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Morning Briefing: January 3, 2012

According to Gallup, this year’s Republican nomination contest is the closest and most volatile in decades. The GOP front-runner has changed seven times since May. The contest’s fluidity mirrors the Democratic race for the nomination in 2003.

The campaigns and the various Super PACs supporting them have spent more than $16 million in advertising in Iowa in the latest sign of the flow of money into politics in the wake of Citizens United. That’s likely more than $200 per vote.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will reveal his strategy to shrink the military and cut the Pentagon’s budget today, when he’s expected to say the U.S. will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at the same time. Instead, the armed forces will be large enough to fight and win one conflict while being able to “spoil” the enemy in a second.

A prominent Islamic center in New York was struck by two molotov cocktails Sunday morning. Police have made no arrests but released a sketch of a suspect and videotape from a surveillance camera. The center’s assistant imam, Maan Al-Sahlani, responded by saying, “This is America, and we must continue to love one another.”

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Washington state’s minimum wage is rising with the new year, from $8.67 to $9.04. It’s the nation’s highest minimum wage — nearly $2 over the federal rate of $7.25 — and groups are debating the impact the increase will have on hiring for low-wage jobs in the state.

The Afghan Taliban have reached a deal with Qatar to open up a liaison office in the country, a move seen by many as easing the path to peace talks with NATO. “Right now, having a strong presence in Afghanistan, we still want to have a political office for negotiations,” said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.

In the latest round of escalating saber rattling, Iran threatened the U.S. Navy over the return an aircraft carrier that recently left the Persian Gulf. “The enemy’s carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf,” said Army chief Ataollah Salehi.

The federal tax credit for ethanol expired Saturday, ending a 30-year program in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for production of the alternative fuel. The credit cost $6 billion in 2011.

And finally: Supporters of Donald Trump have filed paperwork in Texas for a third-party presidential run by the media mogul. For his part, Trump told Fox News he is ready to run, calling the draft effort “beautiful.”

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