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The Top 10 stories of 2012

So much of the news of 2012 was delivered at the end of a gun barrel. An unarmed teenager killed, an ambassador assassinated, civilians massacred by their government, a classroom of first-graders wiped out. Icons shot themselves in the foot. Even the political victories — of Obamacare and of President Obama — seemed to come at the end of bloodless but brutal fights. We see 2013 from the top of a cliff. Page 12A

See Sports, Latitudes, Perspective and Business pages for more of the year's big stories. The top tampabay.com stories are on 14A.

We know the teenager had Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. We know the older man had a gun. We know that the teenager died of a gunshot to the chest about 70 yards from his father's fiancee's townhome in a gated community called the Retreat at Twin Lakes.

But much of what transpired between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman on the night of Feb. 26 in Sanford remains the subject of intense debate. Did the media rush to accuse a self-appointed neighborhood watch coordinator who seemed overly suspicious of an unarmed black kid wandering through his community? Or did police rush to excuse a man who claimed he fired his handgun in self-defense?

After weeks of media attention so intense that it briefly eclipsed the presidential primary season, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. By then his defense had already been established: a much-disputed law called "stand your ground."

Written into law in 2005 at the behest of NRA lobbyists, "stand your ground" removed the obligation to retreat from confrontations, giving citizens the right to use deadly force anywhere they legally had a right to be. All that mattered was that they feared for their lives.

The law may well exonerate Zimmerman at trial next year, but it's hard not to wonder what would have happened if he had simply followed the police dispatcher's advice not to follow Martin.

Bill Duryea

On Sept. 11, an armed mob attacked the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

What otherwise might have been a rallying point for Americans quickly became a point of bitter political division. At first the Obama administration insisted spontaneous protests over an anti-Muslim video had morphed into violence. But contradictory evidence mounted quickly that no such protest had occurred and that the attackers were affiliated with known terrorist groups.

Every day that the White House clung to its version of the attack, the more Republicans railed about a pre-election coverup. Testy exchanges in presidential debates hinged on whether the president had used the word "terrorism" in his first-day remarks. Congressional Republicans vowed to hold hearings and kept their word.

David Petraeus, the former CIA director, appeared, but because he had just resigned over an extramarital affair, he was spared serious grilling. But U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, whose repeated insistence on the spontaneous protest scenario became a focal point of Republican ire, was not spared; on Dec. 13 she withdrew from consideration for secretary of state.

Bill Duryea

Forget that it was nearly derailed by Hurricane Isaac and marred by Clint Eastwood's bizarre conversation with an empty chair, the Republican National Convention made Tampa the focus of national politics in late August.

Mitt Romney formally accepted the nomination after a long and combative primary and while the energy in the Tampa Bay Times Forum was sometimes lacking, Republicans were convinced he had momentum heading into the general election.

" 'Hope and change' had a powerful appeal," Romney said on Aug. 30. "But tonight I'd ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's President Obama? You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him."

The convention was a triumph for the Tampa Bay Host Committee, which exceeded its $55 million fundraising goal and brought what many thought was long overdue attention on the area. More than 15,000 journalists were credentialed.

The convention exposed shortcomings, however, with many delegates forced to endure long bus rides from their hotels to the convention site. The security presence was heavy, making Tampa's downtown seem unfriendly. But in the end, a study showed visitors left with a better impression of the region.

Alex Leary

SUPERSTORM SANDY swept two-story homes from their foundations, turned neighborhoods into smoldering ruin, and snuffed the southern tip of Manhattan like a candle. It scoured the eastern seaboard with such ferocity that it may have changed the terrain of the debate on climate change as much as it altered the landscape of New Jersey's beaches.

Sandy was the second most destructive storm in U.S. history, but perhaps it was the political significance of the region it devastated that prompted people to ask if climate change is making weather, and hurricanes in particular, more extreme through higher sea surface temperatures or rising sea levels.

Sandy was a meteorological fascination: It combined a massive cold front with a hurricane; its tropical storm-force winds at one point extended more than 900 miles, roughly the distance between New York and Atlanta; and, of course, it smacked the most densely populated area of the country.

At least 125 people were killed in the United States, and Sandy is blamed for more than $60 billion in damage.

The impact on the climate change debate is unclear, but Sandy is likely to stir more discussion about how we protect ourselves against nature's most powerful forces.

Pat Farnan



“Today's decision was a victory for people all over this country whose lives are more secure because of this law," President Barack Obama said in a national address on June 28.

The Supreme Court had just ruled 5-4 to uphold the constitutionality of Obama's health care law, ending months of speculation and solidifying a law that passed without a single Republican vote.

The GOP rallied around a "repeal and replace" mantra in the 2012 elections, but Obama's victory made it clear: Obamacare is here to stay.

The law has sweeping implications, providing coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans in an attempt to improve the nation's health and bring down health care costs.

But it also comes with higher taxes for many and states such as Florida continue to fight implementation. Many of the provisions do not go into effect until 2014, so the law will continue to be debated while its full impact is revealed.

Alex Leary

There is no more famous cancer survivor. And don't even bother trying to name another professional cyclist. Who among us didn't wear a yellow Livestrong wristband?

The man with the superhero all-American name showed us that you could beat cancer and not just survive, but thrive and be better than before. He made us care about a three-week bicycle race in a foreign country. Grunting up the mountains, flying through time trials and donning the yellow jersey, he denied, denied, denied ever doping while winning the Tour de France seven times.

Other elite cyclists denied their own guilt, too, until positive tests forced them to slink away in disgrace. Lance's defiant challenge: Work harder, want it more. And win. Believe. Achieve.

Suddenly, this year, seven years after his final Tour win, the veil of silence lifted. The truth came out in hundreds of investigative pages and sworn testimony from numerous former teammates.

He declined to fight. His titles were stripped, stricken from the record. Advertisers abandoned him. Isolated as a cheat and liar, he finally severed ties with the philanthropy that some had offered as his only defense. It's all over. Disbelieve.

Jim Verhulst

First we heard CIA director David Petraeus admit to an extramarital affair with his biographer that cut short his time at the CIA, which was shocking enough.

Then we heard how the affair came to light: that Petraeus' paramour had been sending "threatening" emails to Petraeus' friend, Tampa socialite Jill Kelley. (There's always a Florida connection somewhere.)

The story started like this: Jill who?

But by the time the circus was over, by the time Saturday Night Live had its fun and the national media decamped from Kelley's Bayshore Boulevard mansion, this vortex-of-a-story had sucked in everyone from Gen. John Allen to Bubba the Love Sponge to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Big-shot Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen even got involved.

At the center were sisters Jill Kelley and Natalie Khawam. We quickly learned about their financial and personal troubles, and how far a smile can take two social climbers up the military's chain of command.

Ben Montgomery

Do you remember that moment nearly two years ago when popular revolts were going off like a string of Independence Day firecrackers throughout the Arab world? Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen. Syria.

Nearly 40,000 dead civilians later, Syria looks like the place the Arab Spring came to die. Cities shelled into rubble by a regime whose eye doctor-turned-dictator has vowed never to surrender power. Refugees flooding by the hundred thousand across borders of worried neighbors. Rumors of chemical weapons spreading as governments once friendly to Bashar Assad acknowledge a possible future in which he doesn't feature. Nothing is getting better quickly there, or anywhere else in the Middle East for that matter.

Iran's regime clings to its nuclear program even as economic sanctions and international isolation do their work. But can they achieve their goals before Israel strikes pre-emptively?

And Egypt, that freely elected its first president, Mohamed Morsi, in June, watched in dismay last month as he granted himself sweeping emergency powers. Thousands of protesters have flooded back into the streets, decrying what they call Morsi's bid to be a new "pharaoh." He insisted he had to suspend democracy to guarantee passage of the constitution, ratified in controversial voting this month. Still, Morsi brokered a cease-fire between his Islamist allies in Hamas and Israel. He rebuked Syria to the consternation of Iran. So what will we think of Egypt a year from now — an evolving success or a squandered opportunity? What, for that matter, will we say about the Middle East?

Bill Duryea

Republicans kept saying it: Young voters and Hispanics will not turn out for President Barack Obama a second time because of the economy. But the 30-and-under vote was crucial in several battleground states, including Florida, and Obama captured more of the Hispanic vote than he did in 2008.

Obama's re-election was important not just for policy implications — ensuring "Obamacare" will survive and the prospect of higher taxes on the well-off — but also for what it said about the changing face of America.

Mitt Romney tried to build a coalition of white voters, whose share of the electorate has been dropping for decades, while alienating Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic, with tough rhetoric.

Obama plans to kick off the second term with a push for immigration reform, a promise he failed to deliver on in the first four years, but the climate has never been more favorable. Democrats maintained control of the Senate and gained seats in the House, but Obama faces the continued challenge of a divided Congress. Sweeping accomplishments may be limited unless he can cultivate bipartisanship.

Blame goes both ways. Though Democrats like to paint Republicans as relentlessly obstinate, Obama's party could make it difficult to compromise on reforming Medicare and Social Security.

Alex Leary

The crime scenes were a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a manufacturer in Minneapolis, a mall in Portland. Outside the Empire State Building. At a café in Seattle. The list of mass shootings this year goes on and on.

But without turning to Google, can you name one of those shooters? Until the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., it was as though gun massacres had become so commonplace in 2012 that we stopped paying attention. It took the deaths of 20 children and six staffers at an elementary school to jar us, to get us talking about mental health services and gun laws and all the ways we can try to prevent the next episode of mass bloodshed.

Criminal violence in America is at the lowest levels seen in a generation, and gun ownership was down as well, but the rampages continued with no end in sight.

Ben Montgomery

The Top 10 stories of 2012 12/29/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 11:26pm]
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