Romney’s chief Iowa rivals press electability

Posted Jan. 01, 2012, at 11:13 p.m.

DES MOINES, Iowa — With time running short, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and other Republican presidential contenders insisted they could beat President Barack Obama as they worked to persuade undecided Iowa Republicans aching to win the White House to choose them over chief rival Mitt Romney.

With Romney in a position of strength in Iowa, both Santorum and Paul went directly at the former Massachusetts governor’s chief argument — that he is the most electable Republican in a head-to-head matchup against Obama next fall. They hope they can sway the roughly half of likely caucus-goers who say they are undecided or willing to change their minds two days before the leadoff presid ential caucuses.

A Des Moines Register poll released Saturday showed Romney and Paul locked in a close race, with Santorum rising swiftly to challenge them. Nearly half of likely Iowa caucus-goers view Romney as the Republican most likely to win the general election. He was far ahead of Santorum and Paul, who was viewed as the least likely to win.

The poll taken Tuesday through Friday indicated only 51 percent of likely voters said their mind is made up.

NASA marks 2012 with twin probes in moon orbit

LOS ANGELES — NASA kicked off the new year with a pair of probes circling the moon in the latest mission to understand how Earth’s closest neighbor formed.

The action began on New Year’s Eve when Grail-A swung over the south pole, fired its engine and braked into orbit around the moon. Not to be outdone, its twin Grail-B executed the same maneuvers on New Year’s Day.

The arrivals capped a roundabout journey spanning 3 1/2 months and covering 2 1/2 million miles.

One of the moon’s enduring puzzles is its lopsided shape with the far side more hilly than the side that Earth sees. Scientists expect to learn more about how the celestial body formed using Grail’s gravity measurements that will indicate what’s below the surface.

US troop deaths in Afghanistan war fell in 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan — It was by no means a common occurrence. But in the year that just drew to a close, a day would often pass, sometimes several, without an American service member dying in Afghanistan.

For the first time in years, U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan declined in 2011. Until last year, U.S. fatalities in the decadelong conflict had usually climbed — sometimes sharply — from year to year, peaking in 2010 at 499. That number dropped last year to 417, according to the independent website icasualties.org, a significant drop, but still averaging more than one per day.

Overall deaths in the NATO force fell even more, from 711 in 2010 to 565 last year.

U.S. officials say successful tactics and the effect of sheer numbers broke the momentum of the Taliban and other armed militant factions in the year just passed, when American troop strength topped out at more than 100,000. Since summer, 10,000 U.S. troops have left, and an additional 23,000 are scheduled to depart in 2012.

Arab League urged to withdraw Syria monitors over violence

CAIRO — An Arab advisory agency Sunday called on the Arab League to recall its observer mission from Syria because of the government’s continued crackdown on dissent.

“The Syrian regime continues to kill the innocent Syrian citizens and violates the Arab League protocol on protecting the civilians,” said Salem al-Diqbassi, speaker of the Arab Parliament. “This being pursued in the presence of the Arab League observers is a matter that has angered the Arab people and negates the aim of sending them there.”

The 88-member Arab Parliament is an advisory committee that operates separately from the Arab League.

The Arab League last week sent about 60 observers to Syria see if the government is complying with a plan to end 10 months of violence.

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