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Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen held a press briefing today about the increasingly unpopular and violent war in Afghanistan.

"We have to start to turn this thing around ... over the next 12 or 18 months," said Mullen, adding a note of confidence. "We know how to do this."

"Our mission is to defeat Al-Qaeda and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven again. We need the support of the local population," he said. "The number that counts the most is the number of villagers we protect."

Gates also addressed the recent scandal over private contractors charged with guarding the U.S. embassy in Kabul, who allegedly engaged in hazing and partying while working at the embassy.

"I don't think we have the information to say what ought to be done," he said. "If those allegations are true, those activities are not just offensive to Afghans and Muslims, they're offensive to us, and inexcusable."

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The fallout from Mark Sanford's Argentinian romance is getting increasingly nasty.

Yesterday, State Senator Jake Knotts, a Republican but a committed Sanford foe, sent a letter to fellow lawmakers, in which he accused unnamed supporters of the bed-hopping chief exec of planting a rumor that Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer -- who would become governor if Sanford steps down -- is gay.

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No big surprise here, but at this stage of the game it's worth keeping tabs on what all the key players are saying. Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus says a public option probably isn't gonna make it.

"I'm not sure if public option is going to survive, frankly," Baucus told a crowd in Missoula today, saying a co-op system is much more likely.

Baucus has been fairly mum on his own preferences since handing over the fate of health care reform to the now-defunct Gang of Six. Though he once endorsed a public option, his committee walked away from the measure long ago, and a Finance Committee staffer told me last month that the proposal that eventually emerges from the Finance Committee will represent what Baucus believes can survive the Senate.

The aggressive punch-throwing man whose finger was bitten off at a health reform rally in California last night now has a name: William J. Rice. And chances are, he won't be charged with a crime.

That's according to Capt. Ross Bonfiglio, a public information officer with the Ventura County Sheriffs Department, who I just spoke to. Bonfiglio said Rice -- an anti-reform protester whose severed finger was reattached last night courtesy of Medicare -- is 65, lives in Newbury Park and has cooperated with sheriffs deputies.

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A new Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll gives further confirmation that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is in serious trouble headed into his 2010 re-election campaign, with him trailing both potential Republican opponents.

Against former UNLV basketball player Danny Tarkanian, who has previously run unsuccessful campaigns for the state Senate for Nevada Secretary of State, Reid trails by 45%-40%. Against state GOP chair Sue Lowden, Reid is behind 44%-41%. These results are within the ±4% margin of error, but are hardly encouraging.

A Mason-Dixon poll from a week and a half ago also showed Reid trailing Tarkanian and Lowden, by greater margins than this survey does.

Many liberals may be readying themselves for the worst. But MoveOn and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are filling the political space between now and President Obama's big Wednesday health care speech by pressuring him to support or demand a public option.

Both groups have blasted out petitions to their hundreds of thousands of members in the hope that a major public showing in support of the public option will convince Obama that there will be a political price to pay for abandoning it.

The MoveON petition reads: "President Obama, we're counting on you to fight for bold change on health care--including a strong public health insurance option. It's the key to breaking the stranglehold that private insurers have over our health care system."

While PCCC's is a bit bolder. "We worked so hard for real change. President Obama, please demand a strong public health insurance option in your speech to Congress. Letting the insurance companies win would not be change we can believe in."

You can read each group's letter to its members below the fold.

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A 65-year-old health care reform supporter was punched in the face Wednesday during a rally outside a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce meeting with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).

According to the Miami Herald, Luis Perrero was demonstrating with about 40 other supporters when Raul Anasagasti drove up in a pickup truck. Anasagasti and the crowd began arguing, and Perrero allegedly uttered an offensive Spanish expletive. Anasagasti then allegedly punched Perrero in the face, knocking him to the ground.

Perrero lay motionless on the grass for several minutes while fellow protesters tried to help him. Some took the keys out of Anasagasti's truck so he couldn't drive away. A Miami Fire spokesman said Perrero's injuries were minor and he didn't want to go to the hospital.

Anasagasti was arrested and charged with battery on a person 65 or older.

According to the Herald:

"I'm amazed at the way this has become such a politicized issue,'' Perrero said as he sat on the ground holding his jaw. ``It shows that people who are against the public option will resort to anything -- including battery on a senior citizen -- to prevent healthcare reform.''


Anasagasti, who is 56, claimed to be acting in self defense. "He raised his arm at me,'' he said. "That's when I hit him. I have to defend myself.''

Luckily, no one lost any limbs.

This season of Dancing With The Stars hasn't premiered yet, but here at TPM we've been keenly following Tom DeLay's progress. Earlier this week we brought you some great photos of the former House majority leader rehearsing with his partner, dancer (and two-time DWTS champ) Cheryl Burke.

So we thought we'd get Burke's thoughts on working with The Hammer.

"Tom is a gentleman and clearly devoted to his family," she told TPM in an email. "He's also a very interesting conversationalist."

Indeed! Like when he converses about, say, President Obama's birth certificate or that town hall where protesters "brought quadriplegics in on gurneys and dumped them on the floor in front of my podium."

"I think that so far Tom has been pretty much on par with the other celebs I've taught in terms of their learning abilities," Burke said. "Ballroom dance isn't easy and so far Tom has been really patient with himself, which is important to getting things accomplished. I think that for a 62- year-old man who hasn't danced in 20 years he's doing a great job."

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Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has some tough words for a particular member of his state's delegation -- Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann -- the Minnesota Independent reports.

"I don't think God's talking to her anymore," Oberstar said on Tuesday, in response to Bachmann's call for conservative activists to slit their wrists and become blood brothers against President Obama on health care. "I think she's hearing other voices."

The bit about God talking to Bachmann is not a random joke, by the way -- that's how Bachmann said she became a candidate for Congress in 2006, after God called her to run, and she and her husband fasted and prayed for three days to make sure.

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