Category: Opinion



COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Joe Biden scored a thundering victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary on Saturday, riding a wave of African American support and ending progressive rival Bernie Sanders’ winning streak.

Biden’s win came at a do-or-die moment in his 2020 bid as the moderate Democrat bounced back from underwhelming performances in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The race now pivots immediately to a new phase when 14 “Super Tuesday” states take the campaign nationwide early next week.

“We are very much alive,” Biden declared at an exuberant post-election rally. “For all of you who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind — this is your campaign.”

Sanders claimed second place, though his loss gave a momentary respite to anxious establishment Democrats who feared that the self-described democratic socialist would finish February with four consecutive top finishes.

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer took third place, his best showing of the campaign, but he formally suspended his campaign. He spent more $24 million on television advertising in South Carolina — more than all of his rivals combined — but never found a clear lane in the crowded contest.

Seven candidates remain in the Democrats’ quest to find the strongest possible nominee to take on President Donald Trump in November.

Biden’s allies almost immediately cast the South Carolina victory as proof that he should stand as the clear alternative to Sanders.

The South Carolina primary was the first major test of the candidates’ appeal among black voters. And while it gave the 77-year-old Biden a win when he most needed it, he must still prove that he has the financial and organizational resources to dramatically expand his campaign in the next 72 hours. He will also be under pressure to rely on his decades-long relationships with party leaders to create a new sense of inevitability around his candidacy.

The Associated Press declared Biden the winner just after the polls closed in South Carolina. The AP based the call on data from AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate conducted for the AP by NORC at the University of Chicago. The survey showed a convincing win for Biden.

Even before news of Biden’s win was declared, Mike Bloomberg announced his own plan to deliver a three-minute prime-time address Sunday night on two television networks. He didn’t say how much he paid for the air time, which is unprecedented in recent decades.

Bloomberg’s campaign privately acknowledged that Biden was likely to get a bump in momentum out of his South Carolina win, but they still believe Bloomberg can win in a handful of states that vote on Super Tuesday, including Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Virginia and North Carolina.

And Sanders was already peeking ahead to Super Tuesday as well, betting he can amass an insurmountable delegate lead at that point. After two consecutive victories and a tie for the lead in Iowa, the 78-year-old Vermont senator’s confidence is surging.

Sanders congratulated Biden on his first win and said it was nothing for his own supporters to worry about.

“Tonight, we did not win in South Carolina. That will not be the only defeat. A lot of states in this country. Nobody wins them all,” he told a cheering crowd in Virginia, one of 14 states to vote next week. “Now we enter Super Tuesday.”

Moments after Biden’s victory was confirmed, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe formally endorsed the former vice president and encouraged the Democratic Party’s moderate wing to unite behind him. On CNN, he called on several candidates to get out of the race — “not after Tuesday, but tomorrow.”

Biden needs help.

Compared to his rivals, he’s barely running any television advertising in Super Tuesday states. And both Sanders and Bloomberg have many more staff and volunteers.

With few other options, Biden’s team hopes to lean on his growing team of high-profile endorsers, including McAuliffe, to tap their own political networks and help spread his message in the media.

The Democrats’ 2020 primary election isn’t yet a two- or even three-person race.

Not ceding anything, Pete Buttigieg is fighting to prove he can build a multiracial coalition. And with the help of super PACs, Warren and Klobuchar vowed to keep pushing forward no matter what.

Trump was paying close attention to the Democratic race.

Speaking before conservative activists earlier in the day, the president conducted a poll of sorts by asking his audience to cheer for who would be the best Democratic contender for him to face in November.

Sanders was the clear winner.

“How could you be easier to beat than Joe? That guy can’t put two sentences together,” Trump told attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington. “But you know he is more down the middle. Everyone knows he’s not a communist and with Bernie there a real question about that.”

Saturday was all about Biden and whether he might convince anxious establishment Democrats to rally behind him at last.

Elected officials inclined to embrace his moderate politics had been reluctant to support him after bad finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire and a distant second place in Nevada last week. Yet fearing Sanders’ polarizing progressive priorities, they’re still searching for an alternative who’s viewed as a safer bet to defeat Trump in November.

South Carolina represented much more than the fourth state on the Democrats’ months-long primary calendar.

It served as the first major test of the candidates’ strength with African American voters, who will be critical both in the general election and the rest of the primary season.

Biden won 60% of the votes cast by African Americans. He also did well with older voters, women, moderates and conservatives and regular churchgoers, according to AP VoteCast.

Sanders earned the support of roughly 15% of African American voters, while billionaire businessman Tom Steyer won 16%.

There was also evidence that Biden’s status as former President Barack Obama’s two-term vice president helped him win over African Americans.

VoteCast found that 45% voters in South Carolina wanted to return to the politics of the past, compared to about a third in Iowa and New Hampshire. That includes the roughly 50% of African American voters who said they want a Democratic presidential nominee who would emulate the Obama’s presidency.

While voting technology was a concern in two of the last three primary contests, South Carolina uses a wide array of voting technology that presents unique challenges.

Saturday’s election in South Carolina marks the first statewide test of its new fleet of electronic voting machines, a $50 million upgrade from an old and vulnerable system that lacked any paper record of individual votes. The new machines produce a paper record that can be verified by the voter and checked after the election to detect any malfunction or manipulation.

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez cautioned Democrats that it’s still early in their presidential primary.

Speaking at a North Carolina Democratic Party fundraising gala, Perez noted that to win the nomination, a Democrat must win 1,991 delegates — and only a fraction of those have been allocated in the party’s first four primaries.

“We have a long way to go,” he said.


Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Brian Slodysko in Washington and Virginia Beach, Virginia, Thomas Beaumont in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina and Alexandra Jaffe in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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What did Jeffrey Epstein own? Here's a list, including islands, cash…

What did Jeffrey Epstein own? Here's a list, including islands, cash...

(First column, 11th story, link)

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'Psychosis' in Milan…

Milan (AFP) – Empty streets and subways. Shuttered museums and schools. Deserted cafes and restaurants.

Milan, Italy’s usually bustling economic and fashion capital, has been twiddling its thumbs since Monday, paralysed by a virus that has killed 29 and infected more than 1,000 people in Italy since breaking out just 60 kilometre (37 miles) south of the city a week ago.

Tarcisio De Bacco, owner of the iconic Il Biffi restaurant around the corner from the lace-like Duomo cathedral, cannot wait until the day life returns to the way it was.

“We lost 90 percent of our clientele this week,” he said, casting a mournful look across rows of empty white clothed tables.

“At this hour, we are usually overwhelmed.”

Il Biffi holds a coveted spot in the majestic Vittorio Emanuele II gallery, whose arched glass ceilings and marble floors are themselves a tourist destination.

The gothic cathedral beside it — effectively the city’s symbol — was closed this week under orders of the Lombardi regional authorities to curb the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

The authorities have meted out the same punishment to museums, theatres such as the La Scala, night clubs, schools, gyms, swimming pools and just about any other place where people spend time outside work and home.

In the homeland of the “aperitivos” — perhaps a cocktail or a glass of wine with a little nibble after work — bars were all forced to close from 6:00 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday.

An all mighty outcry from the Milanese forced the authorities to make and exception to the rule starting Wednesday.

“The situation is pretty dramatic,” said Micaela Mainini, owner of the Jamaica bar, who also operates a restaurant and was able to stay open the whole time.

“We are very well known and still things are pretty dramatic for us. I can’t begin to imagine what other people are going through.”

– ‘Hysteria’ –

“Hysteria is very dangerous for the economy,” Mainini warned, blaming wall-to-wall media coverage of the epidemic for the growing sense of doom.

De Bacco said the mood was approaching “psychosis”.

In a city of almost 1.4 million, just about everything seems closed.

Two trade fairs — one for eyewear called Mido and another simply called Myplant & Garden — were postponed this week, as has a furniture show scheduled for April.

The average occupancy rate of hotels stands at 20 percent, compared to 85 to 90 percent usual for the end of February.

The Federalberghi hotel federation called the whole thing a “disaster”.

And it is only getting worse. More than half a million rooms have been cancelled for bookings between February 24 and the end of April.

Around 200 million euros ($220 million) in sales have gone up in smoke.

Faced with low demand, airlines such as the popular UK no-frills carrier EasyJet have cut flights to northern Italy.

– Disorienting –

A city once know for its smog and darkness had been revelling in a tourist boom since it hosted the World Expo in 2015.

Now, Milan feels like a disorienting place.

The virus came as “a shock for the city,” said Marta Tegnani, an optimistic 49-year-old who still thinks things will improve in the coming weeks.

“The city is almost deserted, the metro and the buses are empty — it all has a funny affect on you,” she said.

Many companies now rely on various work from home schemes. The headquarters of Italy’s Unicredit banking group, which fill a large tower in which 4,000 work, stands almost empty.

Yet for some, this is a chance to enjoy a bit of tranquility.

“Sure, it’s a nuisance. But rarely do we have such unpolluted air in February,” said Fabio Cogognini, 46.

“These are the things we should be thinking about.”

Days after receiving good news about the bars being allowed to serve aperetifes in the evening, the Duomo itself is expected to swing open its doors to visitors on Monday.

And while the morale of many is almost flagging, restauranteur De Bacco remains optimistic.

“Milan lived through two World Wars and the (Vittorio Emanuele II) gallery is still standing,” he noted.

“So something like the coronavirus is not going to bring Milan to its knees,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

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Fear at nursing facility; 50 sick…

The governor of Washington declared a state of emergency Saturday after a man died there of COVID-19, the first such reported death in the United States. More than 50 people in a nursing facility are sick and being tested for the virus.

Gov. Jay Inslee directed state agencies to use “all resources necessary” to prepare for and respond to the coronavirus outbreak. The declaration also allows the use of the Washington National Guard, if necessary.

“We will continue to work toward a day where no one dies from this virus,” the governor vowed.

Health officials in California, Oregon and Washington state are worried about the novel coronavirus spreading through West Coast communities because a growing number of people are being infected despite not having visited an area where there was an outbreak, nor apparently been in contact with anyone who had.

The man who died was in his 50s, had underlying health conditions and no history of travel or contact with a known COVID-19 case, health officials in Washington state said at a news conference. A spokesperson for EvergreenHealth Medical Center, Kayse Dahl, said the person died in the facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.

Dr. Frank Riedo, medical director of Infection Control at Evergreen, said local hospitals are seeing people with severe coronavirus symptoms but it’s probable that there are more cases in the community.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

The health officials reported two cases of COVID-19 virus connected to a long-term care facility in the same suburb, Life Care Center of Kirkland. One is a Life Care worker, a woman in her 40s who is in satisfactory condition at a hospital, and the other is a woman in her 70s and a resident at Life Care who is hospitalized in serious condition. Neither had traveled abroad.

“In addition, over 50 individuals associated with Life Care are reportedly ill with respiratory symptoms or hospitalized with pneumonia or other respiratory conditions of unknown cause and are being tested for COVID-19,” Seattle and King County officials said. “Additional positive cases are expected.”

Amy Reynolds of the Washington state health department said in a brief telephone interview: “We are dealing with an emergency evolving situation.”

No one answered the phone at Life Care, but Ellie Basham, its executive director, said in a statement that residents and employees are being monitored and those with symptoms or who were potentially exposed are quarantined. The facility has banned families, volunteers and vendors as a precaution, Basham said.

A growing number of cases in California, Washington state and Oregon are confounding authorities because the infected people hadn’t recently traveled overseas or had any known close contact with a traveler or an infected person.

The Santa Clara County Public Health Department announced Saturday the case of a fourth person in the county infected with coronavirus, The case is of a woman who is a “household contact” of a person who is hospitalized with the virus, the health department said in a news release.

The woman has not been hospitalized and is not ill, the department said.

The U.S. has about 60 confirmed cases. Worldwide, the number of people sickened by the virus hovered Friday around 83,000, and there were more than 2,800 deaths, most of them in China. A 60-year-old U.S. citizen died in Wuhan in early February.

Most infections result in mild symptoms, including coughing and fever, though some can become more serious and lead to pneumonia. Older people, especially those with chronic illnesses such as heart or lung disease, are especially vulnerable. Health officials think it spreads mainly from droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how the flu spreads.

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States is considered small. But convinced that they will grow, health agencies are ramping up efforts to identify those who might be sick.

To achieve more rapid testing capacity, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an accelerated policy Saturday enabling laboratories to use tests they develop. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said his agency is “rapidly responding and adapting to this dynamic and evolving situation.”

The California Department of Public Health said Friday that the state will receive enough kits from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to test up to 1,200 people a day for the COVID-19 virus — a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom complained to federal health officials that the state had already exhausted its initial 200 test kits.

Oregon was able to more quickly identify a case — an employee of an elementary school in Lake Oswego near Portland because it was able to test a sample locally. School district officials said Saturday the employee had been visited in the hospital by several people before he was diagnosed. Those individuals have been asked to observe a two-week quarantine and are being closely monitored.

Worried shoppers thronged a Costco box store near Lake Oswego, emptying shelves of items including toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water, frozen berries and black beans.

“Toilet paper is golden in an apocalypse,” one Costco employee said.

Employees said the store ran out of toilet paper for the first time in its history and that it was the busiest they had ever seen, including during Christmas Eve.

The district is deep-cleaning all its schools and all school buses with the goal of having students back in class Monday, said Superintendent Lora de la Cruz. But Forest Hills Elementary, where the man worked, is closed until Wednesday, marking two weeks since he was last at the school.

Earlier U.S. cases include three people who were evacuated from the central China city of Wuhan, epicenter of the outbreak; 14 people who returned from China, or their spouses; and 42 American passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, who were flown to U.S. military bases in California and Texas for quarantining.

The U.S. government looked at sending dozens of Californians, several of whom tested positive for the virus, who had been aboard the cruise ship to a state-owned facility in Costa Mesa, California. Local officials objected, saying they weren’t included in the planning and wanting to know what safeguards would be in place to prevent spread of the virus. The U.S. government said it didn’t need to use the facility after all.

At UC Davis Medical Center in California, at least 124 registered nurses and other health care workers were sent home for “self-quarantine” after a Solano County woman with the virus was admitted, National Nurses United, a nationwide union representing registered nurses, said Friday.

The case “highlights the vulnerability of the nation’s hospitals to this virus,” the union said.

Washington state health officials announced two other new coronavirus cases Friday night, including a high school student who attends Jackson High School in Everett, said Dr. Chris Spitters of the Snohomish County Health District.

The other case in Washington was a woman in in King County in her 50s who had recently traveled to South Korea, authorities said. Neither patient was seriously ill.


Associated Press writers Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; and Gillian Flaccus in Lake Oswego, Oregon, contributed to this report.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Oprah Winfrey is currently on her 2020 Vision speaking tour, stopping by the Forum arena in Los Angeles Saturday to discuss wellness and living a balanced life. Unfortunately for the media mogul, she quite literally lost her own balance while onstage, slipping and taking a pretty hard fall in front of hundreds of attendees.

Footage obtained by The Los Angeles Times shows the television icon taking a few steps to her right before tumbling in front of her shocked audience. After gathering herself on the floor, she called out “wrong shoes!” into the microphone, letting fans know exactly what caused the unexpected crash.

Fans of Winfrey immediately took to social media, with many in attendance saying she took the fall like a champ and actually walked around barefoot onstage for a bit before switching to more sensible footwear.

Oprah’s 2020 Vision tour features several special guests joining Winfrey onstage during the nine-date run, including Tina Fey, Amy Schumer and best friend, Gayle King.

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President Trump holds a news conference to provide an update on the coronavirus outbreak.

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A Washington state man has become the first person in the country to die from the coronavirus, state public health officials confirmed Saturday. The person is not one of the coronavirus cases the state had previously announced.

The death, in King County, is believed to be the first in the U.S. due to the virus. No other information was immediately available about the patient.

“It is a sad day in our state as we learn that a Washingtonian has died from COVID-19,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “Our hearts go out to his family and friends. We will continue to work toward a day where no one dies from this virus.”

With new coronavirus cases reported in California, Washington and Oregon, officials are trying to accelerate testing as they try to steam what experts and officials believe in an inevitable spread of the virus into communities.

The California Department of Public Health announced eight testing labs that can handle coronavirus in Richmond as well as Alameda, Santa Clara, Tulare, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. Officials also announced the arrival of 1,200 testing kits from the federal government.

“The availability to test at California’s public health laboratories is a significant step forward in our ability to respond rapidly to this evolving situation,” Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health and state health officer, said in a statement. “As we face the likelihood of community transmission here in California, having this resource where we need it, is essential to better inform public health response and protect our communities.”

The Federal Drug Administration also announced new policies aimed at helping hospitals speed up testing of potential virus patients. The move comes amid complaints about the slow pace of performing tests.

California now has two patients who did not recently travel outside the U.S. or come in contact with someone who did. That raised concerns that the virus was spreading in communities and prompted health officials to find and quarantine anyone who came in contact with them.

While no new cases were reported Saturday so far, officials said it’s inevitable.

“Definitely we will have more cases here,” Peter Beilenson, Sacramento County’s director of health services, said. “You shed virus before you are symptomatic so it’s already out of the bag in a lot of ways. It’s going to spread, it’s just going to spread.”

The ongoing efforts in the Davis area had already led to the voluntary quarantining of dozens of people, including workers at the two hospitals where the first woman was treated as well as UC Davis and other college campuses.

The woman was hospitalized for three days at NorthBay VacaValley Hospital in Vacaville before being moved to UC Davis Medical Center. She was not immediately tested for several days because she did not fit screening criteria set by the CDC at the time, which include both symptoms of the virus and either a recent history of travel to China or close contact with another coronavirus patient.

This gap concerns officials because it could have allowed her to infect others who came in contact with her.

To identify individuals who came into contact with the woman at the hospital, NorthBay officials sifted through medical records to see which clinicians entered her room. Additionally, three days worth of security footage from 8 p.m. Feb. 15 to mid-morning Feb. 19 were scoured to ensure that all visitors and non-clinicians — such as workers who brought in food trays or refilled bathroom supplies — were tallied.

Sacramento County health officials said dozens of people might be quarantined at home based on having contact with the woman. UC Davis spokesman Steve Telliano disputed information that the number could be higher than 70 but refused to say if more or fewer people were quarantined.

Steve Huddleston, vice president of public affairs of NorthBay Healthcare, said the hospital has a staff of about a couple of hundred and that the quarantine affected dozens connected to the hospital. Those employees who have been home, due to quarantine or unrelated matters, have been backfilled.

Three UC Davis students are under 14-day isolation as one awaits test results after showing mild coronavirus symptoms, officials said Thursday.

Health officials in Santa Clara County said the new patient had no known exposure to the virus through travel or close contact with a known infected person.

The individual is an older adult, a woman with chronic health conditions who was hospitalized for a respiratory illness, officials said at a news conference Friday. Her physician contacted the public health department this week to discuss the case and request testing for the novel coronavirus. The department is working to identify contacts and understand the extent of exposure.

On Friday, the states of Washington and Oregon also announced new coronavirus cases in people who hadn’t recently traveled overseas or been exposed to other confirmed cases.

In Oregon, an employee of a Washington County elementary school was diagnosed after first experiencing symptoms Feb. 19 and may have exposed others at the school to the virus, officials said.

In Washington, a Snohomish County high school student tested positive after seeking care at Seattle Children’s North Clinic on Feb. 24, officials said. Washington also announced that a King County woman in her 50s who had traveled to South Korea had contracted coronavirus.

Both those patients and the Santa Clara County woman tested positive for the virus in laboratories in their respective states. They are considered presumptive positive cases until the results are confirmed by CDC testing.

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Empty stadiums and no more selfie lines? Coronavirus becomes 2020 X-factor…

If the coronavirus spreads throughout the United States, he said, “We’re going to go through a period, obviously, where public health officials and experts are going to say no shaking hands, no public contact … We may be witnessing an era where television, or more so, social media, becomes the means to campaign in a coronavirus world.”

To most campaign observers, the likelihood of any widespread disruption of the primary remains dim. But if the virus does spread, the mechanical implications for campaigns could be profound.

In the case of an outbreak, said Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina lawmaker and former Democratic National Committee member, “It’s going to be tough. I’m watching [TV] right now and they’re stoking fears, they’re coming live from face mask manufacturing facilities.”

Reaching for an image, Brown, who helped Beto O’Rourke before he abandoned his presidential run, compared the prospect of a coronavirus-afflicted primary to a barren landscape, “very much like the last couple of weeks of the Beto campaign.”

For now, the coronavirus has been felt most severely in the United States in the financial markets and as a point of political positioning, with Democrats criticizing President Donald Trump for his handling of the crisis in recent days.

In South Carolina this week, Mike Bloomberg said the “stock market’s falling apart because people are really worried, and they should be.” Joe Biden pointed to his experience helping respond to the Ebola epidemic, while Elizabeth Warren accused the White House of “absolutely bungling” its response to the disease.

Amy Klobuchar urged Americans to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website “because many doctors are saying it’s just a matter of time before we’re going to start seeing this here.” At a breakfast in South Carolina on Friday, Bernie Sanders ripped into Trump, saying that instead of campaigning in the state, he should “worry about the coronavirus rather than disrupting the Democratic primary right here in South Carolina.”

The Trump administration’s response to the emergency has been uneven. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, told lawmakers that the risk to Americans of coronavirus remains low. But CDC officials have also urged Americans to “prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” including the possibility of child care centers or schools closing.

On Friday, the World Health Organization raised its global risk assessment of coronavirus to its highest level, “very high.”

“There are a whole lot of questions about whether this is going to be enduring or not,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who managed Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign. “If it is enduring,” he added, “It could affect rallies. It also could affect travel.”

If the coronavirus does spread during the primary season, its logistical effects could be more painful for some candidates than others. The inability to hold rallies could hurt candidates with less money, such as Biden, who rely more on free media.

That might not hurt a candidate such as Bloomberg, “whose campaign rallies can be a 30-second campaign ad,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime political strategist who served on multiple Democratic presidential campaigns.

Trump could rise or fall on his handling of the crisis, too. In addition to the political calculations — a Morning Consult survey this week found 56 percent of voters approve of his handling of the outbreak, down 5 percentage points from earlier this month — there are his rallies to consider. They are massive and form the identity of his campaign.

Doug Herman, who was a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, suggested the Democratic candidates’ response to the coronavirus so far has been a missed opportunity. Trump, he said, left a wide opening with his handling of the outbreak, requiring the Democratic candidates to be more assertive on the issue.

So far, he said, they haven’t “cracked much beyond a paragraph of thought on it.”

“There’s a thread here with Trump’s cuts and destroying the credibility of the institutions and the media and the scientists in our government — and now all of a sudden we’re supposed to believe Trump, the government advocate, on this?” Herman said.

Functionally, he said the effects of the coronavirus will not materialize in the campaign unless the outbreak impacts “our gatherings, and our day-to-day lives. Only until that happens — when they won’t go to a restaurant, they won’t go to a mall, they won’t send their kids to school — of course it will have an impact.”

Short of that, said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, a spreading virus would “put a limit on the types of public interaction that people have at events and rallies and people showing up.”

And he said there is little that campaigns can do. “Think about it. I mean, they can’t test people as they come into the rally,” he said.

Still, Seawright is taking one measure himself. When he boards his next flight, he said, “I’m definitely going to put on a mask.”

Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.

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Netanyahu, Gantz neck and neck as campaign reaches climax…

Tel Aviv (AFP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz were wrapping up another bitter election campaign on Saturday as voters prepared to cast their ballots for the third time in 12 months.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, has been charged on several counts of corruption but is battling fiercely to maintain his grip on power.

After inconclusive elections in April and September, latest opinion polls put the two opponents neck and neck in a gruelling political triathlon.

According to the projections, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance would each win 33 places in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.

That result would be almost identical to the previous round, after which each leader tried and failed to form a government.

The polls show that even with their respective allies — the right and Jewish Orthodox parties for Netanyahu and the centre-left for Gantz — neither side could gather the 61 seats necessary to form a viable coalition.

On Saturday, the Jewish sabbath which ends at sunset, both leaders prepared for their last campaign rallies, both to take place in the Tel Aviv area after nightfall.

Judging from a barrage of social media messages, their central goal will be to get their voters out.

With a country largely jaded by three general elections in less than a year along with municipal polls in between, voter turnout is the great unknown.

In Israel’s September election turnout was 1.5 percentage points higher than in April, largely due to an unexpected surge in Arab votes.

– Coronavirus casts shadow –

Israeli Arab parties, united in the Joint List alliance, garnered 13 Knesset seats, making them the third-largest grouping, after Blue and White’s 33 and Likud’s 32.

This time around they hope to do better still, due to Arab voters’ opposition to US President Donald Trump’s controversial Mideast peace plan, which is supported by both Netanyahu and Gantz.

“We want the fall of Netanyahu because he is the greatest inciter against Arab citizens and the godfather of the ‘Deal of the Century’,” Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said, using a common nickname for the Trump plan.

The plan endorses Israel’s major priorities at the expense of the Palestinians, who gave no input to the Trump initiative and rejected it immediately.

There is another new element in this third round — the novel coronavirus.

Over the past 10 days, electioneering has shared media headlines with the global COVID-19 epidemic which has reached Israel with six officially confirmed cases of infection.

Israeli authorities have set up a call centre to screen potential cases and reassure the public and have barred entry to foreign travellers from various countries, most recently Italy.

Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, has warned against potential attempts to spread false rumours about the outbreak in order to diminish voter turnout.

– Netanyahu trial –

On the boulevards of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, posters from the Netanyahu camp urge his supporters to come out on polling day to support their leader, whose graft trial opens on March 17 in Jerusalem.

In November the 70-year-old, who has spent 14 years as prime minister, became the only head of government in the history of Israel to be indicted while in office.

He is charged with corruption, embezzlement and breach of trust.

But if, with his allies, he can win a majority of seats in parliament, he will be able to appear before the courts in a position of strength and keep his job as prime minister, at least until justice has run its course with all appeals exhausted.

If he cannot control 61 seats, he will find himself embroiled in frenzied horse-trading to try and establish himself at the head of a coalition at the very moment when his trial for corruption begins.

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California Marine becomes first woman to lead Howitzer team…

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton became the first woman to graduate from the Corps’ Howitzer Section Chief Course this month, taking on a combat artillery leadership role once reserved for men.

The M777 Howitzer is a cannon that can hit targets from almost 20 miles away. It requires a crew of at least six Marines to fire.

As a newly minted section chief, it will be the job of Cpl. Julianna Yakovac, 21, of 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, to lead such a crew.

A Howitzer section chief is the equivalent of an infantry squad leader, said Lt. Col. David Tumanjan, the executive officer of the 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

“These (noncommissioned officers) are expected to run a gun crew of 8-10 Marines and are responsible for every bit of technical knowledge associated with emplacing, firing, movement, and local security around that howitzer,” Tumanjan said in a statement.

Yakovac said she does not see herself as a trailblazer. In an interview with the Union-Tribune, she was quick to credit her team for where she is now.

“I (am) very fortunate to be part of a great unit,” Yakovac said Thursday. The Marine, originally from Olympia, Washington, had just returned from field exercises at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a trailblazer — when I joined I didn’t have that intention,” she said. “I’m just happy to have the same opportunity everyone else has. It’s not any more of an accomplishment than my male counterparts.”

Not just for golf fans, the event brought out a range of lifestyle devotees for top-end dining options, indulgent experiences, and gracious hospitality.

While Yakovac downplays the significance of what she’s doing, it’s not the first time she’s made news. She also was featured in a 2019 CBS This Morning story about women serving in Marine Corps combat jobs.

The Marines, under orders from then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter, opened combat jobs to women in 2016. Men make up more than 90% of the Corps, which is the largest gender disparity of all military branches.

When she joined, Yakovac said, she didn’t know there had been any restrictions or that rules had changed — she just wanted to be in the field. When she found out she’d be firing artillery, she was thrilled.

“It was extremely exciting,” she said. “It’s been more exciting as I’ve gone.”

Yakovac said that when she reported to her unit she was one of two women there, but now, two years later, there are a lot more.

She said her male counterparts have been great teammates.

“I’ve been fortunate to have great experiences,” she said. “I’ve never been talked down to; I’ve been built up.”

There was early resistance in the Marines to opening some of the combat jobs to women. In 2015, concerns over unit cohesion and physical demands led the Marines to request that some combat roles remain exclusively male.

Now all combat occupations are open to women.

On Feb. 21, Marine Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, announced on Twitter that the Marines will begin to prioritize filling infantry leadership positions with women, even if that means bringing those who’ve left active duty back into the ranks.

He also said the service will look into establishing one-year paid maternity leave.

“These are some of my most important matters for immediate execution,” Berger tweeted.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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