AP News in Brief

Obama takes early but slight lead in Maine Democratic caucuses

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Democrats overlooked the snowy weather and turned out in heavy numbers for municipal caucuses Sunday, giving Barack Obama a slight lead over Hillary Rodham Clinton in early tallies for the party's party presidential nominee.

Democrats in 420 Maine towns and cities were deciding how the state's 24 delegates will be allotted at the party's national convention in August. Despite the weather, turnout was "incredible," party executive director Arden Manning said.

With 11 percent of the participating precincts reporting, Obama had a narrow lead over clinton Clinton, 175 to 168, with four uncommitted.

The voting came a day after Obama and Clinton made personal appeals here, and after Obama picked up wins in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington.

Organizers had expected heavy participation at the caucuses, but up to 8 inches of snow and Arctic cold were expected when many of the gatherings were scheduled. Even so, Democrats started Sunday with more than 4,000 absentee ballots in hand.

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Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle is out, replaced by longtime aide Maggie Williams

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton replaced campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle with longtime aide Maggie Williams on Sunday, engineering a shake-up in a presidential campaign struggling to overcome rival Barack Obama's financial and political strengths.

The surprise announcement came hours after Obama's sweep of three contests Saturday. The Illinois senator also grabbed the early lead in caucuses in Maine on Sunday.

Campaign aides said Solis Doyle made the decision to leave on her own and was not urged to do so by the former first lady or any other senior member of the team. But it comes as Clinton struggles to catch Obama in fundraising and momentum and faces the prospect of losing every voting contest yet to come in February.

Solis Doyle announced the shift in an e-mail to the staff on Sunday.

"I have been proud to manage this campaign and prouder still to call Hillary my friend for more than 16 years," Solis Doyle wrote. "Maggie is a remarkable person and I am confident that she will do a fabulous job."

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Gates says Iraqi political leaders showing signs of progress toward reconciliation

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Hard choices face Iraq's political leaders on how to stabilize the country despite promising new signs of progress toward reconciliation, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.

"They seem to have become energized over the last few weeks," Gates said. The Pentagon chief told reporters who traveled with him from a conference in Germany that he wants to "see what the prospects are for further success in the next couple of months."

In an interview on the trip to Iraq, Gates cited the recent passage of an amnesty law as an example of political progress. He said he would ask Iraqi leaders to assess the prospects for other important steps such as passing a law that would spell out power-sharing between the provinces and the national government.

He compared the struggle over that idea to the U.S. founding fathers' quest to find a constitutional compromise on how to share power in Congress between big and small states.

Gates said he would make clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other political leaders that "our continued eagerness for them to proceed and successfully conclude some of this legislation" considered essential to reconciling Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

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AP Exclusive: Clinton leads with party insiders, Obama racks up primary, caucus delegates

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hillary Rodham Clinton retains her lead among suddenly critical Democratic Party insiders even as Barack Obama builds up his delegate margin with primary and caucus victories across the country, according to a survey by The Associated Press.

Of the 796 lawmakers, governors and party officials who are Democratic superdelegates, Clinton had 243 and Obama had 156. That edge was responsible for Clinton's overall advantage in the pursuit of delegates to secure the party's nomination for president. According to the AP's latest tally, Clinton has 1,125 total delegates and Obama has 1,087. A candidate must get 2,205 delegates to capture the nomination.

The numbers illustrate not only the remarkable proximity between the two candidates, but also the extraordinary influence superdelegates could wield in determining who becomes the nominee. Both campaigns are aggressively pursuing superdelegates, trumpeting their endorsements the moment they are secured.

"I told my wife I'm probably going to be pretty popular for a couple months," chuckled Richard Ray, a superdelegate and president of the Georgia chapter of the AFL-CIO. Ray said he will remain undecided because the labor federation has made no endorsement.

"If they endorse, then I will, too," Ray said.

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Striking Hollywood writers to vote on contract, could end 3-month walkout as soon as Wednesday

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Writers Guild of America moved swiftly Sunday toward a resolution of its three-month-old strike, with guild leaders deciding to recommend the contract to members and ask them to vote on a quick end to the walkout.

By asking writers to vote separately on ending the strike and accepting the contract, the union cleared the way for the entertainment industry to return to work almost immediately.

Membership meetings will be held Tuesday in New York and Los Angeles to allow writers to decide whether the strike should be brought to a speedy end, said Patric Verrone, president of the guild's West Coast branch.

"This the best deal this guild has bargained for in 30 years," Verrone said.

The tentative contract secures writers a share of the burgeoning digital-media market, he said, including compensation for Internet-delivered TV shows and movies.

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UN says 12,000 terrified refugees flee Sudan's Darfur for Chad after airstrikes

GENEVA (AP) -- Up to 12,000 refugees fled Sudan's Darfur region to neighboring Chad over the weekend following air strikes by the Sudanese military and thousands more may be coming, the U.N. refugee agency said Sunday.

The agency was bringing emergency assistance to the Chad border where the Darfur refugees were giving detailed descriptions of air attacks Friday on three West Darfur towns.

The refugees are "destitute and terrified," said Helene Caux, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees headquartered in Geneva. "They told of their villages being looted and burned, and encircled by militia." Most of the new refugees in Chad are men and they told the U.N. that thousands of women and children are on their way, Caux added.

U.N. officials say the worsening situation in Darfur has been exacerbated by a recent rebel attack on the capital of neighboring Chad. Chad has accused Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir of backing those rebels in a bid to prevent deployment of a European peacekeeping force in the Chad-Sudan border region where some 400,000 refugees are living.

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Venezuelan president threatens to cut off oil sales to US, calls Exxon Mobil 'outlaws'

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez on Sunday threatened to cut off oil sales to the United States in an "economic war" if Exxon Mobil Corp. wins court judgments to seize billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets.

Exxon Mobil has gone after the assets of state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA in U.S., British and Dutch courts as it challenges the nationalization of a multibillion dollar oil project by Chavez's government.

A British court has issued an injunction "freezing" as much as $12 billion in assets.

"If you end up freezing (Venezuelan assets) and it harms us, we're going to harm you," Chavez said during his weekly radio and television program, "Hello, President." "Do you know how? We aren't going to send oil to the United States. Take note, Mr. Bush, Mr. Danger."

Chavez has repeatedly threatened to cut off oil shipments to the United States, which is Venezuela's No. 1 client, if Washington tries to oust him. Chavez's warnings on Sunday appeared to extend that threat to attempts by oil companies to challenge his government's nationalization drive through lawsuits.

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Most people in poll believe country is now in the grips of a recession

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Empty homes and for-sale signs clutter neighborhoods. You've lost your job or know someone who has. Your paycheck and nest egg are taking a hit.

Could the country be in recession?

Sixty-one percent of the public believes the economy is now suffering through its first recession since 2001, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll.

The fallout from a depressed housing market and a credit crunch nearly caused the economy to stall in the final three months of last year. Some experts, like the majority of people questioned in the poll, say the economy actually may be shrinking now. The worry is that consumers and businesses will hunker down further and pull back spending, sending the economy into a tailspin.

"Absolutely, we're in a recession," said Hilda Sanchez, 44, of Waterford, Calif.

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Amy Winehouse gets her visa, but won't be going to Grammy Awards

LONDON (AP) -- Amy Winehouse's work visa was approved after all, but the State Department's change of heart Friday wasn't in time for her to make the trip to Sunday's Grammy Awards.

Instead, the rehabbing British singer will go ahead with the backup plan that was concocted while her visa was still in limbo: a live performance, via satellite, from a studio in London where she will also accept any awards that may come her way. Winehouse and her acclaimed "Back to Black" album are nominated for Grammys in six categories.

"Unfortunately, due to the logistics involved and timing complications, Amy will not be traveling to the U.S. to perform at the Grammys in person," the Outside Organization said in a statement.

Winehouse's original visa application was denied under U.S. immigration rules regarding the "use and abuse of narcotics," a senior State Department official said Friday, on condition of anonymity because the U.S. Embassy in London's application deliberations are confidential. As a British citizen, Winehouse would not normally need a visa to enter the United States -- unless she wanted to work or perform.

The Department of Homeland Security had been "rapidly" processing her appeal, the official said. But the reversal, barely 48 hours before the beginning of the telecast, came too late.

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Pierce scores 35 points in Celtics' 98-90 victory over streaking Spurs

BOSTON (AP) -- Tim Duncan beat Glen "Big Baby" Davis a couple of times in the first quarter, and the disappointment on the rookie's face showed.

"We had to remind him that Duncan is really good. That's going to happen," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Sunday after Boston beat the San Antonio Spurs 98-90. "You can't get frustrated."

Filling in with Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins injured, Davis had nine points and eight rebounds for Boston. Paul Pierce scored 35 points, Ray Allen had 19, and Rajon Rondo had 12 assists and 11 rebounds Sunday as the Celtics won their third straight game improved to 16-0 against the Western Conference.

Tim Duncan had 22 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, and Manu Ginobili scored 21 for the Spurs, who lost for the first time in five games. San Antonio got within three points with 1:13 left, but Michael Finley's 3-point attempt went in and out.

Twice in the final minute Ginobili was forced to take off-balance, heavily guarded 3-point attempts; neither one was close.