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Bash describes the latest on the push by Democrats for a vote of no confidence on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in the Senate. Schneider discusses the impact of the CNN-sponsored presidential debates last week

Aired June 11, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, put to the test. The Senate about to decide whether to move forward with a no confidence vote.
Also this hour, new evidence that our presidential debates in New Hampshire actually had an impact on voters in New Hampshire. We're going to tell you who's up and who's down on our brand new poll of the Democratic candidates that's being released right now.

And Colin Powell's role in the race for the White House.

Who has the former secretary of state been talking to and what kind of advice is he giving?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


In the Senate right now, frustration with the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, coming to a head. Democrats are pushing for a symbolic vote of no confidence in the nation's top lawyer, whose leadership is under fire on several fronts. Even some Republicans are more than eager to see Gonzales go. A test vote coming up soon.

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

She's watching all of this for us.

So the Senate -- the debate has been happening.

What is going to happen in the next hour, hour-and-a-half or so?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we expect that vote to be at about 5:30 Eastern. We do not expect this non- confidence -- a vote of non-confidence -- to actually pass, Wolf, because even Republicans who don't support the attorney general, who have lost confidence in him -- and there are many, many Republicans in the Senate who say that -- even they will likely close ranks on this particular issue because they say that what you're saying on the Senate floor right now is political theater by the Democratic majority.


BASH (voice-over): The Democrats' one sentence resolution is simple and straightforward: "It is the sense of the Senate that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales no longer holds the confidence of the Senate and of the American people."

SEN. KENT CONRAD (D), NORTH DAKOTA: This attorney general needs to leave his office. He has tainted his office.

BASH: The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee agrees.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Have I lost confidence in Attorney General Gonzales?

Absolutely, yes.

BASH: In the wake of the fired federal prosecutors' controversy...


I don't recall ever saying...

I don't recall whether or not I made the decision that...

BASH: ... and Gonzales' trouble answering Congress' questions about it, half a dozen of the president's fellow Republicans in the Senate have called on the attorney general to resign. And many, many other Republicans say they have deep reservations about Gonzales' ability to lead the Justice Department.

But even some Republicans who want Gonzales out say they'll vote against the no confidence resolution, calling it a meaningless Democratic stunt.

GONZALES: I'm not focusing on what the Senate is doing. I'm going to be focusing on what the people expect of the attorney general of the United States.

BASH: Speaking to reporters in Miami, the attorney general still showed no sign of going anywhere after he got yet another boost from his boss.

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'll make the determinations if I think he's effective or not, not, you know, not those who are using an opportunity to make a political statement on a -- on a meaningless resolution.


BASH: Now, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, we understand, has been making some phone calls privately, urging rank and file Republicans to vote no on this no confidence measure later on this afternoon. And although a couple of Republicans like, for example, you just heard Senator Arlen Specter has said he will vote yes, we do expect it to go largely along party lines. And this is the -- some talking points, Wolf, that the Republicans have put out to their rank and file. And it is really telling as to the dynamic here.

It's about two-and-a-half pages of reasons for Republicans to vote no. But there is not one word of support in these talking points for the attorney general. It's largely about process and politics.

BLITZER: And how rare is this kind of vote, a vote of no confidence?

BASH: Very rare. In fact, one of the things in these talking points from Republicans is that this has not happened in about 120 years. Ironically, the last time it was the attorney general for Grover Cleveland. There was a vote here because, ironically, he had some trouble, some controversy, in terms of a U.S. Attorney down in Arkansas.

That did pass and it had no effect. The attorney general then did -- did stay in his job. And that's the point that the Republicans are making, that his is political theater, largely symbolic, just the Democrats trying to embarrass Republicans.

BLITZER: All right, Dana stand by.

We're going to come to you as soon as the roll call starts on the floor of the Senate.

We expect that to happen here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's move on now to the presidential race and our brand new poll of the Democratic field in New Hampshire. It's our first test of the candidates since we co-sponsored debates in the lead-off primary state last week.

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

Where do things stand right now with the Democrats -- voters in New Hampshire -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, the debate did exactly what a debate is supposed to do -- it helped voters sort out the candidates.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): In early April, New Hampshire Democrats were all over the place. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards very closely matched.

Jump ball.

Who jumped highest after the debate?

Clinton increased her lead. Obama held fairly steady, while Edwards lost support.

The debate got Bill Richardson into the game. His support has reached double digits. Clinton impressed Democrats by taking charge.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major.

SCHNEIDER: Asked which candidate is the strongest leader, Democrats picked Clinton hands down. None of the guys even came close.

But can she be elected?

Democrats think so. They see Clinton as the candidate with the best chance of beating the Republican next year.

But do Democrats think she's likable?

Not so much. Clinton runs third on likeability. Obama comes across as most likable.

Here's the way he answered a question about making English the official language

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: And when we get distracted by those kinds of questions, I think we do a disservice to the American people.

SCHNEIDER: Edwards may have lost points because he criticized other Democrats.

JOHN EDWARDS, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Clinton and Senator Obama did not say anything about how they were going to vote until -- until they appeared on the floor of the Senate, voted.

SCHNEIDER: Richardson may have gained points because he sounded firm and decisive.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would, the first day as president, I would shut down Guantanamo. I would shut down Abu Ghraib and secret prisons.

SCHNEIDER: The key factor behind Clinton's lead?

Women. Clinton leads Obama by two to one among Democratic women. Among Democratic men, Clinton and Obama are just about tied.


SCHNEIDER: Among Democrats, the war in Iraq overwhelms all other issues. Fifty-seven percent of New Hampshire Democrats now say Iraq is the most important issue to their vote. That's up from 39 percent in April.

Among Democrats whose top concern is Iraq, Senator Clinton's lead holds just as strong -- Wolf.

BLITZER: She was seen as a stronger potential leader in this poll of likely Democrats. Obama, on the other hand, was seen as a more likable kind of guy. And I guess right now, given the current environment, strength is more important of a factor than likeability.

SCHNEIDER: That's exactly right. She was seen as strong, he was seen as likable. Strength trumps likeability, at least among Democrats in New Hampshire.

BLITZER: And tomorrow, we're going to take a look at the Republicans. We'll have brand new poll numbers on how the Republican presidential candidates are faring in the aftermath of our debates in New Hampshire.

Bill Schneider and Dana Bash, as you know, are part of the best political team on television.

And remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our political ticker at

Jack Cafferty also part of the best political team on television.

I love saying that -- Jack.


BLITZER: I know you're not thrilled when I do it.

CAFFERTY: No, no, no, no. I...

BLITZER: I want to compliment you. You are an excellent member of our political team.

CAFFERTY: Stop it.


CAFFERTY: On September the 15th, 2006, last year, long before the midterm elections and long, long before we had a clear idea of who the players would be in the 2008 presidential race, The Cafferty File -- that would be me -- asked a hypothetical question about a presidential ticket consisting of Senator Barack Obama and General Colin Powell and whether or not viewers of THE SITUATION ROOM thought that was something they could support.

Well, the response was surprising. Overwhelmingly the men who people who were watching THE SITUATION ROOM that day thought it was a great idea. Of course, Colin Powell has pretty much dropped out a sight since being made fool of in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

But he resurfaced over the weekend, talking to Tim Russert of NBC.

And, among other things, Powell said he's been meeting with Barack Obama about various issues the Senator of Illinois is likely to confront as he makes a run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Of course, you can't interview Colin Powell 17 months before the presidential election and not ask him about jumping into the race.

Powell insisted he has no political ambitions but he said he is open to the idea of future government service.

So here's the question today -- how would Colin Powell best be able to serve his country?

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

BLITZER: And Powell also refused to say he would necessarily vote for a Republican candidate. He said he would vote for the best candidate. And when Tim Russert pressed him a couple of times, you're not saying you'd necessarily vote for a Republican, he kept saying, I'll vote for the best candidate out there.

CAFFERTY: It was interesting, interesting stuff, particularly in light of the little kind of straw poll thing we did back all that -- those many months ago. He's still a popular and much beloved fellow, in spite of his participation in some of that nonsense leading up to the war in Iraq.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

We're going to get back to Jack soon.

Coming up, President Bush leaves Europe for the hot seat back here at home.

Will the days ahead prove he's a lame duck or does he still have the clout to get the job done?

I'll ask the veteran political adviser, David Gergen.

Also ahead, a new blow to the Bush administration's war on terror and its ability to hold terror suspects indefinitely. We'll examine an important new court ruling.

And Congressional Democrats under the gun to do something about high gas prices.

But do they have a plan?

Will it make a difference?

Stay with us.



BLITZER: This hour, President Bush is flying back to the United States from Europe. He may wish he could have lingered a little bit longer overseas, after getting an overwhelmingly warm welcome on the two final stops of his tour in Albania and Bulgaria. Indeed, after meeting with Mr. Bush, the Bulgarian president declared his country's relations with the United States are the best -- in the best state in more than 100 years.

But now the president faces a far tougher crowd here at home, where he's still saddled with an unpopular war, low approval ratings and other political burdens.

And joining us now, the former presidential adviser, David Gergen.

He's joining us from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

David, I guess the bottom line question is this is President Bush now a lame duck?

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER, KENNEDY SCHOOL OF POLICY AT HARVARD: He sure walks like one and talks like one and usually people think that means he's a lame duck.

He's got, you know, he's got an outside possibility -- I think it's fairly remote -- of reviving this immigration bill. He comes back here and he'll go right to the Senate, to the Republicans at the caucus. I think that's smart on his part. But, you know, he's a -- he's a guy who's going to gamble because he's putting more -- he's putting more chips on the line and there are very few chips he has left -- to try to get this revived. It's unlikely to work. But, hey, politics can -- can lead to strange turns.

BLITZER: You say it's unlikely that he's going to get this immigration reform compromise -- get it signed into law. But he guaranteed it earlier today.

I want you to listen to what he said.


BUSH: We made two steps forward on immigration. We took a step back. And now I'm going to work with those who are focused on getting an immigration bill done and start taking some steps forward again. And I believe we can get it done. I'll see you at the bill signing.


BLITZER: All right, he guaranteed it -- "I'll see you at the bill signing." That means he's going to sign this legislation into law. Not only will it have to pass the Senate, it will have to pass the House of Representatives. The two chambers will have to agree on some sort of common language and then he's going to be at the signing ceremony.

Does he know what he's talking about?

GERGEN: Well, maybe he knows something we don't know, but I doubt it. You know, I wouldn't bet the farm on it, Wolf. It's going to be extremely difficult.

What is it he's going to bring to the table?

Has he got something to -- has he got a compromise that will bring more Republicans to the table?

I mean, he hasn't produced many Republicans to vote for this bill. You know, he's going to have to -- if he compromises too much on the bill, then -- then he's going to lose, on the Republican side and he's going to lose the Democrats.

The issue becomes does he have anything else to trade, outside this bill?

Now, if he goes up and tells the Republicans he's going to get rid of Gonzales and pardon Libby, that might help him a little bit.

Right now he's going just the other way, you know?

He wants to embrace Gonzales and throw Libby over the side. And that is -- that's also enraged a lot of his base at the moment.

BLITZER: You've worked for several presidents, correct me if I'm wrong -- Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bill Clinton.

Let's take a look at some crisis moments in earlier presidencies.

Nixon, for example, how would you compare Nixon's problems versus George W. Bush's?

GERGEN: Well, Nixon, certainly -- Nixon's problems were fatal. They were terminal. And George Bush is not in a terminal situation at this point. And Nixon, as you know, went down into the low 20s on his numbers. But more than that, he was about to be impeached and that's why he left office.

George W. Bush is badly wounded here at home, but he still, as commander-in-chief, does have some residual power overseas. Possibly can pull something out with Iraq. He's got the possibility of negotiating still with the Israelis and Palestinians. You know, he could possibly pull something out on climate change, as he demonstrated with G-8 this past week. So there are still some things he can get done on foreign policy.

But here at home, the collapse of the immigration bill last week really was a sort of a banging shot of a sense of real possibilities. There just doesn't seem to be a -- a lot of muscle right now. And, you know, I don't I don't think that even our headlines suggest the degree to which Republicans are trying to distance themselves, both psychologically and politically, from the White House these days.

BLITZER: Bill Clinton, you worked for Bill Clinton. He was impeached, but he clearly recovered at the end of his presidency.

Can this president do the same thing?

GERGEN: Well, Bill Clinton -- you may remember during the impeachment process, his public popularity held up pretty well. You know, he was in the high 50s/low 60s and George W. Bush is about 30 points lower than that. So it's -- you know, Bill Clinton -- there were an awful lot of people in the country who concluded that the -- the impeachment was unfair and that he was, you know, there was a hanging party out there to get him. And they stuck with the president. And the economy was also doing pretty well and he was getting some credit for that.

So this president does not have a sense anymore among Republicans that he's being treated unfairly. You know, for a long, long time George W. Bush was in the position where the Democratic support for him and the Independent support for him collapsed, but the Republican support was very, very high.

What he's faced in the last few weeks, Wolf, is the -- is with the immigration bill in particular, his -- his Republican support took a nose dive. And it went from the high 70s down to below 50 percent.

And now, on the Gonzales case, the Republicans on Capitol Hill are not with him on this attorney general. He, you know, he can win the vote on Capitol Hill on a no confidence vote, but that doesn't mean he's got the hearts with him in the party.

And on "Scooter" Libby, there is a lot of sentiment among Republican conservatives that he ought to pardon "Scooter" Libby. And here's Fred Thompson, who is making a big case of it, who's gaining ground on the Republican side.

So the president is in a -- finds himself on the wrong side of a lot of Republicans on a lot of issues, starting with immigration.

BLITZER: David Gergen, thanks very much.

GERGEN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And still ahead, the Democratic field in flux in New Hampshire after our presidential debates.

Are Hillary Clinton's gains likely to last, though?

Paul Begala and Terry Jeffrey -- they're standing by live for our Strategy Session.

And coming up next, a new prognosis for Senator Tim Johnson and his recovery from brain surgery.

When will the Democrat be able to get back to work?

You'll find out, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is monitoring the wires, keeping an eye on all the video feeds coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from around the world.

She's joining us now from New York with a closer look at some other incoming stories making news -- hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I've got a couple of them to tell you about, Wolf.

Phillip Morris' effort to move a lawsuit by cigarette smokers into federal court has been denied. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Arkansas state court should handle the case. The potential for large damage awards from state court juries makes the federal courts more desirable for defendants in class action suits. Smokers of Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights are claiming Phillip Morris fraudulently marketed the cigarettes as having less tar and nicotine.

Two Red Cross workers are killed and a third wounded as violence continues to flare in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The aid workers were helping coordinate negotiations between the Lebanese Army and Islamic militants hiding in a camp outside of Tripoli. Reports say their vehicle was struck by a mortar shell fired from inside the camp.

And a doctor overseeing Senator Tim Johnson's recovery from a brain hemorrhage expects him to return to the Senate. He says the South Dakota Democrat has shown improvement in his speech and ability to walk. Senator Johnson's illness had caused anxiety among Democrats because they hold just a 51-49 majority in the Senate. If he had to step down, his successor would have been named by South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, who is a Republican.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Carol, very much.

Up next, Colin Powell reaching out to some of the presidential candidates -- or, shall we say, they are reaching out to him. At the same time, he's distancing himself, to a certain degree, from President Bush.

Will the former secretary of state and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs support a Republican or a Democrat in 2008?

And President Bush's policy on dealing with terror suspects hits a wall in a federal court. The ruling and what it means. That's coming up. Jeff Toobin standing by for that.



BLITZER: Happening now, a key Iraqi bridge bombed -- another one. It's the second attack on an overpass in as many days. We're going to have the latest on the casualties and the insurgents' deadly tactics.

Plus, a very risky gamble -- arming the onetime enemy in Iraq to get at Al Qaeda.

Can it work?

Is it worth it?

And a key presidential ally on Iraq dropping a bombshell about Iran.

What's behind the Independent Senator Joe Lieberman's call for military action?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


In the race to 2008, the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, is proving himself to be a political player once again. He's not a prospective candidate, as he was back in 1996, but he could be angling to be a king maker, at least to a certain degree.

He's been in touch with some White House contenders, while distancing himself from President Bush.

Let's bring in Mary Snow.

She's watching this story.

Is the general committed to supporting a Democrat or a Republican this time around -- Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, when it comes to 2008, the only thing Colin Powell seems committed to right now is providing advice to candidates who seek it.


SNOW (voice-over): More than four years after helping make the case to go to war against Iraq, former Secretary of State Colin Powell is putting more distance between himself and the Bush administration.

On NBC's "Meet The Press," the man considered once considered a potential Republican presidential contender in 1996 wouldn't even commit to supporting a Republican in 2008.


COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm going to support the best person that I can find who will lead this country for the eight years beginning in January 2009.


KAREN DEYOUNG, AUTHOR, "SOLDIER: THE LIFE OF COLIN POWELL: And what's interesting to me is that he really has sort of dropped all pretenses of kind of being a Republican stalwart.

SNOW: Powell said he's met twice with presidential hopeful Barack Obama to talk about foreign policy, but he's staying coy about who he'll back, saying he'll talk to anyone seeking his advice.

In addition to Obama, an aide to Powell says he has met with Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, has been in touch with staff and advisers to Mitt Romney and Senator Chuck Hagel. Powell says he's not interested in political life, but seems to be leaving a door open to an appointed position.

DEYOUNG: Whether a Republican or Democrat is elected, Powell comes with a lot of baggage.

SNOW: That baggage coming from Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council in 2003.

POWELL: Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option -- not in a post-September 11th world.

SNOW: But as Powell distanced himself from the Bush administration, some say he could make a comeback into political life. Some political watchers say there's even a very remote chance that he could be drafted by an independent hypothetical candidate like Mike Bloomberg.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Colin Powell, conceivably, and Mayor Bloomberg, both have this sort of independent coloration that I think they -- they might make a very, very interesting pair.


SNOW: Now, former presidential adviser David Gergen stresses it would be a faint possibility for Powell to run and says he would only do so if he were disappointed with the nominees out there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow watching this story for us -- thank you, Mary.

A legal setback today for the Bush administration's war on terror policies -- the federal appeals court ruled the government cannot indefinitely hold an illegal immigrant without filing charges against him.

The U.S. government has been holding al-Marri at a U.S. Navy brig in South Carolina, alleging he's an al Qaeda sleeper agent. The Justice Department says it's disappointed with the decision, and will ask the full appeals court to review.

Our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin, is on the phone with us to get a little analysis.

Jeff, what's the impact of this decision on the administration's overall strategy in dealing with these detainees?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's yet another very embarrassing defeat in a court that had previously been very sympathetic to the Bush administration's war on terror.

The immediate significance of the decision is that this fellow is going to have to be released or charged in an ordinary criminal court, or he's simply just going to be able to walk out the door. BLITZER: Well, why not simply go ahead -- What's the administration's argument? -- and charge him in South Carolina, or anyplace else, and make a case against him?

TOOBIN: The core of the administration's position is that they have the right, outside of the criminal justice system, to charge people, whether in Guantanamo or within the United States, as enemy combatants, where they can hold people, and even execute people, with fewer protections of individual rights than exist in the criminal justice system or in the court-martial military justice system.

That assertion is increasingly under stress, as decisions like this illustrate.

BLITZER: He's originally from Qatar, al-Marri. He had come to the United States ostensibly as a student. He was here legally.

I suppose this -- this sets the stage, it does have an impact for other detainees, potential detainees, who are not U.S. citizens, but legal residents of the United States?

TOOBIN: Absolutely.

The big decision -- distinction between al-Marri and the people in Guantanamo is that the people in Guantanamo were all caught overseas, usually in Afghanistan. Al-Marri was caught in the United States, where he was legally.

It's the same situation that Mr. Padilla was in. The administration decided to charge him criminally, and he's now on trial. They are now going to be faced with the same dilemma with al- Marri: Either treat him like an ordinary criminal defendant, find the evidence to indict him, or let him go.

This middle ground of enemy combatant is not going to exist anymore, if this decision holds.

BLITZER: A little bit different, but Padilla, Jose Padilla, it was -- is a U.S. citizen, and -- and he was -- has a little different status than a legal resident, right?

TOOBIN: That's right, I mean, because citizens always have more -- have more rights than aliens.

But the key issue that the court is focusing on here is someone who is caught within the United States who is there legally. That is where the court is very reluctant to let the administration hold them, even execute them, without the same due process as in the ordinary criminal justice system.

As for people caught overseas and sent to Guantanamo, those people have fewer rights, although it's important to emphasize that the United States Supreme Court has rejected twice the administration's plans for Guantanamo, and the current plan has not yet faced final scrutiny in the Supreme Court. BLITZER: Another setback for the Bush administration -- the Justice Department just issuing a statement, as you know, saying they will appeal.

We will watch this story unfold.

Jeff Toobin, thanks very much.

Coming up: Some relief at the pump, but will it last? We are going to tell you what some Democrats are now planning to do to try to lower gas prices.

And home improvement in outer space -- plans for a space walk to add on to the International Space Station, they hit a snag. Miles O'Brien standing by to join us, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Guess what's coming down? Gas prices -- just a little bit.

The national average for gasoline dropped seven cents over the past three weeks to $3.11 a gallon. That's according to a national survey by oil industry analyst Trilby Lundberg. It's the first drop since January, though. And prices at the pump, though, are still very, very high.

And, today, Senate Democrats are vowing to try to take action.

Let's bring in our Tom Foreman. He's following this story.

Tom, what are the Democrats proposing?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, says his party's energy bill will cut demand for gas, cut prices at the pump, and reduce our energy dependence. Well, who is not going to be for that?


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Our bill will save American consumers tens of billions of dollars annually, cut our oil consumption by more than four million barrels a day, and reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources right away. And, by the way, we might just save the planet while we're at it.

FOREMAN (voice-over): That's a tall order, but Harry Reid is optimistic. The Senate majority leader says the Democrats' plan calls for new cars and trucks to get 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020. The proposal also requires an increase in the production of ethanol and other renewable fuel used by vehicles to cut down on imported oil.

And the bill gives the government more power to investigate gas- price profiteering.

REID: This Democratic Congress will not hesitate -- hesitate to take action when energy companies gouge the American people.

FOREMAN: But oil companies say there's no price-gouging and accused Congress of playing politics.

BILL STEVENS, TEXAS ALLIANCE OF ENERGY PRODUCERS: We feel like, again, it's political posturing and posturing to -- to the general masses. And gasoline is a -- is an easy way and an easy target for -- for politicians to use.

FOREMAN: High gas prices is a top issue for Democratic voters, according to the most recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. But all Americans seemed concerned.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Gas prices is ridiculous. It's too much money.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By the summertime, I think the price will at least get to $4 a gallon.

FOREMAN: A recent Gallup poll found, that's what most Americans think.


FOREMAN: And so all of this just sounds terrific if you're a consumer out there.

But, remember, congressional Democrats are under the gun to actually get something done on this. Tackling gas prices was one of their campaign promises during last year's midterm elections, and nothing has happened about it so far.

So, now comes the tough part. They have got to try to get a bill through Congress and get it onto the president's desk. As you know, Wolf, there's a long trip between making the promise and fulfilling it. We will see if they have enough gas for that -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Good -- good point. Thanks, Tom, very much.

A slight setback for the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis, planning the mission's first space walk -- astronauts are stepping out to add a giant new piece to the International Space Station to help it generate more power.

Our Miles O'Brien is keeping an eye on all of this.

Miles, tell us what they're doing right now. Seem to have caught you a little bit by surprise there. Can you hear me OK, Miles?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I have -- I have got you, Wolf. I apologize. I was looking at -- at -- marveling, actually, at what they are doing up there, as you take a look at some -- the view from Jim Reilly. This is exactly what he is seeing -- live pictures now. That's his PGT, or pistol-grip tool. You and I would go down to Home Depot and call it a Makita drill. It's basically that, only shielded.

And what he's doing, any time you get a new device, a new toy, you take out all the packing material, shipping material. That's what they're doing right now, as this huge 15-ton truss has now been attached to the International Space Station.

Take a look at the docking procedure a little while ago -- the robot arm for the International Space Station attaching it. Automatic device causes all the bolts to turn, and it gets attached.

And now their process, their job over the next six-and-a-half- hours is to plug in all the cables and remove all the shipping constraints. Reilly and Olivas were a little bit late in getting out because of some problems with the system which keeps the -- the space station in its proper attitude toward the sun. But, so far, the space walk is going well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And that tiny little tear in the -- the blanket, the thermal blanket, the heat shield, as it's called, any new information on that? How worried are they?

O'BRIEN: Well, here's the thing. I want to just point out where people -- to -- for people where it is.

It's up in this hump here just immediately to the left of the tail. This is an area that's not a huge heat location on the shuttle. Normally, when it comes in, these areas where the black tiles are, it -- it can exceed 3,000 degrees -- up here, about 700 or -- or maybe 1,000 degrees.

Having said that, take a look at this little tear. It's about four inches by six inches. NASA is looking very closely at it. They want to see -- run it through the computers, see if it might get worse as the space shuttle comes in. It was the aerodynamic forces which pulled it away in the first place.

And it's very likely, I'm told by the mission managers and people involved in the program, that the astronauts will have a task later in the mission to go over and tuck in that blanket, just to be sure -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Miles, for that. We will stay on top of this story with you.

Miles O'Brien is our space correspondent.

Following the JFK Airport terror plot, a New York state assemblyman says the popular satellite mapping program Google Earth is a threat to national security.

Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner.

Jacki, why is Google Earth being called so dangerous? JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Wolf, New York Assemblyman Mike Gianaris says that Google Earth makes it too easy for people with bad intentions to scope out possible targets.

He's now written three letters to Google, the first one two years ago, the most recent last week, asking them to blur out sensitive locations. Google, for its part, says that the imagery that they use is in the public domain. They are concerned with security, but they say that it's the companies and government agencies that supply them this imagery that should be primarily concerned with security.

Gianaris says this is not good enough. He says, yes, the imagery is out in the public domain, but Google Earth makes it so easy for anyone access it. And it's really hard to tell who is taking a look at it.

We spoke to the Department of Homeland Security today. And they tell us they are not concerned primarily with this type of satellite imagery. They say, Wolf, they are more concerned with somebody having the knowledge and the capability of actually carrying out an attack.

BLITZER: Jacki, thank you for that.

Up next: Hillary Clinton drawing the line in our New Hampshire debate.

You will remember this.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don't want anybody in America to be confused.

BLITZER: All right. Let me let Senator Edwards...


BLITZER: Senator Clinton's debate performance appears to have given New Hampshire voters a clearer picture of her candidacy. Paul Begala and Terry Jeffrey, they are standing by live. We will assess the new poll numbers we're getting and the state of the presidential field on the Democratic side right after this.


BLITZER: After our New Hampshire Democratic presidential debate, the brand-new CNN poll finds Hillary Rodham Clinton in the lead. Barack Obama, though, is the most likable of the Democrats. What's the thinking behind all of this?

Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist, and Terry Jeffrey, editor at large of "Human Events." So, let's take a look at the numbers. We will put them up on the screen. Back in April, Hillary Clinton was at 27 percent among likely Democratic voters. Now she's at 36. Obama went from 20 to 22. But look at this. Bill Richardson went from 4 percent in April to 10 percent, a nice pickup for him -- Edwards a loser, at least in this poll, from 21 now down to 12.

A thick quick thought?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, with the usual caveats that this is early, at least it is a poll of New Hampshire Democrats.

BLITZER: Likely Democratic voters.

BEGALA: Hillary excels at debates. She got a -- a bump from the South Carolina debate. Now she apparently has gotten a bump from the debate that you hosted in New Hampshire. She's awfully good at this. And it's pretty impressive, because she's up against a very tough field.

BLITZER: What do you think?

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": Yes, as much as I disagree with Hillary on the issues, I think she did an outstanding job in that debate, from her perspective, and it's showing up in this poll.

BLITZER: Let's take a look at this. We asked which candidate is the most likable; 40 percent said Obama; 20 percent said Edwards; 14 percent said Hillary Clinton.

But, then, we asked which candidate is the strongest leader? Forty-eight percent said Clinton, 12 percent Gore, 12 percent Obama, 6 percent Edwards.

She may not be liked, but she's considered strong.

BEGALA: Right. And I think -- I thought Bill Schneider had it right earlier, when he said strong beats likable.

This is exploding a big piece of conventional wisdom about 2008, right? The most likable person has got to run, has got to -- has got to win. Well, apparently, at least not among Granite State Democrats. Now, obviously, I think her strategists would like to see her become a beloved figure. But, clearly, they have a strategy of making her a respected figure first.

JEFFREY: Well, I think the dichotomy actually exemplifies why I believe Hillary did so well in the debate.

I think one of her greatest liabilities is, she sometimes comes across as strident, particularly in her stump speeches. I think Paul is right. She's a better debater than she is a stump speaker. And, in that debate, she seemed to maintain a balance between presenting a commanding and well-informed persona, but not going over the line and seeming strident. BLITZER: We asked, which issue is the most important to your vote in the primary? Among Democrats, back in April, it was Iraq at 39 percent. But look at this. It's gone up to 57 percent, and everything else down to single digits -- health care, economy, only 8 percent, down from 21 percent and 11 percent back in April.

Were you surprised by this, Paul?

BEGALA: No. It really is Iraq and then everything else.

What I am surprised is, with Iraq that dominant in New Hampshire, Hillary has a pretty commanding lead right now. Now, that, again, goes against the conventional wisdom. Senator Clinton voted for this war. Most Democrats, nearly all of them, think that that was a mistake.

And she, unlike John Edwards, has refused to flat-out apologize for that vote. And, so, even though she's not exactly where the most committed anti-war liberals are in her party, she seems to be leading in New Hampshire. It's pretty interesting. It may be that, while New Hampshire Democrats don't perfectly agree with where -- what she did on Iraq, they respect her strength.

JEFFREY: Yes. Well, this is one of the reasons why now you have Republicans, including Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Jeff Sessions, one of the most reliable conservatives in the Senate, from Alabama, suggesting that the U.S. policy in Iraq is going to have to change after the fall.

With maybe one of the bloodiest months in the war, with the surge not even yet fully in place, as we continue to take high casualties in Iraq, unless there's a real political change over there, Wolf, it's not just going to be -- that number is not just going to be among Democrats. You are going to see it rising among Republicans, too.

BLITZER: We heard the president earlier today say he's going to have a signing ceremony; this comprehensive immigration reform legislation is going to pass, and he's going to sign it into law.

But look at our so-called poll of polls, where we average the major national polls on Bush's job approval numbers. You see the numbers there, the average, 32 percent job approval.

Here's the question.

I'll let Terry answer it first.

Does he have the clout now to deliver on this important domestic priority?

JEFFREY: Well, I hope he doesn't, because, among other things, those 32 percent of the people who are still supporting Bush are the ones who are supporting him on his Iraq policy.

It's basically the conservative grassroots in this country. There's nothing they hate more than this immigration bill that the president is pushing. If he actually twists enough arms in the Senate and the House among Republicans to get this vote through, I think it's not just the -- the end of his presidency. It's going to hurt the Republican Party tremendously, not just in the '08 elections, but going forward, because they have lost the confidence of their -- quote -- "core constituency."


I -- I do think -- and I'm a Bush critic for a living -- I do think you have to give him credit for sticking with his principles on this. But, as simple political strategy, Terry is right. He is -- he is sundering his party. This is the most painful split I have seen among Republicans in years, because it pits the -- the corporate Republicans, the country club Republicans, the moneyed Republicans, against the populist, grassroots Republicans.

Either way, you lose. And Bush is doing it because he believes in it. And you have got to give him credit for that.

JEFFREY: But there's a question here that goes to the credibility of the president on national security issues.

We are over there fighting this war in Iraq, paying tremendous costs for it. It's been almost six years since the 9/11 attacks. And President Bush has not secured the borders of the United States of America. Now he's basically saying, if you give me this immigration bill, then I will secure the borders.

But conservatives are in -- in this country are saying, Mr. President, secure the border now, and then we will consider these other measures on immigration.

BLITZER: Is he going to deliver, when all is said and done? He says, I'll see you at the signing ceremony.

Is he right?

JEFFREY: No. I think the grassroots are going to beat him on this, the way they beat him on Harriet Miers. And I think, quite frankly, the president is going to be lucky that they do it.

BLITZER: And what do you think?

BEGALA: Yes. This bill is deader than Bobby Bacala on "The Sopranos."


BEGALA: Well -- or who was it? Phil Leotardo not only got shot; he got his head run over by an SUV.


BEGALA: That's how dead this bill -- bill is, Wolf.

BLITZER: You are sharing secrets with the viewers who may not have seen that final...

BEGALA: Oh, no, if you TiVoed...


BLITZER: ... episode. All right.

We don't know what he's talking about.


BLITZER: He's just making that up.


BLITZER: Paul Begala, thanks very much. Terry Jeffrey, thanks to you, as well.

Still to come: What should Colin Powell's role be in the 2008 presidential campaign? Jack Cafferty is standing by with your e-mail.

Plus, we're counting down to that test vote in the Senate on a no-confidence resolution against the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales. We will go live to Capitol Hill.

And the U.S. military gambles with its own safety, in hopes of taking out al Qaeda in Iraq -- the risky tactic of arming onetime enemies. We will tell you what's going on.

We will be right back.


BLITZER: Fred Thompson tops our "Political Radar."

The former senator from Tennessee is not an official candidate for president yet, but he's rising in the polls. Thompson's at 17 percent in the new AP/Ipsos national survey of Republican voters. And that puts him in third place, just behind Senator John McCain. Thompson's taken the first formal steps toward a White House run, but hasn't officially declared his candidacy yet.

If Thompson makes it official and joins the race, as everyone expects he will, there's a chance he will show up at the Ames, Iowa, straw poll in August. Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have both opted out of taking part in the crucial early test for Republican presidential hopefuls. The former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, appears to be the early favorite, but Iowa Republican officials tell CNN Thompson's staff is asking them about details of the straw poll.

Stay tuned for more on that.

Sam Brownback also has Iowa on his mind. The Republican presidential candidate and senator from nearby Kansas says, later this month, he will visit 27 Iowa towns in just four days. Today's announcement comes only a few days after Brownback said he will show up at that Ames straw poll to take on Mitt Romney.

Iowa's caucuses traditionally kick off the presidential primary season. The caucus is scheduled for January 14.

Remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can check out our Political Ticker at

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, Colin Powell surfaced over the weekend in an interview with Tim Russert over at NBC. And it prompted us to ask this question.

How would Colin Powell best be able to serve his country? He denies any political ambitions, but said he would be amenable to some sort of government service.

Paul (ph) in Minneapolis writes: "Jack, Powell served his country already as a distinguished military officer. The last time he tried serving his country again, as a political appointee, we all got held hostage by terrorists going on five years now in Iraq."

Ed in Montana writes: "Jack, I think Colin Powell would be best as a truth czar in future government. I think this man truly regrets his U.N. speech, and would do anything to make amends, including making sure that no more war spin came out of our government during his watch. There is no loyalty as great as that of a man redeemed."

Al (ph) in Port Orchard, Washington: "By seizing control of the country and restoring it to Americans. He's one of the few generals who could pull this off. There doesn't seem to be any other way for getting our country back from those who are determined to destroy it. Voting doesn't work."

Michael (ph) in Fresno, California: "Let's face it. Colin Powell blew his chance to serve the country when he aided and abetted Bush in his criminal invasion of Iraq. There is no good that he can do to make up for that."

Jim (ph) in Allentown, PA: "He could cease being the good soldier and become a good citizen by sharing his honest impressions of the lead-up to the war and its ultimate mishandling. Many respect and listen to Powell. Had he been forthright earlier, perhaps the 2004 election would have turned out differently."

And, finally, Paul (ph) writes from Maryland: "Colin Powell could best serve his country by traveling around United States cleaning the tombstones of the men and women who have died in Iraq as a result of his U.N. speech. He probably ought to have a few assistants as well, Bush, Cheney, et cetera" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.

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


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