S&P 500 falls more than 1 percent


NEW YORK (Reuters) - The S&P 500 declined more than 1 percent on Monday on fears that a divided parliament in Italy would get in the way of the country's reforms and hamper the euro zone's stability.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was down 100.22 points, or 0.72 percent, at 13,900.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 14.69 points, or 0.97 percent, at 1,500.91, after briefly falling more than 1 percent. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 20.86 points, or 0.66 percent, at 3,140.96.


(Reporting By Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Nick Zieminski)



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Indiana stays No. 1 in AP Top 25, Gonzaga No. 2


Indiana is No. 1 in The Associated Press' Top 25 for the fourth straight week, while Gonzaga moved to No. 2 for the first time in school history.


The Bulldogs were third last week, matching their previous best ranking.


"The polls mean a lot more this time of year than they do in November, December, even January," coach Mark Few said. "All of us are being judged on the true body of work. It's definitely rewarding.


"It establishes us as a national program, which I believe we have been for the last 10 years. This group has done a great job of competing at that level, winning games at the highest level."


While the West Coast Bulldogs made some news at the top of the poll Monday, Louisiana Tech, the Bulldogs from Down South, moved into the rankings for the first time since a 13-week run in 1984-85, their only appearance in the poll.


Louisiana Tech, which is 25th this week, was led back then to a ranking as high as No. 7 by a forward named Karl Malone. Gonzaga at that time had a point guard named John Stockton. They went on to become one of the greatest combinations in NBA history with the Utah Jazz, were members of the Dream Team and both were inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.


The Hoosiers, who have been ranked No. 1 for a total of 10 weeks this season, received all but one first-place vote from the 65-member national media panel.


Gonzaga, which got the other No. 1 vote, was ranked third for the final two weeks of 2003-04.


Duke moved up three spots to third and is followed by Michigan and Miami, which dropped from second after falling to Wake Forest, the Hurricanes' first Atlantic Coast Conference loss this season.


Kansas is sixth, followed by Georgetown, Florida, Michigan State and Louisville.


Saint Louis, which beat Butler and VCU last week, moved into 18th in the poll, the Billikens' first ranking since being in for one week last season.


Colorado State, which was 22nd and lost twice last week, and VCU, which was 24th, dropped out.


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Iran plans own response to 'Argo'




(File photo) Argo tells the story of a rescue of U.S. diplomats from revolutionary Iran.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Ben Affleck's "Argo" tells the story of a dramatic rescue of U.S. diplomats from revolutionary Iran

  • Iranian state media criticize the movie as "replete with historical inaccuracies and distortions"

  • Iran's Art Bureau says it will fund its own film about the handing over of 20 U.S. hostages




(CNN) -- Ben Affleck has more than just a couple of Golden Globes to add to his resume.


His movie "Argo," about the suspenseful rescue of U.S. diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis, has also achieved the unusual honor of prompting Tehran to produce its own cinematic response.


Opinion: Latino should have played lead in 'Argo'


"Argo" was named best drama movie during the Golden Globes ceremony on Sunday night in Los Angeles, and Affleck won the award for best director, a category for which he was passed over in the recent Oscar nominations.










But his efforts to recreate on screen the drama of the secret operation by the CIA and Canada to extract six U.S. embassy workers from revolutionary Iran in 1980 haven't been overlooked by Tehran's Art Bureau.


'Argo' recognizes forgotten heroes of Iran hostage saga


It plans to fund a movie entitled "The General Staff," about 20 American hostages who were handed over to the United States by Iranian revolutionaries, according to a report last week by Mehr News, the official Iranian agency.


"This film, which will be a big production, should be an appropriate response to the ahistoric film 'Argo,'" said Ataollah Salmanian, the director of the Iranian film, according to Mehr.


"Argo" claims to be based on a true story rather than to constitute a scrupulous retelling of exactly what took place, and its deviations from reality have been documented.


But Iranian authorities have taken offense at the film's portrayal of the country and its people. "Argo" was officially viewed as "anti-Iranian" following its U.S. release last year, Mehr reported.


Iran's state-run broadcaster Press TV detailed its objections to the film in an online article on Sunday.


"The Iranophobic American movie attempts to describe Iranians as overemotional, irrational, insane, and diabolical while at the same, the CIA agents are represented as heroically patriotic," it complained.


In the movie, in which Affleck plays the lead role, the CIA operation is shown outwitting Iranian authorities through an elaborate plan based on pretending that the U.S. diplomats fleeing the country were part of team scouting locations for an outlandish science-fiction film.


But according to Press TV, the film is "a far cry from a balanced narration" and is "replete with historical inaccuracies and distortions."


On the other hand, "The General Staff," set to begin shooting next year, will be based on eyewitness accounts, Salmanian said.


The Art Bureau, which is to provide the financing, is affiliated with the Islamic Ideology Dissemination Organization, according to Mehr.


Press TV cited Salmanian as saying that his film would depict "the historical event unlike the American version which lacks a proper view of the story."


CNN's Samira Said contributed to this report.






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Woman freed after conviction in son's death tossed









Nicole Harris, who has been locked up since the 2005 death of her son, walked out of an Illinois prison today after an appeals court threw out her murder conviction.


Harris emerged from Dwight Correctional Center in front of a gathering of news crews after being reunited with her other son.


"I'm just overwhelmed and I'm thankful that's it's going to be over and I just want to be home with my son," Harris told the assembled media.





"I'm just ready to get on with my life and hold my son."


The Chicago woman was 23 when a jury found her guilty of killing her 4-year-old son Jaquari in their Northwest Side apartment following her confession to authorities. But Harris has long maintained that her confession was false and the result of threats and manipulation by police.


She said today that she was able to make it through the past seven years knowing that "I'm innocent and the truth will come out."


"It was like at some point I just knew this isn't it, that this was not my final destination."


In a 90-page ruling last October that vacated her conviction, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said there were "many reasons" to question her confession.


The appeal judges also ruled that Diante, then 5, should have been allowed to testify.


Now 14, Diante was the first person to meet Harris when she was released into an outer room of the prison at about 11:30 a.m. today.  Diante walked in bearing a balloon that read, "It's your Day" and a teddy bear. Harris threw her arms around him, wept softly and kissed him.


When asked later what it was like to see her son at that time, she said, "There are no words."


At exactly noon, a prison official told Harris she was "free to go." She clutched hands with a close friend and walked out of the prison. She had been told to get her things together around 8:30 a.m. this morning, she told the media, and said that, at that time, "I was beyond anxious."


Jaquari had been found dead with an elastic bedsheet cord wrapped around his neck. Diante had told authorities that he was alone with Jaquari when he saw him wrap the cord around his neck while playing.


Prosecutors, who argued that Diante also said he was asleep when Jaquari died, accused Harris of strangling Jaquari with the cord because she was angry he would not stop crying.


Harris' release, which the state argued against, is not the end of legal battle. The state has appealed the October ruling, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. In addition, Cook County prosecutors could still move to retry her. A representative from the state's attorney's office said no decision on a retrial has been made.


For now, Harris said, "I just want to enjoy life."


"I'm just glad to be free. I'm just glad to be free."


deldeib@tribune.com





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Italy election forecasts point to political gridlock


ROME (Reuters) - A huge protest vote by Italians enraged by economic hardship and political corruption pushed the country towards deadlock after an election on Monday, with voting projections showing no coalition strong enough to form a government.


With more than two thirds of the vote counted, the projections suggested the center left could have a slim lead in the race for the lower house of parliament.


But no party or likely coalition appeared likely to be able to form a majority in the upper house or Senate, creating a deadlocked parliament - the opposite of the stable result that Italy desperately needs to tackle a deep recession, rising unemployment and a massive public debt.


Such an outcome has the potential to revive fears over the euro zone debt crisis, with prospects of a long period of uncertainty in the zone's third largest economy.


Italian financial markets took fright after rising earlier on hopes for a stable and strong center-left led government, probably backed by outgoing technocrat premier Mario Monti.


The projected result was a stunning success for Genoese comic Beppe Grillo, leader of the populist 5-Star Movement, who toured the country in his first national election campaign hurling obscenity-laced insults against a discredited political class.


With vague election promises and a team of almost totally unknown candidates, the shaggy haired comedian channeled pure public anger against what many see as a sclerotic and useless political system.


The likely result was also a humiliating slap in the face for colorless center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who appeared to have thrown away a 10-point opinion poll lead less than two months ago against Silvio Berlusconi's center right.


Berlusconi, 76, who staged an extraordinary comeback from sex and corruption scandals since diving into the campaign in December, appeared to be leading in the Senate race, but Grillo's projected bloc of Senators would leave him well short of a majority.


Projections gave Bersani's center-left alliance a lead of less than one percentage point in the lower house. If confirmed, that would be enough to control the chamber because of election laws that guarantee a 54 percent majority to the party with the largest share of the vote.


In the Senate the picture was different. The latest projection from RAI state television showed Berlusconi's bloc winning 112 Senate seats, the center-left 105 and Grillo 64, with Monti languishing on only 20 after a failed campaign which never took off. The Senate majority is 158.


Berlusconi, a master politician and communicator, wooed voters with a blitz of television appearances and promises to refund a hated housing tax despite accusations from opponents that this was an impossible vote buying trick.


Grillo has attacked all sides in the campaign and ruled out a formal alliance with any group although it was not immediately known how he would react to his stunning success or how his supporters would behave in parliament.


DANGER OF NEW ELECTION


A bitter campaign, fought largely over economic issues, made some investors fear a return of the kind of debt crisis that took the euro zone close to disaster and brought the technocrat Monti to office, replacing Berlusconi, in 2011.


The projected results showed more than half of Italians had voted for the anti-euro platforms of Berlusconi and Grillo.


Officials from both center and left warned that the looming deadlock could make Italy ungovernable and force new elections.


A center-left government either alone or ruling with Monti had been seen by investors as the best guarantee of measures to combat a deep recession and stagnant growth in Italy, which is pivotal to stability in the currency union.


The benchmark spread between Italian 10-year bonds and their German equivalent widened from below 260 basis points to above 300 and the Italian share index lost all its previous gains after projections of the Senate result.


"These projections suggest that we are heading for an ungovernable situation", said Mario Secchi, a candidate for Monti's centrist movement.


Stefano Fassina, chief economic official for Bersani's center-left, said: "The scenario from the projections we have seen so far suggests there will be no stable government and we would need to return to the polls."


If the results are confirmed the only possibility looks like a "grand coalition" combining right and left, like the one Monti led for a year. But politicians said before the vote this could not work for long and would struggle to work decisively.


Monti helped save Italy from a debt crisis when Rome's borrowing costs were spiraling out of control, but few Italians now see him as the savior of the country, in its longest recession for 20 years.


Grillo's movement rode a huge wave of voter anger about both the pain of Monti's austerity program and a string of political and corporate scandals. It had particular appeal for a frustrated younger generation shut out of full-time jobs.


"I'm sick of the scandals and the stealing," said Paolo Gentile, a 49-year-old Rome lawyer who voted for 5-Star.


"We need some young, new people in parliament, not the old parties that are totally discredited."


Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon, exploited anger against Monti's austerity program, accusing him of being a puppet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but in many areas Grillo was a bigger beneficiary of public discontent.


Italy desperately needs a strong, reform-minded government to revive growth after two decades of stagnation and address problems ranging from record youth unemployment to a dysfunctional justice system and a bloated public sector.


Italians wrung their hands at prospects of an inconclusive result that will mean more delays to these reforms.


"It's a classic result. Typically Italian. It means the country is not united. It is an expression of a country that does not work. I knew this would happen," said 36-year-old Rome office worker Roberta Federica.


Another office worker, Elisabetta Carlotta, 46, shook her head in disbelief. "We can't go on like this," she said.


(Additional reporting by Stefano Bernabei, Steve Scherer, Gavin Jones, Naomi O'Leary and Giuseppe Fonte in Rome and Lisa Jucca in Milan; Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Peter Graff)



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Investors face another Washington deadline

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors face another Washington-imposed deadline on government spending cuts next week, but it's not generating the same level of fear as two months ago when the "fiscal cliff" loomed large.


Investors in sectors most likely to be affected by the cuts, like defense, seem untroubled that the budget talks could send stocks tumbling.


Talks on the U.S. budget crisis began again this week leading up to the March 1 deadline for the so-called sequestration when $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts are scheduled to take effect.


"It's at this point a political hot button in Washington but a very low level investor concern," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The fight pits President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats against congressional Republicans.


Stocks rallied in early January after a compromise temporarily avoided the fiscal cliff, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index <.spx> has risen 6.3 percent since the start of the year.


But the benchmark index lost steam this week, posting its first week of losses since the start of the year. Minutes on Wednesday from the last Federal Reserve meeting, which suggested the central bank may slow or stop its stimulus policy sooner than expected, provided the catalyst.


National elections in Italy on Sunday and Monday could also add to investor concern. Most investors expect a government headed by Pier Luigi Bersani to win and continue with reforms to tackle Italy's debt problems. However, a resurgence by former leader Silvio Berlusconi has raised doubts.


"Europe has been in the last six months less of a topic for the stock market, but the problems haven't gone away. This may bring back investor attention to that," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.


OPTIONS BULLS TARGET GAINS


The spending cuts, if they go ahead, could hit the defense industry particularly hard.


Yet in the options market, bulls were targeting gains in Lockheed Martin Corp , the Pentagon's biggest supplier.


Calls on the stock far outpaced puts, suggesting that many investors anticipate the stock to move higher. Overall options volume on the stock was 2.8 times the daily average with 17,000 calls and 3,360 puts traded, according to options analytics firm Trade Alert.


"The upside call buying in Lockheed solidifies the idea that option investors are not pricing in a lot of downside risk in most defense stocks from the likely impact of sequestration," said Jared Woodard, a founder of research and advisory firm condoroptions.com in Forest, Virginia.


The stock ended up 0.6 percent at $88.12 on Friday.


If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on reducing the U.S. budget deficit in the next few days, a sequester would include significant cuts in defense spending. Companies such as General Dynamics Corp and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp could be affected.


General Dynamics Corp shares rose 1.2 percent to $67.32 and Smith & Wesson added 4.6 percent to $9.18 on Friday.


EYES ON GDP DATA, APPLE


The latest data on fourth-quarter U.S. gross domestic product is expected on Thursday, and some analysts predict an upward revision following trade data that showed America's deficit shrank in December to its narrowest in nearly three years.


U.S. GDP unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter, according to an earlier government estimate, but analysts said there was no reason for panic, given that consumer spending and business investment picked up.


Investors will be looking for any hints of changes in the Fed's policy of monetary easing when Fed Chairman Ben Bernake speaks before congressional committees on Tuesday and Wednesday.


Shares of Apple will be watched closely next week when the company's annual stockholders' meeting is held.


On Friday, a U.S. judge handed outspoken hedge fund manager David Einhorn a victory in his battle with the iPhone maker, blocking the company from moving forward with a shareholder vote on a controversial proposal to limit the company's ability to issue preferred stock.


(Additional reporting by Doris Frankel; Editing by Kenneth Barry)



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Early wreck in Daytona 500 takes out favorites


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — With one massive wreck, the favorite was gone from the Daytona 500. So was the sentimental favorite.


An early crash in the Daytona 500 on Sunday knocked out several top contenders, including 2007 race winner Kevin Harvick and three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, shaking up NASCAR's opener.


Winner of two races at Speedweeks, Harvick was sent to the garage.


So was Stewart. He must now wait another season to try for his first Daytona 500 win after he failed in his 15th try at winning "The Great American Race." In 17 seasons spanning NASCAR and IndyCar, Stewart has been able to cross most everything off his to-do list. Just not the Daytona 500.


"If I didn't tell you I was heartbroken and disappointed, I'd be lying to you," Stewart said.


While taking the checkered was out of the picture, Stewart ditched the safety goggles and grabbed some tools in the garage to repair his No. 14.


Stewart eventually returned to the track — only 82 laps back. Safe to say, he was a bit of a long shot.


The nine-car wreck started when Kasey Kahne let off the gas to slow as they neared the first turn at Daytona International Speedway. Kyle Busch tried to do the same, but couldn't avoid contact.


Busch sent Kahne spinning across the track. Juan Pablo Montoya, 2010 race winner Jamie McMurray and defending series champion Brad Keselowski also were involved. So were Kurt Busch and Casey Mears.


"It's crazy. I can't believe it," Kahne said. "I mean, I wanted to race."


The accident came a day after a horrific wreck in a second-tier NASCAR series race hurled chunks of debris, including a heavy tire, into the stands and injured nearly 30 people.


It also ended Harvick's attempt to become the first in NASCAR history to win the exhibition Sprint Unlimited, a twin qualifying race and the Daytona 500 in the same Speedweeks.


"I don't know who was behind me, but it was just one of those deals," Harvick said.


Harvick stripped his firesuit down to his waist and rode off in a golf cart, a more solemn ride than his two trips to Victory Lane this week. Harvick had dominated in Speedweeks as the prelude to his final season driving a Richard Childress Chevrolet. He won last weekend's Sprint Unlimited and one of the Duel races, each time plopping his son Keelan into the cockpit for a quick rub of good luck.


This time, his battered No. 29 couldn't be saved. Crew members pounded away at sheet metal trying to salvage a return for Stewart.


The parade of wreckers entering the garage hauled the dented or totaled remains of some of the sport's heaviest hitters. Montoya is a former Indianapolis 500 winner. Busch won the 2004 Cup championship. None of them had a chance to pad his resume.


"You could see it coming. They were all checking up," Montoya said. "And I thought, 'Somebody isn't going to check up and screw up.' And, then, they did."


Stewart won the crash-marred Nationwide Series on Saturday for his 19th victory at Daytona in all other levels of NASCAR except for Cup. He has more wins at one of NASCAR's most famous tracks except for Dale Earnhardt (34). Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in his 20th try.


Stewart will at least stretch it out to 16.


The race might not be a total loss for Stewart. His Stewart-Haas Racing team fields the car for pole winner Danica Patrick. Patrick became the first woman to lead a lap in the famed Daytona 500 on Sunday. She led two laps — Nos. 90 and 91. On the starting grid, Stewart gave her a big hug and whispered into her ear before she slid into the cockpit.


Told the accident spoiled the start of his season, Stewart wasn't buying it.


"To hell with the season," he said. "I wanted to win the Daytona 500.


___


Follow Dan Gelston online: https://twitter.com/APGelston and http://racing.ap.org


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Vatican 'Gay lobby'? Probably not






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Benedict XVI not stepping down under pressure from 'gay lobby,' Allen says

  • Allen: Benedict is a man who prefers the life of the mind to the nuts and bolts of government

  • However, he says, much of the pope's time has been spent putting out fires




Editor's note: John L. Allen Jr. is CNN's senior Vatican analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.


(CNN) -- Suffice it to say that of all possible storylines to emerge, heading into the election of a new pope, sensational charges of a shadowy "gay lobby" (possibly linked to blackmail), whose occult influence may have been behind the resignation of Benedict XVI, would be right at the bottom of the Vatican's wish list.


Proof of the Vatican's irritation came with a blistering statement Saturday complaining of "unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories," even suggesting the media is trying to influence the papal election.


Two basic questions have to be asked about all this. First, is there really a secret dossier about a network of people inside the Vatican who are linked by their sexual orientation, as Italian newspaper reports have alleged? Second, is this really why Benedict XVI quit?



John L. Allen Jr.

John L. Allen Jr.



The best answers, respectively, are "maybe" and "probably not."


It's a matter of record that at the peak of last year's massive Vatican leaks crisis, Benedict XVI created a commission of three cardinals to investigate the leaks. They submitted an eyes-only report to the pope in mid-December, which has not been made public.


It's impossible to confirm whether that report looked into the possibility that people protecting secrets about their sex lives were involved with the leaks, but frankly, it would be surprising if it didn't.


There are certainly compelling reasons to consider the hypothesis. In 2007, a Vatican official was caught by an Italian TV network on hidden camera arranging a date through a gay-oriented chat room, and then taking the young man back to his Vatican apartment. In 2010, a papal ceremonial officer was caught on a wiretap arranging liaisons through a Nigerian member of a Vatican choir. Both episodes played out in full public view, and gave the Vatican a black eye.









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In that context, it would be a little odd if the cardinals didn't at least consider the possibility that insiders leading a double life might be vulnerable to pressure to betray the pope's confidence. That would apply not just to sex, but also potential conflicts of other sorts too, such as financial interests.


Vatican officials have said Benedict may authorize giving the report to the 116 cardinals who will elect his successor, so they can factor it into their deliberations. The most immediate fallout is that the affair is likely to strengthen the conviction among many cardinals that the next pope has to lead a serious house-cleaning inside the Vatican's bureaucracy.


It seems a stretch, however, to suggest this is the real reason Benedict is leaving. For the most part, one should probably take the pope at his word, that old age and fatigue are the motives for his decision.


That said, it's hard not to suspect that the meltdowns and controversies that have dogged Benedict XVI for the last eight years are in the background of why he's so tired. In 2009, at the height of another frenzy surrounding the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop, Benedict dispatched a plaintive letter to the bishops of the world, voicing hurt for the way he'd been attacked and apologizing for the Vatican's mishandling of the situation.


Even if Benedict didn't resign because of any specific crisis, including this latest one, such anguish must have taken its toll. Benedict is a teaching pope, a man who prefers the life of the mind to the nuts and bolts of government, yet an enormous share of his time and energy has been consumed trying to put out internal fires.


It's hard to know why Benedict XVI is stepping off the stage, but I doubt it is because of a "gay lobby."


Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.


Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John L. Allen Jr.






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Frenzied campaigning in race to replace Jackson Jr.









The complexities of a special primary contest to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress gave way the final weekend before the election to more traditional campaigning as candidates Sunday visited churches and restaurants in search of votes.


The three top contenders for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd District — Robin Kelly, Debbie Halvorson and Anthony Beale — each displayed optimism that they would cross the finish line first after the voting is finished on Tuesday.


Beale, Chicago's 9th Ward alderman, spent much of Sunday visiting churches, which has long been a political staple in the district.





"Nobody else in this race can say that they have the record that I have. I'm talking about what I've done, ladies and gentlemen," Beale told about 200 people gathered at Logos Baptist Assembly near 108th and South Halsted streets as some shouted their approval. "I've already walked the walk. I'm not just talkin' that talk!"


Beale highlighted a list of accomplishments he'd achieved as alderman. The alderman also told potential supporters that they knew better than to follow the more than $2 million worth of TV ads a super PAC run by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has dumped into the contest, most recently backing Kelly.


Beale had seven restaurants, four churches, a synagogue and a shopping mall on his schedule. Kelly, a former state lawmaker from Matteson, visited churches, but her only public appearance was scheduled this afternoon at a restaurant in her hometown.


Halvorson's only public appearance was before a few dozen diners Sunday afternoon at Ted's Family Restaurant in Calumet City. One woman handed Halvorson a prayer card. "Thank you, I need all the prayers I can get," Halvorson replied.


The former one-term congresswoman from Crete has had to battle a TV ad blitz by a super political action committee run by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attacking her support of an assault weapons ban.


"The first thing out of people's mouth is, 'We're voting for you. We're sick of those commercials. We don't want a mayor from New York coming in and trying to buy a seat in Congress,' " Halvorson said.


Kelly's voice was hoarse as she talked to diners at Peachtree Cafe in her hometown.


"You know what? I feel good but I'm taking nothing for granted," said Kelly, a former state lawmaker, after working the tables for votes. "I wouldn't be in it if I didn't think I could win."


Benefiting from the big TV buy from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super political action committee, several diners told Kelly they recognized her.


"I'm just going to stay encouraged," she said. "People all over the place are encouraging me so that helps a lot, praying for me and sending me little voice mails, emails and texts to keep focused and stay strong."


bruthhart@tribune.com
Twitter: @BillRuthhart


rap30@aol.com
Twitter: @rap30





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Gloomy Italians vote in election crucial for euro zone


ROME (Reuters) - Italy voted on Sunday in one of the most unpredictable elections in years, with many voters expressing rage against a discredited elite and doubt that a government will emerge strong enough to combat a severe economic crisis.


"I am pessimistic. Nothing will change," said Luciana Li Mandri, 37, as she cast a ballot in the Sicilian capital Palermo on the first of two days of voting that continues on Monday.


"The usual thieves will be in government."


Her gloom reflected the mood across Italy, where many voters said they thought the new administration would not last long, just the opposite of what Italy needs to combat the longest slump in 20 years, mounting unemployment and a huge public debt.


The election is being closely watched by investors whose memories are fresh of a debt crisis which forced out scandal-plagued conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi 15 months ago and saw him replaced by economics professor Mario Monti.


"I'm not confident that the government that emerges from the election will be able to solve any of our problems," said Attilio Bianchetti, a 55-year-old building tradesman in Milan.


Underlining his disilluion with the established parties, he voted for the 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo.


An iconclastic, 64-year-old Genoese, Grillo has screamed himself hoarse with obscenity-laced attacks on politicians that have channeled the anger of Italians, especially a frustrated young generation hit by record unemployment.


"He's the only real new element in a political landscape where we've been seeing the same faces for too long," said Vincenzo Cannizzaro, 48, in Palermo.


Opinion polls give the centre-left coalition of Pier Luigi Bersani a narrow lead but the result has been thrown open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against Monti's painful austerity measures and rage at a wave of corruption scandals.


A weak government could usher in new instability in the euro zone's third largest economy and cause another crisis of confidence in the European Union's single currency.


Television tycoon Berlusconi, showing off unrivalled media skills and displaying extraordinary energy for a man of 76, has increased uncertainty over the past couple of months by halving the gap between his centre-right and Bersani.


"I am pessimistic. There is such political fragmentation that we will again have the problem of ungovernability" said Marta, a lawyer voting in Rome who did not want to give her family name. "I fear the new government won't last long."


Another Roman voter, lab technician Manila Luce, 34, said: "I am voting Grillo and I hope a lot of people do. Because it's the only way to show how sick to the back teeth we are with the old parties."


Voting continues until 10 p.m. (4 p.m. EST) and resumes on Monday at 7 a.m. Exit polls will be published shortly after polls close at 3 p.m. on Monday. Full official results are expected by early Tuesday.


Snow in the north was expected to last into Monday and could discourage some of the 47 million eligible voters. Authorities said they were prepared for the weather and in the central city of Bologna roads were cleared of snow before voting started.


TOPLESS FEMINISTS


Several bare-breasted women protested against Berlusconi when he voted in Milan. They were bundled away by police.


The four-time premier, known for off-color jokes and a constant target of feminists, is on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute during "bunga bunga" parties at his villa.


Most experts expect a coalition between Bersani and Monti to form the next administration, but whatever government emerges will have to try to reverse years of failure to revitalize one of the most sluggish economies in the developed world.


The widespread despair over the state of the country, where a series of corruption scandals has highlighted the stark divide between a privileged political elite and millions of ordinary Italians struggling to make ends meet, has left deep scars.


"It's our fault, Italian citizens. It's our closed mentality. We're just not Europeans," said voter Li Mandri in Palermo.


"We're all about getting favors when we study, getting a protected job when we work," she said. "That's the way we are and we can only be represented by people like that as well."


ECONOMIC AGENDA


Even if Bersani wins as expected, Analysts are divided over whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can force through sweeping economic reforms.


His centre-left is expected to have firm control of the lower house, thanks to rules that give a strong majority to whichever party wins the most votes nationally.


But a much closer battle will be fought for the Senate which is elected on a regional basis and which has equal law making powers to the chamber.


Berlusconi has clawed back support by promising to repeal Monti's hated new housing tax, the IMU, and to refund the money. He relentlessly attacked what he called the "Germano-centric" policies of the former European Union commissioner.


Think-tank consultant Mario, 60, said on his way to vote in Bologna that Bersani's Democratic Party was the only group serious enough to repair the economy: "They're not perfect," he said. "But they've got the organization and the union backing that will help them push through structural reforms."


Despite Berlusconi's success, Grillo has tapped into the same public frustration as the conservative tycoon and pollsters say his 5-Star Movement of political novices could overtake the centre-right to take second place in the vote.


Rivals have branded Grillo a threat to democracy - a vivid image in a country ruled by fascists for two decades until World War Two. Several voters who spoke to Reuters said Grillo was not the answer because of his lack of concrete policies and the inexperience of those who will sit in parliament for 5-Star.


"Grillo is a populist and populism doesn't work in a democracy," said retired notary Pasquale Lebanon, 76, as he voted for Bersani's Democratic Party in Milan.


"I'm very worried. There seems to be no way out from a political point of view, or for being able to govern," said Calogero Giallanza, a 45-year-old musician in Rome as he also voted for Bersani.


"There's bound to be a mess in the Senate because, as far as I can see the 5-Star Movement is unstoppable."


(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino, Lisa Jucca, Jennifer Clark, Matthias Baehr, Jennifer Clark and Sara Rossi in Milan, Stephen Jewkes in Bologna, Wladimir Pantaleone in Palermo, Stefano Bernabei and Massimiliano Di Giorgio in Rome; Writing by James Mackenzie and Barry Moody; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)



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