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Essential Politics: The final sprint to Iowa begins

The holiday spirit of peace on Earth and good will toward man seems positively quaint as the presidential candidates returned with a vengeance this week to the campaign trail in a final, furious dash to the first 2016 balloting, now just over three weeks away in Iowa.

Good afternoon, I'm Mark Z. Barabak, filling in for Washington Bureau Chief David Lauter. Welcome to the Friday edition of Essential Politics, in which we look at the major developments of the last week in the race for president and highlight stories that provide insight beyond the immediate headlines.

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A new year brought a familiar dynamic, with Donald Trump again dominating the campaign dialogue, this time raising questions about Canadian-born Ted Cruz’s eligibility for the White House. The Texas senator, a U.S. citizen by virtue of his mother’s citizenship, batted away the issue as a deliberate distraction, but it dominated several days of headlines as the GOP field looks toward its next debate Thursday in South Carolina.

GOP Trifecta

The Republican race has effectively settled into a three-way contest between Trump, Cruz — the Iowa front-runner — and a clutch of candidates vying to emerge as the establishment-backed alternative. One of the contenders in that latter category, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has drawn mocking criticism from rivals for his less-than-breakneck campaign pace, as Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli reported from New Hampshire.

As Congress returned to work on Capitol Hill, Mascaro also reported on Paul Ryan’s desire to use his position as House Speaker to lay out an agenda for the GOP that could buoy candidates fearful of running with the unpredictable Trump atop the Republican ticket.

Hillary Clinton's charm offensive

On the Democratic side, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders went to Wall Street to shake his fist at an old nemesis; Hillary Clinton traveled to Iowa; and Martin O’Malley, Maryland’s former governor, joined the two of them for a forum in the home state of outgoing Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Chris Megerian followed Clinton and reports from Iowa that, while not exactly warm and fuzzy, the former first lady and secretary of State is “a lot fuzzier than she was” when her presidential ambitions crashed and nearly burned in the 2008 caucuses.

Cathleen Decker was on hand when Clinton came to Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley for an event aimed at Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, and notes the appearance was less about carrying in-the-bag California than competing in battlegrounds Nevada and Virginia, where minority turnout will be key.

Finally, David Lauter offers a year-opening look at the handful of questions that could decide this most volatile and unpredictable race for the White House.

In California, meantime, Gov. Jerry Brown outlined a $171-billion spending proposal that boosts public education, offers modest help to low-income families and seeks to stash money away to ward off future budget deficits. Our Sacramento team has all the details.

What we’re reading

The Washington Post does a boffo job summing up the past year in politics and how it brought the 2016 race to where it stands today. Very long, but worth the time.

Writing in the Boston Globe, David Shribman offers a panoramic take on the Trump phenomenon, summoning memories of William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, H. Ross Perot and others.

That wraps up this week. On Monday, my colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back with the daily newsletter. Until then, keep track of all the developments in the 2016 campaign with our Trail Guide, at our politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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