Top Republican Ryan distances himself from Trump White House bid

By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON Paul Ryan, the top Republican in the U.S. Congress, took the extraordinary step on Monday of distancing himself from Donald Trump, stirring a backlash from some lawmakers and deepening a crisis over his party's struggling presidential nominee.

In a conference call with congressional Republicans, Ryan all but conceded that Democrat Hillary Clinton was likely to win the White House on Nov. 8 and said he would put his full energy into preserving Republican majorities in Congress so as not to give her a "blank check."

Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said he would not defend Trump or campaign for him after the uproar over the New York businessman's sexually aggressive comments that surfaced on Friday.

Ryan's announcement added to the party's worst turmoil in decades and reinforced the growing sense of isolation around Trump, who has never previously run for public office.

Clinton has led Trump in most national opinion polls for months and Trump's poll numbers have begun to drop further since the emergence on Friday of a video from 2005 showing the former reality TV star bragging crudely about groping women and making unwanted sexual advances.

Trump hit back at Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012, who has frequently been critical of him.

"Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee," Trump wrote on Twitter.

Ryan, who had expressed disgust over the tape and canceled a campaign event with Trump over the weekend, did not completely cut ties to Trump. The speaker went back on the Republican conference call later to clarify he was not withdrawing his endorsement.

Many Republican members of Congress are concerned that Trump's chaotic campaign could ruin their chances of holding their majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate in the November election and could inflict long-term damage on the party.

During a weekend dominated by criticism of Trump over the lewd remarks, a string of members of Congress, governors and other prominent Republicans called on him to drop out of the race.

House Republicans gave Ryan a rough ride on the call, according to some participants.

"There was an undeniable opposition to the speaker's tepid support of our nominee,” said U.S. Representative Scott DesJarlais, a Trump supporter, in a comment passed on by an aide.

Many other lawmakers, some of whom did not want to be named publicly criticizing the speaker, said members frequently told Ryan on the call to stand by Trump.

Nonetheless, nearly half of all 331 incumbent Republican senators, Congress members and governors have condemned Trump’s remarks, and roughly one in 10 has called on him to drop out of the race, according to a Reuters review of official statements and local news coverage.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus used an afternoon conference call with RNC members to emphasize there was no rift with Trump and that the committee, the party's leadership and fundraising arm, still backed the nominee, two RNC members who spoke on condition of anonymity said.

RNC STILL ON BOARD

"Any suggestion that the RNC isn’t fully supporting the Trump-Pence ticket is wrong," one RNC member said, describing the message. "We are fully on board. We are going to devote every ounce of effort and resource into helping the Trump-Pence ticket win and all the other candidates up and down the ballot."

Any attempt to replace Trump on the ballot this close to Election Day would face huge legal and logistical hurdles.

A defiant Trump went on the offensive in a vicious presidential debate on Sunday, saying Clinton, a former secretary of state would go to jail if he were president and attacking her husband, former President Bill Clinton, for his treatment of women.

The debate, the second of three before the vote, was remarkable for the brutal nature of the exchanges between the two.

Trump stayed on the attack on Monday, describing Bill Clinton as "a predator" and saying: "If they want to release more tapes saying inappropriate things, we’ll continue to talk about Bill and Hillary Clinton doing inappropriate things. There are so many of them."

"She goes out and says: 'I love women, I’m going to help women.' She’s a total hypocrite," he told supporters in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

Clinton accused Trump of brushing off criticism of his comments about women.

"On Friday, the whole world heard him talking about the terrible way he treats women. And last night when he was pressed about how he behaves, he just doubled down on his excuse that it’s just locker room banter," she told a rally at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The television audience for the debate fell sharply from their first, record-breaking encounter in September.

Nielsen data supplied by CNN for 10 broadcast and cable channels on Monday showed that 63.6 million Americans tuned into the 90-minute debate on Sunday, well below the record 84 million that watched the first face-off.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal opinion poll released on Monday showed Clinton increasing her lead. The survey, conducted after the video release but before the debate, showed Clinton with 46 percent support among likely voters in a four-way matchup including two minor party candidates, compared with 35 percent for Trump.

The Reuters/Ipsos State of the Nation project released on Monday estimated that Clinton had at least a 95 percent chance of winning the 270 Electoral College votes needed to become president. The polling did not capture reaction to Trump's performance in Sunday's debate or the release of the Friday videotape.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, David Morgan, Michelle Conlin, Amanda Becker, Andy Sullivan and Susan Heavey; Writing by Alistair Bell and John Whitesides; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)

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Pfizer walks away from $118 billion AstraZeneca takeover fight

By Ben Hirschler and Bill Berkrot | LONDON/NEW YORK

LONDON/NEW YORK Pfizer abandoned its attempt to buy AstraZeneca for nearly 70 billion pounds ($118 billion) on Monday as a deadline approached without a last-minute change of heart by the British drugmaker.

The decision ends a month-long public fight between two of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies that sparked political concerns on both sides of Atlantic over jobs and corporate tax maneuvers.

British rules now require an enforced cooling-off period. AstraZeneca could reach out to Pfizer after three months and Pfizer could take another run at its smaller British rival in six months time, whether it is invited back or not.

Pfizer's move came two hours before a 5.00 pm (1200 ET) deadline to make a firm offer or walk away, under UK takeover rules. Its decision to quit the stage, at least for now, had been widely expected after AstraZeneca refused its final offer of 55 pounds a share.

"Following the AstraZeneca board's rejection of the proposal, Pfizer announces that it does not intend to make an offer for AstraZeneca," Pfizer said in a short news release.

The biggest U.S. drugmaker promised it would not go hostile by taking its offer directly to AstraZeneca shareholders, leaving the fate of what would have been the world's largest ever drugs merger in the hands of its target, whose board would have had to make a complete U-turn to get a deal done.

"We continue to believe that our final proposal was compelling and represented full value for AstraZeneca based on the information that was available to us," said Ian Read, Pfizer's chairman and chief executive.

Pfizer's final offer was at a price that many analysts and investors had previously suggested would bring AstraZeneca to the table for serious negotiations.

But in rejecting an earlier offer of 53.50 pounds as undervaluing the company, the British group indicated it needed a bid more than 10 percent higher, or at least 58.85 pounds per share, for its board to consider a recommendation.

Pfizer had urged AstraZeneca shareholders to agitate for engagement and several expressed disappointment at its intransigence, although others - encouraged by AstraZeneca's promising drug pipeline - backed the firm's standalone strategy.

AstraZeneca Chairman Leif Johansson welcomed Pfizer's decision to back down, which he said would allow the British company to focus on its growth potential as an independent company.

What happens next will depend upon whether AstraZeneca's share price deteriorates in the coming weeks and how hard its shareholders push for it to revisit a deal with Pfizer.

BlackRock, AstraZeneca's biggest shareholder, backed the board's rejection of Pfizer's 55 pounds a share offer, but urged it to talk again in the future.

POLITICAL OPPOSITION

The proposed transaction ran into fierce opposition from politicians in Britain, Sweden - where AstraZeneca has half it roots - and the United States over the likelihood that the marriage would lead to thousands of job cuts.

Ultimately, it was price and the lack of room for eleventh-hour maneuvering by Pfizer that killed the deal.

Pfizer had several reasons for taking aim at AstraZeneca for what would have been its fourth mega-merger in 14 years.

Highest on the list appeared to be Pfizer's desire to take part in a recent trend of so-called tax inversions, under which it could reincorporate in Britain and pay significantly lower corporate tax. Pfizer would also be able to use tens of billions of dollars it has parked overseas, avoiding high U.S. taxes for repatriating the huge cash pile.

Pfizer also had its eye on a promising portfolio of drugs in AstraZeneca's developmental pipeline, especially several potentially lucrative cancer medicines.

It was this pipeline that AstraZeneca management used to make its case for Pfizer significantly undervaluing the company.

Chief Executive Pascal Soriot went as far as making a 10-year forecast for a 75 percent rise in sales by 2023.

"As we said from the start, the pursuit of this transaction was a potential enhancement to our existing strategy," Pfizer's Read said. "We will continue our focus on the execution of our plans, bringing forth new treatments to meet patients' needs and remaining responsible stewards of our shareholders' capital."

The merger would have restored Pfizer as the world's largest drugmaker by sales, a position it relinquished to Swiss-based Novartis when billions of dollars in annual revenue evaporated after its top-selling cholesterol fighter Lipitor began facing generic competition in 2011.

(Editing by David Evans and Mark Potter)

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Pfizer walks away from $118 billion AstraZeneca takeover fight

By Ben Hirschler and Bill Berkrot | LONDON/NEW YORK

LONDON/NEW YORK Pfizer abandoned its attempt to buy AstraZeneca for nearly 70 billion pounds ($118 billion) on Monday as a deadline approached without a last-minute change of heart by the British drugmaker.

The decision ends a month-long public fight between two of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies that sparked political concerns on both sides of Atlantic over jobs and corporate tax maneuvers.

British rules now require an enforced cooling-off period. AstraZeneca could reach out to Pfizer after three months and Pfizer could take another run at its smaller British rival in six months time, whether it is invited back or not.

Pfizer's move came two hours before a 5.00 pm (1200 ET) deadline to make a firm offer or walk away, under UK takeover rules. Its decision to quit the stage, at least for now, had been widely expected after AstraZeneca refused its final offer of 55 pounds a share.

"Following the AstraZeneca board's rejection of the proposal, Pfizer announces that it does not intend to make an offer for AstraZeneca," Pfizer said in a short news release.

The biggest U.S. drugmaker promised it would not go hostile by taking its offer directly to AstraZeneca shareholders, leaving the fate of what would have been the world's largest ever drugs merger in the hands of its target, whose board would have had to make a complete U-turn to get a deal done.

"We continue to believe that our final proposal was compelling and represented full value for AstraZeneca based on the information that was available to us," said Ian Read, Pfizer's chairman and chief executive.

Pfizer's final offer was at a price that many analysts and investors had previously suggested would bring AstraZeneca to the table for serious negotiations.

But in rejecting an earlier offer of 53.50 pounds as undervaluing the company, the British group indicated it needed a bid more than 10 percent higher, or at least 58.85 pounds per share, for its board to consider a recommendation.

Pfizer had urged AstraZeneca shareholders to agitate for engagement and several expressed disappointment at its intransigence, although others - encouraged by AstraZeneca's promising drug pipeline - backed the firm's standalone strategy.

AstraZeneca Chairman Leif Johansson welcomed Pfizer's decision to back down, which he said would allow the British company to focus on its growth potential as an independent company.

What happens next will depend upon whether AstraZeneca's share price deteriorates in the coming weeks and how hard its shareholders push for it to revisit a deal with Pfizer.

BlackRock, AstraZeneca's biggest shareholder, backed the board's rejection of Pfizer's 55 pounds a share offer, but urged it to talk again in the future.

POLITICAL OPPOSITION

The proposed transaction ran into fierce opposition from politicians in Britain, Sweden - where AstraZeneca has half it roots - and the United States over the likelihood that the marriage would lead to thousands of job cuts.

Ultimately, it was price and the lack of room for eleventh-hour maneuvering by Pfizer that killed the deal.

Pfizer had several reasons for taking aim at AstraZeneca for what would have been its fourth mega-merger in 14 years.

Highest on the list appeared to be Pfizer's desire to take part in a recent trend of so-called tax inversions, under which it could reincorporate in Britain and pay significantly lower corporate tax. Pfizer would also be able to use tens of billions of dollars it has parked overseas, avoiding high U.S. taxes for repatriating the huge cash pile.

Pfizer also had its eye on a promising portfolio of drugs in AstraZeneca's developmental pipeline, especially several potentially lucrative cancer medicines.

It was this pipeline that AstraZeneca management used to make its case for Pfizer significantly undervaluing the company.

Chief Executive Pascal Soriot went as far as making a 10-year forecast for a 75 percent rise in sales by 2023.

"As we said from the start, the pursuit of this transaction was a potential enhancement to our existing strategy," Pfizer's Read said. "We will continue our focus on the execution of our plans, bringing forth new treatments to meet patients' needs and remaining responsible stewards of our shareholders' capital."

The merger would have restored Pfizer as the world's largest drugmaker by sales, a position it relinquished to Swiss-based Novartis when billions of dollars in annual revenue evaporated after its top-selling cholesterol fighter Lipitor began facing generic competition in 2011.

(Editing by David Evans and Mark Potter)

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Body-building site: Shi the laborer swings to China online fame

By Thomas Peter and Joseph Campbell | BEIJING

BEIJING On most construction sites, lunch would be a welcome break to rest and refuel. Not for Shi Shenwei.

The 23-year-old laborer spends his midday break swinging from scaffolding poles on a building site, a gymnastics routine that has made him China's latest social media sensation.

"While other people are eating and singing karaoke, I'm whole-heartedly focused on what I want to do," Shi told Reuters inside the dusty temple where he works in southern Fujian province.

Shi's videos - filmed from multiple angles with four smart phones operated by his cousin - are posted on Kuaishou, a mobile video app in China. His nearly 1.2 million followers know him as "Brick Carrier Little Wei".

"You are no longer a master, you are a god!" one fan wrote after watching a high-bar routine which ended with Shi hanging by his arms in the plank position.

"You are my role model," gushed another online fan.

After leaving school due to an addiction to online games, Shi joined his uncle's construction crew. He was a skinny kid and the work was hard.

"I was very feeble back then, too weak to tie up a chicken," he said, using a Chinese phrase for a weakling.

One day, Shi watched an online video promoting street workouts, a type of free body weight exercise that can be done anywhere. He was hooked.

"I found another self through body-building, a source of energy that came from within," he said. "Online gaming could never give me that."

His first video post in 2015 - a handstand push up - attracted 7,000 followers.

"I was so excited that I thought I must keep practising," he said.

His trademark combination of flips, jumps and gymnastic stands are all self-taught, he said, and mostly imitations of videos he has seen online.

Shi's bemused co-workers, most of them relatives from his hometown, wonder where he gets the energy during a 10-hour work day.

"Most people would be tired and go home and sleep, but he's at it every day, around noon or at night after work when everyone else is eating, he's playing around at the site," said Shi Dachen, a 52-year-old bricklayer.

His fame has led to appearances on Chinese talent shows, talk of a possible part in a movie and support from gymnasts and exercise enthusiasts across the country.

"He’s a real inspiration for us and he inspires more and more young people to do what they like, like working out," said Bi Zhenbo, a Beijing-based personal trainer. "I think he’s doing something very meaningful."

Shi hopes to open his own gym one day and help young people avoid the problems he faced in his youth.

"They should strive for what they are interested in and should not give up easily," he said. "This is what I want to convey through my videos - a positive mind that enjoys life."

(Editing by Darren Schuettler and Nick Macfie)

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Solange Knowles takes seat at top of Billboard chart

By Piya Sinha-Roy | LOS ANGELES

LOS ANGELES Singer Solange Knowles, sister of R&B star Beyonce, topped the weekly U.S. Billboard 200 chart on Monday for the first time, with her latest album, "A Seat at the Table," edging out new records from Bon Iver and Van Morrison.

Knowles' third record, "Seat at the Table," sold 46,000 albums, 26,000 songs and was streamed 35.7 million times in the week ended Oct. 6, totaling 72,000 album units, according to figures from Nielsen SoundScan.

The album has garnered strong praise from critics, and features 21 tracks that touch on race and femininity, fusing R&B, soul and funk sounds.

Grammy-winning Bon Iver's latest album, "22, A Million," came in at No. 2 with 58,000 albums, 10,000 songs and 17.5 million streams, totaling 71,000 album units.

The Billboard 200 album chart tallies units from album sales, song sales (10 songs equal one album) and streaming activity (1,500 streams equal one album).

While Bon Iver's record sold more physical albums, it was edged out by Knowles' album on the strength of streaming.

Veteran Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison was the only other new entry in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart this week, debuting at No. 9 with "Keep Me Singing."

On the Digital Songs chart, which measures online single sales, The Chainsmokers' catchy summer song "Closer" featuring Halsey continued to reign as No. 1, selling 123,000 copies in the past week.

(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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