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Next Move for Congress in Anti-Surge Resolution?; Dems Target Latinos in Nevada; Nader Mulls '08 Run; Bush Brushes Off House Resolution on Iraq; John Edwards Weighs in on Iraq; Controversy Rages over Anti-Gay Remarks from Former NBA Player; Anna Nicole Smith's Will Made Public

Aired February 16, 2007 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, an historic rebuke of the president's Iraq policy. The House casts its vote and now the Senate is poised for a showdown of its own. Today, the life and death debate over a troop buildup. Is President Bush listening?
Also this hour, what happens in Vegas won't stay in Vegas in 2008. We're getting an up close look at Nevada, now a high-stakes presidential battleground for the Democrats. And I'll talk to one of the leading contenders, John Edwards, about the race and about the war in Iraq.

And a retired NBA player is banned from attending the all-star game here in Vegas this weekend after saying he hates gay people. Do others in pro basketball feel that way? I'll ask former NBA star Charles Barkley.

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

This is the famous Las Vegas strip where so many people have dreamed of striking it rich. And it's this state, Nevada, where the Democratic presidential candidates are hoping to win big in January 2008. We're here to get an up close look at Nevada politics. And at the NBA all-star weekend. It's playing out in the midst of a huge controversy about homophobia in pro basketball.

All that coming up. First though, an unprecedented shot by Congress at this commander-in-chief. The House of Representatives easily approved a symbolic but still powerful condemnation of President Bush's Iraq policy. Now Democrats are preparing for their next moves against plans to send more troops into an unpopular war. Our Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre and senior national correspondent John Roberts, they are both standing by. First, let's get the latest from our congressional correspondent Dana Bash -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, House Democrats raced to the cameras to declare today's vote a direct response to what voters demanded in November when they elected a Democratic Congress.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The concurrent resolution is accepted. BASH (voice-over): The House rebuke of the president's Iraq strategy was the first vivid display of Democrats' new power.

PELOSI: The stakes in Iraq are too high to recycle proposals that have little prospect for success.

BASH: The resolution opposes the president's decision to send more troops to Iraq but has no force of law. Democrats insisted it's the message that matters.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL (D), ILLINOIS: From the beginning, this war has been a saga of miscalculations, mistakes and misjudgments.

BASH: Four days of spirited and at times emotional debate. Here a former Vietnam POW.

REP. SAM JOHNSON (R), TEXAS: So little did I know back in my rat-infested three-by-eight dark and filthy cell that 34 years after my departure of hell on Earth I would spend the anniversary of my release pleading for a House panel to back my measure to support and fully fund our troops in harm's way.

BASH: Seventeen Republicans joined Democrats to repudiate the president.

REP, WALTER JONES (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Our troops have done a magnificent job and they cannot afford to continue to be policeman in a civil war.

BASH: For the most part, Republicans who opposed the resolution did not defend Mr. Bush.

REP. STEVE CHABOT (R), OHIO: We all agree that this administration has made mistakes in Iraq.

BASH: The president's GOP allies repeatedly warned that the Democrats' next move will have the force of law.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MINORITY LEADER: It is the first step in a plan to cut off funding and reinforcements for American troops in harm's way.

BASH: Republicans are seizing on a plan by anti-war Congressman John Murtha to set conditions on funding the Iraq mission with the goal of forcing the president to bring troops home.


BASH: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi clearly supports the idea of using the president's $96 billion war funding request to set standards for troops heading to Iraq. But today she was careful not to outright endorse that plan, Wolf. She knows her that caucus, Democrats are still very much divided on how far to go in using the power of the purse to change to really affect the president's Iraq policy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of drama unfolding on Capitol Hill. Dana, thanks for that.

And from the White House today, this reaction to the anti-war message delivered by the House. A statement from the White House Press Secretary's Office saying this: "The resolution is non-binding. Soon Congress will have the opportunity to show its support for the troops in Iraq by funding the supplemental appropriations request the president has submitted, and which our men and women in combat are counting on. The president believes that the Congress should provide the full funding and flexibility our armed forces need to succeed in their mission to protect our country."

Let's talk a little bit more about this battle unfolding between Congress and the president over the war in Iraq. We're joined by our senior national correspondent, John Roberts.

John, who is hurt more by this vote, Congress or President Bush?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Initially, Wolf, it would appear that President Bush is the one who is hurt most by this. But the truth will be told, though, not this weekend but weekends down the road. The White House is trying to make this all about this issue of funding the troops. That's a very, very delicate issue here in the United States and it is a very volatile issue for the Democrats, which is why they're trying as much as they can with these proposals to stay away from that idea.

Congressman John Murtha's proposal would only allow troops who have had a certain amount of rest back in the United States, retraining, to go back into battle. Joe Biden is talking about a measure that would repeal the 2002 authorization for war.

So nobody is talking about cutting funding. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, talking about capping the number of troops. So if the White House can successfully turn this into an argument about funding the troops, they may then be able to gain back some ground. But right now, it's the White House that is stinging from what happened today.

BLITZER: John, while I have you, give our viewers an update. What's coming up on "THIS WEEK AT WAR" this weekend?

ROBERTS: Well, as it always is, Wolf, it's one-stop shopping for you to understand everything that's happened in this war, war in Afghanistan, and all of the other hot spots around the world. We'll make sense of it for you, tell you how it all ties together. We'll be covering the war of words in Washington, of course. The nuclear deal with North Korea. The new crackdown in Baghdad.

And that botched intelligence briefing on Iran sending in these EFPs, these IEDs into Iraq, and how one intelligence briefer said, yes, it looks like it's the top level of government. And then everyone else, including the president, had to walk that back to say, no, we don't know.

Among our guests is retired Brigadier General David Grange, who told me today that developing hard evidence to tie these EFPs to the top levels of Iran is very difficult. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, if its the Quds Force that they is tied to it, they report to somebody. Now do you need a written document to prove that someone in the regime of Iran gave the order? Most of these kind of orders happen over a slivovitz, if you're in Bosnia. And they happen over a cup of tea if you're in this part of the world. They say, I want to raise havoc, and I want -- create chaos. And I want you to kill Americans in Iraq.


ROBERTS: Just as is -- a point of reference, a slivovitz is a very powerful alcoholic drink that's popular in the Balkans. But, Wolf, it raises the whole idea of, if the intelligence is fought again here after what happened over the Iraq War, can anybody trust that the intelligence that this administration and the Pentagon talks about can be relied upon? We'll go through all of that tomorrow and Sunday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I've had some slivovitz, I know how powerful it is. I suspect you have as well, John. Thanks very much. And to our viewers, this important note, "THIS WEEK AT WAR" with John Roberts airs Saturday 7:00 p.m. Eastern, once again Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. And that is right after "LATE EDITION" only here on CNN.

The Pentagon now says some 1,000 soldiers will be heading to Iraq earlier than planned as part of the president's troop increase. Let's bring in our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre.

Jamie, what else do we know about this early deployment?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, one of the parts of this can so-called surge is that no troops are actually going to Iraq this year early that weren't already going. But many are going ahead of schedule.

This is a headquarters unit from the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart. About 1,000 soldiers. They'll be providing sort of oversight and intelligence, surveillance coordination. They were supposed to go to Iraq beginning in June. They're going to be heading to Baghdad next month instead. Again, part of the overall 21,000 extra troops that will be there by May.

BLITZER: As you know, Jamie, this new U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in Baghdad has been going on for a few weeks. Is it working or are the militants simply waiting it out?

MCINTYRE: It does appear to be working in that the initial -- this is over the last couple of days, the initial level of violence seems to be down. But the real feeling here is that what is happening is that they are essentially going to ground, that the violent elements are just waiting to see what's going to happen.

And the Pentagon says, you know, that's actually part of the strategy. The key is for them to have enough economic development and security in that time that they can't easily come back.

BLITZER: Jamie, thank you for that. Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File."

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, don't look now, but here comes Big Brother once again. A draft report that is being circulated at the Federal Communications Commission would allow the government to regulate violent television programming without violating the First Amendment.

If it happens, Congress could pass a law that would allow the government to regulate how much violence you and your children are allowed to watch. It could be similar to how they limit sexual content and profanity. For example, barring violence from being aired during times when kids may be watching.

Studies show that violence on TV can lead to short-term aggressive behavior in kids. The idea, expected to draw criticism from broadcasters and First Amendment advocates, broadcast and cable companies generally say parents should take responsibility for what their kids are watching on television.

So here's the question then. Should the government be able to limit violence on TV? E-mail your thoughts to or go to file -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you for that, Jack.

Coming up, Latino political clout. It's growing nationwide, especially here in Las Vegas. We're going to show you how it could influence the race for the White House.

Also, my interview with Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. He's is bringing his campaign here to Las Vegas. We're going to talk about that, the war in Iraq, a lot more.

Plus, Anna Nicole Smith's will, it has now been made public with some big surprises. We'll have details of who stands to inherit a fortune and who doesn't. Stay with us. We're reporting live from Las Vegas outside the Venetian Hotel and you're in "THE SITUATION ROOM."


BLITZER: Beyond the glitz of this city, Nevada is an increasingly diverse state with a sizable Latino community. And that diversity is a key reason why Democrats decided to hold the Nevada Caucuses very early in the 2008 presidential primary season. Our chief national correspondent John King is here in Las Vegas. He is watching this really fascinating political story -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's very interesting. And Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, of course, Wolf, not that happy that Nevada is moving up. You don't have scenes like this -- sites like this if you go to Iowa or New Hampshire. You don't have a mayor like here in Las Vegas who uses a poker chip as his business card. But there is another reason the Democrats came here, the more important reason, they wanted more diversity in the process of picking a president. And what you have here that you don't see in Iowa and New Hampshire are thousands of Latino voters.


KING (voice-over): Sunday Mass with his parents is a tradition that dates back to Ruben Kihuen's childhood in Mexico. Las Vegas is home now, Kihuen a member of the Nevada legislature and the young Democrat eager for his state to start a new tradition in presidential politics.

RUBEN KIHUEN (D), NEVADA STATE ASSEMBLY: So you have to go out to the swap meets and shake people's hands. You have to go out to the rodeos and shake people's hands.


KING: Retail politics like in Iowa and New Hampshire, but with a decidedly different look and flavor.

(on camera): To visit Kihuen's district is to see obvious signs of why this contest is so different from Iowa and New Hampshire. Nevada's Hispanic population is nearly 23 percent, compared to just 3.5 percent in Iowa, and barely 2 percent in New Hampshire.

(voice-over): So an early contest here guarantees greater focus on immigration, urban sprawl, gaming and other issues central to the Las Vegas service economy. And it guarantees the first opportunity for Latinos like Manny Barajas to have an early voice in the presidential campaign.

MANNY BARAJAS, WAITER, EXCALIBUR HOTEL AND CASINO: We are busboys. We are dishwashers. We are waiters. We are cooks. You know, but we impact a lot in the economy of the United States.

KING: Barajas' union is already a major player in Nevada politics. Now it's intensifying its voter registration efforts, in English and in Spanish, because of the new presidential calendar.

BARAJAS: It's a big motivation to all our members. We have a unique opportunity here to make a saying (ph).

KING: An opportunity that convinced Barajas, after 35 years in the United States, to enroll in citizenship classes.

BARAJAS: That's what everybody is asking me, Manny, why have you been so long to become a citizen?

The thing is that I need to be accounted for. You know, I have to be able to vote. That was missing for me in all my dreams, American dream and Vegas dream, me being able to express my opinion legally.

KING: Classes end in a few months and Barajas plans to cast his first vote next January, when the Democratic nominating contest makes its new early stop out West.


KING: And the organizing, Wolf, of those Latino voters here for the Nevada Caucuses being watched all around the country, because many believe if you have another close presidential election in 2008, as we had in 2000, not so much in 2004, that the growing Hispanic population could be a swing vote in many key states, Nevada among them. So they are watching, this is a bit of a laboratory.

BLITZER: And the other reason why the Democrats wanted to come out West in between Iowa and New Hampshire, not only because it's out West, but also this is a state, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, which has a huge union population.

KING: And it is the first time early on you will have a labor influence -- significant labor influence in the nominating process. Manny Barajas' union, the Culinary Workers Union, 60,000 people in that union. Many of them being asked, are you registered to vote? If not, what can you do before the caucuses.

So you're exactly right. It's the service employees' unions here, the service industries, health care issues, minimum wages issues will have more prominence than they have had in the past. And it's not to knock Iowa or New Hampshire, they're two fabulous places, but it's a very different mix. Voter constituencies both in terms of a color of skin perspective, but also the labor unions here in Nevada.

BLITZER: It will make the contest a lot more interesting for all of us to watch. Thanks, John, very much.

Meanwhile, many Democrats still have not forgiven Ralph Nader for his 2000 presidential campaign. They argue that it cost Al Gore the White House. Now the former Green Party candidate is threatening to run once again. And his sights appear to be set firmly on Senator Hillary Clinton. Let's go to Mary Snow, she is in New York. She is watching this story -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, he has been called a spoiler, but that doesn't seem to be getting in the way of consumer advocate Ralph Nader.


SNOW (voice-over): Could Senator Hillary Clinton be the tipping point for a Ralph Nader candidacy? The former Green Party candidate hinted to KGO radio host Ronn Owens that he is considering a run.


RALPH NADER, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We want to see what the Democrats come up with.

RONN OWENS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: If they come up with Hillary -- I read that if Hillary is the candidate, you're going to run.

NADER: She's just another bad version of Bill Clinton.

OWENS: Bad in what sense?

NADER: Flatters, panders, coasting, front-runner, looking for a coronation.


SNOW: The Clinton camp declined comment. But one Democrat who launched a campaign to persuade Nader not to run in the past says he will do it again if Nader runs in '08.

JOHN PEARCE, FORMER DIRECTOR, RALPHDONTRUN.NET: If Ralph Nader had not run for president in 2000, the world would look very different right now.

SNOW: In 2000, Nader won 2.74 percent of the popular vote nationwide. Democrats blamed him for siphoning votes from Democrat Al Gore, costing him the election to George Bush.

In 2004, Nader's support dropped to less than one-half of 1 percent. A documentary, "An Unreasonable Man," questions whether Nader's ego or his conscience is at work as a tireless consumer advocate.

STUART ROTHENBERG, THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: Fairly or unfairly, he is now regarded as a spoiler. And most Americans don't like that. And they don't like throwing away their votes.

SNOW: In a recent interview on "LATE EDITION," Nader spelled out his purpose.

NADER: But I'm committed to trying to give more voices and choices for the American people on the ballot. That means more third parties, independent candidates, and to break up this two-party elected dictatorship.


SNOW: Political observers say, if Nader runs, they don't expect him to be much of a factor in 2008, but some Democrats say he will be more of a factor if the Democratic Party doesn't signal a clear change in direction -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So I take it he would like to capitalize on the discontent that is certainly part of elements of the Democratic Party?

SNOW: Absolutely. And then some Democrats are saying that if the Democratic Party doesn't put up somebody who has a clear direction change and is progressive, that perhaps he would be more of a factor. But still his showing in 2004 really tapered off. So just how much of a factor he can be is a big question mark.

BLITZER: I suspect his name still sends chills down the spines of a lot of potential Democratic candidates out there. Mary, thanks very much. Mary Snow and John King. They are both part of the best political team on television.

And still to come in THE SITUATION ROOM, President Bush undergoes a minor medical procedure today. We're going to have details on what his doctors were concerned about and what they found and removed.

Plus, my interview with basketball legend Charles Barkley. He weighs in on this huge controversy over another former player's anti- gay tirade. I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're live in Las Vegas and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's check in with Carol Costello. She's in New York monitoring stories coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from around the world.

Carol, what is crossing the wires right now?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Wolf, at least four workers are hurt following an explosion and fire at a Texas oil refinery. It happened around 2:00 this afternoon Eastern time. Smoke was seen rising from the plant for several hours afterwards. The Valero Energy Corporation plant is in the Texas Panhandle, and it is about 60 miles north of Amarillo. The company says the explosion took place in a section of the plant that processes fuel at high temperatures.

The Dole Fresh Fuel Company is recalling several thousand cartons of imported cantaloupes after the fruit tested positive for salmonella. The recall covers the eastern United States and Quebec, Canada. That's the second recall sparked by salmonella fears this week. On Wednesday, Conagra foods recalled its Peter Pan peanut butter and certain batches of Wal-Mart's Great Value house brand peanut butter. They were linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened nearly 300 people in 39 states.

JetBlue still has a lot of customers seeing red. Today is the third straight day of flight cancellations. JetBlue cancelled 97 of its 570 scheduled flights today. The problems began on Wednesday when hundreds of passengers spent up to eight hours stranded on various planes because of the bad weather. JetBlue says today's cancellations are the result of bad weather, icy conditions and the backlog of stranded passengers and flight crews. So, Wolf, they'll try again tomorrow.

BLITZER: What a nightmare this has been these last several days for so many passengers. My heart goes out to them. Thank you, Carol, for that.

Still ahead, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, I'll speak with him about the war in Iraq, also the growing controversy -- maybe not so growing anymore, but it was a controversy surrounding some bloggers who worked for him and were accused of being anti- Catholic.

And what and who is mentioned in Anna Nicole Smith's will? Her last will and testament was released today. We're going to have some surprising details. We're here in Las Vegas and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, presidential progress report. President Bush says Iraq is making progress after he spoke with the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Mr. Bush says the Iraqi prime minister is making strides on some very important goals for Iraq.

Mississippi's attorney general wants to stop State Farm as State Farm tries to stop doing some business there. State Farm wants to quit writing new homeowner and commercial policies in Mississippi citing waves of lawsuits after Hurricane Katrina. The state attorney general says he'll try to block that.

And General Motors may be revving up to buy its struggling rival Chrysler. Automotive News is reporting high-level talks are taking place. The publication cites unnamed sources in Germany and the U.S. Today CNN spoke with GM and Chrysler, but neither company would comment on the reports.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, President Bush appears to be brushing off some historic House vote...

(INSERT 1930)

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

Tonight President Bush appears to be brushing off some historic House votes against the Iraq policy. He's trying to implement. But he's looking at what could be a constitutional showdown over war funding. That's coming up.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux.

Suzanne, what is President Bush prepared to do right now?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: President Bush, essentially, is brushing this off and really trying to downplay this. Many White House officials doing that today.

What we have heard the president say is, look, it's OK. Members of Congress if you want to express your displeasure over this troop surge, it's a nonbinding resolution that really doesn't impact the mission.

But there is also an "I dare you" factor. The president saying "I dare you" to members of Congress to pass a binding resolution that would essentially deny some of those troops the funding there. So that is the thinking there, they want to call the Democrats in what they believe is a bluff -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne, the president also had a minor medical procedure done today at the White House. Tell our viewers what happened.

MALVEAUX: Sure. It was actually on Monday the president noticed a mole on his left temple. And he had his regular doctor, Dr. Richard Tubb, check it out. The doctor noticed another mole and he thought that both these moles should be removed.

So it actually took place here at the White House, a doctor's office. A local anesthetic was applied. A five-minute procedure, and both of those moles were removed. And the doctors here saying that they believe that these are going to be benign. But of course, out of abundance of caution, they wanted to remove them, take a biopsy, as well, because he has had some sun exposure problems in the past.

BLITZER: Suzanne, thanks very much for that.

How far should the Democrats go to try to stop a troop buildup in Iraq? It's certainly a red hot issue in this 2008 presidential race.


BLITZER: And joining us now, Democratic -- former Democratic Senator John Edwards from North Carolina is running for the presidency.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in. Let me get your immediate reaction to the House vote opposing the president's decision to send more troops to Iraq. The White House now saying the Democrats and the Republicans better support an upcoming appropriations bill that will fund those troops. What do you say?

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I say that we need to stop this escalation and stop this surge. In fact, the Congress, including the House, needs to use its power to be drawing troops down in Iraq, not increasing troops in Iraq.

BLITZER: So, are you ready to see the Congress vote against funding for the troops going into Iraq?

EDWARDS: I think what we ought to do, Wolf, is use the power to appropriate, to pass a law that says the Congress -- the president has to come to the Congress in order to raise the troop levels above where they are now and provide a cap on the troops of 100,000 once we make an initial draw down of 40 or 50.

So the bottom line is, simplify that, what the Congress should be doing is using its power to appropriate, its constitutional authority, to require this president to start drawing down troops.

I think we need to continue to provide support for the troops who were actually serving in Iraq. The Congress has the power to change what's happening right now. BLITZER: You want to cap that troop level right now at around 100,000. A spokesman for the former Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, said, "Capping troop levels in Iraqi is nothing more than staying the course with a Bush-led military strategy that has failed our troops and failed our country."

You want to respond to the Vilsack campaign?

EDWARDS: Well, what we need to be doing is leaving Iraq. We need to be shifting responsibility to the city leadership and the Shia leadership to reach some political reconciliation. And we need to be engaging Iran and Syria in the effort to help stabilize Iraq.

I think we ought to be withdrawing our troops in an orderly way over the course of the next year or so. I think that creates the greatest possibility of Iraq being stable and the greatest possibility of there actually being a political reconciliation. But I do believe we need to be leaving Iraq.

BLITZER: The president and his top advisers keep saying that, as bad as the situation in Iraq is right now, if your suggestions were to be implemented, it would make the situation in Iraq a whole lot worse, a lot more death and destruction, and potentially, the entire region could spill over into that kind of confrontation.

What do you say to that fear?

EDWARDS: There's a threshold question, Wolf. The threshold question is what is it that will create the best possibility of a political reconciliation between Maliki and the Shia-led government and the Sunni leadership? Because without that, there will continue to be violence, no matter what the troop level is in Iraq.

I believe very strongly that we should not be enabling their ongoing bad behavior. What we ought to be doing instead is shifting the responsibility to them to reach a political solution.

And in fact, the Pentagon itself has said 20,000 troops just in Baghdad alone is not nearly enough. We need at least 100,000 troops to secure the ground. I think what we ought to be doing, we've got to be shifting this responsibility to them to reach a political solution, which is, I think, the only solution in Iraq.

BLITZER: The most recent poll among registered Democrats and independents leaning Democrats was in "USA Today"/Gallup. It had Senator Clinton at 40 percent, Senator Obama at 21 percent. You were down at 13 percent.

Why are you more qualified to be president than they are?

EDWARDS: First, let me speak to the poll, and then I'll be glad to answer your question, Wolf.

The polls that matter in the nomination process, of course, are polls that are being conducted in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which are the early states. And most people pay very close attention to what's happening in Iowa, because that's the first place we go.

In Iowa, all the public polls have me leading. And so I'm in a strong place in Iowa. I think I'm in a strong place in New Hampshire. I haven't seen polls in the other two places.

So I think in the process of deciding who the Democratic nominee will be, I start in a very strong place.

Now let's go to your question. The real question, though, is we're just beginning this campaign, and who's best prepared to be president of the United States? I'm the person who has taken a very strong position about stopping the escalation of this war in Iraq and laid out a real clear plan for what we ought to do in Iraq.

I'm also been the first person -- first candidate on either side to lay out a detailed universal health care plan.

And I think at the end of the day, as we go through this campaign, the voters will have a chance to compare our substantive ideas and our personal characteristics of leadership. Who's actually prepared to lead this country? Who has the depth and the maturity and the judgment to be able to do that?

I'm perfectly happy to be judged on that basis. I think we all ought to be judged on that basis.

BLITZER: There was a little bit of an uproar recently when you hired two bloggers who had written critical comments of the Catholic Church before they started to work for you. Since then, they've both resigned from your campaign.

Let me read to you one of those things that Amanda Marcotte wrote. "The Catholic Church is not about to let something like compassion for girls get in the way of using the state as an instrument to force women to bear more tithing Catholics."

What do you make of this controversy? And what does it say about your campaign?

EDWARDS: Well, I said, as soon as I found out about this, that a number of the statements that had been made by these women before they ever came to work for my campaign were statements that I rejected, strongly disagreed with.

I spoke to them directly and personally. They both assured me they had no intention of denigrating anyone's faith. They apologized. They said they would not do it in the future while working for me. I took them at their word and I stood by them because of that.

They made a personal decision, because of a lot of the heat they were coming under, the fire they were coming under, particularly from people on the far right of the political spectrum, that this was not something they wanted to go through. Speaking for me, I took them at their word when they said they did not mean to denigrate anyone's faith.

BECK: So you learned a lesson from this. What is that lesson, Senator?

EDWARDS: Well, the lesson -- you learn lessons in everything you do in life, including in political campaigns, Wolf. And the lesson is we're entering a new brave world with the net and with the blogosphere. And it's a powerful world. It's a world that's going to have a huge impact and should have a huge impact on the way we do politics in America. Because the Net and the blogosphere is grass roots politics at its best. But candidates can't control what people say.

We believe in free speech in this country. And this is democracy. People have a right to express their opinions.

BLITZER: Senator Edwards, thanks very much for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

EDWARDS: Thank you, Wolf, for having me here.


BLITZER: And still ahead tonight, a former NBA star is banished from the all-star weekend here in Las Vegas because of an anti-gay tirade. Speaking out about the controversy, and I'll talk about it with basketball legend Charles Barkley in a one-on-one interview.

We're live in Las Vegas, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Harsh words and strong reaction overshadowing this weekend's NBA all-star game right here in Las Vegas.

CNN's Carol Costello is joining us from New York with details of a major controversy raging right now over homophobia and professional sports -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR/CORRESPONDENT: And Wolf, it's spreading beyond pro basketball. Whereas it started that one former player came out and another went off.


COSTELLO (voice-over): John Amaechi never made the record books during his four-season NBA career, but he's making history now, as the first former professional basketball player to openly say he's gay. He details his life in the sports closet in his autobiography, "Man in the Middle".

Reaction to the news was mixed and relatively muted until another former NBA player, Tim Hardaway, said this.

TIM HARDAWAY, FORMER NBA PLAYER: Well, you know -- you know, I hate gay people. So, you know, I let it be known. I don't like gay people. I don't like to be around gay people. I don't -- you know, I'm homophobic.

COSTELLO: Amaechi says he wasn't completely surprised by Hardaway's harsh remarks.

JOHN AMAECHI, AUTHOR, "MAN IN THE MIDDLE": I was prepared through this process to hear some comments that I didn't like to hear.

COSTELLO: And Hardaway later apologized, and apologized, and apologized again today.

HARDAWAY: I'm very, very sorry about it. But, you know, a lot of people don't think so, but I am.

COSTELLO: But the damage has been done.

BLITZER: He's apologized for this. Is that enough?

DAVID STERN, NBA COMMISSIONER: Well, enough for what? I think it's good that he's apologized. He has to -- I think anyone who holds views like that has to think about it.

COSTELLO: NBA commissioner David Stern banished Hardaway from the all-star weekend, saying his views are not consistent with the league's.

As for John Amaechi, he said he's pleased Hardaway was ousted from the all-star weekend, and he says he does not accept Hardaway's apology.

AMAECHI: I think that his words of hate cannot be unsaid, no matter how many apologies. The problem with his words is that they ricochet around the corridors of schools, around workplaces and make life ever more difficult for gay and lesbian people.


COSTELLO: Amaechi is among only a handful of former professional athletes to come out. Everyone agrees there are certainly many more gay pro athletes currently playing in every sport. This controversy certainly shows why none have come out so far -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you very much, Carol.

And the controversy is certainly put a very hot spotlight on the NBA as fans and former players gather here in Las Vegas for the all- star weekend.


BLITZER: And joining us now, NBA legend Charles Barkley.

Charles, what do you make of this uproar involving Tim Hardaway's comments saying he hates gays?

CHARLES BARKLEY, FORMER NBA PLAYER: Well, Tim Hardaway is a good guy who said something really stupid. That's all I can say. It was really dumb to say -- first of all, if he thinks that, it's really unfortunate. But it was just a dumb thing to say. BLITZER: What about when you were playing in the NBA? Were there gay players that you knew for sure were gay? Were there some who were willing to talk about it?

BARKLEY: I played with a couple guys who were gay. It did not bother me at all. I have several gay friends.

It's not up for me to judge somebody on their sexual orientation, because especially with being black. We've got to be inclusive. WE have no right. That was probably the most disturbing thing about Tim Hardaway's conversation. A black person can't be like that, ever.

And I'm disappointed in Tim. He's a great guy. It was just really dumb for him to say. But gay people don't bother me at all.

BLITZER: How prevalent is this homophobia among NBA stars?

BARKLEY: You know, Wolf, there's always -- I hear all these reporters talking about how we would treat gay players in the locker room. We're not dumb. We all know we have played with gay guys before. So -- and they never got treated bad.

And that's what bothered me the most is when you have these conversations. These reporters saying we would treat these guys bad. Hey, you'd have to be an idiot to think you have never played with somebody who was gay. I have. I think all players have and maybe didn't know it. And it's just really unfortunate that people think we would treat them bad.

BLITZER: Charles, thanks very much for joining us.

BARKLEY: Thank you.


BLITZER: And this note: you can see more of my interview with Charles Barkley next week in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're going to talk about his possible plans to run for governor of Alabama. You're going to want to hear that interview.

Up ahead, her dying wishes. Anna Nicole Smith's will was released today. Will her 6-month-old daughter inherit anything? We'll go live to Ft. Lauderdale for the latest details.

And it's a national holiday for the man they call Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il of North Korea. We're going to tell you why North Koreans are honoring him today with song, dance and food, what little of it they have. Stay tuned. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: She's been dead over a week now, and yet her body has not been buried. But there are new developments regarding the fight over the body and the fortune of Anna Nicole Smith.

Our national correspondent, Susan Candiotti, is joining us now from Ft. Lauderdale with the latest information -- Susan.


Yes, even in death Anna Nicole Smith remains at the center of a pitched legal battle. Her will was released today, but it is raising more questions than answers.


CANDIOTTI (voice-over): It clearly contains some of her dying wishes, but it's also causing more confusion. Just who will inherit Anna Nicole Smith's estate?

The newly released will does not clear that up. Why? Because Smith's will only mentions one person as inheriting anything. It says her as yet unknown fortune should be held in trust for her son, Daniel, but he mysteriously died of an overdose last year.

Smith's longtime companion, Howard K. Stern, is missing, but only as the executor who would hold the estate for the son.

Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur, is challenging the will.

As for Smith's 5-month-old child...

LISA BLOOM, COURT TV: No, the will, as I understand it, does not mean Dannielynn, because she hadn't been born yet, maybe not even conceived yet, as of the time of the will.


CANDIOTTI: And her will does not clear up where her remains will be buried. Her longtime partner, Howard K. Stern, wants her back in the Bahamas. Her mother wants her returned to Texas where she was born -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I take it her body has not yet been embalmed yet. What's going on?

CANDIOTTI: Well, there's a delay even in that. It turns out tonight that they couldn't get the funeral home to agree to sign a confidentiality agreement or defy the court. Now they have to look for another funeral home. The hope is that the process might begin tomorrow -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Susan, thank you for that.

Still ahead here tonight, in THE SITUATION ROOM, why are North Koreans celebrating? The story behind the pictures from that communist nation.

And should the government be able to limit violence on TV? Jack Cafferty standing by with your answers. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

We're reporting from just outside the Venetian Hotel here in Las Vegas. It's a big weekend. The NBA all-star game coming from Vegas this weekend, as well.

There is celebrating in Vegas, but guess what? They're also having a huge party, a birthday party in North Korea. North Koreans are throwing, in fact, several parties. Thousands of people dancing in public in Pyongyang. Others throwing banquets. And there are arts performances, exhibitions, all of it honoring the birthday of the man the followers call, and I'm quoting now, "the invincible brilliant commander." That would be the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il.

He's believed to be 65 years old. We're not sure exactly how old he is. His birthday, though, is one of the most important national holidays in that country. Normally, North Koreans receive extra food and other benefits on national holidays. It's unclear if people will get that this year, given the chronic food shortages that they face.

Jack Cafferty, they don't have enough food in North Korea, but they have plenty of money to build nuclear bombs.

CAFFERTY: Doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?

The draft report being circulated at the Federal Communications Commission could allow our government to regulate violent television programming without violating the First Amendment. So that caused us to raise the question, should the government be able to limit the violence on TV?

Presumably, the idea had been kicked around would be like they would do it similar to the way they control, for example, sexual content. It's not allowed during certain hours when kids might be watching, that kind of thing.

John writes in Riverton, Wyoming: "No! When are parents going to get off their butts and take control over what type of media is in their house? Enough with the nanny state already! And, of course, who is going to be the great arbiter of what is or is not violent?"

Maureen writes, "No, I don't want the government censoring any part of my life. I'm not worried about violence on TV shows, but I'm very worried about violence in the world in which, unfortunately, our government is playing a huge role."

Jason in Scottsdale, Arizona: "No. The government tried this move with the music industry in the 1980s. Anyone remember the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) headed by Tipper Gore which led to the Parental Advisory stockers now found on CDs, et cetera? This is flat out censorship."

Steve writes from Wisconsin: "Absolutely not! This is simply a parental rights issue. If you don't want your children watching violence, block the channel or better still, get rid of the television altogether." We don't need to get that extreme, Steve. "Keep the government out of it." Rich in Huntley, Illinois: "No, the government should keep out. Are our books next? If we cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction, then we are really in trouble."

And John writes from Lexington, Kentucky: "Jack, if it's anything like the way they're controlling the violence in Iraq, I don't think our government is ready for television yet."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, we invite you to go to, where you can read more of these online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thanks very much. Have a great weekend. See you back here on Monday.

Let's close out with a look at some of the hot shots coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow.

In Bangkok, dragon dancers perform in Thailand's Chinatown. Chinese all over the world will celebrate their lunar new year on February 18.

In Baghdad, a man shouts slogans during Friday prayers in Sadr City, stronghold of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

In Columbia, anti-narcotics officers burn a coca -- a coca laboratory near the border with Ecuador.

And in New Orleans, the actor James Gandolfini, who plays Mafia boss Tony Soprano on the HBO series "The Sopranos", tosses coins to a crowd. Gandolfini will reign as king of the Mardi Gras parade this weekend.

Some of this hour's hot shots, pictures often worth a thousand words.

We'll be back here in Vegas Sunday for "LATE EDITION", the last word in Sunday talk. Among my guests this Sunday, an exclusive interview with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, and Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. Sunday, 11 a.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks for watching. Let's go to New York and "PAULA ZAHN NOW" -- Paula.


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