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Election skeptics slow to get sweeping changes in GOP states

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republicans in some heavily conservative states won their campaigns for secretary of state last year after claiming they would make sweeping changes aimed at keeping fraud out of elections.

So far, their efforts to make good on their promises are mixed, in some cases because their rhetoric has bumped up against skepticism from members of their own party.

Voters in politically pivotal swing states such as Arizona, Michigan and Nevada rejected candidates seeking to oversee elections who had echoed former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 presidential election. But newly elected secretaries of state in Alabama, Indiana and Wyoming who had questioned the legitimacy of that election won easily in those Republican-dominated states.

They are now facing the task of backing up their campaign pledges in states where Republicans have already set strict election laws.

In Indiana, Secretary of State Diego Morales has been relatively quiet. He has not been making the rounds at the Statehouse trying to persuade lawmakers to embrace the wide-ranging tightening of voting rules he promoted as a candidate.

After defeating the incumbent secretary of state for the Republican nomination last summer, Morales dialed back his description of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election as a “scam” and his calls for tighter voting laws. That push included cutting Indiana’s 28-day early voting period in half and requiring new voters to prove their U.S. citizenship when registering.

No bills for such steps were introduced for this year’s legislative session. Morales, who was an aide to Mike Pence when the former vice president was governor, also did not seek any money in his budget request to lawmakers for creating an “election task force,” which he had discussed as a candidate, that would investigate voting “shenanigans” around the state.

A concept backed by Morales for requiring voters to include a copy of their driver’s license with a mail-in ballot application is being sponsored by a Republican lawmaker, but he said he wasn’t working with Morales on the proposal.

Morales’ office has declined interview requests from The Associated Press since he took office Jan. 1. Kegan Prentice, the office’s legislative director, said Morales was “currently focused on the ongoing transition.”

During remarks at an early January inaugural ceremony, Morales continued his campaign theme of promoting “election integrity” without giving specifics.

“My priority is to make Indiana a national model for election confidence and integrity,” he said.

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston, also a Republican, said recently he had talked with Morales and told him he was “comfortable” with the state’s election laws.

“I think our election laws are as good as any in the country,” Huston said.

Morales was among the otherwise unsuccessful candidates associated with the America First Secretary of State Coalition, which called for large-scale changes to elections with candidates aligned with Trump’s views. The group supported losing candidates in several battleground states.

They claimed widespread fraud and manipulation of voting machines, but there has been no evidence of either as exhaustive reviews in states lost by Trump have not revealed wrongdoing. That hasn’t stopped Republican candidates, particularly in contested primaries, from parroting the false claims that have taken hold among the party’s supporters.

A large segment of Republicans, 58%, still believe Biden’s 2020 victory was not legitimate, according to an October poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

While Alabama’s Wes Allen and Wyoming’s Chuck Gray were not on the America First coalition’s candidate list, they also raised doubts about the 2020 vote.

Allen repeated a debunked claim calling the 31-state Electronic Registration Information Center organization a “Soros-funded, leftist group,” a reference to liberal billionaire George Soros. The voter registration data-sharing partnership is designed to maintain accurate voter rolls by identifying people who have moved or died. It’s funded by states after receiving initial startup support from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Allen’s first official act was to withdraw Alabama from the group, citing privacy concerns. Indiana and Wyoming weren’t part of the organization.

Even though Wyoming gave Trump his widest victory margins in 2016 and 2020, Gray’s election denials worried some of his fellow Republicans. The former state legislator and right-wing radio host often showed “2000 Mules,” a film that made unsubstantiated claims about ballot fraud, during his campaign events last year. He solidly beat a fellow Republican lawmaker who said the 2020 presidential outcome wasn’t in doubt.

A few Republicans questioned whether Gray should be stripped of his election oversight role given his views, but that idea has received little support. Instead, he has received a warm welcome from Wyoming lawmakers considering several election bills that are moving ahead.

One would prohibit “ballot harvesting,” or gathering others’ completed ballots for delivery, while another would implement new requirements for voting machines that would, in part, ensure they could not be connected to the internet.

But so far there is no legislation to follow through on Gray’s campaign proposals to ban ballot drop boxes or electronic voting machines, which despite mainly paper balloting in Wyoming are available in every county to help voters with disabilities.

That reflects the reality of trying to implement the most far-reaching election campaign promises in a heavily Republican state.

In January, Gov. Mark Gordon made a point in his state of the state speech of saying that Wyoming counts on election integrity because of its “professional and dedicated” county clerks.

But going off-script, Gordon hinted at Gray’s challenges ahead: “And I’m thrilled that our secretary of state takes that charge very seriously.”

___

Cassidy reported from Atlanta and Gruver from Cheyenne, Wyoming. Associated Press writer Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, contributed to this report.


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Dems decide to shake up start of 2024 presidential primary

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Democratic Party on Saturday approved reordering its 2024 presidential primary, replacing Iowa with South Carolina in the leadoff spot as part of a major shake-up meant to empower Black and other minority voters critical to its base of support.

Although more changes are possible later this year, the formal endorsement by the Democratic National Committee during its meeting in Philadelphia is an acknowledgement that the start of the 2024 primary will look very different from the one in 2020. Hundreds of party stalwarts climbed to their feet and cheered after the easy passage by voice vote.

States with early contests play a major role in determining the nominee because White House hopefuls struggling to raise money or gain political traction often drop out before visiting states outside the first five. Media attention and policy debates concentrate in those areas, too.

The new plan was championed by President Joe Biden, who is expected to formally announce his reelection campaign in the coming months. The reconfiguring would have South Carolina hold its primary on Feb. 3, followed three days later by New Hampshire and Nevada, which is swapping the caucus it used to hold in favor of a primary.

Georgia would vote fourth on Feb. 13, followed by Michigan on Feb. 27, with much of the rest of the nation set to vote on Super Tuesday in early March.

“The Democratic Party looks like America and so does this proposal,” said DNC chair Jaime Harrison, a South Carolinian. The change “continues to make us stronger and elevates the backbone of our party,” he said.

Biden wrote the DNC rules committee in December, saying, “We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window.” That committee approved the new lineup, setting up Saturday’s vote.

The move remakes the current calendar, which saw Iowa start with its caucus, followed by New Hampshire and then Nevada and South Carolina. The Republican Party has voted not to change its 2024 primary order, meaning the campaign has already began in Iowa.

“The DNC has decided to break a half-century precedent and cause chaos by altering their primary process, and ultimately abandoning millions of Americans in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel said in a statement Saturday.

Four of the first five new states under Democrats’ new plan are battlegrounds, meaning the eventual party winner would be able to lay groundwork in important general election spots. That’s especially true for Michigan and Georgia, both of which voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 before flipping to Biden in 2020.

The exception is South Carolina, which hasn’t backed a Democrat in a presidential race since 1976, leading some to argue that the party shouldn’t be concentrating so many early primary resources there. But the state’s population is nearly 27% Black, and African American voters represent Democrats’ most consistent base of support. Iowa and New Hampshire are each more than 90% white.

The revamped calendar could be largely meaningless for 2024 because Biden is expected to run for a second term without a major primary challenge. Also, the DNC has already pledged to revisit the voting calendar before the 2028 presidential election.

Still, this year’s changes could establish precedent, just as a new lineup that moved Nevada and South Carolina into the first states to vote did when the DNC approved a new primary calendar before the 2008 presidential election.

“These things may be symbolic, but they’re realistic,” South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, assistant Democratic leader in the House and a close Biden ally, told The Associated Press.

The new order follows technical glitches that caused Iowa’s 2020 caucus to meltdown. It also gives Biden the chance to repay South Carolina, where he scored a decisive 2020 primary win that revived his presidential campaign after losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Democrats have worked on overhauling their primary lineup for months. On Saturday, nearly an hour of final debate turned raw at times.

Some Black members of the DNC said those arguing to abide by tradition could be seen as implying that states with larger African American populations were incapable of handling the responsibility of going early in the primary.

“If we’re really a family, it means some of y’all got to shift to make room at the table for others,” said Leah Daughtry, a DNC rules committee member from New York.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Rita Hart argued that Republicans in her state were already accusing Democrats of “have turned their back on Iowa and on rural America.” But Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, to sustained applause, countered: “No one state should have a lock on going first.”

Despite the approval, the final slate is not yet set. South Carolina, Nevada and Michigan have met party requirements to join the party’s new top five. But in Georgia may not change its Democratic primary calendar date without the Republicans also doing so.

Iowa argued that continued uncertainty could cause other states to try and jump ahead of the new DNC calendar, as happened before the 2008 presidential race. The new rules include penalties for states trying to move up without permission, including possibly losing delegates to the party’s national convention.

New Hampshire has a state law mandating that it hold the nation’s first presidential primary, which Iowa circumvented since 1972 by holding a caucus. New Hampshire Democrats have joined with top state Republicans in pledging to go forward with the nation’s first presidential primary next year regardless of the DNC calendar.

No major challenger has yet emerged from his own party to run against Biden for president next year. Still, top New Hampshire Democrats have warned that another Democrat could run in an unsanctioned primary the state stages and, if Biden skips it in accordance with party rules, could win and embarrass the president — prolonging a primary process that wasn’t supposed to be competitive.

“Respecting our state law and lifting up diverse voices need not be mutually exclusive,” said Joanne Dowdell, a DNC rules committee member from New Hampshire.


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Electronic pollbook security raises concerns going into 2024

ATLANTA (AP) — They were blamed for long lines in Los Angeles during California’s 2020 presidential primary, triggered check-in delays in Columbus, Ohio, a few months later and were at the center of former President Donald Trump’s call for supporters to protest in Detroit during last November’s midterms.

High-profile problems involving electronic pollbooks have opened the door for those peddling election conspiracies and underscore the critical role the technology plays in whether voting runs smoothly. Russia and Iran already have demonstrated interest in accessing the systems.

Despite their importance and potential vulnerabilities, national standards for the security and reliability of electronic pollbooks do not exist and efforts underway to develop them may not be ready or widely adopted in time for the 2024 presidential election.

“We have a trust issue in elections. The more we can say there are standards that equipment must be tested to, the better,” said Larry Norden, an election security expert with the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s like a seal of approval that really doesn’t exist right now.”

Poll workers use electronic pollbooks to check in voters. They typically are a tablet or laptop computer that accesses an electronic list of registered voters with names, addresses and precinct information, with some doing so through an internet connection.

Testing standards and a certification program for voting machines have been in effect for years, a process overseen by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. While compliance is voluntary, most states will use at least some aspect of the federal process to ensure their voting and ballot-counting machines are secure and functioning properly.

But there is a much wider system of technology that supports U.S. elections beyond the devices used to scan and tally votes — from electronic pollbooks to voter registration databases and systems used to report unofficial election results to the public. Their use has been expanding rapidly in recent years.

Nearly one-third of all voting jurisdictions in the U.S. used electronic pollbooks in 2020, compared with about 18% four years earlier, according to data collected by Election Assistance Commission.

The systems come with unique security challenges.

In 2016, Russian hackers scanned state voter registration systems looking for vulnerabilities and even accessed the voter registration database in Illinois, although an investigation later determined no voter data was manipulated. In 2020, Iranian hackers obtained confidential voter data and used it to send misleading emails to voters, seeking to spread misinformation and influence the election.

Experts say the systems could be prime targets again for those seeking to disrupt the voting process and sow chaos around U.S. elections. Gaining access to a voter registration database, for example, could allow someone to delete voters from the rolls. When people show up to vote, they are told they are not on the list.

Although those voters would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that eventually could count, widespread problems with the voter registration database would trigger questions about a process that already has suffered a loss in public confidence following a sustained campaign by Trump and his allies to discredit the results of the 2020 presidential election. There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment in 2020, backed up by exhaustive reviews in states lost by Trump.

In Detroit last November, a few polling locations had a brief issue checking in voters related to a data error that was quickly identified and resolved. Trump seized on the early reports, calling the situation in Detroit “REALLY BAD” in a social media post and urging people to “Protest, Protest, Protest!”

Unlike voting machines that are not directly connected to the internet, many electronic pollbook systems are connected by design. Some are quite sophisticated.

In counties that have put in place a vote center model, where registered voters can cast a ballot at any polling place, electronic pollbooks must be able to communicate with each other and with a central system. That’s to ensure voters are not able to cast ballots at multiple locations or vote in-person after returning a mail ballot.

While that can present significant security challenges, scrutiny for the pollbook systems is not as consistent as with voting machines.

The lack of national standards has left state and local election officials on their own. For the 2020 election, 15 states, including Arizona, Florida and Nevada, did not require any type of electronic pollbook testing or certification, according to federal data.

States and even some counties are often testing their pollbook systems in isolation and results are not routinely shared — an information gap that could be addressed with a national testing program.

“Having that type of knowledge allows them to put compensating controls into place, but they are doing it on an individual basis — state by state, county by county,” said Ryan Macias, an election and security expert who advises federal, state and local officials.

Aware of the risks, many election officials require back-up measures, such as paper copies of voter lists at polling locations. Election officials and experts note that one advantage of national testing standards for voting machines is the ability to assure voters that they have been properly scrutinized.

Two efforts are underway that seek to address the lack of uniform testing standards for electronic pollbooks. The Election Assistance Commission partnered with the nonprofit Center for Internet Security to test pollbooks and other nonvoting machine technology. But the federal agency began working on its pilot testing program in late 2021, about the same time the center announced results of the first phase of its own project.

It’s not clear why the two groups went their separate ways and what will happen next. A spokesman for the center, Jay Billington, said the group is “close to concluding the pilot” and expects to provide an update soon.

Thomas Hicks, chair of the commission, said the agency is making progress on its own pilot program, but that it was unlikely testing standards could be in place before the 2024 election.

“But this is why we move forward,” he said. “In 2026, there will be another federal election, and in 2028 another.”

Hicks said he welcomed the work done by the center and thought having more than one testing program could allow states to pick the best option for them.

Experts said having national testing standards would go a long way to reducing costs of the systems and lessen the burden on state and local election officials to navigate security on their own. Companies that make the equipment have expressed support for the effort.

During a November 2021 panel hosted by the commission to discuss its pilot project, representatives from testing laboratories said they had evaluated 76 different pollbooks by about a dozen manufacturers over the past three years. Agency officials noted the stakes were high.

“Real or perceived attacks on our voting systems can threaten voter confidence,” one commissioner, Don Palmer, said during the panel. “So that’s one reason why we think as much testing as possible is a good thing.”


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Democrats set to shake up start of 2024 presidential primary

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Democratic Party on Saturday approved reordering its 2024 presidential primary, replacing Iowa with South Carolina in the leadoff spot as part of a major shake-up meant to empower Black and other minority voters critical to its base of support.

Although more changes are possible later this year, the formal endorsement by the Democratic National Committee during its meeting in Philadelphia is an acknowledgement that the start of the 2024 primary will look very different from the one in 2020. Hundreds of party stalwarts climbed to their feet and cheered after the easy passage by voice vote.

States with early contests play a major role in determining the nominee because White House hopefuls struggling to raise money or gain political traction often drop out before visiting states outside the first five. Media attention and policy debates concentrate in those areas, too.

The new plan was championed by President Joe Biden, who is expected to formally announce his reelection campaign in the coming months. The reconfiguring would have South Carolina hold its primary on Feb. 3, followed three days later by New Hampshire and Nevada, which is swapping the caucus it used to hold in favor of a primary.

Georgia would vote fourth on Feb. 13, followed by Michigan on Feb. 27, with much of the rest of the nation set to vote on Super Tuesday in early March.

“The Democratic Party looks like America and so does this proposal,” said DNC chair Jaime Harrison, a South Carolinian. The change “continues to make us stronger and elevates the backbone of our party,” he said.

Biden wrote the DNC rules committee in December, saying, “We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window.” That committee approved the new lineup, setting up Saturday’s vote.

The move remakes the current calendar, which saw Iowa start with its caucus, followed by New Hampshire and then Nevada and South Carolina. The Republican Party has voted not to change its 2024 primary order, meaning the campaign has already began in Iowa.

“The DNC has decided to break a half-century precedent and cause chaos by altering their primary process, and ultimately abandoning millions of Americans in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel said in a statement Saturday.

Four of the first five new states under Democrats’ new plan are battlegrounds, meaning the eventual party winner would be able to lay groundwork in important general election spots. That’s especially true for Michigan and Georgia, both of which voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 before flipping to Biden in 2020.

The exception is South Carolina, which hasn’t backed a Democrat in a presidential race since 1976, leading some to argue that the party shouldn’t be concentrating so many early primary resources there. But the state’s population is nearly 27% Black, and African American voters represent Democrats’ most consistent base of support. Iowa and New Hampshire are each more than 90% white.

The revamped calendar could be largely meaningless for 2024 because Biden is expected to run for a second term without a major primary challenge. Also, the DNC has already pledged to revisit the voting calendar before the 2028 presidential election.

Still, this year’s changes could establish precedent, just as a new lineup that moved Nevada and South Carolina into the first states to vote did when the DNC approved a new primary calendar before the 2008 presidential election.

“These things may be symbolic, but they’re realistic,” South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, assistant Democratic leader in the House and a close Biden ally, told The Associated Press.

The new order follows technical glitches that caused Iowa’s 2020 caucus to meltdown. It also gives Biden the chance to repay South Carolina, where he scored a decisive 2020 primary win that revived his presidential campaign after losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Democrats have worked on overhauling their primary lineup for months. On Saturday, nearly an hour of final debate turned raw at times.

Some Black members of the DNC said those arguing to abide by tradition could be seen as implying that states with larger African American populations were incapable of handling the responsibility of going early in the primary.

“If we’re really a family, it means some of y’all got to shift to make room at the table for others,” said Leah Daughtry, a DNC rules committee member from New York.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Rita Hart argued that Republicans in her state were already accusing Democrats of “have turned their back on Iowa and on rural America.” But Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, to sustained applause, countered: “No one state should have a lock on going first.”

Despite the approval, the final slate is not yet set. South Carolina, Nevada and Michigan have met party requirements to join the party’s new top five. But in Georgia may not change its Democratic primary calendar date without the Republicans also doing so.

Iowa argued that continued uncertainty could cause other states to try and jump ahead of the new DNC calendar, as happened before the 2008 presidential race. The new rules include penalties for states trying to move up without permission, including possibly losing delegates to the party’s national convention.

New Hampshire has a state law mandating that it hold the nation’s first presidential primary, which Iowa circumvented since 1972 by holding a caucus. New Hampshire Democrats have joined with top state Republicans in pledging to go forward with the nation’s first presidential primary next year regardless of the DNC calendar.

No major challenger has yet emerged from his own party to run against Biden for president next year. Still, top New Hampshire Democrats have warned that another Democrat could run in an unsanctioned primary the state stages and, if Biden skips it in accordance with party rules, could win and embarrass the president — prolonging a primary process that wasn’t supposed to be competitive.

“Respecting our state law and lifting up diverse voices need not be mutually exclusive,” said Joanne Dowdell, a DNC rules committee member from New Hampshire.

___

Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.


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Bolsonaro defends tenure, questions Brazil election defeat

MIAMI (AP) — Only a few weeks after his supporters stormed the seat of his country’s government, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday expressed bafflement at how he could have lost October’s election, then smiled silently as a crowd of supporters cried, “Fraud!”

He did not directly address the Jan. 8 assault on the buildings housing Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court during his appearance in Miami before a conservative group tied to former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Bolsonaro had mimicked Trump’s strategy during his own 2020 reelection campaign, for months sowing doubts about the reliability of Brazil’s voting machines and then filing a petition to annul millions of votes. He is now under investigation for allegedly inciting the uprising.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has not conceded the election, though unlike the former U.S. president he also has never explicitly said he lost due to fraud. During a question-and-answer session with Charlie Kirk, head of the conservative Turning Point USA, the former Brazilian president rattled off his administration’s accomplishments and then provided backers with an opening.

“Brazil was doing very well,” Bolsonaro said. “I cannot understand the reasons why (the election) decided to go to the left.”

After the cries of “fraud” died down, Kirk, who helped spread Trump’s own election fraud lies after the former U.S. president’s loss, replied, “All I can say is, that sounds very familiar.”

The event took place at Trump’s Miami hotel, underscoring the connection between two populist presidents who fanned suspicion of their democracies’ elections, leading supporters to turn violent after their losses. The two were political allies who shared an overlapping set of advisers. Shortly before Bolsonaro’s opponent, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, took office, Bolsonaro moved to Florida, the state where Trump has based himself.

Friday’s appearance marked part of Bolsonaro’s reemergence after spending several weeks in a central Florida suburb. He spoke to some supporters there earlier this week before taking the stage at Trump’s hotel late Friday afternoon.

Much of Bolsonaro’s Friday speech amounted to a defense of his four years in power, touting job gains, what he said was a lack of corruption in his administration and, in a reference that drew loud cheers, “freedom” for those who opted out of COVID-19 vaccinations.

After his 30-minute appearance, many in the several hundred-strong crowd, often clad in the national colors of yellow and green, swarmed around the 67-year-old former president.

Some of Bolsonaro’s backers in Brazil have expressed disappointment that he left the country before Jan. 8 and has remained circumspect about the attack. The former president faces legal jeopardy not only from a mushrooming number of investigations into the Jan. 8 uprising but from the country’s supreme court, which has censored websites that have spread what it calls lies about Brazil’s election.

Reynaldo Rossi, a Brazilian farmer visiting Florida to explore a possible relocation there, said he is glad Bolsonaro is staying in the U.S. for now.

“If he goes back, they are going to create a lot of trouble for him,” Rossi said. “He would spend a lot of his time down there defending himself instead of leading us.”

In his speech, Bolsonaro acknowledged Brazilians who have left the country for the U.S., seeming to include himself in that category.

“As well as we feel here, we always worry about our friends and family that stayed there,” he said, referring to Brazil.

He also reassured the crowd about the country’s future.

“I believe in Brazil, and I am certain that Brazil will not end with the current government,” Bolsonaro said.

___

Hughes reported from from Rio de Janiero and Riccardi from Denver.


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Blinken postpones China trip following balloon discovery

BEIJING (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed a planned high-stakes weekend diplomatic trip to China as the Biden administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the western United States, a U.S. official said Friday.

The abrupt decision comes despite China’s claim that the balloon was a weather research satellite that had blown off course. The U.S. has described it as a surveillance satellite.

The decision came just hours before Blinken had been due to depart Washington for Beijing and marked a new blow to already strained U.S.-Chinese relations. Officials said Blinken and President Joe Biden determined it was best not to proceed with the trip at this time.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

BEIJING (AP) — China said Friday that a balloon spotted over American airspace was used for weather research and was blown off course, despite U.S. suspicion it was spying. The discovery further strained already tense relations between Beijing and Washington.

The Pentagon decided not to shoot down the balloon, which was potentially flying over sensitive sites, because of concerns of hurting people on the ground.

The U.S. had no immediate response to the Chinese explanation, which came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to make his first trip to Beijing this weekend. The visit has not been formally announced, and it was unclear if the balloon’s discovery would affect his travel plans.

Blinken would be the highest-ranking member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit China, on a mission to mitigate a sharp downturn in relations between the countries amid trade disputes and concerns about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

In a statement late Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research. The ministry said the airship has limited “self-steering” capabilities and “deviated far from its planned course” because of winds.

“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.

On Thursday, a senior American defense official told Pentagon reporters that the U.S. has “very high confidence” that the object spotted over U.S. airspace in recent days was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and that it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information. One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

The defense official said the U.S. has assessed that the balloon has “limited” value in terms of providing intelligence that couldn’t be obtained by other technologies, such as spy satellites.

It was unclear what will happen with the balloon if it isn’t brought down.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Thursday that similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years and the government has taken steps to ensure no sensitive information was stolen.

He said the balloon was traveling well above the height at which commercial aircraft fly and didn’t present a threat to people on the ground.

Biden was briefed and asked the military to present options, according to a senior administration official, who was also not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive information. The senior defense official said the U.S. prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon if ordered.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking “kinetic action” because of risks to the safety of people on the ground. Biden, a Democrat, accepted that recommendation.

Even though the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough that it could have put people at risk.

The defense official would not specify the size of the balloon but said commercial pilots could spot it from their cockpits.

The balloon was first reported by NBC News.

A photograph of a large white balloon lingering over the area was captured by The Billings Gazette. It could be seen drifting in and out of clouds and had what appeared to be a solar array hanging from the bottom, Gazette photographer Larry Mayer said.

The balloon’s appearance adds to national security concerns among American lawmakers over China’s influence in the U.S., ranging from the prevalence of the hugely popular smartphone app TikTok to purchases of American farmland.

“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed,” Republican Party House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweeted.

Tensions with China are particularly high on numerous issues, ranging from Taiwan and the South China Sea to human rights in China’s western Xinjiang region and the clampdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong. Not least on that list of irritants are China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its refusal to rein in North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile program and ongoing disputes over trade and technology.

On Tuesday, Taiwan scrambled fighter jets, put its navy on alert and activated missile systems in response to nearby operations by 34 Chinese military aircraft and nine warships that are part Beijing’s strategy to unsettle and intimidate the self-governing island democracy.

Twenty of those aircraft crossed the central line in the Taiwan Strait that has long been an unofficial buffer zone between the two sides, which separated during a civil war in 1949.

Beijing has also increased preparations for a potential blockade or military action against Taiwan, which has stirred increasing concern among military leaders, diplomats and elected officials in the U.S., Taiwan’s key ally.


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DeSantis eyes 2024 from afar as GOP rivals move toward runs

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may be months away from publicly declaring his presidential intentions, but his potential rivals aren’t holding back.

No fewer than a half dozen Republicans eyeing the White House have begun actively courting top political operatives in states like New Hampshire and Iowa, which traditionally host the opening presidential primary contests. At the same time, former President Donald Trump, the only announced candidate in the race, is launching regular attacks against DeSantis — and others — while locking down key staff and endorsements in early voting South Carolina.

For now, DeSantis is plowing forward with a fiery “anti-woke” agenda in the legislature before a presidential announcement in late spring or early summer. His team is beginning to hold informal conversations with a handful of prospective campaign staff in key states, according to those involved in the discussions. But compared with would-be rivals, the Florida governor, famous for crafting his own political strategy, appears to be stepping into the 2024 presidential primary season much more deliberately.

“They understand they are in kind of a sweet spot now. They can feel the demand building and they don’t really have to show any leg yet,” said David Kochel, a veteran Republican operative who has been in touch with DeSantis’ team to relay interest from activists. “I just don’t think there’s any urgency yet to start putting things in place.”

For voters, it may seem early in the 2024 presidential election season. But by historical standards, it is not. The GOP’s opening presidential primary debates are just six months away, expected in late July or early August when the Republican National Committee holds its summer meeting in Milwaukee.

Already, Trump has been in the race for more than two months. The former president on Saturday released a list of high-profile supporters in South Carolina, including Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsay Graham. And on Feb. 15, Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is set to launch her own White House bid in South Carolina, followed by immediate appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Haley is among a half dozen Republican prospects in various levels of conversations with political operatives in New Hampshire and Iowa about job openings, according to people involved with the discussions who requested anonymity to discuss internal planning. Beyond Haley, they include former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Hogan, a term-limited governor who left office only two weeks ago, talked up his executive experience in multiple New Hampshire radio interviews on Thursday. He told The Associated Press he was launching a multi-day fundraising tour beginning this weekend in DeSantis’ Florida.

“There’s plenty of room for Trump and DeSantis and me in the same state,” Hogan said with a laugh. “Everybody says it’s Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. But I think it might be somebody that nobody’s talking about right now, which is what usually happens. … My argument is the frontrunners almost never win.”

Indeed, recent political history is littered with tales of seemingly strong early contenders who ultimately failed. They include the likes of former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who looked like a frontrunner in 2015 and was forced out of the race before the first voting contest. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush then emerged as the strong favorite before being overtaken by Trump.

Veteran Republican strategist Ari Fleischer recalled the 2000 presidential campaign when his then-boss, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, successfully waited until mid-June to enter the Republican presidential primary. In the months before the announcement, Bush aggressively worked behind the scenes to line up donors, staff and endorsements.

For DeSantis to adopt a similar winning playbook, Fleischer said, it’s critical to work now to assemble a strong campaign apparatus in private. He likened a successful strategy at this phase to a duck, who appears calm but is paddling hard just below the water’s surface.

“So long as (DeSantis) is paddling furiously underwater like a duck, he can afford to wait,” Fleischer said. “The amount of work it takes to build a presidential campaign is phenomenal. I don’t think people understand what’s involved unless they’ve done it. It’s brutal. … And if you don’t put the labor into it quietly, privately, it falls apart.”

DeSantis’ team declined to comment on his 2024 plans publicly, but the Florida governor’s allies expect him to enter the race in late June or early July.

In the short-term, he’s preparing to promote his upcoming book, “The Courage to be Free,” set for release on Feb. 28. And he’ll spend much of the coming months stacking up legislative victories in the Florida statehouse, where the Republican supermajority stands ready to deliver a bevy of measures sure to entice the most conservative voters in a GOP presidential primary.

In recent days, DeSantis said he’s backing new laws that would ban abortions after 6 weeks of conception, ease restrictions for those wishing to carry concealed firearms and end the state’s unanimous jury requirement for death penalty cases. He released a plan to end sales taxes on gas stoves, picking up on a false claim circulating on the right that the Biden administration plans to ban the appliance.

DeSantis is also asking the state legislature for an additional $12 million to relocate unwanted migrants, signaling a continued focus on illegal immigration after spending millions in Florida taxpayer dollars to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last year.

And he’s zeroing in on issues related to race and education. He installed a conservative majority on the board of trustees at a small liberal arts school and has debuted a proposal to block programs on diversity, education and inclusion from state colleges. At the same institutions, he would also ban programs on critical race theory, which centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, which function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

In the coming days, DeSantis is expected to declare victory in his battle against Disney, the state’s largest employer, which drew the governor’s ire after opposing the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. State lawmakers are expected to meet for a special session as soon as next week to complete a takeover of a self-governing district Disney controls over its properties in Florida, all at DeSantis’ request.

As DeSantis focuses on Florida’s statehouse, Trump has dramatically escalated his attacks on the man he and his aides see as, by far, his most concerning rival. But as other Republicans prepare to enter the race, Trump is also attacking them.

For example, in a Thursday interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, Trump described Haley in sexist terms as “overly ambitious,” noting that she once vowed not to seek the presidency in 2024 if Trump was also running.

“She’s a very ambitious person. She just couldn’t stay in her seat,” Trump said.

In the same interview, he also criticized DeSantis, claiming he cried while asking for Trump’s endorsement during the 2018 governor’s race.

“DeSantis got elected because of me. You remember he had nothing. He was dead. He was leaving the race. He came over and he begged me, begged me for an endorsement,” Trump said. “He said, ‘If you endorse me, I’ll win.’ And there were tears coming down from his eyes.”

DeSantis has largely avoided responding to Trump’s digs. And without a campaign apparatus, he doesn’t have a rapid response team or surrogate operation designed to engage with 2024-related fire.

But earlier this week, he seemed to be knocking Trump — at least, indirectly — when asked about the former governor’s repeated attacks.

“The good thing is, is that the people are able to render a judgment on that whether they re-elect you or not,” DeSantis said when asked about Trump, who lost his 2020 reelection.

___ Peoples reported from New York. Izaguirre reported from Tallahassee, Florida. AP writers Jill Colvin in New York and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina contributed.


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Trump campaign staff on 2020 election lies: ‘fan the flame’

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A newly released audio recording offers a behind-the-scenes look at how former President Donald Trump’s campaign team in a pivotal battleground state knew they had been outflanked by Democrats in the 2020 presidential election. But even as they acknowledged defeat, they pivoted to allegations of widespread fraud that were ultimately debunked — repeatedly — by elections officials and the courts.

The audio from Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the election, is surfacing as Trump again seeks the White House while continuing to lie about the legitimacy of the outcome and Democrat Joe Biden’s win.

The Wisconsin political operatives in the strategy session even praised Democratic turnout efforts in the state’s largest counties and appeared to joke about their efforts to engage Black voters, according to the recording obtained Thursday by The Associated Press. The audio centers on Andrew Iverson, who was the head of Trump’s campaign in the state.

“Here’s the drill: Comms is going to continue to fan the flame and get the word out about Democrats trying to steal this election. We’ll do whatever they need (inaudible) help with. Just be on standby in case there’s any stunts we need to pull,” Iverson said.

Iverson is now the Midwest regional director for the Republican National Committee. He deferred questions about the meeting to the RNC, whose spokesperson, Keith Schipper, declined comment because he had not heard the recording.

The former campaign official and Republican operative who provided a copy of the recording to the AP was in the meeting and recorded it. The operative is not authorized to speak publicly about what was discussed and did not want to be identified out of concern for personal and professional retaliation, but said they came forward because Trump is mounting a third attempt for the White House.

In response to questions about the audio, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said: “The 2024 campaign is focused on competing in every state and winning in a dominating fashion. That is why President Trump is leading by wide margins in poll after poll.”

Wisconsin was a big part of Trump’s victory in 2016, when he smashed through the Democrats’ so-called “Blue Wall” in the upper Midwest, and his campaign fought hard to keep the swing state in his column four years later before his loss to Biden.

Biden defeated Trump by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin in 2020, a result that has withstood independent and partisan audits and reviews, as well as lawsuits and recounts in the state’s two largest and Democratic-leaning counties.

Yet, two days after the election, there was no discussion of Trump having won the state during the meeting of Republican campaign operatives.

Instead, parts of the meeting focus on discussions about packing up campaign offices and writing final reports about how the campaign unfolded. At one point on the recording, Iverson is heard praising the GOP’s efforts while admitting the margin of Trump’s defeat in the state.

“At the end of the day, this operation received more votes than any other Republican in Wisconsin history,” Iverson said. “Say what you want, our operation turned out Republican or DJT supporters. Democrats just got 20,000 more than us, out of Dane County and other shenanigans in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Dane. There’s a lot that people can learn from this campaign.”

The meeting showcases another juxtaposition of what Republican officials knew about the election results and what Trump and his closest allies were saying publicly as they pushed the lie of a stolen election. Trump was told by his own attorney general there was no sign of widespread fraud, and many within his own administration told the former president there was no substance to various claims of fraud or manipulation — advice Trump repeatedly ignored.

In the weeks after the election, Trump and his allies would file dozens of lawsuits, convene fake electors and pressure election officials in an attempt to overturn the will of the voters and keep Trump in office.

It’s unclear whether the staff in Wisconsin coordinated their message directly with campaign officials in Washington.

Parts of the Nov. 5 meeting also center on Republican outreach efforts to the state’s Black community.

At one point, the operatives laugh over needing “more Black voices for Trump.” Iverson also references their efforts to engage with Black voters.

“We ever talk to Black people before? I don’t think so,” he said, eliciting laughter from others in the room.

Another speaker on the recording with Iverson is identified by the source as GOP operative Clayton Henson. At the time, Henson was a regional director for the RNC in charge of Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. They give a postmortem of sorts on the election, praising Republican turnout and campaign efforts while acknowledging the Democrats’ robust turn-out-the-vote campaign.

Henson specifically references Democratic turnout in Dane County, which includes Madison, the state capital, and is a liberal stronghold in the state. A record-high 80% of the voting-age population cast ballots in 2020 in the county, which Biden won with 76% of the vote.

“Hats off to them for what they did in Dane County. You gotta respect that,” Henson said. “There’s going to be another election in a couple years. So remember the lessons you learned and be ready to punch back.”

Henson, reached by phone Thursday, said, “No thank you” when asked to comment about the meeting.

___

This story has been corrected to show Iverson said “drill,” not “deal.”


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Pelosi backs Trump impeachment leader Schiff in Senate race

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed fellow Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff on Thursday in his 2024 bid for the seat now held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, providing the long-serving incumbent doesn’t seek a seventh term.

The public blessing of Schiff’s candidacy, though conditional, was significant. Feinstein has said she will make a decision about her future in the next couple of months. But Pelosi’s announcement represented the strongest signal to date that it’s unlikely Feinstein — at 89 the oldest member of Congress — will run again.

The endorsement gives the Southern California congressman the support of one of the most powerful Democrats in the country in what is expected to be a highly competitive race, and signals to Pelosi’s vast donor network that he is her choice for the job.

Neighbors in San Francisco, Pelosi and Feinstein are personally close and have worked together for decades in Washington, suggesting her decision to back Schiff early in the campaign also carried with it a tacit nod from the senator.

If Feinstein decides to seek re-election “she has my whole-hearted support,” Pelosi said in a statement. If not, she said she will support Schiff, who rose to national prominence as the lead prosecutor in President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial.

Schiff “knows well the nexus between a strong democracy and a strong economy,” said Pelosi, who tapped him for the impeachment position.

It also was unusual to see Pelosi pick sides in a contest expected to draw a crowd of rival candidates from within her own party. Democratic Rep. Katie Porter entered the race for the safe Democratic seat last month. Other possible contenders include Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Feinstein’s reticence about her future has created a publicly awkward dynamic — the Senate race to replace her is unfolding, even as the senator remains unclear about her intentions.

In recent years, questions have arisen about her cognitive health and memory, though she has defended her effectiveness in representing a state that is home to nearly 40 million people.

Pelosi’s support for Schiff was not surprising. They have worked together for years and are close. Porter, a leader in the party’s progressive wing who was first elected in 2018, ran as an outsider looking to shake up the Washington status quo. She has had occasional breaks with Democratic leadership, including her opposition to the revival of so-called earmarks, or spending for legislators’ home-district projects.


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Arkansas Gov. Sanders to give GOP response to Biden address

WASHINGTON (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will deliver the Republican address to the nation in response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech next week as the GOP seeks to show it’s creating a new generation of leaders.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announced the role for Sanders, 40, the nation’s youngest governor, on Thursday.

“While President Biden keeps repeating old mistakes and failing Americans, a rising generation of Republican Governors are fighting for families, advancing new solutions, and winning,” McConnell said in a statement.

Sanders, the first woman elected governor of Arkansas, said she relished the opportunity to contrast the GOP’s vision for the future against that of Biden and his fellow Democrats.

“We are ready to begin a new chapter in the story of America — to be written by a new generation of leaders,” she said.

Before becoming governor, Sanders served as White House press secretary for President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2019.

Biden, 80, will deliver the address on Tuesday Feb. 7.


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