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Couey Verdict In; More Violence in Iraq; Libby's Conviction

Aired March 7, 2007 - 16:00   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Now remember when -- and it's interesting, because remember when John Couey admitted to investigators shortly after his arrest that he had committed the crime, but then that confession was thrown out because he didn't have a lawyer present, as he had requested.
It doesn't seem like -- do you think that prolonged this process?

Because it doesn't seem like it is going to have an effect on the outcome of this trial.

TOOBIN: No. And thank goodness it's not going to have an outcome. And I think, you know, it's obviously that the cops really wanted to get a conviction here and they wanted to arrest someone for this horrible crime.

But, you know, they really messed up and they did not give him Miranda warnings. And what a tragedy it would have been had other evidence not been developed so that they could get around the absence of the confession.

Fortunately, there was DNA evidence and Couey kept talking about it to other people. But I mean it would have been a horrible thing to have on the conscience of these cops that their errors forced the release of what certainly seems to be a horrific criminal.

Fortunately, there is other evidence, which, you know, makes that -- makes their error less of a problem.

PHILLIPS: Jeffrey Toobin, stay with us.

That wraps it up for us here in the CNN NEWSROOM.

If you're just tuning in, you're watching live coverage, a verdict about to be read in the John Couey trial. You're looking at Mark Lunsford, the father of that little Jessica Lunsford, the 9-year- old victim that was murdered and buried, actually, raped -- kidnapped, raped and buried alive in Florida.

We will now find out what happens to John Couey as the jury foreman gets ready to read the verdict. We'll hear it from the judge.

Wolf Blitzer taking it from here.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Thanks very much, Kyra.

We're going to continue to watch this here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll hear the judge and the verdict. This is a story that has generated an enormous amount of interest over the past two years, a heart-wrenching story. A lot of us remember the story involving 9- year-old Jessica Lunsford.

Let's talk a little bit about what we're seeing on the screen right now.

On the left part of your screen, you're seeing the father, Mark Lunsford. Right in the middle, the bald man wiping his face right now, that's the suspect, John Couey. He is -- he is the man who is accused of having kidnapped this little girl, raped her and then killed her and buried her. There was a three week search underway around the area. Eventually the body was found.

Susan Candiotti is in Miami.

She's watching all of this unfold with us.

We're expecting the verdict momentarily -- Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It shouldn't take much time. Frankly, this has gone very, very quickly.

Testimony in this case only taking about four days. And, in fact, the jury was out a little more than four hours.

The only thing that they ever asked of the judge was for individual copies of his instructions and it's one of the quickest verdicts, I must say, that I can remember in quite some time.

This was one of the most really horrifying crimes that anyone can remember. I'm trying to envision what it must have been like for this little girl as she was taken from her trailer in the middle of the night, told, evidently, that she was going to see her father, so the prosecutors say. Taken across the street, was missing for several weeks. And yet she was so close.

And then, as we have learned, John Couey, allegedly -- in fact, we heard his own words in the confession that wasn't allowed -- raped her and then buried her alive, he said, putting her in a plastic garbage bag.

Here the jury is walking in.

BLITZER: All right, Susan, hold on a second.


BLITZER: The judge is about to convene this session.

Let's listen in.

JUDGE RICHARD HOWARD, CITRUS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT: Mr. Bailiff, I understand the jury has announced it's got a verdict, correct?


Before we begin, I just want to -- a couple of things. A lot of planning has gone into these various matters, folks. A lot of detail has gone in. And I want to continue to commend all the participants and all the audience in this matter.

I know these have not been very easy times for many of you, that whatever verdict is -- is going to be rendered by the jury, I'll look at the paperwork and the announcement will come, of course, from the clerk.

I just want everyone who has obvious interests in this to be watching these matters, to continue to maintain your decorum. I don't expect -- we are not robots, we are not machines, we're human beings. But I -- simple exclamations of breath or whatever, from whatever side, are natural and normal and will not be sanctioned.

So with that having been said, let me just look through some notes. I'll just look through some matters. If anyone has any questions about that or don't think they can hold their emotions as it is, now is the time to leave. But also now is the time to stay.

That having seen said, Mr. Bailiff, let's bring in our 12 and our three.

All rise for the entrance of the jury.

The audience may be seated.

Members of the jury panel, I understand you have, in fact, reached verdicts in this matter.


HOWARD: And who is the foreperson?

Mr. -- what's your number?


HOWARD: 846, have you, in fact, reached verdicts?


HOWARD: Would you please hand the verdict forms to the bailiff?

Bailiff to Madam Clerk.

The verdict forms are legally sufficient.

Madam Clerk, please publish the forms.

John Evander Couey, please rise and harken to the jury's verdicts, with counsel. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In the Circuit Court of the 11th Judicial Circuit of the State of Florida, NN4, Miami-Dade County, change of venue from 5th Circuit, Citrus County, "The State of Florida v. John Evander Couey," Case Number 2005-CF298A.

Verdict, count one. "We, the jury, find as follows as to the defendant in this case. The defendant is guilty of murder in the first degree, as charged in the indictment. So say we all, the 7th day of March, A.D. 2007, at Miami-Dade County, Florida, Pedro Yaguna (ph), foreperson."

Verdict, count two. "We, the jury, find as follows as to the defendant in this case. The defendant is guilty of burglary of a dwelling with a battery as charged in the indictment. So say we all this 7th day of March, A.D."


Verdict count three. "We, the jury, find as follows as to the defendant in this case. The defendant is guilty of kidnapping, as charged in the indictment. So say we all this 7th day of March, A.D."


Verdict count four, "We, the jury, find as follows as to the defendant in this case. The defendant is guilty of sexual battery on a child under 12 years of age, as charged in the indictment. So say we all --"


HOWARD: Madam Clerk, do counsel for the state or defense desire the jury to be polled?


HOWARD: State?


HOWARD: On the court's motion, the jury will be polled to their verdicts by number.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 338, is this your verdict?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 266, is this your verdict?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 433, is this your verdict?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 48, is this your verdict? UNIDENTIFIED JUROR: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 53, is this your verdict?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 114, is this your verdict?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 846, is this your verdict?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 1009, is this your verdict?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 1187, is this your verdict?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 1496, is this your verdict?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Number 1553, is this your verdict?

BLITZER: All right, so John Couey, 48 years old, convicted on all four counts -- murdered, burglary, kidnapping, sexual battery. Facing the death sentence right now as a result of this conviction, killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford some two years ago in a brutal kidnapping, sexual assault and murder that many of us remember all too vividly.

Our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin, is joining us -- Jeff, it sort of looks like a slam dunk case involving the death penalty.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Boy, this is one of those cases where a prosecutor can go before a jury and say if this case doesn't qualify for the death penalty, what does?

Because it is about as horrific a crime as I have ever encountered. You have a prior offender, a totally unsympathetic defendant. It seems to me a -- it was a certain conviction and close to a certain death penalty.

BLITZER: And we saw the reaction. The judge had admonished everyone to try to contain themselves and clearly they have. We see the father, Mark Lunsford, there. He's wiping his face. I remember interviewing him shortly after we got word of this horrendous, horrendous case, an obviously extremely emotional period for him and the entire family.

I was pretty impressed, though, that all of these individuals -- the loved ones, the family members of little Jessica Lunsford, they were able, Jeff, to contain themselves under these awful circumstances.

TOOBIN: Well, unfortunately they've had a lot of practice in the public eye. This case has gotten a lot of publicity. It was moved once. The trial actually got started in the part of Florida closer to where the crime took place. But jury selection proved so difficult that they moved it to the big city. And that allowed them to get a jury that was somewhat less tainted. You couldn't have a jury that knew nothing about the case.

And so unfortunately the family has had both time and practice in dealing with the public on this -- on this -- on this awful story.

BLITZER: So basically convicted of murder in the first degree, burglary, kidnapping, sexual battery of this 9-year-old girl.

What happens now?

I assume there will be the mandatory appeals.

TOOBIN: Well, no. Now they will go to the penalty phase as -- I mean Susan will correct me if I'm wrong, but I -- they will go to the penalty phase, where the jury will decide whether to impose the death penalty.

BLITZER: And, Susan, are you there?

CANDIOTTI: I am, Wolf.

Yes, I am.

BLITZER: So go ahead.

CANDIOTTI: Yes, sir. There's supposed to be a discussion right now about the penalty phase and exactly when it will begin, how long is expected to take. At this stage, there will be some witnesses, probably more so from the defense side than the prosecution side.

But clearly the prosecution -- this qualifies for the death penalty. We'll see how long this will take. And then the jury will make a recommendation to the judge. Ultimately it is his decision whether to impose the death penalty.

I thought it was kind of interesting to watch in this case the reaction of John Couey. Not surprising, naturally, that the family would be overcome with grief, as they have been throughout.

But John Couey, right before the verdict was read -- expressionless, twisting his hands, moving a bit back and forth in his chair. As the verdict was read, guilty on each count, his face didn't change. I had halfway expected at some point for him to show some sort of reaction, emotion, some semblance of remorse, but there was absolutely nothing there, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Susan, the judge is now instructing the jury that they might be sequestered for this penalty phase, not allowed to speak to the media in the interim right now, because that could potentially taint this process.

CANDIOTTI: That's not unusual, of course, because they do have to listen to testimony, not read any newspaper, watch television reports of what happened so they can listen without taint, as you said, as additional evidence is presented.

Clearly, you know, the defense will -- will try to point out, again, that this man is mentally retarded, put on evidence to that degree. The prosecutors are expected to perhaps get into even more detail about how horrendous this crime was and the cruelty that was involved here, as they seek the death penalty.

BLITZER: Let's get a little bit more information now on John Couey.

Abbi Tatton is checking this.

And we're learning a lot about this individual. We have -- we have, as well, Abbi, on the Internet.


John Couey was already a registered sex offender in the Florida county where Jessica Lunsford was snatched in 2005. And he is on the Florida sexual offenders and predators Web site, there listed, his crime, for a 1991 sexual offense, fondling a child under the age of 16, for which he was found guilty.

We also know that he was arrested multiple times for other things, including indecent exposure, disorderly conduct.

Today, John Couey found guilty of murder.

BLITZER: And let me just wrap this up with Jeff Toobin, as we -- as we see this. And I'll just recap for those viewers who may just be tuning in.

John Couey, 48 years old, convicted on all four charges. The most important, murder in the first degree. Guilty of murdering little Jessica Lunsford down in Florida, nine years old, almost two years ago exactly. And convicted not only of murder in the first degree, convicted of burglary, kidnapping and sexual battery.

This is a case, Jeff, that a lot of our viewers will remember. We can't even describe the sordid and awful details of what this individual did to this little girl.

TOOBIN: It really is one of the worst cases I have ever covered or even heard about. And it's had reverberations well beyond Florida. The issue of how to monitor or restrain sexual offenders after their sentences are over is very much at the top of the agenda, whether it's in New York State or Washington State or anywhere in between.

And the crime has really had a major, major impact, well beyond Florida.

BLITZER: It's certainly brought a lot of awareness to the capabilities of these sexual predators.

Jeff Toobin, Abbi Tatton, Susan Candiotti, thanks very much.

This programming note for our viewers. Tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, Jessica's story. Her father will be among Larry King's guests tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Mark Lunsford will be among Larry King's guests tonight. "LARRY KING LIVE."

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, President Bush heads to Latin America tomorrow. Today, he sat down with CNN. Our CNN one-on- one interview with the president, what he had to say about the Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez. That's coming up.

Also, Democrats divided over Iraq -- will the majority party in Congress come to a consensus on how to bring the troops home?

And later, we'll tell you why Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger may get more muscle in the race for the White House.

Stick around. Lots of news going on today. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We'll get to CNN's interview with President Bush in a moment.

First, we want to check in with Jack Cafferty for The Cafferty File -- hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Me first, then the president.

Some Evangelicals may have issues with Rudy Giuliani. One Southern Baptist leader, a guy named Richard Land, says that although Evangelicals might accept a divorced presidential candidate, they have doubts about Giuliani, who is on his third marriage. Land calls Giuliani's split from his second wife "divorce on steroids," whatever that means. Some already thought that the former New York mayor might have problems winning over conservative voters because of his more moderate views on social issues like gays, guns and abortion, you know, the really important stuff.

Nevertheless, at this point, Giuliani is the frontrunner, according to many of the polls. One recent poll even attributes a Giuliani surge over Senator John McCain to increased support among white Evangelical Protestants. Of course, both McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney are also trying to win the support of conservative Christians.

The great unanswered question is whether at election time, the Evangelicals will be willing to support what they consider to be a less than perfect Republican or risk seeing a Democrat elected president.

Here's the question then -- how important is the Evangelical support to the Republican presidential candidates? E-mail your thoughts to or go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.

President Bush says he's heading to Latin America tomorrow to remind the people of that region the United States cares about them. He spoke at length about his trip today to CNN's Spanish language network.

The president's first stop of his week long journey, Brazil. Mr. Bush also has stops in Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

The administration is hoping to counter the regional influence of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN En Espanol asked Mr. Bush about ways the U.S. can address Chavez's threats.


JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN EN ESPANOL: Are you -- is free trade -- is this trip a way to show what the U.S. is doing and counter what other leaders might be doing? For example, Hugo Chavez, who called you the devil and says many things, he will -- said he will be in Argentina on Friday.

BUSH: The trip really is to remind people that we care. I do worry about the fact that some say, well, the United States hasn't paid enough attention to us, or the United States really isn't anything more than, you know, worried about terrorism. And when, in fact, the record has been a strong record.

And I will be going to promote -- to look at programs that are -- have benefited from the generosity of the American people. And so it's -- I say, I -- our country is a compassionate country. And there are significant connections between, you know, people inside America and people outside America. And it's in our interests that we promote those ties and that we promote -- and I remind people about the generosity of our country.

It's -- it's not a given, by the way, that people will continue to spend -- that the Congress will spend money. And therefore it's important for me to show that we're not only spending money, but the effects of spending money, the positive things that are happening as we help elevate people's lives.


BLITZER: Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN En Espanol is with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Juan Carlos, what did the president say about the timing of this visit to Latin America? Why now?

LOPEZ: Well, he was -- he said that the American taxpayer doesn't get credit for the contributions to the region. He was saying, at one point, $6 billion are invested in the region. And he wants Latin America to see that and he wants people in the region to understand that, according to the president, he hasn't neglected but -- neglected Latin America.

But his critics in Washington -- Senator Robert Menendez said yesterday that there is less investment in the region and that it has been neglected, as have many other politicians and experts.

BLITZER: You also had a chance to ask the president about his reaction to the conviction yesterday of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former top aide.

I want to play that exchange you had with Mr. Bush on that.


CARLOS: Mr. President, I want to ask you about the conviction of Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Your critics are saying that his conviction makes the promise that you made to bring honor and dignity back to the White House, that this promise will go unmet.

BUSH: Yes, first of all, this was a lengthy trial on a serious matter, and a jury of his peers convicted him. And we have got to respect that conviction.

Secondly, this is an ongoing legal matter. In other words, there's more legal procedures to take place. And at this time, it's inappropriate for me or the administration to be, you know, issuing comments about this serious matter.

On a personal note, I was sad. I was sad for a man who had worked in my administration, and particularly sad for his family.


BLITZER: How did he impress you today, the president's spirits, the president's mood, Juan Carlos?

LOPEZ: He seemed to be in very good spirits, very excited about the trip. He was saying it's going to be very interesting what he's going to do, different events in different countries. And his main message through the interview and after we spoke after the interview is that he's going to show Latin America that the U.S. is involved and maybe people don't have a perception, but he believes that the country is.

BLITZER: All right, Juan Carlos, groundwork.

We're going to have more of your interview coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM during our 5:00 p.m. Eastern hour. We'll hear what the president has to say about the problems at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Also, he's speaking out publicly now about his daughter Jenna and the new book that she is writing.

More of Juan Carlos's interview. That's going to be coming up in our 5:00 p.m. Eastern hour. And if you want to watch the whole interview, you certainly can. Go to our sister network, CNN En Espanol, 6:00 p.m. Eastern tonight. Juan Carlos Lopez and his interview with President Bush on CNN En Espanol.

Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, golf superstar Tiger Woods is here in Washington.

Is he thinking about running for office himself?

And are lawmakers as fond of pork as they used to be?

A new report is out from a group that sniffs out wasteful spending.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening right now, religious followers on a holy pilgrimage attacked. In Iraq, insurgents attacked Shiite pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Karbala for the third straight day. I'll speak with the top U.S. military spokesman for the multinational coalition in Iraq. Major General William Caldwell will speak about the violence and more.

Also, credit card companies defend their practices as responsible. Officials with three major credit issuing banks appear before a Senate panel today. Some senators have denounced the credit card industry as having confusing billing practices and shifting interest rates.

And she's the astronaut who drove from Houston to Orlando in a diaper, allegedly to kidnap a romantic rival, Lisa Nowak. Today, NASA said her days as an astronaut are over. A statement says she'll be terminated effective tomorrow.

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

It's that time of the year when pigs come out on Capitol Hill. They're there to drive home a watchdog group's efforts to spotlight political pork. Members of Congress have promised to cut down on wasteful spending.

But have they made good? Or are they still bringing home the bacon?

Let's turn to CNN's Brianna Keilar -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this year's pig book points out one million defense dollars set aside for a telescope array in California that looks for alien life. Also, $1.35 million for studying obesity in the military. This group that puts out this book, Citizens Against Government Waste, actually brought out the real live little piggies today to highlight their point. Now, of course, one person's pork is another person's valuable project. For instance, $1.65 million, defense dollars, set aside by Senator Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington State, this money went to a Seattle-based company that does research into extending the shelf life of vegetables.

It sounds odd, but Senator Murray is standing by it. She says it's very important for U.S. troops.


SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D), WASHINGTON: One of the big challenges that our Army has had is getting fresh fruit and vegetables out to our service men and women on the frontline. They can't get it from other countries. It needs to be imported from here.


KEILAR: Citizens Against Government Waste says, overall, they found $13.2 billion in pork for fiscal year 2007. And this is actually much less than they have found in past years, because the last Congress only passed two of 11 appropriation bills. And, also, the new Congress put a moratorium on earmarks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna, thank you.

Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, is here with more on pork spending and how you can look at the congressional earmarks for yourself online.

What are you seeing, Jacki?


The Internet has made it much easier for everyday citizens to look into earmarks and find the possible pork, for example, this Web site just launched called It's brought to us by the Sunlight Foundation, which is a watchdog group.

The idea is to take all the public information that's already in the Library of Commerce's -- Commerce -- excuse me -- the Library of Congress' THOMAS database and to make it more easy to access by the public.

For example, you can take a look, if you have time, through these bills themselves, the appropriations bills, and look for the earmarks. That's exactly what the Sunlight Foundation asked people to do last September to expose the earmarks in one particular appropriations bill, the Labor, Health and Human Services bill.

There were more than 1,800 earmarks. The idea was to go through it and then contact your local congresswoman or congressman. The other project online that bloggers have been really influential in pushing is Pork Busters. And the idea here was to take all of the wasteful spending and reallocate it to Hurricane Katrina relief. This was launched back in September 2005, Wolf. And it is an ongoing online project.

BLITZER: Jacki, thank you for that.

Carol Costello is monitoring all the wires. She's keeping an eye on the video feeds coming in via satellite from around the world.

What's crossing the wires, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we start in Iraq, Wolf.

People were enjoying themselves at a popular cafe north of Baghdad when a suicide bomber killed the calm and claimed some lives. At least 30 people are dead, after the bomber blew himself up at the cafe in the Diyala Province, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

The U.S. military says it bears all the hallmarks of an al Qaeda attack.

In Indonesia, officials are trying to figure out what caused this inferno. The Indonesian airplane landed at an airport, and then it just burst into flames. Officials say it overshot the runway. Video taken by a news photographer who survived the crash shows both the plane's engines were ripped off and the top of the plane burned away. Twenty-three people on board died, but, amazingly, the other 117 survived.

In the next hour, Brian Todd will look at ways to survive an airplane crash.

Today, Jordan's King Abdullah addressed a joint meeting of Congress. The king urged the United States to show leadership in the Middle East, saying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still the root of the problem. Regarding involvement in that California, Abdullah said -- quote -- "Let us say together, let's solve this."

And Tiger Woods will not, not be running for political office -- at least not any time soon. Today, the famous golfer talked about his foundation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the majority leader, Steny Hoyer. And you see the minority leader there.

When asked if he might have political aspirations, Woods said, right now, he's focusing on his golf and his first child. However, he did not rule out politics in his future.

Earlier today, Woods talked about a golf tournament to be hosted by his foundation and the PGA in Washington on the Fourth of July weekend. And it will honor America's troops.


TIGER WOODS, PROFESSIONAL GOLFER: During the tournament, anyone who is in active duty will get free admission to our tournament, something that I think is very important. They are putting our -- their lives on the line, so that we're able to enjoy the lives that we have today and the freedoms that we are able to enjoy.


COSTELLO: And come out, come out, wherever you are. You might be a new mega-millionaire. If you recently bought lottery tickets in Dalton, Georgia, or Woodbine, New Jersey, you better check your stubs.

Those two cities sold a winning ticket for a record $370 million Mega Millions jackpot. Also, California reports nine players hold tickets with five of the six winning numbers. Those numbers are 16, 22, 29, 39, 42. And the Mega Ball is 20 -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know, if you had won, you still would have been here in THE SITUATION ROOM today, right, Carol?

COSTELLO: Oh. No, I would be out of here.


BLITZER: She would have been here. Trust me.


BLITZER: Up next: the left flank in revolt over Iraq. Can congressional Democrats get any more divided over setting limits on the war?

And President Bush is promising quick action to cure the problems at the nation's top Army hospital. But is the Walter Reed Army medical scandal a drag on his Iraq strategy?

Terry Jeffrey, Bill Press, they're here for our "Strategy Session." That's coming up. Stay around.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

Out of the shadows, into the center of political influence -- it appears one state wants to have a bigger say in presidential politics.

Let's turn to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's watching all of this. He has got the details -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, it's been a long time since California Republicans had much influence over their party's presidential nominee. That could change.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): California's a pretty blue state. It hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1988. But there are nearly 5.5 million Republicans in California, about 10 times as many as Iowa, and 20 times as many as New Hampshire. Why should California Republicans be bystanders when it comes to picking their party's nominee?

That may change. On Tuesday, the California legislature passed a measure that would move the state's presidential primary to February 5, the earliest possible date. Governor Schwarzenegger has said he supports moving the primary. With 173 delegates, it will be hard for candidates to ignore California, even if other states hold primaries the same day.

Moreover, the California Republican primary is winner-take-all by congressional district. If you win a congressional district, you take all the delegates for that district. And California has 53 congressional districts. It's a huge state, with five major media markets. To run there, you need high name recognition and big bucks, like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

It's also where moderate Republicans do well, like governor you- know-who, who's been seen in the company of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Some California Republicans want to let registered independents participate in their primary. Who would that help?

ALLAN HOFFENBLUM, REPUBLICAN POLITICAL CONSULTANT: I have a hunch it would probably help Giuliani more than McCain. But those are the two candidates who would want it the most.

SCHNEIDER: Candidates who are strong in Los Angeles and San Francisco can win lots of delegates. Those expensive media markets cover many congressional districts, including some that have very few Republicans, but still get an equal number of delegates. That could help -- you guessed it -- John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.


SCHNEIDER: With an early primary and winner-take-all rules, California Republicans may have a chance to reshape their party, even though their foreign-born Republican governor is ineligible to run for president -- Wolf.

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

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM: the left flank in revolt over Iraq. Can congressional Democrats get any more divided over setting limits on the war?

And begging his pardon -- is there a clamor for President Bush to wipe the slate clean for Scooter Libby? The conviction fallout in our "Strategy Session."

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The clock is ticking toward the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq. And Democratic leaders in Congress still are struggling to agree on a plan to try to set some limits on the president's policies. One of their biggest obstacles right now? The left flank of the Democratic Party.

Let's turn to our congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel.

Andrea, where do the Democrats stand right now, trying to forge some sort of consensus?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you put it perfectly, really.

Democrats in both the House and the Senate are struggling right now, trying to bridge the differences on Iraq, not just with Republicans, but among members of their own rank-and-file.


KOPPEL (voice-over): Democrats admit, changing U.S. policy in Iraq has been an uphill climb.

REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), MAJORITY LEADER: We are now trying to fashion language, which will, while supporting and protecting our troops, also requires the administration to report on benchmarks being met, performance being met that the president has represented needs to be accomplished by the Iraqi government.

KOPPEL: That plan, to condition the continued presence of U.S. combat troops in Iraq to the Iraqi government's ability to make good on key promises, is being championed by Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha.

Murtha's proposal, backed by Democratic leaders, to add these conditions to the president's request for an estimated $100 billion in emergency war funding, was aimed at winning support from a majority of Democrats.

But a leading anti-war critic, California's Maxine Waters, whose so-called "Out of Iraq Caucus" claims about 75 Democrats, nearly a third of the Democratic majority, says her group won't support more money for Iraq, unless it's to bring U.S. troops home.

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), CALIFORNIA: The only way to get us out of the war is to have an exit strategy that is clear, that is well- articulated, that makes good sense, that gives them time to do it, that is funded, so that the soldiers are funded and secured on their way out.

KOPPEL: In this letter obtained by CNN, Waters and other anti- war Democrats argue, the costs of the war have become "unsustainable," and take Republican critics head on, saying, "Fully funding withdrawal is not micromanagement. It is macromanagement. The Bush administration has so badly managed this effort, that they have forced Congress to intervene."


KOPPEL: And Waters says she and other anti-war Democrats are prepared to vote against the president's emergency spending bill, putting Democratic leaders in a quandary: how to balance the two extremes of their party, keeping the left wing in, without alienating the moderates, Wolf, who don't want to be painted as voting against funding for U.S. troops -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Andrea, thank you.

Up next: Free Libby. It's becoming the rallying cry for some on the right. But will President Bush actually listen? That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

And is a presidential pardon actually in the cards? Frank Sesno is standing by to take a closer look at presidential pardons, from Richard Nixon to Marc Rich. Will Libby's name join the list?

Stick around.


BLITZER: Today, in our "Strategy Session": some conservative publications already calling Lewis "Scooter" Libby's conviction a travesty of justice.

Joining us now, radio talk show host Bill Press, Terry Jeffrey, the editor at large of "Human Events."

"National Review" wasted no time yesterday reacting, saying, among other things: "There should have been no referral, no special counsel, no indictments, and no trial. The CIA leak case has been a travesty. A good man has paid a very heavy price for the left's fevers, the media's scandal-mongering, and President Bush's failure to unify his own administration. Justice demands that President Bush issue a pardon, and lower the curtain on an embarrassing drama that shouldn't have lasted beyond its opening act."

And you saw "The New York Post" front page, "Free Scooter," as well.

What do you think? How much pressure will the president face from the right to pardon Scooter Libby?

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": Well, I think he will face some. I don't think the president is going to pardon Scooter Libby -- Scooter Libby in any near -- near time frame, Wolf, particularly the answer today he gave on CNN, which I think is a good one.

The president cannot make it seem as if he believes it's acceptable for a high-ranking government official, let alone someone in his own White House, to go into a grand jury and commit perjury and obstruction of justice.

However, there is a certain disproportion here. The original crime that this special counsel was supposed to be investigating was leaking the identity of a CIA agent. No one was charged with that. Bob Novak's original source was Richard Armitage.

What Libby was charged with was making false statements in a grand jury and obstructing justice. It could be, at the end of the day, by the time President Bush leaves office, that he believes this guy's been punished enough so far for what he has done and he goes ahead and pardons him... (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: What do you think?

BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: You know, it's funny. I remember when lying in front of a grand jury was an impeachable defense offense. And it wasn't not -- it wasn't that long ago.

And, suddenly, we have all these crocodile tears for Scooter Libby. They say he's a good man. A good man would tell the truth. And you're right. That wasn't the -- that wasn't what Scooter Libby was charged for.

I think the big travesty of this case is that nobody was charged with that crime, and that Dick Cheney walked. But Scooter Libby lied to the FBI, lied to the grand jury to cover up his boss. And he's going to have to pay the price.

BLITZER: We don't -- we're not sure why he lied. We know he's been convicted of perjury...

PRESS: Right.

BLITZER: ... obstructing justice. But at least I don't have a good explanation.

Do you have a good explanation, Terry, why he did that?


And, in fact, it really doesn't make sense, because it's been argued -- and I think persuasively, Wolf -- that the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which was theoretically the law that was at issue here, did not cover Valerie Plame, because she had not been overseas within a five-year time frame in a covert role. Therefore, there never could have been a crime.

Richard Armitage was not committing a crime when he released that identity to Bob Novak. Therefore, the investigation started out on a...


BLITZER: But you can't justify lying to a federal grand jury.

PRESS: Exactly.


JEFFREY: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BLITZER: And you can't justify lying to FBI agents.

JEFFREY: No doubt -- no doubt about it.

(CROSSTALK) JEFFREY: If in fact the conviction holds up -- and, of course, Scooter Libby has an opportunity to appeal. His conviction could be overturned. He could have another trial.

But, if the conviction holds up, there's no doubt about it. You cannot lie and obstruct justice in a grand jury.

PRESS: And I think, Wolf, it's pretty clear that he did so to cover up the fact that he learned about the identity of Valerie Plame from Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney told him who she was. He told him whom to call. He told Scooter Libby what to say.

BLITZER: So, why couldn't he have just said that?


PRESS: He should have said that. He should have said that.

Because I think he wanted...

BLITZER: I mean, as far as I can understand it, if the vice president told Scooter Libby, "You know what, his wife works for the CIA," the vice president is authorized, as is the president, to declassify information, if he wants to.


PRESS: If I can...


PRESS: Here's my take.

My take is that they told Scooter Libby to walk the plank. And, like a good soldier, he walked the plank. And they told him: You walk the plank, we will raise the money for your defense, and then you won't go to jail, because you're going to get a presidential pardon. It's in the cards. You know it's in the cards.

JEFFREY: Not only -- not only should Scooter Libby gone in and told the exact truth to the grand jury, Wolf, but the Bush administration had a legitimate argument for rebutting the arguments that Joe Wilson had made to "The New York Times" and that he had made as an unnamed source in "The Washington Post."

The fact of the matter is, Joe Wilson's story was misleading. It was wrong on several counts. The administration had a good reason to rebut him. They did it the wrong way.

PRESS: Terry, forget it.


PRESS: That argument -- that argument is over.


PRESS: Joe Wilson won this case.

BLITZER: All right, we have got to leave it there, guys, unfortunately.



BLITZER: But there will be time to continue this conversation.

Thanks for coming in.


BLITZER: Up ahead: "The Cafferty File." How important is evangelical support to the Republican presidential candidates? Jack has your e-mail.

And a fiery crash -- this time, some survivors. But could you get out alive in a similar situation? We're going to show you what's going on.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack Cafferty in New York. He has got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question is: How important is evangelical support to the Republican presidential candidates?

Cy in Arlington, Virginia, writes: "The Republicans have only two constituencies: rich people who pay big for the legislation they want, and the religious right, who turn out to vote if you tell them what they want to hear. The first group wants to get what they paid for. And the latter wants to hear that you hate the same people they hate. If the GOP nominates someone who shows evidence of a brain, the church nuts will stay home. Hallelujah."

J. in Atlanta: "I believe there's a growing tendency to see evangelical support as an intrusion of inappropriate bias. Sectarian government is a vital element of American democracy. And, if the evangelicals think about it for just a moment, they might consider, the imposition of their particular agenda could one day become, for example, a Muslim or Hindu or some other agenda imposed upon them."

Pat in Naperville, Illinois: "I'm hoping the evangelicals keep their nose out of the elections this time. Look at the mess we're in now, after seven years of their support for the last guy with values. I saw nothing good or holy coming out of that."

Janie in North Carolina: "Evangelical groups have different ideas. They focus on different areas of the Gospel. Politicians make a big mistake when they think all evangelical groups support only Republican candidates. None of today's Republicans can claim that support alone. Many evangelicals support Democratic candidates."

Lane in Georgia: "Significant, which has turned against the Republican Party. McCain pandering to Jerry Falwell turns my stomach."

And John in West Virginia: "It will be somewhat important, but it will be moderate Democrats and Republicans who elect the next president. It's always that way. The Democrats have the radical leftists, the Republicans have the right wing to rely on for votes. But it will be the moderates who will decide the 2008 election" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: from the commander in chief, vows to make things better for wounded troops at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. President Bush has a message for veterans in a special interview with CNN en Espanol.

Extraordinary images, as an airliner lands and bursts into flames -- incredibly, most of the passengers got out alive. We're going to tell you how to save your own life in a similar situation.


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