USA

Retail sales figures for November showed that many stores experienced a modest start to the Christmas shopping season, with the pace of buying leveling off as the Thanksgiving weekend wore on. The stores that did best were offering deep discounts, such as Wal-Mart outlets, and mid-priced department stores such as J.C. Penney. Department stores "took it on the chin," analyst Ken Perkins of Retail Metrics in Swampscott, Mass., said.

The State Department said it will reply "to the best of our ability" to a European Union request for information about reports of US-run secret prisons for terrorism suspects in Soviet-era compounds in Eastern Europe.

Students in some of the largest cities are improving in math but are not making comparable gains in reading - which follows a national trend in public education - according to testing results announced by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Experts attributed the findings to a disproportionate share of poverty, inexperienced teachers, and large numbers of children in those cities for whom English is a second language.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) of California chose a former Democratic Party activist as his new chief of staff, concluding that his current team wasn't embracing his centrist ideas and that his management style needed to be overhauled. Susan Kennedy once was a key aide to his predecesssor, Gov. Gray Davis (D).

In perhaps the nation's strongest campaign-reform legislation to date, Connecticut lawmakers passed a finance bill Thursday that is believed to be the first to apply to all statewide races. Among other provisions, it bans lobbyists and contractors who do business with the state from making political contributions. Monies from unclaimed property were designated to provide candidates with public funding.

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