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Senator Leahy Interview; Gonzales Controversy Grows; Who Speaks for Evangelicals?

Aired March 14, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, President Bush venting his anger about the flap over those fired federal prosecutors.
Is he standing with his embattled attorney general or is he leaving an escape hatch?

This hour, Alberto Gonzales defends his job.

Plus, the Senate finally breaks its stalemate over Iraq and some presidential contenders snap at each other in the heat of the debate. We're going to show you where the showdown over withdrawing troops stands right now.

And could Al Gore hand his party's presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton?

Our brand new poll reveals some surprises in the Democratic presidential race. You're going to want to see this.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


This hour, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is deep into damage control over the firing of eight federal prosecutors and calls for his resignation. He plans to meet privately with lawmakers in the coming days to explain what went wrong.

On CNN this morning, Gonzales said the future of his job is in the president's hands.


ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that -- that I did make some mistakes. And we're going to -- we're going to take steps to ensure this doesn't happen again.

But ultimately I work for the American people and I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. And he'll decide whether or not I continue to serve as the attorney general.


BLITZER: President Bush made it clear today he's not pleased with the way the prosecutors' shake-up was handled.

He answered questions about the controversy during a news conference in Mexico.


GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What was mishandled was the explanation of the case. This is a, the case is, to the Congress. And Al's got work to do up there.


BLITZER: In the end, did the president offer a vote of confidence in Gonzales?

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is traveling with Mr. Bush -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at a joint news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Mr. Bush wanted to make his final pitch to the Latin American people about U.S. support for their plight.

But instead, he had to scramble to defend his attorney general.


HENRY (voice-over): President Bush flashed anger at embattled Alberto Gonzales, but said he's standing by his man for now.

BUSH: I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales. I talked to him this morning. And we talked about his need to go up to Capitol Hill and make it very clear to members in both parties why the Justice Department made the decisions it made. And he's right, mistakes were made. And I'm frankly not happy about them.

HENRY: By emphasizing Gonzales has to strengthen this out with Congress, the president leaves himself wiggle room to sack the attorney general if Republicans start joining Democrats in calling for a resignation.

BUSH: What was mishandled was the explanation of the case, as the case is, to the Congress. And Al's got work to do up there.

HENRY: The president maintained the decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys was not based on political considerations. And for the first time, Mr. Bush discussed his conversation with Gonzales last October, when the president passed on complaints he had heard about some prosecutors.

BUSH: But I never, you know, brought up a specific case nor gave him specific instructions.

HENRY: The president expressed irritation that the flap helped overshadow his seven day swing through Latin America, a tour that had already been competing for attention with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's anti-American protests.

BUSH: The Justice Department recommended a list of U.S. attorneys. I believed the reasons why were entirely appropriate. And yet this issue was mishandled to the point now where you're asking me questions about it in Mexico.


HENRY: On immigration reform, the president did express optimism on cutting a deal with Congress by the end of the year. But given his weakened political standing, it's unclear whether he can deliver -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry in Mexico for us.

Thank you.

Alberto Gonzales and George W. Bush have a personal and professional relationship dating back a dozen years, to their days in Texas. The then Texas governor appointed Gonzales to be a general counsel, Texas secretary of state, and, finally, a state Supreme Court justice.

Mr. Bush brought Gonzales with him to Washington as his White House counsel. Gonzales was instrumental in some of the controversial tactics in the war on terror, including passage of the Patriot Act.

In February, 2005, Gonzales was sworn in as the attorney general of the United States, replacing John Ashcroft. The president emphasized Gonzales's history as the grandson of Mexican immigrants and his long time friend.


BUSH: For the past decade, Al has been a close adviser, an honorable public servant and a dear friend. Now he assumes a new title. Today it is my honor to call this son of humble Texas the 80th attorney general of the United States.


BLITZER: Before and after Gonzales became the attorney general, his name often was mentioned as a possible choice for the United States Supreme Court. But his record on the Texas Supreme Court led some conservatives to conclude he supported abortion rights and they came out against him.

President Bush isn't the only Republican whose temper is flaring over those fired U.S. attorneys. Capitol Hill right now buzzing with complaints from lawmakers of both parties, but only Democrats so far are pushing for Gonzales to actually leave.

Could that soften the criticism coming from Republicans, though?

Let's turn to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She's watching all of this, including the Republicans' reaction to what's going on -- Dana. DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I asked one Republican senator today what he thinks Alberto Gonzales' chances for survival are. And he looked at me and said, "I think I have a better chance of winning my final floor pool."

Now, I don't know who his picks are, but that should give you some indication about openly uneasy Republicans are here about how all this was handled.


BASH (voice-over): The Senate Democratic leader is unyielding in his repeated calls for the attorney general to step down.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: It's unethical. It's immoral. I believe it's illegal. And Gonzales should be fired or he should resign.

BASH: But what may be more telling is criticism of Alberto Gonzales from fellow Republicans, who feel misled about why federal prosecutors were fired.

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R), WISCONSIN: The attorney general has gotten himself in deep trouble by having a different story come out of the Justice Department about every second news cycle.

BASH: So far, no Republican lawmaker has said Gonzales should go. But many were careful not to say he should stay. South Dakota Republican John Thune told CNN: "He's going to have to answer some very hard questions and politically there are concerns about how things got handled. It doesn't look good."

Even Gonzales' fellow friend and Texan says he is concerned and called to offer advice.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I encouraged the attorney general to make his employees at the Department of Justice available for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and I think it's appropriate for them to answer questions from senators in a public forum.

BASH: Ironically, Republicans say Gonzales may be helped by Democrats openly politicizing the issue, like this -- an online petition Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign sent to supporters, asking them to join her in calling on Alberto Gonzales to resign.

And this...

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Is it fair to say that you felt pressured to hurry subsequent cases?

BASH: The Democrats' point man is also head of the committee to elect Democrats in 2008.

CORNYN: Senator Charles Schumer, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is leading the charge for Democrats using this incident to raise money for the next election.


BASH: A Republican leadership aide said there's even a more practical reason why Republicans are wary of Gonzales being fired, and that is any nominee to replace him would have to go through a confirmation process, of course, now run by Democrats, Wolf. And they would no doubt use that to try to press issues inside the Justice Department, things -- many issues that Democrats have not been happy about over the past several years inside the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The new White House counsel, Fred Fielding, a veteran of these kinds of battles, was up on Capitol Hill today.

What was that all about?

BASH: Well, he came up here to talk to a bipartisan group of lawmakers who are on the Judiciary Committees in both the House and the Senate. And essentially it was so that they could say, look, here are the documents we want. Here are the officials we want to talk to from inside the White House, both past and former Bush officials.

Now, Fielding slipped out the back door before he could tell us what happened. But according to lawmakers, Wolf, they said that Fielding said that he was quite open to the idea of sending documents and even of having people like Karl Rove come and talk to Congress.

But he also made clear he's going to have to run it up the flagpole, and that includes having a conversation with the president himself.

As you know, Wolf, the president has been very reluctant to send his aides to Congress, claiming executive privilege.

Unclear what's going to happen at this point. Fred Fielding said that he would get an answer to Congress by this Friday.

BLITZER: Well, we heard yesterday from Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor in Mexico, traveling with the president. He doubted anyone would actually go ahead and testify from the White House staff.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: If Fielding has a different policy, that could be interesting, Dana.

We'll watch that very, very closely.

Dana Bash, Ed Henry -- they are both part of the best political team on television.

And this note. The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy, he's standing by to join us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're going to talk a lot more about the prosecutor purge and the fallout.

Also on Capitol Hill right now, a long awaited Senate debate over the war in Iraq. Senators agreed today to move toward a vote on a Democratic resolution that sets April 1, 2008 as a target date for withdrawing combat troops. Republicans dropped their opposition to the debate, breaking a stalemate and unleashing some heated exchanges on the Senate floor today.

In fact, two presidential candidates on both sides of this Iraq debate added to the fireworks.

Listen to Republican Senator John McCain and the response from Democratic Senator Joe Biden. They're both at odds over the war and the definition of courage.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: If any senator believes that our troops' sacrifice is truly in vain, the dictates of conscience demand that she or he act to prevent it. Those who would cut off all funding for this war, though I disagree deeply with their position and dread its consequences, have the courage of their convictions and I respect them for it.



SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DW), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our troops don't lose war, bad policy, bad leadership loses wars. This, we should have the courage to stand up and tell the administration they have had a god awful policy. They have put our troops in a position that, in fact, has made it virtually impossible for them to succeed at the outset.



BIDEN: I'm so tired of hearing on this floor about courage. Have the courage to tell the administration -- stop this ridiculous policy you have. We're taking sides in a civil war.


BLITZER: Coming up, we're going to have a full report from Capitol Hill on this increasingly heated debate and what happens next.

And remember, for all the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at

Jack Cafferty is in New York.

You saw Senator Biden. He's getting pretty angry over this accusation that if Democrats really want to end the war, McCain says have the courage to stop the funding. JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, I'm tired of these blow hard politicians talking, talking, talking. The kids keep dying, the treasury keeps getting emptied, the war is going nowhere.

What exactly are we gaining by this -- what is it now, four-and- a-half years we've been in Iraq?

You know, the politicians just make my teeth hurt.

California Congressman -- not this one. This is interesting. California Congressman Pete Stark says he's an atheist. The Democrat told the Associated Press he's "a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being."

An outfit called the American Humanist Association immediately applauded Stark's statement, saying it makes him the highest ranking elected official and the first congressman to ever proclaim to be an atheist.

In fact, some experts say that Stark may have crossed one of the last frontiers in politics, that this kind of statement would have been political suicide just a generation ago.

But keep this in mind -- this is important. Stark's district is in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Freemont. And saying you don't believe in god in that part of the country isn't exactly radical, dude.

One Democratic strategist told the "San Francisco Chronicle": "Time will tell whether this is a case of the Bay Area being far out front or merely far out."

A recent "USA Today"/Gallup Poll suggests most Americans aren't quite ready for atheist lawmakers. Less than half of those polled said they would vote for an atheist for president, even if he was well qualified.

So here's the question -- how much does it matter to you if a politician says he doesn't believe in god?

E-mail your thoughts to or go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We know a lot of them who do -- say they do believe in god don't necessarily do all that great of a job, do they?

CAFFERTY: No. They come up a little short on those Ten Commandments, I think, some of them.

BLITZER: That's right.

Thanks, Jack, for that.

See you soon.

And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, when Alberto Gonzales heads to the Hill, he'll be answering questions from this man, and there appears to be no love lost between the attorney general and Senator Patrick Leahy. He's the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He's standing by to join us live.

Also, if Al Gore declines to jump into the race for the White House, which current Democratic candidate stands to benefit the most?

Find out when we reveal our brand new poll numbers.

And later, she's famous for staying on message.

But is that helping or hurting Senator Hillary Clinton?

I'll ask Donna Brazile and Rich Galen. They're standing by for today's Strategy Session.

Lots of news coming up.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, is vowing to get to the bottom of how and why eight federal prosecutors were ousted from their jobs late last year.

His panel now is set to hold more hearings on this firestorm that's prompted demands for the attorney general's resignation.

Chairman Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, is joining us now in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Thanks, Senator, for coming in.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Here's how he defended himself, Alberto Gonzales, on CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING" earlier today.

Listen to this.


GONZALES: I think that I did make some mistakes and we're going to -- we're going to take steps to ensure that that doesn't happen again. But ultimately, I work for the American people and I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. And he'll decide whether or not I continue to serve as the attorney general.


BLITZER: All right, what do you think?

Should he stay or go? LEAHY: Well, of course, that's a decision that has to be made by the president. The president has to determine whether this is the kind of performance he wants in his administration, whether this is the openness and candor and truthfulness he expects in his administration.

If he says that this is fine, it works great for him, then, of course, he'll stay. That's -- ultimately, the president is the one in charge, whether it's Walter Reed, whether it's the attorney general or anybody else.

What I want to find out, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, exactly what did happen and when. We've been given one incomplete story after another...

BLITZER: Well, let me interrupt, Senator.

LEAHY: Go ahead.

BLITZER: What do you think?

Do you -- does he have the confidence -- do you have confidence in him that he should stay or -- a lot of your colleagues, as you well know, are saying he should resign.

LEAHY: I have confidence in the Senate Judiciary Committee having the ability to get to the bottom of this, but not in these briefings where we get half the facts or a quarter of the facts. I want to have the people I want to testify, I want them to testify under oath and I want them to testify completely.

BLITZER: But do you believe that some of these -- you've had hearings on this. There have been a series of officials who have come up and made explanations, including Alberto Gonzales, the deputy attorney general, Paul McNulty, among others.

Do you believe they deliberately misled your committee?

LEAHY: I believe that they misled my committee. Whether it was deliberate or not is what we're going to have to find out. We're finding more and more e-mail traffic with the White House. We're finding more and more verdict of political manipulation of prosecutors.

I told the attorney general yesterday I was furious about it. I wanted to find out exactly what happened.

I spent eight years as a prosecutor. I know that that's the one person in the criminal justice system that has to be totally independent. If you try to manipulate the prosecutor, then you're manipulating everybody all the way down to the investigating police officer and it hurts everybody.

I told him I have not gotten complete answers and in some cases I have not gotten answers that appear even to be honest.

BLITZER: Well, do you think someone...

LEAHY: I want to have those.

BLITZER: Do you think someone committed perjury?

LEAHY: Well, we'll find that out. That's not always the easiest thing to prove. But we can certainly prove that we have not gotten complete answers. It's a lot more. I think the American public deserves to have answers on this, instead of every day a little bit more dribbling out. Let's get all of the facts. But let's have it under oath.

It's interesting, sometimes, when people are sworn in. It focuses their attention a little bit more.

BLITZER: The White House counsel, Fred Fielding, was up on the Hill today. I don't know if you had a chance to meet with him. But he's not necessarily ruling out allowing some White House staffers, maybe even Karl Rove, to come and testify.

Do you want Karl Rove to testify before your panel?

LEAHY: I've never met Mr. Fielding. I don't -- frankly, I don't care whether he says he's going to allow people or not. We'll subpoena the people we want. If they want to defy the subpoena, then you get into a stonewall situation I suspect they don't want to have.

BLITZER: Well, will you subpoena...

LEAHY: I have...

BLITZER: Will you subpoena Karl Rove?

LEAHY: Yes. He can appear voluntarily if he wants. If he doesn't, I will subpoena him. And we had -- the attorney general said well, there are some staff people or lower level people I'm not sure whether I want to allow them to testify or not. I said, frankly, Mr. Attorney General, it's not your decision. It's mine and the committee's. We will have subpoenas. I would hope that they will not try to stonewall subpoenas.

BLITZER: The White House, the president, the attorney general, they insist there was no politics involved in these decisions to get rid of these eight U.S. prosecutors.

But you've seen some of the e-mail, the traffic, the paper trail, where there do appear to be some political decisions involved.

What's going on?

LEAHY: I'm surprised that they're saying that there's no politics involved and we're still two-and-a-half weeks away from April Fool's Day.

There was obviously politics. I mean this is something both Republicans and Democrats know. You go in the cloak rooms, you hear both Republicans and Democrats saying it. Everybody knows there's politics involved. Everybody knows -- in one instance -- Arkansas, you had a very highly rated U.S. attorney. They were told they had to get rid of him because Karl Rove had an acolyte of his that had to be put in his place.

How can they possibly stand there with a straight face and say that's not politics. Of course it's politics.

BLITZER: But is there anything illegal in putting one of Karl Rove's associates in and making him the U.S. attorney in Arkansas?

LEAHY: There's nothing illegal in a president firing, by itself, firing a U.S. attorney.

What it does say, however, to law enforcement, you either play by our political rules -- by our political rules, not by law enforcement rules, but by our political rules -- or you're out of a job.

What I am saying is that that hurts law enforcement, that hurts fighting against crime. And if it is done to stop an ongoing investigation -- and this is something we don't know -- if it is done to stop an ongoing investigation, then you do get into the criminal area.

BLITZER: And so that's the focus of your investigation, whether or not somebody committed a crime?

LEAHY: The first thing I want in my investigation is to find out exactly what happened, sort of the old just the facts. I want to find out what the facts are. But I don't want to have somebody come up in a briefing and say well, no, here's really what we think happened.

No. I want them in public. I want both Democrats and Republicans able to ask the questions. But those answers are going to be under oath or they're not acceptable to me.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for coming in.

Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

LAHEY: Thank you.

BLITZER: And up next here in THE SITUATION ROOM, senators trading some harsh words over setting a date to leave Iraq.

But will the arguing lead to action?

We're going to bring you some of the clashes and whether the push for a deadline is doomed.

Also coming up, a new judgment on the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

Can patients with pot get busted?


BLITZER: Let's check in with Carol Costello.

She's monitoring the wires, keeping an eye on the video feeds coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from around the world.

Have you got some headlines -- Carol.



Hello to all of you.

In Baghdad, there are still assassinations, car bombings and kidnappings, but there are strikingly fewer of them and fewer Iraqis are victims. That's according to Iraq's Army. They looked at the deaths in the past four weeks and compared that to the weeks just before. The Iraqi Army says nearly 1,200 fewer Iraqis died in the past four weeks than in the previous period and officials say that's proof the new Baghdad security plan is working.

In the next hour, we'll talk with the chief military spokesman in Iraq, Major General William Caldwell.

Also, those who smoke marijuana for medical reasons can be arrested. That's what a federal appeals court ruled today. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled so-called medical marijuana users can be arrested and have their stash seized under federal anti-drug laws. The case is expected to go to the Supreme Court for a second time.

They're expected to plead guilty to a crime, but they will not do the time. That would be the former chairwoman of Hewlett-Packard and three others. Patricia Dunn and the others had all been charged with felonies in connection with H.P.'s efforts to spy on its board members. But today we learned they will not be going to jail. It's part of a deal announced by California prosecutors. The four are expected to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor count.

And Wall Street is looking a bit like a roller coaster these days. Stocks turned higher late in the day, but only after the Dow Industrials were down over 125 points. The Dow finally closed with a gain of just over 57 points.


Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, thank you.

Happening now, it's every family's nightmare. Imagine being told a United States submarine has sunk and your loved one is on board and he is lost. That's what happened overnight. We're going to tell you what happened next. That's coming up.

Also, it's a tangled web weaved with controversy. Eight U.S. attorneys fired and claims it was for political reasons -- claims growing louder and louder now that we know one federal prosecutor who left was replaced by a former aide to presidential aide Karl Rove.

And just who speaks for Evangelicals?

Some say they do not identify with the religious right on key issues and one of them is exposing a very big split.

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

After weeks of deadlock, the U.S. Senate finally cleared a procedural roadblock, setting up a heated debate over a binding Democratic resolution which would set a date for United States troops, combat forces, to leave Iraq.

Our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel, is on Capitol Hill.

She's got the details -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it depends who you ask as to why the -- the dynamic has shifted in the last few weeks.

But Democrats will tell you that Republicans no longer want to be labeled obstructionists. But you have seen, also, as the surge has taken hold, Republicans also recognize that, when it comes to this resolution, it doesn't look like it's going to go anywhere.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: Setting a date certain for withdrawal will send a chill up the spine of every Iraqi who has dared to stand with America.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Our resolution is the best way to stop the Iraqi leaders from continuing to fiddle while Baghdad burns.

KOPPEL (voice-over): The Democrats' resolution calls for a phased redeployment to start four months after it becomes law, with a goal of March 31 next year for all combat troops to leave Iraq. Remaining troops would focus on protecting U.S. and coalition personnel, training Iraqi forces, and on counterterrorism.

Arizona Republican and presidential candidate John McCain spoke out against the Democrats' plan.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Some argue that Iraqis already Iraq is already a catastrophe, and we need to get our soldiers out of the way of its consequences.

To my colleagues who believe this, I say, you have no idea how much worse things could get.

KOPPEL: But Delaware Democrat Joe Biden, who is also running for president, said the U.S. cannot win what's become a civil war.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is about the mission. Mr. President, you're leading us off a cliff. Stop.

KOPPEL: Even before this debate began, the legislation seemed doomed to fail. Moderate Republicans who voted with Democrats last month to oppose the president's troop increase dislike setting a 2008 deadline to leave. And so do some Democrats, like Nebraska's Ben Nelson.

SEN. BEN NELSON (D), NEBRASKA: And I think a lot of folks, including myself, have objected to trying to set an artificial deadline as a date for withdrawal, as opposed to putting conditions for staying.


KOPPEL: Now, as to what's happening next, that's still a little bit up in the air. There could be another procedural vote tonight. That could be pushed until tomorrow.

But, either way, Wolf, Democrats concede that they don't have the 60 votes to cut off debate or even to pass this resolution -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, if they don't get that through, what -- what's their next step?

KOPPEL: Well, the next step would be to look down the road a couple of weeks. As you know, tomorrow, the House Appropriations Committee is set to vote on the president's emergency war spending bill, which has language in there that would set March of 2008, much as the -- as the Senate resolution does, to start the redeployment , which would end in August.

If it passes the House, it could come over here to the Senate at the end of the month.

BLITZER: Andrea, thanks for that -- Andrea Koppel on the Hill.

Up next: Whose supporters are more loyal, Hillary Clinton's or Barack Obama's? Our brand-new poll on the Democratic presidential race tests the front-runners and the Al Gore factor.

And the question of the day in our "Strategy Session": Can Alberto Gonzales keep his job as attorney general? Donna Brazile and Rich Galen, they have their assessments.

And all of that is coming up, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Many Democrats are hoping public anger about the Iraq war will help their party reclaim the White House in 2008. We have some brand-new poll numbers that are just coming out this hour on the Democratic presidential contest, the levels of voter loyalty, and how Al Gore might actually make an impact.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is in the early primary state of New Hampshire. He's getting a little sense of what's going on up there.

But you got these new numbers for our viewers -- Bill.


Usually, Democratic nominating contests are wild and woolly, while Republicans are supposed to believe in orderly succession; 2008 may be different.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): How do Democrats feel about next year's presidential election? Ask the late, great James Brown.


JAMES BROWN, MUSICIAN (singing): I feel good.


SCHNEIDER: And why not? By better than 2-1, the public expects the Democrat to win next year's presidential election. Democrats are overwhelmingly confident of victory. Republicans are not so sure. Forty percent of Republicans expect a Democrat to win. But which Democrat?

Right now, Hillary Clinton looks like the establishment candidate. She's got name recognition, money, endorsements...

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I believe that my experience and my qualifications uniquely equip me to hit the ground running in January 2009.

SCHNEIDER: ... and a 15-point lead over the establishment outsider, Barack Obama.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: On January 20, 2009, we will start transforming the country.

SCHNEIDER: Al Gore still has a following among Democrats. In fact, his support has picked up a bit since he won his Oscar.

QUESTION: Any intentions to run for president?

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the moment has passed now.

QUESTION: Are you completely... GORE: You know, the music cut me off. And...

SCHNEIDER: What happens if Gore sticks to his decision not to run? Clinton's lead widens to 21 points. The vote for Bill Clinton's vice president goes mostly to Bill Clinton's wife.

Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they're satisfied with their choices for 2008, particularly Clinton supporters. Sixty percent of her supporters say they are committed to her. Only 32 percent of Obama's supporters are definitely committed to him. Two-thirds say they could change their minds.

Republicans are supposed to be the party that believes in orderly succession, but, this time, it's the Democrats who seem to be going for the candidate who is next in line.


SCHNEIDER: Here's something else the Democrats have going for them. In December 2000, just after the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the winner, 48 percent of Americans said they thought Bush won the election fair and square.

And, now that the president's popularity has plummeted, that number has gotten lower. Only 40 percent believe Bush won the election fair and square. It looks like some buyers' remorse may be setting in -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, in New Hampshire for us, thank you for that.

Bill Schneider, as you saw earlier, Andrea Koppel, they are both part of the best political team on television.

And this note: CNN is proud to announce that we're teaming up with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute to host a presidential candidates debate on the eve of the South Carolina Democratic primary. I will be hosting the debate next January. CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux and Joe Johns will serve as panelists.

South Carolina, of course, is the first Southern state to hold a presidential primary or caucus. We're looking forward to that.

Coming up: The nation's largest firefighters union hosts a bunch of presidential wannabes. We will bring you the highlights in today's "Radar."

And presidential candidates go green. And I'm not talking money. Abbi Tatton has a live report on the latest effort by candidates to capture the so-called green vote.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: A very unusual sight tops today's "Political Radar." Eleven -- yes, 11 -- presidential hopefuls from both parties were in the same room today, but not at the same time. The candidates all spoke here in Washington in front of the nation's largest firefighters union. Most of the Democrats promised better health care for military veterans and slammed the current White House for poor medical treatment for those injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And they also criticized the current buildup of troops into Iraq.


CLINTON: ... because I profoundly believe that putting more of our young men and women into harm's way, unless the Iraqis decide to defend themselves, we cannot end this war for them. If they're not going to stand up and take responsibility, we should not lose another American life.


CLINTON: We should end this escalation now.


OBAMA: They give long speeches about valor and sacrifice. They say the words with a preacher's ease.

But, when it comes time to send our troops into battle with the proper equipment and ensure that veterans have what they need when they get home, they don't do anything except slap a yellow ribbon on the back of their SUV.


BLITZER: There was a very different message coming from most of the Republican presidential hopefuls.

Here's Senator John McCain.


MCCAIN: Presidents don't lose wars. Political parties don't lose wars. Nations lose wars, my friends. And nations suffer the consequences. And those consequences are far more serious than a lost election.


BLITZER: The republican front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, did not attend the forum today. The former New York mayor and the firefighters union are feuding over Giuliani's move to restrict recovery efforts at ground zero two months after the 9/11 attacks. The union backed John Kerry in 2004.

Presidential campaigns are going green to fight global warming. Democrat John Edwards is taking steps to make sure his presidential run, with its frequent flights and road trips, is so-called carbon- neutral.

Abbi Tatton has the story -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, this means calculating how much carbon dioxide the campaign is emitting through John Edwards' travel, his frequent campaign stops, his travel, for example, by air from North Carolina to Iowa, and then counterbalancing those carbon emissions by donating money to clean-energy projects.

Now, this isn't the first campaign to announce this kind of initiative. Last month, the campaign of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack announced that there's would be the first campaign to become carbon-neutral. That didn't last very long. Vilsack took his name out of the running a couple of weeks later.

Environmentalists stress that it's not just offsetting carbon emissions that's important for the environment. It's reducing them in the first place. In announcing this initiative, the Edwards campaign said they will also be putting in place energy-saving measures -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

Up next in our "Strategy Session": Donna Brazile and Rich Galen. How much of a drain has the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, become on the White House? Is it time for him to go?

And is homosexuality immoral? It's a simple question. So, why did Senator Hillary Clinton punt on it? Is she too scripted for her own good? Two topics coming up next -- right here in our "Strategy Session."


BLITZER: This story just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

We want to go to Carol Costello for -- for some details.

What are we learning, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a -- a blow for those who lost loved ones on 9/11: A federal appeals court has ruled that evidence collected in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui does not have to be turned over to the victims' families.

Of course, Moussaoui was convicted of being a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks. The families had wanted to use that evidence to file lawsuits against the airline industry and others. But, again, a federal appeals court has ruled they have no right to that evidence -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, thanks very much.

Let's go to today's "Strategy Session": the controversy over those eight federal prosecutors who were fired and claims it was for political reasons. Joining us now, our CNN political analyst, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist Rich Galen.

Guys, thanks very much...


BLITZER: ... for coming in.

You have been around Washington for a long time, Donna. How much longer, do you think -- or -- or do you think he can survive, Alberto Gonzales?


Look, he's mishandled the situation. The president said that today. But, also, the -- the Justice Department is now shifting their stories. It's -- it's one thing to throw your chief of staff under the bus, and -- and take responsibility. It's another thing to just resign.

Back in the Nixon days, his attorney general resigned before firing prosecutors. So, I think Mr. Gonzales should submit his resignation.

GALEN: Well...

BLITZER: What do you think?

GALEN: ... that's not quite the same thing. That was -- that was firing the special prosecutor that was investigating Nixon.

I mean, we all know now that the blogosphere has been alive with the fact that President Clinton, right within hours of taking office, fired every U.S. attorney.

BLITZER: But that was at the beginning of an administration.


GALEN: Nevertheless...


BLITZER: In the middle of a presidency...


BLITZER: ... this is unprecedented.

GALEN: Oh, no, no. But that's only a different -- a shade of difference in precedent, because that was clearly...

BLITZER: But all of these attorneys were...

GALEN: That was... BLITZER: All of...

GALEN: ... clearly...

BLITZER: Wait a second. Wait a second.

GALEN: ... for political reasons.

BLITZER: Rich, all of these U.S. attorneys were named by this Republican president. They weren't named by his predecessor.

GALEN: Everybody serves -- everybody serves at the -- at the pleasure...

BRAZILE: And these prosecutors were ranked.

GALEN: ... of the president. The mistake -- well, the -- the mistake that the Justice Department made was to not say: They serve at the president -- at the pleasure of the president. We don't have to tell you why...


BLITZER: Well, they should have just come out and said: We're doing this for political reasons; we want...

GALEN: Or -- no.

BLITZER: ... a friend of Karl Rove's to get the job in Arkansas?


GALEN: That's silly.

What they should have said was: We don't have to -- we do not have -- have to explain when the -- when somebody's political appointment ends, we simply end it. We don't have to explain it to you. We're not going to.

BLITZER: But that's not what they said.


GALEN: I understand that. That's the mistake they made.

BRAZILE: And you're comparing apples and oranges.

In the beginning of all administrations, most people submit their resignation, or you request their resignation.

GALEN: But that -- that was unprecedented.

BRAZILE: In this case, this was..


BRAZILE: This was political.

GALEN: That was unprecedented.

BRAZILE: You could see the documents, the e-mails, where they -- the White House was under pressure to -- to fire and to dismiss these individuals.

The Justice Department ranked them according to loyalty and some other factors that had nothing to do with their job.

BLITZER: What does Bush need to do right now -- you're a good Republican strategist -- to end this uproar?

GALEN: I think what they do is, they just -- I saw that you had Senator Leahy on before -- just to remind Senator Leahy that he doesn't get a vote in -- in who the Cabinet members are after they -- after they have been confirmed.

From now on, it's only up to the president. And it will be interesting to see if he follows through.

BLITZER: Should he let Karl Rove and the others go before the Judiciary Committee? They're going to be subpoenaed. You heard Senator Leahy say it here.


GALEN: I heard him say it. I will...

BLITZER: Should...

GALEN: I will be interested...


BLITZER: Should they cooperate, because there's a new White House counsel, Fred Fielding, who is more amenable to this kind of cooperation with -- with the legislative branch?

GALEN: Well -- well, remember, White House counsels serve at the president's pleasure also.

BRAZILE: Mr. Gonzales has no credibility. At a time when you have everything, from the Patriot Act and -- and the war on terror, I mean, he has no credibility. He can't help the administration make its case.


GALEN: Before -- before we get off the...

BLITZER: All right.

GALEN: ... politicization, let me just make this last point.

Every time there's a close U.S. Supreme Court decision, 5-4, every -- every news organization in the world, including CNN, makes sure that everybody understands which president appointed which justice, the implication being that there may be politics involved.

So, the notion that this is somehow something new that nobody's ever thought of is really a little silly.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Senator Clinton for a moment. She gave an interview to Jake Tapper on ABC. And he put it up on the ABC News Web site.

She was asked to react to Peter Pace, the general, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, his comments that homosexual activity is immoral. And she was asked a simple question: Is homosexuality immoral?

And her response, according to ABC News Web site: "Well, I'm going to leave that to others to conclude."

She didn't say what Senator Edwards said yesterday -- he didn't think it was immoral -- or what Senator Warner has said.

What do you make of this?

BRAZILE: I think she will, at some point, have to repudiate those comments. She should have used this opportunity to not only distance herself from those remarks, but to also repudiate them.

Look, Senator Clinton has consistently said that don't ask/don't tell should be repealed. She's been a leader and a champion on -- on gay rights. So, I think, at some point, she will have to distance herself and to say what most people believe, which is, you know, General Pace is wrong.


GALEN: Jake is a great reporter. We have known him for a long time.

He missed the opportunity: Mrs. Clinton, if you were the commander in chief, what would you do?

You can't -- you can't -- when you are the commander in chief, you have to make these kinds of decisions. You can't say, we will leave it to other people.

BLITZER: No, no.

GALEN: So...

BLITZER: Well, she did say -- she did say she would get rid of don't ask/don't tell.


BLITZER: She did say that.

GALEN: She -- she asked -- she did not answer the question that was asked, specifically with respect to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff. If she wants to be commander in chief, she has to be stronger and be able to say: This is what I would do.

And she didn't.

BLITZER: We're going to have a -- and we're going to have a full report on this story coming up in our next hour, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Donna, Rich, thanks very much for coming in.

GALEN: Nice to be with you.

BLITZER: A good discussion.

Coming up: "The Cafferty File." How much does it really matter to you if a politician says he doesn't believe in God? Jack with your e-mail -- straight ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: California Congressman Pete Stark, Wolf, says he's an atheist. The Democrat says he's -- quote -- "a unitarian," does not believe in a supreme being.

So, we asked: How much does it matter to you if a politician says he doesn't believe in God?

Got a lot of e-mail.

Marie in Bartlett, Illinois: "I could care less if a politician doesn't believe in God. He should believe in integrity and honesty, serve the welfare of the American people. I'm fed up with sanctimonious, self-righteous people who wear their religion on their sleeve, but act in ways contrary to every admonition of good behavior present in all religions."

Gloria in West Monroe, Louisiana: "I want a praying, Bible- believing, God-fearing president. Look around you. This country is in a mess. We need God."

Hey, Gloria, I thought we had one of those, a praying, Bible- believing, God-fearing president. Isn't that the what George Bush is?

Gail in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin: "We have seen the results of voting for a president who claims he believes in God. I would rather have an atheist who believes in the Constitution."

Chris: "I would not only vote for a qualified atheist president. I would also campaign for him. The religious right has slowly eliminated any line that once separated church and state. It's time to get back to a secular government, in which logic and reason lead the way." Holly in Colorado Springs: "Absolutely no political votes for a candidate if he doesn't believe in God."

Chaz writes: "I would be more likely to vote for an atheist than a religious candidate. Atheists, at least, are honest about their beliefs, and they have no moral agenda to impose on the rest of us."

Finally, Gregory in Woodland Hills, California: "After considering the sorry conditions where religion has taken the nation and the world, in my opinion, the fact that a candidate is a non- believer would be a definite plus" -- so, kind of a mixed bag there, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jack.

CAFFERTY: You're welcome.


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