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California political strategists say Republicans need an injection of energy as trends cut in Newsom’s favor. Residents have begun to resume their normal lives as businesses reopen and restrictions ease, thanks to widespread vaccine access and continued infection declines in the state.

“Gavin Newsom is a political Houdini — he almost always manages to narrowly escape his deserved political fate,” said former California Republican Party spokesperson Jennifer Kerns, now a conservative talk radio host.

The Democratic governor enjoys a budget surplus unlike any ever seen in California, with nearly $76 billion more than previously thought and $27 billion in federal stimulus to boot. Newsom has proposed program expansions and giving $600 checks to middle-class residents. And this week, he’s offering $50 gift cards to any vaccine hesitant residents that get the shot, on top of entering all vaccinated Californians into the nation’s most generous vaccine prize pool topping $116 million.

At every turn, Republican candidates have criticized his moves, some arguing that his Oprah-style cash giveaway is akin to buying voter support. They have a few possibilities to land some blows — homelessness, housing costs and school closures — but even those issues aren’t enraging residents right now.

Kerns said that the Republican Party has to bulk up its message with Newsom using his bully pulpit and powers of incumbency to full advantage.

Right now, “it’s a net-positive for Newsom, who now has time and a budget surplus on his side,” Kerns said. Republicans can still win, she said, but the further away Californians travel from the pain and suffering Gavin caused last year, the more uphill that climb to beat him will be for the GOP.”

That challenge is front and center as the governor in recent weeks has been touring the state with a podium sign blaring “California ROARS BACK” as he describes new programs and the stimulus payments from his budget proposal. That tagline appeared to some a clever, veiled shot at wealthy businessman John Cox, whose latest campaign rollout — complete with live bear — portrayed him as a “beast” to the governor’s entitled “beauty.”

In the end, it may not even matter which candidate has frontrunner status: Polls show voters are poised to reject the first question on the ballot, which asks whether Newsom should be recalled. In a Public Policy Institute of California survey released last week, 57 percent said they oppose the recall and 40 percent said they support it. Newsom continues to receive solid job performance numbers in this deeply Democratic state, and two thirds of residents now say they back his handling of the pandemic.

In a May messaging revamp tied to his record-high budget package, Newsom touted his “California Comeback Plan” — co-opting the phrase that Republican candidate Kevin Faulconer used as his campaign theme when he launched his bid in January. Faulconer’s campaign balked, but the governor continued to claim it as his own.

Democrats seem well aware of their sudden run of good political fortune. Newsom is on a fundraising binge, sounding the alarm to small donors every day while collecting big checks from the likes of Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings, who gave $3 million last month. On Friday alone, Newsom’s campaign reported more big checks from key California donor groups: $300,000 from a Northern California labor union; $200,000 from Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway; and $40,000 from Paramount Pictures.

Steve Glazer, a state senator who advised former Gov. Jerry Brown for years, has begun lobbying to hold the recall election as soon as possible.

“Right now, Gavin Newsom has control over vaccine distribution and the budget … so when you’re in a strong position to win the battle — then get in the battle,” Glazer said.

Veteran communications strategist Fiona Hutton said the GOP’s main challenge — after some bumpy months — is that Newsom is finally firing on all cylinders. The scandal over the governor’s infamous French Laundry dinner, frustration over the state’s long Covid lockdowns and anger over school closures all seem to be fading.

“The public relations playbook is to have a message, to drive it — and to own the dialogue,” she said. “He’s able to do all three of those things right now.”

The governor’s agenda is skillfully “matched to all the major issues that everyday Californians are worried about,” she said. “He has proof points about his accomplishments — talking about the economy starting to come back, the reopenings, the vaccination rates up and the hospitalization rates down,” she said.

“And then, he’s got dollars. How can you compete with that?”

But Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Sacramento-area Republican, argued that it’s still early — and that Democrats may be getting overconfident. He sees the polling as “pretty favorable” for Republicans despite 57 percent of likely voters saying they don’t want to recall Newsom.

“Right now there’s a 40 percent floor for the recall — support which you can count on, and which has been durable … and that’s before people have really tuned in. They’re saying “we’re ready to remove him right now.”

And “we have several months to really look at the governor’s time in office,” he added. “He’s running 11 points behind the president in approval ratings in California — so there’s a level of dissatisfaction.”

Kiley said he’s “seriously” considering jumping into the race to deliver a “focused conversation” to voters of all political stripes on “why is it, in California, we sacrifice the most, and we get the least we return.”

Republicans may have one potent tool in their quest to out Newsom: the passion of their voters for removing him. A recent Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll showed 75 percent of Republicans had a high interest in the recall — more than double the share of Democrats and independents.

And Republicans such as Kiley or Richard Grenell, a former associate of President Donald Trump, may be biding their time until the election draws closer and the political winds shift more in their direction.

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Guinea declares end to latest Ebola outbreak

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“I commend the affected communities, the government and people of Guinea, health workers, partners and everyone else whose dedicated efforts made it possible to contain this Ebola outbreak,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

“Based on the lessons learned from the 2014–16 outbreak and through rapid, coordinated response efforts, community engagement, effective public health measures and the equitable use of vaccines, Guinea managed to control the outbreak and prevent its spread beyond its borders.” The U.N. said it will continue to provide post-illness care.

The CDC welcomed the news in a statement.

“I commend the government and first responders in Guinea for ending the country’s Ebola outbreak,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. “Our heartfelt sympathies are with the people who lost loved ones to this disease. CDC remains committed to supporting survivor programs and helping strengthen global preparedness and response capacities that can prevent or extinguish future Ebola outbreaks.”

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Hard-line judiciary head wins Iran presidency amid low turnout

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In initial results, former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei won 3.3 million votes and moderate Abdolnasser Hemmati got 2.4 million, said Jamal Orf, the head of Iran’s Interior Ministry election headquarters. The race’s fourth candidate, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, had around 1 million votes, Orf said.

Hemmati offered his congratulations on Instagram to Raisi early Saturday.

“I hope your administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran, improves the economy and life with comfort and welfare for the great nation of Iran,” he wrote.

On Twitter, Rezaei praised Khamenei and the Iranian people for taking part in the vote.

“God willing, the decisive election of my esteemed brother, Ayatollah Dr. Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, promises the establishment of a strong and popular government to solve the country’s problems,” Rezaei wrote.

The quick concessions, while not unusual in Iran’s previous elections, signaled what semiofficial news agencies inside Iran had been hinting at for hours: That the carefully controlled vote had been a blowout win for Raisi amid the boycott calls.

As night fell Friday, turnout appeared far lower than in Iran’s last presidential election in 2017. At one polling place inside a mosque in central Tehran, a Shiite cleric played soccer with a young boy as most of its workers napped in a courtyard. At another, officials watched videos on their mobile phones as state television blared beside them, offering only tight shots of locations around the country — as opposed to the long, snaking lines of past elections.

Balloting came to a close at 2.a.m. Saturday, after the government extended voting to accommodate what it called “crowding” at several polling places nationwide. Paper ballots, stuffed into large plastic boxes, were to be counted by hand through the night, and authorities said they expected to have initial results and turnout figures Saturday morning at the earliest.

“My vote will not change anything in this election, the number of people who are voting for Raisi is huge and Hemmati does not have the necessary skills for this,” said Hediyeh, a 25-year-old woman who gave only her first name while hurrying to a taxi in Haft-e Tir Square after avoiding the polls. “I have no candidate here.”

Iranian state television sought to downplay the turnout, pointing to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms surrounding it ruled by hereditary leaders, and the lower participation in Western democracies. After a day of amplifying officials’ attempts to get out the vote, state TV broadcast scenes of jam-packed voting booths in several provinces overnight, seeking to portray a last-minute rush to the polls.

But since the 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, Iran’s theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy, beginning with its first referendum that won 98.2% support that simply asked whether or not people wanted an Islamic Republic.

The disqualifications affected reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord.

Voter apathy also has been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid months of surging coronavirus cases. Poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though it still remains short of weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus could be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Speculation already has begun that Raisi might be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

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Apathy greets Iran presidential vote dominated by hard-liner

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“My vote will not change anything in this election, the number of people who are voting for Raisi is huge and Hemmati does not have the necessary skills for this,” said Hediyeh, a 25-year-old woman who gave only her first name while hurrying to a taxi in Haft-e Tir Square after avoiding the polls. “I have no candidate here.”

Iranian state television sought to downplay the turnout, pointing to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms surrounding it ruled by hereditary leaders and the lower participation in Western democracies. But since the 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, Iran’s theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy, beginning with its first referendum that won 98.2% support that simply asked whether or not people wanted an Islamic Republic.

The disqualifications affected reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord. Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also blocked from running, said on social media he’d boycott the vote.

Voter apathy also has been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid months of surging coronavirus cases. Poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though it still remains short of weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus could be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Speculation already has begun that Raisi might be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

Khamenei cast the first vote from Tehran, urging the public to “go ahead, choose and vote.”

Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shiite tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, voted from a mosque in southern Tehran. The cleric acknowledged in comments afterward that some may be “so upset that they don’t want to vote.”

“I beg everyone, the lovely youths, and all Iranian men and women speaking in any accent or language from any region and with any political views, to go and vote and cast their ballots,” Raisi said.

But few appeared to heed the call. There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation of over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout will be just 44%, which would be the lowest since the revolution. Officials gave no turnout figures Friday, though results could come Saturday.

Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being an Islamic Republic — a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy — to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader, who already has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defense and atomic program.

“This is not acceptable,” said former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who sought to change the theocracy from the inside during eight years in office. “How would this conform to being a republic or Islamic?”

For his part, Khamenei warned of “foreign plots” seeking to depress turnout in a speech Wednesday. A flyer handed out on the streets of Tehran by hard-liners echoed that and bore the image of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020. A polling station was set up by Soleimani’s grave on Friday.

Some voters appeared to echo that call.

“We cannot leave our destiny in the hands of foreigners and let them decide for us and create conditions that will be absolutely harmful for us,” said Tehran voter Shahla Pazouki.

Also hurting a moderate like Hemmati is the public anger aimed at Rouhani over the collapse of the deal, despite ongoing talks in Vienna to revive it. Iran’s already-ailing economy has suffered since, with double-digit inflation and mass unemployment.

“It is useless,” said Ali Hosseini, a 36-year-old unemployed resident in southern Tehran, about voting. “Anyone who wins the election after some time says he cannot solve problem of the economy because of intervention by influential people. He then forgets his promises and we poor people again remain disappointed.”

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