WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a political rule of thumb that the public often rallies behind the president when the country faces peril from abroad. Sometimes, that can help candidates from his party in the next election.
So far, that doesn't seem to have happened for President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats as he ramps up a U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
Obama warned in a nationally broadcast speech last week that the militants present a menace to Americans in the Middle East and could pose "a growing threat" to the U.S. itself. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel amplified that theme Thursday, telling Congress that the group is capable of dispatching radicalized Americans back to the U.S. for attacks.
Yet with congressional elections less than seven weeks away, there's no sign yet that the confrontation with the militants has improved Obama's drab public approval ratings. Boosting his numbers could give Democrats an important lift as they battle to retain Senate control and limit potential House losses.
"I wish," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said Thursday when asked if he detected signs of burgeoning support for Obama that might rub off on his own candidacy.
All this can change by Election Day. But Rahall, who faces a tough re-election battle, was among several candidates from both parties who said this week that the fight against the Islamic State militants seldom comes up on the campaign trail.
Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., favored to win his state's open Senate seat, said voters are concerned about the Islamic State and "the lack of a strategy that will effectively deal with this serious threat." But he said he hears more from people talking about a need for jobs and complaining about federal regulations.
If anything, it's Republicans who are starting to use the broader topic of national security as a campaign theme. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP's campaign arm, has started running TV ads against four Democratic candidates in Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota and New York accusing them of being lax on terror.
"Foreign policy is popping up as a bigger issue, and I think it relates to a sense of insecurity people are feeling," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who chairs the committee. "It's part of a bigger narrative that's unfolding about things not working right."
The ads drew criticism from Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who heads the House Democrats' campaign organization and accused the GOP of politicizing the issue.
"Politics used to end at the water's edge," he said in a written statement. "It is repugnant that Republicans would try to exploit this threat to divide Americans at a time when our nation should be united."
Democrats say the battle against the Islamic State militants is too fresh and complicated an issue for Obama to have marshaled public support and improved his image, and for Democratic candidates to have possibly benefited. Only this summer has the group topped the news with its seizure of territory in Syria and Iraq and its atrocities — including beheadings of two American journalists.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that when Obama delivers a speech on the subject to the United Nations General Assembly next week, "it's going to start sinking in that it's more than just a nighttime speech from the White House, that there's a plan. And I think he will gain respect as a commander in chief leading our nation into a very challenging and difficult situation."
"It's difficult to navigate all the issues and players and permutations," Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said of the churning mix of warring factions in the Middle East. "And I don't think the sense of existential threat is the same" as it was after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Polls show that solid majorities favor U.S. military action against the Islamic State's fighters. But there's no evidence of that improving the public's view of Obama.
In a CBS News-New York Times poll conducted after Obama's Sept. 10 speech on his plan for battling the extremists, majorities said the president isn't tough enough against the militants and lacks a clear plan to counter them. And for the first time, more disapproved than approved of how he's dealing with terrorism. Nearly 6 in 10 disapproved of his handling of foreign policy.
That poll was among six major surveys this month showing that half or more of Americans disapprove of the overall job Obama is doing as president, compared to around 4 in 10 who approve. Those are dismal numbers that could make it harder on congressional Democrats in November.
Back in 2002 — the first election after 9/11 — President George W. Bush had a healthy 59 percent approval from a public jittery over terrorism, in polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
That was down from sky-high ratings exceeding 80 percent in the weeks following the terror strikes. Yet it was enough to help the GOP capture Senate control and gain a handful of House seats in the November 2002 voting.
"As a guy who ran in 2002, yeah, it helped," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "Back then, we were putting George Bush in the commercials."
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
PLACERVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Higher humidity Friday helped slow the growth of a massive Northern California wildfire that authorities say was set deliberately and has forced some 2,800 people to evacuate.
The wind-whipped wildfire 60 miles east of Sacramento has burned through nearly 120 square miles of timber and vegetation east of Sacramento and was just 10 percent contained.
Fire officials said Friday it had burned multiple structures in the White Meadow area of Pollock Pines. Crews were assessing the damage and might know later in the day how many structures were affected, fire information officer Mike McMillan said.
Some of the structures are likely homes and probably burned in the past day or two, he said.
The man suspected of starting the blaze, meanwhile, was set to be arraigned later in the day on an arson charge. Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, was jailed in El Dorado County on $10 million bail following his arrest on Wednesday.
The fire grew overnight but not nearly as substantially as it did Thursday, when it more than doubled in size. Higher humidity helped control the fire's growth, though winds could be a factor in the evening, fire officials said.
"Things are looking better as far as the fire activity and our containment," McMillan said.
Still, those near the fire said it was powerful and dangerous. Nearly 4,500 firefighters were battling the blaze, which was threatening 12,000 homes.
"There are a lot of firefighters saying that this fire is producing fire conditions unlike anything that they have ever seen," Cal Fire Battalion Chief Joe Tyler said at a community meeting Thursday night. "It's creating its own weather overhead."
Huntsman faces a forest arson charge, along with a special allegation of arson with aggravating factors because the blaze put a dozen firefighters in serious danger, forcing them to deploy their fire shields. They all escaped unharmed.
District Attorney Vern Pierson declined to say what led to Huntsman's arrest this week in Placerville.
"It's something that's evolving at this point," Pierson said of the investigation. He did not know whether Huntsman had an attorney.
Huntsman's sister, Tami Criswell, said she doubts her brother started the fire but if he did, it wasn't on purpose. Criswell said her brother, who has worked in construction and private security, loves being in the forest and always was cautious with campfires.
"He's a really good guy," Criswell said. "He would never do anything intentionally to hurt anybody."
Yet, Santa Cruz authorities have a $5,000 warrant out for Huntsman stemming from a February 2013 arrest for resisting or obstructing a public officer. Officials said he has missed several court dates.
His arrest record in Santa Cruz dates back to 1996, according to court records. That year he was convicted of tampering with a vehicle, auto theft, driving under the influence, grand theft and assault with a deadly weapon, which resulted in a three-year sentence. He was sent to San Quentin State Prison.
In 2003, he was convicted in Plumas County of receiving stolen property, according to the latest complaint.
The blaze, which started Saturday, has been fueled by heavy timber and grass that is extremely dry because the state is in its third year of drought.
Residents at an evacuation center said they were worried about their homes.
"We've been doing a lot of praying," said Sally Dykstra, who lives in the middle of the fire area with her husband, Garry, 74, and her daughter, Stacie, 46.
Farther north in the town of Weed, 143 homes and nine other buildings were destroyed, according to final damage assessments released Thursday. Residents were expected to be allowed to return to the burned areas once utility crews finished restoring power, water and telephone service.
Thanawala reported from San Francisco. Raquel Maria Dillion in Placerville, Scott Smith in Fresno, Calif., Judith Ausuebel in New York and Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., contributed to this report.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California judge's initial ruling against a tech entrepreneur seeking access to records kept secret in government databases detailing the comings and goings of millions of cars in the San Diego area via license plate scans was the second legal setback within a month for privacy advocates.
The tentative decision issued Thursday upheld the right of authorities to block the public from viewing information collected on their vehicles from vast networks that rely on cameras mounted on stoplights and police cars.
The rapidly expanding systems and their growing databases have been the subject of a larger debate pitting privacy rights against public safety concerns in a new frontier over high-tech surveillance. A Los Angeles judge ruled in August that city police and sheriff's departments don't have to disclose records from the 3 million plates they scan each week.
Michael Robertson, best known for creating the music website MP3.com, stepped into the discussion with a personal lawsuit, asking for access to only his information. He will still get to present his case Friday, despite the initial ruling from San Diego Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal that went against him.
The ACLU of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation had been seeking a week's worth of data from databases that hold hundreds of millions of scans.
The license plate scanning systems have multiplied across the U.S. over the last decade, funded largely by Homeland Security grants. They're governed by a patchwork of local laws and regulations that have not yet standardized how they're used and who has access to the information they collect.
About seven in 10 law enforcement agencies used license plate scanners in 2012 and an overwhelming majority planned to acquire such systems or expand their use, according to a study by the Police Executive Research Forum, a research and policy group.
Privacy advocates say these files need to be open to public scrutiny to prevent government overreach and unconstitutional privacy invasions.
"If I'm not being investigated for a crime, there shouldn't be a secret police file on me" that details "where I go, where I shop, where I visit," Robertson said in an interview with The Associated Press prior to the ruling. "That's crazy, Nazi police-type stuff."
On the other side are government and law enforcement officials who say they're not misusing the systems and that tracking and storing the data can help with criminal investigations, either to incriminate or exonerate a suspect.
"At some point, you have to trust and believe that the agencies that you utilize for law enforcement are doing what's right and what's best for the community, and they're not targeting your community," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. John Gaw said.
In San Diego's case, records are kept for up to two years, but other agencies keep them five years or more and are limited mainly by server space.
"If that information is deleted or purged too quickly, then we lost that, and we can never go back," said Lt. Karen Stubkjaer of the San Diego Sheriff's Department.
In Robertson's case against the San Diego Association of Governments, he was seeking access to a sweeping system that links police, sheriffs and eight other law enforcement agencies. The San Diego sheriff's department has made 9.8 million scans since the system was introduced in 2009, Stubkjaer said.
He said he has no problem with officials using the technology for legitimate purposes like tracking down stolen cars. But he says license plate readers are ripe for abuse, and there's no reason for long-term storage of data on innocent people.
"I want a strong police force," he said. "But I also want my personal freedom."
Neither ruling set legal precedent, but are part of a growing debate.
"License plate readers are part of a larger conversation," said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum. "Technology is changing how the police view crime, and it is raising a number of public policy issues: How long do you hold on to this information? And what part of this information should the public have access to?"
JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. (AP) — Lovers of shrimp and grits are heading to the Georgia coast this weekend for a three-day celebration of the Southern seafood dish.
The annual event known as Shrimp & Grits: The Wild Georgia Shrimp Festival kicks off Friday on Jekyll Island and runs through Sunday.
The opening night features vendors serving up samples of their signature shrimp and grits recipes to festival-goers. Later in the weekend, amateur cooks and professional chefs will go head-to-head in separate contests to see who puts the best culinary spin on the festival's namesake dish.
Meanwhile visitors can take part in craft beer tastings each day, as well as drop in on cooking demonstrations and listen to live music.
General admission is free, though guests must pay a $6-per-vehicle fee to park on Jekyll Island.
NEW YORK (AP) — Alibaba debuted as a publicly traded company Friday and swiftly climbed more than 40 percent in a mammoth IPO that offered eager investors seemingly unlimited potential for growth and a way to tap into the burgeoning Chinese middle class.