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Marking the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday early, President Bush was to lay a wreath at the revered civil rights leader's grave in Atlanta on what would have been King's 75th birthday, following earlier stops in New Orleans. Some local activists objected to the visit. State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D), president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, said the president's policies on the Iraq war, affirmative action, and social-service funding are "in direct contradiction to the King legacy."

Narrowing the Democratic presidential field to eight, Carol Moseley Braun was scheduled to announce the end of her White House bid at a rally in Carroll, Iowa, as the Monitor went to press. The former US senator from Illinois, who was the only woman seeking her party's nomination and one of two black candidates, was throwing her support to frontrunner Howard Dean, the latter's campaign manager said. Dean said Braun's endorsement "is going to be a big help to us."

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The latest opinion poll from Iowa gives a minuscule edge to US Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts over two Democratic rivals in the countdown to Monday's party caucuses. Kerry drew 21.6 percent support, to 20.9 percent for Howard Dean and US Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri in the Reuters/ MSNBC/Zogby poll. "We might see these candidates exchanging leads all the way to the end," said pollster John Zogby.

The Consumer Price Index, closely watched as an inflation indicator, edged up 0.2 percent in December, the Labor Department reported. For the year, consumer prices rose 1.9 percent, compared with a 2.4 percent jump in 2002.

NASA scientists celebrated as the rover, Spirit, rolled onto the surface of Mars from its landing platform, a 10-foot journey that engineers considered possibly the trickiest maneuver of the 90-day mission. "Mars is now our sandbox, and we are ready to play and learn," declared Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Bitter cold gripped the Northeast for the second time in a week, as a storm that dumped 10 inches of snow outside Detroit advanced. In Maine, where temperatures were -20 degrees, F., in some cities, Gov. John Baldacci (D) declared a civil emergency Wednesday, extending the hours fuel-oil delivery drivers may work.