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THE SITUATION ROOM

Barack Obama Takes Formal First Step In Running For President; President Bush Meets With U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Jury Selection Underway In Trial Of Louis "Scooter" Libby; John Edwards Interview

Aired January 16, 2007 - 16:00   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 today's top stories.
Happening now, Senator Barack Obama takes an official step toward the White House and makes a huge imprint on the campaign trail.

We'll examine the Illinois Democrat's political assets and drawbacks and his chances of becoming the nation's first African- American president.

Also this hour, can John Edwards compete with political superstars like Senator Barack Obama or Senator Hillary Clinton?

I'll ask the Democratic presidential contender about his competition and his party's divisions over Iraq.

Also, going exploding with new bombings and bloodshed, including a massacre, a real massacre at a major University. We'll have reports on the violence and new insights into President Bush's plan to try to stop it. And I'll speak here in THE SITUATION ROOM with "New York Times" correspondent John Burns. He's in Baghdad.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Try as he might to try to keep it low key, Senator Barack Obama's entry into the ranks of presidential explorers is a megawatt moment. The Illinois Democrat announced his first step toward a possible run for the White House on his Web site earlier today, positioning himself as a uniter in an era of bitter and partisan politics.

For all his superpower, does this first term senator really have a shot at the White House and at breaking the race barrier in the Oval Office?

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Barack Obama took that formal first step in running for president after months of methodical study. Yet the celebrity senator who's already shaped and changed the 2008 presidential race made it sound like he's as surprised as anyone.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: I certainly didn't expect to find myself in this position a year ago. But as I've spoken to many of you in my travels across the states these past months, as I've read your e-mails and read your letters, I've been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics.

BASH (voice-over): With that Web video, the 45-year-old senator who little more than two years ago was in the Illinois legislature, formally enters a field that includes several Democrats with strong grassroots support, not to mention prospective front runner, Hillary Clinton.

Obama is trying to turn his lack of government experience into an asset, running as an outsider.

OBAMA: Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions.

BASH: But Democratic strategists say Obama's biggest challenge is that Democratic primary voters will want to pick a winner, and Obama has a lot to prove.

ANNA GREENBERG, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: I think that they're going to have to take a look at this Barack Obama and say to themselves, is this somebody who can run in a general election on issues of war and the war on terrorism and taking on some of our world's most challenging problems?

BASH: The senator has been trying to focus more on the political issue of the day -- Iraq -- using his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to challenge the administration.

OBAMA: Are there any circumstances that you can articulate in which we would say to the Maliki government that enough is enough and we are no longer committing our troops?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm -- I'm not going to speculate.

BASH: Obama would be the first black president, something a former black candidate applauded just yesterday.

REV. JESSE JACKSON, RAINBOW/PUSH COALITION: There's a non-stop line between the march in Selma in 1965 and the inauguration in Washington in 2009.

BASH: And Obama has a star status that is rare in politics. Maiden visits to first contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire this fall drew crushing crowds. He was even chased to Hawaii by paparazzi, who sold this bare-chested photo to "People" magazine.

OBAMA: Running for the presidency is a profound decision, a decision no one should make on the basis of media hype or personal ambition alone.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now what Senator Obama did today was formally file papers for a presidential exploratory committee. That is an initial step that some of his competitors like Senator Chris Dodd, senator -- former Senator John Edwards, skipped. They formally announced that they were running for president.

Senator Obama said that he would have more to say from his home state of Illinois on February 10th. And, Wolf, I have not talked to anyone who is close to Senator Obama today who could say with a straight face that they do not expect him to make that formal announcement for the presidency on February 10th -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much.

So where does Senator Barack Obama stand on some of the other crucial issues?

He supports abortion rights. He opposes same-sex marriage but also opposes a constitutional ban on them. He's in favor of civil unions.

Senator Obama supports the president's Senate-backed immigration bill, which would increase border and enforcement of existing laws, but would also give some illegal immigrants a pathway toward citizenship. Obama opposes Social Security privatization.

On taxes, the senator from Illinois supports eliminating the marriage penalty and extending child tax credit. He supports scaling back capital gains and dividends tax cuts. Obama also wants to re- examine tax benefits for the top 1 percent of earners.

Barack Obama joins a crowded field of Democrats running for the White House. Former senator and 2004 vice presidential nomination John Edwards; Senator Chris Dodd; former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack; and Congressman Dennis Kucinich are all official candidates for the presidency right now.

Senator Joe Biden has said over and over and over again, including many appearances right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, that he's going to run for president.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson tells me he'll make a decision about jumping into the race by the end of this month.

The Democrats' last presidential nomination, Senator John Kerry, is also seriously thinking about another run. He told me Sunday he'll make a decision very soon.

So is civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who also ran for president back in 2004.

And then there's Hillary Rodham Clinton. All eyes are on the senator from New York, as we await any announcement about her presidential ambitions. We expect to hear something about her trip to Iraq tomorrow.

Over at the White House today, President Bush continues to grapple with his Iraq problems and tries to sell his plan for a troop build-up. He met today with the new United Nations secretary-general. And in a new interview, the president talks about 2006 being what he calls, and I'm quoting now, "a lousy year in Iraq."

Let's turn to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in this meeting with Ban Ki-moon, the president clearly -- both sides trying to show that they're pledging cooperation in this relationship between the president and the new U.N. secretary-general, a contrast from the often frosty relationship that President Bush had with his predecessor, of course, Kofi Annan.

But this meeting with the new U.N. Secretary-General came on a very awkward day for the White House in that the U.N. put out a new report today contending that more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in sectarian violence last year alone; almost 100 Iraqi civilians a day.

The president did not dispute that number today in an interview with Jim Lehrer of PBS, an interview that will air later this evening. The president instead saying he believes this statistic shows even now more than ever the U.S. government has to help the Iraqi government survive, help them stem the violence. But the president did concede that the Iraqi government still has, in his words, some maturation to go.

He cited the hanging of Saddam Hussein, the way that was handled. He used some strong words in saying that it almost looked like a revenge killing and that, in fact, the Iraqi government has some more maturation to show.

Also, the president was blunt in saying he believes 2006 was a lousy year in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER, COURTESY PBS)

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm frustrated with the progress. If you would have taken -- put me in an opinion poll and said do I approve of Iraq, I'd be one of those who would say no, I don't approve of what's taking place in Iraq.

On the other hand, I do believe we can succeed. Look, I had -- I had a choice to make, Jim, and that is, one, do what we're doing. And one could define that maybe as slow failure. Secondly, withdraw out of Baghdad and hope for the best. I would think that would be expedited failure.

And thirdly is to help this Iraqi government with additional forces.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HENRY: Now, you can hear the president there still putting a lot of faith in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But when you talk to top people around here, in frank moments they will tell you that, in their words, the jury is still out on Prime Minister Maliki and his unity government. They're obviously hoping that this latest plan is going to work, but clearly the White House concerned about whether it will -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ed, thank you very much.

Ed Henry at the White House.

A move today, by the way, by Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut to cap the number of troops in Iraq at around 132,000. The Democratic senator, who is also running for president, introduced a bill that calls for approval by Congress for any troop increase in Iraq beyond that 132,000 number. There's no word if Dodd's bill will ever come to a vote. He certainly would like it to happen, though.

Democrats today also announced that freshman Senator Jim Webb of Virginia will deliver the party's response to the president's State of the Union Address. A Vietnam War veteran, former Navy secretary, Webb made the Iraq War a key issue in his winning campaign to unseat the Republican incumbent, George Allen. His victory sealed the Democrats' control of the Senate.

By the way, the State of the Union address is scheduled one week from today, January 23rd.

And please join me and Paula Zahn for a two hour special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM that will lead up to the president's address. The State of the Union -- our coverage starts next Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

In Iraq today, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is blaming what he calls desperate terrorists and Saddamists for a bloody attack at a Baghdad University.

CNN's Arwa Damon has more on a day of raging violence in the Iraqi capital -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, attacks just in Baghdad killed over 100 Iraqis and wounded nearly double that number. The deadliest attack coming at Mustansiriya University, targeting students and employees just as they were leaving to go home in the evening. A car bomb was parked underneath a pedestrian walkway at one entrance and at the other entrance, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest was waiting.

The explosions happens near simultaneously.

This follows a number of attacks in Baghdad. In two cases, double bombings claiming the lives of dozens and wounding scores more.

All of this is really a harsh reminder of the many challenges that face both U.S. and Iraqi forces as they try to secure the capital -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Arwa, thanks very much.

And once again, more than 100 people dead in various terrorist attacks throughout Baghdad. Today, nearly 300 -- nearly 300 additional people injured.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty.

He has more with The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, Congress has figured out how it's going to tackle ethics reform.

The Congressional newspaper "The Hill" reports that both the Senate and House Ethics Committees plan to increase their staffs in order to better police Congress. That's right -- they're going to solve the problem of ethics reform by making the ethics bureaucracy bigger.

Watchdog groups have been pushing for Congress to create an outside office of public integrity and they say expanding the Ethics Committees is a poor substitute for an independent panel.

But there is little support for an independent office of ethics oversight right now. Supporters of expanding the staffs of the Ethics Committees say that there would be fewer ethics violations to prosecute if lawmakers got better training.

Apparently the people we elect to Congress have to be trained not to take bribes, not to drive drunk, not to try to have sex with the pages, etc. The idea is that some of these new people that they're going to hire could be used to train the Congresspeople and then to monitor compliance.

What a joke.

The House passed ethics reform when the new Congress opened for business and the Senate is expected to do the same some time next week. They'll call it ethics reform. It's nothing, really.

So here's the question -- when it comes to ethics reform, does size matter?

E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that.

And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we'll have much more on our top story this hour, Barack Obama's big news.

How does today's announcement alter the presidential playing field?

I'll ask our John King. He's standing by. Plus, what does John Edwards think about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, for that matter?

I'll ask the Democratic presidential candidate. He'll join us here, in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But up next, the trial that a lot of Washington is watching right now. Louis "Scooter" Libby gets his day in court.

Will the vice president and the secretary of state take the witnesses stand in the CIA leak trial?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here in Washington, jury selection now underway in the perjury and obstruction trial of Louis "Scooter" Libby. The former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney is accused of lying to the FBI and other federal authorities in the CIA leak investigation. In the courtroom today, the politics surrounding this case clearly have been front and center.

Let's turn to our Brian Todd.

He's outside the courthouse -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, already some good political theater here on day one. What we've just learned is that two more potential star witnesses are among those who could be called to testify in this case. They are former Secretary of State Colin Powell. His name appeared in documents today, along with current secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

They could -- could be called to testify in this case.

What we know now is that nine jurors h been polled so far. They've been questioned. Three of them have already been dismissed.

Louis "Scooter" Libby walked stoically into court earlier today. He is accused of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements to investigators concerning his knowledge of the identity of former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame and about his contacts with journalists about Plame's identity.

Other notable witnesses in this case, the star witnesses is likely to be Vice President Dick Cheney. He would be the first sitting vice president to testify in a criminal trial. It is very likely that the defense will call him to testify, to try to bolster Libby's claim that Libby was just too absorbed in his job, too distracted with other things to remember specifically what he told members of the media and others about Plame's identity.

Remember, he is accused of obstruction and of misleading investigators about what he told members of the media.

Now, how politically charged is this case?

An example can be found in the jurors' questions. Here's one of them, number 6B: "Would any of you have any difficulty fairly judging the believability of former or present members of the Bush administration?"

Thirty-eight questions on this questionnaire for jurors. Many, many of them like that one. They also have questions about whether you would believe someone's memory recall and other things like that. It's fascinating stuff to look through the jurors' questions, Wolf.

We have to get through two more days, probably, of this questioning, before we get to the trial. Not clear when or if Vice President Cheney will be called. He probably will be. And as we noted at the top here, other notables to be maybe called, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we'll watch it with you, Brian.

Thanks very much.

For a closer look, by the way, at all the questions being asked of jurors, the potential witnesses list in the "Scooter" Libby trial and how you can get your hands on both, let's turn to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we put this entire questionnaire for potential jurors online at CNN.com/ticker. Thirty- eight questions here, including, the fifth question: "Do you know any of these individuals?"

A long list, 18 names and witnesses that may be used in the trial. Prominent reporters here, the Wilsons up here and, also, as Brian mentioned, current and former members of the Bush administration.

Also on this questionnaire, you'll find those questions about memory. Basically, is memory like a tape recorder. They're asking do people forget things?

And at the end of this questionnaire, mention of the extensive coverage of this case. Potential jurors being told that if picked, they would not be able to watch, listen or read any of it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to watch this trial. It could last maybe six weeks. Stay in THE SITUATION ROOM for all of the details.

Abbi Tatton, Brian Todd, as you saw earlier, Ed Henry, Dana Bash -- they are all part of the best political team on television.

And remember, for all the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Coming up, will the "Scooter" Libby trial put the White House in a political pickle?

I'll ask Donna Brazile and J.C. Watts. They're standing by live for our Strategy Session.

But up next, a blazing inferno forces residents to flee. Details coming up.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Carol Costello for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

Many called him the Millennium Bomber. Today, one part of his sentencing was thrown out. Ahmed Ressam's sentence was vacated and a federal appeals court ordered a district court to re-sentence him. The 39-year-old Algerian was arrested in 1999 when he tried to enter the United States through Washington State. When Customs officials stopped him, they found 130 pounds of homemade explosives and timing devices in his car.

In Missouri, the man suspected of those two bizarre kidnappings will see his day in court. Michael Devlin will be arraigned on Thursday morning. He's charged with one count of felony kidnapping. But officials say he'll likely face more charges. Devlin is suspected of kidnapping those two Missouri boys, holding one for days and 15- year-old Shawn Hornbeck, allegedly, for over four years.

We are awaiting a news conference on this case. It should come to you in the next hour.

Also, grab your oranges, lemons and mandarins because the price you pay next week just will not be the same. Prices are expected to noticeably rise after a cold snap in California destroys bundles and bundles of citrus crops. At least $650 million. One official calls it a disaster and another says California's entire $1.3 billion citrus fruit industry is at risk.

Ninety percent of the citrus fruit sold in the United States comes from California and forecasters say the cold spell is not over yet.

And in Kentucky, it would seem like a scene from a movie if it weren't to serious. A train jumps the tracks near Louisville. That sparks a huge explosion and fire, and that burns some dangerously toxic chemicals the train was carrying. Plumes of black smoke blanketed the surrounding area, prompting fear and evacuations among some residents. Not clear what caused this accident. Of course, officials are still investigating.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, thank you for that. Up next, John Edwards -- he called out Democrats in Congress for not doing enough to try to stop President Bush's plan to send more American troops to Iraq.

But what's his plan?

He's standing by next in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And our Strategy Session -- J.C. Watts and Donna Brazile -- will Senator Barack Obama's shake-up shake up the Democratic presidential field? Is he ready to sit in the big chair in the Oval Office?

Stay tuned. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Happening now, it's an attack that "would make humanity cringe." That's what the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, says of a dual bomb attack that ripped through one of Iraq's most prestigious universities today. At least 70 people are dead in that incident, another 169 are hurt. And it's only just one of several attacks in Iraq today that have already left 107 people dead, nearly 300 injured.

Condoleezza Rice says Iraq's violence is utterly unacceptable to President Bush. But meeting with officials in Kuwait today, Secretary Rice acknowledged that even with the president's new security plan, there will still be attacks to deal with.

And Fidel Castro is said to be in gave condition, very grave condition. A Spanish newspaper is citing medical sources that say an infection of the large intestine, at least three failed operations and many complications have complicated the Cuban president's recovery.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

One former Democratic senator is running full steam ahead in his presidential bid and he's angling for your support.

But how might he size up against some others in his own party?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, former Democratic Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

He's a candidate for the presidency.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

FORMER SENATOR JOHN EDWARDS, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hi.

Thank you for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Barack Obama announced today he is creating an exploratory committee, after, what, two years in the U.S. Senate. Do you believe he is qualified, he has the necessary experience to be president of the United States?

EDWARDS: Well, it won't be my decision to make.

I think that it's a good thing to have good people in this race. If you're running for president for the right reason, it's because you want to serve your country, and you have decided it's the best way to serve your country.

I have thought long and hard about that, and made that decision for myself. And I guess it will be for Senator Obama to decide in the next few weeks whether that's something he believes he should do.

BLITZER: Well, it sounds like you're not convinced that he is necessarily ready for -- to run for the presidency.

EDWARDS: Oh, I wouldn't pass judgment over any of the -- on any of the other candidates.

I think the campaign just beginning. Speaking for myself, I'm not exploring. I have made the decision that this is the best way to serve my country. And we will just see what happens as the campaign goes on.

I think we want good people in the race, because we desperately need new leadership in 2009.

BLITZER: Here is what you said Sunday in New York City. I want to play this little clip.

Listen to this.

EDWARDS: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EDWARDS: Speak out and stop this escalation now. You have the power, members of Congress, to prohibit this president from spending any money to escalate this war. Use that power.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

EDWARDS: Use it now.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: As you know, that was widely seen as a slap at Senator Hillary Clinton, who has refused to say she's ready to use the power of the purse, congressional authority, to go ahead and stop funding an increase, an escalation, or a surge, in the war.

Did you see that as a direct attack against her? EDWARDS: I wasn't, Wolf, thinking about anybody in particular. It was directed at members of Congress who, I believe, as a matter of conscience, should stop this president from escalating this war and from continuing in a long series of really tragic mistakes that -- that he's made in Iraq.

And, as I said in the clip you just ran, Congress has the power to stop this escalation. It's been done before in Lebanon, in Colombia, and toward the end of the Vietnam War. I mean, there is an historical precedent for it. And there's clearly constitutional authority for it.

It's time for members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, by the way, not just Democrats, but those who know, in good conscience and principle, that this war should not be escalated, to speak out and to take action.

BLITZER: Here is what Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser to Senator Clinton, said, reacting to what you said at the church on Sunday: "In 2004, John Edwards used to constantly brag about running a positive campaign. Today, he has unfortunately chosen to open his campaign with political attacks on Democrats who are fighting the Bush administration's Iraq policy" -- strong words from a senior adviser to Senator Clinton.

EDWARDS: Yes, it sounds a little oversensitive to me.

I -- my -- what I was doing, I didn't speak about anybody by name. I talked about members of Congress. By the way, I also spoke to the American people, who I need -- think also need to step up and be heard on this escalation of the war.

And I was specifically referencing Dr. Martin Luther King's speech 40 years ago, a year to the day before he died, in Riverside -- at Riverside Church, where he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, and talked about silence being a betrayal. And that was the theme of what I was talking about.

I believe I was right. I stand behind it. We should not be escalating this war. And I hope that members of -- of Congress will have the good conscience and the good sense to show some strength about this, and stand up to the president, and stop him.

BLITZER: Some of your critics will say: You know what? John Edwards is no longer in the United States Senate. He really doesn't have to vote on this issue. It's easy for him to say it. It's much more difficult for Senator Clinton or Senator Barack Obama or Senator Kerry, who actually have the responsibility of providing funds, if you will, for U.S. troops, to vote on these kinds of life-and-death matters.

What do you say to those critics?

EDWARDS: I say, first of all, when I had the chance to vote years ago on the funding of the war in Iraq, $87 billion at the time -- and I thought the president was headed on the wrong course. It turns out, unfortunately for our country, that I was right -- I voted no.

I am now a president -- a candidate for president of the United States, Wolf, and I'm going to be held accountable for the positions I take. And I think it is important for those who want to have a leadership position, whether it's in the Congress or whether they end up running for president of the United States, not to be being careful and cautious and weighing their options.

Now is the time for leadership. America needs leadership. The world needs leadership from us. And we need to have the strength of our convictions. Now is the time to stand up and speak up.

BLITZER: Senator McCain says to those Democratic critics and other critics: If you don't like the president's policy, offer one that you do like.

Give us, in a nutshell, what you would like to see happen over the next few months, as far as U.S. troop levels, the war in Iraq are concerned.

EDWARDS: Forty thousand to 50,000 troops out immediately -- second, a direct conversation with Maliki and the Shia-led government, saying, this -- there is no military solution in Iraq. You are going to have to bring the Sunni into this government in a serious way, in order for there to be a political solution, in order for there to be reconciliation, which the Baker study group talked about, shifting the responsibility to them, continuing the withdrawal of American troops over time.

And then last, but not least, we can't just deal with our friends in the regions, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians. We ought to be dealing directly with the Syrians and the Iranians, because, at the end of the day, the Iranians, what they really what, I think, is managed chaos in Iraq. They don't want complete chaos.

They are in the Shia minority, as you know very well, Wolf. And a widespread Middle East conflict is not in their interests, certainly not before they have a nuclear weapon, if they get one. So, we -- they're in a position that we at least have some potential for helping -- having them help stabilize Iraq. But it will never happen so long as we are an occupying force there.

BLITZER: The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the other day, when I interviewed him, said: You know what? Over the past five years, since 9/11, there has been no terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and the president deserves credit for that.

Do you think the president deserves credit for that?

EDWARDS: You know, I think it's a combination of -- and the American people know this -- it's a combination of some good things that we have done. We have made -- done some positive -- taken some positive steps to improve our security here at home. We still have huge holes in our security, which have been talked about repeatedly.

And some of it, I think, is luck. So, I think it's a combination of some positive steps that have been taken, not just by the president, but by the American people and by our government. But, also, I think we have been lucky up until now. And I think what's happened with the situation in Iraq is, we have created a breeding ground for terrorists.

And what's happened specifically in the case of al Qaeda, instead of them being a top-down organization, they have been much more dispersed, and they are still extraordinarily dangerous.

BLITZER: We have got to go, but can we expect to see you at the first presidential debates in New Hampshire April 4 and 5? CNN is going to be co-sponsoring those debates with WMUR Television and "The New Hampshire Union Leader." Are you going to be attending those presidential debates?

EDWARDS: I will be there.

BLITZER: OK.

Senator, we will see you in New Hampshire, if not sooner. Thanks very much for coming in.

EDWARDS: Thanks, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And coming up: Senator Barack Obama makes a major move toward a potential White House run. Will his candidacy shake up the Democratic field of presidential contenders? I will ask our John King. He's standing by live.

And, in the next hour, we will get a debrief on today's extraordinary violence in Iraq. Is it a reaction to yesterday's botched execution? "The New York Times" Baghdad bureau chief, John Burns, will join us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back now to our lead political story of the day: Senator Barack Obama's first step toward a presidential campaign. It's a significant turn in the road to the White House, in more ways than one.

Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King.

Is this the way to do it -- you have covered a lot of these presidential prospects -- the way he is doing it, piecemeal, going with this exploratory first?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is almost more traditional, in that he has a twofer here.

He announces this on the Webcam, gets a bit -- big deal of excitement today. But he did leave himself some wiggle room, Wolf. He says he will have a final decision on February 10 back home in Chicago, where everyone expects him -- fully expects him to get into the race. So, look for more traditional announcement speech there.

But he does give himself a little bit of wiggle room. But it also makes clear to anyone out there saying: Do I want to wait or sign on with somebody else? And should I write this guy a check?

That's what today is mostly about: Send money, and send it now.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Once he has this exploratory committee...

KING: Right.

BLITZER: ... he has the legal way to get funds.

It puts pressure on Hillary Clinton to follow his lead.

KING: Well, her campaign -- or her -- she doesn't have a campaign yet. Her people would say, oh, no, it doesn't, that they are going perfectly according to their timeline.

And their timeline, best as we can tell right now -- they are still leaving wiggle room on their part, too -- is announce in late February, not an exploratory committee, a full announcement, get in, in late February. I talked to some Hillary people up in New Hampshire today. And they say, they are being told to look for her up there the first week of March.

She has got plenty of money, and she's raising more. So, she has no issues in that regard. The way it has changed, the Clinton people say, is, when she is calling people, they are not talking about Edwards -- or they are not just talking about Edwards or Biden or Dodd, that Obama comes up quite a bit.

But they insist, in terms of the structure and the organization, it's having no impact. But they are supposed to say that.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: In recent days, I have spoken to some wealthy Democratic Party activists, who are being squeezed big time by Obama and Hillary Clinton to come up with funds -- and not only that, but to lend their name to these respective potential candidates.

The pressure is on the Democratic fund-raisers.

KING: Well, you see that this is the preseason. So, how do you get attention? You raise a lot of money or you get big heavyweights to sign on and endorse you. That's how you generate attention early on.

The big question is what happened when people have to get around to voting. And that is the big challenge now for Barack Obama. Now that he is not a celebrity anymore -- he's actually a candidate, or as close as you get to an official candidate -- he will get asked more a lot about Iraq. His experience will come up time and time again. The other candidates are trying to find a polite way, if you will, to remind people: Two years ago, this guy was in the Illinois legislature. You want him to lead you in the post-9/11 world?

Or, if the Republican race has a John McCain as the nominee in the end, Democrats want the White House back, after eight years of George W. Bush. Do you want a guy with very limited foreign policy experience standing up on that platform?

So, those will be the questions that will take shape much more, now that it's not just a theory of an Obama candidacy; it's for real.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, John King, reporting for us.

Senator Obama, by the way, announced his first steps towards a presidential run today online.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is here with more details -- Abbi.

TATTON: Wolf, at BarackObama.com -- until this morning, that was the address of his Senate reelect Web site. Now that is moved and replaced by this site, transformed into a focal point of the senator's exploratory committee.

Visitors are invited to watch the Webcast of that announcement made online, as you said -- Senator Obama telling people: I wanted to tell you first through this video.

Plus, there is a second video, a meet Barack video, documenting his background, accomplishments, his positions here. And, apart from those video elements on the site, there is the key part there, the join the team and the contribute, that page on these Web sites at this early stage, an important part, that online donation section -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

Abbi Tatton, John King, they are both part of the best political team on television.

On our "Political Radar" this Tuesday: Another Republican makes his presidential mulling official. Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo announced today he is forming an exploratory committee. He's positioning himself as a conservative alternative to more moderate GOP rivals. Tancredo is a vocal opponent of illegal immigration and abortion. I will speak with Tom Tancredo here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour.

Senator John McCain is trying to patch things up with Christian conservative leader James Dobson. Dr. Dobson says he won't support McCain's likely presidential bids under any circumstances, because he contends the Arizona Republican doesn't support traditional marriage values.

McCain said today he is disappointed with Dobson's remark, and he hopes to open up a dialogue with him. McCain spoke in the key primary state of South Carolina, where he picked up a 2008 endorsement from the statehouse speaker.

Rudy Giuliani is lining up support in the lead-off presidential caucus state of Iowa. Today, the former New York mayor tapped a high- profile conservative Iowa Republican to advise him as he explores a run for the White House. That would be former Congressman and 2006 Iowa gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle.

In the scramble for early endorsements and advisers, Republican Mitt Romney also is claiming a new pickup today. Former GOP Congressman Vin Weber of Minnesota will serve as policy chairman of Romney's presidential exploratory committee.

Remember, for all the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Up next: our "Strategy Session." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joins Vice President Dick Cheney on the witness list for the Scooter Libby defense team. Amidst the war in Iraq, how much of a distraction is the trial for the Bush team?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On the plus side, Senator Barack Obama is very intelligent, infectiously enthusiastic. On the minus side, at least according to his critics, he has some thin experience on national security and national politics.

So, how much of a -- of an opportunity does Senator Barack Obama have at possibly becoming the next president of the United States? Here to discuss that, our two CNN political analysts. Donna Brazile is a Democratic strategist. J.C. Watts is a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

In announcing his decision to create this exploratory committee day -- today, Donna, on the Web, he also said this. Listen to this little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: America has faced big problems before. But, today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, commonsense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Well, a lot of people want to hear that. What do you think?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I thought his announcement today was very important.

Look, Barack has been mulling over this decision for weeks now. And, after spending time with his family over the holidays, he has come to a conclusion that it's time to test the waters.

Look, he's a fresh face in a city with a lot of familiar faces. He is smart. He is energetic. I think he has tremendous grassroots appeal. And I also believe that he has the ability to expand the Democratic Party's base and attract independents.

BLITZER: This is a preliminary step, creating the exploratory committee. Do you have any doubt that, February 10, he will come along and say, he's not going to run? This -- he's going to run, right?

BRAZILE: Well, look, clearly, he has to assemble a team of people to help him out. He has to raise millions of dollars. And this will give him an opportunity to go out there and to begin to put that team and get the money in place.

BLITZER: What do you think? Does he have a shot?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think it's an interesting political atmosphere out there.

I think we can look at the last election. I think it's probably the most interesting political atmosphere probably since, you know, Ross Perot, probably early '90s.

I think America is looking for somewhat of a different candidate. That wouldn't surprise me. I think Barack gives the American people what they think they want. I think there's going to be kind of some peeling of the onion over the next four or five months, and people will get to little -- know a little bit more about him. But I do think -- I think he's going to run. And I think he's going to make it very, very interesting.

BLITZER: And he's very attractive to a lot of Democrats.

Right now, his major constituency out there is to get those Democratic voters. But he has got stiff competition from Senator Clinton, presumably, Senator Edwards, Senator Biden, Senator Dodd, Senator Kerry -- a lot of competition there.

BRAZILE: And perhaps more to come.

Look, I don't think Barack is afraid of the current field. I think what his challenge is right now is to get out there and to convince the American people that he has the right combination of experience and -- and leadership to lead this country at a very dangerous time.

BLITZER: Let's talk about this Lewis Scooter Libby trial that began today, could go on for, what they say, maybe six weeks right now.

How much of a diversion is this right now for the White House, for the Bush administration, that the vice president's former chief of staff is now facing these perjury, obstruction charges? WATTS: Well, considering that the president's numbers are where they are, and he's not a very popular president right now, this is another distraction.

I think, in times of war, you hope to minimize those distractions. The president is not going to have that luxury. But I do think, Wolf, at the end of the day, I think Scooter Libby will be vindicated. You know, did he lie? Did he not lie?

I think it's going to be the job of the prosecution to prove that he did. Trying to find a jury -- I saw today they are trying to look for a jury. Probably, the only place they are going to be able to find a jury is in rural Oklahoma or rural Louisiana...

(LAUGHTER)

WATTS: ... you know, during football season.

(LAUGHTER)

WATTS: Nobody is paying attention to what is going on in Washington.

BLITZER: But, remember, also -- and let me have Donna weigh in -- this is the District of Columbia, very heavily Democratic District of Columbia. And a lot of people, potential jurors out there, assuming they're Democrats, may not like the Republicans, especially the vice president and the Bush White House.

BRAZILE: Well, the president and vice president has never polled well in the District of Columbia.

And the other problem of course, is to try to find, as J.C. mentions, some potential jurors that have never heard of Scooter Libby or Vice President Cheney.

This is going to be a huge distraction from the White House at a time the president is trying to build his case for this war, this new war strategy. Once again, the White House spin machine will be on trial. The White House decision to go to war will be on trial. This is going to cause him a lot of heartburn.

BLITZER: The special prosecutor named by the president now is going to be calling, potentially, the vice president, the secretary of state, the former secretary of state, Secretary Colin Powell, as witnesses. And that, as you point out, could be a major distraction.

WATTS: Well, when you appoint a special prosecutor, Wolf, you hope that they will take the law and the facts and the Constitution of the United States, and may build a case based on that.

I think they have got somewhat of a weak case. I think it's a tall order. But, nevertheless, the trial is fixing to start. It is going to be a distraction. And that is unfortunate for the president.

BLITZER: We will watch every step of the way with you guys. Thanks very much for coming in.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Donna and J.C., they are all part of the best political team on television.

This note: We're awaiting a news conference on the case of those missing two boys from Missouri. That's only minutes away. We will go there live when it happens.

Also, "The Cafferty File" -- when it comes to ethics reform, does size matter? Jack with your e-mail -- right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: New Congress, same old way of doing business -- the congressional newspaper "The Hill" reports both the Senate and House ethics committees plan to increase the size of their staffs in order to better police Congress.

Watchdog groups have been screaming for an outside office of public integrity to oversee these people. It's not going to happen.

So, the question we asked is: When it comes to ethics reform, does size matter?

Gus in Ontario writes: "Ethics are ethics. It's now how big or how small they are. Folks that have ethics don't lie, cheat, or try to fool people. They don't think they are the only folks important in the grand scheme of life. They don't have their own way about everything. And they truly do care about the rest of us."

Rob in Florida: "What a sad, sad state this country is in. We have elected officials who act like this is a banana republic, with corruption, graft, greed, pedophilia, cronyism, et cetera, ad nauseam. I'm disgusted at the America of today. I'm sad for my children, who will never know the America I knew a long time ago."

Jim writes: "The only size that matters with regard to ethics is the size of the person's conscience. The fault really rests with the voter. If you elect a crook, expect him to act like a crook."

J. in Texas: "Of course size matters when it comes to ethics reform. The more people on board, the less lobbying money to go around."

Frank in Middletown, New York: "Sorry, Jack, got to disagree with you on this. You can't complain about the Ethics Committee doing so little under Republican control, and then complain when the Democrats try to staff the committees up, so they can finally do their job. Maybe the reason there were so few people on the committee before is because the Republican leadership gave it so little to do."

Jim from K Street: "This pack of no-loads look at ethics reform the way failed dieters look at food. Take away the temptation, and we can ignore the need for willpower. How do these congressional chowderheads police themselves?"

And Stan in Grand Forks, North Dakota: "You're off your game, Jack. You know you can ask a better question than this" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that. See you in a few moments.

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