The New York Times and Los Angeles Times lead with the countdown to Tuesday's Democratic primary in New Hampshire, where John Kerry maintains a significant lead over his rivals according to the most recent polls. The Washington Post fronts some campaign coverage but leads with a report that the Bush administration is increasingly open to tinkering with the controversial semi-democratic caucus system it has advanced as part of the June 30 transfer of power in Iraq.
According to the WP, U.S. officials told United Nations officials last week that "everything is on the table" regarding the transition to Iraqi self-rule except the date on which it is to take effect. Among the options that U.S. and U.N. officials tell the paper might be in play include a more transparent kind of caucus, a handover to an expanded version of the Iraqi Governing Council, or even some form of direct elections, an approach demanded by the leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the papers note that six American GI's and four Iraqi civilians were killed in separate attacks throughout the Sunni triangle Saturday and early Sunday, bringing the total of U.S. deaths to 513 since the start of the conflict. The attacks came as a U.N. team remains in the country, gauging whether conditions are secure enough for U.N. personnel to return in large numbers.
Post-Iowa deference continues to trump difference on the campaign trail, as the candidates keep things generally simpatico and stir-crazy reporters begin to indulge a weary, affectionate nostalgia for the quirky state they are about to leave. The consensus storyline holds that the primary is a race for second place among Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, and John Edwards, but the NYT notes that the lack of a Republican primary in the state could be a significant wild card since registered independents are expected to make up as many as half of the voters in Tuesday's Democratic contest.
A piece inside the WP, meanwhile, looks ahead and wonders aloud if the Feb. 3 Arizona primary won't be the most meaningful test of the early campaign. None of the candidates in the race is expected to have a particular regional advantage in the state, whose diverse population is growing at a rate of 400 people a day.
But a parade-dampener in the WP's "Outlook" section points out that although the primary system has become nominally more transparent over the years, it remains a remarkably undemocratic way to select presidential candidates. In 2000, for example, only 18 million people (some 9 percent of all those eligible to vote) had the chance to go to the polls before each party's nominees were effectively settled upon in early March.
The WP fronts a dispatch from Southeast Asia tracking the continuing spread of avian flu. Poultry farmers in Thailand, the world's fourth-largest chicken exporter, have been ordered to kill millions of their birds in recent weeks, and the country's two biggest customers have stopped accepting Thai poultry imports. Although only a few cases have so far been reported, and there's no evidence that the bird flu has passed from one person to another, public-health authorities are nonetheless concerned by its crossing the "species barrier" to infect people who have come in contact with diseased chickens or their droppings. Such an interspecies leap can help sidestep existing immunities and was a major factor in past deadly flu pandemics. The NYT cites a World Health Organization report that the current strain is apparently resistant to one of the two major classes of drugs used to fight the flu.
The LAT fronts a lengthy piece about flourishing Islamic extremism in Pakistan despite President Pervez Musharraf's vocal public campaign against same.
Embarking on just the second international trip of his vice-presidency, Dick Cheney addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland Saturday, downplaying talk of U.S. imperial ambitions and telling the crowd of business and political leaders, "Cooperation among our governments, and effective international institutions, are even more important than they have been in the past." (Among the other world leaders celebrating Groundhog Day a little early this year is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is scheduled to meet with Cheney later today having recently returned to the public eye after several weeks in seclusion during which he was rumored to be recuperating from cosmetic surgery.) Although anti-American sentiment at Davos has ebbed compared to last year, the NYT's "Week in Review" section reports that the atmosphere is laid back in a particularly uptight way: Attendees are fined five Swiss francs for the offense of wearing neckties.
The papers all report that the NASA probe Opportunity bounced safely to a stop on the far side of Mars early Sunday, half a world away from its ailing sister craft Spirit, which touched down three weeks ago. Engineers are once again receiving data from Spirit after a series of recent malfunctions (which the WP likens to an "electronic stroke"), but they say the lander remains in "serious condition" and may not resume its search for signs of Martian life for another three weeks or so.
All the papers also take note of a German-brokered agreement between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah under which Israel will free more than 400 Arab detainees in return for the release of a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the repatriation of the remains of three slain Israeli soldiers who had been taken prisoner in 2000.
Finally, the NYT's "Arts and Leisure" section profiles a loose-knit group of "unusually attractive, fashionably dressed and well-spoken" European women, some of whom work several jobs in order to support a unique hobby: extensive international travel in pursuit of Michael Jackson. One such fan from the Netherlands explains her peculiar devotion thusly: "Maybe there are two people who love dancing. Maybe one of those two people becomes a professional dancer and the other doesn't. Maybe they both have the same amount of talent, and all the same choices, but maybe one person prefers to follow their dream and the other prefers to accept that they're a great dancer, and that's it. Maybe we're the people who followed our dream."