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Buzz Cut:
• Is Marco Rubio dead already?
• Trump, Cruz ad war escalates
• Influential black author makes case against Hillary
• First in Fox News First: America Rising makes its case
• Saskatchewanians not amused

To hear the political press talk about Sen. Marco Rubio’s disappointing finish in New Hampshire as an “implosion” one would think he was the political equivalent of an ex-parrot.

While Rubio certainly suffered a setback in not finding a way to get clear of the rest of the field in New Hampshire, he still looks like the Republican establishment’s best chance to avoid getting shut out of its own party’s nominating process.

A week ago, Republicans had growing hopes that Rubio could help their party avoid both a politically risky nominee and the damage done by a long, grueling primary fight. How quickly those hopes have turned to despair.

But this is the part of the election cycle when the mood swings are most intense and voters tip from ecstatic delight to desolation with the turn of each news cycle.

So let’s look at the reality. Rubio certainly faces a do-or-die moment in South Carolina. If Jeb Bush can get ahead of Rubio again, even if by a margin as small as his New Hampshire edge, it would be curtains for the Florida senator.

Such an outcome sets up the possibility for a long, expensive, slog and a return to talk about brokered conventions and procedural end rounds – exactly the scenario that Republican elders sought to avoid this cycle.

But what if Rubio bounces back in South Carolina? Rubio has already apologized for his error, and laid out his approach to this Saturday’s debate: don’t try to deflect to Democrats when attacked, but instead punch back at his attackers.

One good debate performance by the guy who has been the best debater of the cycle isn’t that hard to imagine.

A third place finish by Rubio in the South Carolina Primary nine days hence would have been seen as a disappointment a couple of weeks ago. Now it would be the big comeback story. So, in a sense, all of the obituaries being written about Rubio give him an advantage. Talk about managed expectations…

The truth is that his New Hampshire misadventure did not kill Rubio’s presidential chances. But it sure did raise the stakes on South Carolina.

[Jeb Bush defended his campaign’s strategy on “The Kelly File.”  Watch here.]

Rubio campaign manager warns of long slog - In an interview with AP, Marco Rubio’s campaign manager warned his fellow Republicans of a protracted primary process and potentially the first contested convention in 40 years. “We very easily could be looking at May – or the convention,” said Terry Sullivan.

Trump, Cruz ad war escalates - A pair of new ads in South Carolina shows the fire between Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz is heating up the South. The latest Trump ad uses a scratchy radio voiceover to hit Ted Cruz for being a ‘Washington insider,’ but Cruz shot out an ad of his own featuring a Trump doll taking over a dollhouse with eminent domain.

“I will be changing very rapidly. I’m very capable of changing to anything I want to change to.” –Donald Trump On the Record with Greta van Susteren” when asked his use of profanity at rallies.

Kasich to sign bill to defund Planned Parenthood - AP: “Ohio Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign a bill stripping government money from Planned Parenthood, a move that might help him with conservatives who dominate the upcoming Republican presidential primary in South Carolina.”

The Judge’s Ruling: Liberty’s lament - Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano wonders whether the election is already over for liberty loving voters. “What if our system of governance is so deep into the fabric of big government in the second decade of the 21st century that all the presidential candidates really believe that most voters actually want the government to care for them?” Read it all here.

[GOP delegate counts: Trump 17; Cruz 11; Rubio 10; Kasich 5; Bush 4; Carson 3 (1,237 needed to win)]

Live Science: “Three adult men and a young adolescent of unknown gender buried in cemeteries outside Rome were likely migrants to the city, their teeth reveal. The four immigrants all lived during the first to third centuries A.D. They are the first individuals ever to be identified as migrants to the city during the Roman Imperial era, which began around the turn of the millennium and ended in the fourth century. This was a time when Rome was a thriving, complex metropolis, said study researcher Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of West Florida…To uncover people’s origins, Killgrove and colleague Janet Montgomery of Durham University in the United Kingdom analyzed the isotopes in their molars…A combination of these isotopes revealed that two adult men who were between 35 and 50 when they died, one adult man older than 50, and a teenager between the ages of 11 and 15 almost certainly came to Rome from somewhere else.”

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Real Clear Politics Averages
National GOP nomination
: Trump 29.5 percent; Cruz 21 percent; Rubio 17.8 percent; Carson 7.8 percent
South Carolina GOP Primary: Trump 36 percent; Cruz 19.7 percent; Rubio 12.7 percent; Bush 10 percent; Carson 8.7 percent
National Dem nomination: Clinton 49.3 percent; Sanders 36 percent
South Carolina Dem Caucus: Clinton 62 percent; Sanders 32.5 percent
General Election Clinton vs. Trump: Clinton +4 points
Generic Congressional Vote: Republicans +0.5

WaPo: “Michelle Alexander, the author of an acclaimed book on mass incarceration, said Wednesday that African American voters should not support Hillary Clinton because of policies that former president Bill Clinton enacted and she supported that were detrimental to black communities. In an essay in The Nation, Alexander, the author of ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,said that black voters have been ‘remarkably loyal to the Clintons for more than 25 years’ and blacks appear to be supporting Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders now, despite his vow to take on Wall Street and tackle mass incarceration.”

Clyburn might pick a side in S.C. - USA Today: “Rep. Jim Clyburn, the most influential Democratic officeholder in South Carolina, says he'll ‘huddle’ with his family to decide this weekend whether to make an endorsement in the presidential race — a move that could help shape the race in a state Hillary Clinton’s campaign views as a crucial firewall. In an interview Wednesday on Capital Download, Clyburn said his wife and daughter had been telling him that the state’s Democrats ‘want to hear from me.’ One of his younger brothers urged him, ‘You've got to take a stand.’”

Chairman of pro-GOP PAC America Rising, Matt Rhodes, analyzes Hillary Clinton’s upcoming challenges in Medium post: “Despite millions of dollars, thousands of man-hours, and hundreds of events, Secretary Clinton has underperformed in the two states where she spent the most time campaigning. And while the Clinton campaign is eager to point to victories in the nominating contests ahead, national polling from last week spells trouble for Clinton as she clings to a slim 2-point lead over Senator Bernie Sanders (Democratic-Socialist) among Democrats nationwide…Keep an eye on states like Nevada, Minnesota, Colorado, and Maine. In these caucus states, which by their nature are comprised of a larger percentage of high-energy Democratic grassroots voters, Clinton will struggle (just as she did in 2008) to cobble together the support she needs for decisive victories.”

Hillary campaign feels strain ahead of debate - Reuters: “Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will try to mend her badly wounded campaign in a debate on Thursday with rival Bernie Sanders, an encounter many of her donors said would allow her to play a role that suits her - embattled underdog. After her embarrassing 22-point loss to Sanders in New Hampshire’s presidential nominating contest, Clinton headed back on Wednesday to New York, where her campaign is based, to confer with top advisers and prepare for the face-off with Sanders, set for 9 p.m. EST in Milwaukee. Her campaign has denied reports that Clinton is considering a shakeup of her staff, but aides acknowledged that adding new staff was a possibility…Many donors said they thought one immediate task for the former secretary of state’s campaign would be to improve upon her messaging.”

[Watch Fox: Senior Political Correspondent Mike Emanuel has the latest from tonight’s Democratic debate in Milwaukee, Wisc.]

Hillary aides also handled ‘top secret’ intel - Fox News: “At least a dozen email accounts handled the ‘top secret’ intelligence that was found on Hillary Clinton’s server and recently deemed too damaging for national security to release, a U.S. government official close to the review told Fox News. The official said the accounts include not only Clinton’s but those of top aides – including Cheryl Mills, Huma Abedin, Jake Sullivan and Philippe Reines – as well as State Department Under Secretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy and others.”

[Weekend email dump set - The Hill: “The State Department will release 550 emails from Hillary Clinton’s private sever this weekend, under pressure from a federal judge who appeared visibly annoyed at its delayed efforts earlier this week.”]

Bernie raises big dough - The Hill: “Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has raised more than $6 million in the 24 hours since polls closed Tuesday night in New Hampshire, the Sanders campaign confirmed late Wednesday. The campaign beat its $6 million fundraising goal and is now urging supporters to donate another $1 million by midnight.”

[Democratic delegate count - Clinton 394; Sanders 44 (2,382 needed to win)]

Politico: “With New Hampshire’s presidential primary completed, attention has now been focused back on the state’s Senate race, which promises to be one of the election cycle's most closely watched contests. The latest: Sen. Kelly Ayotte is calling on Gov. Maggie Hassan — who is running for Ayotte’s Senate seat — to sign a pledge limiting third-party spending in the race…Ayotte's letter comes as Hassan gets ready to ratchet up her attacks on Ayotte, according to WMUR — starting with a ‘State of the Race’ memo that will be released later Thursday. The memo aims to associate Ayotte with big political spenders like the Koch brothers.”

CBN: “Saskatchewanians are eager to correct the record after an NBA announcer insisted Wednesday that their province is named for its abundance of sasquatches. The Fox Sports announcer made the comment while pointing out that Utah Jazz forward Trey Lyles is the first person from the province to play in the NBA. ‘That region’s known for being home to a lot of sasquatches,’ the announcer said, adding, ‘that's what it's named after.’ For the record, Saskatchewan comes from a Cree word for ‘swift flowing river.’”

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.