Monday, May 7, 2012

Meow the 39-pound cat dies

Ben Swan / Santa Fe Animal Shelter via AP
Dr. Jennifer Steketee holds Meow, a 2-year-old tabby who arrived at her shelter weighing in at over 39 pounds, after his elderly owner could no longer care for the feline.
We are sad to report that Meow, the pudgy but adorable cat who charmed TODAY talent and viewers alike when he visited the show April 23, died over the weekend after developing unexpected respiratory difficulties.

"We are devastated," said Mary Martin, executive director of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society, which was caring for the obese orange-and-white tabby. "We were in a race against time to get the weight off Meow before he developed complications from his obesity, and we lost."

Ben Swan / Santa Fe Animal Shelter via AP
Meow tipped the scales at over 39 pounds when she came to the Santa Fe Animal Shelter in Santa Fe, N.M..
"When we first heard Meow wheezing, we attributed it to possible allergies or the fact that he was moving around more in his foster home," said Jennifer Steketee, the veterinarian who accompanied Meow to TODAY last month. But when the 2-year-old cat's symptoms worsened, he was taken to an emergency veterinary hospital. Sadly, the best efforts of several specialists were in vain.

"His extreme obesity may have set off a string of events that ultimately ended his life," Steketee said.

Meow was originally turned over to a smaller shelter in Roswell, N.M., when his owner, an elderly woman, could no longer care for him. He was transferred to Santa Fe shelter, which was better equipped to deal with his weight and put him a a high-protein, low-carb diet, hoping to bring him down by about 10 pounds before placing him in a new home. By the time Meow appeared on TODAY, he had already lost two pounds.

Dr. Jennifer Steketee introduces Meow to Hoda Kotb and Willie Geist on TODAY.
Meow charmed everyone during his visit to Studio 1A, including Matt Lauer, who called him "sweet," as well as Hoda Kotb and guest fourth-hour co-host Willie Geist. The whole TODAY family joins the Santa Fe Animal Shelter in mourning his passing.

But Martin hopes Meow will not have died in vain. "We hope his fight will encourage other people to help their pets maintain the best health possible," she said. "Obesity is not something to be ignored."

Video: Meow, 39-pound cat, greets Matt and Ann in Studio 1A
Natalie Morales' rescue dog tale: Sit, stay, love 
Rare sight: Baby great horned owls

African Queen sails again, six decades after appearing in Bogart film

This movie was one of my favorites.  The story was one of adventure, dreams, love, and conquering your fears. I watch it when ever I need a little encouragement. 

Six decades after appearing in the classic film 'The African Queen,' the 100-year-old steamboat is now transporting passengers once more in the Florida Keys. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

By Dan Shepherd
NBC News 


A steamboat featured in the classic 1951 movie “The African Queen,” has found new life in the Florida Keys, put back into service after a strenuous renovation project by the husband and wife team of Lance and Suzanne Holmquist of Key Largo, Fla.

The couple, who own a local charter boat company, told NBC News they had no idea the amount of time and effort involved in getting it restored at the back of the dusty boatyard in Key Largo, but for Lance, keeping it historically accurate was important to him and his family.
"To me, keeping it as close to correct was my goal.  It was a labor of love and I enjoyed it very much," said Lance, 51. "It just made me feel great, and a lot of people were very interested in the boat and I feel privileged to even do it."

Suzanne, a 36-year-old film history buff, said she had underestimated the impact the boat would have on the community.

"It didn't really become apparent until we were just weeks into it and we'd taken the boat home.  People were just showing up in droves at the boatyard to see her being worked on, and then we realized, 'Oh my goodness, she really is special.'"

Lance and Suzanne Holmquist describe restoring the iconic  boat African Queen and its role in history.     
The ship, powered by a temperamental boiler and clattering old steam engine, was built in 1912, the same year as the Titanic. Before the trusty work boat made its debut in the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, it was used to ferry missionaries, mercenaries and cargo in the Belgian Congo on Lake Victoria.

"It just seems that even if you knock her down she just keeps coming back time and time again, so I just think you just really can't knock her down," Suzanne said. "She's just going to keep coming back."

Suzanne and her husband invested more than $75,000 in renovating the African Queen, which has been fully outfitted with a new boiler and steam engine. The ship now glides through the canals of Port Largo, with the occasional steam whistle blow to remind people that she's alive and well, sailing the world again.

Jimmy Hendricks, Jr., who also lives in Key Largo, owns the boat and leases it to the Holmquists. He said he couldn't be happier with how the renovation turned out.  His dad, Jim Hendricks, Sr., bought the African Queen in 1982 after rescuing it from a horse pasture in Ocala, Fla.  For a while, it even sailed the sea at various nautical events around the world, including England, Ireland, New York and Australia.

"I can't imagine a greater tribute to my father than that whistle blowing on a daily basis ... I think he's smiling,” he said. “She's (the African Queen) a piece of history, it's a piece of history that needs to move forward."

The African Queen sails almost every day of the week, filled with tourists and loyal film aficionados looking to recapture some of the movie's original magic. Phyllis Frey drove 500 miles round-trip from her home in Vero Beach, and says it was well worth the time.

"There's nothing else like it in the world, it's one of a kind.  You can see in the movie how much Bogart loves this boat ... it was his life, he was connected to it," she said.  "It's the same thing here, you can see Suzanne and Lance putting all that love and work into this.”

And Lance sees the excitement every time the passengers get on the boat.

"People are thrilled to be on this boat,” he said. “They are traveling from all over Florida at the drop of a hat.  And when they sit here, they're just thrilled, you know.  They're thrilled... she's old, she's rustic looking, it's not a luxury cruise, but they're just thrilled to be on her.”

It is, indeed, a thrill to be on her but, more importantly, this tough, old boat is once again in a starring role.

Obama’s Demagoguery


 Do you think, one sided, opinion, conservative, maybe republican, maybe independent. If the President said nothing, then he would be condemned for being too polite, too non committal, not acting presidential.  Mr Obama can not win, no matter what he says or does.  It is pathetic, our president has a mind, has feelings, is knowledgeable, and he cares.  Is that a bad trait for our president.

President Obama on Marine One, Feb. 17, 2012. (The White House/Pete Souza)

The atrocity at first seemed undeniable: A white vigilante, with a Germanic name no less, hunted down and then executed a tiny black youth — who, from his published grammar-school photos, seemed about twelve — while he was walking innocently and eating candy in an exclusive gated community in northern Florida. The gunman had used a racial slur, as supposedly heard on a 911 tape, and ignored the dispatcher’s urging him to back off.

The apparently racist, or at least insensitive, white police chief and district attorney then covered up the murder. Understandable outrage followed in the black community, but the killing also brought out the usual demagogues. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and the New Black Panther Party all alleged that the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was an indictment of a systematically racist white society. They demanded justice, and the Black Panthers announced a $10,000 bounty on the supposed killer. Even Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter got into the act, dubbing the shooting an “assassination.”

The dispute went national and was soon further sensationalized along racial lines. Others, mostly non–African Americans, countered that the facts were still in dispute and information was incomplete, while noting that just a few days earlier in Chicago ten youths were murdered and at least 40 others shot. Most of those victims and shooters were African Americans, but the carnage did not earn commensurate national attention from black leaders. President Obama himself, who had been silent about the slaughter in his adopted hometown, weighed in on the Martin case and, unfortunately, highlighted the racial undertones — lamenting that the murdered Martin looked just the way his own boy might, had he a son. The latter statement was true but also, of course, true of some of those murdered in Chicago. And given that the black minority currently commits violent crimes against the white majority more frequently than do the nation’s 70 percent whites against its 12 percent blacks, the president’s evocation of race in the Martin case seemed inappropriate to many.

But no crime proves quite as simple as initially reported in our sensationalized 24/7 media. Amid the blaring reports of a racially inspired murder, it turned out that the shooter, George Zimmerman, was actually part Hispanic, with a Latino mother (he was dubbed “white Hispanic” by the media, whereas Barack Obama is not referred to as a “white African-American”), and that he was perhaps not the quick-on-the-draw nut he was caricatured in the press as being. The 911 tape was scratchy, and it was unclear on another recording who said what, or who later was screaming for assistance.

The deceased, Trayvon Martin, was not a pre-teen, but 17 and 6′2″, and the gated community was ethnically mixed and may not have a white majority. True, the supposed vigilante had shot Martin, but he was also a neighborhood-watch designee, assigned to look for supposedly suspicious individuals. And the shooting occurred during some sort of fistfight in which Zimmerman may have been losing. The police, whom most thought should have at least filed manslaughter charges, seemed dumbfounded by a Florida law called “Stand Your Ground,” which could be stretched to mean that almost anyone could use deadly force if he believed that his life was endangered. In sum, what had seemed from media accounts to be a racist first-degree murder, horrifically covered up, on closer examination might have been either second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, some sort of criminal negligence, or even simple self-defense — the point being that we will not know the degree of Zimmerman’s guilt, if any, until all the evidence in the case is released to the public. Daily, new information has emerged, and, daily, the previous day’s narrative has changed.

In other words, the president waded into an ongoing investigation, in which the facts of the case remain murky and in dispute. And instead of playing down the racial component of the tragedy in polarized times, he seemed instead deliberately to have emphasized it.

President Obama had entered into another news story just a few weeks earlier. A law student at the Catholic Georgetown University, Sandra Fluke, had complained in testimony before a congressional committee that religious conservatives, in their wish to thwart provisions of Obamacare, would soon ensure that she, and millions of other women at Catholic institutions, would continue not to have access to free contraceptives. She noted that her present contraceptive needs were not covered by Georgetown and had cost her as much as $3,000 a year. Rush Limbaugh immediately jumped in and in crude fashion labeled Fluke a “slut.” He thundered that her sexual life should not be subsidized either by taxpayers or by reluctant Catholic institutions. Outrage followed Limbaugh’s various smears — which went on for at least three days until, under growing pressure, he apologized.

Then President Obama, sensing political advantage, entered the fray. He called Ms. Fluke to voice his support, while telling the nation that Limbaugh’s invectives were not the sort of American environment that he wished his two daughters, Sasha and Malia, to grow up in.

But, again, indecency these days never proves to be quite as simple as what is initially reported by the traditional media. Limbaugh’s regrettable attack on Ms. Fluke was not all that unusual in the world of hardball television and radio. Liberal television host Bill Maher had routinely smeared all sorts of conservative women with even worse epithets, of the sort that could not even be printed in most newspapers — and Maher never apologized. And late-night talk-show host David Letterman earlier had used the crude term “slutty” to demonize Sarah Palin, and also, in cruder fashion still, had suggested that Mrs. Palin’s 14-year-old daughter had had sex in the dugout with a New York Yankee star. Stranger still, the profane and often misogynistic Maher had just given, in a public stunt, an Obama reelection super PAC a $1 million donation, while Letterman was scheduled to have First Lady Michelle Obama on his program. Was the language of Maher and Letterman the sort that the Obama girls should have to endure?

The reactions to the presidential editorializing were predictable. Liberals applauded Obama for his public stand on behalf of feminists, while conservatives countered that he was selective in his outrage and more an opportunistic partisan than an opponent of crude speech aimed at women. The president had succeeded once more in polarizing rather than uniting the nation.

Then there was the tragedy involving Representative Gabrielle Giffords, when a deranged man shot the congresswoman and killed six bystanders. In all, he killed or wounded 19 innocent people. Even though the maniacal shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had no consistent ideology or discernible political agenda, liberals saw the incident as proof of everything from pernicious white-male tea-party anger to the dangers in Sarah Palin’s use of metaphors such as cross-hairs and targets, and thus leaped in to condemn right-wing bombast. Soon, in response, the president used the occasion to remind the nation of the need for a new civility (“It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds”) — the subtext being that the popular anguish over his policies had led naturally to a climate that facilitated the Gifford shooting.

But once again, the president found himself in a hole of his own digging. It turned out that while there had been lots of cruel speech, there was no connection between any of it and the Gifford shootings — and certainly no monopoly on it by conservatives. For every bombastic smear on talk radio, there was a commensurate one on MSNBC television. Obama himself later attended a Michigan labor rally in which labor leader and supporter Jimmy Hoffa Jr. bellowed out an implied death threat to conservatives: “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these son-of-a-bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong.” Obama chose to respond to that “take these son-of-a-bitches out” threat to about half the populace with silence.

At the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama had waded into another contentious incident, the notorious arrest and temporary detention of Professor Henry Louis Gates, the well-known head of African-American Studies at Harvard. At first this also seemed a clear-cut scandal: Gates was arrested as he simply attempted to get into his own house, after finding his door jammed — guilty of nothing other than being black.
Police were called by suspicious neighbors who noted broken glass, and then in supposedly racist fashion the officers typecast and arrested Gates. Or did they?

When the police arrived, they first routinely asked Gates for identification, which trigged from Gates a vocal barrage at the inquiring officer. Words were exchanged; Gates was detained. The president almost immediately suggested that the police had acted “stupidly,” a behavior that supposedly reflected a general national stereotyping of black males. Again, note the pattern: The president seizes on a local issue, editorializes, and ends up sowing more division. His supporters applauded; but opponents pointed out that had Gates instead politely and calmly explained his situation, the fracas could easily have been prevented. And as for stereotyping, did the president mean to suggest that the police should not be aware that black males (about 6 percent of the population) committed a majority of the nation’s murders (52 percent)?

What do all these presidential interventions teach us — other than that there are two sides to every story?

First, that race and gender are flashpoints in our culture, as liberals see justice routinely denied to Americans on the basis of their sex and skin color, and conservatives believe these issues are continually trumped up to further divide the country and serve the political interests of a partisan elite.

But a larger lesson should be the president’s, because a disturbing pattern has developed in his editorializing, which is aimed exclusively at those whose policies and language he implies lead to horrific acts like the shooting of African-American teenagers, the smearing of young feminists, the shooting of Democratic congresswomen, or the jailing of African-American professors. Yet in every case, further evidence, more information, and subsequent events suggested that the president had offered either incomplete or misleading commentary to the nation, predicated not on a desire for healing or truth, but on a wish to gain partisan advantage.

With the world in recession, facing energy shortages, and on the brink of war, it is politically unwise for the president of the United States to offer commentary on contentious issues, especially before the facts of such disputes are fully known. To do so at worst can interfere with ongoing investigations, and at best pits the office of the presidency against private individuals. In every case, Barack Obama cannot conclude that his commentary created greater unity rather than further polarization.

When these national controversies arise, the president should take a deep breath, let emotions subside, and simply announce, if he must say anything, “Let’s wait and see,” and then turn his needed attention to ongoing and impending wars, near economic insolvency, and our energy dilemmas.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of the just-released The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.

2012: The Economic Choices


The latest round of euro-jitters emphasizes the unimaginative contest between the advocates of austerity and the quantitative easers. But while the consequences of the application of alternative economic measures are often unpredictable, the wellsprings of economic woes are not usually hard to find. In the present problems, the same difficulties afflict Europe and the United States, though in different degrees. It is entirely inappropriate for the U.S. government, with its unspeakable extravagance and anemic and fragile recovery, to lecture Europe or anyone, except perhaps Zimbabwe and Argentina, about national economic management.

The entire welfare system of the West was established in the ambition of avoiding another economic disaster on the scale of the Thirties, with the resulting political instability and the (unspoken but vivid) consequent fear of the rise of political extremism and the outbreak of international conflict. Europe, particularly, has a very long and terrifying history of mob rule when placebos aren’t regularly distributed to the working and agrarian classes, and the largest Western continental European countries — Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland — all have bloodcurdling heritages of internecine strife in living memory and for many centuries before that, “forever and ever,” in the words of the Christian liturgy.

The levels of social safety, ranging from a somewhat threadbare net in parts of the United States to a luxuriously upholstered hammock in France and parts of Scandinavia, were set when assumptions of birth rates and life expectancy were much different from the facts today. The sharp decline of the birth rate and heartening increase in life expectancy in all of these countries have ensured that, even without the increases in benefits against the electoral temptations of which our political classes have been resistless, all Western countries will go bankrupt without course corrections.

All human nature’s less commendable impulses seem to be accentuated and more frequently encountered in our politicians, perhaps inevitably when they depend on the endorsement of a plurality, and in this long-impending crisis we have seen all the obvious evasions of what is essentially a budgetary problem formulated in the terms of Grade Five arithmetic. First, there was the pretense that it wasn’t happening, and that the figures would reverse. How they would reverse, short of engaging in widespread, drumhead euthanasia, was never clear, and it didn’t happen. Then there was the expedient of immigration, which led to the Islamic threat in Europe and the abrasions of tens of millions of undocumented Latin Americans in the United States (a problem aggravated by inexplicable decisions to make the U.S. less accessible to its most assimilable, traditional, and objectively desirable sources of immigration, especially Europe).

Then, denial returned, and the problem was ignored and obscured by the perilous joys of inflation; debt and debt service grew and grew, the unmentioned, steroid-bloated monster in the room. Now, even U.S. student loans are a trillion dollars. Finally, in Europe, Eurofederalism and the common currency enabled the most fiscally weakened countries — Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, which between them had not had a hard currency since Plato’s tetradrachma — to pile into the Euro on false prospectuses of the value of their assets and underlying currency strength. This was the providential exploitation of German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s desire for a “European Germany and not a German Europe.” He wanted Germany in a cocoon of friendly and grateful allied neighbors and to that end was prepared to have the Federal Republic’s pocket picked, starting by the impecunious East Germans, coming off 60 years of Nazi and Communist misrule.

Kohl’s successor, Gerhard Schroeder, slippery political opportunist though he often was (and he is now well-paid by Vladimir Putin’s nefarious regime), acted with great foresight and even courage by introducing drastic labor-market flexibility, incentivizing investments, and simplifying taxation. The result was the reduction of German unemployment from 10 to 5.5 percent. When it is impossible to lay people off, no one is hired. But while Germany was taking prudent measures in prosperous times, like the clever little pig building a brick house, the Europhoria of union caused European financial markets to succumb to the equivalent of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (mad-cow disease), and for almost a decade accorded the same yield to Euro-denominated bonds, whether the issuing country is Greece or Germany.

And in lock-step and affecting solidarity with the astounding failures of judgment of European financial markets, the United States flooded the world with real-estate-backed investments, attested to be investment grade by the rating agencies and pushed by Wall Street, that were, in fact, worthless. (“Everyone has to dance,” including houses that were short-selling it out the back door in their own house accounts.) The political class locked arms from right to left to blame private-sector greed, and there was no shortage of that (there rarely is; they are in business to make money), but the original sin was with the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, which ordered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make 51 percent of their mortgage loans non-commercial, and legislated the same burden, at a 25 percent rate, on the country’s lending banks, while allowing merchant banks to borrow 30 times their equity but requiring them publicly to update asset values every month. It was, on the one side of the Atlantic as on the other, like encouraging hyperactive children to play with dynamite among the still-flaming fires of an open-hearth furnace. By the light of the resulting explosions, the whole over-indebted state of Western public finances, under-supported by enough employed, taxpaying, value-adding people, was exposed in its ghastly infirmity.

The United States has had enough of a cushion to afford a completely irresponsible fiscal game of chicken. Colossal deficits, largely financed by the Federal Reserve’s buying its parent’s (the Treasury’s) bonds, with the issuance of cyber-created notes, enable the country’s checks not to bounce, but these are — in all but name — just oceanic inundations of the money supply, while the administration has proposed tokenistic tax increases and has predicted a recovery that has not occurred. (It is all distressingly close to the well-traveled Ponzi neighborhood.) Any expense reductions are decried by the Democrats as an assault on the disadvantaged, and any tax increases are rejected by the Republicans as the straw that would break the back of the productive American camel.

The solution is in sight in Europe: Eurobonds will be issued in behalf of the distressed member countries if they adopt labor rules and tax policies that replicate Germany’s. Such policies may require more relief, but these steps will ultimately get more Europeans working and fewer on benefit, and favorably alter the balance between the contributors and the fiscal dead weight. Thus will a united Germany finally exercise its will in Western and Central Europe, to the relief of the neighboring countries Germany has frightened since the times of Frederick the Great, and, by some reckoning, since it faced the Roman Empire across the Rhine. With these reforms, Europe could then concentrate on the comparatively agreeable challenge of raising its birth rate, as all these ancient nationalities are beginning to circle the drain demographically.

In the U.S., President Obama and Speaker John Boehner showed some sign of compromise during the embarrassing deficit-reduction talks, but both soon faced revolt from their ranks. All now awaits the election. In the event of a Romney win, the Republican candidate’s background as a consultant could be a plus point, because what is required is, in fact, a compromise between an absolute refusal to raise any taxes, even when more than balanced by a preparedness to reduce others, and what amounts to an equally adamant refusal to cut spending. It is a stupid people’s game of chicken that should never have been played.
What is needed has been needed for the last four years: All the public-sector debt of all sources should be put into one mighty Consolidated Debt Obligation and turned into a sinking fund. All the entities contributing to the debt should proportionately contribute to the service and retirement of the debt, with each entity to decide how it will do so. The federal government should reduce personal and corporate income taxes sufficiently to generate a serious recovery, incentivizing investment to ensure that it isn’t just another consumer extravaganza. Taxes on elective luxury-goods sales and discretionary financial transactions, if assessed carefully, would easily exceed whatever revenue is lost in income taxes. Assisted by entitlement reform and extreme vigilance in curtailing future deficits, these measures would ensure that the sinking-fund obligations are met and shrink the deficit, absolutely and in reference to an economy of reviving growth.

The able-bodied, chronic unemployed can be put to work in conservation and infrastructure workfare projects, which would tie in with the gradual integration of undocumented immigrants, who should, at the right pay-scales, repatriate some of America’s lost manufacturing. Obamacare can benefit from the induced end of life so beloved of some of the current president’s closest allies, and will have to be replaced by an across-the-board attack on health-care costs, including a health-care tax credit, taxation of deluxe employee-health-care plans, imposed caps on some drug prices and malpractice awards, and probably, in place of the mandate, catastrophic-health-care insurance.

This will require leadership on a scale that has not been seen in the White House since Ronald Reagan, nor in the Congress since Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, but it will happen eventually. If the Europeans can do it, so can the Americans, and not doing this or something like it is an alternative that does not bear thinking about.

 — Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at

Obama's 2008 rural appeal will be put to the test in November

One remarkable aspect of the 2008 Obama campaign was its success in carrying rural counties in battleground states such as Colorado and Iowa, the same counties which Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had lost four years earlier.

Evan Vucci / AP

President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One May 2 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Whether Obama’s field organizers can repeat their 2008 success with rural voters this year depends on both symbolism and substance.

Political analyst Charlie Cook said last week on MSNBC that this year Obama has a problem in places such as Iowa. In “states with a large small-town, rural populations ... the president's had a really, really hard time.”  And according to the most recent Des Moines Register poll in February, 48 percent of Iowans surveyed disapproved of his job performance, while 46 percent approved.

Carolyn Kaster / AP file

President Obama greets supporters at a campaign event last week at the University of Iowa. He won Iowa with 54 percent of the vote in 2008.

One Obama administration decision which Republicans portrayed as a sign that the president is tone deaf when it comes to rural voters was last December’s proposed regulation from the Department of Labor that would have banned people under age 18 from being near certain farm animals and operating certain kinds of farm machinery.

Last week ago, after months of pressure from farmers’ groups and members of Congress, the administration withdrew the proposed rule. Even liberal Democrats such as Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota welcomed the decision to kill the regulation. “While they may have been well-intentioned, these rules would have had a negative impact on our state’s ag community,” he said.

Andrea Mitchell talks with Stephanie Cutter, Team Obama's Deputy Campaign Manager, about the Obama campaign's video touting the president's successful operation against bin Laden one year ago, and the criticism the campaign is facing because of it.

The economy seems likely to be the driving factor just as much for rural voters on Election Day as for those in bigger cities, like Las Vegas or Denver. And this will make Obama’s 2008 success in wooing rural voters harder to replicate this year.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average unemployment rate in smaller counties – those with less than the average size labor force – is 8.7 percent, compared to the national average of 8.2 percent.

About 30 percent of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties still have an unemployment rate of 10 percent or higher and 162 of those are smaller rural counties in states such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, and Ohio which are likely to be hotly contested this fall.

Fifty of the highest unemployment, rural counties are in North Carolina. Obama carried 15 of those North Carolina counties in 2008 and came within a whisker of carrying four more of them.

Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 by 14,000 votes – his smallest margin of victory in any state, and the Democrats are holding their convention there this September. In the most recent Elon University poll in North Carolina, 49 percent of voters disapproved of Obama’s job performance while 43 percent approved.

Although President Obama said there hasn't been excessive celebration at the White House on the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, his re-election team isn't shying away from making the raid a centerpiece of the campaign.  Former Sen. Tom Daschle discusses.

Traditionally the formula for victory for Democratic presidential candidates has been to rely on heavy turnout in the party’s big city bastions and then to add enough suburban voters to carry toss-up states such as Ohio, Missouri, and Florida. The larger the rural population of a state, the harder that strategy was to pull off since rural America generally favors Republican presidential candidates.

But in 2008 the Obama campaign’s effort to increase rural turnout paid off in states such as Iowa. In 2004 George W. Bush had carried the state. But in 2008, in Iowa’s rural counties, defined as those in which the total number of votes cast was less than statewide average per county, Obama won 49 percent of the vote, edging his Republican rival John McCain by two percentage points.

In those same counties in 2004, John Kerry won 10 percent fewer votes than Obama and won only 44 percent of the total rural vote.

In two-thirds of those Iowa rural counties, total voter turnout in 2008 was in fact smaller than in 2004, with only the Democratic voter turnout going up – indicating a demoralized Republican base.

In Iowa’s bigger urban counties, Obama’s share of the vote, 56 percent, was bigger than in rural Iowa, but Obama’s success in rural counties helped give him a nine-point margin of victory in the state.

On Wednesday, Iowa Republicans pointed to new voter registration data showing that they increased their voter registration edge last month. In March Republican registration exceeded Democratic registration for the first time since 2006 and the GOP now holds a lead of over 8,000 registered voters in the state.

In another battleground state, Colorado, in 2008 Obama won 46 percent of the vote in rural counties, compared to Kerry who won 41 percent of Colorado’s rural vote. Obama won 23 percent more votes in Colorado’s rural counties than Kerry had won in 2004, helping boost Obama to a 215,000 plurality statewide.

“Republicans have a very real opportunity to win in battleground states like Colorado and Iowa this November,” said Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski. “We already have aggressive ground operations in place to make new voter contacts and continue registering voters in key battleground states. Things like our Social Victory Center [a new Facebook app] will make it easier for all voters, including rural voters, to help elect a Republican to the White House.”

In 2008, Obama’s novelty and his appeal to voters’ idealism were factors that seemed to work as well in some parts of rural America as in suburbia and cities.

For example, in Indiana’s largely rural Third congressional district, with many Amish, Mennonites and evangelical Christians, Bush had gotten 68 percent of the vote in 2004, but John McCain managed only got 56 percent in 2008, as some conservative voters opted for Obama.

In an interview in 2009, then-Rep. Mark Souder, a conservative Republican who’d represented the district for 14 years, said that in 2008 Obama had “represented an element of the evangelical Christian dream, an African-American who has made it up through our system and proved we aren’t a prejudiced country because he made it…. There was a desire – not ideological – to vote for him.”

The big reversal came two years later. Take, for example, Virginia’s Fifth congressional district which includes Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, but also many rural counties.

Obama nearly carried that district in 2008 and Democrat Tom Perriello won the House seat there, but in 2010 voters turned against them, ousting Perriello despite a last-minute campaign visit from Obama. Perriello had voted for Obama’s health care plan.

Obama’s field operation in that part of Virginia in 2008 “had an enormous impact -- there were many counties in my district that had not seen a Democratic field office in years and in some case they had two or three offices,” said Perriello, who is now president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Democratic advocacy group. “So you saw a tremendous grassroots presence and they were able to find those voters who wanted to support the president and get them there. But I also think it made a statement to independent voters that this was someone who cared enough to show up.”

This year, Perriello said “the conversation about economic fairness is one that resonates deeply in rural communities and puts conservatives on defense. A lot of people in rural counties work hard and play by the rules but feel like the system is rigged against working middle-class folks.”

He added that “there’s also a lot of disillusionment with both parties from rural communities and I think to some extent that’s going to be a challenge for both sides -- how disgusted people are with politics.”

EPA orders Utah to cut haze across national parks

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

An aerial view of sandstone formations May 2, in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

AP reports -- SALT LAKE CITY -- A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order will require two of Utah's oldest coal-fired power plants to improve control of pollution that has drastically reduced visibility across a region that includes five national parks and redrock wilderness.

Pollution controls at a pair of PacifiCorp power plants in Emery County "do not comply with our regulations," EPA Regional Administrator James Martin wrote earlier this week in the 79-page order. He signed out the 34- and 42-year-old plants for improvement, rejecting Utah's less stringent pollution controls but upholding broader efforts by the state to reduce haze across southern Utah.

PacifiCorp said it was already upgrading pollution controls at the Hunter and Huntington power plants and planned more improvements by 2014 that would bring them into compliance with the new requirements.

Read the full story.
Ethan Miller / Getty Images
An aerial view of sandstone formations May 2, in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

"Our view is that with these new controls in place, the emissions for these plants will be lower than the regional haze rule's presumptive limits," PacificCorp, spokesman David Eskelsen said Wednesday. "These are primarily bag houses, a fabric-filter process — it's a large installation — and sulfur dioxide scrubbers."
The EPA waited to approve or reject Utah's 2008 haze-reduction plan until Monday, a deadline set by a court order in a lawsuit brought by the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.
The federal order forces Utah to determine the "best available technology" for reducing smog-forming nitrogen oxides at PacifiCorp's plants, said Bryce Bird, director of the state Division of Air Quality.
Utah has until early summer to complete the analysis, EPA spokesman Richard Mylott said Wednesday.
The state has little choice but to go along with the EPA or suffer Clean Air Act sanctions, which could range from the loss of federal highway funds to tighter emissions regulations imposed by the federal government. State officials planned to comply.
The action brought applause from environmental and watchdog groups in Utah.
"PacifiCorp's old coal plants spew out tens of thousands of tons of harmful chemicals," said Christopher Thomas, executive director of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. "They need far better controls."
Visitors to Utah's five national parks "notice when the air isn't clear, and they're less likely to return to our parks," said Audrey Graham, a member of the Grand County Council in Moab. "So in a very real sense, air pollution can hurt us economically."
The EPA says haze has cut views across wild areas of southern Utah to about 60 miles, or about half of preindustrial levels. Power plants are considered major culprits for haze but "on the worst days, wildfires and dust storms" cause most of the problems, Bird said.
Bird said that the EPA approved other parts of Utah's haze-reduction plan Monday, including efforts to reduce wildfires that "will be harder to address."
Utah is supposed to work on reducing fuels for wildfires — dead and dry tinder.
In a separate action also announced Monday, the EPA approved Utah's 2008 plan to reduce ozone, the main ingredient in smog, Bird said.
Ground-level ozone forms from a reaction of sunlight with air containing hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. When inhaled, the colorless gas can cause respiratory problems, congestion and for some people worsen pre-existing health problems.
Utah still owes EPA a set of comprehensive plans by Dec. 15 for reducing overall air pollution along the heavily populated Wasatch Front, from Brigham City to Provo.
Those counties — Cache, Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Weber — don't consistently meet EPA air quality standards, especially during winter inversions, when cold air traps pollutants close to the ground for days or weeks at a time and often ranks as the nation's dirtiest air.
Utah is expected to respond with a plan to crack down on industrial emissions and require Cache County to mandate annual emissions tests for cars. Other populated counties already require the tests, which have proven good at flagging vehicles that burn fuel inefficiently.
Nearly 400 national parks can be found all across America, and feature breathtaking vistas, rock formations millions of years old, and more.

30-year mortgage rates hit record low 3.84%

Average U.S. rates for 30-year and 15-year fixed mortgages fell to fresh record lows this week, offering more incentive for Americans to buy or refinance homes.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the rate on the 30-year loan fell to 3.84 percent, the lowest since long-term mortgages began in the 1950s. That's below the previous record rate of 3.87 percent reached in February.

The 15-year mortgage, a popular option for refinancing, dropped to 3.07 percent, also a record. The previous record of 3.11 percent was hit three weeks ago.

Cheaper mortgage rates haven't done much to boost home sales. Rates have been below 4 percent for all but one week since early December. Yet sales of both previously occupied homes and new homes fell in March.

Analysts suspect some of that weakness reflected a warm winter, which pulled sales that would normally occur during the spring buying season into January and February.

Still, many potential buyers can't qualify for loans or afford higher down payments required by banks. Home prices in many cities continue to fall, making those that can afford to buy uneasy about entering the market. And many who can afford to buy or refinance have already taken advantage of lower rates.

Mortgage rates are lower because they tend to track the yield on the 10-year Treasury note. Mixed news on the U.S. economy and Europe's debt crisis have led investors to buy more Treasurys, which are considered safe investments. As demand for Treasurys increases, the yield falls.

To calculate the average rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country on Monday through Wednesday of each week.

The average rage does not include extra fees, known as points, which most borrowers must pay to get the lowest rates. One point equals 1 percent of the loan amount.

The average fee for 30-year loans was 0.8 last week, up from 0.7 the previous week. The fee on 15-year loans was 0.7, the same as last week.

The average on one-year adjustable rate loans also dropped to a record low of 2.7 percent last week, down from 2.74 percent last week. The fee on one-year adjustable rate mortgages was 0.6, unchanged from last week.

Employers stretch their workers to the limit

Has your boss been asking you to do more and more work because she just doesn't want to hire enough people? Help may be on the way.

The government reported Thursday that the productivity of U.S. workers fell in the first quarter for the first time in a year. That's because companies hired workers faster than they could increase the volume of goods and services they produced.

If that trend keeps up, it could bode well for job seekers.

The 0.5 percent drop was the first decline since a 0.3 percent pullback in the second quarter of last year and the largest since a 1 percent drop at the start of 2011.

Economists expect productivity growth will remain weak in 2012. JPMorgan is forecasting productivity gains of just 0.7 percent this year as companies add more workers. That compares with cumulative gains of 7.7 percent since the recession began in December 2007.

The drop comes after a string of steady gains in productivity, as employers slashed their payrolls during the 2007 recession but squeezed more output from thinner staffs. Some of those gains came from investment in technology and other efficiencies. Some of it came from asking workers - fearful of losing their jobs with the unemployment rate at 8.2 percent -- to work harder and put in longer hours.

But employers have apparently wrung about as much work as they could from their existing employees. To increase output, they've had to hire back some of the people they laid off during the recession.

"Firms are finding it harder to improve the efficiency of their existing work forces," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics

In the first quarter, employers added about 635,000 new jobs to their payrolls, even though the economy grew at an anemic 2.2 percent annual rate.

It's not clear whether that hiring pace will continue; Friday's monthly jobs report will give economists a clearer picture.

Some Federal Reserve officials, including Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, believe the strong gains in the employment data over the winter came after companies slashed their work forces too far. If so, Bernanke said, the hiring surge could only be temporary unless the economy begins growing more quickly and creates more demand. Economists, including Fed forecasters, aren't expecting that to happen.

That may be why hiring slowed in March, when the economy added just 120,000 workers. That's about half the monthly average from December through January.

Economists are looking for Friday's report to show job gains in April of about 160,000. That's better than March, but not as strong as the winter pace.

The unemployment rate is expected to stay unchanged at 8.2 percent.

Even as they've been working their employees harder, companies have been slow to hand out raises. Hourly compensation was up just 1.5 percent in the first quarter. Overall labor costs rose 2 percent in the first quarter, down from a 2.7 percent rise in the fourth quarter.

Some businesses may have also reached the limits of how much more efficiency they can wring from their workers with investments in new equipment and technology. Last week's report on gross domestic product showed a sharp slowdown in business investment in equipment and software, which rose just 1.7 percent in the first three months of this year, compared with a 7.5 percent gain in last year's fourth quarter.

Manufacturing companies, though, are still seeing the benefits of the investments they've made in producing goods more efficiently. Thursday's data showed that manufacturing productivity rose by 5.9 percent during the first quarter, with output surging by 10.8 percent.
Those investments in efficiency seem to be paying off for factory owners. Their unit labor cost - the amount of money it costs to a pay a worker to make each widget - fell by 4.2 percent

Manufacturers also added more hours - up 4.6 percent in the quarter - to keep up with increased demand. Much of that is coming from a strong rebound in car sales, as consumers scrap their aging clunkers for more fuel-efficient models.

Jobless claims post biggest drop in a year

Robert Galbraith / Reuters
Conference attendees cross a street in San Francisco, Calif. Jobless claims took their biggest drop in a year, easing fears about a stumbling job market.
New claims for unemployment benefits tumbled more than expected in the latest week, raising hopes that the job market remains on the mend.
The Labor Department said Thursday that seasonally-adjusted claims fell 27,000 to 365,000 in the week ended April 28. It was the largest weekly drop in claims since May of 2011. Claims also were at their lowest since the March 31 week and were well below the 380,000 expected by economists.
The four-week moving average gained 750 to 383,500.
The prior week's figure was revised up to 392,000 from the previously reported 388,000.
The data has no bearing on the government's closely watched employment report for April, to be released on Friday. Employers are expected to have added 170,000 new jobs to their payrolls last month, a step up from March's 120,000 tally, according to a Reuters survey.
However, there is a downside risk to this forecast as initial claims were elevated for much of April. An independent survey on Wednesday showed private employers added only 119,000 jobs last month, the fewest in seven months, and well below economists' expectations for a gain of 177,000 positions.
"This offsets the concerns from yesterday's ADP number. You're getting mixed signals...It might not be as bad as we were thinking after ADP," said Phil Flynn, a senior market analyst at PFG Best in Chicago.
Nonfarm payrolls had averaged 246,000 jobs per month between December and February. Most economists have viewed the pull-back in job growth as payback after the weather-induced gains in the previous months.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week an unseasonably warm winter had probably brought forward some of the hiring by companies, likely artificially boosting payrolls in January and February.
Meanwhile, U.S. nonfarm productivity fell in the first quarter as companies hired more workers to maintain output, but a moderate rise in wages suggested little pressure on company profits and inflation.
Productivity slipped at a 0.5 percent annual rate, the Labor Department said, after rising at an upwardly revised 1.2 percent rate in the last three months of 2011.
The decline in productivity, which measures hourly output per worker, was in line with expectations. Fourth-quarter productivity had been previously reported to have increased at a 0.9 percent rate.
Reuters contributed to this report.

CNBC's Steve Liesman offers insight on the latest employment numbers and what to expect from tomorrow's jobs report.

A teen with a job becomes a rarity in US economy

Alan Poizner / for

Nick Gentry, 18, has found summer work. Lots of other teens haven't.

Nick Gentry will be able to celebrate two major accomplishments this month: He’s graduating from high school and, after a very long job search, he has landed his first job.
That Gentry, 18, will be collecting a paycheck makes him a rarity in today's working world.

 Only about 25 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds currently are working, a drop of 10 percentage points from just five years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The percentage of teenagers who have jobs, expressed as the ratio of employment to population, hovered between 40 and 50 percent for much of the 1980s and 1990s. The percentage began dropping about a decade ago, but the declines have been especially steep since the beginning of the Great Recession in late 2007.

With summer approaching and the job market showing signs of improvement, teens could have a better shot at getting hired than they have had in years. But it could take many more years for teens to resume working at pre-recession levels.

The April employment report, due out Friday, will offer more clues into how things will look in the coming months.

Part of the issue is that fewer teens either want to work or think they can get a job. The labor force participation rate, which measures both teens who are working and those actively seeking work, also has fallen sharply since 2000.

The White House pledged on Wednesday to help lower-income youth find summer jobs in a move likely to appeal to younger voters crucial to President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

The initiative is in partnership with the cities of Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco and is meant to add 110,000 jobs, internships and mentorships to the 180,000 summer work opportunities for 16-24 year olds that Obama has promised to create for 2012.

Still, most teens are facing a job market in which there are fewer positions to be had. What’s more, many believe the jobs that are available are increasingly going to adults who are desperate enough to take a job that might once have gone to a teenager.

Gentry, who lives in Murfreesboro, Tenn., said he’s applied for jobs on and off over the past two years.

He finally got a break this spring when his mother, Brenda Gentry, helped him land a part-time job doing yard work for the company where she works in accounting.

“It was pretty exciting, finally getting one,” Nick said.

He plans to use his paycheck for car expenses and other incidentals and says he’s looking forward to not having to ask his mom for money.

“It’ll feel a lot better …because she works real hard to give us what we have,” he said.

Brenda Gentry’s other son, Wes Kirk, hasn’t been so lucky. Kirk, 16, said he’s applied at retail stores and fast food places, always trying to follow up in person with the manager. But so far, he hasn’t been able to get a break.

“I’ve had them say they’re interested, but no one’s ever called me in for an interview,” he said.

Who does, and doesn’t, work

The job market is unquestionably difficult for all teens, but experts say it’s especially hard for those who may need the money most: Teens from poor families and families in which a parent is out of work.

“It’s the opposite of what everybody thinks,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

Sum said the disparity is partly because many kids get jobs through family and community connections such as parents, neighbors or relatives.

That can also have a ripple effect: The likelihood of working increases significantly once a teen has already held a job, according to his research.

Other research backs up that disparity. Algernon Austin, director of the race, ethnicity and the economy program at the Economic Policy Institute, last year analyzed 2009 data on teens who were not attending school.

He found that 16- to 19- year-olds from poor families, whose income was below the poverty line, were less likely to be working than teens whose families had more money. That was true regardless of race or ethnicity.

“In terms of need, it is backwards,” he said.

The analysis of teens living below the poverty level, just above the poverty level and in middle-class households also found that at every income level, white and Hispanic teens were more likely to be working than black teens.

Austin said low-income and minority teens may not have family connections and role models that can help them land a job. They also may face other obstacles, some as simple as not having access to a car or public transportation to get to work.

“It’s all sort of interconnected – (a) web of disadvantage that makes it difficult to find work,” he said.

‘Nothing like making your own money’

Dominique Plain Bull, 19, landed her first job late last year after her mom helped her connect with a family friend who is a retail store manager. She’s working part-time while attending a community college in Huntsville, Ala., full-time.

Dominique’s mother, Shannon, said she’s glad her daughter found a job and is learning the value of being a good, reliable worker. But she’s also happy that her daughter didn’t work in high school and was instead able to focus on sports and academics.

That’s something Shannon, 35, missed out on because she had Dominique when she was just 15 and started working when she was 16.

“I was kind of wanting her to be a kid, because I wasn’t given the opportunity to have my childhood,” she said.

It can be tiring to work and go to school, but Dominique said she likes her job – and her paycheck.

“There’s nothing like making your own money,” she said.

For some teens who are working, having an entry-level job has provided a valuable life lesson along with a paycheck: It’s taught them what they don’t want to do with the rest of their life.
Moses Goldfarb, 19, didn’t have much trouble landing a job stocking shelves at a grocery store in Seattle in 2009, when he was still in high school. He graduated in 2011 and decided not to go straight to college.

After a year of working, however, he says he regrets that decision and is looking forward to going to school next fall to study film and TV production. A turning point came when he took an unpaid internship last summer working on the television show “Portlandia.”

The hours were long and the pay nonexistent, but he loved going to work every day.

Now, he says, “I want to leave my grocery store and retail days behind me and move on to bigger and better things.”

Reuters contributed to this story.

Russia threatens preemptive strike over planned US missile shield

Russia’s chief of defense staff reportedly warned Thursday that his country was prepared to use "destructive force preemptively" to stop the United States from creating a missile-defense system in Europe.

General Nikolai Makarov made the remark as another Russian official said international talks about the plan were near stalemate, although NATO remained optimistic a deal would be reached, BBC News reported.

Washington says the missile defense system -- due to be completed in four phases by roughly 2020 -- is meant to counter a potential threat from Iran. Moscow says the system will undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent because it could also give the West the ability to shoot down Russian missiles.

"A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens," Makarov said, according to BBC News.

He said Russia would improve its defenses to counter the perceived threat, Russia Today reported.

"The deployment of new offensive armaments in southern and northwestern Russia … including Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad Region, provides for the destruction of the European missile defense infrastructure,” Makarov added.

Talks at dead end?

Negotiations between the U.S., NATO and Russia began Thursday in Moscow. However, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said the discussions were "close to a dead end," BBC News reported.

The Kremlin wants a legally binding guarantee the system will not be used against Russia. The United States says it cannot agree to any formal limits on missile defense.

US Ambassador Mike McFaul vents on Twitter about Russian media

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was in London, U.K., said Thursday he was “hopeful” that a deal could be reached.

Rasmussen said a deal would not happen before a NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21.

Report: Russia faced major nuclear disaster in 2011

"We will continue our dialogue with Russia...after the Chicago meeting," he told reporters.
The missile shield's first phase is to be declared up and running at the summit.

Russia missiles shown heading to U.S. cities

The planned system will include interceptor missiles based in Poland and Romania, a radar system in Turkey and missile-defense capable warships at sea.

At the conference in Moscow, Makarov told delegates the system will have the potential to intercept Russian IBMs and submarine-launched strategic ballistic missiles by 2017-18.
The audience, including U.S. and NATO officials, were shown computer-generated images depicting the reach of radars and interceptor missiles to be deployed as part of the shield.
Dome-like designs displaying interceptor ranges and blips of light representing Russian missiles headed for U.S. cities lit up the screen.

First Thoughts: Obama unchallenged on Hispanic media

Obama goes unchallenged on Hispanic media … Could the GOP use a man like George W. Bush again? … The gender gap … New polls in OH, FL show toss up, Obama expands lead in PA … China issue to become political hot potato … Today’s veepstakes audition – Bob McDonnell … Romney should address Grennell issue … and Elizabeth Warren finally addresses Native American controversy.
By NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, Natalie Cucchiara, and Brooke Brower

Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama's campaign has yet to see any competition from the Romney campaign on Hispanic media outlets.

*** Obama unchallenged on Hispanic media: Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney Super PAC, is up today with a $4.3 million ad buy across nine battleground states. But what’s been amazing is that even though the president is getting outspent by outside groups left and right, the one place opponents aren’t even COMPETING is on Hispanic media outlets. Republicans are not on air on Hispanic media AT ALL so far, according to NBC/Smart Media Delta. President Obama, on the other hand, is going unchecked for two weeks, spending $435,000 – and $730,000 total so far this cycle – through mid-May with Hispanic media buys in Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. If the president is wining by huge margins with Hispanics and women (more on that below), the math becomes very precarious for Romney. Look at those states where the president is advertising: Colorado, Nevada and Florida. Can Romney win the White House without winning at least ONE Western state?

Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guang, who according to U.S. officials had eagerly embraced a plan to stay in China with his family, now says he is anxious to leave the country. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Could the GOP use a man like George W. Bush again? Republicans are rarely eager to tout the “Bush” brand these days, but, as the headline of this Univision article asks, “Is ‘Dubya’ the GOP’s missing link to Latinos?” We wrote about Romney’s challenge with Latinos last month, and it’s striking with the pivot to the general, that there hasn’t been more of an overt push to win over the group in ways that the Bush White House did. Former Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Univision earlier this week: “Gov. [George W.] Bush had some kind of personal quality that made it easier to connect with the Hispanic community, despite his privilege.” He added, “I’m not talking about a marketing campaign to sell himself [Romney] to the Latino community, that would be too slick. He has to develop some sense of trust that’s not there right now.” How the Romney campaign pivots and begins its wooing of Hispanics will be fascinating to watch. It’s a must-do for them especially if Romney finds himself facing a bigger gender gap than McCain dealt with.

*** Speaking of the gender gap: The Obama campaign up with an online tool, targeting women, using a made-up person named Julia, comparing Obama and what it’s dubbing the Romney-Ryan plan.  Folks, in talking with Democratic strategists and watching the rhetoric that regularly comes from House and Senate Dems, it’s clear that the goal of the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party in general is to do whatever it takes to WIDEN the gap if it’s possible with women. We’re guessing a week won’t go by without some NEW effort by the Obama campaign to try and woo women. This online tool is an interesting “Sim City” attempt to try to put a face to their charges against Ryan.  One state where the gender gap may be a hurdle: Pennsylvania; in particular those Philly suburbs.  By the way, Restore Our Future (the Romney SuperPAC) isn’t advertising in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, and two polls out, show Obama with high-single digit leads, up nine in Wisconsin and eight in Pennsylvania. A source in the know says Restore’s not up in Wisconsin, because it’s saturated right now with recall ads, and Pennsylvania just saw the ad for two weeks

*** Race tightens in Ohio, Florida: Romney may have some deficits with Hispanics and women to start, but the paths to 270 he has go through Ohio and Florida. And this morning, new Quinnipiac polling shows the races there have tightened and are pure toss ups. Romney leads Obama 44%-43% in Florida and Obama is ahead 44%-42% in Ohio (both within the margin of error). What’s also noteworthy from the poll is that two-thirds of people say we’re still in recession, but a majority also we’re starting to recover. It’s why the economy can be a more nuanced argument. People think the environment’s not good, but getting better. The Romney campaign is out with another in its series of “Broken Promises” videos, this one on energy. The RNC is starting a new message campaign against Obama called, “Hype and Blame” ahead of his campaign events Saturday. It’s going up with online advertising and bumper stickers as a fundraiser.

*** China hot potato: The “be tougher on china crowd,” which includes some Republicans and some Democrats, are going to pop up today, saying the Obama administration didn’t do enough for Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, especially after his release from a U.S. embassy and with Secretary of State Clinton and Treasury Secretary Geithner in China today for high-level economic talks. On cue this morning, House Speaker John Boehner’s out with a sharply worded statement, saying he’s “deeply disturbed” that Chen “was pressured to leave the U.S. embassy against his will amid flimsy promises and possible threats of harm to his family. In such a situation, the United States has an obligation to stand with the oppressed, not with the oppressor. Having handed Chen Guangcheng back over to the Chinese government, the Obama administration is responsible for ensuring his safety. While our economic relationship with China is important and vital to the future of people in both countries, the United States has an obligation to use its engagement with China to press for reforms in China’s human rights practices, particularly with respect to the reprehensible 'one-child’ policy."

*** Today’s veepstakes audition: Virginia Gob. Bob McDonnell is with Romney today in Portsmouth, VA, for a 1:15 pm ET event, where, by the way, former candidate Michele Bachmann is going to officially endorse Romney. McDonnell and Romney have campaigned together before, but this will be another chance to see how the two gel. By the way, though, with McDonnell and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker both up with ads talking about how good the economy’s gotten in their respective states, that complicates Romney bad economy message. In other veepstakes news, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal both talk education in New Jersey at the Alliance for School Choice National Policy Summit, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan holds “listening sessions” in Wisconsin, and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte holds a town hall in New Hampshire. Jindal’s on “Daily Rundown” today to talk education and veepstakes.

*** Romney should address Grenell: By the way, does Mitt Romney need to do a press avail to get the Richard Grennell question out of the way? The story hasn’t gone away. Sure it’s a “process” story. But, there’s more coverage of it today (see: The New York Times). Clearly, it does say something about the fact that, as we wrote yesterday, that Romney’s got to continue to look over his right shoulder. How much was this fear about creating a stir with social conservatives? It’s a tiny story that most aren’t following, but Romney has a big enough problem with suburban women. It’s the socially moderate, Independent, formally Republican women that the GOP is struggling with and stories like this can only make it worse.

*** Warren speaks up about Native American controversy: After days of not much of an answer, Elizabeth Warren admitted yesterday to listing herself as a minority in law professor directories: “I listed myself in the directory in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group, something that might happen with people who are like I am. Nothing like that ever happened. That was clearly not the use for it. And so I stopped checking it off. That was it.” “Asked whether she considers herself to be a minority,” the Boston Globe writes Warren said, “Native American is part of my family. It’s an important part of my heritage.’” And then she pivoted to hit Brown on women: “You know, if we’re going to ask questions about qualifications, maybe the most appropriate person to ask is Scott Brown. What does he think it takes for a woman to be qualified?” Brown, meanwhile, derided Warren as having an “elitist attitude” yesterday. The Globe also reported yesterday that Brown has gotten $2.9 million in donations from the financial sector, noting he “played a critical role in the battle over the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul.” And both candidates are up with ads (Brown here, Warren here) trying to tie themselves to President Obama.

*** Pro-Lugar poll has Lugar up 2: A pro-Lugar group – in a one-day poll – showed Lugar up 44%-42% over state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Countdown to Indiana Senate/Wisconsin recall primaries: 5

Countdown to Wisconsin recall election: 33

Countdown to Election Day: 187 days