Under cover of Trump flak, a conservative battle of ideas

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Buzz Cut:
• Under cover of Trump flak, a conservative battle of ideas
• Who wants a ‘Make Russia Great Again’ hat?
• Take Five: Johnson puts his ‘stache on the line
• Ryan gets a honeymoon special
• Oh, you mean thaaattt huge gold nugget

This is the Republican primary that conservatives have dreamed of for 60 years, but it’s just a little hard to see through all the shrapnel flying around.

Imagine a Republican primary in which the top-tier contenders are all staunchly pro-life, Second Amendment absolutists, tax-hike foes, devout federalists, small-government crusaders and believers in a strict reading of the Constitution.

That’s never been the case in a contested Republican primary before. Even when conservatives won in 1964 and 1980, it was against moderate establishmentarians.

It isn’t true this year, either – strictly speaking.

The frontrunner in the polls is hardly a movement conservative. Donald Trump is certainly no establishmentarian, but he is little concerned with the niceties or complexities of the conservative movement. If strict constitutionalism gets in the way of his ideas, the Constitution needs to yield so he can institute religious tests for entry, shut down parts of the Internet or seize private property to give to developers. And so it goes on abortion, guns, taxes and more.

This will sound odd to his critics, but if anything, Trump is a centrist. While some of his positions are extreme, he is still part of the old Perotist movement of which he was once a leading member. Trump’s plans may not be pragmatic in themselves, but as political positions, they are aggressively pragmatic. His appeal to downscale, deeply dissatisfied white voters transcends party, doctrine and political norms.

Only on two areas has Trump been branded ultra-conservative: immigration and, of late, an apocalyptic policy relating to Islam. But remember, polls routinely show that about 20 percent of Democrats favor mass deportations of illegal immigrants. Remember also that Democrats did not embrace immigration laxity as a virtue really until the Obama era. And as for Muslim registries, etc., a not insignificant 18 percent of Democrats in a recent poll supported Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entry to the United States.

As they say about coal truck drivers on narrow West Virginia mountain roads, Trump is trying to take his half out of the middle.

But, underneath the canopy of flak generated by and against Trump’s candidacy, a pretty remarkable conservative primary fight has broken out between Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. And the two are both unquestionably serious conservatives, albeit of different ilks.

It’s proof that now, in many ways, the insurgency is the establishment. What was considered outré just 20 years ago is now mainstream party doctrine. More moderate candidates in this cycle have been sucking wind since the start.

Trump’s trans-partisan effort may or may not work in the Republican primary. But if he cannot bring in enough new voters to turn his polling leads into primary wins, either of the two men most likely to be dueling for the GOP nod would be the most conservative Republican ever nominated.

And they have begun what promises to be a definitional fight over the future of their movement.

Cruz says past support for legal status was a trick play - WaPo: “Sen. Ted Cruz was put on the defensive Wednesday about the role he played in a failed Senate attempt at immigration reform, asserting that he did not support granting undocumented immigrants a pathway to legalization. Appearing on Fox's  ‘Special Report with Bret Baier,’ Cruz was pressed by the anchor for his reasons for putting forward an amendment that allowed undocumented immigrants to get legal status -- a position Cruz is now against. …

“Baier played a clip of Cruz saying he wanted immigration reform to pass and that the amendment would have let ‘those illegally to come in out of the shadows.’ Cruz is against undocumented immigrants receiving legal status, a position he long dodged and finally answered Tuesday night. ‘Actually, Bret, it wouldn't have’ provided legal status, Cruz said, asserting it was a battle over the immigration bill -- which was co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rival for the GOP presidential nomination with whom Cruz has repeatedly clashed.”

[You can watch the whole segment here.]

Rubio knocks Cruz on defense in New Hampshire - National Journal: “Marco Ru­bio on Wed­nes­day picked up his feud with rival GOP pres­id­en­tial hope­ful Ted Cruz where he’d left it at Tues­day night’s GOP de­bate, telling some 250 sup­port­ers that he was amazed that ‘people’ in his own party can think the way they do about na­tion­al se­cur­ity…By ‘people,’ of course, Ru­bio meant Cruz, who at the Las Ve­gas de­bate said he voted against a de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill be­cause of a cam­paign prom­ise in Texas to vote against any bill that al­lows the ad­min­is­tra­tion to hold U.S. cit­izens in­def­in­itely without ‘due pro­cess.’”

“[Ted Cruz] clearly was the supporter of legalization and the amendment. He talked about how he wanted the bill to pass. He said, ‘I want immigration reform to pass.’ And basically, the argument he was making is, ‘we can pass immigration reform, but we can’t do citizenship. Let's just do legalization.’ And if we do that, this bill has the chance to pass.” – Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on “The Kelly File.” Watch here.

[Rubio gets yet another lawmaker endorsement - Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., endorsed Rubio Wednesday on the heels of Team Rubio rolling out 60 Virginia lawmaker endorsements last week.]

Who wants a ‘Make Russia Great Again’ hat? - Speaking at his year-end press conference, Russian ruler Vladimir Putin said he likes Donald Trump, even sounding like he gave the Republican frontrunner an endorsement. NPR: “‘He is a bright and talented person without any doubt. He is the absolute leader of the presidential race,’ Putin says of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, adding that he welcomes Trump's statements about strengthening ties with Russia. ‘That is none of our business to evaluate his accomplishments but he remains the absolute front-runner in the presidential race. He is an outstanding and talented personality without any doubts,’ Putin said.”

Nevada governor, senator warn of electoral disaster with Trump - WashEx’s David Drucker interview with Nevada’s sitting governor and senator yielded one major message: Trump means disaster. Drucker writes, “The two senior Nevada Republicans represent an ethnically diverse state where, next year, Hispanics will likely comprise approximately 20 percent of all voters, possibly more. And seven weeks before first votes are cast in Iowa, with Trump holding as the undisputed national Republican front-runner, Sandoval and Heller have a warning for their party: Unmitigated electoral disaster looms in 2016, at least out West, if the celebrity businessman from New York wins the GOP presidential nomination.”

Might be even fewer… - The Hill: “Mr. Carson also made an admission unusual for presidential candidates [at a rally in Nevada]: Implementing his policies to fix the economy, immigration and social issues, he said, would probably doom his chances for re-election in 2020, should he win election next November. ‘You know, if I’m successful in this endeavor to become president of the United States, it’s very likely that I would be a one-term president,’ Mr. Carson said. ‘Because there are some tough things we have to attack. We cannot continue down this path.’”

The next class of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been announced, and the selections were pretty uncontroversial. The committee voted in rap pioneers N.W.A. as well as Classic Rock stalwarts Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Chicago and Steve Miller. [Those who turn their noses up at Miller or Cheap Trick need to spend a little more time in real America.] But what about the ones who didn’t get in? After years of rejection, British alt-rock forefathers The Smiths made the short list for judges this time. But when the final tally came, the band was passed over again.

The four-man group was formed in Manchester, England in 1982 and only remained together for five years. But in that time managed to leave a permanent mark on music. The band’s leader, Steven Morrissey, and his mates were all products of the edgier punk scene that dominated their home city. And while they had an edge, The Smiths also were capable of heartrending beauty. The band’s lyrics and sound evoked the alienation and loss that a whole generation of young American Gen Xers was yearning to hear. Music historians have consistently ranked The Smiths as one of the most influential of the 1980s and a formative act for alternative and indy groups for the past 30 years. [But yeah, by all means, leave them out so the guys who made “Smoke on the Water” can get in…] Of course, it is kind of fitting that a band that sang so much about rejection and loss would be left out of the cool kids’ party.

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Real Clear Politics Averages
Republican Nomination –
Trump 33 percent; Cruz 16.1 percent; Rubio 12.6 percent; Carson 12 percent
General Election: Clinton vs. Trump – Clinton +5.8 points
Generic Congressional Vote: Republicans +0.7

[Ed Note: We are introducing today a change to the Real Clear Politics Averages we provide. The president’s job approval rating, and voter’s perceptions of the directions of the country have gone away. In their place, you will find new measurements focused on the upcoming quadrennial election. On offer: the latest rankings of the top tier GOP presidential candidates (those with 5 percent of the vote or more), the average of head-to-head polls between the top Republican and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, as well as the average voter preference for Republican or Democratic members of Congress. Opinions of the president and average direction of the country are still important and will become more so in the general election, but right now we have a horserace to watch.]

Distaste for career politicians and Washington’s dysfunction are two big reasons Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson says his won’t be one of the seats Democrats reclaim next year.

Johnson, who Fox News First readers rank the second-most vulnerable Republican senator, sat down with Chris Stirewalt in this week’s installment of Power Play’s Take Five. “I’m a manufacturer from Wisconsin running against a career politician,” Johnson says, referring to his rematch against Democrat and former Senator Russ Feingold, who he beat in 2010.

Acknowledging the Badger State’s tendency to lean blue in a presidential election year, Johnson says it’ll be tougher this time around but his opponent’s desire expand the federal government won’t sit well with voters, who are fed up with Washington. Feingold’s support for ObamaCare, which Johnson says isn’t working in his state is just one example. Another is a strong and growing GOP grassroots organization – one that stood up to attempts by big labor to oust Gov. Scott Walker.

Johnson says he’s striving to ride that organization to victory and provide reverse coattails for whoever the Republican presidential nominee may be. He’s so confident he’s even putting his beard status on the line. Currently sporting a bit of a beard as part of a charitable cause, Johnson invites readers to decide: When he wins, should he go clean-shaven, return to his previous trademark mustache or the full van dyke? WATCH HERE.

Don’t forget to vote! - Share your top five picks of the most hotly-contested seats in the battle for control of the Senate, plus your all-important . Email them – just five, please – to FOXNEWSFIRST@FOXNEWS.COM or tweet @ChrisStirewalt.

The tally - The current ranking of the most vulnerable GOP-held senate seats based on Fox News First reader votes: 1) Illinois; 2) Wisconsin; 3) Pennsylvania; 4) Ohio; 5) Florida.

Race Notes
Ohio -
“In Ohio, Portman tries to shield himself from Trump shrapnel” – WaPo

New Hampshire - New Ayotte radio ad hits Hassan on national security” – WMUR

Florida - “Grayson hires new staff to recharge U.S. Senate campaign” – Tampa Bay Times

Wisconsin - “Sen. Johnson trusts GOP voters to nominate ‘person of integrity’” – WKOW

WashEx’s Susan Ferrechio explains why Speaker Paul Ryan was able to get a spending bill passed when former Speaker John Boehner would not have been so lucky, “Conservatives who oppose the spending package presented this week by Speaker Paul Ryan are willing to give their new boss a pass so far, even though the Democrat-friendly deal might have led to a revolt under his predecessor, John Boehner. ‘I know Paul Ryan is more likely to get this through than if Boehner stayed around,’ Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., told the Washington Examiner. ‘Because everyone is going to give him a little extra room to get over this first hump.’”

Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano examines Hillary Clinton’s legal exposure on a myriad of fronts as the FBI continues its investigation of her tenure as secretary of state: “What began as an innocent Freedom of Information Act...has now become a full criminal investigation, with Clinton as the likely target.” Read here.

Australian Broadcasting Company: “Years ago the [New South Wales] State Government was trying to work out where to put [a 23.6 pound gold nugget discovered in 1887] for safekeeping after it was entrusted to Treasury. ‘Someone studiously decided they'd place it in a box,’ [New South Wales Premier Mike Baird] said. ‘The problem was they forgot to tell anyone and that box became used for hallway cricket.’ Public servants continued to use the box as a wicket for impromptu cricket games not realising what it contained, until one day someone decided to open up the box and found the massive gold nugget. ‘My good friends in Treasury - I love them dearly, but that was not their finest moment,’ Mr Baird said. … ‘I have, for the record, asked Treasury to open every box they can find,’ he added.”

“I’m happy to see Jeb stand up and get tough. I think he’s had a really tough campaign. I don’t think it’s going to move the needle one iota. But just in terms of acquitting himself, I’m glad he did it.” 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