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.
ATLANTA (AP) — State officials are preparing to honor a group of veterans at the state Capitol building.
The Georgia Department of Veterans Services says Gov. Nathan Deal is scheduled to honor 12 Georgians who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service in the Vietnam War on March 25. Officials say Deal will issue a proclamation declaring March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day in Georgia.
Officials say several organizations including the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association, the West Atlanta/Douglas Choral Society and others are expected to be on hand for the event.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran's President Hassan Rouhani held talks with the leader of the nearby sultanate of Oman on Wednesday, his first official trip to an Arab country since taking office last year.
The visit is aimed at boosting bilateral relations between the two countries, though it also has the potential to further ease tensions between the Islamic Republic and Western powers. Oman stands out among Gulf Arab states for its ability to balance friendly relations between the two.
Rouhani, a moderate who has vowed to improve Tehran's relations with its neighbors, was accompanied by a high-ranking economic delegation for the two-day visit.
"Relations with Islamic countries and particularly neighboring countries are of extraordinary importance for us," Rouhani told reporters shortly before departing from Tehran.
Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, welcomed the Iranian leader at the al-Alam palace, according to the official Oman News Agency. The colorfully decorated complex is nestled near the capital Muscat's mountain-ringed harbor on the edge of the Gulf of Oman.
Iran and Oman lie on opposite sides of the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf that is the route for one fifth of the world's oil.
Saudi Arabia and other Western-allied Arab nations in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council are wary of Iran's influence in the region. Oman is a member of the GCC, but it has traditionally worked to cultivate warm ties with Iran and has at times acted as a mediator between Tehran and the West.
The sultanate was the site of some of the secret talks between Iranian and American representatives that preceded a landmark nuclear deal in Geneva in November. Under that interim agreement, Iran agreed to curb parts of its nuclear program for six months in exchange for some relief from Western sanctions.
Tehran disputes allegations that it aims to develop atomic weapons. It says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, such as producing electricity, and for scientific and medical research.
The terms of a broader deal involving long-term restrictions on nuclear work in exchange for an end to all economic sanctions are still being worked out.
Oman also played a key role in the release of three American hikers in 2010 and 2011 who were detained by Iran while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border.
Sultan Qaboos traveled to Tehran in August, becoming the first foreign leader to visit Rouhani since he took office. On that visit, he said his country was prepared to develop trade routes through Iran between Oman and Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Rouhani's trip follows a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to several Gulf states, including Oman, in December. Senior Iranian leaders have yet to visit Gulf heavyweight Saudi Arabia.
ROSELAND, N.J. (AP) — The New Jersey honor student who sued to get her parents to support her after she moved out of their home has reunited with them.
The lawyer representing Rachel Canning's parents said in a statement Wednesday that the 18-year-old's return is not contingent on any financial or other considerations, the Star-Ledger of Newark reported.
A judge last week denied the teen's request for child support and to have her parents pay her remaining high school tuition. But the judge scheduled an April court date to consider the over-arching question of whether the Cannings are obligated to financially support their adult daughter.
State Superior Court Judge Peter Bogaard sounded skeptical of some of the claims in the lawsuit, saying it could lead to teens "thumbing their noses" at their parents, leaving home and then asking for financial support.
"Are we going to open the gates for 12-year-olds to sue for an Xbox? For 13-year-olds to sue for an iPhone?" he asked. "We should be mindful of a potentially slippery slope."
Canning had left her parents' house on Oct. 30, two days before she turned 18 after a tumultuous stretch during which her parents separated and reconciled and the teen began getting into uncharacteristic trouble at school.
In court filings, Canning's parents, retired Lincoln Park police Chief Sean Canning and his wife, Elizabeth, said their daughter voluntarily left home because she didn't want to abide by reasonable household rules, such as being respectful, keeping a curfew, doing a few chores and ending a relationship with a boyfriend her parents say is a bad influence. They say that shortly before she turned 18, she told her parents that she would be an adult and could do whatever she wanted.
She said in her lawsuit that her parents are abusive, contributed to an eating disorder she developed and pushed her to get a basketball scholarship. They say they were supportive, helped her through the eating disorder and paid for her to go to a private school where she would not get as much playing time in basketball as she would have at a public school.
Rachel Canning had been living in Rockaway Township with the family of her best friend. The friend's father, former Morris County Freeholder John Inglesino, was paying for the lawsuit.
Attorney Angelo Sarno said that a news conference will be held outside the firm's office in Roseland at 1:30 p.m. EDT.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian authorities defended their handling of the hunt for the missing Boeing 777 on Wednesday but acknowledged they still are unsure which direction the plane was headed when it disappeared, highlighting the massive task facing an international search now in its fifth day.
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."
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein described the multinational search for the missing plane as an unprecedented and complicated effort and defended his country's efforts. Some 43 ships and 39 aircraft from at least eight nations were scouring an area of 92,600 square kilometers (35,800 square miles).
"It's not something that is easy. We are looking at so many vessels and aircraft, so many countries to coordinate, and a vast area for us to search," he said. "But we will never give up. This we owe to the families."
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early Saturday morning and fell off civilian radar screens at 1:30 a.m. about 35,000 feet above the Gulf of Thailand between Malaysia and southern Vietnam. It sent no distress signals or any indication it was experiencing any problems.
Malaysian authorities have since said that air defense radar picked up traces of what might have been the plane turning back and flying until it reached 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.
Military and government officials on Wednesday said American experts and the manufacturer of the radar systems were examining that data to confirm it showed the Boeing 777. Until then, they said the search would continue on both sides of the country, with an equal focus.
Dozens of ships and planes searching waters have failed to turn up anything, prompting officials to expand the hunt. Malaysia asked India to join the search for the missing jet in waters near the Andaman Sea — far to the northwest of its last reported position.
"As of today, we have not found anything, but we are extending (the search) further," Hishammuddin said.
Air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud said air defense radar showed an unidentified object at 2:15 a.m. about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of Penang.
"I am not saying it's flight MH370. We are still corroborating this. It was an unidentifiable plot," he said.
It's unlikely the plane would have flown across Malaysia without being detected by civilian radar unless its electrical systems, including transponders allowing it to be identified by radar, were either knocked out or turned off.
Authorities have not ruled out any possible cause, including mechanical failure, pilot error, sabotage and 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.
Malaysian authorities contacted their Indian counterparts seeking help in searching areas near the Andaman Sea, Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.
Hishammuddin praised India for joining the efforts and vowed to keep up the search until the plane was found.
Earlier, Gen. Rodzali released a statement denying remarks attributed to him in a local media report saying that military radar had confirmed that aircraft flew west over and made it to the Malacca Strait. The Associated Press contacted a high-level military official who confirmed the remarks.
Indonesian 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.
Confusion over whether the plane had been spotted flying west has prompted speculation that different arms of the government have different opinions about where the plane is most likely to be, or even that authorities are holding back information.
Asked about this, Hishammuddin said his government had been transparent from the start.
"There is only confusion if you want to see confusion," he said.
Choi Tat Sang, a 74-year-old Malaysian man, said his 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.
The mother of passenger Zou Jingsheng, who would only give her name as Zou, wept and spoke haltingly about her missing son 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.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Kuala Lumpur, Isolda Morillo in Beijing, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.