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July 31 2015 1:15 PM

Hillary Wants to Make Cuba a Campaign Issue. That’s Smart.

Hillary Clinton went into Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio’s backyard on Friday to offer her support for the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba and to call on Congress to lift the decades-old trade embargo on the communist country.

While she has written about lifting the embargo before, this speech was the clearest indication yet that she plans to make a campaign issue out of a topic that presidential candidates, particularly democrats, have long preferred to avoid.

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In the speech at Florida International University in Miami, Clinton called the embargo a “failed policy” that is “unintentionally helping the regime keep Cuba a closed society.” She continued: 

The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all. We should replace it with a smarter approach that empowers the Cuban private sector, Cuban civil society, and the Cuban-American community to spur progress and keep pressure on the regime.
Today I am calling on Speaker [John] Boehner and Senator [Mitch] McConnell to step up and answer the pleas of the Cuban people. By large majorities, they want a closer relationship with America. They want to buy our goods, read our books, surf our web, and learn from our people. They want to bring their country into the 21st century. That is the road toward democracy and dignity. We should walk it together.

Should congress fail to act, Clinton vowed that as president she would “use executive authority to make it possible for more Americans to visit Cuba.”  

Clinton, who back in 2008 criticized then-primary opponent Obama for his promises to engage with Catro’s government, more or less took ownership of the Obama administration’s recent Cuba moves in the speech. She also reiterated what she had said in her book Hard Choices about having recommended to the president that he take a look at ending the embargo at the end of her tenure as secretary of state.

In the speech, she pledged more support to democratic reforms in Cuba and opponents of the Castro regime. In one of the speech’s more interest moments, she gave a nod to Miriam Leiva—the founder of an advocacy group of wives and female relatives of jailed dissidents that had previously criticized Clinton for calling to end the embargo—who was in the crowd. Clinton also praised the Cuban-American community in Miami as a “compelling advertisement for the benefits of democracy and an open society.”

As for her Republican opponents, she accused them of viewing “Cuba and Latin American more broadly through an outdated cold war lens” as a “land of crime and coups” rather than “free markets and free people.” Should the recent moves be reversed, she suggested, “no one will benefit more than the hardliners in Havana.”

With frequent references to the power of free-market capitalism to transform societies, the speech seemed designed to put Republican candidates in the position of defending the increasingly unpopular embargo. The embargo was once a third rail of American electoral politics, but no longer. A healthy majority of Americans support ending the embargo, including 59 percent of Republicans. Even a narrow majority of Cuban-Americans support the Obama administration’s recent moves.  Obama won the once staunchly Republican Cuban vote in Florida in 2012. While a large portion of that community strongly opposes lifting the embargo, Clinton is clearly betting that by keeping the emphasis on the right of Cuban-Americans to maintain contact with their families and the power of good old American capitalism to transform the island, she can keep their votes.

A bill proposed by a bipartisan group of senators to lift the embargo altogether seems unlikely to see a vote in the current congress, but politically, Clinton may have a winning issue either way. Staunch opponents of normalizing relations would probably never vote for the Democrat anyway. If the embargo stays, she can continue to criticize a policy that an increasing majority of Americans don’t see the point of. If it’s lifted, she seems to be angling to take at least partial credit for it.   

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July 31 2015 10:43 AM

California Officials Would Really Appreciate It if Dingbats Stopped Flying Drones Over Forest Fires

Officials in one California county are offering $75,000 in rewards in the hope of catching drone operators whose devices have been getting in the way of larger aircraft trying to fight wildfires, while one member of the state's delegation in Congress has proposed federal prison time for operators who send drones over fires on federal land.

The Los Angeles Times reports that San Bernadino County, where pilots battling wildfires have been forced to delay operations on at least three occasions since mid-June to avoid colliding with drones, is offering a $25,000 reward for help identifying the amateur operators in each of the cases:

Drones first became a problem in the county during the Lake fire, which ignited June 17 and burned through more than 31,000 acres of wildlands in the San Bernardino National Forest and nearby San Gorgonio Wilderness.
Low-flying aircraft were preparing to drop fire retardant over flames in the Barton Flats area when a 3- to 4-foot drone was seen buzzing between two planes. Fire officials immediately grounded the aircraft. Fire officials later saw a second drone in the area.
On July 12—the first day of the Mill 2 fire—officials had to briefly suspend a tanker after a drone was spotted flying over Mill Creek Canyon near California 38.
And for about 25 minutes, officials had to halt tankers over the July 17 North fire, which jumped Interstate 15 near California 138 and destroyed dozens of vehicles, U.S. Forest Service officials said.
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After interference during the North fire, which sent motorists on Interstate 15 fleeing on foot as fire consumed their cars, state lawmakers proposed a pair of bills that would make flying drones over fires a misdemeanor carrying up to $2,000 in fines and shield emergency personnel from liability for swatting them out of the way. U.S. Rep. Paul Cook, a Republican from California's Eighth District, has also introduced legislation that would threaten more than fines (or mangling of one's expensive toy) for operators that fly drones over fire zones in federal areas—H.R. 3025, the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act, was proposed by Cook earlier this month and would make flying a drone over a fire on federal land a federal offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

As San Bernadino National Forest aviation officer Mike Eaton told KTLA, authorities are already empowered to create aviation exclusion areas over federal land during fire operations, though such rules were written with traditional aircraft in mind. The FAA did once try to fine a drone operator in Virginia $10,000 for recklessness during a non-fire-related flight in 2011, but the case took several years ro resolve and ended up being settled for $1,100 without an admission of guilt. As drones become more affordable, there are bound to be more people who use them to buzz disasters with cameras attached, perhaps hoping to see their Twitter handles credited when the footage shows up on the local news—so whether or not any of these newly proposed rules become law, it seems likely that some additional restrictions on drones will be coming to protect the interests of emergency responders.

July 31 2015 9:38 AM

Ebola Vaccine Was 100 Percent Effective in Recent Trial

No one from a group of 4,123 potentially Ebola-exposed individuals in the West African country of Guinea developed the disease after receiving a trial vaccine, a group of health authorities announced Friday, one of the most promising developments yet in the effort to eradicate the disease. Here's more detail on the trial from the Lancet:

Between April 1, 2015, and July 20, 2015, 90 clusters, with a total population of 7651 people were included in the planned interim analysis. 48 of these clusters (4123 people) were randomly assigned to immediate vaccination with rVSV-ZEBOV, and 42 clusters (3528 people) were randomly assigned to delayed vaccination with rVSV-ZEBOV. In the immediate vaccination group, there were no cases of Ebola virus disease with symptom onset at least 10 days after randomisation, whereas in the delayed vaccination group there were 16 cases of Ebola virus disease from seven clusters, showing a vaccine efficacy of 100% (95% CI 74·7–100·0; p=0·0036). No new cases of Ebola virus disease were diagnosed in vaccinees from the immediate or delayed groups from 6 days post-vaccination.
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Said a Doctors Without Borders official in a statement: "Even if the sample size is quite small and more research and analysis is needed, the enormity of the public health emergency should lead us to continue using this vaccine right now to protect those who might get exposed to the disease."

There were seven new Ebola cases reported in West Africa in the most recent week for which data available. More than 11,000 people have died in total from the disease during an outbreak that began last year.

July 31 2015 8:58 AM

Who Needs Snow? Beijing to Host 2022 Olympics.

Beijing will be the first city ever to host both the summer and winter Olympics after the IOC announced in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, on Friday morning that the Chinese capital will be home to the 2022 Olympic games.

While it can get pretty chilly, Beijing isn’t typically thought of as a winter sports wonderland. Three inches of snow is considered a record-breaking blizzard there. The plan is to hold the snow-based competitions in Zhangjiakou in Heibei province, about 120 miles north of the city. After subtropical Sochi, a lack of snow is clearly not a dealbreaker for the IOC. 

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The candidate cities were down to just Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, after a number of other cities including Krakow, Poland, and Oslo, Norway, dropped out of the bidding, many citing public opposition to the expense of hosting the games.

Despite Kazakhstan’s recent oil and gas-driven economic boom, Beijing was considered the safer choice. China proved during the 2008 Summer Games that it can put on quite a show, and the IOC can be fairly confident the country will have no trouble completing facilities on time, unlike some other recent and upcoming hosts. There are concerns about Beijing’s infamous smog, but the government is confident the air will be better in seven years—all the major coal plants around the capital are being taken offline next year. Despite similar worries about air quality last time around, the government was able to manufacture a few sunny days by temporarily shutting down factories near the city. The IOC will face criticism from human rights groups for yet another dictatorship-hosted games, but Kazakhstan is only marginally better on that score.

The decision comes the same week that Boston dropped its bid to host the 2024 Summer Games amid widespread public opposition and 2016 host Rio de Janeiro got more bad press around its preparations. Tecent tests have show that the swimming and boating events in Rio will be held in what one scientist called “basically raw sewage”—not the sort of headline Brazilian officials probably had in mind when they bid for the games.

Around the world, publics officials are getting wise to the fact that huge sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup usually don’t bring the promised economic benefits and aren’t great for publicity either (particularly for developing-world megacities with major infrastructure challenges like Rio). Increasingly, only resource-rich autocratic governments that don’t have to concern themselves with public opinion or civil society backlash are becoming interested in hosting such events.  

Given how few cities at this point have the political ability to mount a successful bid, it’s certainly possible Almaty might get another shot. 

July 31 2015 7:00 AM

Did a Building Kill Four Professors at a New Orleans College?

At the intersection of class, race, university politics and the lingering damage of Hurricane Katrina lie the bodies of four professors from Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO), a historically African-American institution that primarily serves older, returning students. The professors died within three months of each other, and they all worked for years on the same floor of a building that leading environmental health experts have deemed uninhabitable. Now, thanks to a damning three-part investigation in the New Orleans Times-Picayune by reporter Jed Lipinski, folks are finally starting to wonder in public what many of the professors’ colleagues have been asking in private: Did the building kill them?

“The evidence suggests that the water-damaged building was a contributing factor to the occurrence of the four fatalities,” toxicologist and physician Michael Gray told the Times-Picayune. As microbiologist and immunologist David Straus put it, “This was not a building you wanted to have people working or living in.”

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When the levees broke in 2005, the SUNO campus was deluged with four and a half feet of water, causing $600 million in damage. By the time power was restored in 2008, the Multipurpose Building, where the four professors worked, had sustained extreme damage. After faculty moved back in, they lodged complaint after complaint with the administration of respiratory symptoms, nausea, and migraines. The mold Stachybotrys—which contains, as Lipinski writes, “potent toxins that, if inhaled, can adversely affect the central nervous system”—was present in 25 of 62 interior air samples taken by the firm responsible for the Multipurpose Building’s “successful” remediation.

There is no empirical medical evidence (yet) that directly links any of the professors’ deaths with mold exposure: Sudipta Das, 60, and Marina Dumas-Haynes, 57, both had recurrences of breast cancer; Guillarne Leary, 72, died of a pulmonary embolism; Felix James, 76, died of heart disease. A skeptic might say that the deaths of 50-, 60- and 70-something professors with other health issues were simply a tragic coincidence. But the experts Lipinski consulted said the conditions in the Multipurpose Building may have exacerbated the illnesses that killed the professors. According to Tulane medical professor Maureen Lichtveld, they could have had compromised immune systems that drastically increased the chance of chronic infection. Individuals with prolonged exposure to dust and mold can develop chronic inflammatory response syndrome—which at least one reputable study found increased the chance of a breast cancer recurrence twofold, and another found carried a significant risk of lung clotting.

Lipinski’s investigation also captures the domineering style of chancellor Victor Ukpolo and his administration and how the poor state of the job market in New Orleans—academic or otherwise—might have prevented faculty from taking other, safer work. Now, SUNO may close altogether. But the service SUNO’s faculty and staff perform to a traditionally underserved demographic—lower-income, older African-American students—is vitally important to the community. It would be tragedy compounded if the university were now driven into the ground.

July 31 2015 12:16 AM

Here Are Some Things the Internet Thinks Should Make You Madder Than Cecil the Lion

The death of Cecil the lion has turned into the hunt for Walter Palmer as the Minnesota dentist revealed as the beloved lion's killer has gone underground to avoid questions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the wrath the collective Internet. 

As the vitriol directed at Palmer spread this week, so did expressions of the sentiment that if we could spare the outrage for a beheaded lion, we should be able to spare some outrage for a variety of non-lion things:

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Other animals that have died recently

There are endangered animals at risk all over the world, not least in Africa. Five elephants were killed for their tusks in Kenya, the Washington Post noted, "as the world mourned Cecil the lion."

The animals in need of attention aren't all rare. They might just be prepared rare.

Abortion

Florida Senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Marco Rubio had something to say about Cecil and some videos he's been watching, and there was no shortage of conservatives chiming in with similar thoughts.

Black Lives Matter

Sandra Bland, Sam DuBose, and others who have died in police custody or as a result of police violence were mentioned by activists as deserving some of the attention directed toward the death of Cecil.*

People in Zimbabwe

As Retuers pointed out Thursday the sentiment stirred by Cecil's death is not shared by many Zimbabweans, and the outpouring of grief is perplexing to people dealing with tough economic and social problems in addition to the occasional threat to life and property by wild animals:

"Why are the Americans more concerned than us?" said Joseph Mabuwa, a 33-year-old father-of-two cleaning his car in the center of the capital. "We never hear them speak out when villagers are killed by lions and elephants in Hwange."

*Correction, July 31, 2015: This post originally misspelled the name of Sam DuBose.

July 30 2015 11:38 PM

Rep. Steve King Says Obergefell Ruling Means You Can Marry a Lawnmower

Reactionary Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King has long been one of Congress' go-to sources for insane yet admirably creative sound bites, having once called an undocumented immigrant who attended the State of the Union a "deportable" and asserted that for every immigrant who's brought to the United States as a child and becomes a valedictorian there are 100 more who become drug mules with "calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert." King was at it again Thursday at an Iowa event for evangelical 2016 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee:

A July 7 article in an Iowa newspaper quotes King elaborating on this unique interpretation of the Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges:

I had a strong, Christian lawyer tell me yesterday that, under this decision that he has read, what it brings about is: It only requires one human being in this relationship—that you could marry your your lawnmower with this decision. I think he's right.
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First it's men marrying men. Then men marrying dogs. Then lawnmowers. You might ask, Where does it end? I'll tell you where it ends: With every man in America being ordered to marry a dog that's riding a lawnmower.

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Screen shot/YouTube/MrSkylar78

Good dog!

July 30 2015 8:54 PM

New Body Cam Videos Show Cops Coalescing Around False Narrative of Sam DuBose Killing

Two police officers who supported the apparently false narrative given by officer Ray Tensing to justify his fatal shooting of unarmed black motorist Sam DuBose have been placed on paid administrative leave, as two new videos that seem to further damage all three officers’ original accounts were made public on Thursday.

Tensing was charged with murdering DuBose on Wednesday and city officials released video footage from his body camera that seemed to contradict the officer’s account that he shot DuBose in self-defense after being dragged by the driver's car.

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On Thursday, Tensing pled not guilty to murdering DuBose and his lawyer said the charges were unwarranted. Stewart Mathews also gave a possible preview of his client’s defense, saying that the officer was knocked to the ground, dragged, and “feared for his life.”

This account—which appeared to be contradicted by the video from Tensing’s body camera that showed him firing his gun and then falling down—was very similar to the stories initially given by two of Tensing’s fellow University of Cincinnati officers on the scene, Phillip Kidd and David Lindenschmidt, who have both now been placed on leave.

Furthermore, the body cameras of Kidd and Lindenschmidt—made public on Thursday—show just how quickly Tensing and his colleagues coalesced around a false narrative of how the incident occurred. The footage should serve as a powerful lesson to anyone who automatically believes the accounts of police officers in these types of shooting incidents, for which cops are rarely prosecuted.

In Kidd’s video, he can be seen chasing after DuBose’s car alongside Tensing after the fatal shot was fired and the vehicle went out of control. After the car crashes and the chase ends, you can hear Tensing say “I thought he was going to run me over.”

As Tensing appears to formulate his story, you can hear Kidd confirm it aloud. Tensing says “he was dragging me” and Kidd replies “yeah, I saw that.”

At the three minute and 30 second mark in the above video, Tensing repeats “he was dragging me, man” and then says “I just got my hand and my arm caught.” Again, Kidd replies “I saw that.” Kidd then curses and asks Tensing “what was he reaching for?” Tensing replies “He kept reaching around. I told him to step out of the car. He couldn’t produce a license.”

Tensing then says “I almost got ran over” and Kidd responds “don’t—don’t say anything,” before cursing again.

Later in the video, another officer asks Kidd if he saw Tensing being dragged and he says “yes.”

Kidd backed up Tensing’s account in the official police report of the incident. Lindenschmidt, however, was portrayed as more circumspect in that document, which says “It is unclear how much of this incident [officer in training] Lindenschmidt witnessed.”

But Lindenschmidt’s body cam video, which also starts off with him chasing DuBose’s out-of-control car, shows him supporting what appears to be a false narrative of the shooting as well.

Lindenschmidt initially asks Tensing “what’d he pull on you?” After Tensing doesn’t answer, he asks again “he pulled?” This time, Tensing responds “he didn’t reach for anything.”

At about the four-minute mark in the above video Lindenschmidt tells another officer the exact opposite, though. “He had a traffic stop, the guy took off from him. The officer got caught in his car, because the guy reached for something—he thought—and so he grabbed onto the car,” Lindenschmidt says, contradicting what Tensing had just told him. “Our officer went down, he got tangled in the car, drew his gun and fired.”

At just after the seven-minute mark, Lindenschmidt actually describes the shooting accurately, though, saying that Tensing fired before the car went dangerously out of control. (In the video, the car appears to go out of control only after DuBose had been shot when he had apparently attempted to start to pull the car away from Tensing.) “I was right behind him. He fired from right here and the guy took off,” Lindenschmidt says to another officer, getting the order of events correct.

Lindenschmidt then appears to go back to the other order: “I just arrived to back him up when the guy took off. The officer was stuck in the vehicle. Fired one round.”

At the end of the video, Lindenschmidt says “I’m going to turn my camera off” before being instructed to "keep it on for now." That's when the footage ends.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Thursday that he told DuBose’s family his office would examine what Tensing’s colleagues "said and how they said it, but I did urge them to remember that our focus is on the shooting."

In an emotional press conference on Wednesday, DuBose’s sister Terina Allen said that Tensing would not have been indicted without the video footage “because the second officer was ready to corroborate every lie that the first officer said in the report.”

The Enquirer also reported that Kidd and Eric Weibel, the officer who wrote the initial report on the incident, had been named as defendants in a 2010 wrongful death lawsuit by the family of an unarmed mentally ill man who died a few days after being restrained and tasered by police.

Weibel included what can at the very least be described as his own embellished description of how Tensing looked like his clothes “had been dragged over a rough surface” after the incident. He has not yet been reported to have been placed on administrative leave.

The Enquirer also reported that Kidd could be charged for giving a false statement.

“It was a false statement. The video evidence doesn’t support it,” Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist who gathers data on officer arrests, said of Kidd’s description of the incident. “There seems to be the elements of a crime there.”

The Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio chairman Bruce Szilagyi seemed to support the officers in question when he said that video footage didn't always tell the whole story. “People who watch an encounter on video using the slow motion setting to determine what happened have a luxury that police on the street don’t,” Szilagyi said.“We make split second decisions. Some are right, some are wrong. but all of our decisions are made with an eye toward protecting the public and ourselves.”

July 30 2015 8:22 PM

Iowa Killjoys Won’t Let Donald Trump Land Helicopter in Middle of State Fair

There’s not a lot right now that can put the brakes on Donald Trump, but he has apparently been thwarted in his latest quest to bigfoot the Republican primary by the bosses of the Iowa State Fair.

The British tabloid the Daily Mail published an interview with Trump Thursday in which the candidate talked excitedly about Iowa’s “World's Fair,” which gets underway in early August, and where Trump was planning on bringing his 12-passenger Sikorsky helicopter to entertain the kids and prevent any attention from accidentally being paid to any of his 2016 rivals.

“We’re going to fly it out to Iowa and I’m going to have it there,” he said in his Manhattan office, initially referring to the annual event as “The World’s Fair.”
“I look forward to that. I went there once years ago,” he said. “It was so great. So many people.”
And so many Republican primary voters. With children.
“I’m going to try giving kids lifts in the helicopter,” he said near the end of a half-hour interview that ranged in topics from high finance to Hillary Clinton’s “low class.”
“You know, young kids. Yeah!” Trump said, sounding like a kid who’s just built his first pinewood derby car.
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Sadly for Trump, and the many cable television producers looking forward to video of him being mobbed by hordes of helicopter-crazed children, state fair officials say a Trump touchdown “will not be happening” at the fair. “Trump did not ask for permission to do so, nor would he be granted permission if he does indeed seek it,” according to the Des Moines Register.

Trump could still find a way to land somewhere near the fairgrounds, but it might be better to deploy this particular stunt at a different event anyhow. Maybe Trump hasn’t spent much time on the ground at the Iowa State Fair, where outrageous, borderline-dangerous foodstuffs are an indispensible part of its storied culture. Does he really want to use a $7 milllion chopper full of cream-colored Italian leather and gold-plated seatbelt buckles to take 10 children who’ve been stuffed with Deep Fried Nacho Balls and Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bombs, then baked all day in the midwestern sun, on their first helicopter ride? 

July 30 2015 4:04 PM

Fox News’ Debate Criteria Are a Total Sham

As pollsters and number-crunching journalists have already pointed out, Fox News’ decision to use five national polls to determine who makes it onstage—and who doesn’t—at the first GOP debate isn’t exactly a scientific process. As Bloomberg’s Steven Yaccino put it, “Methodologically, they might as well be drawing straws.”

It turns out, though, that drawing straws for the final few spots on stage could actually be fairer than what will actually happen next Tuesday at Fox News HQ. It would certainly be more transparent. As New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman points out, with less than a week to go before the field is set, the conservative cable network hasn’t specifically said how it will go about deciding which polls it will use and which it will ignore. “We don’t know what methodology they’re going to use,” one concerned John Kasich adviser told Sherman. “We’ve been asking the question and they haven’t shared.”

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The most specific criterion the network has offered publicly to date is that its polling experts will select “the five most recent national polls, as recognized by Fox News”—a statement that effectively says that Fox News will pick the polls that Fox News picks. This isn’t a minor point: With the bottom half of the GOP field so tightly packed and with so much variability from one poll to the next, if Fox execs wait until the last moment, they won’t be picking polls—they’ll be selecting candidates. And as the head of a cable network that thrives on conservative chaos, Fox News chief Roger Ailes is hardly a disinterested observer. Worse still, Ailes is making those decisions in secret while hiding behind the polls in public.

Here’s more from Sherman, who literally wrote the book on Fox News:

Inside Fox, the debate is generating controversy among Ailes’s senior ranks. “There’s total confusion about all of it. The Second Floor is making it up as they go along,” one Fox personality told me, referring to Ailes’s executive suite. According to sources, Fox executives are still undecided about which polls to use and who will be allowed on the stage. … Even inside Fox, some are awed that a presidential race is being influenced by a television channel. “Crazy stuff,” another personality told me, “you have a TV executive deciding who is in — and out — of a debate!”

The stakes are particularly high for Kasich, Rick Perry, and Chris Christie, who currently have the best chances of snagging one of the final two spots on the main stage. For them, a few points in a single poll could mean the difference between getting the opportunity for a breakout on the main stage and being forced to sit awkwardly at the losers forum during what could be the beginning of the end for campaigns that have barely began. Of course, candidates who miss out on the debate will have good reason to direct their anger elsewhere: Fox News is sure to be hiring again soon.

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