A new phase to the Democratic race for the White House has begun, and many Democratic insiders fear it will be far uglier than the past few weeks. Campaigning has already begun in Pennsylvania, which doesn’t vote until April 22. On Wednesday, Senator Barack Obama painted himself as the frontrunner in the race.
Sen. Barack Obama: "We have won decisively in a whole number of states, and Senator Clinton and her campaign have tended to cherry-pick which states they think are important. But the bottom line is that we are in a very strong position. Senator Clinton barely dented the delegate count yesterday. We’re going on to Mississippi and Wyoming, where we feel confident that we can do well. And this process is going to ultimately be about who’s got the most delegates, and we think we’ll be in that position."
Although Senator Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in Texas on Tuesday, Obama’s campaign is now predicting Obama will actually win the delegate battle in Texas once the primary and caucus results are combined. Despite being behind in pledged delegates, Clinton says she expects to prevail as the nominee.
Sen. Hillary Clinton: "Obviously, I believe that I’m going to win and I’m going to be the nominee, because I think two things will happen, I think, now that the race has really joined on who can be the commander-in-chief and who can be the president to deal with the economy and healthcare and the other important issues facing America."
New questions are being raised over the role Florida and Michigan will play in choosing the nominee. The Democratic Party stripped the two states of their delegates after they moved up their primaries to January. On Wednesday, the governors of Florida and Michigan issued a statement calling on the Democratic Party to resolve the issue and ensure that the voters of the two states are full participants in the formal selection of their party’s nominees.
On the Republican side, President Bush met with John McCain Wednesday and officially endorsed the Arizona senator for president.
President Bush: "It has been my honor to welcome my friend John McCain as the nominee of the Republican Party. A while back, I don’t think many people would have thought that John McCain would be here as the nominee of the Republican Party, except he knew he’d be here, and so did his wife Cindy. John showed incredible courage, strength of character and perseverance in order to get to this moment. And that’s exactly what we need in a president."
John McCain said he appreciated having the backing of President Bush.
Sen. John McCain: "I’m very honored and humbled to have the opportunity to receive the endorsement of the President of the United States, a man who I have great admiration, respect and affection. He and I, as is well known, had a very good competition in the year 2000, and I was privileged and proud to have the opportunity to campaign for his election and reelection to the presidency of the United States. I appreciate his endorsement. I appreciate his service to our country."
In other campaign news, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has launched an internal security investigation after a memo was leaked to the press discussing a meeting between an adviser to Barack Obama and Canadian officials. The leaked memo alleged that Obama’s senior economic adviser assured the Canadians that Obama’s public critique of NAFTA was more political positioning than a clear articulation of his policy plans. On Wednesday, Harper said the leak of the memo was blatantly unfair to Obama. The leak came days before the primary vote in Ohio. CBC and other Canadian news outlets report Harper’s own chief of staff, Ian Brodie, was the source of what is now being dubbed NAFTA-gate.
A coalition of human rights groups say the humanitarian situation in Gaza is now the worst since 1967. Amnesty International, Save the Children, Care International and Christian Aid have joined together to criticize Israel’s blockade on Gaza as illegal collective punishment which fails to deliver security. More than 1.1 million Gazans are now dependent on food aid. Geoffrey Dennis of Care International said, "Unless the blockade ends now, it will be impossible to pull Gaza back from the brink of this disaster, and any hopes for peace in the region will be dashed." Since last week, Israeli forces have killed more than 120 Palestinians in Gaza. During the same period, four Israelis have been killed.
On Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to resume negotiations with Israel. The New York Times reports he did so only after coming under heavy pressure from the White House. Meanwhile, Palestinians gathered in northern Gaza to mourn the death of a month-old infant who was shot dead by Israeli troops on Tuesday. The infant’s father described what happened.
Palestinian Father: "They said, 'Raise your hands and come out,' so we had our hands up. They shot the girl and shot her mother. Her mother has two bullets in her shoulder. The dumdum bullets, they explode. Her bones are all shattered."
On the campaign trail, both Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have voiced support for Israel following its attack on Gaza. Obama said, "The violence in Gaza is the result of Hamas’s decision to launch rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, and Israel has a right to defend itself." Clinton issued a similar statement, saying, "I deplore and condemn the Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel, including the city of Ashkelon. Israel has the right to defend its citizens."
Iraq’s cabinet has given the green light to the Oil Ministry to sign agreements with international oil companies to help increase the nation’s crude output. Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Total are among the international companies that have submitted proposals to develop five new oil fields. The Iraqi Parliament has still not agreed on a law to determine how the country’s oil wealth will be divided.
Meanwhile, many Sunni Iraqis are expressing outrage after the acquittal of two Shiite officials accused of running death squads. The Shiites were both former high-ranking Health Ministry officials. They were the first suspected Shiite death squad leaders to face prosecution. The men were freed from US custody on Wednesday, two days after an Iraqi court dropped kidnapping, murder and corruption charges against them. The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party said the acquittal was a grave setback in the history of the Iraqi judiciary system.
In other news from Iraq, Turkey carried out a new series of air strikes in northern Iraq on Tuesday, a week after Turkey pulled its ground forces from the area.
The Organization of American States has approved a resolution accusing the Colombian military of violating Ecuador’s sovereignty for attacking a group of FARC rebels inside Ecuador. But the measure stopped short of condemning Colombia for the raid that killed twenty-four rebels, including Raul Reyes, one of FARC’s top commanders.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked if the US military played a role in the Colombian attack. Gates responded by saying, "Well, I would just say that we are very supportive of President Uribe’s efforts to deal with the FARC terrorists. We have a good relationship with them." A Colombian defense minister told Agence France-Presse that a US intelligence agency provided information about Reyes’s satellite phone that helped Colombia pinpoint his location.
On Wednesday, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa defended his decision to cut off diplomatic ties with Colombia.
Rafael Correa: "We had to break relations, not with a brotherly nation like our Colombian brothers and sisters, but with a government, with a government that doesn’t deserve any credibility, that has lied and lied and lied over and over again and who wants war, not peace."
Both Ecuador and Venezuela have sent troops to the Colombian border. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino portrayed Venezuela as the aggressor in the situation.
Dana Perino: "We do think it’s curious that a country such as Venezuela would be raising the specter of military action against a country who was defending itself against terrorism."
In economic news, the chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders says the housing market is in the "deepest, most rapid downswing since the Great Depression." The group is projecting that new home sales will drop 22 percent this year. There are now two million vacant homes for sale across the country.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has admitted the FBI improperly used national security letters in 2006 to access Americans’ telephone records, credit reports and internet traffic. Mueller confirmed the privacy breach during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. National Security Letters allow the FBI to obtain secretly personal information about US citizens without a court warrant. The American Civil Liberties Union accused the FBI of ignoring both the law and the internal guidelines that deal with national security letters.
The Washington Post reports the US Agency for International Development and the United Nations are significantly scaling back emergency food aid to some of the world’s poorest countries this year because of soaring global food prices. USAID officials said that a 41 percent surge in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other cereals over the past six months has generated a $120 million budget shortfall that will force the agency to reduce emergency operations. USAID operates emergency programs in almost forty countries, including Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, Honduras and Sudan. Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, said, "This is really the first emergency we’ve faced without a drought, war, natural disaster."
In news from Capitol Hill, a group of fourteen Democratic and Republican senators have introduced a resolution to block the Federal Communications Commission from easing media-ownership rules in the nation’s twenty largest cities. Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan criticized the FCC for ignoring thousands of comments from citizens opposing further media consolidation.
And here in New York, police cordoned off much of Times Square early this morning after an explosion blew a hole through the front door of the Armed Forces Recruiting Center. No one was injured in the blast, which occurred around 4:00 a.m. The recruiting center has been the site of regular antiwar protests over the past five years.