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THE SITUATION ROOM

Money for U.S. Troops on the Line as Congress Goes to Spring Break; Alberto Gonzales Does Damage Control; Surges and Slips in the Presidential Race; Blitzer Does Interview with Mike Huckabee

Aired March 30, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, money for U.S. troops on the line as Congress heads off for spring break.
Would a delay in funding pose a clear and present danger or are the president's allies using scare tactics?

Also this hour, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on damage control after testimony by his former chief of staff.

Is President Bush's confidence in his old friend waning?

And new surges and slips in the presidential race. We'll tell you who's up, who's down and why candidates are pleading more desperately than usual to show them the money.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, members of Congress are leaving the political battlefield over Iraq for spring break. And they're leaving behind some critical unfinished business.

House and Senate war funding bills that include timeliness for withdrawals still need to be reconciled, while under the cloud of a presidential veto. Bush allies are raising red flags, charging U.S. troops could be in peril.

Let's begin our coverage on this important story this hour with our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana, what are the Democrats saying about the actual risk to the U.S. troops?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Democrats know that the administration's accusation that they could be responsible for putting troops at risk is about as powerful a political argument as they come. That is why today they're pointing to a new non-partisan analysis that appears to undermine those White House warnings.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

BASH (voice-over): The Congressional Research Service says even without additional funding, the Army could finance the war for several more months, through most of July 2007. The report also says the Pentagon does have flexibility to transfer money from elsewhere for urgent requirements. KATHLEEN HICKS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The process is that you rob Peter to pay Paul. Lower priority items will start to lose funding in order to pay for overseas contingency costs.

BASH: Democrats hope the new study helps rebut a powerful Bush argument in a standoff centered on Democrats' demonstrations that Iraq War funding be tied to a deadline for withdrawal.

America's top military officer warns if the Pentagon doesn't get $100 billion in war funding by April 15th, the Army will have to curtail Reserve and Guard training. Quality of life initiatives like barrack upgrades would be reduced and equipment repairs suspended.

And by May 15th, General Pace warns, deployments to Iraq could be delayed. Troops in Iraq would have to stay longer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you're saying there's a chain reaction?

GENERAL PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: There is, sir. And there are other things. I'll stop there.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Whose fault is that? Whose fault is that? We have waited for months and months and months to get this appropriation bill.

BASH: Democrats blame the president for mismanaging the war and weakening the military, and say the Pentagon and White House are using scare tactics to try to get Democrats to back down in their push for a deadline for troops to come home.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: And what the president is saying, give me the money but don't expect me to be accountable.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: It is really unclear at this point, Wolf, how this standoff is going to be resolved, especially because Democrats know full well that they simply do not have the votes. They're not even close to having the votes to override a Bush veto.

BLITZER: So when the president vetoes this legislation, once it reaches his desk, what's the Democratic strategy then?

What do they do next?

BASH: Well, they haven't really decided on one yet. I talked to several Democratic leadership sources today who say that they are going to get to that point eventually. But they don't necessarily know what they're going to do about this funding bill because look, this is something -- Democrats have been pretty united on this issue over the past week-and-a-half or two weeks or so.

But on the issue of funding, Wolf, as you know, that is what divides Democrats more than anything. And they're going to have to essentially decide whether or not they're going to anger many on the left of their party who say look, we should not fund a war at all that we oppose and that we say -- that they say that the public opposes. And so there will be a lot of opposition on the left flank of the Democratic Party to approve war funding without at least a little bit of a condition.

BLITZER: Dana Bash reporting for us.

And we're going to have a lot more on this story coming up. Bill Schneider is crunching some numbers on the ramifications of what happens. All that coming up.

Meanwhile, President Bush got an up close look at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center today. This for the first time since scandalous conditions there were exposed.

Mr. Bush met with wounded war veterans and apologized for neglect suffered by outpatients in the facility's Building 18.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Americans must understand that the problems recently uncovered at Walter Reed were not the problems of medical care. The quality of care at this fantastic facility is great and it needs to remain that way.

The problems at Walter Reed were caused by bureaucratic and administrative failures. The system failed you and it failed our troops. And we're going to -- we're going to fix it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Critics questioned why Mr. Bush waited until now to actually visit Walter Reed, six weeks after the problems there were revealed in an exclusive series of articles in the "Washington Post."

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, one of the president's most vocal and emotional critics on Iraq, the former U.S. senator, Max Cleland. The Democrat has plenty to say about the push in Congress for a pullout deadline, the president's veto threat, what was done and said today over at the Walter Reed Hospital. All that coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour.

British officials are outraged over new material coming out of Iran concerning those 15 British sailors and marines detained last week. It's now been a full week.

Our State Department correspondent Zain Verjee has been following this story.

She's joining us now from the State Department with, what, another emerging letter -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Yes, exactly, Wolf. It's letter number three, apparently written by British Sailor Faye Turney. The letter itself says that she's been sacrificed by U.S. and British policies. It also goes on, Wolf, to talk about the situation in Iraq, saying that Britain and the U.S. need to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and leave the people of Iraq to start rebuilding their lives.

Now, CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of this letter and we don't even know if she was forced to write it.

Also today, Wolf, another video emerged, as you mentioned, Faye Turney being paraded around in front of the cameras, along with two other British sailors. One of them apparently coming forward and confessing, essentially saying that the British crew have been in Iranian waters without permission.

And that also, Wolf, the British government's position has basically been we were not in Iranian waters, we were in Iraqi waters, and that's been the core of the dispute -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What is the State Department saying today, Zain, about all of this?

VERJEE: They're saying very little. They continue to be extremely measured about the whole thing. The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, at the briefing today emphasized that the U.S. essentially supports Britain in all of this. What the U.S. wants is to see the equipment and the sailors returned safely and immediately.

He's also being asked a lot about this whole idea, Wolf, of a prisoner swap. And the idea essentially being that the British crew get exchanged for the Iranians that the U.S. is holding in Iraq.

Here's what he had to say in response to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Those individuals who were tied in some form or fashion to the EFD networks that are present in Iraq and that are associated with Iran, we reject any sort of linkage between those two, unconditionally.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VERJEE: Now, he didn't say, Wolf, if the British had asked for such a swap. He also added that, look, this is an issue between Britain and Iran and the U.S. doesn't want to get drawn in.

And just bear in mind, too, Wolf, that the reason that there's not a lot of heat coming from the State Department is that officials have told us that the British have asked the U.S. just keep it toned down, keep it measured, don't complicate the situation that will make things difficult to get the crew released -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A delicate situation, indeed. Zain, thanks for that.

Let's get to Jack Cafferty in New York.

He's got The Cafferty File.

Hi -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's an interesting dilemma for those who run for president. Hollywood, California is potentially a pot of campaign gold. There's a lot of money out there.

But Hollywood's values don't necessarily translate to the average American. The "Los Angeles Times" reports George Clooney says he would love to campaign for Senator Barack Obama, a politician he compared to President Kennedy.

But Clooney says he's worried about the negative effect that celebrity can have on a campaign. Clooney says he told Obama that he would do anything for his campaign, including stay completely away from him. It seems Clooney knows a thing or two about Hollywood backlash.

He says his dad, Nick Clooney, lost his Kentucky Congressional race in 2004 after his opponent said that he had Hollywood values. Clooney said that race became an issue of Hollywood versus the heartland and he eventually stayed out of it because he thought he could only do his father more harm.

So here's the question -- does Hollywood support -- does Hollywood support help or hurt a candidate who's running for president of the United States?

E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: See you soon, Jack.

Thank you.

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, he's trying to follow Bill Clinton's footsteps from Hope, Arkansas to the White House. And wait until you hear what this Republican presidential candidate has to say about Hillary Clinton. GOP hopeful Mike Huckabee joins us next.

And money, money, money -- it's practically all that some of the White House contenders are thinking about right now. We're tracking the 2008 dash for cash.

And later, which presidential candidate is the lightest on his or her feet?

We're going to have some new numbers in the battle of the ballroom.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A lesser known Republican presidential candidate is going for the jugular today against a primary rival. He's saying some remarkably kind words about Democrat Hillary Clinton.

And joining us now in THE SITUATION ROOM, the Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas.

Governor, thanks for coming in.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: Well, it's a pleasure, Wolf.

Thanks.

BLITZER: All right, let's put you on the hot seat. You're in a debate against other Republican presidential candidates and the moderator says to you, you have a chance to put Rudy Giuliani -- he's the frontrunner right now, according to the polls -- to have a chance to put him on the spot and ask him a question.

What would you ask him?

HUCKABEE: I would ask him, has his -- have his views on many of the issues in the Republican primary shifted -- on abortion and gun control and some of the issues that -- that I think are going to be important to the voters as they get into the primary.

BLITZER: Do you think they have shifted?

HUCKABEE: No, I don't. I don't think they have. I think the rank and file Republican still is at core conservative and very focused on issue that they always have. They certainly are concerned about national security. They want us to win the war against Islamic --

BLITZER: But I'm talking about Rudy Giuliani's positions.

Has his positions on abortion and gun control shifted?

HUCKABEE: Oh, I don't know. That's why I would ask him.

BLITZER: Because you suspect that he's trying to present an image of someone who is not as supportive of abortion rights for women or is in favor of gun control as in the past?

HUCKABEE: You know, knowing Rudi, I think he will probably be pretty bold and honest about his positions. I think that that's who he is. He -- he's not a person who is going to necessarily backpedaled from his positions.

But all of our positions -- mine, his, everyone else's -- will come out in the course of the debates and I think that's going to be one of the real turning points in this process. BLITZER: If he wins the Republican nomination and says governor, I'd like you to be my vice presidential running mate, would you serve with him?

HUCKABEE: I'd like to have a different scenario. I'm the nominee and I have to wrestle with would I ask him to join me on the ticket.

BLITZER: But right now, he's at, what...

HUCKABEE: Yes.

BLITZER: ... 30 or 40 percent. You're not...

HUCKABEE: Oh, but it's a year-and-a-half away. The people that were right now at 30 and 40 percent a year ago, they're not even in the race today. So that's why I'm not as concerned about what the polls are reflecting now. They're reflecting people as they are known because of celebrity status. I don't have that now, but a year from now I expect to.

BLITZER: So would you consider him as a potential running mate?

HUCKABEE: I would consider any Republican, but I would have to make sure that they would bring something not only to the ticket and the table, but that there would be a philosophical connection that we could work through.

BLITZER: All right, you've got to put John McCain on the spot.

What would you ask him?

HUCKABEE: That's a tougher one. I might ask him some of his views on why he did McCain-Feingold finance reform that, frankly has, I think, in many ways, caused more trouble than it solved. And it's certainly created a great nice little loophole for senators who run for president, when they can transfer money over and jump start their campaigns, something the rest of us can't do.

BLITZER: What about McCain-Kennedy on immigration reform and a pathway toward citizenship for some of the 12 million or so illegal immigrants here in the United States?

HUCKABEE: Well, I don't believe we ought to have amnesty. In fact, I think the first step is to secure our borders.

BLITZER: But he says this is not amnesty. He's pretty firm, the president is firm, this is not amnesty, but there is an opportunity for a guest worker program and some sort of pathway, under various conditions, toward citizenship.

HUCKABEE: Well, the pathway would have to include some type of restitution and acknowledgement that the law has been broken and a payment, a fine of some type that -- that, in essence, did adjudicate the law that was broken.

BLITZER: What about Mitt Romney?

HUCKABEE: I might ask him about some of the positions that he has had historically on everything from abortion and the beginning of life to gun control and see if those positions have really changed and why they changed.

BLITZER: Because of the accusations against Governor Romney that he's flip-flopped?

HUCKABEE: Well, you know, there's always going to be a question mark. And, again, whether it's Mike Huckabee or any of the other candidates, are your positions today consistent with your positions a year, two, 10, five years ago, whenever they were? And if they've shifted, did they shift for political convenience or out of deep conviction?

And that's a fair question. And, again, people ought to pose that question to me as much as they should to anybody else.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to fast forward. You've got the Republican nomination. You're the Republican presidential nominee.

HUCKABEE: Now you're talking. Now you're talking.

BLITZER: And your opponent is the Democratic presidential nominee, also, at least part of her life, from Arkansas, Senator Hillary Clinton.

What do you say to her?

HUCKABEE: Well, first of all, I respect her. I realize, like many Republicans need to, that they will underestimate her at their own peril.

But I probably would go into that race having a better understanding of Hillary than about anybody else on the Republican ticket. And I think perhaps being in a better position to show a contrast.

That's why I think that when it comes down to it, I will be the nominee.

BLITZER: Well, why do you have a better understanding of her, shall we say, than a Rudy Giuliani or a John McCain or a Mitt Romney?

HUCKABEE: Well, she was in Arkansas a lot longer than she's been in New York and she was very active in everything from education to health care, issues like that.

BLITZER: So tell us what you learned about her during those years.

HUCKABEE: She's focused. She's disciplined. She's brilliant. She has all of the -- the qualities that make for a truly outstanding candidate. And that's why I think when Republicans start saying oh, I hope it's Hillary, I think they maybe underestimate her as a very strong and very viable candidate on the Democratic side.

BLITZER: It sounds like a pretty good endorsement.

Does she have any weaknesses?

HUCKABEE: Sure she does. But I'm going to hold those off until we have those face-to-face votes or debates down in the -- in the fall of 2008. We'll have plenty of time for that.

BLITZER: All right, I'm going to end it with a nightmare scenario.

HUCKABEE: OK.

BLITZER: You want to be commander-in-chief. You want to sit in the Oval Office. You have to make life and death decisions. Here's a nightmare scenario. Iran gets ballistic missiles. They put a nuclear warhead on one and they launch it and wipe out Tel Aviv.

What does the United States do with you as president?

HUCKABEE: The United States, one thing, has to always be, and that's a strong nation that never ever backs away from its friends, its allies and its own interests.

And we have to keep all of our options on the table.

Wolf, if they were to launch a nuclear attack, then I think every option the United States has in its arsenal has to be kept in play. And we never rule out our options when it comes to protecting the American people and our allies across this world.

BLITZER: And that would -- so what -- so what would you do in a nightmare like that? Do you launch...

HUCKABEE: Well, that's a hypothetical question.

BLITZER: ... launch counter...

HUCKABEE: We've...

BLITZER: ... counter-strikes against Iran?

HUCKABEE: I think we evaluate exactly what options we have. We keep all of them open. But for me to sit here today and answer a hypothetical question is impossible because we don't know the ramifications. But I certainly would never compromise the strength, integrity or the fortitude or the resolve of the American people or the American will.

BLITZER: That's a nightmare scenario, indeed.

HUCKABEE: It is a nightmare scenario. Let's hope that no president, me or anyone else, ever has to face it.

BLITZER: Governor Huckabee, thanks for coming in. HUCKABEE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up, the creator of a controversial anti- Hillary Clinton video speaking out now online.

What made him do it?

And why are so many Republicans bucking public opinion on Iraq?

Our Bill Schneider takes a closer look behind the GOP solidarity with President Bush.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back now to our top story, the war in Iraq.

On Capitol Hill, there's plenty of Republican hand wringing over the war. But few members of the president's party are willing to buck his no time line for withdrawal policy and that leaves them in conflict with American public opinion.

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, in the standoff over Iraq, Congressional Republicans are standing by President Bush.

What are they thinking?

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): In the standoff between Congress and President Bush, where's the public?

By nearly two to one, Americans want their representatives to vote for a bill setting a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

REID: We feel extremely comfortable because we're speaking for the American people.

SCHNEIDER: Meanwhile, President Bush invited the entire House Republican membership to the White House to back up his threat to veto such a bill.

BUSH: We stand united in saying loud and clear that when we've got a troop in harm's way, we expect that troop to be fully funded.

SCHNEIDER: Republicans are standing with President Bush despite public opinion. That's a dangerous thing to do in a democracy, as Republicans learned last November.

So why are they doing it? For one thing, their base is with them. Republican opinion on Iraq is almost exactly the reverse of the country as a whole. A Republican strategist argues that with a new commander, David Petraeus, Republicans see a change of direction in Iraq.

DAVID WINSTON, REPUBLICAN POLITICAL CONSULTANT: I would suggest that this is more about Petraeus than the president in this particular case.

SCHNEIDER: Republicans don't see the Democratic alternative as compelling.

WINSTON: You're not seeing any clear consensus, even on the Democratic side, in terms of what direction, policy-wise, they want to go on the war either.

SCHNEIDER: Actually, the prevailing public view is that Democratic Congressional leaders are about right or have not gone far enough in challenging President Bush. Republicans are standing with the president.

The question is, for how long?

WINSTON: There has to be some results at the end here and he's got to -- the president has to provide them. If he doesn't, I think you're going to see Republicans begin to rethink their positions, quite clearly.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SCHNEIDER: It's a basic fact of politics -- President Bush never has to face the voters again. Republicans in Congress do -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A good point, as usual.

Thanks very much, Bill, for that.

There are also some new developments in that controversial so- called 1984 anti-Clinton attack video. For the first time ever, the creator of the popular video is speaking out and he's doing so exclusively online.

Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, has more.

What's he saying -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Wolf, he's saying he's surprised at how popular that video became. It's now been seen on YouTube almost three million times.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE)

PHILLIP DE VELLIS: You know, no idea. I mean I'm really stunned by all the attention it got. I mean I thought that it was pretty cool when I did it and we had passed it around in some progressive blogs. But I had no idea it was going to wind up on TV. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHECHNER: He is speaking out today online in two venues. He did an interview with YouTube's news and politics editor. He also spoke out on politicstv.com, which is a progressive political Web cast.

Now, he was originally posting this video anonymously, but Arianna Huffington did some sleuthing and found him out and posted his identity on her blog. He then blogged there himself.

But this is the first time we're actually hearing him speak about this.

I actually spoke to him on the phone today. He's not doing any television interviews. But he says that he decided to do these interviews online. This was the natural venue, he said, because that's where the video took off.

He also says he is still unemployed. He was working for a technology company that had a contract with Barack Obama's campaign and they let him go when it surfaced that he was the creator of this video. He says he plans to get back into the political arena and even though he's a big Barack Obama supporter and fan, he doesn't have any plans to work for their campaign -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jacki.

A good report.

Up next -- but before we do that, I just want to point out that Jacki Schechner, Dana Bash, Bill Schneider -- they are all part of the best political team on television.

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

Up next, campaigning with cancer -- is there any evidence that Elizabeth Edwards' renewed battle is helping her husband in the polls?

Also, is there any wiggle room in President Bush's support for his attorney general?

Alberto Gonzales, the fired prosecutor scandal, much more coming up.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, coming under fire over at the White House and the State Department over her upcoming trip to Syria. The Bush administration says it's not productive and questions what Pelosi hopes to accomplish.

Also, a new toxic chemical found in that recalled pet food and it's not rat poison. Now there's growing concern it could also be in dry pet food, possibly even your food.

And can tribal ties help the U.S. take out insurgents in Iraq?

CNN's Michael Ware is going to show us why some Iraqi tribes are now joining the effort to crush al Qaeda.

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

Right now, the presidential candidates are seeing green. This is the second to last day of the first fund-raising quarter. White House officials know the strength of their campaigns will be judged on how much cash they do or don't rake in. It will be a couple more weeks until they file their financial reports officially.

Some other critical numbers are also out today. Let's take a look at them. A new "TIME" magazine poll shows Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both losing a bit of ground in the Democratic primary contest. But John Edwards has gained six points since mid-March. The increase follows Edwards' decision to stay in the race, despite his wife, Elizabeth's, renewed battle with cancer.

On the Republican side, the "TIME" poll shows Rudy Giuliani down five points since mid-March. John McCain and Newt Gingrich are both up two points. Mitt Romney is up four points.

So, what's going on here?

Let's turn to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

Edwards up, Giuliani down, what's going on?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think, with Giuliani, you are seeing a natural ebb and flow of a campaign.

What we have seen in some of those numbers in the past is that Republicans are not as certain about the nominee they will support as, say, Democrats are. So, we're going to see some of that.

Also, I think it helped that McCain has been out and about. He brought out the Straight Talk Express. So, he's been taking more headlines, at least on the campaign trail, than he had been before.

I think, on the Democratic side, John Edwards, you can look at that and say, well, there's the sympathy -- the sympathy factor that's in there. But, also, you know, Wolf, any time someone gets on television and gets in the headlines, and in a sympathetic way, you have people out there that look and say, oh, that guy, yes, I like him.

So, I think it's a little bit of both for Edwards.

BLITZER: It's a little bit of people feel sorry for the Edwards family, because of his wife's cancer, but they are also beginning to take a new look at him because of the way he composed himself, she composed herself during that dramatic news conference, when she made that -- that awful announcement. CROWLEY: Exactly.

And they -- you know, they sort of turned the corner during that news conference, saying, look, I think it's important to show people what you are made of, essentially.

And people saw that . And some of them like what they saw.

BLITZER: A lot of us political nerds, we're worried about -- we're watching all the money coming in. It's a big issue, obviously, for the political pundits and the political campaigns.

But tell our viewers why it's so important, once we get these real numbers, the first quarter of this year, who has raised a lot of cash, and who hasn't?

CROWLEY: Well, because to the person who has raised the most cash go the headlines. I mean, that's pretty much what it is. It's an expectations game.

But, in effect, what happens is, if somebody raises a lot more money than we expected them to, well, then that's somebody you are going to look and say, wow, you know, people are giving him a chance. Let's take a second look at him. If someone raises less money than they're expected, say, Hillary Clinton, whom we're expecting will have a good quarter, suppose she comes in and underperforms. Well, when, what does that mean? So, sort of open to translation.

But the bottom line here really is, money is defined as success. And, with success, you get more money. So, this is the quarter upon which other quarters are built.

BLITZER: People like winners.

CROWLEY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Candy, thanks.

Meanwhile, the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, is on the defensive once again today, after his ex-chief of staff contradicted him publicly and under oath.

Gonzales can't escape questions about his role in the firing of those federal prosecutors or about the future of his own job.

Our White House correspondent, Elaine Quijano, is standing by.

Elaine, is the attorney general having any luck changing the focus?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, hard to tell certainly what people are thinking here in Washington about what Kyle Sampson testified about. Certainly, the White House is keeping things sort of under wraps.

But the attorney general was in Boston today, essentially trying to highlight a program aimed at capturing sex offenders. But, again, he was dogged by questions about the dismissals of those eight U.S. attorneys and the extent of his involvement, specifically his discussions with his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.

Gonzales once more defended his actions, and insisted he wasn't involved in the dismissals until late in the process.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL: My primary focus was ensuring that the White House was kept advised of what we were doing, and that Kyle was consulting with the appropriate DOJ senior officials, people who knew about the performances of the United States attorneys.

Obviously, at the end of the process, Kyle brought recommendations to me. I viewed them as his recommendations, as well as the recommendations of senior officials that he had consulted with.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

QUIJANO: But, yesterday, his former top aide, Kyle Sampson, did testify on Capitol Hill, essentially saying that wasn't the case. And that provided fresh ammunition, certainly, for Gonzales' critics.

The question now, how much Republican support is there? There -- there has been criticism, as you know, Wolf, from both Democrats and Republicans, who continue to question Gonzales' competence -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Any sign, Elaine, White House support is crumbling?

QUIJANO: Well, it's interesting, because they have been very quiet.

They have continued to say publicly that, in fact, the president continues to have confidence in Gonzales. We have heard that over and over again. And, in fact, we have heard this before, though. Last fall, you will recall, President Bush himself said that he supported his then defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and, then about a week later, announced that he had accepted Rumsfeld's resignation.

That said, here is what Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary, had to say today about Gonzales.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: In fact, I talked to the president again this morning after the gaggle. And we had a chance to talk with him. And he does have 100 percent confidence in the attorney general.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

QUIJANO: Now, certainly, privately, difficult to get an accurate read, because of certainly what we have heard in the past. But I could tell you that, certainly, there seems to be a sense of frustration. And one senior official that I talked to, when I pressed him on whether or not, in fact, there was a sense of impatience here, simply said, look, this is not an hourly update on the status and the level of confidence -- this official simply saying the president fully supports Alberto Gonzales -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Elaine.

Elaine and Candy Crowley, they are both part of the best political team on television.

Coming up: The more Republicans know about Rudy Giuliani, do they like him less? The candidates and some new poll numbers under the microscope in our "Strategy Session."

And Karl Rove showed America some fancy footwork the other night. Could the presidential candidates compete?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Presidential hopefuls are out on the trail this weekend, trying to raise some last-minute campaign cash before tomorrow night's first-quarter fund-raising deadline.

And they're also trying to connect with voters. Senator Hillary Clinton is in New Hampshire today, speaking with educators. Tomorrow, the Democrats presidential front-runner takes her campaign to Florida, meeting with community leaders and meeting with contributors as well. Her rival, Senator Barack Obama, is also in Florida today at campaign events in Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Tomorrow, he heads to Iowa to meet and greet voters. Iowa's caucus kicks off the presidential contest calendar next January.

On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani heads to Florida tomorrow. The current GOP front-runner speaks to the Club For Growth, an influential conservative group. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Sam Brownback are some of the other top Republicans speaking at this major forum.

Also, it's a primary -- it's partly a popularity contest and partly a competition based on performance and skill. That applies to the hit TV show "Dancing With the Stars" and to the presidential race.

So, perhaps it's a fitting -- it's fitting that a new "TIME" magazine poll asked Americans this unusual question. Here it is: Which White House candidate would be the best contestant on "Dancing With the Stars"?

Get this: coming in first, Senator Hillary Clinton, who had numerous opportunities to show her footwork during eight years as the first lady. Nineteen percent of those surveyed said Senator Clinton would be a hit on "Dancing With The Stars." Senator Barack Obama came in a close second with 18 percent. John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani are tied for third place, with 9 percent. Apparently, the public thinks Democrats, by and large, have better moves on the dance floor than Republicans.

Carol Costello is monitoring the wires, keeping her eye on all of the video feeds coming in from around the world.

What's the latest, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

Iraqi security forces have arrested 18 police officers. The arrests are in connection with the reprisal killings of more than 70 people in the northern city of Tal Afar earlier this week. The reprisals were carried out after truck bombings on Tuesday that killed 85 people in Shiite districts of the city.

The powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is calling on Iraqis to demonstrate against the United States' occupation on the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. That would be next month. A senior member of his movement read a statement from al-Sadr during Friday prayers a short time ago. It called for the departure of all foreign troops. Al-Sadr's whereabouts remain unclear. U.S. military officials say he has fled to Iran. His supporters say he is still in Iraq.

An Australian held for five years at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility has been formally convicted of aiding al Qaeda during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Just hours ago, a military judge accepted David Hicks' guilty plea. He now faces up to seven years in prison. As part of the plea deal, Hicks will serve any prison time in Australia.

And some disturbing new revelations about the environment of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. A report released just a short time ago says there's -- quote -- "a climate of distrust and cynicism among cadets at the academy." It goes on to say that the academy must focus on character development and leadership.

The task force that wrote the report was formed after the first court-martial in the school's history last year.

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

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Carol, for that.

Up next: the impact of John Edwards' emotional decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You have a choice: You can go cower in the corner and hide or you can be tough and go out there and stand up for what you believe in.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: John and Elizabeth Edwards fighting cancer, fighting to win the White House. Are they making progress? We will crunch some new poll numbers. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Brand-new poll numbers from "TIME" magazine show the race for the presidential nomination tightening in both parties.

Joining us in today's "Strategy Session," liberal radio talk show host Bill Press and Republican strategist Rich Galen.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Let's talk about these hypothetical contests. If Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee, Rudy Giuliani were the Republican nominee, in the "TIME" poll, Clinton would get 41 percent; Giuliani would get 50 percent. She loses.

If Obama were running against Giuliani, Obama would get 44 percent. Giuliani would get 45 percent, a much closer race.

Now, let's assume that Hillary Clinton is running against John McCain, the other Republican front-runner. She gets 42 percent in this "TIME" poll. He gets 48 percent. She loses. Obama would get 43 percent, McCain 45, once again, a closer contest.

Why does Obama, Bill Press, do better in these hypothetical matchups against these two Republican front-runners than Senator Clinton does?

BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: First of all, I think we all have to be honest, right? Any poll taken today is absolutely, totally meaningless.

BLITZER: It's a snapshot, though.

PRESS: Yes. But, I mean...

BLITZER: These are...

PRESS: But they are great fun to talk about.

BLITZER: Right.

PRESS: Right.

And I think Obama is doing better, because he's -- in these polls -- because he's new. He's a fresh face. He's not as well known as Hillary. People are excited about him. And she's got a lot of built- in negatives that come along with her.

But there's nothing for Hillary Clinton here to be worried about. I think she got to focus on what she's been doing, which is winning the nomination. And she is very, very strong, in terms of organization and fund-raising and endorsements. And she's really gone right down the track.

BLITZER: All right.

PRESS: And I think you see Obama and Edwards fading a little.

BLITZER: What -- what do you think?

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think that she -- the problem that she does have is that she's pretty much maxed out. I mean, nobody doesn't know who Hillary Clinton is, and nobody doesn't have an opinion about her.

But, to Bill's point, remember, in December of 2003, the nominee was Howard Dean. Done. Over. Finished.

PRESS: Right.

GALEN: He was out of business six weeks later. So, this is a long way out.

But it is fun to watch. And I do think that, in terms of fund- raising, and in terms of the internal bickering -- not bickering -- that's a bad word -- but kind of jockeying for favor, this -- these kind of polls do have an impact on the fund-raising, both for somebody like Obama and for the Republicans.

BLITZER: And there are plenty of pundits out there who have suggested that Hillary Clinton has a lot more negatives, in the sense there are a lot more people out there who would not vote for her under any circumstances, as opposed to Barack Obama, shall we say, who is a fresher face in this contest.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Exactly. And, certainly, Barack Obama is the flavor of the moment, or has been the flavor of the moment. I don't know whether you are going to show the internals for the Democratic poll, Wolf.

And the same "TIME" poll showed that Hillary has remained strongly number one, and Barack Obama has faded. And John Edwards has bounced up a little...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let's talk about the Republican -- registered Republicans, or those leaning Republicans in this "TIME" magazine poll, Giuliani has gone down from earlier in the month, 40 percent. He's now at 35 percent. He's gone down five points. Earlier, we said he went down 10. He's gone down five -- five points, 35 percent. McCain is now at 22, Newt Gingrich at 12, Mitt Romney at 11.

What do you see going on here?

GALEN: Well, I think most of what -- what Romney -- or Giuliani's loss came from the advent of Fred Thompson into the race, that a lot of that shifted to somebody new.

But I think, in both cases, it's interesting to note that -- that both Hillary and -- and Giuliani are at about -- in the mid-30s. That means two-thirds of both Republicans and Democrats are looking for somebody other than their current front-runner.

BLITZER: Let's take a look at the Democratic contest in this "TIME" magazine poll.

PRESS: Sure.

BLITZER: Hillary Clinton is at 31 percent, Barack Obama down at 24, moving up a little bit. John Edwards, at 16, he's moved up nicely since that unfortunate announcement about his wife's cancer. Al Gore, who is not even a candidate, at 15.

It looks like it's tightening a little bit.

PRESS: It may be tightening a little bit.

But I think what is most significant is that Hillary, even with these downsides that she's got, remains really, really strong. I think the bloom is off the Obama rose a little bit. And you are right. John Edwards is benefiting from, at this point, a temporary surge, sort of a sympathy vote, I think, because of the announcement.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Why is it -- why -- this focus that we're having on these first-quarter fund-raising numbers, why is this important for these candidates? What does it say to their supporters out there?

GALEN: I think Candy had it exactly right in that segment that she did, that -- that it is -- the only way we can tell what's going on are these kinds of polls, which are iffy, and the kind of money you are capable of raising.

If somebody is either way above or way behind what the -- it's sort of like the -- the quarterly reports on -- you know, on Wall Street, that, if you are way ahead or way behind, that's newsworthy. If you hit it, that's OK.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: How big a deal is this?

PRESS: It's a great big deal.

I can tell you, as a former Democratic state chair, I mean, this first poll that really counts is going to be the one that shows how much money they have raised. When Hillary Clinton goes into Hollywood, and raises twice what Barack Obama did in Hollywood, that is very significant. It sends a strong message.

When John McCain says, gee, we didn't do as well as we thought we were going to do, I think that shows that John McCain is in trouble. BLITZER: What...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Go ahead.

GALEN: I just want to make one last point about the horse race.

And that is that I think it's interesting that, in both parties, the number-three guy, Al Gore and Fred Thompson, aren't even announced candidates yet.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And, so, what are you seeing? What -- what is the point you are trying to make?

GALEN: That people are looking for options.

BLITZER: On the Democratic side, too, you think?

GALEN: On both sides.

PRESS: There are -- there's an opening on both sides, I think, for the unannounced candidate, whether it's -- candidate -- Newt Gingrich or Mike Bloomberg or the -- I'm sorry -- blanked it -- or Al Gore on the Democratic side.

BLITZER: Fred Thompson, you mean, on the Republican side.

PRESS: Or Fred Thompson on the Republican side.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much, Bill Press, Rich Galen. Have a great weekend.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Thanks for coming in.

PRESS: Great to see you.

BLITZER: Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM: Does support from a big-name celebrity really help a presidential candidate? Jack Cafferty coming up with "The Cafferty File."

And former Senator Max Cleland, he's obviously passionate about helping wounded veterans and ending the war in Iraq -- takes a new swipe, though, at President Bush.

That's coming up in our -- in our next hour of THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your papers tomorrow.

In Sadr City, a Shiite area of Baghdad, a man sits upright during Friday prayers.

In Colorado, a rancher follows trail rules after wrangling his bull who escaped from its pasture earlier today.

In the West Bank, a Palestinian argues with an Israeli soldier during a protest against Israel's separation barrier, as it's called.

And, in Scotland, a baby tapir explores its homes at the Edinburgh Zoo -- some of this hour's "Hot Shots," pictures often worth 1,000 words.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Do we do those every day?

BLITZER: No. We -- we do them a lot.

CAFFERTY: We should do them every day.

BLITZER: Sometimes, we don't have time.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: There's breaking news. Who knows.

CAFFERTY: Well, then we should make time.

BLITZER: OK.

CAFFERTY: They are very good.

BLITZER: All right.

CAFFERTY: I like the "Hot Shots."

BLITZER: I like them, too.

CAFFERTY: Take a note. Give a note to somebody down there that wears a suit.

BLITZER: Note -- note to self.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

The question is: Does Hollywood support help or hurt a presidential candidate?

Tony in Minnesota writes: "I think the support given from a few people not looking for payback is better than the bad actors who we get when their rich friends buy them into office with payback as their only reason for that support."

John writes: "If I was a presidential candidate, I would rather have a Hollywood endorsement than an endorsement from Jerry Falwell, Rush Limbaugh, or James Dobson. They are the real actors, judgmental phonies playing the role of self-appointed family-values adjudicators."

Anna writes from Saint Louis: "I will be less likely to vote for the candidate with the Hollywood vote, simply because celebrities or stars should not have any say in my future. I find it hard to believe somebody who gets paid upwards of $1 million to act in a movie can truly empathize with the struggles of the working or middle class."

Steve in Austin, Texas: "Anonymous cash helps. Name support hurts."

Barry in Connecticut: "Jack, Hollywood's values are America's values. Otherwise, we wouldn't spend billions of dollars each year going to the movies."

Tom in Alabama: "If you're a Democrat, it probably helps. But, honestly, I can't believe the likes of Rosie, Sean Penn, Jane Fonda, or any of the other 'Hollyweird' elite could possibly help anyone. If I was running for office, I would get as far away from those idiots as possible."

And Ray in Lubbock, Texas: "I don't think it has as much impact as somebody might think. Just because I agree with her politics doesn't mean I want to pay to see Barbra Streisand sing. By the way, thank you for posting the video segment of 'The Cafferty File' available online. I don't have control of what we watch here, so it lets me keep up with all the lunatics that make it on to your segment."

Those aren't lunatics. Those are my friends, Ray.

You can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile and see those, by the way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you for that.

Let's get more presidential campaign news in today's "Political Radar."

Most candidates travel to Iowa and New Hampshire, sometimes as far away as California. Senator John McCain is heading all the way to Iraq next week. The presidential candidate and ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee will meet with U.S. troops and officials while in Iraq.

Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson may be headed toward North Korea. He may meet with members of North Korea's government next month, in hopes that the communist country will curb its nuclear weapons program. The current New Mexico governor and former ambassador to the U.N. is a frequent diplomatic flyer. We expect Republican Tom Tancredo to officially announce he's running for president next week. The congressman from Colorado will drop his hat into the ring Monday while in Iowa. Tancredo is low in the polls, but high in the minds of voters who care about immigration. Tancredo is a very outspoken opponent of illegal immigration.

And we expect Tommy Thompson to also officially jump into the GOP race for the White House next week. The former Wisconsin governor and Bush Cabinet secretary will also make his announcement in Iowa on Wednesday. That's when we expect it.

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

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

Happening now: President Bush apologizes. Weeks after the Army hospital scandal shocked the nation, he pays a visit and vows to fix things. Is that enough? I will ask former Senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland this hour.

Congress heads out on spring break. And, to hear the White House tell it, you would think House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had gone wild. What's wrong with a visit to Syria?

And Hillary Rodham Clinton ...

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