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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

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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.

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   LOS ANGELES (AP) — California is trying to do something unusual in this age of rapidly evolving technology — get ahead of a big new development before it goes public.
   By the end of the year, the Department of Motor Vehicles must write rules to regulate cars that rely on computers — not the owner — to do the driving.
   That process began Tuesday, when the DMV held an initial public hearing in Sacramento to puzzle over how to regulate the vehicles that haven't been fully developed yet.
   Among the complex questions officials sought to unravel:
   How will the state know the cars are safe?
   Does a driver even need to be behind the wheel?
   Can manufacturers mine data from onboard computers to make product pitches based on where the car goes or set insurance rates based on how it is driven?
   Do owners get docked points on their license if they send a car to park itself and it slams into another vehicle?
   Once the stuff of science fiction, driverless cars could be commercially available by decade's end. Under a California law passed in 2012, the DMV must decide by the end of this year how to integrate the cars — often called autonomous vehicles — onto public roads.
   That means the regulation's writers will post draft language regulations around June, then alter the rules in response to public comment by fall in order to get them finalized by the end of 2014.
   Three other states have passed driverless car laws, but those rules mostly focus on testing. California has mandated rules on testing and public operation, and the DMV expects within weeks to finalize regulations dictating what companies must do to test the technology on public roads.
   Those rules came after Google Inc. had already sent its fleet of Toyota Priuses and Lexuses, fitted with an array of sensors including radar and lasers, hundreds of thousands of miles in California. Major automakers also have tested their own models.
   Now, the DMV is scrambling to regulate the broader use of the cars. With the federal government apparently years away from developing regulations, California's rules could effectively become the national standard.
   Much of the initial discussion Tuesday focused on privacy concerns.
   California's law requires autonomous vehicles to log records of operation so the data can be used to reconstruct an accident.
   But the cars "must not become another way to track us in our daily lives," John M. Simpson of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog said at the hearing. Simpson called out Google, saying the Internet giant rebuffed attempts to add privacy guarantees when it pushed the 2012 legislation mandating rules on testing and public operation.
   Seated across from Simpson at the hearing's head tables was a representative from Google, who offered no comment on the data privacy issue.
   Discussion also touched on how to know a car is safe, and whether an owner knows how to properly operate it.
   Ron Medford, Google's director of safety for its "self-driving car" project, suggested that manufacturers should be able to self-certify that their cars are safe. He cautioned that it would get complicated quickly if the state tried to assume that role.
   In initial iterations, human drivers would be expected to take control in an instant if the computer systems fail. Unlike current technology — which can help park a car or keep it in its freeway lane — owners might eventually be able to read, daydream or even sleep while the car did the work.
   Responding to a question received over Twitter, DMV attorney Brian Soublet acknowledged that the department is still grappling with the most fundamental question of whether a person will need to be in the driver's seat.
   Maybe not, by the time the technology is safe and reliable, he said.
   Soublet asked who would ensure that owners know how to use the new technology. Should the onus be on dealers, manufacturers, owners?
   Representatives of automakers suggested they shouldn't be asked to guarantee the capability of owners. John Tillman of Mercedes-Benz said the DMV could test owners on basics such as starting and stopping the automated driving function.
   Automaker representatives also expressed concerns that other states could pass regulations that were substantially different from California, creating the kind of patchwork rules that businesses hate.
   States outside California have been in touch and are following California's rule-making process closely, said Bernard Soriano, a deputy director at the DMV.
   Other discussion centered on how vulnerable the cars could be to hackers, who might wrest control of the vehicles.
   Industry representatives said that while that's a concern, they would vigilantly guard against such vulnerability because it would be disastrous.
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