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Buzz Cut:
• Top tier firms up in final GOP debate of 2015
• Power Play: It’s been a long December
• Spending deal strikes oil ban
• Hillary meets with Muslims
• Like Sisyphus, but with turkeys

It’s safe to say that the final debate of 2015 – the end of the pre-season – didn’t change the trajectory of the race.  It was instead a confirmation of the shape of this chaotic contest.

We’ll look at the leaderboard, but first a word about the debates themselves: There have been too few of them and with too many candidates on stage. How can voters decide in this cacophony? Despite solid questions and good moderating, the CNN debate was still painful because every time it seemed like a real discussion was going to break out, one of the candidates in electoral Siberia would start howling.

This has to stop. The stage needs to be shrunk not expanded, as CNN did in this case. If networks will not perform their due diligence and start focusing the discussion of viable candidates, then they will have failed in their responsibilities. Plus, it will only get more boring as candidates’ answers become more canned. Enough already. Nine people are a baseball team, not a debate.

Keep the undercard, or, heck, make it bigger if you like. Make them wrestle bears or spin plates. Whatever you want, but for the real thing, a New Year needs to be a new start.

On to the leaderboard…

Donald Trump had his best debate. He was engaged almost the whole time, traded rambling answers for concise talking points and mostly avoided bullying. There were certainly enough putdowns and wrestling-ring braggadocio for his fans to cheer, but this was something of another persona for Trump. While Trump’s ideas for shutting down the Internet and a religious test for entry to the United States were broadly panned by his rivals, he just shrugged his way through.

Ted Cruz didn’t have such a fine outing, but he probably did what he needed to do – even if it was costly in the short term. Cruz has correctly concluded that the Republican Party will unite to defeat Trump and prevent a general election slaughter, so he continues his truce with the frontrunner as he bides his time. Even so, when Trump treated Cruz like a caddy that lost track of a slicing five-iron shot, and Cruz deferred to the boss it was anguishing. But by subordinating his ego and keeping up his fight with other elected officials, Cruz kept the focus where he wants it: him versus the rest of the establishment.

Marco Rubio is really good at this and only getting better. Those establishmentarians nurturing dreams of late-winter resurrections may want to go ahead and book their post-campaign vacations. Rubio was under sustained attack all night and seemed actually to enjoy the challenge. The rap on Rubio is that he’s a lightweight, but he keeps giving heavyweight answers.

Ben Carson has been studying and it showed. He gave a couple of answers that demonstrated a broadening understanding of foreign policy. But as Rick Perry and many others can attest, second acts are hard to come by in politics. Cruz has co-opted his supporters in Iowa and shows no signs of letting up.

Jeb Bush made another try to call out Trump. And again, he left Trump stronger. Bush looks like he wants to crawl right out of his skin throughout each of these debates. And what is worst for him is that the very thing Bush purports to want to do – show up Trump – he actually prevents by being in the race. Bush is Trump’s preferred punching bag and, along with Rand Paul and John Kasich, one of the only candidates little-enough liked for Trump to pummel with impunity.

Chris Christie is starting to seem like the John McCain in this race. No, not that one. The one from 2000, when he staged a New Hampshire rebellion as a maverick, straight talker against George W. Bush. Rubio, on the other hand, is starting to look a lot more like Dubya in that cycle. Christie certainly can’t count out Carly Fiorina in that state or in that lane of the GOP. Fiorina turned in another creditable debate performance and is well gaited for the Granite State. But if Christie gets New Hampshire on his side, he could mean trouble for Rubio in locking up their half of the national party.

[Chris Stirewalt and Howard Kurtz gave Megyn Kelly their initial reactions to Tuesday’s debate on “The Kelly File.” Watch here.]

Power Play: It’s been a long December… – History shows the frontrunner the year before the election rarely keeps that lead when voters actually take to the election booth. As 2015 comes to a fast close, Trump’s lead looks indomitable, but it seems that’s bad news for the mogul. Chris Stirewalt explains it all in just 60 seconds. WATCH HERE.

Cruz disclosed classified information? – Roll Call: “Did Sen. Ted Cruz disclose classified information on national television? Those without access to the intelligence itself probably won’t know for sure, but that seemed to be the implication from a reaction from presidential campaign rival and fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., during a portion of Tuesday’s CNN debate that focused on their differing views on the scope of National Security Agency surveillance programs…[Rubio responded to the questioning saying] “Let me be very careful when answering this, because I don’t think national television in front of 15 million people is the place to discuss classified information…”

Trump recommits to GOP – WashEx: “When pressed by radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump said that he is ‘totally committed’ to the GOP, adding that he has ‘gained great respect’ for those in the Republican leadership and his competitors for the nomination. ‘I really am,’ Trump said when asked if he’ll stand by his pledge. ‘I’ll be honest, I really am.’”

Smithsonian: “A prominent educator and patron of the arts, Henry Cole travelled in the elite, social circles of early Victorian England, and had the misfortune of having too many friends. During the holiday season of 1843, those friends were causing Cole much anxiety …As [Cole] watched the stacks of unanswered correspondence he fretted over what to do… He approached an artist friend, J.C. Horsley, and asked him to design an…illustration—a triptych showing a family at table celebrating the holiday flanked by images of people helping the poor—and had a thousand copies made by a London printer. The image was printed on a piece of stiff cardboard 5 1/8 x 3 1/4 inches in size. At the top of each was the salutation, ‘TO:_____’ allowing Cole to personalize his responses, which included the generic greeting ‘A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.’ It was the first Christmas card.”

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Real Clear Politics Averages
Obama Job Approval
: Approve – 43.4 percent//Disapprove – 51.9 percent
Directions of Country: Right Direction – 23.2 percent//Wrong Track – 67.2 percent

Fox News: “House Republicans announced a deal Tuesday night between the GOP-led Congress and the White House on a trillion-dollar, year-end tax and spending package to fund the government through fiscal year 2016…The legislation includes increases in domestic and defense spending. And it increases the federal deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars by extending numerous, popular tax credits without paying for them. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., announced the deal in a closed-door, late-night meeting with GOP lawmakers and said it includes their proposal to lift a four-decade-old ban on exporting U.S. crude oil…The final package also is expected to allow for the delay of three ObamaCare taxes — the medical device tax, so-called “Cadillac tax” and health insurance tax — congressional sources told Fox News…House Republicans said a vote on the package is expected by Thursday…”

No ObamaCare bailouts either – The Hill: “The government funding bill unveiled late Tuesday night includes a provision touted by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would prevent what Republicans call a ‘bailout’ of health insurers under ObamaCare.”

Star Tribune: “Hillary Clinton cited efforts already underway in Minnesota as an example of how to fight domestic recruitment of terrorists, using a Minneapolis speech on Tuesday to call for a stepped-up effort but one that respects people of different backgrounds…At least 12 Somali-American men from Minnesota have been charged with attempting to go abroad to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Minnesota is part of a nationwide pilot project, a collaboration of federal and local law enforcement, Muslim religious leaders and youth groups trying to intervene with young people who might be vulnerable to recruitment. Clinton praised the program and said it should be better-funded.”

What journalists really need to ask Hillary – Michael Barone says the question journalists need to ask, about Benghazi, about her husband’s questionable treatment of woman, and on issues in general is “do you really believe this?” He outlines his reasoning here.

WBZ: “A Cape Cod postal worker has had some unwelcome company on his mail route. Video posted by the Cape Cod Wave earlier this month shows five gobbling turkeys harassing a Falmouth mail carrier. The mailman has armed himself with a pole to keep the birds at bay, and tells the camera that this sort of thing happens ‘every day’ …Recently, The Cape Cod Times published a story about the exploding wild turkey population in the region. It says turkeys have been stopping traffic and even posing for photographs by amused residents.”

“It does not matter what she says. As long as she gives the appearance of being interested and slightly animated…that’s all that matters. Nobody is listening to what she is saying on anything, least of all, on [counterterrorism].” – 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.