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THE SITUATION ROOM

Awaiting the State of the Union; Bush's Challenges

Aired January 31, 2006 - 18:59   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you a special report on the state of the union.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Happening right now, it is 7:00 p.m. here in Washington where we know some of what the president will have to say. He will try to persuade America to break its addiction to oil, and he will also renew a pledge to fight tyranny abroad. But can he convince the country to renew its faith in his leadership at a time of some pretty devastating poll numbers?

BLITZER: A tough challenge.

There will be passion. There will be punch lines. The speech has gone through dozens of drafts. Sometimes things go right. Sometimes they just go wrong. We're going to go behind the scenes with insiders.

ZAHN: Combat and catastrophe. No matter how successful the speech is tonight, can the president overcome the burdens of the war in Iraq and the double whammy of Hurricane Katrina? We're going to go live to Baghdad. We will also go live to New Orleans.

Good evening, I'm Paula Zahn

BLITZER: And I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Inside the White House right now, President Bush is preparing to face the United States Congress and the American people, and he's hoping to put public doubts and a year of setbacks and controversy behind him. It's a very formidable challenge for a second-term president serving in very challenging times.

ZAHN: And our correspondents are all now in place for the State of the Union Address and the Democratic response that follows, including Anderson Cooper and Ed Henry at the center of all the action on Capitol Hill. But first up, our White House Correspondent Dana Bash. Dana has been given a preview of some of what the president will have to say.

Any highlights you can share with us right now, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We sure do, Paula.

You know, a key goal for this White House is to really try to turn around what they admit is massive pessimism in this country that's gotten a lot worse over the past year when it comes to Iraq, when it comes, of course, to the sluggish response to the hurricane, to Hurricane Katrina, and also when it comes to key pocketbook issues like healthcare costs and energy. On that note, the president will speak in very blunt terms, certainly for effect as a former oil man, Paul, he will say, "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology." The president will offer some small initiatives on that front to trying to promote alternative technology like ethanol, for example.

Now, also, big picture. Instead of some initiatives, some big initiatives that we have seen in years past, like tax cuts, like Social Security, which, of course, he did last year, which did not go anywhere. The president will talk big picture, big theme, not initiative, and that theme tonight will be the whole idea of leadership around the world, keeping America a leader around the world. And to that end the president will say, "the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting - yet it ends in danger and decline." That is what the president will say about this theme of keeping America competitive also on the economic front and engaged in terms of national security.

Paula.

ZAHN: Dana Bash, thanks so much. We'll be checking in with you leading up to the speech many times. Appreciate it.

And, of course, tonight, Democrats are going to be listening very closely to the president's speech with a skeptical ear -- I think that's pretty predictable -- and looking for venerable areas to attack. This is, after all, a congressional election year. Let's go to our Congressional Correspondent Ed Henry.

Ed, I attended the same briefing you did by Democrats today. It doesn't seem like they're prepared to buy much of anything that the president has to sell tonight.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Paula.

Democrats have been teeing off on the president since last Tuesday. A week long barrage of prebuttals (ph) pulminating (ph) this afternoon with Senate Democratic Leader Henry Reid declaring that he thinks the president is a bad commander in chief and that also we live in "a Bush Orwellian (ph) world divorced from reality." For the official response, Democrats have turned to a less partisan figure, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, new governor of Virginia. He, though, will also have a lot of tough talk according to the excerpts we've seen, firing away on Iraq, on a slow Katrina response, and also a Republican ethics scandal saying "it's time to replace a culture of partisanship and cronyism."

And CNN has also learned that Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer is now circulating basically a draft of a resolution demanding that the Senate have a vote for the White House to release all documents related to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, all contacts with White House officials and the president, including those photos of the president with Abramoff. A senior White House official telling me this is just politics. It's making the president's point that it should not interfere with a criminal investigation. They're not about to release this, but the Democrats are not about to stop the barrage either.

Paula.

ZAHN: The games begin, I guess, Ed, again. Ed Henry, thanks so much.

Wolf.

BLITZER: And there will be plenty of pomp and protocol tonight, Paula, in addition to the substance of the president's speech. Even Mr. Bush's trip from the White House to Capitol Hill is very carefully timed out, very carefully planned. My colleague, Anderson Cooper, is on The Hill.

Anderson, tell us how this evening basically is going to play out.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Wolf, as you said, it is timed down to the minute. The president is in the White House now with First Lady Laura Bush. At about 8:10 p.m., a little bit more than an hour from now, the diplomatic core will enter the House chamber. Then, over the course of the next 40 or so minutes, they'll be followed by the joint chiefs of staff, by the members of the Supreme Court will also enter.

Then, of course, First Lady Laura Bush will come in at approximately 8:57 p.m., in her official box, a number of official guests, government ministers from Afghanistan, as well as the teacher of the year, the family of a fallen Marine from Iraq. Also a number of volunteers working on Hurricane Katrina relief.

Interestingly enough, Cindy Sheehan, the protester who's son also died in Iraq will be a guest of a liberal Democratic congresswoman, Lynn Woolsey, who Ed Henry reported invited her just today. All the House members are allowed to have one guest. She gave her guest ticket to Cindy Sheehan. So Cindy Sheehan will be there. She, of course, had begun her campaign saying she wanted to meet with the president. She will now be in the same room with the president.

President Bush will enter the chambers at 9:00 p.m., just three minutes after First Lady Laura Bush enters. Wilson Livingood, the House sergeant-at-arms, as we all know and we all have seen, will say, Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States. And at 9:05 or 9:06 p.m. the president will begin to speak.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Anderson, I assume with virtually the entire major leadership of all three branches of the U.S. government in one place, security up on The Hill must be incredibly tight right now. COOPER: It is. They basically locked down this entire area. We had to get here about an hour and a half ago just to get in before kind of the lock down was put in place. The are police all around. This area that we are in has just been swept by bomb-sniffing dogs. So security is very tight.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Anderson Cooper, we're going to be checking back with you throughout the night. Thanks very much. And checking back with all of our reporters throughout the night. But this is going to be a long night for all of us, Paula.

ZAHN: But a fun night.

BLITZER: Yes.

ZAHN: Particularly those of us who love politics.

Much of what the president will propose tonight has to be ultimately approved by Congress. Will lawmakers be able to act quickly or will the president's ideas get bogged down. Joining us now is the Senate's Republican Majority Leader, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Thank you so much for joining us, Senator.

SEN. BILL FRIST, (R-TENN.) MAJORITY LEADER: Good to be here. Thanks.

ZAHN: I hope you can hear me through that siren.

FRIST: I hear you loud and clear.

ZAHN: I'll wait for three seconds. I think you can hear now.

FRIST: You bet.

ZAHN: So at the time, Senator, when 62 percent of all American, according to a latest poll, think that the country is moving in the wrong direction, the president has to say something tonight that he can achieve. A majority of the things he set out in last year's State of the Union did not succeed. Can you point to one thing you think the president will propose tonight where he will gain bipartisan success?

FRIST: Well, I think there will be a number of things. In fact, I think he will very offensively reach out to try to reverse this partisan spirit, which I think is destroying our government. And I say that with a little bit of hyperbole. But the president will reach out and say now is the time to work together. And I think that common theme that he'll be rallying both parties behind is security.

And that's what the American people want and I think that's reflected in the polls that you just quoted, and that is people want to feel more secure about their future. They want to feel more secure about freedom, more secure about their borders, more secure about healthcare that is really available and it's something that they can afford. More secure about the prosperity for the future, which is a good paying job. And I think that theme of leadership and security is one that will have strong nonpartisan or bipartisan support.

ZAHN: Well, you raised an interesting issue because we under the president will implore Congress to lower the temperature in its dialogue with each other. But the fact remains that the majority of Americans think the president is a divider, not a uniter. And even Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said today that we live in this Bush Orwellian (ph) world where no matter what he says, he does something else. So how much credibility do you think the president really has on this issue?

FRIST: Well, I think he has a lot of credibility because the American people want us to work together. And I think what you heard from the Democratic leader today, which is more partisan politics, which is more obstructions, which is more saying no, which is not putting ideas on the table or plans, or painting a vision of where we're going to take the country, like the president will tonight, that is what result in this petty bickering back and forth and the American people are sick and tired of it. And I think the leader, President Bush who comes out and says, let's work together on these issues, education, healthcare, global competitiveness, innovation, creation of jobs, prosperity in terms of promoting our economy, I think that is what America wants and that's who Americans are ready to follow.

BLITZER: Senator Frist, this is an election year. A third of the Senate is up for election, the whole House of Representatives. In our recent CNN/"USA Today"/Gallop Poll, we asked, are you more likely to vote for a candidate for Congress who supports Bush or opposes Bush. Forty percent said supports Bush, 51 percent said opposes Bush. Are we going to see a lot of Republicans this year running away from the president?

FRIST: No, Wolf, you know, I think a lot of what's behind those polls is the fact that they do reflect the fact that polls don't adequately reflect what is required today in a tough world where you have terrorism, where you have spiraling healthcare costs today, where you have an education system that is unfortunately failing our children. That makes tough choices, bold leadership, and that's not always reflected in popularity.

I am absolutely convinced if this president tonight, in a way that speaks directly to the American people, to the families all across this country, point a vision of safety, security, health, prosperity, and then lays out a plan and how we're going to get there, that the American people are going to follow and those polls will switch. I really do think -- it is a political year -- that good policy makes good politics.

BLITZER: How worried are you, Senator Frist, that Republicans across the board are going to be tainted by some of these scandals that have clearly developed here in Washington and around the country involving Republican political figures? FRIST: It is both parties. Listen, I can tell you, I know Senator Reid right now is on the floor calling this culture of corruption, saying it is all Republicans. It's absolutely not. And the facts are clearly there in terms of where money has been donated, and that's not a Democratic problem, it's not a Republican problem, it's an American problem. And we are going to get to the bottom of it. The goal, and the president will say it tonight, is to restore confidence, to restore that faith in our government.

And I can tell you, I'm going to do my part in the United States Senate. You're not going to hear me talking like the Democratic leader of obstruction, partisanship, petty bickering. I'm going to be reaching across the aisle, like I did the other day, for lobbying reform. Senator Reid, you put three people up, I'll put three people up and let's go at it and clean this place up. And he turned that down.

BLITZER: Let's see if you can make that happen. Senator, thanks very much for joining us. The Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Paula.

ZAHN: And, of course, the State of the Union isn't the only thing going on tonight. For a look at some of the other stories making news right now, let's go straight to Zain Verjee at the CNN Global Headquarters in Atlanta.

Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Paula.

The state of Florida was set to execute Arthur Rutherford an hour ago, but the U.S. Supreme Court stopped it. Rutherford's lawyers had argued that Florida's lethal injection procedure is cruel and unusual punishment. Just last week the high court stopped the execution of another man who made the same argument. The justices are expected to hear their cases this spring. Rutherford was convicted of murdering a woman back in 1985.

ABC News Anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman Doug Vogt are back in the U.S. The men arrived on a U.S. military plane from Germany just a short while ago, along with a group of injured soldiers. Woodruff and Vogt are now being treated at a Navy hospital in Maryland. On Sunday, Woodruff and Vogt suffered serious head injuries after an attack in Baghdad.

In California, police say a woman stole her former co-worker's I.D. at gunpoint to get into her former job, roamed around on a rampage and used a nine millimeter handgun to kill five former co- workers and injure one other. Then she turned the gun on herself and killed herself. It happened at a postal service facility just blocks away from the University of California in Santa Barbara. A postal official says the woman was on medical leave and had prior behavior problems at work. And the nation is remembering Coretta Scott King. Mrs. King, the widow of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., died last night. Her sister says the 78-year-old civil rights leader died in a health center in Mexico that was known for holistic alternative care. Just a short while ago, members of Congress publicly praised the civil rights icon and right now flags are flying at half staff on Capitol Hill.

Wolf.

Paula.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Zain, for that. We'll check back with you soon.

Let's go up to New York. Jack Cafferty standing by with "The Cafferty File."

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Hi, Paula.

ZAHN: Hey, Jack. You know what, this is sort of an unusual opportunity for me. I don't think I've ever spoken with you out of the 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. time block.

BLITZER: He looks great on that wall over there, doesn't he?

ZAHN: Yes, he does.

BLITZER: You see him in that . . .

ZAHN: And he's actually more wide awake than he used to be when I'd check in the morning show because it's 5:30.

CAFFERTY: Well, that's very nice. That's very nice.

Well, welcome to THE SITUATION ROOM. It's nice to have you in our nest here.

ZAHN: Thank you.

CAFFERTY: Back to the business of the evening.

When it comes to presidential speeches, the State of the Union Address tends to be a monumental thumbsucker. You can count on one hand the number of memorable quotes. President Bush's "axis of evil" is one. And, in hindsight, that may not have been such a great idea. In general, these speeches are boring. The president's party applauds. The other party tries to at least appear interested. Everyone tries to stay awake. Not all succeed.

We weren't always subjected to these. There was actually a period of 112 years, beginning with Thomas Jefferson, when the presidents were considerate enough to deliver the State of the Union in the form of a written report to the Congress, thus sparing us from having to listen to them. Returning to the written report has a certain appeal. Here's the question. Does the State of the Union Address still matter? You can e-mail us at caffertyfile@cnn.com or you can go to CNN.com/caffertyfile.

BLITZER: We will do exactly that. Thanks very much, Jack, and we'll get back with you soon.

Paula.

ZAHN: Coming up here tonight, between the lines of the president's big speech, he has offered lots of proposals and promises before. Can American's actually have confidence that he will follow through with them? We're going to check his actions against his words.

Plus, behind the scenes. Bad teleprompters, tricks of the trade, and actually who gets to sit with the first lady. We're going to look at how that really happened.

And an American city partially wiped off the map. We're going live to New Orleans where national disaster shook the nation all the way to the White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're just getting word of a last minute changes in the president's State of the Union speech. We're going to have details when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage of the State of the Union Address. We're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The president made a lot of promises during last year's address. But there's a bit of a gap between the rhetoric and the record. Let's go live to our White House Correspondent Suzanne Malveaux.

Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's one thing, of course, to make promises. It's another thing to deliver. I took a look at last year's State of the Union Address to see what worked, what didn't work and whether or not the president followed through.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The state of our union is confident and strong.

MALVEAUX, (voice over): President Bush promised a lot last year, but did he deliver?

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRES. ADVISER: The president deserves credit and high marks for his perseverance. But he has so many incompletes now.

MALVEAUX: Fresh from his reaction in 2004, Mr. Bush declared his 51 percent win a mandate and projected an air of invincibility. But some political analysts say the president overreached on his two top domestic priorities.

BUSH: Social Security was a great moral success of the 20th century and we must honor it's great purposes in this new century.

MALVEAUX: Reforming Social Security, the centerpiece of last year's State of the Union, died after the president spent six months crossing the country pedaling his plan to the American people.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INST.: The prospects of any action in Congress on Social Security reform are slim to none and slim just left the building.

BUSH: You and I will work together to give this nation a tax code that is pro-growth, easy to understand and fair to all.

MALVEAUX: His second priority, tax reform. Recommendations made by the president's bipartisan tax reform commission are collecting dust.

GERGEN: Reform of the tax code has been a bust.

MALVEAUX: And as for this promise.

BUSH: We must make healthcare more affordable and give families greater access to good coverage.

MALVEAUX: This year, making healthcare more affordable is being reintroduced.

GERGEN: So far, he's got, at best, an incomplete, if not a failure. He hasn't done very much as to trying to control healthcare costs.

MALVEAUX: Early in the year, the president did have a series of legislative victories with agreements on free trade, transportation and energy.

BUSH: We will keep America the economic leader of the world.

MALVEAUX: On the economy, Mr. Bush continues to report good job numbers, but faces a middle class that feels increasingly squeezed by the rising costs of gas and education.

GERGEN: Are most subjects the president has still got an incomplete. But please remember, he has three more years to govern.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: And, of course, those three years critical for the president, not only to push forward his domestic agenda, but also to try to change the situation around the world, those hot spots, Iraq, Iran and, of course, the Middle East -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House. Thanks very much.

Let's stay at the White House, head out to the North Lawn. Our other White House Correspondent Dana Bash has got some new wrinkles in the president's speech tonight.

Dana, what are you learning?

BASH: Well, Wolf, we can report now that the president will, at the beginning of his speech, towards the beginning, pay tribute to Coretta Scott King, of course, the civil rights leader who passed away today. We've been talking about how they have been amending and updating the president's speech all day. That is certainly one thing that they have put in.

And the president did release a statement earlier today. I imagine it will sound somewhat like that. He talked about the fact that she carried the legacy of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, and talk about her extraordinary work at the King Center and her lasting contributions to freedom and equality, saying that they have made America better and more compassionate. Expect the president to say something along those lines towards the beginning of his State of the Union Address tonight.

BLITZER: Dana Bash, thanks very much.

Paula.

ZAHN: And there's no way around this one. The president certainly has some serious problems right now, coming off a tough year. Two big ones are corruption rippling through the ranks of his Republican Party and his own determination to push a program of domestic spying. Joining us now, CNN Senior Analyst Jeff Greenfield, CNN Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley and CNN Chief National Correspondent John King.

And let's start off with Candy tonight.

What is your sense of a challenge for the president tonight? Is it about seizing the agenda in his speech tonight or officially starting the 2006 campaign season?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. In a word, that would be both. I mean this is the official kickoff -- in an election year, the State of the Union is always the kickoff for the party in power. The Democratic reply somewhat so. But it's also a chance for the president to at least press the reset button.

But, you know, a single speech can't undo all of 2005. It can't send those poll ratings up. In fact, all the information we've gathered is most president's tend to go down just a scosh (ph) after State of the Union. So, you know, he's not looking for a major turn- around here, he's looking for a pivot point. You know, OK, let's give the president a second look. That kind of thing.

ZAHN: Where's that most likely to come from? The pivot point?

CROWLEY: Well, the pivot point is, I think they'll tell you, is if you hit people where they hurt, healthcare. I mean, things that matter to Americans. I think if you look at the scandal and the corruption that you're talking about, they're paying attention. But when you ask people what they're care about, jobs, healthcare, the war in Iraq. So it's the home and hearth issues.

BLITZER: John, what about the National Security Agency and these warrantless wire taps? We've heard a lot about it. Next week when the hearings start in the Senate, we're going to hear a lot more. How much of a problem is hovering over the president with that?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a great question, Wolf, because in the past, President Bush has won every fight since 9/11 when the big issue is the president on national security, powers in the war on terror, this president has won. And Karl Rove in a speech recently signaled, let's run with this, Republicans. If the Democrats want to attack us on this, let's run right at them with this. And they used that strategy in 2002 and it worked. They used it in 2004, and it worked. Will it work in 2006? We don't know that. But this administration is not going to back down on that issue.

ZAHN: What are you looking for tonight in this speech?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Whether the president can connect with a populous that is in a sour, pessimistic mood. You know, I abhor most poll overemphasis. But there's a number in a recent poll that this network did.

Have things gotten better or worse in the last five years? A nice general question, how do you fee? Sixty-four to 28, worse. And except for terror, the president gets negative marks on every single issue. Only Nixon, in the year of his resignation, had a lower job approval rating, you know, for six year in office than this guy. So the question is, to quote what a former president never quite said, I think the president would like the country to believe he feels their pain or at least their anxiety about healthcare, about jobs, about the whole sense that something's gone a little sour.

ZAHN: And yet this is still being billed as a very optimistic speech.

GREENFIELD: Oh, yes. I mean you . . .

ZAHN: I can feel your pain and inspired (ph) at the same time.

GREENFIELD: Well Jimmy Carter, who taught every future president, you better not go in front of the country and tell people things are sour. You don't say that. It's not -- it's almost literally un-American. You know, president try and -- Candy's right, presidents always try to pivot when they get in trouble in a State of the Union. His father in 1992 was a big production about, this was going to redefine Bush. And by the time the year was over, he was an ex-president. So . . . CROWLEY: That's also tough when you're in your sixth year to say, boy, things are terrible because, I mean who do you look at. But, I mean, you know, never mind that presidents don't like to say that sort of thing. It has to be an optimistic speech, but it also has to realize that people are in pain. I mean so you say, look, I know this is a problem but we can fix this together the way we've always fixed things, you know, and moving it forward but you can't -- you can't just say things are terrible because he's, after all, been in charge for six years.

KING: He's an optimistic person by nature, but he has two problems, Iraq and the healthcare economic security issues. Before he can make people feel better about him, they need to feel better about themselves.

ZAHN: A stellar (ph) trio. We'll talk more about all of these issues throughout the night. Thanks for being with us.

Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, guys.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, two thorns in the president's side. An American city nearly wiped off the map. And the president accused of a slow response. What will the people of New Orleans want to hear tonight?

Also, good news, bad news. War in Iraq. The big victories for the White House and the long road ahead. We're live in Baghdad. Plus, we'll hear from Bill Bennett and Donna Brazile. All of them in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM

ZAHN: And right now we're going to focus in on a couple of stories that cut into president's popularity in the year 2005. In Iraq escalating violence and a rising casualty rate and then of course in New Orleans, the slow response to victims of Hurricane Katrina last fall. And since then the White House has tried to show it's on top of both of those problems, so the question tonight is, are things getting better or worse? Let's turn to Aneesh Raman who is standing by in Iraq and Susan Roesgen covers New Orleans for us as well.

Let's get started with Aneesh. Aneesh?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN BAGHDAD CORRESPONDENT: Paula, the past year, as you say, saw some progress in Iraq but it also saw for President Bush some perennial problems.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAMAN (voice-over): It's been the biggest success here so far, democracy taking root vote by vote. Last year Iraqis went to the polls three times, most recently to elect a permanent government, but six weeks after Election Day, the government is still yet to form, with negotiations set to take many more weeks, if not months, and it's still anyone's guess as to what kind of country Iraq will become, secular or theocratic, moderate or conservative.

The biggest challenge here remains security. The insurgency continues its relentless campaign of bombings, of kidnappings. Lat year the number of suicide car bombs tripled from the year before. The number of bombers using suicide vests went up tenfold.

A daunting challenge for these men, Iraq's trained and equipped security force now numbering 227,000, but they're still uneven in their capability to conduct operations without American military help. And many still lack the necessary equipment and armor to carry out their jobs.

This year will likely see fewer U.S. forces in Iraq. Some 30 bases have been either closed or handed over to the Iraqis. But the fight remains intense. Many variables yet to play out.

In 2005, 846 U.S. troops died in Iraq, almost the same number as the previous year. The total since the war began stands at over 2,200. Thousands more Iraqis have been killed. The true numbers simply impossible to know.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAMAN (on camera): And, Paula, there's a lot riding here on 2006, both for the president, given it's an election year but also for Iraqis who desperately want an end of the violence. Paula?

ZAHN: Aneesh. Thanks so much for that update.

Of course this will be the first State of the Union speech since the biggest natural disaster ever to hit this country, Hurricane Katrina. And residents of New Orleans are very eager to hear what the president has to say about their continuing challenges. Our Gulf Coast correspondent Susan Roesgen is live from New Orleans, tonight and I'm sure you've gotten a pretty good earful, Susan, of what people are hoping they will hear from the president tonight.

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN GULF COAST CORRESPONDENT: I really did, Paula. It's sort of like the old "Where's the Beef?" commercial. Some people hoping to hear good things from the president tonight, while others are afraid to hear a lot of nice words with no meat to back them up.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN (voice-over): Sweeping the street in downtown New Orleans, Betty Sylvester (ph) said the president needs to say a lot about New Orleans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We been crippled. So get more people in, more help. ROESGEN: More help is what many people are asking for. For instance, although the White House and Congress have allocated $85 billion to Katrina recovery, tens of thousands of people haven't been able to cut through federal red tape to get some of that money. Just one example of the local feeling that the president has promised help that hasn't arrived.

JACK ALLTMONT, BUSINESSMAN: What I would like to hear is I would like him to abide by what he said in Jackson Square a few ago that they would do whatever it takes to help the city. What I'm afraid we're going to hear is something a great deal less than that.

ROESGEN: One big concern is the repair of the levees. They Army Corps of Engineers is racing to finish repairing about 170 miles of damaged levees and the federal job is only 20 percent complete with the start of hurricane season less than five months away. Many people want to hear the president talk about that.

PETER TITLE, BUSINESSMAN: Better than pre-Katrina levees on a federal level and possibly Category 5 so people when they come back to the city will have confidence this will not occur.

ROESGEN: With some big questions unanswered, state of the state of Louisiana is uncertain. But some here say they don't expect to hear anything new tonight.

TELEY DAVIS, PAINTER: I'm going to watch my Curtis Mayfield video, but I'll be informed of the speech.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN (on camera): So some people will be watching the speech here in New Orleans to hear what the president has to say. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Susan, for that. Many say the bungled government response to Hurricane Katrina response cost the president in terms of popularity, especially in the African American community. Others say the Katrina response cost the president credibility on homeland security. Here now in our SITUATION ROOM, our strategy session, two CNN political analysts, Bill Bennett is with the Claremont Institute, he's the host of the syndicated radio show "Morning in America" and Donna Brazile is a Democratic strategist.

How much did Hurricane Katrina cost the president, Dana - Donna, excuse me, in the African American community?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, it hurt the president across the board. Not only did they perceive the president's response to being slow but they also thought that the initial federal assistance was also very weak and it undermined the ability of the state to recover from the losses.

But the president gave a terrific speech on September 15th. He outlined a series of initiatives including rebuilding the levees, he also promised to provide aid to assist those who were still in shelters. There's a lot of work that's left on the agenda and right now, people in Louisiana are very, just unhappy with the president's response on a bill that would have bought out some of the damaged homes, that's called the Baker Bill. And we're hoping tonight that the president changes his mind and endorsed that bill.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BILL BENNETT, CLAREMONT INSTITUTE: Well, it hurt in 2005. A lot of things hurt in 2005. It wasn't a great year for the president. But tonight he can remind people of all the different jobs he has, and the main job he has which is commander in chief. Security is the first responsibility of government, says the founders.

Tonight, especially in that environment, with those trappings, he has to talk about Iran, Iraq, Hamas, the situation in North Korea. That's the major part of the job description.

ZAHN: The other thing that Hurricane Katrina continues to expose is this great racial divide in this country. And we understand, we just learned from Dana Bash that the White House, that the president will pause in tribute to Coretta Scott King, tonight, she of course having died last night in Mexico.

And I'm just curious, since the president is going to implore Congress to try to lower the tone of rhetoric or at least the heat of the rhetoric, is there anything he can say about race tonight that could potentially unite the country?

BENNETT: Well, I think when he speaks about Mrs. King, I hope that he will say about Dr. King, Reverend King, that he was one of the leaders of this country in this century, not one of the great black leaders of this country, but one of the great leaders of this country. "Content of character, not color of your skin."

And it's entirely appropriate, of course, for him to do this. The president speaks tonight as the president of all of the people. That's not going to be a partisan speech. I'm confident it's not. And I hope it is again broadened at strokes and reminds people what the main part of the job is.

BRAZILE: If the president wanted to change the tone he can use this moment to remind the American people that there is a lot of work left undone by Dr. King and Mrs. King. And the one step that Congress can take tonight and the president can say it in his speech was that he will renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That's something that Coretta and Martin Luther King fought very hard for.

ZAHN: Look forward to talking to you a little bit later on in the next hour. Thank you both.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

BENNETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thanks guys, very much.

And just ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the tricks of the trade. Well' have a look at what's going on behind the scenes over at the White House right now. Also, at the top of the hour, the missing Cabinet member. In case disaster strikes tonight, we'll take a look at who would be running the nation. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. Our special coverage of the State of the Union Address which gets started in about an hour and 20 minutes from now. I'm Paula Zahn and so delighted to be in THE SITUATION ROOM WITH WOLF BLITZER.

BLITZER: It's great having Paula here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Very nice place, isn't it?

ZAHN: This place moves.

BLITZER: A lot of video, a lot of screens.

ZAHN: You don't pause much around here.

BLITZER: No.

ZAHN: You start the show and mow them down.

BLITZER: Major business. Let's move on. It's his dream job and today his dream came true. Since he was a student in Princeton University in 1968, Samuel Alito has wanted to be on the United States Supreme Court. Today he was finally confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The vote, 58-42.

Hours later he was sworn in as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by the new chief justice, John Roberts.

Up next, Justice Alito gets to put on his new robes and will enter the U.S. Capitol momentarily. He's going to have a special seat. CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us now with a closer look at the seating chart, Tom, which is very, very carefully worked out.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very worked out and they're all special seats in many ways. The most special one, of course is the president. Starts with the White House here. Let's move down here. If you've been visiting here as tourist and you know much about it, you see you move from the White House down the National Mall, Pennsylvania Avenue, all the way down here to the Capitol Building. All folks will gather right over in here for the State of the Union address.

We're going to go inside and show you what it looks like.

ZAHN: Makes me dizzy, Tom.

FOREMAN: Well, no, you're going like this part. We're going to go inside and show you what it looks like. Specifically where Samuel Alito will be seated. Up here with two other justices of the Supreme Court. They're right alongside joint chiefs of staff. We're going to be right next to them there. Now, these are happy men in an unhappy land, because that side is the Democratic side. The Democrats are on the left. You always see people talk about left and right in politics. That's why, because the Democrats are on the left.

On the right, here is the Republican team, this is who the president will be playing the most to, they're all over here, up front, best seats in the house, this side of the bench is the Cabinet out here.

However, throughout this speech you might see the president not only working to the side, but working this side in a very special way, if you see him looking up over to this side and if you see him looking a little bit up, you'll see him right over here, if I can make it happen the way I want to, right here. That's to the First Lady's area, where she will be seated along with her honored guest, including Rex the Dog, which is going to be a huge sensation when people see Rex the Dog there. Great story behind that dog, by the way. If the president is looking to the other side.

BLITZER: That's in the gallery up top.

FOREMAN: Exactly. It's a little bit raised up over here.

If he's looking to the other side, and he's looking for a particularly friendly face where he'll look is right up here to the other point. His view will come here to here, to the speaker's box, guests of the Speaker of the House. One thing I want to tell you about, if a lot of people are wondering right now, if he lets his eyes stray a little but toward the middle. That's where he'll find this area right here, because that's where Cindy Sheehan is going to be seated. There are other people here who are very important in this whole equation. Obviously, big message from the country but also big message for the world. The diplomatic corps is clustered all around the edges here. He'll be sending a lot of messages to them.

And to let us capture all of this and see everything that is being said and all the reactions from all these folks, ten different TV cameras, all the way through, showing reactions and what people have to say everything. And in fact, I want you to watch this section right here throughout, because, if the democrats want an instant replay, that's where they'll throw a flag. And of course, if they're wrong they'll lose a time-out.

BLITZER: No flags. No instant replays. You get one take. This is live television. And one thing about this chamber, everybody who has been inside says it looks so much smaller when you're there than it does on television.

FOREMAN: Indeed it does. But the seating is correct.

ZAHN: Gentlemen, you don't think the president will look to the middle and want to eyeball Cindy Sheehan?

BLITZER: I am told, what he does is he, he sort of focuses in on one or two or three people that he sort of can focus in on, because he's reading Teleprompters. It's not that easy. If he starts looking all over the place, he loses his energy, he loses his pizzazz, if you will. So he's limited who he is going to be looking at. I have that on pretty good authority.

ZAHN: Thanks, Tom.

FOREMAN: Good to be here.

BLITZER: Up next, behind the scenes, bad Teleprompters, tricks of the trades and who sits with the First Lady. We're going to take a closer look at how it really happens.

And in the case of disaster, we'll find out who would be running the United States government. It would be a worst case scenario. We don't want to think about it, but we do have the scoop on the missing Cabinet members. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. We're watching what's going on in advance of the president's State of the Union Address.

ZAHN: and of course although the State of the Union is a very well planned and well-rehearsed event, drafts and drafts read over an over again. Things can and have gone very wrong. And here to talk about what happens behind the scenes, even some past nightmares. One person very familiar with pressures and preparations and he has lived to tell us about it, CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Paul Begala. Good to see you.

BLITZER: I know things went wrong with the Clinton administration. Occasionally, not often, but once in while they would go -- Take you back to September '93, he's delivering an address before joint session of Congress on health care. And all of a sudden, there was a glitch.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There was. We had not finished the speech early.

BLITZER: You see, he's talking to Al Gore, who is the vice president sitting behind him and he's saying something.

ZAHN: What is he saying?

BEGALA: He said Al, they loaded the wrong speech on. And the vice president ...

BLITZER: In the Teleprompter?

BEGALA: In the Teleprompter. Because we had. The speech was not ready. The president was editing it in the limo on the way over ...

BLITZER: Down Pennsylvania Avenue. BEGALA: I'm sitting in typing in his edits in the car on the way to the speech. So the guys who were setting up those Teleprompter plates, put the economic speech from nine months in just to make sure they were the right height and that it worked well. Well, when we loaded the new speech on, we didn't delete the old one, so it became one endless speech, two speeches combined. We couldn't tell where one began and one ended. So he got up there to start and it was the wrong speech.

BLITZER: You see the missing chair.

BEGALA: Al Gore just left to tell George Stephanopoulos that the wrong speech is up there. So he went up there, it took nine and a half minutes. Nine and a half minutes. I had stupidly taken the president's glasses away from him as he ran up on the podium. We gave him a backup text, hard copy. But the type was too small for him to read. He's like 47, 48 at the time, he couldn't see without his glasses. But it put a bulge in the jacket so I said, sir, you don't need it, it looks odd in the jacket. And I rip off his glasses from him so he had nothing. And he went the first nine and a half minutes on health care, a very technical topic. Frankly, I'm biased, I love the guy, it was flawless.

ZAHN: He didn't burn any time. He literally started ...

BEGALA: He did well. He had one thing he knew he wanted to start with. On that I suspect Bush will mention Coretta Scott King's passage. Sometimes new occurs on the day of the big speech.

On that day there was a train derailment in Alabama. We'd lost some folks. He knew he wanted to express condolences and prayers. But then he launched right into the speech. After the speech, I said, what did it feel like to stand up there and know that you didn't have anything to go by? And by the way, the speech is going back and forth. Last years' speech, right in front of him. All the words whirring up and whizzing down. He said, I just talked to myself. Well, Lord, you're testing me. OK. Here goes.

And that's the kind of confidence the president has to have to pull off a speech like that.

BLITZER: How angry was the president of the United States with his staff when this whole thing was over?

ZAHN: Why didn't you get fired?

BEGALA: You know why? Because I have a PhD in Clinton psychology. Because the thing no one does with the president is take responsibility. So as soon as he finished. I went up to him and said this is entirely my fault. I didn't know what had gone wrong. But it was my job. And I told him that and I think because it had gone well. And I took the hit. He put his arm around me and said, Oh, Paulie, that's fine. He was great, he was not at all angry.

And that's when he told me that he literally was having a brief conversation with God. And you can see on the tape, he was utterly calm about it. When we got back to the White House, Chelsea could tell, his daughter. She was the only person who could tell that something was sort of amiss. But all the rest of us mere mortals couldn't even tell. It was weird, one of my favorite moments because I lived to tell about it, but he could have, would have, should have just killed me right there in the halls of ...

BLITZER: There's never been a Teleprompter failure since then, and I'm sure this president is very certain there won't be tonight.

BEGALA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: We'll see you soon. Thanks very much, Paul.

ZAHN: Thanks, Paul.

The online community is buzzing over the State of the Union Address. We're going to go straight to our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner right now to find out what some of the bloggers are saying at this hour. Hi, Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Hi, Paula. Well, the establishment are starting to get it. And they're starting to get in on the act. Let's take a look at the House Republican conference. They invited some 15 bloggers to spend the day on Capitol Hill and to meet with congressmen and women. You can take a read at what went down to day, one such blog, "A Soldier's Perspective." C.J. has a pretty comprehensive live blog that is actually blogging events as they happen of how the day went down.

They're now waiting for the State of the Union over there to start. On the other side of the aisle, you have got the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Web log, that's a mouthful, it's called "The Stakeholder," and they're going to live blog the State of the Union. They've invited some congresspeople, John Conyers, Rush Holt, Frank Pallone, Tim Ryan to weigh in the comment section. It will be open. It's an open dialogue on the Internet.

But the bloggers don't need the establishment to get it together. They're organizing it all by themselves. Mydd.com, Matt Stoler (ph) has a comprehensive list of liberal resources. You can check up on those online. Also "Think Progress", the blogging arm of the Center for American Progress on the left. A good spot to check in what the liberal blogosphere is up to.

Also, check blogsforbush, Matt Margolis, a conservative blogger, you might want to read for a liveblog and then there's also CNN's resources on line. You can check out our new broadband service, Paula and Wolf, this is the pipeline, you can not only see all our State of the Union coverage but also past State of the Unions as well.

ZAHN: Well, Jacki, Wolf and I are going to be pretty busy here tonight so we'll be counting on you to fill us in on what America is saying at this hour. Thanks so much.

Coming up next, does the presidential State of the Union Address still matter? And that's our question of the hour with our own Jack Cafferty who is standing by with your email. And coming up in the next hour of our special coverage, it's the doomsday scenario, no one wants to think of. But plans are in place just in case. We're going to show you what's being done, to ensure the republic would survive a State of the Union disaster.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. Our special coverage leading up to the State of the Union address continues. Let's go up to New York, Jack Cafferty standing by with "The Cafferty File." Hi, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, how you doing.

The query that is up for exploration this hour is the following, does the State of Union Address still matter?

Jay writes in Columbia, South Carolina, "No, it's nothing but 15 minutes of whitewashing over the truth by the president, 10 minutes of self-gratuitous applause by corpulent pork barrel senators and congressmen finished off by 10 minutes of sour grapes by the Democrats. Why bother?"

Roger in Dallas writes, "Come on, while the partisan politicians get to spend hours finding fault with the president's speech, we the people actually get an opportunity to see the president address the real issues that affect us every day.

"While we may not always agree with all of the president's actions, we as a nation need to pick it up and confront what is really wrong in the country."

Dede in Sawyerville, Alabama, "The State of the Union Address is simply a formality. The news provides a pretty good State of the Union assessment each day."

Jane in Minneapolis writes, "It could be relevant but it won't be. After five years, isn't it a bit late to tell us how we'll be secure, educated, have health care, etc? I don't know how some of those senators can still support Bush with a straight face."

Walt writes, "The president's State of the Union Address matters more than your cynical comments. Maybe you should just get out of the business."

And Taylor in New York writes, "Jack, I still think the speech matters as a signpost for policy choices to come in the year, but I would give anything within reason to hear just once the president say, "The State of Our Union ain't great."

Wolf, Paula?

BLITZER: I don't think we're going to hear that tonight. Jack, thanks very much. We'll get back with you shortly.

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