Thursday, February 17, 2011

Remember these GOP voters where happy to have Sarah a heartbeat away from a 74 year old President!

GOP activists in Iowa divided on whether Palin can carry 2012 banner

WEST DES MOINES, IOWA - A group of Republican activists was sorting out the field of prospective 2012 presidential candidates on a cold night here recently when talk turned to Sarah Palin. In a state whose caucuses will kick off the nomination contest, no one stands clearly above the others, suggesting the competition here is as wide open as it is nationally.

But what these voters said about Palin might give the former Alaska governor pause as she considers whether to run for the White House next year. Christi Taylor, a physician, put it this way:

"As a woman, and from one strong woman to another, I want to like her and want to support her desperately. And yet, you just can't quite do it. I think she's a great inspirational person. I think she rallies the troops. I don't think she has what it takes to actually lead our country into a better economic future . . . And that pains me, because I want a strong woman candidate, and she is a strong woman candidate. But she's not the right strong woman candidate."

To better gauge the early impressions of the Republican field, the Post asked party chairs in two Iowa counties - suburban Dallas County, outside Des Moines, and rural Crawford County, about two hours to the northwest - to assemble local activists to share their views of the candidates. The groups, totaling 21 people, met on consecutive nights.

Economic concerns dominate the agenda for these activists. E.J. Infanger, who is self-employed, has two small children and worries about the impact of the debt and deficits on their lives. "I am deathly scared of the country that they're going to inherit," he said. "There are cultural issues I care deeply about, but the biggest thing is the debt."

The activists want a nominee who can deal with these fiscal and economic issues and who has the leadership skills to rally the country. "I want a candidate who can take basic conservative principles and sell them to the American people as common sense, because that's what they are," said Roger Sailer, a lawyer.

The two groups do not constitute a true representative sample of likely caucus attendees. But because Iowa activists pay attention to presidential campaigns more closely and earlier than voters in most other states, and because some prospective candidates are now making regular trips to Iowa, their comments provided valuable insight into the shape of the GOP field.

Right now, there is great uncertainty about who meets the qualifications Iowa activists are looking for. But while some strategists in the key state do not discount Palin's potential appeal, given her celebrity status and the passions she evokes, she may have to overcome doubts that some other candidates don't now face.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who has not endorsed anyone, said that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is "probably" the front-runner in Iowa, "based on the fact that he carried the state" in 2008. But he said there's been little sign of Huckabee so far and noted that he has "not been a great fundraiser."

In the two groups assembled by the Post, Huckabee is still well liked. He was described as "jovial" and "down to earth," a good communicator with a sense of humor. "Whether you agree or disagree with what he has to say, he always has that feel that he's one of you," said Tyler DeHaan, who works in the investment business.

Almost every person in the suburban Des Moines group offered positive words for Huckabee until Becky Ervin, who works in human resources, said, "I love the guy, but he's not tough enough." That prompted some revisionism around the room.

One person question his toughness to handle national security issues and called him "a pleaser." Another cited his record of allowing the release of convicted felons in Arkansas. Another questioned whether he can expand beyond his Christian conservative base to become a competitive candidate in a general election.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who finished second in Iowa in 2008, has many of the attributes that people said they were looking for.

"He has a strong business background and right now we need somebody who can look at the economy and decide what the heck to do with it," said Nancy Bielenberg, a registered nurse.

"He knows how to turn things around," said Jacob Chapman, director of operations for a private ambulance company.

But the mention of Romney's name also prompted numerous negative comments that added up to a significant lack of trust in him personally. He was described as "a used-car salesman," an "elitist," "arrogant" and a "flip-flopper."

Many pointed to the Massachusetts health care plan he signed into law as governor as a major problem. "I could support him, but he needs to go beyond the argument that it was good for Massachusetts," said Darin Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher. "I think he needs to apologize and he needs to say it was a big mistake and I've learned from it."

Newt Gingrich, who has been working hard in Iowa, drew many favorable comments. "He is the brightest political figure I've ever met in my life," said Ed Brown, CEO of the Iowa Clinic. Others saw Gingrich positively as someone who knows his way around power.

But his two divorces troubled others. One person called him "unelectable." Another said he was "not honest." A third said he was so polarizing that he "can't win the middle."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour drew different reactions in the two groups. Several of the activists in rural Crawford County described him as a charismatic, common-sense, mainstream conservative. One person said he would be as comfortable with Barbour in his living room as in the Oval Office.

"At this early point he's the one in the field a lot of us feel is presidential," said Arlan Ecklund, a sales representative.

But in West Des Moines, the interest in Barbour was tempered by questions of whether a southerner would play well in Iowa and elsewhere in the North. They also questioned whether he could attract young voters, whose support was crucial to Obama in 2008.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was seen as someone with leadership potential. His Midwestern roots prompted one person to say, "He's one of us." Another described him as "your next-door neighbor."

Dwayne Vande Krol, a lawyer, said Pawlenty should do well in Iowa's one-on-one campaign environment but added, "Whether he can take that outside of Iowa and the Midwest is yet to be seen."

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has left mixed impressions in visits to Iowa. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels evokes interest among those who know his record, but is not well known. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, though from a neighboring state, also has not left a strong impression.

The activists' comments suggested that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite, could vie with Palin for attention. "What I think would really be interesting is to see Palin and Bachmann go head to head in Iowa," Branstad said.

Palin has a reservoir of goodwill but must overcome real obstacles. Georgia Vincent, an office manager, admires Palin but doesn't see her as presidential. "I have tremendous respect for her but I don't think that the presidency is where her talents could be best used," she said.

Adam Freed, an attorney, said he too has great respect for Palin. "But I think resigning from the governorship was a huge mistake," he said. "Being president is going to be tough at times and people are going to attack you. If her reaction is to resign in that situation I have a very difficult time putting that level of trust in her."

Gwen Ecklund, the Crawford County GOP chair, said she believes Palin has been treated unfairly by the media but also "shoots off her mouth" in ways that cause problems. Nancy Bliesman, a housewife, said, "I just don't see her even getting close" to winning the White House.

In West Des Moines, the comments about Palin surprised even some of the participants. Christi Taylor's husband, Dallas County GOP chairman Rob Taylor, praised her, saying, "She really brought the movement back into the Republican Party, so kudos to her for doing that." Still, he believes she needs more experience.

Phil Tuning drew a big laugh when he described her as "combative, competitive, opportunistic."

After Christi Taylor expressed her views, Michele Brown, a community volunteer, offered an even more surprising assessment. "I think a lot of women really wanted her to be someone special," she said. "I think as time has passed that she's just not a presidential candidate right now. Now maybe in time she will be, but she's got some grooming to do. I'd rather see Hillary Clinton."

The room erupted, but Christi Taylor seconded Brown's comment. Neither she nor Brown said they agreed with Clinton on the issues, but they said she had the requisite qualifications to be president - experience, depth and intelligence.

Ervin came to Palin's defense. "You're kicking that girl when she's down," she protested. Ervin went on to say that she would rather have Palin in the White House than Obama, but that she doubts Palin could win. "It makes me mad that she can't or won't be president because there's no way she's going to get elected," she said. "I know that and it's really sad."

That is the challenge ahead for Palin, if she becomes a candidate.

Dan Balz
Washington Post

Good News for NFL fans - NFL, NFLPA agree to enter mediation

NEW YORK -- Less than three weeks from the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL and its players union agreed Thursday to mediation in their labor dispute.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent U.S. government agency, will oversee negotiations in Washington beginning Friday.

FMCS director George H. Cohen can make suggestions and recommendations, but he has no authority to impose settlements. Coming to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement still will be up to the two parties.

"Our agency director will be working with the parties to assist them in reaching a voluntary, mutually acceptable agreement," FMCS public affairs director John Arnold said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

After holding separate discussions with representatives from the league and the union, Cohen said both sides accepted an invitation from his agency to get involved in the stalled negotiations.

"Due to the extreme sensitivity of these negotiations and consistent with the FMCS's long-standing practice, the agency will refrain from any public comment concerning the future schedule and/or the status of those negotiations until further notice," Cohen said.

The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on March 3. Last week, talks broke down, leading to the cancellation of one planned session.

Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, an executive board member of the NFLPA, told ESPN's "NFL Live" on Thursday that he was "excited" about the prospect of entering mediation. "It can do nothing but help," Saturday said.

The biggest issue separating the owners and players is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. Under the old deal, the owners receive $1 billion off the top, and they want to increase that to $2 billion before players get their share.

Among the other significant points in negotiations: the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; a rookie wage scale; and benefits for retired players.

The NFL and union went more than two months without holding any formal bargaining sessions, until a meeting Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl.

The NFL filed an unfair labor practice charge against its players' union with the National Labor Relations Board on Monday.

The league's filing said the union "consistently has failed to confer in good faith" during negotiations for a new contract and the union's "conduct amounts to surface bargaining and an anticipatory refusal to bargain."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the AP the mediation would not have an effect on the NLRB complaint.

Player sources told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen that last week's talks ended when owners walked away from the negotiating table when the NFLPA proposed to take an average of 50 percent of all revenue generated by the league.

However, other sources familiar with the talks told Mortensen and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that the negotiations broke off when the union characterized its documents as an "illustration" that NFL officials believed represented a proposal for revenue sharing between owners and players.

In a statement confirming the mediation, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said: "The NFLPA has always focused on a fair collective bargaining agreement through negotiations. We hope that this renewed effort, through mediation, will help the players and owners reach a successful deal."

The FMCS website says it "provides free mediation services in contract negotiation disputes between employers and their unionized employees. All the parties have to do is make a request."

The most recent collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2006, but owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008.

Cohen said in a statement that the negotiations will be conducted "under my auspices." He is no stranger to sports mediation. He was involved in Major League Soccer talks with its players' union and a work stoppage was avoided last year.

Cohen also has worked with the players' associations for Major League Baseball and the NBA, and was an advisor to the NHL players' union before joining the FMCS.

The FMCS also became involved in negotiations during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, and a 2005 dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its players.

"Our ultimate goal is a new CBA," Atallah wrote Thursday on his Twitter feed. "I will not discuss any details about the next set of negotiations. We are observing a strict media blackout."

Some players, however, were commenting moments after the announcement.

"NFL and NFLPA agreeing to meet with a federal mediator is a real positive step," Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie said on his Twitter account. "Let's see if he can get them to make actual progress."

Added player agent Drew Rosenhaus: "Exciting news to see the NFLPA & the Owners talking again through the mediation process -- a productive step in the right direction!"


R U KIDDIN'! Sarah Palin: I'm "Still Thinking About" Running for President

Delivering remarks before a Long Island business group on Thursday, Sarah Palin said she was "still thinking about" whether or not she would run for president in 2012, and emphasized that "I haven't made up my mind."

She added, however, that she had hired a chief of staff - and said that if she did run, she would operate a traditional in-the-field campaign.

"Nothing is more effective than being there with the people in the diner shaking hands," she said.

Palin, whose rare public appearance was tightly controlled to the media, reiterated her distaste for the national press - and attributed poor poll numbers to the claim that the media "reports things that have really misrepresented my record."

The numbers "are what they are," she said. "How else does the public know me though, than through the press?"

"I look at those poll numbers and I say, if I'm going to do this then obviously I have to get out there," Palin continued. "I can't rely on a liberal leaning press to do that for you. That's why social media is going to be so important."

The 2008 vice presidential candidate also criticized President Obama for his recent budget proposal, and argued that the plan "it's not really a dent'' in the deficit.

"It's not nearly enough," she said, adding that she thought Mr. Obama's budget plan would take the country "on the road to ruin."
Sarah Palin: I'm "Still Thinking About" Running for President

In criticizing Mr. Obama's economic policies, Palin also managed to slip in a jab at Michelle Obama's recent promotion of breast feeding.

"It's no wonder Michelle Obama is telling everybody you need to breast feed your babies," Palin quipped. The price of milk is so high!"

The controversial former Alaska governor - and potential future presidential candidate - went on to defend her support for gun "freedoms," arguing that additional gun control laws would not have prevented "an evil sick person" like alleged Tucson killer Jared Loughner from "fulfilling his mission" to hurt others.

"I don't support taking away even more freedoms from the good guys," she said. "The bad guys aren't going to follow the laws that are on the books today. They're not going to follow any new laws that are put on the books either."

Many criticized Palin in the days following Tucson's Jan. 8 shootings for having employed gun-loaded rhetoric and imagery in the 2010 campaign - particularly regarding the use of a "target list" of lawmakers Palin wanted to see unseated in the midterm elections. (Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and severely wounded in the attack, was on the list of "targeted" congress members.)

"Our hearts go out to the victims and pray for the full recovery of Gabby Giffords," Palin said on Thursday. "The criminal, he was an evil sick person. And adding another law to the book would not I believe have prohibited him from somehow some way fulfilling his mission and the mission he was on was to harm fellow human beings."

Glenn Beck Blasts Google Again, Says It's "Creepy" As Forrest Gump 'Crazy is Crazy Does'!

Glenn Beck has been firing at Google this week, hammering it for being loose with privacy, "hard-left leaning," and too-tight with the government. He continued his assault last night.

We don't know if this will have any effect on Google, but Beck does have a large, loyal audience. At the end of the clip it sounds like he's going to recommend Bing.Glenn Beck: "There is a Strange Thing Going on" with Google and the U.S. Government

Beck, who in a previous episode of Fox's "Glenn Beck" accused the company of being "pretty deeply in bed with the government," elaborated on his concerns last night, claiming that the company was using its power for political means and failing to protect users' privacy.

Noting that Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said he was "very, very proud" of Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped organize the Egyptian protests that ultimately led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Beck argued that the company was guilty of "bizarrely inserting Google into the story of the Egyptian revolution."

"I'm really not sure I want my search engine involved in government overthrows, good or bad," he said. "What I want from a search engine is good search results."

But Beck went on to say that "this is not the issue." The issue, he argued, is that "there is a strange thing going on with this search engine and our government. And we all have to choose who we do business with."

Beck pointed to three reasons he is "not feeling comfortable about the current direction of Google": First, that "they are working really, really closely with the government"; second, that "they are working way too close with hard-core leftists," and finally that "they are not working hard enough on your privacy."

He emphasized, however, that he was not calling for a boycott.

"I'm not leading any boycott," he said. "I hate boycotts."

Nevertheless, Beck closed his speech by urging viewers to do their own research on the merits of the company, and promised that Thursday's show would include tips on how to "avoid companies like Google."

"If you begin to have questions on Google, will the press treat you as that or a conspiracy theorist?" Beck asked. "I encourage you to do your own homework on Google, I don't recommend Google it, but do you own homework. And everyone else we talk about on this program, look into it yourself, because you must make your own decision.
But when it comes to a very hard left company in tight with very hard left organizations and our government, and they have been loose with privacy, my mind has been pretty much made up. It's up to you."

What might a government shutdown look like?

If President Obama and congressional Republicans fail to agree soon on how to fund the final seven months of the fiscal year, some veterans might not receive benefits checks and other Americans would be unable to apply for Social Security.
The State Department might not issue new passports, unemployment statistics would not publish as scheduled, museums and national parks would close, and worse -- piles of elephant manure might pile up in a National Zoo parking lot because workers can't ship it away for composting.

Budget disagreements between Bill Clinton and Republicans prompted these incidents in 1995 and 1996, as federal agencies halted operations and stopped paying workers.

Over the course of more than 20 days, about 260,000 District-area federal employees stayed home, or reported for duty only to be sent packing hours later. Security guards roamed the halls forcing out workers who lingered and some frustrated feds sought temporary jobs as bike messengers and waitresses in order to pay holiday bills, according to Post reports from the time.

Agencies retroactively paid workers once the doors reopened, but many government contractors -- paid separately by private employers -- earned nothing during the shutdowns.

Obama and congressional leaders must strike a deal by March 4 in order to keep the government running. Failure to pass a bill could cause an immediate stop to a wide range of federal services.

Depending on the proposal, the GOP is hoping to cut $60 billion to $100 billion, in an effort to trim the deficit and make good on a midterm election pledge to cut government spending. The White House has vowed to veto such plans. Numerous tea party groups have called on lawmakers to force a government shutdown, if necessary, but GOP leadership has vowed not to go that far.

"The government isn't going to shut down," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the second-ranking Senate Republican, insisted Tuesday night. "Nobody is talking about shutting the government down."

Actually, they are, according to sources. Federal agencies are beginning to instruct senior officials to prepare for a possible shutdown, ordering the cancellation of vacations or other personal commitments, said officials not authorized to speak on the record.

Jacob J. Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, disputed those reports Thursday. "We're planning on reaching the kind of agreements that make it unnecessary to put the American people through a government shutdown. I don't want to either intentionally or unintentionally send any signals that we're planning to the contrary," he said at a luncheon hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

At his press conference Tuesday, Obama also warned against suggestions of a shutdown. "This is not an abstraction," he said. "People don't get their Social Security checks. They don't get their veterans payments. Basic functions shut down. And it -- that, also, would have a adverse effect on our economic recovery."

"It is interesting to see this come up again," said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents thousands of the government's career managers. "It seems the last shutdowns didn't leave a negative enough impression on Americans if lawmakers are entertaining the thought of them once again."

Some of Bonosaro's members reached Wednesday, who asked not to be identified, recalled awkwardly deciding in 1995 which "essential" employees could work through the impasse and which "non-essential" personnel had to go home.

"The main impact was a vast amount of work associated with building shutdown plans and determining exactly who was and wasn't essential, and all the morale issues associated with the fear of impending implementation of those plans," one SEA member said in an e-mail. "I worked hard to get as many as possible of our then-1,200 or so employees deemed essential as I could, and that helped with morale."

Even if non-essential workers wanted to work without pay, they could face fines of up to $5,000 or up to two years in prison for violating a federal law that prohibits agencies from accepting volunteer labor.

So how might it work this time? It obviously won't be quite the same, said Stan Collender, a longtime budget analyst.

"Instead of checks being mailed, they're now transferred electronically. But you've also got other things that didn't exist before like Homeland Security," he said. "There would have to be some reevaluation from last time. Those are big policy decisions. The next level down is to tell every agency to start preparing for a shutdown. Who gets to come in, who doesn't? What additional help do you need for security and computer systems?"

Stores and restaurants near federal buildings relying on daytime foot traffic would suffer and Metrorail revenues would plummet from lower ridership. It would be as if the movie industry shut down Hollywood, or if the auto industry temporarily closed shop in Detroit.

Government contracting firms are already mobilizing and preparing for potential disruptions, according to Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents hundreds of mid-sized contracting firms.

"We want our folks to be as prepared as possible," Soloway said. "That doesn't mean it's going to happen, but it's not outside the realm of possibility either, so we can't ignore it."

Calculating the potential savings from a shutdown are difficult, primarily because agencies historically pay back workers for time lost and might spend more to compensate for lost productivity, according to Post reports from the period.

Cities and states relying on federal funds would also have to spend unavailable cash. During the Nov. 1995 shutdown, the District of Columbia saved about $1.2 million daily by keeping some offices closed, but concurrently spent $4.4 million to cover the salaries of 26,000 employees normally paid with federal funds. At the same time, Maryland's state government spent $1.4 million a day to cover the salaries of 9,680 state workers also paid with federal dollars.

The president is given wide discretion to determine which agencies and programs continue operations during shutdowns, meaning many employees of the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State and Veterans Affairs would keep working in order to keep national security and defense concerns running smoothly. In 1995, Clinton signed a special appropriations bill that kept 12,000 Agriculture Department workers on the job.

Other self-funding agencies would also open for business. The U.S. Mint, which finances its operations through a special fund, would still produce coins, and neither snow nor rain nor threat of shutdown would keep postal workers from their appointed rounds.

And even if the waste piles up in the parking lot, it's likely zoo workers would feed and care for the animals, just as they did the last time.

Researcher Lucy Shackelford

More hotels go completely smoke-free IT's ABOUT TIME!

One of the last bastions for travelers who smoke — their hotel rooms — is disappearing rapidly.

Though the number of smoke-free hotels is growing, the percentage of adults who smoke cigarettes has not declined since 2005.

Hotels, motels and other lodgings are following the trend of airlines and passenger-train operators by banning smoking throughout their premises. Some are doing it voluntarily, as public awareness about the health dangers of secondhand smoke grows. Others are being forced by a growing number of state and local laws.

More than 12,900 lodgings serving the public in the USA are now smoke-free throughout, a USA TODAY analysis of data from AAA, the American Automobile Association, finds. That's nearly 4,600 more than in November 2008, when USA TODAY first analyzed AAA data.

"The smoke-free hotel trend has finally caught up with the rest of the movement," says Bronson Frick, associate director of the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. "Airlines went smoke-free in 1990, and California was the first state to enact a strong smoke-free law that included restaurants and bars in 1994. It took the hotel industry until 2006 to catch on that there was public demand and support for smoke-free hotels."

Though the number of smoke-free hotels is growing, the percentage of adults who smoke cigarettes has not declined since 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. About one of every five adults — 46.6 million — smokes cigarettes.

Four of every 10 non-smokers — 88 million people — were exposed to cigarette smoke during 2007-2008, the CDC says. Among other health problems, smoking causes cancer, heart attacks and stroke, and exposure to secondhand smoke causes cancer and heart disease in non-smoking adults and respiratory infections and more severe asthma in children, the agency says.

Many travelers concerned about secondhand smoke welcome the smoke-free trend at hotels.

"I am highly allergic to cigarette smoke and cannot even be on the same floor with smokers," says Suzanne Franka of Austin, who works in the health care industry and spent about 150 nights in hotels last year. "I have to hold my breath as I walk by the smoking areas outside the hotels and wish that they would move them far away from the hotel entrances."

But smokers such as Bruce Arnold of Fort Wayne, Ind., hate to see one of their last refuges for smoking disappear. Arnold says he annually averaged about 160 nights at Marriott hotels but stopped staying at the chain's domestic hotels after they adopted smoke-free policies.

"A dinner in a non-smoking restaurant is an hour and a short walk to the sidewalk," says Arnold, who works in the vending industry and travels up to four nights per week. "A hotel is 12-plus hours and frequently a long walk to go stand outside."

The number of smoke-free lodgings in the USA is undoubtedly higher than 12,900. A growing number of state and local governments have recently passed laws restricting smoking in hotels and other public places. And AAA, which annually inspects lodgings and has the most extensive list of smoke-free ones, approves and rates only about 31,000 lodgings. The American Hotel & Lodging Association says, however, that there are 50,800 lodgings of 15 or more rooms throughout the country. Many lodgings not rated by AAA are likely to be smoke-free, says AAA's Michael Petrone.

The no-smoking trend in hotels caught fire in 2006, and it came voluntarily in many instances.

Westin Hotels & Resorts said it was responding to guests' demands for a healthy environment and became the first chain to go smoke-free at its U.S. hotels. Marriott, the nation's largest hotel company, made nearly all its more than 2,500 U.S. hotels smoke-free several months later. Marriott subsidiary The Ritz-Carlton, Walt Disney, Sheraton, Comfort Suites and a few other chains followed with all smoke-free U.S. hotels.

"We will continue to see either properties go entirely smoke-free or increase non-smoking rooms not only in the United States but around the world," says Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts — which has two smoke-free brands, Hyatt Place and Hyatt Summerfield Suites — agrees.

"We think the trend will continue," says company spokeswoman Lori Alexander. "As we see more and more travelers request non-smoking rooms, the demand for smoking rooms is dwindling."

Hyatt and many other chains continue to reserve some rooms for smokers at many U.S. hotels, and chains that declare they're 100% smoke-free in the USA continue to have rooms available for smokers at their hotels abroad.

Seventeen of Hyatt's 129 full-service hotels and resorts in North America are smoke-free, and 99% of the rooms in most others are non-smoking, Alexander says.

California leads the charge
According to USA TODAY's analysis of American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation data, 27 states — four more than in November 2008 — have laws specifying the minimum percentage of non-smoking rooms that must be in hotels.

Most of the 27 states specify that 75% or 80% of rooms must be non-smoking.

Laws requiring a certain percentage of smoke-free hotel rooms — sometimes as much as 100% — are also in effect in 729 cities and counties, the data show. In November 2008, 534 cities and counties had such laws.

California has more cities and counties — 122 — with laws restricting smoking in hotel rooms than any other state. Massachusetts has 75 cities and counties with such laws, and Illinois has the third-highest number, 71.

California also has the most smoke-free lodgings — 1,575, a 51% increase over the number in November 2008, according to AAA data. Florida and Texas follow, respectively, with 798 and 743.

Frick, of the non-smokers' rights group, says the number of smoke-free lodgings in foreign countries is also growing, particularly at smaller properties. He says it's "disappointing" that chains with smoke-free policies in the USA do not have the same policies abroad.

"They are aware of the health hazards of toxic air to their staff and guests," Frick says. "The lack of consistent policy also makes it impossible for business travelers to book smoke-free travel and meetings based on brand."

Wyndham Hotels and Resorts implemented a smoke-free policy three years ago at its nearly 100 North American hotels, but the policy does not apply to its hotels elsewhere.

"We continue to offer non-smoking guestrooms in all hotels located outside of North America but will allow international properties to accommodate local laws, cultures and preferences when deciding to implement the smoke-free hotel policy," says Evy Apostolatos, spokeswoman for Wyndham Hotel Group, which has 12 hotel brands.

Frequent business traveler Al Bischoff approves the smoke-free trend in hotels everywhere, because people "should not be subjected to smoke" or its smell. He says hotel rooms that have been used by smokers are "disgusting" and he purposely books smoke-free hotels.

"Smoking is a health and cleanliness issue," says Bischoff, a consultant from Hilton Head, S.C.

Sick of the stench
Christopher Monesky, a frequent business traveler from Atlanta, says, "There is nothing worse than walking into your temporary home and being walloped by the stench of smoke.

"Even with the sheets washed," says Monesky, an airline industry analyst, "the smell lingers in the carpets and furniture."

Franka, the business traveler from Austin, says she knows many business travelers who smoke in non-smoking rooms and "think it's OK as long as they stand by an open window."

Such travelers risk being charged a $150 to $500 cleaning fee that's assessed by many hotels.

Some smokers readily agree something stinks about having a room that's been smoked in.

Doug Gillikin of Lafayette, La., who works in the millwork industry and stayed at hotels more than 150 nights last year, says he smokes outside hotels and prefers they be smoke-free. He chooses non-smoking rooms over smoking ones in hotels that offer a choice.

Why? "The smell is terrible," Gillikin says.

Gary Stoller, USA TODAY

MIDDLE EAST FREEDOM MOVEMENT - Bahrain Police Crack Down; 5 Dead and Hundreds

MANAMA, Bahrain — Without warning, hundreds of heavily armed riot police officers rushed into Pearl Square here early Thursday, firing shotguns, tear gas and concussion grenades at the thousands of demonstrators who were sleeping there as part of a widening protest against the nation’s absolute monarchy.

At least five people died, some of them reportedly killed in their sleep with scores of shotgun pellets to the face and chest, according to a witness and three doctors who received the dead and at least 200 wounded at a hospital here. The witness and the physicians spoke in return for anonymity for fear of official reprisals.

The abrupt crackdown on what had been a carnival-like protest injected a new anger into demonstrations calling on King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to enact reforms. “Death to Khalifa, death to Khalifa,” hundreds of protesters chanted on Thursday outside a hospital as women ran screaming through wards and corridors seeking lost children.

“They made the people feel safe,” said a nurse, Fatima Ali, referring to what had initially seemed to be official tolerance of the huge protest in Pearl Square, emulating an uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. “Then they killed them.”

Men, women and young children ran screaming, choking and collapsing as riot police ringed the square.

The square was filled with the crack of tear gas canisters and the wail of ambulances rushing people to the hospital. Teams of plainclothes police officers carrying shotguns swarmed through the area.

In the hospital morgue, one body lay next to a tray with 200 shotgun pellets that had been dug from it. Doctors said paramedics who rushed to the square in ambulances after the convulsion of violence were beaten by police. Some of the people admitted to the hospital with injuries had been handcuffed with thick plastic restraints, made to lie down, then beaten, the doctors said. A witness, who spoke in return for anonymity, said he had seen two people shot dead as they slept.

Other injuries were caused by rubber bullets, batons and beatings.

“There was a fog of war,” said Mohammed Ibrahim as he took refuge in a nearby gas station. He was barefoot, had lost his wallet and had marks on his leg where he said he had been beaten. “There were children, forgive them.”

The unrest posed another diplomatic challenge to the United States as it struggles with how to respond to largely peaceful movements against entrenched rulers. Bahrain has long been a strategically important American ally, hosting the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

On Thursday, television images showed a long convoy of armored military vehicles rolling into position in Manama. News reports quoted a military spokesman as saying the deployment was to defend people and property.

The Interior Ministry said the army would take all necessary steps to ensure security and it urged people to avoid the center of Manama.

In Pearl Square, riot police officers backed by scores of SUVs with flashing blue lights could be seen on Thursday picking their way through the deserted remnants and debris of the protesters’ tent camp.

Some of the clashes this week erupted as protesters buried two people killed earlier in the demonstrations and organizers said on Thursday that the funerals of the latest casualties would provide a test of whether the authorities’ actions had cowed their opponents.

Only hours before Thursday’s crackdown, the square had been transformed from a symbol of the nation — anchored by a towering monument to its pearl-diving history — into a symbol of the fight for democracy and social justice that has been rocking autocratic governments all across the Middle East. Tens of thousands of people had poured into the square during the day, setting up tents, giving rousing speeches and pressing their demands for a constitutional democracy.

By 11 p.m. Wednesday, the square had started to quiet down. Young men sat smoking water pipes, while young children slept on blankets or in tents. At 2:45 a.m. Thursday, the camp was quiet, those awake still reflecting on the remarkable events of the day. And then, police vehicles began to appear, encircling the square. At first there were four vehicles, then dozens and then hundreds.

Wearing white crash helmets, the police rushed the square.

“Everybody was sleeping, they came from upside and down,” said Zeinab Ali, 22, as she and a group of women huddled, crying and angry, in small nearby market.

The protest had begun on Monday, when young organizers called for a “Day of Rage,” modeled on the uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia. On that day, the police were unforgiving, refusing to allow demonstrators to gather, overwhelming them with tear gas and other rounds. One young man was killed, shot in the back by the police. A day later, another young man, a mourner, also was killed, shot in the back.

That galvanized the opposition and under pressure from the United States, the king withdrew his police force from the streets.

For a time, it appeared that change might be coming quickly to Bahrain, a tiny nation in the Persian Gulf ruled for more than 200 years by the Khalifa family. The royal family is Sunni while the majority of the nation’s 600,000 citizens are Shiite.

The Shiite community has long complained of being marginalized and discriminated against.

On Wednesday, as the protesters gained momentum, Shiite opposition leaders issued assurances that they were not being influenced by Iran and were not interested in transforming the monarchy into a religious theocracy. Those charges are frequently leveled against them by Sunni leaders here.

Still, the leaders of the largest Shiite political party, Al Wefaq, announced that they would not return to Parliament until King Hamad agreed to transform the nation into a constitutional democracy with an elected government.

By evening, crowds spilled out of the square, tied up roads for as far as the eye could see and united in a celebration of empowerment unparalleled for the country’s Shiites.

“They say you are few and you cannot make changes,” said Ali Ahmed, 26, drawing cheers from the crowd as he spoke from a platform. “We say, ‘We can, and we will.’”

“The people want the fall of the regime,” the crowds chanted on the darkened square, their words echoing off the towering buildings nearby.

Late at night, thousands of people remained, hoping to establish a symbolically important base of protest in much the same way Egyptians took over Tahrir Square to launch their successful revolution against Hosni Mubarak.

But the leadership’s newfound tolerance for dissent was a mirage.

Bahrain, while a small Persian Gulf state, has considerable strategic value to the United States as the base of its Fifth Fleet, which American officials rely upon to assure the continued flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to the West and to protect the interests of the United States in a 20-nation area that includes vital waterways like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz. The base is home to 2,300 military personnel, most of them in the Navy.

United States military officials said Wednesday they were taking no extra security precautions at the American base in Manama, which is not close to the protests, and that there had been no threat to United States forces in the region. “The U.S. is not being targeted at all in any of these protests,” an American military spokeswoman, Jennifer Stride, said in a telephone interview.

Bahrain has been a politically volatile nation for generations.

The Khalifa family has ruled since the 18th century and has long had tense relations with the Shiite majority. The king recruits foreigners to serve as police rather than trust Shiite citizens to wear uniforms and carry weapons.

In 2001, voters in Bahrain overwhelmingly approved a national charter to lead the way toward democratic changes. But a year later, the king imposed a Constitution by decree that Shiite leaders say has diluted the rights in the charter and blocked them from achieving a majority in the Parliament.

Before the events in Egypt and Tunisia, the traditional opposition made little progress in pushing its demands. But the success of those popular, peaceful uprisings inspired a change of tactics here, and young people led a call for a Bahraini “Day of Rage” on Feb. 14.

By nightfall Wednesday at Pearl Square, a feeling of absolute celebration took hold, a block party in the square. If the afternoons belonged to disaffected young men, the evenings belonged to the whole community.

BBC Arabic was projected on the side of the pearl monument, making Pearl Square seem like a living room where protesters sat together, relaxed and watched TV while sipping tea. At least until the police arrived.

As the sun rose over the square, the night’s events came into sharp focus. The entire field was trampled and crushed. Canvas tents and a speaker’s podium lay crushed. The sound of ambulances continued to wail, and a helicopter circled the square.

You want the truth? - YOU can't handle the truth! Powell Demands Answers over WMD Informant's Lies

Former U.S. Secretary of State Wants to Know Why CIA and Pentagon Failed to Notify Him of Source's Unreliability

Colin Powell has called on the CIA and Pentagon to explain why they failed to notify him of unreliability of a key source who claimed knowledge of Saddam Hussein's bio-weapons capability, reports The Guardian.

U.S. secretary of state during the Iraq invasion, Powell said U.S. agencies involved in compiling case for the war should be questioned in response to the newspaper's revelation that the source, Rafid Ahmed al-Janabi or "Curveball" as his handlers called him, admitted to fabricating evidence of Iraq's secret weapons of mass destruction program.

"It has been known for several years that the source called Curveball was totally unreliable," Powell told the Guardian . "The question should be put to the CIA and the DIA as to why this wasn't known before the false information was put into the NIE sent to Congress, the president's state of the union address and my 5 February presentation to the UN."

Al-Janabi told the Guardian "it's great" Powell is demanding that the agencies should be questioned. He also thinks people should know the truth.

Then CIA head, George Tenet put a statement on his website in response to the admission, saying, " The handling of this matter is certainly a textbook case of how not to deal with defector provided material. But the latest reporting of the subject repeats and amplifies a great deal of misinformation."