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THE SITUATION ROOM

Germany Terror Plot. the latest on the war funding bill

Aired May 11, 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, new word of a terror plot uncovered.
The target?

U.S. citizens in Germany.

We're investigating the threat and who is behind it.

Also this hour, Iraq payments and political payback -- the showdown over war funding heads to the Senate and uncertainty.

And President Bush closes a rough week, spotlighting his vulnerabilities.

Plus, two Republican presidential candidates with lots of explaining to do. Rudy Giuliani tries to lay concerns about his abortion views to rest and Mitt Romney tries to answer provocative questions about his Mormon faith.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin this hour on our Security Watch.

A senior U.S. official is raising red flags about a terrorist plot against American interests in Germany. It's described, and I'm quoting now, as "a very real threat and in its advanced stages."

Let's get right to our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve -- Jeanne, what are we learning about this alleged plot?

JEANNE MESERVE, HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the information is not new to intelligence officials, Wolf.

They say it's been evolving over several months and as long as three weeks ago, it led to an increase in security at U.S. diplomatic and consular facilities in Germany.

Intelligence officials say what they call Islamic extremists were plotting to attack U.S. interests and military facilities in Germany. They say there was nothing specific as to target and timing.

But one senior federal official said the plotters hoped to stage multiple attacks involving bombs and small weapons. The information prompted the military to undertake some force protection exercises. But the force level at U.S. military facilities in Germany has not been increased, an indication that no attack is imminent.

In short, Wolf, they are taking the information seriously. They call it credible, a very real threat, but protective measures have been taken and among the officials we've spoken to, there appears to be no undue alarm -- Wolf.

As you know, Jeanne, early next month, the leaders of the major industrialized nations, the G8, they're supposed to get together and meet in Germany.

Is there any concern that this alleged plot now may be connected to this summit that's about to take place in Germany?

MESERVE: Wolf, an intelligence official says there is no indication of a connection between the threat and the G8 summit. But because the summit's coming up, that even more reason to be vigilant -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we'll stay on top of this story, Jeanne.

Thank you.

And we're going to have much more on the story coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In the next hour, we'll go live to our Berlin bureau chief, Frederik Pleitgen.

He's standing by for details from Germany.

And remember, stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.

Now to President Bush and the war in Iraq. Just a short time ago, he honored military spouses over at the White House and thanked them for the sacrifices they've made. Many Democrats in Congress are pushing to honor military families in another way by setting limits on the war.

The battle over Iraq funding is heading back to the U.S. Senate after the House vote last night to pay for the war effectively in installments.

Let's go to our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel.

She's standing by -- Andrea, the majority leader in the Senate has a major challenge on his hands now that the legislation is moving from the House to the Senate.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf.

Now that the ball is literally in the Senate's court and with the clock ticking, Senate majority leader Harry Reid's goal is to try to reach a compromise.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE) SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: We all know that reaching consensus on a new bill to send the president won't be easy. Passions run high on this issue, very high.

KOPPEL (voice-over): Democratic leader Harry Reid was tight- lipped about what he wants in the Senate's bill. But a well placed Democratic source tells CNN talks with Republicans in the White House on brokering a deal are focused on benchmarks with teeth.

That's because, Democrats say, of key benchmarks or political goals the White House says it expects Iraq to meet, little or no progress has been made. A goal for Iraq to take responsibility for security in all its provinces by November may not be reached. Another to pass legislation to share oil revenues hasn't happened. And, experts say, it's unclear how much, if any, of a promised $10 billion of its own money Iraq has spent on reconstruction and infrastructure.

Still, the White House, which opposes benchmarks with strings attached, says the only date that really matters is September, because U.S. Commander David Petraeus has said that's when he'll know if his plan is working.

But today, a senior Republican, Virginia's John Warner, suggested he may not be willing to wait.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: I believe we have a responsibility to the -- first and foremost, to the men and women of the armed forces and their families, and to the country, for the Congress to watch very closely this situation and not defer until the September time frame.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

KOPPEL: Now if a deal is reached, a Democratic source tells CNN that the Senate could pass its version of this emergency spending bill by late next week. But then, Wolf, they're going to have to deal with a much more difficult task of trying to reconcile the Senate's bill with the much tougher House bill all before the Memorial Day holiday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Why is it that important? What are they saying, that they pass some sort of spending bill for the Iraq War, the president signs it into law and they've got this deadline at the end of this month, when they go into recess for Memorial Day weekend? What are they saying?

KOPPEL: Well, the reason why they're looking -- there are a couple of reasons why Memorial Day is important.

One is that this is supposed to be emergency spending, money that the Pentagon said that it needed weeks ago and that they say is quickly running out.

The second reason is, you know, that the minute those members go back to their home districts they're going to come under a lot of pressure, potentially, from their voters, from their constituents, if that money isn't in the hopper, as being seen as withholding money from the troops -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea Koppel on the Hill.

She's going to be watching this every step of the way for us.

Thank you, Andrea.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty.

He's in New York for The Cafferty File.

The House has passed its version. Now the Senate next week, Jack, is going to have to come up with its version before they send it to the president. They've got to reconcile. They've got to work out their differences. No easy task. It could take a while.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, you know, watching them try to run the government is -- they could sell tickets. It's a spectator sport.

We've got a letter to the troops, this one coming from the America's top military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, ordering the United States military to fight fair.

The letter is a response to a recent Pentagon survey that found that many U.S. service members in Iraq are willing to tolerate some torture of suspects and are unwilling to report abuse by their fellow soldiers.

Gee, I wonder where that got that idea?

Water boarding, secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, outsourcing interrogations to foreign governments, failure to abide by the Geneva Conventions, Abu Ghraib, GITMO.

A real shocker the troops might pick up that a little torture is OK.

Petraeus writes, "This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we -- not our enemies -- occupy the moral high ground."

He says using torture to get information from the enemy is wrong. And beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows they are also frequently neither useful nor necessary.

So here's the question -- what does it mean if General Petraeus needs to remind U.S. troops in Iraq to fight by the rules?

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

BLITZER: Remember, George Tenet, in his new book and when he was here in THE SITUATION ROOM and on a lot of other TV shows, he denied they engaged in any torture, but they did engage in "enhanced interrogation techniques," which he said saved a lot of lives. CAFFERTY: But he refused to tell us what they were.

BLITZER: Right.

He wouldn't say what those "enhanced interrogations techniques..."

CAFFERTY: Yes, he said we have enhanced techniques, but we don't do torture. And then you said, well, what are those techniques?

And he say I won't tell you.

BLITZER: Right.

So...

CAFFERTY: I guess you can draw your own conclusions.

BLITZER: I'm anxious to hear what our viewers think, as well.

Thank you.

And to our viewers, if you want a sneak preview of Jack's questions, plus an early read on the day's political news and what's ahead right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, you can sign up for our daily e-mail alert.

You can do that -- simply go to cnn.com/situationroom.

Coming up, Mitt Romney takes on tough questions about his faith, premarital sex and polygamy.

Will it help him on the presidential campaign trail?

The most powerful man in America may not be feeling so strong after a heck of a week. We'll examine the president's sore points and weak spots. That's coming up.

Also, how and when will the fight over Iraq War funding finally end?

Donna Brazile and Terry Jeffrey, they're standing by. They'll look for some common ground. That's coming up in our Strategy Session.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is getting a lot of media exposure right now and in the days ahead. He's using it all to address voters' concerns about the war in Iraq and about himself, specifically his Mormon faith.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's joining us. What is he saying new about all of these issues -- Mary? MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're learning more from Mitt Romney about his family's history and the Mormon faith. He talks candidly about an ancestor who was a polygamist.

Religion wasn't the only topic. Romney takes aim at the administration over Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): As Mitt Romney tries to distinguish himself from his Republican rivals running for president, he's also distancing himself from President Bush.

On the topic of Iraq, Romney gave perhaps his strongest criticism yet of the administration in an interview with CBS' "60 minutes."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "60 MINUTES," COURTESY CBS NEWS)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think the administration made a number of errors.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Romney says President Bush isn't solely to blame.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "60 MINUTES," COURTESY CBS NEWS)

ROMNEY: Well, he's the person where the buck stops. But it goes through the secretary of defense and the planning agencies, the Department of State. It's the whole administration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They screwed up?

ROMNEY: Well, they made mistakes. I'm not going to use the same phrase you would. And we're paying for those mistakes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: While Romney works to set himself apart from the White House, he's also doing the same with his religious predecessors. He answered one of the most often asked questions about Mormons, regarding the practice of polygamy, which was outlawed in the late 1800s.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "60 MINUTES," COURTESY CBS NEWS)

ROMNEY: I had a great, great grandfather. They were trying to built build a generation out there in the desert. And so he took additional wives, as he was told to do. And I must admit, I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: When asked, Romney also said he did not break the Mormon Church's strict rules against premarital sex.

Romney and his religion are front and center on "Time" magazine this week.

Those who study religion and politics say they expect Romney's religion will factor in his campaign, but not overtly.

DAVID CAMPBELL, UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME: The fact that his Mormonism is out there is going to be manifest more in the whispered conversations and the -- and that sort of thing, rather than overt speeches or comments made during a debate.

SNOW: Case in point?

Ahead of next week's Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, some in the state have received a eight page criticism of the Mormon religion from an anonymous sender, questioning whether it's politically dangerous and referring to Mormon texts as hoaxes.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SNOW: Now, it's unclear just how many people received that mailing in South Carolina. And Mitt Romney's name is not mentioned in that literature -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do we have any idea where these mailings came from, Mary?

SNOW: There's there no return address. And one Republican leader in the state who got this literature showed us a postmark of Providence, Rhode Island. And he thinks that it's a targeted list to people who got it.

BLITZER: All right, Mary, thanks very much.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is one of the fastest growing denominations in the United States. Some tenets that are unique to Mormons -- they believe that Jesus ministered in the Americas, that god has a physical body and that there is no original sin. And they also believe in holding baptisms for the dead.

In addition to questions about his faith, Mitt Romney faces critics' attempts to label him as a flip-flopper on the issue of abortion. Romney received an award last night from an anti-abortion group that used to complain about his support for abortion rights.

In his remarks to the group, Romney conceded his conversion from being a backer of abortion rights as recently as 2 1/2 years ago to now calling for the repeal of "Roe v. Wade."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I recognize that it's awarded for where I am on the issue of life, not for where I've been. And I respect the fact that you arrived at this place of principle a long, long time ago. I appreciate the fact that you're inclined to honor someone who arrived here only a few years ago. I'm evidence that your work, that your relentless campaign to promote the sanctity of human life, bears fruit. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So will Mitt Romney's abortion message win him votes with social conservatives and will Rudy Giuliani's stance hurt him with the same crowd?

I'll ask our chief national correspondent, John king. That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Bush is giving the Republican presidential candidates some headaches. Senator John McCain, for one, says Mr. Bush's low approval ratings are hurting the party.

The president has been hit with a number of political slaps in the face in recent days. And the ones he is getting from Republicans may actually sting the most.

Let's go to our White House correspondent Ed Henry here.

This has been quite a week for the president of the United States -- Ed? ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

The week started so majestically with the state visit of Queen Elizabeth, but it went downhill fast.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): The president tried an optimistic tone, rallying the Republican faithful at a Thursday night fundraiser.

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't want it to be said 50 years from now what happened to America in 2007. I want you to know I see the impending dangers. I understand the consequences of this historic moment. And we will succeed in Iraq.

HENRY: But there is no glossing over Mr. Bush's predicament.

REID: The president is in a bubble. He is isolated. Every day the ranks of dissatisfied Republicans grow.

HENRY: It's no longer just Democrats throwing the punches, with Republican intentions over Iraq spilling out in the open.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MINORITY LEADER: There are no fissures in our conference.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has heard real criticism before.

HENRY: And now the president staunchest ally on Iraq...

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I give my thanks to you, the British people.

HENRY: ... British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is leaving the stage.

THOMAS MANN, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: He has fewer friends and I think he's beginning to realize that even a determined, principled president who is bent upon doing what he views is the right thing, runs out of room if he loses support within his own political party.

HENRY: So the president is on the defensive, showing a little more flexibility over including benchmarks in the war funding negotiations.

BUSH: I will continue to reach out to Democrats and Republicans to come up with a way to get this money to our troops as quickly as possible.

HENRY: And signing off on a trade pact that gave in to Democrats on labor and environmental standards.

MANN: It's the first sign that the president is willing to make significant concessions to the new political reality on Capitol Hill and -- and adjust his positions on some critical issues.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

HENRY: But the president will have an uphill battles trying to secure victories on legacy items like immigration reform, which also splits his party. And then there's even his signature achievement from the first term, No Child Left Behind. He's facing conservative opposition to reauthorize that law.

So what's ironic is if he's going to get victories on education and immigration, it's going to take more Democratic help than Republican help -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Does he have anything specially planned for the coming days, Ed, to try to break this log jam, if you will, to get some support out there?

HENRY: You can bet one opportunity the president will use next week to try to weigh in on this war funding fight is he's going to be hosting Tony Blair in the middle of the week for a couple of days, some meetings.

This is obviously going to be Tony Blair's final visit to the United States, at least as prime minister, while President Bush is in office. And you can bet the president, while also reflecting back, he's also going to try to look forward and use the Blair visit to try to push back against the Democrats and say you can't, you've got to stick this out, you can't pull out now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry is at the White House for us.

And Ed and Mary Snow, and as you saw earlier, Andrea Koppel -- they are all part of the best political team on television.

Remember, also, for the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at cnn.com/ticker. Coming up, fire threats from coast to coast. Firefighters battling blazes in California and Florida. That story is next.

Also, why is Senator Barack Obama scolding his staff?

You're going to find that out in today's Political Radar.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Mary Snow is monitoring the wires. She's keeping an eye on all of the video feeds coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from around the world.

She joins us from New York with a closer look at some other stories making news right now -- Mary.

SNOW: Wolf, we'll start with a breaking news story. This is in Smallville, Ohio -- this is a suburb of Cincinnati -- of a plane crash. The FAA is confirming that a small plane has collided with a helicopter in this residential area. It is unclear at this point if there are any injuries or how many people may have been aboard that helicopter and small plane. We'll keep you posted on that.

In other news, scorched earth, furious firefights and many people fleeing for their lives. From East to West, parts of the U.S. are burning. And right now in California, a picturesque resort town is a picture of fire and flight.

Off the coast of Southern California, Catalina Island is partly ablaze. Officials say 4,000 acres have burned and at least 3,000 people have fled. A Marine base in the area is transporting fire trucks and firefighters to the island.

Now, inland, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toured scorched areas in Los Angeles' Griffith Park. This week, a wildfire there burned over 800 acres. Officials say the fire is not officially out, but no more embers are burning.

Meanwhile, a fire that actually jumped over the Georgia-Florida state line continues to burn. The Bugaboo fire has charred over 82,000 acres. Some mandatory evacuations and mandatory highway closings are now in effect. At least 600 families have fled their homes.

Across Florida, crews are trying to beat back blazes from over 200 wildfires.

We'll have much more on all this and live reports coming up in the next hour.

And pomp and circumstance in Virginia. While -- that is where many are celebrating a major achievement while remembering an unbelievable tragedy. It is graduation day today at Virginia Tech. And some 3,600 students earned degrees, including the 27 students killed in last month's massacre. Their degrees will be given to loved ones.

Five faculty members were also killed in the April 16th attacks, before the gunman killed himself.

Now, today President Bush issued a statement congratulating the graduates and remembering the lives of those killed.

And criticizing pop culture for promoting sexual immorality while praising a man as a saint. Pope Benedict XVI is visiting Brazil amid a sea of flags and thousands of faithful. The pope blasted the effect on young people of what he calls "an age of hedonism."

At the same time, the pontiff announced the sainthood of a Brazilian monk who died in 1822 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Mary, for that.

Still to come, Rudy Giuliani staking his ground on abortion and urging conservative to vote for him anyway. We'll take a closer look at his dilemma on the campaign trail.

And President Bush skips the cap but wears a gown and walks into the lion's den of sorts. His controversial commencement speech. That's coming up.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, the situation in Iraq -- as U.S. troops drive terrorists out of Baghdad, are those terrorists taking their thirst for blood some place else in Iraq?

One U.S. military commander says he needs help in an area that's seen a disturbing spike in violence. We're standing by for a live report.

Also, seek, deter and possibly destroy -- we're going to show you how the U.S. Coast Guard guards against potentially threatening planes flying in air space they should not be in.

And my exclusive interview with Queen Noor of Jordan. I'll ask Her Majesty how she feels about Iraq and about her important message for all mothers just before Mother's Day.

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

Depending on whom you ask, it's -- it'll either be a successful strategy or a failed approach. Rudy Giuliani continuing to clarify his position on abortion. The Republican presidential candidate says he personally opposes abortion as a matter of morality, but he supports a woman's right to choose. And Giuliani is leaving it to voters to decide how they feel about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are two pillars, two core beliefs that I have, that I have always had, from the time that I first started reflecting on this, certainly from the time that I first entered public life, to this day.

And I suspect, on these two issues, I can't imagine that there will be a change. So, you have a right to evaluate this in figuring out if -- you know, if you can support me, and to what level you can support me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The former New York mayor and GOP presidential front- runner made those comments in a speech today in Houston.

Joining us now, our chief national correspondent, John King.

How is this strategy by Giuliani likely to be received within the GOP?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, his campaign, Wolf, says they are happy with the past few days.

They say he is trying to lay this out. They say he is speaking from the heart, trying to clear up any confusion, and, as the mayor himself put it, two pillars, personally opposed to abortion, finds it morally repugnant, but supports a woman's right to choose, believes that it's her position.

And what he is trying to say now to Republican voters is, that's my position. Decide on that.

What they're trying to do -- they're not changing their strategy. He hasn't changed his position. They are trying to clear up the confusion, because, in the debates, in interviews and other public settings, he is giving what appear to be confusing, somewhat conflicting areas.

So, they are hoping -- you know the old rule of politics, repetition, repetition, repetition. They are hoping, now they have settled on this new language, that he will say it again and again and again, and we will soon say, old news. We know he says he opposes abortion, but supports it, thinks, if states want to pay for it with taxpayer money, that's up to them.

They are hoping, by saying this a few times, we move on, simply, because this is hurting his campaign, this whole debate about, can he give the same answer twice?

BLITZER: Because some of his critics say he flubbed it when he was asked at that Republican debate the other day whether he would be happy or sad if Roe vs. Wade were overturned.

KING: The first big problem he had with conservatives when he said he would approve taxpayer funding, if states wanted to do that, fine by him. And he did it in New York City. And then that answer, when he couldn't give a yes or no answer, would it be a good day in America if Roe v. Wade were overturned, that had people on both sides -- it had people who were pro-choice saying, should I stand with this guy, or is he trying to pander to the right? And it had those on the right saying, if you can't answer that fundamental question, if you're an anti-abortion voter in this country, and a candidate can't answer that fundamental question, they're not going to get your vote.

BLITZER: What about Mitt Romney on the issue of abortion? He has got a different problem than he faces within his own party.

KING: Quite a different problem.

And he is trying to say, I was wrong on this issue. If you are anti-abortion, I was wrong on this issue even just a few years ago. But I'm right and I'm with you now.

And a clever strategy, most would concede, by the Romney campaign: Go home. Go to a dinner by the Massachusetts Pro-Life Movement. Speak to the anti-abortionist activists in your state of Massachusetts. Those activists are certainly outnumbered in a generally liberal state like Massachusetts.

And Governor Romney says, to those around the country who are saying, is his conversion to these issues, same-sex marriage, abortion rights, is it genuine, well, ask the people when I was governor. They didn't necessarily like me when I ran for governor, but they came into my office. My door was always open. And he laid out all the policy agenda.

He says, don't just look at my position. Look at my record as governor. I might be new to these issues. But, once I converted -- his word -- I was pretty good. I should be with you.

BLITZER: And he always makes the point that, like Ronald Reagan, he had a change of heart on the issue of abortion.

KING: Like Ronald Reagan, like George H.W. Bush.

We were talking about this earlier today. And I was talking about this with a political analyst. Imagine them trying to do it, though, in this world of 24-hour cable news and all the blogs and everything. So, it's a little more difficult, a little more complicated, from a communications perspective today, as it was when Ronald Reagan did back in the 1980s.

BLITZER: John King, thanks very much.

John, as all of our viewers know, is part of the best political team on television.

A pledge to firefighters tops today's "Political Radar." Most of the Democratic presidential candidates are meeting in New Hampshire with one of the nation's most powerful firefighters unions. And the candidates are telling the firefighters that the Democratic Party will stand behind them and provide them the resources they deserve.

Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and former Senator John Edwards all spoke to the convention today. The New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, met with them yesterday.

Senator Barack Obama also spoke with the firefighters, but he had to talk to them over a speakerphone. Obama is campaigning in Iowa and Saint Louis today, and couldn't make it to New Hampshire in person. And that led the Illinois Democrat to publicly scold his campaign staff.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have to tell you, I wish I was there. My staff had already scheduled some things, and they couldn't wiggle out of it. They heard from me a little bit, because I wasn't happy that I couldn't be there personally.

But to have a chance to talk to you guys is important. And I'm not going to let 1,000 miles between us keep me from saying what I want to say.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On the Republican side, one of the biggest questions right now is if Fred Thompson will jump into the race for the White House. The former senator from Tennessee has been flirting with a possible presidential run.

But, last night, before a speech to Florida Republicans, Thompson told reporters he's in no hurry to decide. He also said that presidential campaigns are too long.

Stay tuned for more on Senator Thompson.

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

Coming up: President Bush is a man of faith, but some monks and other men of faith are blasting his policies. And they're using Catholic teachings to do it. We will tell you what is going on.

And what does it mean if General Petraeus needs to remind U.S. troops in Iraq to fight by the rules? Jack Cafferty with your thoughts.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're getting more information on that plane crash.

Let's go to Mary Snow. She has GOT some details.

What are we hearing, Mary? MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the FAA is confirming that two people have died. This was a midair collision between a helicopter and a small plane.

It happened over Sharonville, Ohio, which is a suburb outside of Cincinnati. This happened in a residential area. There are no reports of injuries on the ground. It's unclear why the helicopter and small plane were so close in the air -- but, again, the FAA confirming that two people have died in this midair collision -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Mary. We will stay on top of this story.

Other news we're following: President Bush today urged the graduating class of a small Pennsylvania college to serve their community and their country.

But quite a few people on campus aren't necessarily impressed by his record of government service. In fact, some of them are downright angry.

Let's go to Brian Todd.

Brian, President Bush went to Pennsylvania. He was walking into a bit of a controversy. What is going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this started with a simple invitation from one of the president's friends, a former aide, to speak at his college's graduation.

But, today, the small school in Pennsylvania is at the center of the debate over Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... president of the United States.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

TODD (voice-over): President Bush might have expected this kind of welcome at Saint Vincent College, the school now led by his former head of faith-based initiatives -- the president's commencement speech full of references to the spirit of community service, a hallmark of the Benedictine Catholic order that runs Saint Vincent.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is a place for every one of you to serve in our armies, our nation's armies of compassion.

TODD: But his appearance has divided this campus.

ROB FIRMENT, SAINT VINCENT COLLEGE ALUMNUS: This is a war that two popes now have decried as an unjust war.

TODD: A letter to President Bush from 29 faculty members says: "Catholic just war teaching insists that war may be undertaken only as a last resort. However, your preemptive, unprovoked war in Iraq has led to the deaths of thousands."

There are more than 400 signatures on a protest petition from students, friends, and alumni.

College president Jim Towey says campus debate is great, but:

JIM TOWEY, PRESIDENT, SAINT VINCENT COLLEGE: The focus should be on the graduates, and not on protesters, not on any of the other issues.

TODD: Religious voters have been among President Bush's strongest supporters. Why the mixed reception at a Benedictine college?

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT: Within the Catholic religion, the Benedictine are known for having a long tradition of peace. I mean, in fact, their motto is pax, peace.

TODD: But analysts say, the president has also launched initiatives that should draw Benedictines' support.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: This president has enacted policies like faith-based outreach and charitable work, tax credits for charities, that have helped directly administrator to the poor.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Still, some protesters believe the other Benedictine tradition of hospitality was violated today, the demonstrators kept well outside campus gates. School president Jim Towey told me that was because of Secret Service precautions for the president's visit.

Towey added, he did allow the protesters on campus earlier this week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Is Towey concerned about what all of this does to the college's image, Brian?

TODD: Well, he told me that Saint Vincent's has, in his words, been strengthened by this discussion and all the free-thinking debate.

One thing to note here, Towey was actually brought to Saint Vincent to enhance the school's profile, to put it on the map. This story has certainly done that.

BLITZER: Thank you, Brian -- Brian Todd reporting.

Up next: The Senate's top Democrats says President Bush is living in a bubble when it comes to the war in Iraq. But is it about to burst, with prodding from fellow Republicans? Donna Brazile and Terry Jeffrey, they are standing by to weigh in.

And they will take questions about Mitt Romney's momentum and his hurdles as well -- the Republican presidential candidate under scrutiny -- all that coming up in our "Strategy Session." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: When it comes to the war in Iraq, a key battle over funding heads back to the U.S. Senate, after a key House vote yesterday. Might the president wield his veto pen once again?

Joining us now for our "Strategy Session," CNN political analyst, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Terry Jeffrey, the editor at large of "Human Events."

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

The president said this yesterday on the issue of benchmarks, what the Iraqis themselves have to do to show that they're serious about doing the right thing.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: One message I have heard from people from both parties is that the idea of benchmarks makes sense. And I agree.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And he has asked Josh Bolten, his wife chief of staff, to try to negotiate some language that the Republicans and the Democrats would accept in Congress.

It looks like he is making an effort to reach some sort of compromise.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, the Democrats yesterday passed a bill that has those -- that have significant benchmarks in it.

It's up to the president now to look at those benchmarks, and to see if he can accept them. The benchmarks, I think, are reasonable. It calls upon the Iraqi government to go ahead and do what they promised to do. And, if the president accepts that, I think they have a bill.

BLITZER: What do you think?

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": Well, I think it's a good thing.

In the last month, we have had Defense Secretary Gates and now Dick Cheney go to Baghdad to tell the Iraqi leadership they can't take a two-month vacation this summer, without having passed some of the key reforms, like the de-Baathification reform and the oil law.

So, the idea that the entire U.S. government, Republican and Democrats, are coming together to put some pressure on the Shiite- dominated government to make those reforms necessary to try to bring the Sunnis into reconciliation is a good thing. BLITZER: And, to a certain degree, Donna, when Gates goes to Baghdad, when Cheney goes to Baghdad, they can point to the opposition in Congress, and they can say to Nouri al-Maliki, hey, there's a -- you got a real big political problem back in Washington. You better step up and start doing what you have been promising to do for a long time.

BRAZILE: Well, the era of blank checks, clearly, is over with.

The president understands that 75 percent of the American people, according to the latest poll, believe that we should have benchmarks; 60 percent believe that we should also have a timeline. So, I think the Iraqi government is getting the message.

Now the president has to deliver it himself.

BLITZER: The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, had some tough words, though, for the president earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: The president is in a bubble. He is isolated. Every day, the ranks of dissatisfied Republicans grow. But I wish that my Republican colleagues, who now agree that President Bush's open-ended commitment has failed, would put some teeth behind their views.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He is referring to what has been described as a bunch of moderate Republicans going to the White House and reading the president the riot act on the current situation in Iraq.

JEFFREY: Well, look, there's no doubt that the Republicans are worried about the war in Iraq itself. They're worried about the political ramifications of the lack of progress in Iraq.

But, Wolf, the House Democrats passed legislation that potentially could defund the war in the middle of July. Two weeks ago, David Petraeus, who is the U.S. commander in Iraq, came to Congress, and he told members of both parties, look, in September, I will be able to make an initial judgment about whether the surge strategy is working.

Democrats can't possibly be serious about de-funding this war six weeks before the commanding general can even tell them whether it's working.

BRAZILE: What Democrats believe is that we can both fund the troops, as well as commit the president to changing the course in Iraq. And, if progress is being made by July, the Democrats believe that they can extend the funding to ensure that the troops...

JEFFREY: But, Donna...

(CROSSTALK) BRAZILE: ... will have the resources.

JEFFREY: Why would they cut off the funding on July 13, as the House bill envisions as a possibility, if General Petraeus says he won't even know whether the surge is working until September?

BRAZILE: But we will know if the Iraqi government...

JEFFREY: I mean, don't you trust General Petraeus?

BRAZILE: Well, I don't know him.

The Democrats believe that, by July 13, we should know whether or not the Iraqi government is making progress on the oil-sharing and the provincial elections and the de-Baathification process. So, we believe that we will know by July if the Iraqi government...

JEFFREY: So, they know more than General Petraeus? Why didn't they tell him this when he was in town, talking to them personally?

BRAZILE: Well, General Petraeus knows that the era of blank- check politics is over with.

He knew that the Democrats would change the course in Iraq. And he also understood that the Democrats were not about to give the president what he wanted.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I think what Democrats are telling General Petraeus and telling everyone else right now, at least those in the House that supported this legislation yesterday, by July, they will have a sense whether or not to support the other half of the money. About half is going to be funded right away. The other half would be funded in July, if there is discernible evidence that the situation is moving in the right direction.

JEFFREY: Right. Wolf, they're saying, in July, they will have a sense. But from whom are they going to get that sense?

BLITZER: From General Petraeus, I assume.

JEFFREY: But General Petraeus is saying he won't know until September.

BRAZILE: But we will know. But we will know.

JEFFREY: He actually -- he says -- he says he and Ryan Crocker, who is now the U.S. ambassador over there, will get together and assess the situation in September, and report on what they think, their initial take on whether the surge is working.

How can the Democrats independently decide it's not...

BRAZILE: If the Iraqi government decide to go on vacation, we will know they're not serious about making political changes. (CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY: Well, I agree. That's a very serious problem.

If the Iraqi parliament adjourns at the end of July, without having passed any reforms, they have a very serious political problem.

BLITZER: Well, we will see if they will, because I spoke this week with Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser. And he said flatly to me, he thinks they have worked out a deal. They're not going to go on vacation in July. And the four-week vacation in August may be reduced to a week or two. We will see if they live up to that part of the bargain.

Mitt Romney -- and I want your sense of this -- he is on the cover of "TIME" magazine. He's on the front page of "The New York Times" today. He is going to be featured on "60 Minutes" Sunday night.

What is going on with his campaign?

JEFFREY: Well, I think Mitt Romney did an outstanding job in the debate last week. I think there was a point where conservative interest in him had started to flag. I think it's reinvigorated -- reinvigorated a little bit by his performance in the debate.

Mitt Romney still has one fundamental problem. He is running as the Republican presidential -- as a Republican presidential candidate with a significantly different set of views than he ran for governor of Massachusetts five years ago.

And he has yet to convince people that he is credible in his new persona. If he can do that, I think he's going to be a formidable candidate. But he hasn't done it yet.

BLITZER: He was pretty impressive at that Republican debate, don't you think, Donna?

BRAZILE: I thought he did well coming out of the box.

But I think that he has now the burden of proving that he is committed to his positions now on all of these issues that he has switched over the years.

I have to agree with Terry. This is going to be a very key moment for his campaign, whether or not he can actually prove to conservatives that he is the real deal.

BLITZER: We will watch closely.

Donna Brazile, Terry Jeffrey, thanks.

As Mitt Romney works to address concerns about his Mormon religion, he is also playing up his family life by making it a centerpiece of his presidential campaign on his Web site.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, how is Romney doing all of this online?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it's actually what his sons are doing online in this case, Romney's sons Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben, Craig. You got that?

They are also the authors of Romney's official campaign blog. They're calling it "Five Brothers." Other Republican candidates have chosen to launch blogs written by campaign staff, or have launched no blogs at all.

For the Romney campaign, it's a family affair. The five brothers, led by the oldest, Tagg, who also works full-time on his father's campaign, write about campaign events and family events. They have been responding to questions that have come up in the comment section.

And the family's religion has come up here.

A question here from a reader: "Being Mormon, does Romney campaign on Sunday?"

The answer comes from the youngest brother, Craig, who writes, "Traveling and campaigning can take a toll in church attendance. But we all strive to be there every Sunday."

Other questions have arisen here. There's a question here: "Are any of you guys single?" The answer to Cassie (ph) is no. All five are married, 10 kids between them. And one of those kids has already shown up on the campaign trail and contributing a blog post about her grandpa -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, remember, Mitt Romney is the son of a politician, too. His father was the governor of Michigan, George Romney.

Thanks very much. Maybe it runs in the family.

Still to come: Should U.S. troops have been to be reminded to fight by the rules? Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail.

Also ahead: a perfect storm for devastating wildfires. We're tracking the flames and the dangers across parts of the country.

And a U.S. commander in Iraq putting on a new call for more troops to respond to a spike in violence, but there are few, if any, troops to spare, a very dangerous situation unfolding, blunt talk from a U.S. military commander -- we will tell you what is going on.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Mary to see a what is going on with that plane crash -- Mary.

SNOW: Wolf, the FAA now clarifying that it was two small planes that collided over a Cincinnati suburb. Two people were killed. But the FAA says there was not a helicopter involved, as it had previously reported. There was debris showered on a residential area, but there are no reports of anybody injured on the ground -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Mary, for that.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is: What does it mean if General Petraeus needs to remind U.S. troops in Iraq to fight by the rules?

Leo writes this: "I'm a soldier. And, if you ever spent time in combat, you would know, we think this way not because of the media or past abuses. It's because we feel better them than us. I would rather save a fellow soldier than worry about abusing a prisoner."

Art writes in Houston: "Jack, General Petraeus' letter is right on the mark. The only problem is, he sent it to the wrong people. Our troops don't need to be reminded that we occupy the high moral ground, since that's the tradition of the U.S. armed forces. Our current president, however, and his band of loyal geeks need to be reminded of that very tradition. General Petraeus should have addressed that letter to them."

Ken in Lynchburg, Virginia: "I don't think the general knows what is going on with his troops, deployed for 15 months into a bloody Islamic sectarian war of horrific urban combat, nearly hand-to-hand combat at times, with an unidentifiable enemy. I want the general and the colonels to go on some night combat patrols and see how they feel staring into the darkness, expecting their death."

David in Burlington, Vermont: "Are you serious? Did you ever spend a single day in combat? Do you really think troops who see their buddies blown up by IEDs or killed by suicide bombers give a damn about Gitmo, water-boarding, or any other perceived wrongdoing by the administration? Unless and until you can come up with a single war in which atrocities were not committed by both sides, you ought to just shut up. That's the nature of war. And that's why it's hell."

And Melanie in Virginia writes: "Jack, how on earth can we claim the moral high ground, when the Iraq war itself is a violation of the Geneva Accords and the U.N. Charter? The general is complaining about athlete's foot, when the leg has gangrene" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.

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

Happening now: an alleged terror plot against Americans in Germany only weeks before vacation season and a presidential visit. How serious is the threat?

As violence rages in Iraq, a Mother's Day plea for peace from

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