Washington (CNN) - When Sarah Palin weighed in last week on the contentious special congressional election in New York, she did so in her trademark way: unconventionally.
While other potential 2012 presidential contenders largely stayed quiet on the divisive congressional race that has exposed fault lines in the party, Palin delivered a slap in the face to Republican Party leadership in Washington when she offered a full-throated endorsement of third-party conservative Doug Hoffman over the GOP's anointed candidate, Dede Scozzafava.
Palin's surprise backing - not even Hoffman's press secretary knew it was coming until it popped up on his Google reader - left some political observers scratching their heads, wondering why Sen. John McCain's running mate would risk alienating her party's establishment for a long-shot candidate in a race with little national visibility.
Palin's credibility with the conservative wing of her party is already solid, unlike other potential 2012 candidates who are either largely unknown to conservatives or appear too moderate, like possible 2012 contenders Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Instead, some strategists say Palin should begin to court less partisan-charged voters, or at least avoid alienating them, if she's serious about being a viable presidential candidate.
Follow Alex Mooney on Twitter @awmooneycnn
(CNN) - The national war of words between Sarah Palin and the man who was nearly her son-in-law flared up once again on Wednesday, as Levi Johnston accused Palin of frequently describing her son Trig, who has Down syndrome, as "retarded."
Palin's team shot back in an e-mail to reporters, calling the claim "inflammatory" and accusing CBS - the network that aired Johnston's latest interview - of "continually providing a forum to propagate lies."
"We have purposefully ignored the mean spirited, malicious and untrue attacks on our family," Palin spokeswoman Meg Stapleton said in the e-mail, on which Palin's lawyer Thomas Van Flein was copied. "We, like many, are appalled at the inflammatory statements being made or implied. Trig is our 'blessed little angel' who knows it and is lovingly called that every day of his life. Even the thought that anyone would refer to Trig by any disparaging name is sickening and sad."
WASHINGTON (CNN) –- A long-awaited House health care bill will likely include a “negotiated rate” public health insurance option, Rep. Chris Van Hollen told CNN after a closed-door meeting Wednesday with members of the House leadership to finalize their version of the legislation.
The House leadership announced after the meeting they will unveil their bill on Thursday. It will include a more moderate version of a public option, and Van Hollen - the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman from Maryland - said the entire bill will cost under $900 billion and reduce the deficit.
"The public option will be a public option and again there's going to be some final discussion within the caucus, but the likely result will be a negotiated rate public option, which is a public option that will create competition and choice,” Van Hollen said on CNN’s The Situation Room.
“We do not have an opt-out provision," he added, referring to a provision in the Senate version of the bill that would allow states to decide against including a public option.
"I think all this - people have lost sight of what our objective was to begin with and that is to have a public option out there," Van Hollen said.
Did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger mean to hide a message in this note?
(CNN) - Was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's message to state lawmakers unhappy - or obscene?
That's the current debate in California after the governor sent a letter directed to "Members of the California State Assembly" that appeared to have a subtle but pointed message hidden within the text.
The seven-line note in which the California Republican blasts the legislature for not advancing his administration's proposals on a host of issues appears innocuous enough at first glance.
But upon closer examination, the first letter of every line collectively spells 'f**k you'.
A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said the governor had no intent of hiding the message within his note, calling it a mere "coincidence."
–CNN's Carey Bodenheimer contributed to this story.
(CNN) - There is a well-known saying in Afghanistan: "You can rent an Afghan, but you can't buy him."
Some experts on the region believe a U.S. program to pay Taliban fighters to quit the organization is buying temporary loyalty.
President Obama on Wednesday signed a $680 billion defense appropriations bill, which will pay for military operations in the 2010 fiscal year. The bill includes a Taliban reintegration provision under the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which is now receiving $1.3 billion. CERP funding also is intended for humanitarian relief and reconstruction projects at commanders' discretion.
The buyout idea, according to the Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is to separate local Taliban from their leaders, replicating a program used to neutralize the insurgency against Americans in Iraq.
"Afghan leaders and our military say that local Taliban fighters are motivated largely by the need for a job or loyalty to the local leader who pays them and not by ideology or religious zeal," Levin said in a Senate floor speech on September 11. "They believe an effort to attract these fighters to the government's side could succeed, if they are offered security for themselves and their families, and if there is no penalty for previous activity against us."
But Nicholas Schmidle, an expert on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region for the non-partisan New America Foundation, said that while the plan has a "reasonable chance for some success," the old Afghan saying will eventually be borne out.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - The players have yet to hit the field, but World Series trash-talking is already in full swing - on Capitol Hill.
It started on Monday with a bet on who was going to win the World Series. New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand will send Pennsylvania Sens. Arlen Specter and Robert Casey Junior's Cheesecakes if the Philadelphia Phillies win and if the Yankees win, Schumer and Gillibrand will receive a supply of Philly cheesesteaks.
Gillibrand fired back on Wednesday: "@SenArlenSpecter Respectfully, Senator, sir...you're going down!"
But Specter stuck to his major league guns. "Hey @SenGillibrand, can you recommend a good cheesecake? We will be too busy celebrating the Phillies victory to decide."
Gillibrand explained the exchange for any confused constituents: "Just a friendly wager w/ @SenArlenSpecter over who will win the World Series."
Schumer and Casey do not have active Twitter accounts, but that hasn't kept them on the bench. "I give Senators Specter and Casey credit for sticking with their team but I can already taste those delicious Philly cheesesteaks," Schumer said in a joint statement issued by both states' senators earlier this week.
Casey was having none of it: "If the Phillies keep up their extraordinary efforts at the plate, on the mound and in the field, it is only a matter of time until Senator Specter and I are able to enjoy some delicious cheesecake."
Follow Eric Kuhn on Twitter @KuhnCNN.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - After a dizzying few days of prominent Republican endorsements of the Conservative Party's nominee in New York's 23rd congressional district, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said he will stand behind the embattled GOP candidate in the upcoming special election.
Steele will back Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava, breaking with some party conservatives - including Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Fred Thompson and Dick Armey - who are backing third-party candidate Doug Hoffman.
"I support the Republican nominee, as the Republican Party chairman," Steele told MSNBC Wednesday morning. "And that's the way it should go."
Scozzafava has an endorsement from former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the NRA - but some prominent conservative leaders, activists and groups who view her as too liberal have thrown their weight behind Hoffman.
Scozzafava, Hoffman and Bill Owens are on the ballot in the special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by former GOP Rep. John Hughes, now President Obama's Secretary of the Army. Election Day is November 3.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is acknowleding that the health care plan he famously implemented as governor did nothing to address costs.
"We were unable to deal with - and didn't have any pretense we would somehow be able to change - health care costs in Massachusetts," Romney said in an interview with CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta. "We still have a fee for service, a re-imbursement system here like every other state in America. That's the way Medicare and Medicaid are structured, that's the way the insurance industry is structured."
Romney said "Massachusetts is not the model" for reducing health care costs.
"We didn't deal with that here in Massachusetts, and frankly dealt with much more narrow issue - getting people insured that weren't insured and, and this is just as important, perhaps even more important, for those who are insured, making them understand that they will never lose their coverage," he said. "If you're in Massachusetts and you've got coverage and you lose your job youre always going to be covered.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Confused about whether lawmakers will extend the $8,000 first-time homebuyer credit and what it would look like?
That's understandable, since the situation is still very fluid.
Here's where things stand.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Republicans are seizing on a new report that suggests the Obama administration has been granting top Democratic donors access to senior administration officials if they commit to raising bundles of cash before the 2010 midterm elections.
The story - published Wednesday in the Washington Times - revealed an internal Democratic National Committee memo outlining how high-level donors are named members of a "National Finance Committee" that is granted access to "senior members of the administration" in Washington meetings and conference calls. The paper also listed several campaign donors who have been invited to official state functions, used the bowling alley in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, or screened movies inside the president's mansion.
Asked if there was any quid pro quo involved, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "No, of course not."
Gibbs downplayed the report during Wednesday's press briefing, boasting that the president has instituted "the very toughest ethics and transparency rules of any administration." Following up on an earlier pledge to do so, he added that the White House will soon release White House guest logs cataloguing every person who has visited the White House, including details on "who that person is, when they came, how long they were here and who they met with."
"Contributing doesn't guarantee a visit to the White House, nor does it preclude it," Gibbs said. "Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the White House since the president came in." He then referred further questions to the DNC.