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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) --- The heartbreaking disappearance of two young cousins who set out for a summer bike ride and never returned has been voted the top Iowa news story of 2012.

Associated Press newspaper and broadcast members ranked the shocking disappearance of Lyric Cook-Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins the No. 1 story. It was one that began in mid-July when Lyric, then age 10, and Elizabeth, then age 8, went for a bike ride in the northeast Iowa town of Evansdale and ended Dec. 5 when their bodies were found in a wooded area about 25 miles away.

The deaths were crushing news to residents of Evansdale and adjacent cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls, who closely followed a massive search for the girls.

Black Hawk County sheriff's Capt. Rick Abben appeared to fight back tears as he announced their bodies had been found.

"It's definitely not the outcome that we wanted, obviously," Abben said.

Several reward funds have been established to prod information loose about who was responsible for the girls' deaths, but no arrests have been made.

There was a tie for the second-ranked story between Iowa's presidential caucuses and a drought that has persisted for months in the state and much of the region.

The caucuses always draw plenty of national attention, but this year they also drew criticism after then-party Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn declared Mitt Romney the winner by an 8-vote margin. Strawn expressed confidence that outcome wouldn't change, but two weeks later the certified vote gave the win to former Sen. Rick Santorum by 34 votes.

Some said the confusion cheated Santorum of the surge in support that candidates hope for after a caucus win, and Iowa Republican officials appointed a panel to recommend changes that could avert such mistakes.

In June the panel made several recommendations, including not immediately declaring a winner if the margin between the top two contenders is less than 1 percent.

The drought received most news coverage in the summer, as it caused crops to wither and led some cities to ask residents to reduce water use, but most of the state remains critically dry. A big December snowstorm should help a bit, but farmers and communities could face a difficult summer without higher-than-normal precipitation.

The fourth-ranked story was Iowa's general election, in which Democratic President Barack Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney by about 6 percentage points after an intense campaign in the battleground state that saw both candidates return repeatedly to woo voters. The election also ended the longtime congressional career of Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell, who lost to Republican Rep. Tom Latham in a campaign of incumbents who faced off after Iowa lost a congressional seat to redistricting.

Democrats retained control of the state Senate and Republicans kept their majority in the state House.

The controversy over a beef product dubbed "pink slime" was voted the fifth-ranked story.

Criticism of the product blew up after media reports and an outpouring of comments in social media. After sales plunged, South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. closed plants in Waterloo, Kansas and Texas, leaving about 750 people without jobs. The company has sued ABC News, claiming inaccurate reporting caused sales to decline. ABC has denied it knowingly disparaged BPI or its product and is fighting the suit.

Gay marriage was the sixth-ranked story, as those seeking to overturn Iowa's law dealt with two losses in November's election.

Voters opted to retain Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, although he had joined in the unanimous 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage and faced a campaign for his removal by social conservative groups. The election also kept Democrats in control of the Iowa Senate, making it unlikely efforts to change the state constitution to ban gay marriage will proceed.

In seventh place was the case of Cedar Falls investment broker Russ Wasendorf Sr., who pleaded guilty to misusing $200 million in customer funds over a 20-year period. Wasendorf awaits sentencing.

Cutbacks at the University of Northern Iowa ranked eighth in the voting. The Cedar Falls school moved ahead with numerous reductions and elimination of programs despite protests by some students and faculty.

Questions about voting came in ninth. Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz has waged a high-profile effort to fight what he says is a serious problem of voter fraud, though many Democrats argue the Republican has created the issue to discourage voting by groups that typically favor Democrats. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad also has stood by rules he imposed that made it much more difficult for people to regain their voting status after being convicted of crimes.

The top stories list finished with a tie for 10th place between Branstad's inability to get education or tax reform plans through the Legislature and the visit to Iowa by Xi Jinping, then China's vice president who since has been named general secretary of the country's Communist Party.

 

Top Iowa news stories of 2012

The Associated Press

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One. MISSING COUSINS — The bodies of two young cousins are found in a Bremer County park, five months after they were last seen riding their bikes in Evansdale. The disappearance of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins prompted a huge search by local authorities and the FBI. No one has been charged in their deaths.

Two. (TIE) IOWA CAUCUSES — The state's lead-off presidential caucuses endure criticism after a close vote and counting problems prompt Republican Party officials to incorrectly announce that Mitt Romney had won. Later, the party announced that Rick Santorum had narrowly won the caucuses.

Two. (TIE) DROUGHT — Iowans endure a stubborn drought that has lingered through much of the central United States for months. The drought and summer heat hurt yields for farmers, though many salvage an acceptable harvest, in part due to advances in seed technology that made plants better able to withstand the harsh conditions.

Four. GENERAL ELECTION — After a summer of intense campaigning, Democrat Barack Obama wins in the battleground state of Iowa over Republican Mitt Romney. The election also sees GOP Rep. Tom Latham beat longtime Democratic incumbent Rep. Leonard Boswell in the 3rd Congressional District.

Five. PINK SLIME — Media reports and social media claims about a beef product dubbed "pink slime" blow up over days, ultimately causing a South Dakota-based meat processor to close plants in Iowa, Kansas and Texas and lay off 700 people as sales plummet. After trying to fight back against the claims, the company sues ABC News, claiming the network damaged the company by misleading consumers.

Six. GAY MARRIAGE — Opponents of gay marriage lose twice in the general election. Voters opted to retain Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, despite his support for a unanimous decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the state, and Democrats retain control of the Iowa Senate, making it unlikely conservatives can move ahead with efforts to repeal the gay marriage law.

Seven. PEREGRINE FINANCIAL — Cedar Falls investment broker Russ Wasendorf Sr. pleads guilty to misusing $200 million in customer funds over a 20-year period. The case came to light when Wasendorf tried to kill himself and left a note explaining his actions.

Eight. UNI CUTBACKS — The University of Northern Iowa moves ahead with reductions and eliminations of a wide range of academic programs, saying the move was needed to reduce spending. The cutbacks were met with protests from students, faculty and national education groups.

Nine. VOTING — Secretary of State Matt Schultz fails in his effort to require identification at polling places and ease challenges to voters, but he vows to keep up the fight against voter fraud. Gov. Terry Branstad also wades into the issue by standing by his policy requiring people convicted of crimes to navigate a lengthy process before their voting rights can be restored.

Ten. (TIE) IOWA LEGISLATURE — Gov. Terry Branstad pushes ahead with an ambitious agenda in the 2012 legislative session, but Republicans can't reach agreement with Senate Democrats and most plans for education and taxes are shelved.

Ten. (TIE) XI JINPING — Residents of Muscatine and others in Iowa welcome a visit by Xi Jinping, then China's vice president who since has been named general secretary of the country's Communist Party. The trip represents a homecoming for Xi, who had stayed in the Mississippi River town during a visit 27 years earlier.

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