US says vote may not be legitimate...Stocks open higher...Republicans court conservative activists

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WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials are questioning whether a referendum that is planned later this month in Crimea will be legitimate. Residents of the pro-Russian area of Ukraine are supposed to vote March 16 on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia instead. The vote was scheduled today by lawmakers in Crimea -- where Russian forces moved in last week. In Washington, a senior administration official says the "legitimate government" of Ukraine must be involved in any decisions about the future of Crimea.

BRUSSELS (AP) — European leaders say Russia will face sanctions over its military incursion in Crimea -- unless it pulls its troops out, or engages in credible talks to defuse the situation. They spoke as they arrived at an emergency meeting in Brussels today involving the EU's 28 leaders. The leaders of some nations that are near Russia's borders are warning that Moscow is seeking to expand Russian territory.

NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks are opening higher on some encouraging news about the U.S. job market. The number of people who filed for unemployment benefits last week fell much more than economists were expecting. That's a sign fewer workers are being laid off. Shares in Staples plunged 11 percent after the office supply chain said it would close 10 percent of its stores because nearly half of its sales are now generated online.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's leading Republicans are courting conservative activists gathered in suburban Washington this week. Today is the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where prospective presidential candidates join national conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists. Conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin headline a crowded speaking program today that also features National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal forecasters predict a warming of the central Pacific Ocean this year that will change weather worldwide. And that's good news for a weather-weary United States. The warming, called an El Nino (ehl NEEN'-yoh), is expected to lead to fewer Atlantic hurricanes, more rain next winter for drought-stricken California and southern states, and even a milder winter for the nation's frigid northern tier next year. Elsewhere in the world, it can mean an even hotter year coming up, with billions of dollars in losses for food crops.

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