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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Mississippi and Alabama primary day – US elections live” was written by Richard Adams, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 13th March 2012 23.04 UTC

7.04pm: Now time for a quick summary of the action this afternoon. Then Richard Adams will be back for the blow-by-blow of tonight’s contests.

A large number of voters in Mississippi and Alabama rate “electability” or the ability to beat President Obama as the issue most important to them, according to exit polls. That’s a good sign for Mitt Romney. Both states also are seeing high turnouts of evangelical and “very conservative” voters. That’s not such a good sign for Romney.

• Newt Gingrich faces a moment of truth. It will be extremely difficult for the former speaker to continue to speak of a winning strategy involving southern states if he cannot win southern states.

Rick Santorum is hoping for at least one outright win, to combat Romney’s increasingly aggressive argument that Santorum ought to step aside. As of this writing the Intrade market has Santorum the 49-25 favorite to win in Alabama. Stay tuned.

6.20pm: It turns out that, popular perception notwithstanding, Mitt Romney has not been running for president or planning on running for president for what might as well be his whole life. At least by his telling.

6.15pm: A first wave of ABC News exit polls from Mississippi and Alabama seems to hold copious bad news for Mitt Romney – a high evangelical turnout, a high proportion saying it matters that a candidate shares their religion, and a high turnout of “very conservative” voters – until you get to this last datum:

Nonetheless, Romney leads his opponents in perceptions of electability – the sense he’s best able to defeat Barack Obama in November – and that’s the most-desired candidate attribute among voters in both states. Romney pushes back against his ideological and religion-based deficits in another way as well: Voters in both states cite the economy as the top issue in their vote choice, an area in which Romney has done consistently well this cycle.

5.45pm: Santorum wants Gingrich out. Now Romney is on CNN saying Santorum’s finished. If only Gingrich would call on Romney to get out this all would wrap up nicely.

5.41pm: Our first exit poll results now. The turnout of voters who identify as evangelical Christians appears to up in Mississippi and down slightly in Alabama compared with 2008, according to CNN:

The comparable 2008 numbers are 69% in Mississippi and 77% in Alabama.

5.22pm: Inside the Hawaii Caucuses: We wish. Instead we’re covering the race from Manhattan. Here’s what you need to know: It’s the state’s first Republican primary caucus ever. They’re calling it a caucus, at least, but as far as voting process it appears to be more of a primary, with 41 polling stations and a secret ballot.

The money here is on Romney, who has won the backing of the state’s Republican dons. Hawaii will award its 17 delegates proportionally, and then in November it will vote for Barack Obama.

The Hawaii Reporter has video of Elizabeth Santorum in Hawaii making the pitch for her father. Candidate offspring Ronnie Paul and Matt Romney also are reportedly in Hawaii. Which, fine.

4.47pm: Good question Ethan! So readers which is it for you tonight – March Madness or election madness? Or would that be c) None of the above.?

4.41pm: And… Rick Santorum STILL thinks Newt Gingrich should get out of the race. Here’s what he told radio host Glenn Beck this afternoon:

Congressman Gingrich has really shown no ability to get votes outside of the State of Georgia and, you know, those primaries are all over. All the states that border Georgia are now, as of today, will have had their primaries.

Gingrich supporters might point out that Santorum is conveniently forgetting Gingrich’s 40-28 shellacking of Mitt Romney (and Rick Santorum) in South Carolina.

Why is Santorum so eager for Gingrich to exit? Two words: Michigan and Ohio. Santorum lost to Romney by 32,378 votes in Michigan, a race in which Gingrich got 65,016 votes. Santorum lost to Romney by 10,288 votes in Ohio, where 175,554 voters went Gingrich.

4.20pm: A new Moveon.org ad builds on the perception that women voters are turning their backs on the Republican Party. “Judging from their comments, the GOP must have a serious problem with women,” the ad asserts.

Women voters actually gravitated toward Republican candidates in 2010. And that much-talked-about NYT/CBS poll from this morning had one doozie of a number: President Obama’s approval rating tanked among women over the last month, falling 12 points from 53 to 41 percent, according to the poll. A Washington Post/ABC News poll out yesterday reached a substantially different result, however, finding Obama’s approval among women holding steady from a month prior.

(h/t: Taegan Goddard)

4.05pm: Never take candy from a stranger, and don’t believe early afternoon exit polls.

4.00pm: For Democrats hoping to retain control of the Senate, former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s decision to run for his old Nebraska seat is on par with Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe’s decision to retire. (Kerrey, also a former governor of Nebraska, would replace retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson in a state that otherwise likes to vote Republican.)

Now Kerrey’s out with his first ad: “America needs to step up its game.”

 

3.48pm: The Google Politics and Elections team has put together charts tracking searches for the GOP candidates’ names in Alabama and Mississippi. Santorum’s clearly out front in Google searches despite running neck-and-neck in the polls. Strange. Why would “Santorum” attract disproportionate search engine interest?

(h/t: BuzzFeed)

3.32pm: Did you see “Game Change,” the HBO movie based on the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about Sarah Palin and the McCain candidacy?

Wonder which narrative from the 2012 race will be turned into a movie.

3.10pm: And now, the fable of Barack Obama, magical petrol fairy. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has attacked President Obama over rising gas prices. The New York Times reports on a campaign stop in Kirkwood, Mo.:

Mr. Romney first offered up some suggestions for why gas prices are skyrocketing, including Mr. Obama’s objection to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “Maybe it’s related to the fact that you said we couldn’t get a pipeline in from Canada known as Keystone,” he continued. “Those things affect gasoline prices, long term.”

Rising gasoline prices across the country are thought to be a primary cause of the president’s falling approval rating. A Times/CBS News poll out today found that 54 percent of respondents believed that a president can do “a lot” to control gas prices, as opposed to 36 percent who believe they are beyond a president’s control.

Jamie Haber, 39, “an independent voter of Orlando,” told the Times: “I think just being the president of the United States of America, you would have some type of control over gas pricing.”

Let us recklessly spend a moment thinking about this. Is it true? Does the president control gas prices? What would it take for Barack Obama to be able to control gas prices?

He would have to be able to control the price of crude oil, meaning he would have to be able to control the conduct of states like Iran and China as well as the psychology of oil futures traders. He would have to be able to control the capacity and behavior of U.S. oil refiners. He would have to be able to control the marketing and distribution strategies of those fine companies with the big logos that sell gas to station owners. He would have to be able to control station owners and how much markup they tack on to each gallon. He would have to be able to control US drivers and how frequently and far they decide to drive. He would have to be able to control the weather, preventing atmospheric events such as Hurricane Katrina that send crude prices soaring. Alternatively (and least plausibly of all), he would have to be able to control the US Congress, which might be persuaded to pass a Gas for America Subsidy.

A tall order, it seems.

2.50pm: A note on Mississippi:

Exit polls from the 2008 GOP primaries show a slightly smaller proportion of evangelical Christian voters in Mississippi than in Alabama. Sixty-nine percent of GOP primary voters in Mississippi in 2008 identified as Born Again or Evangelical. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had withdrawn from the presidential race a week earlier, leaving the field open for Sen. John McCain to romp to a 79 percent win. Ron Paul grabbed 4 percent.

Why tally evangelical voters? As our pollster Harry J Enten first pointed out some time ago, “Mitt Romney’s vote in each state is linear to the percentage of evangelicals that make up each state’s electorate.” Meaning that evangelicals are a good inverse predictor of Romney’s chances.

2.41pm: Some notes on Alabama:

• Rick Santorum may not pick up as many delegates as he might have here because his campaign failed to qualify in four Alabama districts. The campaign similarly botched the Virginia and Michigan qualifying tests.

Exit polls from the 2008 GOP primaries show the influence of evangelical Christian voters in Alabama. Seventy-seven percent of GOP primary voters in that race identified as Born Again and Evangelical. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee beat eventual nominee John McCain 41-37. Romney grabbed 18 percent of the vote.

By the way: Why is Mitt Romney having such a tough time with evangelical voters? It’s not his Mormonism, according to Michael Tesler:

My analysis of seven surveys conducted by YouGov from late January to early March 2012 … suggests that Romney’s religion is not the main reason why he has not won over these voters. … The answer most likely resides in moral issues like abortion and gay marriage. For, unlike attitudes about Mormons, Evangelical Republicans are much more conservative on these issues than their fellow partisans.

(Tesler h/t: Daily Dish)

2.24pm: So who’s going to win tonight? It depends which poll you believe.

Amy Walter of ABC News observes:

We like this idea a lot. Covering the GOP primaries without having to come into direct contact with the candidates, but instead focusing on the horse race among pollsters.

Here’s a table created by HuffPollster of Alabama and Mississippi polling:

A big disagreement in MS: ARG sees a slim 2-point lead for Romney in Mississippi, while Rasmussen sees a whopping 8-point lead.
A big disagreement in AL: ARG sees a 3-point lead for Gingrich in Alabama, while Rasmussen sees Gingrich-Santorum-Romney all within 2 points of one another.

Ryan Lizza sees potential hidden strength for Santorum and Gingrich:

2.11pm: Titters spread across the Twittersphere awhile ago over a Santorum campaign typo.

2.08pm: Hello there – Tom McCarthy in New York here, pitching in on the live blog this afternoon. Richard Adams will be back this evening as the returns from Alabama and Mississippi (and Hawaii and Samoa) start rolling in.

Some fightin’ words moments ago from Axelrod:

1.45pm: Some good news for Rick Santorum in Alabama: the state’s governor voted for him. The NYT’s Caucus blog reports:

A spokesman for Governor Bentley, Jeremy King, confirmed the vote, saying that Mr Bentley viewed Mr. Santorum “as the most conservative candidate” in the field.

But Mr Bentley chose not to issue a public endorsement or make a statement himself, Mr King said, because “he believes a vote is a personal decision that should be based on a voter’s values and principles, not on someone else’s opinion.”

1.30pm: Rush Limbaugh‘s apology to Sandra Fluke hasn’t gone down well with advertisers or the general public, it would appear.

Rasmussen polls potential voters:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that only 29% believe Limbaugh’s apology for his recent comments was sincere. Fifty-three percent (53%) do not think his apology was sincere, and another 18% are undecided.

1.10pm: The New York Post wins the battle of the headlines today with its effort “It’s redneck-and-neck” on the southern primaries today, in a piece that includes another bout of Mitt Romney shooting himself in the silver spoon:

While Romney tried to press his down-home credentials, he couldn’t help another bout of embarrassing name-dropping when he was asked about quarterback Peyton Manning during an Alabama radio interview.

“I’ve got a lot of good friends – the owner of the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets – both owners are friends of mine,” Romney said.

The gaffe is similar to when Romney earlier said he didn’t follow Nascar closely but knew team owners.

Does Mitt Romney have any friends who don’t own a Nascar team or NFL franchise? George Bush was an owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team but he managed not to make a big deal of it.

12.45pm: When we get the results tonight from Mississippi and Alabama we may have a better idea of how long and how far the Rwpublican presidential race has got left to run.

But it may yet be a long slog, which is the the mildly depressing calculation made by Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He argues that the race so far has been remarkably stable in terms of who has what what:

So we don’t see much evidence of momentum in the primaries thus far. This, of course, could change in the future, and perhaps once Romney passes a certain threshold, it will. Certainly if he were to win Mississippi or Alabama, we would expect it to be a declared a very good night for him. The model suggests that he should pull in about 32% of the three-way vote in Alabama, and about 31% in Mississippi. But with Santorum and Gingrich now splitting the non-Romney vote in the Deep South, Romney might actually pull off the upset in Alabama (assuming the model underestimates him a touch there).

So until Romney shows signs of going on a roll, this thing could run and run.

12.30pm: Will Barack Obama be serving David Cameron wine out of a box? Maybe some cheaper plonk that the White House picked up from Trader Joe’s? We just don’t know, although Bloomberg News tries hard to find out:

The White House declined to comment for this article or to make available Daniel Shanks, the usher who has managed wine selection since the Clinton administration, or social secretary Jeremy Bernard. First Lady Michelle Obama’s office referred questions to the White House press office.

White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest declined to disclose which wines were served at the German or Korean state dinners, identify wines from non-state dinners, make menus of past meals available for inspection or answer questions about the shift in practice.

Earnest also declined to say whether the White House would release the names of wines at the Cameron dinner.

Apparently the White House doesn’t want to be embarrassed about the serving of fancy, expensive wines at state dinners.

12 noon: It’s true: Dick Cheney won’t visit Canada because it is …. too dangerous?

And as is usually the case when Dick Cheney thinks a place is too dangerous – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – he gets younger men to go. In this case it is noted Canadian Mark Steyn.

11.55am: This is slightly old but finally an appreciation of the discreet wit of Mitt Romney, via the Atlantic’s excellent Molly Ball:

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to question or distrust Mitt Romney. But the fact that he went to Mississippi and said “y’all” doesn’t make him a phony – it makes him that rare thing in politics, a guy with a sense of humor.

The problem with Romney’s humour, I’d suggest, is in his delivery. A Mitt Romney speech is where jokes go to die.

11.40am: Obama now moves on to the trade case the administration is taking against China over rare earth materials used in electronics manufacturing such as advanced batteries used in hybrid cars and Blackberrys.

“If China would simply let the market work on its own, we would have no objections,” says Obama, outlining the case the US is taking alongside Japan and others through the WTO.

China produces more than 90% of the world’s output of such materials but has recently squeezed exports, hurting manufacturers elsewhere. Last year the price of rare earth materials rose sharply after Chinese traders started stockpiling rare earth reserves.

Chinese exports restrictions are said to force manufacturers to pay double the price of their Chinese competitors for rare earth materials.

The Financial Times reports:

Beijing on Tuesday rejected the claims by the US, EU and Japan, saying China would “continue to implement effective management of rare earths exports in accordance with WTO regulations”. The foreign ministry said China hoped that “other countries with rare earths will also actively develop their rare earths resources to share the burden of global rare earths supply”.

In more pointed comments, Xinhua, the state press agency, said the move was “rash and unfair”, adding that it “may hurt economic relations between the world’s largest and second-largest economies”.

“A better choice for the United States would be sitting down with China face to face and solve the problem through negotiations instead of making it an internationalised issue,” Xinhua said in an opinion piece.

11.35am: Slightly late, President Obama appears in the Rose Garden.

Although the announcement is meant to be about prosecuting a trade case via the World Trade Organisation against China, Obama begins by discussing the recent killings in Afghanistan and vowing to hold a full investigation.

“America takes this as seriously as if it were our own citizens and our own children who were murdered,” Obama says, in reference to the 16 Afghan civilians killed in a shooting spree by a US soldier on Sunday.

11.04am: What are the Republican voters of Alabama thinking before today’s primary in the Yellowhammer State? Film-maker Kat Keene Hogue travels to Alabama to ask them, the latest in our Primary Voices series.

10.45am: One event that really was taking place was to be Newt Gingrich‘s visit to the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama. But it has been cancelled. (Apparently the animals objected because they didn’t want to be cast in a bad light.)

10.25am: Here’s a brief timeline of events* that are happening today.

11.10am: President Obama declares war on China. Trade war, that is. Well, officially the president “delivers a statement announcing ‘new efforts to enforce our trade rights with China and level the playing field for America’s businesses and workers’.”

11.11am: Mitt Romney denounces whatever President Obama does regarding trade with China as inadequate.

11.50am: Mitt Romney meets voters in Missouri, which holds caucuses on Saturday. At 11.56am Romney will say something silly about eating a regional speciality and mis-pronounce the name of the city as “St Louie”.

12.45pm: Newt Gingrich addresses the Vestavia Hills Chamber of Commerce. in Birmingham, Alabama. No one cares.

6.30pm: President Obama and British premier David Cameron attend a NCAA basketball game in Dayton, Ohio.

6.39pm: President Obama suddenly realises that David Cameron has never watched a basketball game before and is sick of explaining what a three pointer is.

8pm: Polls close in Alabama and Mississippi.

10pm: Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum gracefully withdraw from the GOP primaries and endorse Mitt Romney in a stirring call for party unity. Romney appears and hugs both men, saying “I love you guys.” Then, a unicorn appears on stage.

*Note: events listed here may not match reality as currently understood.

10am: Well here’s some good news. Despite some rumbling to the contrary, it appears there will not be yet another Republican presidential debate next week.

I think I speak on behalf of a grateful nation and possibly the GOP when I say: awesome.

The Oregonian reports that Mitt Romney has turned down his invitation to the debate scheduled for next Monday – hardly a surprise but likely to be the death knell for any hopes of recycling some Portlandia jokes.

9.30am: Another Tuesday, another set of primaries, and this time the focus is on the Deep South – Mississippi and Alabama, to be precise – where Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are running neck-and-neck in the polls.

Polls are open in both states and will close tonight at 7pm EST – when we will be live blogging the results. Much later are caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa but because of the time differences we’ll be covering them tomorrow.

Here’s all you need to know from our reporter Ryan Devereaux:

• Mitt Romney is hoping to clinch the nomination with wins in Mississippi and Alabama, where primary voters are heading to the polls today. Accomplishing the goal is easier said than done, however, as the candidates are locked in an exceedingly tight race. While Romney is regularly viewed as the candidate with the greatest potential to beat President Obama, the former Massachusetts governor has had a difficult time winning the hearts of southern conservatives. He is challenged by Rick Santorum, who is locked in a struggle to appear as socially conservative as possible, and Newt Gingrich, who was born in Georgia and has focused nearly all of his campaign energy on the region.

• Today’s contests come as new polls show President Obama’s approval rating has dropped substantially. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 41% of respondents approve of the job the president is doing, while 47% disapprove. The latest figures come just one month after the president managed a critical 50% approval rating. Rising gas prices, escalating tensions regarding war with Iran and major security setbacks in Afghanistan are believed to have contributed to the president’s sudden drop in popularity.

• Meanwhile, a new poll from Public Policy Polling adds a whole new dimension to the question of how some Americans view the president. According to PPP, 45% of Republican respondents in Alabama think President Obama is a Muslim, while in Mississippi that number is 52%. In Alabama, 60% of respondents don’t believe in evolution, and in Mississippi 66% don’t. It turns out Rick Santorum is the most popular candidate among evolution-deniers, while Newt Gingrich has the majority of the support from those who believe interracial marriage should be illegal.

• In his never-ending quest to seem like a regular guy, Mitt Romney toured Alabama with Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Famous for his “You might be a redneck if …” jokes, Foxworthy tried to help Romney make light of himself. At one point on Monday, Romney quipped that he hoped to set out with an Alabama friend who “can actually show me which end of the rifle to point.” Ever his own worst enemy in efforts to seem normal, however, Romney managed to tell a radio show host that “good friends” of his own NFL teams. Last month the former governor caught flak for saying some of his friends own Nascar teams.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Alabama and Mississippi primary results – live” was written by Richard Adams, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 13th March 2012 23.00 UTC

7pm: Welcome to our live coverage of the Republican presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, in which three men are struggling to see who will come out on top. The polls suggest any one of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich has a chance of winning either or both of the Deep South contests – and who wins what will determine the length of the GOP nomination race.

Polls close in both states at 8pm EST so it could be a mercifully short night compared to the marathons in Iowa and Ohio that the campaigns have had to endure so far this year.

We’ll be following the run-up to the count and then the results and reactions, so stayed tuned.

One thing we won’t be getting tonight is a speech from the Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, who is likely to be in the air when the results come in. That suggests his campaign is braced for bad news – especially as Romney spent the day campaigning in Missouri, which holds its vote on Saturday.

But don’t worry: Rick Santorum will speak to supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he has been campaigning ahead of that state’s primary on 24 March, and Newt Gingrich is to address his fans in Birmingham, Alabama.

Given the two races and the range of outcomes, here’s a preview of how things may shake out when the votes have been counted:

• Romney wins both Alabama and Mississippi: that could suddenly increase the pressure on Santorum and Gingrich to end their campaigns, since it would kill off their argument that Romney fails to appeal to Southern Republicans. In any case it would be a big boost for Romney and probably all but end the contest, to the relief of many in the GOP and media.

• Split decision: a Romney win in one and a loss to either Gingrich or Santorum in the other would be a blessing for the frontrunner but would probably fail to settle the matter – and the long slog towards winning the delegate majority would continue. Similarly, a brace of second places by Mitt with Santorum and Gingrich taking one state apiece

• Clean sweep by Santorum: the worst possible outcome for Romney, since it may force Gingrich out of the race, ending the handy divide and conquer routine that has helped him to date and making Santorum the unchallenged “Anyone-but-Mitt” candidate.

• Clean sweep by Gingrich: a bloody nose for Santorum may actually help Romney, since Gingrich is a weaker national candidate and far less appealing to Romney’s Achilles heel alliance of evangelicals and conservatives.

In all these scenarios the size of the vote share is also important: narrow losses of a few percentage points by Romney and a bag of delegates wouldn’t cause him any panic. But deep, double-digit losses and third-place showings could knock his campaign off its march towards the nomination.

So there we have it: four (or five) potential scenarios. Now all we have to do is wait for the voters of Alabama and Mississippi to finish voting.

In the meantime, a themed joke from a three-year-old:

Q: How can you spell Mississippi with only one i?

A: Close one of your eyes. (It works better out loud.)

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “GOP nomination fight goes on to Mississippi and Alabama – live” was written by Richard Adams, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 12th March 2012 21.20 UTC

4.48pm: Sigh. Depressing news that far too many Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi think that Barack Obama is a Muslim:

The poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 52% said they believe Obama is a Muslim, 36% weren’t sure and only 12% said they believe he is a Christian. He fared slightly better in Alabama, where 45% said he is a Muslim, 41% weren’t sure, and 14% said he is a Christian.

4.33pm: Mitt Romney can’t even get it straight whether or not he likes catfish. In South Carolina he’s not that into catfish. But in Alabama this week, catfish is “delicious”.

Oh and Rick Santorum uses a teleprompter.

Maybe this is the first post-modern presidential primary, where there is no connection between what candidates say and what they do?

4.04pm: Not content with banning teleprompters, Rick Santorum is now just making stuff up:

In response to the obvious reply of “Ha ha ha ha, seriously, what has Rick Santorum ever been commander in chief of exactly?” the Santorum campaign says Santorum was “referring specifically to his service on the Senate Armed Services Committee”.

Ah, that was quick.

3.49pm: It’s that Mormon business again – in answer to a question on Fox News earlier today, Alabama governor Robert Bentley said Mitt Romney‘s religion remains a “problem”:

I think that’s a very subtle issue that probably – may be a problem in many states, not just in Alabama. But I do believe that Republicans are looking to see who can win the presidency and they’re going to look at that more than anything else.

Bentley says he thinks Romney will win the Alabama primary, although he hasn’t endorsed him.

3.18pm: A brief glimpse inside the happy home life of the Romney family, via the Washington Post and a long and – let’s be honest – deeply tedious article about Ann Romney’s interest in equestrian sports:

The best gift her husband ever gave her was a horse, Ann Romney told the New York Times late last year. Her son Josh told another New York Times reporter in 2007 that he had given his dad a rubber horse mask so that if he wore it, “maybe Mom will pay as much attention to you as she does to the horses.”

That is the highlight. The rest of the article is basically just cut and paste from a lawsuit in which Ann Romney gave testimony.

You may be thinking, “really, who cares?” and you’d be right. Tye bad news is there is more fodder for Gail Collins’s equally tedious obsession with that story about Mitt Romney strapping the family dog to the roof of the car:

In one harrowing episode, [Ann Romney] recalled, Marco Polo, the other German horse, was in a container that tipped on an airport runway during transit.

2.56pm: Buzzfeed Politics has some figures on TV ad spending in Alabama and Mississippi. Surprise, surprise, Mitt Romney and his campaign have spent about $2.5m, while Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have spent about $1.3m combined.

2.19pm: The 2012 Republican primaries have been the season of the Super Pac attack ad – and the Guardian’s Ana Marie Cox rounds up some of the harshest ads of the last few months.

An ad’s effectiveness is rated on a 1 to 5 “Horton Scale”, so named after the devastating “Willie Horton” ad implemented against Michael Dukakis in 1988. An ad with a “5” rating is, of course, the highest and has the potential to fatally wound a candidacy. An ad at the other end of the scale – “1” – has the effectiveness of the 2010 ad by California GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina against rival primary rival Tom Campbell, known as the “Demon Sheep ad”: hilarious, potentially viral, dubious impact.

2pm: Mitt Romney is still working on that connecting with the voters down South thing, as AP reports:

As is often the case, Romney showed an engaging side and stiffness, at almost the same time. When the rain-soaked crowd sang “Happy Birthday,” Romney exclaimed: “That’s a fine Alabama good morning,” as if such greetings are somehow different in other states.

Moments later, he showed good-natured self-awareness, saying he hoped to go hunting with an Alabama friend who “can actually show me which end of the rifle to point.”

No word whether the trees of Alabama were the right height.

1.41pm: Finally, a GOP presidential contender takes a brave stance on the real issues of this election: teleprompters.

No seriously, Rick Santorum really did say this on Sunday, in public, in Gulfport, Mississippi:

See, I always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter. Because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.

You know, when you’re running for president, people should know not what someone’s writing for you after they’ve had pollsters and speech writers test it.

You know who used teleprompters? Ronald Reagan.

But according to Rick: “You’re choosing a leader. A leader isn’t just about what’s written on a piece of paper.”

But what if the candidate writes their own words? Shouldn’t it be speechwriters who are banned? But we risk taking this at all seriously, when it is obviously mad.

1.20pm: Lucky Puerto Rico: the island nation is going to have visits from Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum soon, ahead of the caucuses there on 18 March:

The former Pennsylvania senator will arrive in Puerto Rico on Wednesday and will meet with Governor Luis Fortuño at La Fortaleza. After a press conference, Santorum will visit the Veterans Hospital in Río Piedras.

Santorum and the governor worked together in Congress when Fortuño served as resident commissioner and are friends. Still, the governor has endorsed the presidential bid by Mitt Romney, the front-runner who is also scheduled to stump in Puerto Rico this week.

1pm: Mitt Romney is doing pretty well in the Deep South, according to new polls of Alabama and Mississippi today from ARG, which has done a good job forecasting this election cycle so far:

• Alabama: Newt Gingrich leads with 34%, followed by Mitt Romney with 31%, Rick Santorum with 24%, and Ron Paul with 6%

• Mississippi: Mitt Romney leads with 34%, followed by Newt Gingrich with 32%, Rick Santorum with 22% and Ron Paul with 8%

ARG finds lower levels of support for Rick Santorum in both states than the earlier PPP polls out today, which suggests a different likely-voter model.

On ARG’s Mississippi result, an earlier survey by the same firm conducted on 7-8 March found Gingrich was leading Romney 35% to 31%. That’s some change in four days, but within the margins of error.

ARG finds that in Alabama, Romney is winning the most support from Democrats and independents: “Among self-identified independents and Democrats, Romney leads with 33%, followed by Santorum with 28%, Gingrich with 17%, and Paul with 15%.”

12.27pm: So the delegate math says that Mitt Romney is the inevitable nominee? That may be so but people such as Rick Santorum aren’t dissuaded by things like “math” or “science” or “fact” – these are people who deny climate change and evolution, so what would you expect?

But this new argument from Santorum’s campaign is the “least-convincing campaign strategy memo ever,” according to Jonathan Bernstein in the Washington Post:

Santorum strategist John Yob argues that Santorum will win … by seeding the convention with stealth delegates who will switch to Santorum after the first convention ballot is cast, and they are no longer bound. This is, to be blunt, nonsense.

Yes but that’s from what the Bush administration once called “the reality-based community,” and so should be disregarded.

12.07pm: Sad news! To help his supporters celebrate Mitt Romney’s birthday, the Romney campaign wanted them to use the #hbdmitt hashtag. Over three days only about 17 did.

11.24am: To celebrate Mitt Romney‘s birthday today, here’s Steve Benen in the New York Daily News:

The party that nominated self-described “maverick” John McCain and swaggering George W Bush – and that reveres Ronald Reagan for his clarity and fortitude – looks set in 2012 to choose someone who never met a constituency he was prepared to offend.

11.01am: I’d like to start the latest “Mike Bloomberg for Treasury Secretary” rumour, on the back of this New York Times piece on a low-key lunch meeting between President Obama and the New York City mayor:

Over a long private lunch at the White House, President Obama posed a question to Mayor Michael R Bloomberg: what are you interested in doing next?

Mr Bloomberg’s precise response is unknown. But their meeting a few weeks ago, confirmed by aides to both leaders and previously undisclosed, was potentially significant for both men, as Mr Obama seeks support for his presidential campaign and Mr Bloomberg ponders his post-mayoral career.

And then Mike Bloomberg can run as a Democrat for the 2016 presidential nomination.

10.39am: I think we now know why Rick Santorum decided to run for the Republican nomination: to improve his Google ranking.

Prior to the 2012 primary season, as you may recall, the top Google.com search result for Santorum was the result of a Dan Savage prank, defining Santorum as “frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter”. Now, though, thanks to all the news stories about Santorum’s nomination bid. that site has slipped way down the Google results front page and is not far off dropping onto the second page (which no one ever reads in Google searches).

All he has to worry about now is the Wikipedia page “Campaign for ‘santorum’ neologism” which still comes in second.

10.15am: It looks like Mississippi and Alabama are going down to the wire, based on a brace of polls by PPP released early this morning.

• Alabama: A virtual three-way tie with Mitt Romney at 31%, Newt Gingrich at 30% and 29% for Rick Santorum, with Ron Paul way back with 8%.

• Mississippi: Newt Gingrich holds a slim lead with 33% to 31% for Romney, 27% for Santorum, and just 7% for Ron Paul.

So any combination of results is possible, from Mitt Romney winning both – and perhaps ending the GOP race right there – to Romney coming third in both contests behind Santorum and Gingrich, which would ensure it continues for some time to come.

Here’s PPP’s analysis of why Romney is competitive, despite Gingrich and Santorum both being more popular than Romney in each states:

The reason Romney has a chance to win despite being less popular in both states is the split in the conservative vote. In Mississippi 44% of voters describe themselves as ‘very conservative’ and Romney’s getting only 26% with them. But he’s still in the mix because Gingrich leads Santorum only 35-32 with them. In Alabama where 45% of voters identify as ‘very conservative,’ Romney’s at just 24%. But again he remains competitive overall because his opponents are so tightly packed with those voters, with Santorum at 37% and Gingrich at 31%.

It’s not really clear who, if anyone, has the momentum in these states. In Mississippi folks who’ve decided in the last few days go for Gingrich over Santorum 37-29 with Romney at only 15%. But in Alabama the late deciders go 38-29 for Romney over Santorum with Gingrich at 23%.

10am: It’s the final day of campaigning in the Southern states of Mississippi and Alabama, the latest set of must-win primaries between GOP contenders Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

With the polls showing a tight race between the three, after a weekend that saw wins for Romney and Santorum, we’ll be following the candidates and their campaigns live.

Here’s a summary of the latest events from Ryan Devereaux:

• The GOP’s presidential hopefuls are working to secure southern voters ahead of tomorrow’s primaries in Mississippi and Alabama. Depending on how they play out, the contests could narrow the field or lead to more weeks of inter-party fighting. National polls have the leading candidates in a virtual dead heat, suggesting tomorrow come down to the wire.

• Over the weekend, Santorum continued his efforts to urge Newt Gingrich to drop out of the race. On Sunday, Santorum said a one-on-one race between himself and Romney would need to “occur sooner rather than later”. The day before Santorum decisively won the Kansas caucuses. For his part, Gingrich has remained defiant but losing tomorrow’s contests could spell the end for the former house speaker’s campaign. Meanwhile, if Mitt Romney manages to come out on top tomorrow it could effectively seal the nomination for the former Massachusetts governor.

• Romney is reported to be looking to Illinois to make his stand against Santorum, in the event that he can’t seal the deal tomorrow. Taking the midwestern state, however, may prove difficult for the Romney campaign. A new Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll finds little space between the two candidates. According to the survey Romney has the support of 35% of likely voters, while Santroum has 31%, well within the 4% margin for error.

• Despite the muddled appearance of the race for the Republican nomination, Santorum has predicted that he will be the victor if the party remains undecided by the time the Republican national convention rolls around this summer. Despite trailing Romney by more than 200 delegates, Santorum told NBC’s Today Show this morning: “We’re going to be the nominee. Governor Romney will not make it.”

• A new ABC News/Washington post poll finds a steep decline in support for the war in Afghanistan, even among Republicans, which could change the landscape of the battle for president. According to the poll, 60% of Americans do not feel the war efforts have been been worth their immense costs in blood and treasure, nearly double those who feel the opposite. For the first time in five years, Republicans are evenly divided on whether the war has been worth it. As reports surfaced of a US army sergeant massacring over a dozen Afghan civilians–including numerous women and children–over the weekend, Newt Gingrich expressed a surprisingly critical analysis of the war. Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Gingrich said, “I think it’s very likely that we have lost, tragically lost, the lives and suffered injuries to a considerable number of young Americans on a mission that we’re going to discover is not doable.”

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Obama derides Republican ‘posturing’ over use of force against Iran” was written by Chris McGreal in Washington, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 6th March 2012 22.02 UTC

Barack Obama has accused Republican presidential candidates of casually “beating the drums of war” over Iran without having the political courage to directly advocate a military attack or considering the human cost of battle.

In his first press conference of the year Tuesday Obama turned on the Republican politicians who for days have been accusing him of weakness and naivete over Iran, ramped up by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit and a meeting of the US’s most powerful pro-Israel lobby group.

The president said that his policy of sanctions has united much of the international community to pressure Iran and that “we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically”.

“That’s my track record. Now, what’s said on the campaign trail – those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities. They’re not commander-in-chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war,” he said.

“I’m reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impacts that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy. This is not a game. There’s nothing casual about it.”

Obama returned to the theme later in the press conference.

“When I sign letters to families that haven’t – whose loved ones have not come home, I am reminded that there is a cost. Sometimes we bear that cost. But we think it through. We don’t play politics with it,” he said.

“Typically, it’s not the folks who are popping off who pay the price. It’s these incredible men and women in uniform and their families who pay the price.”

The president went on to challenge his Republican opponents to say if they want a war and then address the consequences of attacking Iran.

“Now, the one thing that we have not done is we haven’t launched a war. If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk,” he said.

Obama’s comments were aimed, among others, at Mitt Romney, who described the president as “feckless” over Iran in Tuesday’s Washington Post and advocated a policy of “peace through strength”.

The press conference came hours after the announcement that the US will join Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany in a new round of negotiations with Tehran, a move that led Rick Santorum to accuse Obama of “appeasement”.

Obama defended those talks, saying they are an opportunity to judge whether Iran understands that “the world community means business”.

“I don’t expect a breakthrough in a first meeting, but I think we will have a pretty good sense fairly quickly as to how serious they are about resolving the issue,” he said.

Obama derided the aggressive posturing of some of his opponents and more hawkish supporters of Israel who have pressed for an explicit commitment to the use of force against Iran by setting “red lines” that Tehran’s nuclear programme must not cross.

“When I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we’ve been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that’s more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem,” he said.

The president had a similar reaction to calls for military action against Syria, including Senator John McCain’s demand this week that the US bomb in support of the forces fighting the regime in Damascus.

Obama said that events in Syria are “heartbreaking” but that military intervention is not the answer.

“For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake. What happened in Libya was we mobilised the international community, had a UN security council mandate, had the full cooperation of the region, Arab states, and we knew that we could execute very effectively in a relatively short period of time. This is a much more complicated situation,” he said.

“The notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military, that hasn’t been true in the past and it won’t be true now. We’ve got to think through what we do through the lens of what’s going to be effective, but also what’s critical for US security interests.”

The president has been accused of weakness over both Syria and Iran, but the focus of recent days has been on Tehran because of differences with Netanyahu over the value of sanctions and diplomacy.

The Israeli prime minister on Monday derided the effectiveness of sanctions in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and said that “none of us can afford to wait much longer” to act against Tehran.

Romney told Aipac on Tuesday that Obama’s policy of “engagement” with Tehran is naive and gave the Iranian leadership time to develop its nuclear programme.

“Hope is not a foreign policy. The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve backed by our power and our readiness to use it,” he said. “As president I’ll be ready to engage in diplomacy but I will be just as ready to engage our military might.”

Newt Gingrich went the further in telling Aipac that as president he would give Israel the means to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities and let it do so without question.

“I will initiate a strategy in the tradition of Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II to undermine and replace the Iranian dictatorship by every possible method short of war in order to achieve a government we could trust and could deal with,” he said.

“At the same time I would provide all available intelligence to the Israeli government, ensure that they had the equipment necessary and reassure them that if an Israeli prime minister decides he has to avoid the threat of a second Holocaust through pre-emptive measures that I would require no advance notice to understand why I would support the right of Israel to survive in a dangerous world.”

Santorum said Obama should put an ultimatum to Tehran to end its nuclear programme and “that if they don’t tear down those facilities, we will tear down them ourselves”.

Obama’s pushback was reinforced by the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, who told the president’s critics not to mistake a willingness to pursue diplomacy for weakness.

Panetta, speaking to Aipac on Tuesday, said the military option is on the table as a last resort if sanctions fail and the president’s record demonstrates that he will use it if he believes there is no alternative.

“As the president made clear, the United States does not bluff. In this town it’s easy to talk tough. Acting tough is a hell of a lot more important,” he said.

“The president ordered 30,000 additional troops to battle in Afghanistan to confront a resurgent Taliban. He launched a comprehensive precision bombing campaign to protect the Libyans and ultimately toppled a brutal dictator. He has ordered US warships to pass through the straits of Hormuz despite the threats that we have received from Iran.

“And he has been the driving force behind the most successful and lethal counter-terrorism campaign in US history culminating in the bold decision to send US special operations forces hundreds of miles into Pakistan to take the risk to take down bin Laden. And he did.”

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Cash payments help cut HIV infection rate in young women, study finds” was written by Sarah Boseley, health editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 15th February 2012 00.01 UTC

Regular small cash payments to girls and young women can enable them to resist the attentions of older men and avoid HIV infection, according to a new study.

Girls and young women are at the greatest risk of HIV infection in endemic countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, between a quarter and a third have the virus by the time they reach their early 20s.

But educating girls about risks and promoting condom use has had little impact in countries where they are struggling with poor education, low status and poverty, and where older men with money offer one of the few ways out of financial difficulties.

A team of researchers from the World Bank, University of California at San Diego and George Washington University in the US carried out a randomised controlled trial in Malawi to find out whether monthly payments to schoolgirls and their families would help change the girls’ behaviour and safeguard their health.

They recruited nearly 1,300 young women, aged from 13 to 22, who were enrolled in school in the Zomba district of southern Malawi – an area of poverty, low school enrolment and high HIV prevalence.

The young women were randomly assigned, according to where they lived, either to receive between $1 and £5 a month, with their families given between $4 and $10 a month, or to get nothing. At the end of 18 months, the girls were tested for HIV and herpes infection.

The study, published online by the Lancet, found that girls who had received money were less than half as likely to have HIV as those who had not been paid – 1.25% (seven out of 490 women) compared with 3% in the control group (17 out of 796).

While the numbers who contracted HIV were relatively small, the researchers believe it shows a significant trend and would make a substantial difference across the population. There was a reduction of three-quarters in the risk of herpes, another sexually-transmitted infection.

Half of those who were given money got it only if they attended school, but there was no difference in the infection rate between those and the others who were paid regardless. Nor did the amount they and their families received make a difference.

Girls in the groups receiving payments were more likely to be in school than the others. Condom use did not go up, but the girls were less likely to be having sex frequently and less likely to have a partner over the age of 25.

“The findings suggest that financially empowering school-age girls and their families can have substantial effects on their sexual and reproductive health,” write the authors.

In a commentary also published by the journal, Dr Nancy Padian, from the School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues, say the findings “add to the increasing evidence suggesting that economic development and anti-poverty programmes can alter the context of sexual decision-making and, thus, HIV infection risk”.

At a cost per case of HIV averted of $5000-$12,500 (£3,167-£7,918), paying individuals to stay healthy might seem expensive, they say, but it is still probably cost-effective and cheaper than putting people on antiretroviral drugs, which has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection.

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