Archive for January, 2016

Final poll shows tight races ahead of Iowa caucuses

Iowa caucusesThe last major preference poll before Monday’s Iowa caucuses showed a change at the top of the GOP race.

The Iowa Poll, published Saturday by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, said Republican real estate mogul Donald Trump has the support of 28 perfect of likely caucus goers, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at 23 percent and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 15 percent.

It’s the first time Trump has led this poll since August, pollsters said. Trump’s support has risen by six points since early January, and 71 percent of his supporters say their minds are made up.

The poll was taken beginning the day after Trump announced he would skip last week’s GOP debate. It’s not a decision that seems likely to hurt him 46 percent of likely caucus goers said they didn’t care and 24 percent approved of his decision. Only 29 percent didn’t approve.

Should voters have second thoughts, Cruz could benefit, he leads the group who could change their minds, albeit by a small margin, over Trump and Marco Rubio. A plurality of Ben Carson’s voters chose Cruz second.

One troubling sign for Cruz, however, is that his favorability, though still quite high, at 65 percent, has dropped 11 percentage points since early January.

On the Democratic side, the survey finds former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton with 45 percent support to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 42 percent.

Both candidates see an increase in support, with Clinton up by three percentage points since early January and Sanders up by two. Clinton leads among voters who say they are certain to caucus, and Sanders has an edge with voters who said they would probably caucus.

Three percent of likely Democratic caucus goers chose Martin O’Malley, which shows a drop of a percentage point since January.

The poll of 602 likely Republican caucus-goers and 602 likely Democratic caucus-goers was taken Tuesday to Friday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The candidates and their surrogates crisscrossed state Saturday in a frenzied weekend prelude to the first presidential contest of the 2016 race which has taken an unexpected turn with the emergence of outsider candidates who have challenged the establishment in both parties.

Iowa offers only a small contingent of the delegates who will determine the nominees at each party’s national convention in July. But Monday’s caucuses will provide a test of whether the large enthusiastic crowds turning out at rallies for Trump and Sanders will turn into actual votes. The caucuses should also help winnow out the crowded Republican field and provide momentum heading into the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary.



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Cruz Campaign Shift Focus from Trump to Rubio to Hold Off Late Surge

marco rubio and Ted cruz in iowaAfter weeks of decreeing that he had entered a two-man race with Donald Trump in the Iowa caucus, Sen. Ted Cruz is quickly shifting focus to an opponent he thought he once vanquished: Sen. Marco Rubio.

Just two days before voters go to the polls, in a new Iowa television advertisement, Cruz calls Rubio “the Republican Obama,” a sign that Cruz’s campaign could be worried the Florida senator is surging.

The Texas senator, under siege by much of the GOP field, has moved nearly all of his negative ads away from Trump, who sits in a modest first place according to Iowa recent polls and toward Rubio.

“They call Ted Cruz Obama’s nemesis,” the ad begins, which first aired on Friday and was observed by CMAG/Kantar Media, a company that tracks political advertising. “Marco Rubio’s different, the Republican Obama who championed Obama’s amnesty and led the Gang of Eight,” a reference to failed immigration legislation in 2013 that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The spot also airs a video of Rubio in which he appears to support a cap-and-trade program, a plan to tax carbon emissions.

“Tax hikes. Amnesty. The Republican Obama,” the message concludes.

Cruz’s campaign and super PACs have released a flurry of similar negative spots on Rubio shortly before the caucus, most of which dredge up Rubio’s support for the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill.

The two fought for much of November and December, often about immigration. But after Cruz jumped ahead in many polls, he said the establishment was “abandoning” the back-and-forth with Rubio and then started to unload on Trump.

Now, as hours count down in Iowa, the Cruz campaign appears to be calling an audible play, refocusing its attention on an old target in order to stem a surge from a third-place Rubio rather than investing ad money to take down Trump.

Cruz’s team maintains that Rubio poses no immediate political threat. Yet the torrent of last-minute advertising could undercut Cruz’s persistent claim that the contest is a two-man race between him and Trump.

Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe said Friday that the campaign estimates 2,387 voters are deciding between Cruz and Rubio in Iowa, about a quarter of the total number they think are stuck between Cruz and Trump.

“He’s not worried about Rubio beating him in Iowa. But they’re looking now to the future: Does Rubio come out of Iowa strong enough to get through South Carolina and actually keep himself going?” said Erick Erickson, a conservative personality in close touch with the Cruz team. “And I think that’s got to be a real concern from the Cruz campaign.”

Other signs emerged Friday that Cruz’s two-horse race theory is slipping away. After the debate in Des Moines on Thursday, Cruz’s aides crowed about how Rubio was forced to defend his immigration record, a common post-debate boast for team Cruz early in the campaign, but less so recently.

Cruz’s campaign also opened another front in the war against Rubio, dubbing him “Mandate Marco” for his positions on cap-and-trade. They were eager to downplay late momentum by Rubio in the Hawkeye State, telling reporters that he would finish in a weak third place at best even as the candidate sharpened his rhetoric.

“If you look in particular at President Obama’s executive amnesty,” Cruz said Friday morning in Ringsted, “Marco Rubio’s gone on Univision and said in Spanish, ‘no, no, no, no, no, I wouldn’t rescind amnesty.'”

But Rubio has inched up in recent Iowa polls, and the third-place finish that he is positioned for now looks more secure.

The state’s popular junior senator, Joni Ernst, appeared on stage with Rubio and praised him, a tacit blessing, but not necessarily an endorsement, and its largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, did endorse him. Its headline on Friday ‘Rough Night for Cruz,’ did little to cement the perception of a two-man race.

A cavalry of outside groups is also taking aim at Rubio. One super PAC, Stand for Truth, just days ago reassigned $700,000 in television time that it planned to use against Rubio toward Trump. But then late Friday, a new Stand for Truth anti-Rubio video surfaced.

Meanwhile, Keep the Promise, the other main super PAC supporting Cruz, on Thursday and Friday also unveiled new advertisements bashing Rubio. It had, in recent days, been signaling that it would begin a scorched-earth campaign to take down Trump with a series of tough advertisements, and it appears to be maintaining a dual focus, releasing anti-Trump and anti-Rubio spots consecutively late this week.

On Monday, both the super PACs and the campaign had decided that Trump and the “New York values” he embodies was the target of the paid media campaign. Now, that has suddenly changed.

Joe Pounder, a Rubio spokesman, said that Rubio’s growing support explained the late advertising shift.

“Instead of campaigning on his record, Senator Cruz is pumping millions into negative and false attack ads days before the caucus because he knows Marco is gaining momentum,” Pounder said. “Considering that he stood with Barack Obama just months ago to weaken our intelligence programs, this ad is another in a litany of examples of Ted Cruz desperately saying … anything to try to win an election.”

Speaking at a campaign event in Dubuque, Iowa, early Friday evening, Rubio himself hit back.

“He’s taken 100% of his advertising in the last three days and he’s using it to attack me,” Rubio said, harkening back to his first Senate run, “mostly using the same ads my liberal opponent used to attack me in 2009, but it’s fine.”



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Trump Upstages Fox GOP Debate with Snub

Trump debate snubEven in boycotting a debate with his Republican rivals for the White House, front-runner Donald Trump managed to upstage the event on Thursday with a typical dramatic flourish.

Instead of attending a seventh debate, the former reality TV star held a competing event across town that he said raised $6 million for U.S. military veterans. In doing so, he cast a shadow over his rivals, who frequently tossed barbs his way.

Trump’s gamble that he could leave the battlefield to his rivals for one night appeared to pay off, with just days to go before Iowa holds the first nominating contest of the 2016 election season. No one appeared to emerge as a central challenger to him during the two-hour face-off in Des Moines.

Trump’s refusal to participate in the debate out of anger that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was a moderator prompted a flurry of last-minute phone calls with Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes that failed to resolve their dispute.

A Fox News statement said Trump requested that Fox contribute $5 million to his charities in exchange for his attendance, which the network turned down.

The debate was the type of event Republicans would routinely have without the flamboyant Trump on stage, and it lacked the electricity that he brings to the party’s search for a nominee for the Nov. 8 election.

Without Trump on stage, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie found themselves with more room to make their case to voters seeking a more mainstream candidate.

Both men have an eye on the Feb. 9 first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, which comes on the heels of the Iowa caucuses on Monday and where an establishment Republican like them might have a better chance of standing out.

Senator Ted Cruz from Texas and Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, the two top challengers to Trump in Iowa, engaged in squabbles over immigration and national security and did not appear to threaten Trump’s lead. He holds the edge over Cruz in polls of Iowa Republicans.

Trump’s rivals mocked his decision to sit out the debate and found ways to criticize him.

“I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly, and Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon,” Cruz told his rivals, including Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, as the debate opened. His next sentence began: “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way.”

Bush, who has been a frequent target of Trump’s attacks, turned a question about religious tolerance into an attack on Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.

“Donald Trump, for example, I mentioned his name again if anybody was missing him, Mr. Trump believed in reaction to people’s fears that we should ban all Muslims. Well, that creates an environment that’s toxic in our own country,” Bush said.

Cruz, after a series of questions, said: “If you ask me one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage.”

In a swipe at both Trump and Cruz, Rubio chimed in: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave the stage no matter what you ask me.”

With his veterans’ event drawing live TV news coverage on Fox News competitors CNN and MSNBC, Trump had plenty of media attention.

He clung to his insistence that Fox News had treated him badly. He has complained that Kelly insulted him at a debate in August and that a statement from the network earlier this week belittled him.

Two other Republican candidates, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, joined Trump on stage after participating in a debate of low-polling candidates.

Not so former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore.

“I’m not about to go across town tonight to carry the coat for some billionaire,” he said at the “undercard” debate.

There was initially some mystery as to which veterans’ groups would receive the money raised at the event, which included $1 million from Trump himself. His campaign, in a statement, said the funds would go to 22 different groups it listed online.

Trump, with just one day’s notice on a weeknight, was able to fill to capacity a Drake University hall that holds 700.

“I didn’t want to be here, to be honest, I wanted to be about five minutes away” at the debate, Trump told the crowd. “When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights – whether we like it or not.”

Trump dominated social media during the debate, leading the entire Republican pack in Twitter mentions throughout the first half of the debate, according to data from social media analytics firm Zoomph.

He was by far the most-searched-for candidate on Google during the first half of the debate, at one point outpacing the second-most-searched-for candidate, Rubio, by nearly four-to-one, according to Google Trends data.

Trump’s support in opinion polls, much of it from blue-collar men, has not wavered for months despite him insulting Mexican immigrants and Muslims and clashing with Republican establishment figures like Senator John McCain.

The Republican presidential debate held without front-runner Donald Trump attracted 12.5 million viewers to Fox News Channel on Thursday, according to preliminary Nielsen data.

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Iranian President Rouhani Hails New Relationship With France

President RouhaniPresident Hassan Rouhani hailed a “new relationship” between Iran and France during a visit Thursday that saw the signing of a host of post-sanctions business deals.

“Let us forget the resentment,” Rouhani said, calling for both countries to take advantage of the “positive atmosphere” following the removal of sanctions over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

“We are ready to turn the page” and establish a “new relationship between our countries”, Rouhani told a meeting of business leaders.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls responded that “Iran can count on France”.

“France is ready to use its companies, its engineers, its technicians and its many resources to help to modernise your country,” Valls said.

Rouhani was welcomed to Paris with military honours and national anthems on the second leg of a trip signalling Iran’s rapprochement with Europe since sanctions were lifted.

The real business of the visit will come when Rouhani officially signals Iran’s intention to buy more than 100 passenger planes from European aircraft maker Airbus.

French carmaker Peugeot said it will return to the Iranian market in a five-year deal worth 400 million euros ($436 million) that was announced Thursday.

Peugeot will produce 200,000 cars a year in a joint venture with local manufacturer Iran Khodro, according to a statement.

The French carmaker was forced to pull out of Iran in 2012 as sanctions began to bite.

In another potential bonanza for France, the head of French oil giant Total said his firm would sign a deal to buy Iranian crude.

Although the French state is rolling out the red carpet for Rouhani, the Iranian opposition will hold a human rights demonstration and Jewish groups also intend to protest in Paris.

Rouhani is to hold talks with President Francois Hollande which are expected to include discussions on Iran’s role in Syria, where it is backing President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has killed 260,000 people.

Talks are due to begin Friday in Geneva to take tentative steps towards ending the conflict.

After arriving from Italy, where he sealed deals for steel and pipelines worth between 15 and 17 billion euros, Rouhani began his Paris visit on Wednesday by unveiling a scheme to guarantee investment by French firms in Iran.

A source involved in the deal to buy Airbus planes said that only letters of intention will be signed at this stage, because some sanctions are still in place.

However, Iran is keen to bring its ageing fleet of mid- and long-haul aircraft up to date, so the deal is widely expected to go ahead soon, giving a huge boost to the European aviation industry.

Rouhani’s meeting with Hollande is also expected to touch on Iran’s bitter feud with regional rival Saudi Arabia.

In a reference to Saudi Arabia, the Iranian president told an audience in Paris that “some countries had wanted to use terrorism for their own means”.

“But this is a hand grenade with the pin removed,” he added.

During his visit to Rome, Rouhani dismissed suggestions that Iran should apologise to the Saudis for an attack on its embassy by demonstrators furious over Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.

“Why should we apologise, because Nimr al-Nimr was executed? We are the ones to apologise because they are killing the people of Yemen? Apologise to them because they are helping terrorists?” he asked.

In the Italian capital, Rouhani and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi met at the Capitoline Museum where nude statues were covered up out of respect for the Islamic Republic’s strict laws governing propriety.

But Rouhani denied he had asked his Italian hosts to cover up the statues and Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who accompanied Rouhani on the museum trip, called the move “incomprehensible”.

Rouhani also visited the Vatican for the first time and met Pope Francis.


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Trump to Miss Fox News/Google IOWA Debate

Donald trumpU.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump on Wednesday escalated a fight with Fox News, using the word “bimbo” in a tweet about anchor woman Megyn Kelly after he dramatically pulled out of a debate only days before the first votes of the 2016 campaign are cast.

Trump on Tuesday withdrew from the televised encounter, scheduled for Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa, irritated at host Fox for allowing Kelly to moderate after her questioning had angered him in a debate last year.

The real estate magnate, who is the Republican front-runner to win the nomination for the Nov. 8 presidential election, followed up with a thinly veiled insult on Wednesday.

“I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct,” he wrote on Twitter. “Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!”

Trump’s withdrawal means the last televised debate before the Iowa caucuses on Monday will not feature the man who has dominated the Republican race for months and leads many opinion polls. The caucuses are the first contest in the nation to choose the Republican presidential nominee.

Trump’s main rival in Iowa, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, poured scorn on the billionaire for pulling out of the debate.

In Twitter posts, Cruz likened Trump’s withdrawal to a comical retreat from a “Monty Python” sketch and accused him of “trembling at being questioned” by Kelly.

Cruz used the hashtag #DuckingDonald to mock the former reality TV star for ducking out of the debate and tweeted a mocked-up picture of Trump’s head on Donald Duck’s body sitting on a pile of money.

Cruz, a conservative and a debating champion in college, challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate.

Another Republican candidate, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee told Fox News program, “Fox and Friends” that the affair is “a lot of drama” that most Iowa caucus-goers would likely tune out.

Trump has been feuding with Fox News since the network put on the first debate in August, when Kelly asked Trump about his treatment of women, prompting a stream of insults from the candidate and complaints of not being treated fairly.

Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said on television programs on Wednesday that Trump was not afraid to debate his rivals or take reporters’ questions. He added that Trump would be happy to debate Cruz if the contest, which includes 12 Republicans vying for the nomination, narrows.

“If it comes down to a two-person race, Donald Trump would be happy to debate him,” Lewandowski told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program.

Fox News, in a statement on Tuesday, said it would not “give in to terrorizations toward any of our employees,” but left the door open to Trump attending the debate. The event will be co-hosted by Google.

Mr Trump will hold a separate Iowa event at the same time as the debate to raise money for wounded veterans.

Iowa hosts the nation’s opening presidential primary contest on Monday.

“They can’t toy with me like they toy with everybody else. Let them have their debate and let’s see how they do with the ratings.”

“At the end of the day, Mr. Trump is going to have the last laugh,” Lewandowski told MSNBC.

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Hillary Plays Down FBI Email Investigation

Hillary CNNHillary Clinton was asked about the controversy over her use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state at CNN’s forum for the Democratic presidential candidates on Monday night.

She stressed that there was no negative “intention” behind her choice to use a private email address and pointed to the fact she asked the State Department to release her messages.

“I’m happy people are looking at the emails,” Clinton said. “Some of them are, you know, frankly a little embarrassing. You know, you find out that sometimes I’m not the best on technology and things like that, but look, I think it’s great. Let people sort them through and, as we have seen, there is a lot of, you know, a lot of interest.”

The State Department has been releasing the emails from Clinton’s server on a monthly basis. Clinton provided the messages to the agency after they were requested. The email releases have included Clinton discussing sensitive issues with her aides. They also contained mundane moments such as Clinton asking staffers what time different shows aired on television.

Critics have suggested Clinton’s use of a private account for official business could have been a violation of federal regulations and an attempt to avoid transparency. Chris Cuomo, who moderated the forum, brought up the issue when he noted the Des Moines Register newspaper criticized Clinton for her handling of the situation when it endorsed her on Monday. The paper’s editorial board suggested Clinton’s response to the issue shows she has not learned to admit mistakes. Clinton first publicly addressed the controversy in a press conference last March where she defiantly dismissed any concerns about her email usage and said she opted for a private account for both personal and official messages as a matter of “convenience.”

Though Clinton told Cuomo she should have addressed the situation “quicker,“ she did not admit to making any mistakes in her handling of the controversy.

“I’m not willing to say it was an error in judgement, because nothing that I did was wrong,” Clinton said. “It was not in any way prohibited.”

Clinton also argued she needed time to formulate a response.

“Part of the problem and I would just say this as not an excuse, but just as an explanation … when you’re facing something like that you got to get the facts and it takes time to get the facts,” Clinton said. “And so, when I said, ‘Hey, take all my emails, make them public,’ that had never been done before ever by anybody. And so we’ve been sorting our way through this because it is kind of a unique situation.”

Clinton’s comments at the forum clearly didn’t satisfy the Republican Party. In a statement released shortly after the event, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus blasted Clinton for not saying she made a mistake.

“Her refusal to admit her secret email server was a lapse in judgement will only add to Americans’ doubts about her honesty and trustworthiness. Voters aren’t looking for a politician who pretends the rules don’t apply to them, particularly when it comes to safekeeping classified material important to our national security,” Priebus said.

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Afghan Army Being Restructured Ahead of Taliban Offensive

Six nations prepare for major Helmand operationAfter months of ferocious fighting, Afghan army units battling the Taliban in southern Helmand province are facing major restructuring and leadership changes, with several key commanders being replaced, a U.S. military official said.

Helmand has been a fierce battleground since last Autumn, with fighting taking place in 10 districts. At times, the insurgents have laid siege on army bases and threatened to overrun large chunks of territory. Local officials have called for help from central authorities and complained publicly over corruption that includes syphoning off salaries, food, fuel and equipment.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the head of public affairs for the U.S.-NATO mission, said  that the Afghan army corps in Helmand is now being “rebuilt” and that senior officers are being replaced.

The reasons for the changes in the Afghan army’s 215 Maiwand Corps “are a combination of incompetence, corruption and ineffectiveness,” Shoffner said. The corps’ commander has been replaced, along with “some brigade commanders and some key corps staff up to full colonel level,” he said.

Helmand is a strategic region for the Taliban, as it as it shares a border of more than 250 kilometers (155 miles) with Pakistan. It grows large quantities of opium, used to produce most of the world’s heroin. The harvest is worth up to $3 billion a year, and helps fund the insurgency.

The Afghan Defense Ministry confirmed the changes in Helmand. It said veteran army Gen. Moheen Faqiri was appointed to lead the corps and took over two months ago.

Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the ministry’s spokesman, said brigade commanders have also been rotated out and replaced.

“Soon, other army units will have new commanders there,” Waziri said.

In October, a meeting of the National Security Council discussed the worsening situation on the ground. In the presence of President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the NSC heard that Afghan security forces were badly led, poorly equipped and in the previous three months had suffered 900 casualties, including 300 dead.

Minutes of the Oct. 29 meeting, show that Helmand was described by the former head of the intelligence agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, as “the biggest recruiting pool for the Taliban” and the insurgents’ “primary source of revenue” from poppy for heroin and marble smuggling.

Another concern is the Afghan police who are fighting on the front-lines across Helmand, often without the equipment and backup of the army, which means casualties are higher.

Last Wednesday, Gen. Abdul Rahman Sarjang, the Helmand provincial police chief, said the Afghan security forces were “exhausted” and in dire need of reinforcements. He also said that a lack of coordination between the army and police was hampering progress in the fight.

The Taliban have made serious stands in seven Helmand districts Sangin, Gereshk, Khanashin, Musa Qala, Nawzad, Washer and Marjah and at least three districts of Lashkar Gah are also under threat, Sarjang said.

The changes in Helmand reflect that Afghanistan’s civilian and military leaders are learning the limitations of the security forces as they take on the Taliban alone following the drawdown of the international combat mission at the end of 2014. The U.S. and NATO maintain 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly in an advisory and training capacity.

In a most serious illustration of the dire battlefield situation in Helmand, the district of Sangin was besieged for weeks and in late December fears escalated that it would completely fall to the insurgents. The United States conducted airstrikes on Taliban positions, the British rushed special forces advisers to the area, and the Afghan military dropped food and ammunition to soldiers and police who were surrounded in their base.

Nabil told the NSC meeting there were about 12,000 Taliban fighters in Helmand, up to 60 percent of them from other parts of the country, evidence the insurgents had reinforced their numbers for the fight. Nabil also said Afghan forces’ morale was “extremely low” and discipline had broken down with “junior commanders openly defying their superiors.”

“Helmand is in a crisis,” Nabil told the meeting.

Shoffner, the U.S. general, said troops had been moved from other parts of the country to reinforce Helmand and that strategies have to change.

The notion that there is a “fighting season is outdated,” he said, as the Taliban offensives which in the past occurred in the warmer, summer months have escalated even in colder weather.

Afghan authorities do not release the casualty tolls for their combat forces. In 2014 that figure was estimated to have been about 5,000.


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