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Buzz Cut:
• A GOP debate to-do list
• To Bern or not to Bern?
• FBI continues probe into Hillary server
• Bernie to sit out unsanctioned debate
• Snuggle time

DES MOINES, IOWA -- The ecstatic shrieks of the political press over Donald Trump’s decision to skip tonight’s Fox News/Google debate have been pretty much the norm for the 2016 cycle.

How much Trump’s choice to snub Iowa’s only Republican debate this cycle is an open question, but the race is close enough and Iowa is famous for late-breaking caucus decisions that the consequences could be substantial.

Just as important for Iowa Republicans and the rest of the election cycle is the tremendous opportunity Trump is leaving open for his rivals by not attending the debate. Trump is giving them not just the chance to wail away on him without retort, but also to make their own cases.

With that in mind, here’s a to-do list for each of the candidates:

To do: Strike a presidential pose - How much or how little Cruz talks about Trump will give us a revealing look at how the Texas senator really sees the race. Trump is roasting Cruz with buckets of napalm. Cruz will be obliged to point out Trump’s weakest policy points, especially on immigration and make his plea to Iowa conservatives to put principles above personality.

But Rubio is really Cruz’s problem tonight. As the rest of the field has fallen away, Cruz finds himself the man in the middle between the human torch Trump and the nimble knife fighter Rubio. On the stage, though, it’s just his fellow senator.

Wariness about Cruz relates to his prospects for a general election. One of the reasons that the GOP establishment is warming to Trump goes beyond the frontrunner’s views, which line up better with party elites, but also about worries over Cruz’s ability to even keep a general election competitive. Whatever he does in attacking and parrying, Cruz will have to do it in a way that allows Republicans to imagine him as the leader of their party.

To do: Elevate your game - The Florida senator will be fending off attacks not just from his rival Cruz but also from the second-tier candidates desperate for attention and to hobble Rubio. He has been better than any candidate this cycle in the close-quarters combat of these on-stage showdowns.

But Rubio is really at his best when he speaks in aspirational terms for the country and the future. There is liable to be so much incoming from his rivals that he may struggle to make the emotional and rhetorical shift.

Making those moments is how he can continue to solidify his place as the third man in a three-way race.

To do: Be the message -
The Kentucky senator has some difficult decisions to make. Paul had once imagined that this would really be the libertarian moment for the Republican Party and that he would be a top-tier contender. While the GOP frontrunner sometimes agrees with Paul on foreign policy, Trump is far from libertarian when it comes to domestic issues. Facing a speedy exit from the race, Paul needs to use this debate to maintain his status as the maximum liberty candidate if only to maintain his place as one of the leaders in the movement.

To do: Talk straight -
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie needs to live up to his campaign’s main message: tell it like it is. Christie has been known for his upfront, no nonsense style since he gained a high political profile in 2009, but lately his record has become a little jumbled. In the last debate, hosted by Fox Business, Christie came out looking like a flip-flopper on issues like abortion and gun control, which is the antithesis to his message. Christie needs to get the record straight and drive it home to reclaim his role as the guy who doesn’t mince words.

To do: Be bigger - The former Florida governor hasn’t played well in Iowa. His super PAC has poured most of its money into bashing former friend Marco Rubio, rather than promoting Bush’s campaign platform. On the debate stage, Bush has taken to attacking his fellow presidential contenders, and often comes out looking like a cranky old man, rather than a strong leader. Bush needs to be the bigger man, the statesman that he envisions himself to be in tonight’s debate.

To do: Talk to
New Hampshire - Ohio Gov. John Kasich knows he has no place to defend in Iowa, where his RCP average in the state is 2 percent. Kasich needs tonight’s facetime to talk to the people of the next contest: New Hampshire. Iowa has made their decision on Kasich, and it doesn’t seem to be changing, but he can use tonight to promote his message as the candidate of the Granite State.

To do: Stay above the fray -
Once the insurgent Iowa favorite, Ben Carson has fallen from grace in the Hawkeye State, but all is not lost for the pediatric neurosurgeon. His core message of faith and strong stance of social issues resonated with voters here once upon a time, and still holds a group that will not be swayed to anyone else. Staying above the fray, and on the issues he speaks to best, is enough for Carson to walk away with a solid performance.

Time: “There’s a terrible power to the iconic pictures of the space shuttle Challenger exploding — the orange-white fireball in the Florida sky, with the twin contrails of the solid rocket boosters briefly continuing on their journey to nowhere. It’s been 30 years since that awful morning on Jan. 28, 1986, and an entire generation of Americans has been born and grown into young adulthood since…The space shuttles never became the safe and reliable spacecraft they were originally advertised to be. They flew for 25 more years after Challenger, yes, but before they were through they claimed a second crew, when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry in 2003. It’s partly for that reason that the U.S. has since returned to the old way of getting people to space —putting them in a vehicle at the top of a rocket and bringing them home by parachute…”

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Real Clear Politics Averages

Iowa GOP caucus – Trump 33.2 percent; Cruz 26.7 percent; Rubio 13.8 percent; Carson 7.3 percent
General Election: Clinton vs. Trump – Clinton +2.7 points
Generic Congressional Vote: Republicans +0.5

NYT: “Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and his top advisers returned to Iowa on Wednesday evening having confronted a decision that will have lasting consequences for his presidential campaign and his political image: whether to open a new, tougher line of advertising against his rival Hillary Clinton in the closing days of the race for Iowa. Both campaigns acknowledge that Mrs. Clinton has pulled slightly ahead in polling for the Iowa caucuses on Monday. Some advisers to Mr. Sanders believe he can win here only by drawing sharper contrasts with her, especially by emphasizing her ties to Wall Street. The senator has prided himself on running an inspiring, issue-oriented campaign, and he says often that he is not interested in tearing down Mrs. Clinton…”

FBI continues probe into Hillary server - The Hill: “Six months after it began, the federal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server shows no signs of slowing down. Former FBI officials said the length of the probe is not unusual, and speculated that a decision on whether to file charges against Clinton or her top aides could come later this year, during the heat of the general election campaign. ‘I don’t know that there’s any magical cutoff date,’ said Ron Hosko, the FBI’s former assistant director of the criminal investigative division and a 30-year veteran of the bureau. For Democrats, the extended investigation has become a source of some anxiety, with Republicans gleefully raising the prospect of their presidential front-runner being indicted.”

Bernie to sit out unsanctioned debate - Newsweek: “For months, Bernie Sanders has blasted the Democratic National Committee and its chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, for not scheduling enough debates to give voters a proper chance to choose between himself and his Democratic competitors, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. But, after the New Hampshire Union Leader, New Hampshire's largest newspaper, announced Tuesday that it will host an additional debate, unsanctioned by the DNC, on February 4, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told The New York Times that Sanders does not want to participate for fear of retribution from the DNC.”

The Judge’s Ruling: no plausible deniability for Hillary - Fox News’ Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano argues that Hillary Clinton’s biggest rival this political cycle is the results of the FBI investigation. With the recent revelation that SAP information was found on the Clintons’ home server, the Judge says that all defense of plausible deniability vanished. He explains: “SAP is clothed in such secrecy that it cannot be received or opened accidentally. Clinton -- who ensured all of her governmental emails came to her through her husband’s server, a nonsecure nongovernmental venue -- could only have received or viewed it from that server after inputting certain codes…”

KTLA: “An elderly woman in Miami woke up to quite a surprise when she found an exotic animal caressing her face. Late Monday night, the woman was startled when she woke up staring at a kinkajou, which looks like a cross between a raccoon and monkey. The woman, who has not been named in reports, screamed in panic and the animal scurried away into the attic, according to a Cathy Moghari, a family friend who helped rescue the animal…After doing an Internet search for kinkajous, Moghari played some kingajous sounds with the speaker held up to the ceiling, the animal emerged. Moghari then used cherries to help lure the hungry and frightened animal into a cage. Tuesday morning, the animal arrived at South Dade Avian and Exotic Animal Medical Center where veterinarian Don Harris was able to check over the health of the anxious creature…Her owner, Ray Fernandez, contacted the vet and was reunited with his furry friend, named Banana, Wednesday morning.”

“I think, this is a competition between [Donald Trump's] narcissism and his canniness. And I think I would guess that his narcissism, meaning staying out, is going to win over.” – Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

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.