriation. Bond eventually acceded, and the two would even later meet. Fleming even offered Bond unlimited use of his own name, as he wrote to Bond’s wife: “I can only offer you or James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purposes you may think fit. Perhaps one day your husband will discover a particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion by calling it Ian Fleming.”

Got TIP from the RIGHT or the LEFT? Email FoxNewsFirst@FOXNEWS.COM

POLL CHECK
Real Clear Politics Averages
Republican Nomination –
Trump 35.0 percent; Cruz 19.5 percent; Rubio 11.5 percent; Carson 8.8 percent
General Election: Clinton vs. Trump – Clinton +4.8 points
Generic Congressional Vote: Republicans +0.7

OBAMA MOVES FORWARD ON GUN EDICT
President Obama
is set to make an audacious move on guns and there’s little doubt as to why: relevance. A much-hyped meeting with his attorney general today serves as a precursor to a State of the Union speech to be delivered just days before Democrats debate and as the formal process of Hillary Clinton’s racking up delegates to become the party’s standard bearer begins.

In short, this may well be the president’s last chance to put his stamp on the Democratic party. Forecasting his much used pen and phone tactics, the messaging has been that the president “can’t just sit around” on guns. But we have been here before. His influence waning, the central question is will Obama be trolling Republicans on an issue that his executive action ultimately does little to address, or will it be another example of a sweeping attempt to bypass Congress and challenge existing law.

[“Nearly 4,000 regulations are squirming their way through the federal bureaucracy in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency — many costing industry more than $100 million — in a mad dash by the White House to push through government actions affecting everything from furnaces to gun sales to Guantanamo.” Politico reports.]

Congress tees up ObamaCare repeal vote - Fox News: “The effort is set to begin Tuesday afternoon when the House Rules Committee meets on the repeal measure, with a full debate and vote as early as Tuesday. With the Republican-led Senate having already passed its version…Obama will undoubtedly veto the measure to undo his signature health care law, and Congress has nowhere near the votes to override a presidential veto. But Republicans hope the entire exercise might start to change the circumstance on Capitol Hill regarding the years-old argument about ObamaCare and its repeal. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is promising to unveil a bill to in fact replace ObamaCare.’”

SUNNI-SHIA TENSIONS TROUBLE FOR HILLARY
President Obama
once explained that the only way that we would really be able to deal with ISIS completely was for Shia and Sunni Muslims to come to better terms with each other. Which would be a little like saying that in order to make breakfast, we’re going to need to teach the cows to lay eggs.

As ISIS’ reign of terror has continued and expanded throughout the Muslim world and, more recently, shown the ability to strike inside the West, Obama has adopted a more bellicose approach. But his plans for the region have still substantially hinged on his engineering a new balance between the centers of power in the 1,400-year sectarian conflict: Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

So, about that…

An escalating confrontation between the Saudis and the Iranians is threatening to plunge the region into even deeper chaos. This is bad business, especially coming as it does with the nuclear deal with Iran Obama had hoped would be the new beam for the altered balance of power looking balky. The Saudis have been on high alert as Obama has sought to bring Iran to the big leagues, and the current tensions may be seen as part of that.

Remember: it will be what Obama does or doesn’t do on national security that will do the most to define the chances of his former secretary of state. While Obama’s job approval has hovered in the low and middle 40s for months, his scores on national security and fighting Islamist militants have been very poor since terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. over the previous two months.

If Obama’s sectarian engineering goes further awry, chances of him getting to pick his own successor in Clinton will diminish rapidly.

Real life heroes behind Benghazi battle on ‘The Kelly File’ - Ahead of the release later this month of the big-budget thriller, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” Megyn Kelly sits down in an exclusive interview with the three of the real-life heroes from the Sept. 11, 2012 attack who inspired the movie. Watch “The Kelly File” tonight at 9 p.m. ET.

BUBBA STUMPS AMID FEUD WITH OLD PAL TRUMP
NYT: “Mr. Clinton’s first solo outing on the campaign trail on his wife’s behalf comes as the Republican Donald J. Trump has intensified his attacks against the 42nd president. …‘I’m the only one that’s willing to talk about his problems,’ Mr. Trump told CBS News on Sunday. ‘I mean, what he did and what he has gone through I think is frankly terrible, especially if she wants to play the woman card.’… Despite drawing attention to the scandals of the 1990s, Mrs. Clinton needs her husband’s help in New Hampshire, where he remains widely popular and where she has trailed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in many recent polls.”

Bernie gives Hillary free pass - “We have enormous problems facing this country, and I think we got more things to worry about than Bill Clinton’s sexual life,’ Sanders said on ABC’s ‘This Week,’…”

Emails: Top Clinton adviser doled out favors to Dem bundler - Politico: “Hillary Clinton’s former chief of staff Cheryl Mills did a favor for a former Bill Clinton staffer-turned-Hillary campaign donor, giving the auto dealer, who was heavily invested in China, access to a bilateral U.S.-China event at the State Department where he could promote his private business interests. In spring 2011, Mills invited Thomas ‘Mack’ McLarty, Bill Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, to attend the official dinner after McLarty asked for access because of ‘our substantial family investment in the automotive sector (including electric vehicle development in China).’”

AYOTTE BOASTS BIG CASH HAUL
WMUR: “Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte’s campaign entered the new year with more than $6 million in total cash on hand….Ayotte raised more than $2 million during the fourth quarter of 2015, from Oct. 1-Dec. 31. Ayotte, first elected in 2010, faces Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in a race that is already attracting national attention and could be pivotal in deciding which party has control of the Senate when a new president takes office in 2017. As WMUR.com also reported exclusively at midnight on Monday, Hassan raised nearly $2.1 million during the quarter, according to an official of her campaign.”

WHAT’S KYRGYZ FOR ‘I MEANT THAT IN A GOOD WAY’?
BBC: “A Scottish mine worker has reportedly been arrested in Kyrgyzstan, after comparing its national dish to a horse’s penis on Facebook. Michael McFeat, from Abernethy, was said to have been held after posting a picture of Kyrgyz co-workers queuing for a ‘chuchuk’ horsemeat sausage. The caption compared the dish to a stallion's genitalia, AFP reported. The news agency said his co-workers were so upset that they called a strike at the Kumtor goldmine where he works. Mr McFeat has deleted the post but put an apology on his Facebook page on Saturday… A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We are in contact with the local authorities after a British national was detained in Kyrgyzstan and are ready to provide consular assistance." It was reported that Mr McFeat faces up to five years in prison.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. Want FOX News First in your inbox every day? Sign up here.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.