The New York Times leads with a preview of tomorrow's presidential election in the Ukraine—the third contest in a rabid and tumultuous series between opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. Yanukovich, whose victory in the first runoff on Nov. 21 was overturned by the Supreme Court amid allegations of fraud, has already vowed to challenge the results of Sunday's election, just as his supporters have threatened another round of nation-halting demonstrations. The Washington Post leads with Day 2 of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's surprise visit to Iraq, where he told a gathering of troops never to mind claims that the U.S. is in a quagmire. "There have always been people throughout every conflict in the history of the world who said it couldn't be done," he said. And on a front page with little national news, the Los Angeles Times goes high with California Democrats' plan to bypass Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's vetoes by putting progressive measures directly on the ballot—including programs to raise the state's minimum wage and make prescription drugs more affordable.
Yushchenko—the candidate disfigured by a dioxin poisoning—is widely expected to win a plurality Sunday, a notion that has put his opponent firmly on the defensive. "The election will be considered illegitimate, regardless of who wins," Yanukovich said. He's alleged that laws limiting absentee and home voting—both thought to be sources of fraud in the first runoff—are disenfranchising millions of elderly and disabled voters. A legal challenge by his supporters is now being reviewed by the nation's constitutional court. There have also been worries about a violent backlash—China's Xinhua quotes Yushchenko as he implores police to prevent unrest: "It will be a colossal mistake by the authorities if even one drop of blood is shed."
The WP fronts the plight frightened Iraqi Christians are facing this weekend. With worshippers concerned about possible anti-Christian attacks, many services have been canceled or rescheduled, and police presence at most churches has increased.
Another NYT front covers a military memorial for two of the soldiers killed Tuesday in Mosul. The reporter pieces together first-hand accounts of the grisly attack—the worst on U.S. forces since the state regained sovereignty this summer. Interspersed are sobering reactions from fellow soldiers and family members.
The WP trumpets the opinion of one high-level army officer that U.S. commanders did not adequately plan for the aftermath of major combat operations in Iraq, and that the campaign there has been "mediocre" overall. Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, the article says, is the first insider "familiar with top-secret planning" to criticize the military's lack of preparation "so authoritatively and publicly." Wilson says the Army's shortsightedness caused the U.S. to lose the dominant position on the ground in summer 2003, and it has "been playing catch-up ever since."
The NYT runs a heartening report that Medicare and affiliated organizations have started a broad effort to reward hospitals for adhering to basic procedures shown to reduce mortality rates and to punish the hospitals who don't. The program is based on Medicare's finding that many doctors simply forget to prescribe treatments that are known to dependably save lives—such as that pneumonia sufferers should receive antibiotics within four hours of admission (a rule some hospitals break more than half the time). The program will seek to whip care providers into shape by increasing funding to those who follow the rules.
The LAT reports on a group of soldiers in Iraq as they celebrate Christmas by playing spades and watching their families open gifts on the Webcam.
Another NYT feature looks at the rising income gap between China's rural poor and nouveau riche, a situation reminiscent of America's robber baron days. The article centers on a rich land developer who has built a replica of a famous French chateau (whose rooms will be rented to wealthy businesspeople) on land confiscated from peasant wheat farmers.
Star Wars missile defense is still more fiction than science, asserts an LAT front. That's because the science underlying one of the program's linchpins—the "boost-phase," where the system targets and fires at enemy missiles just after they're launched—"would press the far edge of what is physically possible in an antimissile system," according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office. A few weeks ago, the Pentagon said it wouldn't be able to deploy existing pieces of the $50 billion project on schedule because it hadn't been completely tested.
Best TV of 2004: New York's WPIX-TV is beefing up its yule log special, the much-loved Christmas television event in which viewers can watch a piece of wood burn for four hours (here's the laptop version). This year's yule log will be broadcast for the first time in High Definition. With the improved sharpness, the show is expected to win its timeslot for the fouth year in a row.