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FLA. HOUSE RACE COULD BE WARNING FOR DEMOCRATS

Wednesday, 12 March 2014 06:36 Published in National News

CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. (AP) — After months of railing against President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, Republicans scored a key victory in a hard-fought congressional race that had been closely watched as a bellwether of midterm elections in November.

Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in a Florida special election Tuesday that largely turned on the federal health care law, with both sides using the race to audition national strategies in one of the country's few competitive swing-voting districts.

The implications of the dueling messages for control of Congress in November inspired both parties to call in star advocates like former President Bill Clinton and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, in addition to blanketing the district with ads, calls and mailings. More than $11 million was spent on the race, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that tracks government information.

While Republicans held the congressional seat for more than four decades until the death of Rep. Bill Young last year, the district's voters favored Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Democrats were hopeful, clearing the field for Sink, the state's well-known chief financial officer and the party's gubernatorial nominee in 2010. Republicans failed to recruit their top picks, leaving Jolly to fight a bruising three-way primary.

This stretch of beach towns and retirement communities on the Gulf Coast is the type of terrain where Democrats need to compete if they hope to win seats in the House and keep control of the Senate. Analysts said the loss could bode badly for the party, which is already saddled with an unpopular president and a slow economic recovery.

"The overall picture does send a message and it says, 'Be afraid. Be very afraid,'" said Jack Pitney, a former national GOP official and government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "This is one more piece of evidence that 2014 will be a very difficult year for Democrats."

Democrats, however, downplayed the loss, saying the GOP fell short of its traditional margin in a Republican-leaning district packed with older voters. With almost 100 percent of the vote counted, Jolly had 48.5 percent of the vote to Sink's 46.7 percent. Even before the defeat, party officials had been lowering expectations.

"I've never believed that special elections are a bellwether of anything," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who chairs the House Democrats' campaign operation. "You have to treat every district for what it is, not for what you want it to be."

Nevertheless, the battle for Florida's 13th District seat in the Tampa area was a prequel of sorts to the national fight this year over who controls Congress in the last two years of Obama's final presidential term. The House is expected to remain under Republican control. But in the Senate, Republicans are hoping to leverage Obama's unpopularity and his health care law's wobbly start to gain the six seats required to control the 100-member chamber.

That made the race in Florida a pricey proving ground for both parties heading into November elections.

Jolly, a former Young aide backed by Republicans and outside groups, campaigned on a conservative platform, promising spending cuts, balanced budgets and repealing the health care law.

The message against the health care overhaul proved a rallying cry for Republican voters, who surged to the polls on Election Day.

"No more big government. We've got to stop," said Irene Wilcox, a 78-year-old retired waitress and Republican from Largo who voted for Jolly.

Others described Sink as a clone of Obama and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a key argument of Jolly and national Republicans.

"As bad as Bush may have been, he was a saint compared to the guy we have in Washington," said Rich Castellani, a retired treasury agent and independent voter who supported Jolly.

Meanwhile, Sink pitched herself as a bipartisan problem-solver, trying to appeal to Republicans and independents. She painted Jolly as an extremist who wants to "take us back" to when people were denied health coverage due to existing conditions. She pledged to "to keep what's right and fix what's wrong" in the health care law.

That argument resonated with some voters.

"While I know it's not perfect, it's maybe the beginning of where we can provide adequate health care to everyone, not just the wealthy," said Frieda Widera, a 51-year-old Democrat from Largo who backed Sink.

In an attempt to deflect criticism over the law, Sink and Democrats painted Jolly as a Washington lobbyist who backs efforts to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare. The attack put Jolly on the defensive in recent weeks, and some voters cited concern about GOP cuts to programs for the elderly. More than one in four registered voters in the district is older than 65.

"The Republican Party thinks they are hurting President Obama," said George Nassif, an 82-year-old Republican who voted for Sink. "They are not. They are hurting the people."

In his victory speech, Jolly didn't mention the president's health care package, instead focusing on a need for people in Pinellas County to work together.

"This race is not about defending a broken agenda in Washington or advancing a broken agenda in Washington. This race is about serving the people in our own community," he said. "Let's dispense with the rancor and vitriol of the last five months."

In St. Petersburg, Sink's party was subdued. Backed by her adult children, she delivered her concession speech to a couple hundred stoic supporters in a half-empty ballroom at a lakeside Hilton.

Many voters expressed disgust at the amount of money spent on the race — and the relentless barrage of television ads and mailers that were on par with a presidential election.

Sink outspent Jolly by more than 3 to 1 on television advertising, though outside groups aligned with the GOP helped narrow the overall Democratic advantage.

___

Follow Michael J. Mishak on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mjmishak

INDIA ASKED TO JOIN HUNT FOR MISSING PLANE

Wednesday, 12 March 2014 06:35 Published in National News

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia asked India to join the expanding search for the missing Boeing 777 near the Andaman Sea — far to the northwest of its last reported position and a further sign Wednesday that authorities have no idea where the plane might be more than four days after it vanished.

The mystery over the plane's whereabouts has been confounded by confusing and occasionally conflicting statements by Malaysian officials, adding to the anguish of relatives of the 239 people on board the flight — two thirds of them Chinese.

"There's too much information and confusion right now. It is very hard for us to decide whether a given piece of information is accurate," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing. "We will not give it up as long as there's still a shred of hope."

The mother of passenger Zou Jingsheng, who would only give her name as Zou, wept and spoke haltingly about her missing son while staying at a hotel near the Beijing airport. She expressed frustration with the airline and the Malaysian government over their handling of the case.

"I want to talk more, but all this is very stressful, and after all it is my son's life that I am concerned about. I just want to know where he is, and wish he is safe and alive," she said.

Malaysia Airlines flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early Saturday morning and last made contact with ground control officials about 35,000 feet above the Gulf of Thailand between Malaysia and southern Vietnam before vanishing.

Dozens of planes and ships from at least eight nations are scouring waters on both sides of peninsular Malaysia but have found no trace of the jet.

Citing military radar, Malaysian authorities have said the plane may have turned back from its last known position, possibly making it as far as the Strait of Malacca, a busy shipping lane west of the narrow nation some 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the plane's last known coordinates.

How it might have done this without being clearly detected has raised questions over whether its electrical systems, including transponders allowing it to be identified by radar, were either knocked out or turned off. If it did manage to fly on, it would challenge earlier theories that the plane may have suffered a catastrophic incident, initially thought reasonable because it didn't send out any distress signals.

Authorities have not ruled out any possible cause, including mechanical failure, pilot error, sabotage or terrorism. Both the Boeing 777 and Malaysia Airlines have excellent safety records. Until wreckage or debris is found and examined, it will be very hard to say what happened.

"There is a possibility that the aircraft, the flight, has taken a turn back basing on the radar we have used to pick up the signal," Malaysia's armed forces chief, Gen. Zulkifeli Mohammad Zin told The Associated Press. "We cannot confirm it, but, basing on that, even though there is a possibility there, we have got to conduct a search (in the strait). We cannot leave it to chance."

Finding wreckage from a missing plane can sometimes take days or longer, depending on the nature of the crash, the current and how much is known about the aircraft's final movements.

India's ministry of external affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said Wednesday that Malaysian authorities had contacted their Indian counterparts seeking help in searching areas near the Andaman Sea.

Malaysia's air force chief, Gen. Rodzali Daud, released a statement denying remarks attributed to him in a local media report saying that military radar had managed to track the aircraft turning back from its original course, crossing the country and making it to the Malacca strait. The Associated Press contacted a high-level military official, who confirmed the remarks.

Rodzali referred to a statement he said he made March 9 in which he said the air force has "not ruled out the possibility of an air turn back" and that search and rescue efforts had been expanded to the waters around Penang Island, in the northern section of the strait.

It's possible that the radar readings are not definitive or subject to interpretation, especially if a plane is malfunctioning.

Even so, the confusion has prompted speculation that different arms of the government have different opinions over where the plane is most likely to be, or even that authorities are holding back information.

Choi Tat Sang, a 74-year-old Malaysian man, said the family is still holding out hope that the plane and all on board are safe. His daughter in law, Goh Sock Lay, 45, is the chief stewardess on the flight. Her 14-year-old daughter, an only child, has been crying every day since the plane's disappearance.

"We are heartbroken. We are continuing to pray for her safety and for everyone on the flight," he said.

Indonesia air force Col. Umar Fathur said the country had received official information from Malaysian authorities that the plane was above the South China Sea, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Kota Bharu, Malaysia, when it turned back toward the strait and then disappeared. That would place its last confirmed position closer to Malaysia than has previously been publicly disclosed.

___

Associated Press journalists Jim Gomez in Kuala Lumpur, Isolda Morillo in Beijing, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Zach Galifianakis brought the ferns, and President Barack Obama opened a new avenue of presidential communication.

The president urged young people to sign up for the new health care plan through an appearance posted Tuesday on the comic website Funny or Die, bypassing the news media and even previous favorites like TV talk show titans Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman. Instead, he chose to be a guest on Galifianakis' "Between Two Ferns," the digital short with a laser focus on reaching people ages 18 to 34.

The video reached 1 million views within three and a half hours of posting and was adding more at a pace of 1 million per hour in the middle of the day, according to Funny or Die. The website was briefly the number one source of referrals to Healthcare.gov, the Obama administration said, with some 19,000 people navigating directly from the video to the health care website in the first few hours.

"Gone are the days when your broadcasts - or yours or yours - can reach everybody that we need to reach," Obama press secretary Jay Carney said to broadcast journalists at the White House press briefing Tuesday.

With 4 million viewers, Obama exceeded in six hours the typical audience he would get by appearing on television shows hosted by Letterman, Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. That doesn't count the ancillary views - clips of the interview aired repeatedly on CNN. And the video was a topic on Howard Stern's radio show. By nighttime, the video had more than 8 million viewers.

As hip as Fallon and Kimmel may be in some circles, their audiences skew older - a median age of 52.7 for Fallon and 56.2 for Kimmel during the last week of February, the Nielsen company said.

For Web entertainment, it's a moment that rivals Emmy or Golden Globe nominations for Netflix's "House of Cards." And in presidential annals, it breaks form much like Richard Nixon did with his awkward jokes on television's "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

In the clip, Galifianakis peppered Obama with awkward questions, including whether he'd locate his presidential library in Hawaii or Kenya.

"What's it like to be the last black president?" he asked.

"Seriously?" Obama said. "What's it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?"

Galifianakis feigned annoyance when Obama, about halfway through the 6-minute clip, began urging young people to sign up for health care, sighing heavily before muttering, "Here we go."

"I think it's fair to say I wouldn't be here today if I didn't have something to plug," Obama said. As he went on, the "Hangover" star asked: "Is this what they mean by drones?"

Funny or Die was launched by Will Ferrell and partners in 2007 and has gone beyond being a niche location. There have been about 20 "Between Two Ferns" episodes, drawing an average of 6 million viewers each, and the Obama appearance is expected to go well beyond that number. Funny or Die gets 19 million unique visitors a month and has 7.8 million followers on Twitter and 5.5 million likes on Facebook.

Television talk show appearances have since become an accepted part of the political circuit. The Obama administration hasn't ignored this: First lady Michelle Obama appeared on a skit last month in Fallon's first week at "Tonight." Vice President Joe Biden was on Meyers' first show. The president played along with Fallon's "slow jam the news" skit in talking about student loans in 2012, when he was running for re-election.

He's done interactive Web appearances with Linked In, Google and Twitter, said presidential spokesman Joshua Earnest. But it wasn't quite like Galifianakis questioning him about whether there's another presidential pardon for a turkey in order or showing him a rash on his arm.

"The video enabled the president to deliver his message very clearly but in a way that's fresh and appealing to a young audience," said Susan Etlinger, an Internet analyst for the Altimeter Group. "It's almost cynical but in a sincere way."

The White House began talking with Funny or Die last summer about ways to promote the health care plan, and the site has posted several comic videos about the topic, said Mike Farah, production president of the site and executive producer of "Between Two Ferns." The interview was taped two weeks ago.

"What I really love about the video is that it's a funny `Between Two Ferns' first," Farah said. At the end, the interview's black backdrop collapses and it's revealed the White House is where the appearance was taped - the joke being that's where Galifianakis does all his shows.

In the first few hours, 96 percent of the site's visitors judged the video funny, meaning it had reached immortal status on the site, he said.

As 2016 approaches, no doubt other politicians will be watching its impact.

Not everyone was amused, though. On Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends," host Brian Kilmeade said the video was inappropriate and "pretty tragic."

Carney was asked whether some presidential dignity was compromised.

"We obviously assess opportunities that we have and, you know, look at whether they're going to be successful and wise," he said. "And I think we made the right call here."

---

Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler at the White House contributed to this report.

---

Online:

HTTP://WWW.FUNNYORDIE.COM

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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