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McCain Takes Blame for Campaign Woes; Republican Rebellion on Iraq; House Dems Target President Bush's Ex-Lawyer

Aired July 13, 2007 - 16:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, two senators who were among President Bush's staunchest supporters of the war change course. Richard Lugar and John Warner put out a message for a specific pullout plan for Iraq.
Some are wondering if John McCain can catch a break. A source tells CNN even more staffers will leave his campaign. McCain himself is taking the blame for his problems.

Do his opponents smell political blood in the water?

And presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Edwards talk about limiting the size of the presidential debates, but apparently neither of them knew it was caught on an open microphone. We have the tape, of course. Now one of their opponents charges they are trying to rig the election.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Miles O'Brien.


John McCain is still on the trail today in New Hampshire, fending off an awful lot of questions that he may be near the end of the road in his bid for the Oval Office. And while his campaign is on the ropes and nearly broke, McCain says the only thing that would prompt him to bow out is terminal illness.

Now, symptoms suggest his campaign is in critical condition. CNN has learned more staffers are expected to leave soon.

CNN Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley joining us now.

Candy, to say the least, a tough week for McCain.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: A very, very tough week. But I'll tell you, a senior adviser says that McCain is most comfortable as an underdog, and surely that's exactly where he is now.


CROWLEY (voice over): He is broke. His staff is skeletal. His poll numbers are sagging. But John McCain is standing.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We go to the town hall meetings. We fix our financial difficulties. And we win. CROWLEY: In New Hampshire, on his first campaign trip since the departure of top advisors, McCain signaled his presidential bid will go back to the future, the template of 2000, when his maverick campaign stunned the political world and he beat George Bush in the New Hampshire primary.

Even close friends wonder if anything can save this campaign, but McCain says he's hard-pressed to think of anything that will stop him.

MCCAIN: Contracting a fatal disease.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Anything short of that?

MCCAIN: Not that I know of.

CROWLEY: Even as he spoke, other top aides in the McCain campaign were preparing to leave. And the details of second-quarter fundraising and spending are about to be made public. McCain is down to his last $250,000, a campaign pittance.

MCCAIN: Well, we're going to have to do a better job. That's all. I mean, it wasn't the money we got. It was the way the money was spent.

CROWLEY: Of all the changes that have and will take place in camp McCain, the one thing that has not changed is the candidate. Not his position on immigration or campaign finance reform, both of which cost him conservatives. And not his hawkish approach to Iraq which cost him Independents.

McCain was in New Hampshire to deliver a tough speech on Iraq, criticizing what he called defeatism, asking voters to give the surge a chance, asking them to give him one, too.

MCCAIN: I will stand where I stand today and trust you to give me a fair hearing. There's too much at stake in this election for any candidate to do less.

CROWLEY: John McCain will play the hand he dealt himself.


CROWLEY: Camp McCain has always believed that even if voters disagreed with McCain, they would stick with him because he stood up for what he believed. They still think that -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Candy, with $ 250,000 in the bank, that doesn't get you very far on the Straight Talk Express. How long can he go?

CROWLEY: Well, not very much on that kind of money. I mean, that's for sure. I mean, he still has a staff he has to pay. It still costs money to get on a plane and go someplace. It still costs money to put things together.

So, as he said in the first bite I think you heard, look, we've got to raise more money, and they certainly do. He says, you know, he's got to be on the phone to donors, and what he has to do is convince them that this campaign is not dying because donors don't want to give to a campaign if it's pouring it down a hole.

So, a lot of this in Washington perception very often becomes reality. So what he's battling right now is the perception that this campaign is on its last legs.

O'BRIEN: Yes, its momentum in the other direction.

All right. Candy Crowley in Concord, New Hampshire.

Thank you very much.

They are two of the most respected voices on war and foreign policy in the Senate and were two of the biggest supporters of the Iraq policy. And right now Republican senators John Warner and Richard Lugar are talking about a plan for when U.S. troops might come home.

CNN Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill.

Dana, how significant is this proposed legislation?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is pretty significant. These two senators, as you just noted, carry a lot of weight around here in Congress, and they are among the Republicans who have made it clear that they think the president's strategy has to change.

Now, it's important to note that they are still giving the president what he wants right now in the near future. That is, time to let this current strategy work its way through in September. But they are also saying, regardless of what General David Petraeus' report says in September, the time for that strategy is up.


BASH (voice over): Two of the Senate's most influential GOP senators unveiled legislation demanding the president give Congress a new war plan by this fall to start redeploying troops from Iraq. The bill would require the president to deliver the plan by October 16th and be ready to implement by the end of the year. However, the measure by senators John Warner and Richard Lugar who not mandate the president to actually implement this plan.

It is a direct challenge from two of the president's fellow Republicans to his war policy. But, by waiting until the fall to mandate plans for a new war strategy, Lugar is giving up on his high- profile plea last month for urgent change.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), INDIANA: A course change should happen now, while there is still some possibility of constructing a sustainable, bipartisan strategy in Iraq.

BASH: The Republicans' legislation would also call on the president to seek a new authorization for war, because the 2002 authorization, which talks of weapons of mass destruction and toppling Saddam Hussein, is obsolete.


BASH: Now, this just was unveiled just a short while ago, so it is unclear, still, Miles, what kind of support that they will get, even from fellow Republicans. But they certainly are hoping because of the weight that they carry and because of the fact that more Republicans are coming out and saying, as they essentially have with this legislation, that they are going to grant the president time through September for the current strategy to work, but many of them are saying that they want to plan -- at least the president -- to understand that the White House has some kind of plan to start bringing troops home, whether he uses it or not -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, what about on the other side of the aisle, Dana? What about Democrats? Does this even go far enough for many Democrats?

BASH: The answer to that, at least at first blush -- and we just got this -- is apparently no. I just spoke with the spokesman for the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, who essentially says that he -- that he applauds the work of these two former chairmen and the fact that they are -- he understands that the they are incredibly influential when it comes to these issues. But they also, according to Senator Reid's spokesman, think that this gives the president too much latitude to do what Democrats don't think he really will do in the end, which is start bringing troops home without the mandate from Congress.

O'BRIEN: Dana Bash on Capitol Hill.

Warner and Lugar and their decision to break ranks, that's not the second-day headline that the White House wanted to hear.

Elaine Quijano is at the White House with reaction from there.

What are they saying there, Elaine?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, this was really not a surprise to the White House. But officials for now, publicly, are not saying much about this.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto saying that the White House certainly respects these two senators, Senator Warner and Senator Lugar, and will carefully review the language that they've proposed. But Fratto reiterated what President Bush said yesterday, and that is that the administration continues to believe that lawmakers must give the surge strategy a chance to succeed.

Fratto stressed also that officials want to hear what General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have to say come September when they deliver their reports -- Miles.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These people at the grassroots understand that most Iraqis want to live in peace and that with time, we'll be able to help them realize that dream.


QUIJANO: Now, that was President -- that was President Bush today, earlier in the Roosevelt Room, one day after that interim report came out that showed the Iraqi government has failed to make satisfactory progress on some key legislative goals that were laid out.

President Bush trying to essentially highlight the positive, talking about political progress, not at the top levels in Baghdad, but at the local level. The president in the Roosevelt Room, on a video conference meeting today with top military and reconstruction officials, reiterating his belief, again, that the surge strategy must be given an opportunity to work. But this is a White House well aware, Miles, that -- that patience on this issue certainly appears to be running out.

O'BRIEN: But does the White House still believe, Elaine, that yesterday, what the president had to say, they bought some time?

QUIJANO: They do for now. At least the next eight weeks, they understand, are going to be very critical. But ultimately what the White House is concerned about is that Congress will try to limit the power of the president to prosecute this war, and that is what we've heard from the president yesterday as well.

So, while the momentum might have been stopped for now, even with this Warner-Lugar amendment out, at the same time, at least in the next eight weeks or so, they don't believe that they'll necessarily see any more Republican defections -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Elaine Quijano.

Thank you very much, Elaine Quijano, on the north lawn of the White House.

It's time now for "The Cafferty File". Jack Cafferty joining us from New York.

Hello, Jack.


With the congressional and presidential approval ratings both pretty much in the toilet, it seems clear that Americans are fed up with business as usual and the two-party system. There's a new "USA Today"-Gallup poll out. It shows 58 percent of those surveyed think a third major political party is needed in this country. Only 33 percent, one-third of them, think that the Republicans and the Democrats do an adequate job of representing the American people. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

These are dramatic changes from these same numbers in October of 2003, when only 40 percent felt that a third party was needed and 56 percent thought the two-party system was getting the job done. Some names that have been tossed around as potential third-party candidates include New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel.

So far, the only one who has shown any real interest is consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who runs every four years and loses, and then runs every four years and loses.

This poll also looked at a hypothetical match-up between Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Forty-four percent of those polled said if the election were held today, they'd vote for Clinton; 39 percent, Giuliani; and 13 percent, Bloomberg. Regardless of those numbers, that would be entirely too many New Yorkers on the ballot for my money.

Anyway, here's the question: How would a third major political party change the 2008 presidential race?

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

O'BRIEN: Of course, the system is stacked to favor that two- party system, isn't it?

CAFFERTY: Absolutely. And the only significant showings that I can recall, Ross Perot got something like 19 percent of the vote. And, in effect, elected Bill Clinton to the presidency when he ran.

And it's all about the way the electoral college is set up. You know, the electors elect the president. The people don't elect the president.

And, you're right, the system is very much stacked against the third party being able to make it. Plus, it's very tough to get on the ballots around 50 states.


Jack Cafferty will be back with you in just a little bit.

Thank you very much.

Coming up on the program, careless whispers. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards chat before an open microphone. Now an opponent accuses them of wanting to rig the presidential election.

You'll hear just what they said. We have the tape.

A no-show. Former White House counsel Harriet Miers defies a subpoena from a House panel. And now House Democrats threaten to hold her in contempt.

We'll explain why.

And what does eating Twinkies got to do with the presidential campaign? Food, fat and other weighty issues weigh in after a Republican presidential candidate blasts "Sicko" filmmaker Michael Moore.

I'll ask Mike Huckabee about this political food fight.



O'BRIEN: Deadline Tuesday, that's when House Democrats demand to hear from former White House counsel Harriet Miers and the Republican National Committee. They've issued a new subpoena for White House e- mails regarding the firing of those U.S. attorneys. And they have a special threat for Miers if she does not comply.

Here to discuss this more is our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin.

Jeff, good to have you with us.


O'BRIEN: First of all, let's take a look at the scene here yesterday. A bit of theater there, political theater, as Linda Sanchez, Democrat in charge of the Judiciary Committee, was addressing an empty chair reserved for Harriet Miers.

Let's watch for a moment.


REP. LINDA SANCHEZ (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I hereby rule that Ms. Miers' refusal to comply with the subpoena and appear at this hearing and to answer questions and provide relevant documents regarding these concerns cannot be properly justified on executive privilege or related immunity grounds.


O'BRIEN: "I hereby rule." She sounded like a judge.

Is that within her purview to make a ruling on whether this was, in fact, a violation of executive privilege?

TOOBIN: Well, it is the first step towards finding a -- having a confrontation with Congress. I love the fact that they made the name tag there. You know, if you have a name tag, you have to come, isn't that the rule?

O'BRIEN: Yes. It's kind of a nice touch. They could have done the cardboard cutout of Harriet Miers and that would have been a little too over the top, yes.

TOOBIN: Exactly. That could have been good, too.

No, but Congress does have the right to try to enforce its subpoenas. But, you know, there is a balance here. These issues can get very murky. And it is -- the White House is clearly correct that even though Harriet Miers no longer works for the government, she can cite executive privilege for conversations that were covered. Her problem is, she's citing them for everything. She's not even showing up. And that seems wildly overbroad, and she is setting up a confrontation that is likely to come soon.

O'BRIEN: Contempt of Congress. This is a criminal charge. Explain how this would play out.

What's ahead for us?

TOOBIN: Well, it's a very long process. And that's relevant to the politics of this.

Basically what happens is the committee has to vote a contempt citation. Then the full House has to vote a contempt citation. And then the White House has the opportunity to challenge it in federal district court.

That can be appealed to the court of appeals. That can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court before any contempt, really, issues, which is a criminal offense. But you may have noticed, Miles, there's only about a year and four months left in President Bush's term, all of which will be eaten up by this controversy.

So, in fact, Harriet Miers is not in any real jeopardy of going to jail. Although, this controversy could linger.

O'BRIEN: So, there's no emergency injunctive relief or whatever in this kind of case.

Let's just talk about historical precedent here. Is this any different from the sorts of executive privilege that previous administrations, Democrat and Republican, have tried to invoke?

TOOBIN: No, it's very similar. I mean, Bill Clinton invoked executive privilege a number of times in his confrontations with the Republican Congress during the '90s. The big difference is that Clinton and the Congress always reached some sort of compromise.

That, I think, is -- is the reasonable accommodation, reasonable people should behave that way. So far, there's no sign of that, especially when it comes to these e-mails.

I don't see what the White House ground is for refusing to produce these e-mails, because the whole purpose of setting up separate accounts outside the White House at the Republican National Committee was that it wasn't official business. You can't cite executive privilege for stuff that's not official business.

So, the e-mails, it would seem to be fertile ground for a compromise, if the White House is interested in making a deal as opposed to just running out the clock.

O'BRIEN: Of course, they say they can't find a lot of those e- mails, too.

TOOBIN: Well, I wouldn't be surprised. I mean, life is disorganized. But the -- if you let experts in there, I've always been told, and certainly evidence bears this out, that e-mails never really disappear. They're always somewhere in the system, but only if you really want to find them.

The question here is, how badly does the White House and the Republican National Committee really want to find these e-mails? It doesn't seem like they're all that anxious.

O'BRIEN: They are always there. Just ask Oliver North about that some time.

TOOBIN: There you go.

O'BRIEN: Jeff Toobin, our senior legal analyst.

Thank you very much, as always.

TOOBIN: So long, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead in the program, stopping a health care crisis, it's one of the biggest challenges on the Democratic side in the '08 presidential race. Can the candidates do what former first lady Hillary Clinton could not?

And a senator and the "I" word. You might be surprised to here what California's Barbara Boxer says about the possibility of impeaching President Bush.



O'BRIEN: A powerful storm today pounded Japan's Okinawa island chain, with winds up to a hundred miles an hour. Look at this I- Report video.

This is Typhoon Man-Yi. It has injured more than two dozen people. It has left nearly a hundred households without power and forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights. The storm is forecast to start hitting Japan's main islands on Saturday.

We're watching that one for you.

Up next on the program, overheard. Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator John Edwards, former Senator John Edwards, caught revealing their true feelings on where they stand on the size of the presidential debate. They'd like a few -- fewer players.

And impeaching the president? Has it come to that? A Democrat says all options should be on the table. There she is.

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


O'BRIEN: Happening now, al Qaeda warns Iran to stay out of Iraq or face a brutal war. A shocking sign of how deeply Iran may be involved in supporting fellow Shiites and the violence that is tearing Iraq apart.

A mistrial in a Nebraska rape trial. The judge banned the defendant from saying the word "rape". He felt it could prejudice the jury. But lawyers fought back, and protests erupted outside the courthouse.

The latest on that controversy ahead.

Plus, it's known as the forgotten floor, where the criminally insane are kept in prison. A look at the deplorable conditions where they're kept in a special report from Soledad O'Brien coming up.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Miles O'Brien, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A war of words is heating up between Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and filmmaker Michael Moore. Moore's film "Sicko" has ignited a debate on health care. But Huckabee suggests Moore is part of the problem.

In an apparent reference to Moore's weight, Huckabee said, and we quote him now, "Michael Moore is an example of why the health care system costs more in this country." Moore's people fired back saying Huckabee is looking for campaign contributions since he's raised little cash so far.

Mike Huckabee joins us now from Iowa for more on that and other weighty issues, I suppose.

Governor, good to have you with us.

Governor, in addition to being...


O'BRIEN: You're a Baptist minister.

Do you feel that...

HUCKABEE: That's right.

O'BRIEN: Was that the most Christian thing to say?

HUCKABEE: Oh, absolutely. I wasn't trying to make a personal attack on Michael. But he was...

O'BRIEN: Well, sure, it was personal.

HUCKABEE: ... going after somebody that has done a great job, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. O'BRIEN: You were talking -- you were talking about his -- you were talking about his weight.

HUCKABEE: And it was ridiculous for Michael Moore to go out there and attack somebody who has saved a lot more lives than Michael Moore has.

And I just think that Michael Moore has got not a real interest in improving health care for Americans, but in making millions of dollars off his films and trying to make it appear that he's going to help us be better off by sending us to Cuba for health care.

I don't know of a single American who gets a serious disease and turns to his or her spouse and says, honey, you have got to get me to Havana. They have got such great doctors and health care down there.

O'BRIEN: Governor, you say it's not personal, but you're talking about the man's weight. And, apparently, he's on a diet. He's lost 30 pounds.

And I -- you know, let's remind our viewers what you have gone through. You lost more than 100 pounds, totally changed your lifestyle.


O'BRIEN: You know, turning the tables -- and, for you, you could turn the tables in this case -- do you think that's the right way to conduct yourself publicly?

HUCKABEE: Well, first of all, nobody knows more about the impact of not taking care of yourself than I do. I did lose 100 pounds. And when I did, I also lost a lot of the cost of my health care, because I was a person who did everything wrong.

I overate. I didn't exercise, and the result of that was that it was far more costly for me than it was since I have started taking better care of myself. I never said anything specifically about Michael Moore's weight. But I think, quite frankly, if Michael Moore would work as hard to take care of himself as he does to want to move us to a Canadian health care system, where people stand in line for weeks, and finally give up and come to this country -- it's not that we have a health care crisis.

We have a health crisis in America. Eighty percent of our health care costs in this country go to chronic disease. It's largely caused by three behaviors, overeating, underexercising, and smoking.

O'BRIEN: Yes, but...

HUCKABEE: If we started, as Americans...

O'BRIEN: Governor...

HUCKABEE: ... making significant changes in the way we live, our economy would change as it relates to health care. O'BRIEN: But what a lot of people would tell you, what a lot of experts would say is that 80 -- the reason 80 percent of the costs go to treating diseases is, the system is not designed to encourage preventive measures.

For example, if you go -- if you want to go on a diet and you call your insurance company and you say, look, I need a personal trainer and a -- somebody to help me with my sleep patterns, and all the things you probably went through to lose your weight, you're not going to get any sort of support from your insurance company, right?

HUCKABEE: And you're exactly right. That's why, in my state, we made those changes. We took away the co-pays and the deductibles on a lot of the screenings, like mammographies and colonoscopies and prostate cancer exams.

We do include weight-loss programs for state employees. We provided smoking cessation programs, not just for state employees, but for the Medicaid population.

You're right. What we need to do is to move to a prevention, rather than intervention. And I wish that we would get to the place where we would cover the ways that we could be healthier, rather than wait until we have catastrophic illnesses that, frankly, have catastrophic costs.

O'BRIEN: All right. There's one other thing I want to throw in the mix here.


O'BRIEN: This comes from the producer of "Sicko," Michael Moore's latest film. Meghan O'Hara is her name.

She says this: "It looks like Mike Huckabee is auditioning for some insurance company dough, since he's raised about -- just about no money and sparked zero interest since jumping in the race. I wonder what the good governor would say to the French, who drink more, smoke more, eat more cheese, and still live longer than us, despite paying less for health care."

What do you say for that?

HUCKABEE: Well, they pay a lot more for health care, because their taxes are a great deal higher, just as they would be if we followed Michael Moore's incredible example of the Cubans or the Canadians or the British.

If -- if Michael Moore wants to talk about what we have done for health care, a program we set up in our state helped to insure between 180,000 and 200,000 kids.

Yes, we need to do better for coverage, but we don't do it by making the demons out of the very people in the health care industry, like Dr. Gupta, who, frankly, ought to be hailed as a true warrior in the public health crusade, because he's been talking about the issues of preventive health care, rather than waiting until people are desperately ill and then incredibly expensive to try to get well again.

O'BRIEN: So, you are sort of implying that Michael Moore is a demon in all of this. Is -- in the sense that he has brought this discussion into the public realm, has he done a service, don't you think?

HUCKABEE: You know, it would be a service if he brought it into a discussion. But that's not what he does.

He ambushes people. He goes into people who have no idea that they're being set up for some moneymaking endeavor on Michael Moore's part, and he tries to humiliate people who might actually be trying to do the right thing, doctors and health care providers.

He demonizes people, puts them in his film. And you know what? When Sacha Baron Cohen does it in a comedy like "Borat," it's funny. When Stephen Colbert does it, he does it to be funny.

O'BRIEN: Well, no, no, no. A lot of people took offense.

HUCKABEE: But, when Michael Moore does it, he's doing it to be mean.

O'BRIEN: Now, Sacha Baron -- "Borat" -- a lot of people took offense to "Borat." You know that.

I just want to say...


HUCKABEE: Oh, sure, they did.

But the point is that he...

O'BRIEN: Going back to my...

HUCKABEE: ... goes into it with the point of a comedy. He's not trying to -- to say that he's bringing out some expose on a major public issue, as Michael Moore tends to try to present himself to be a warrior of great ideas.

O'BRIEN: All right.

HUCKABEE: Let Michael Moore run for office.

O'BRIEN: So...

HUCKABEE: Let him take the shots that people take, and -- and present some policy ideas, rather than just collect the money from the movie tickets.

O'BRIEN: Well, there -- there were -- there were policy ideas in there, which, clearly, you disagree with.

Let me just -- as a final thought here, you don't have...


O'BRIEN: ... any regrets, though, any regrets about bringing his personal health, his weight, into the picture here?

HUCKABEE: No, because I didn't do it. All I said was that he's part of the problem. And he is part of the problem. I was part of the problem. Nobody can say it more clearly than me, because nobody was more a part of the problem than me.

Here's what I had to understand. Changing the health care cost of America starts with me, Mike Huckabee, changing me, and my lifestyle, my habits. I cost a lot less if I take care of myself than if I just say somebody else is going to pay for it. You know, I will just live any way I want, and let me let the rest of the taxpayers of America pick up the tab.

That's what's wrong with the health care system. We want to do whatever we want and let somebody else pay for it. That's what I have a problem with, with Michael Moore's message.

O'BRIEN: But the problem is, the system, you know -- you know how it works. In order for you to do what you did and to lose all the weight, you have to carry your own food around. You have to spend a lot of money. The system is not set up, the country is not set up, when you look at the way -- the -- the kind of food that's available, to make it easy for people to be healthy, is it?

HUCKABEE: Oh, Miles, there are a lot of changes that need to be made.

But it's not as difficult, as it is a matter of changing our mind-set and realizing that this is a lifestyle change. Frankly, one of the reasons we don't do better is because we get obsessed with how much we weigh. We need to be focused on the things that make us healthy. And, if we do things that make us healthy, like good nutrition and an active lifestyle, frankly, the weight takes care of itself.

So, I would say to people, don't focus on weight. Focus on health, healthy behaviors, what you take in, what you expend in energy through activity, and you will be a healthy person, and you won't have to worry about your weight or -- or really measure the pounds.

O'BRIEN: Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, Republican presidential candidate, out there in Iowa, thanks for your time today.

HUCKABEE: Thank you, Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right. We will see you soon.

Coming up: A private conversation between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and John Edwards becomes public. We will tell you what they said about their campaigns coming up. It's got some people upset. We have the tape. And just how true of a conservative Republican candidate is Mitt Romney?



O'BRIEN: We were just talking about health care with former Governor Mike Huckabee. For many, it's the top issue they care about amid this presidential campaign, health care.

Right now, many of the candidates are talking about it, but who's attracting the most attention?

Joining me now is our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

Bill, the question is, do voters see this all as a crisis?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, health care is right at the top of the list when voters are asked to name their domestic concerns. What's driving it? Well, for one thing, costs.

Premiums for family coverage have nearly doubled since 2000, and a lot of businesses have to eliminate or reduce employee health care coverage to remain competitive, plus, a lot of public awareness about the growing number of uninsured Americans, nearly 45 million in 2005, according to the Census Bureau. That, Miles, is 15 percent of the population.

O'BRIEN: That's a lot of people. How is this affecting the campaigns?

SCHNEIDER: Every candidate has a plan to overhaul the system. That's Republicans, as well as Democrats.

Now, Democrats are talking about ways to cut costs and expand coverage, often through government subsidies for poor people and for businesses. How are they going to pay for it? Some say they want to end the war in Iraq, some by ending President Bush's tax cuts for high-income Americans.

One Democrat who has dealt with the issue offered this advice at an NAACP forum in Detroit yesterday.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The plan itself is not the hard part. The hard part is actually getting something passed through the United States Congress, over all the objections of the Republicans and their allies in all of the special interests.


SCHNEIDER: You need a political coalition, which really wasn't there in 1994, even though the country had a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress.

O'BRIEN: So, Bill, what are the Republicans saying about all this?

SCHNEIDER: Well, you know, only one Republican showed up at the NAACP forum, although they were all invited.

But Tom Tancredo's approach is similar to other Republicans: greater individual choice.


REP. TOM TANCREDO (R-CO), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe that -- that we should have the ability to pick from -- from insurance companies any place in the whole country.


SCHNEIDER: Republicans want to use tax incentives to empower consumers. They believe you can expand coverage and hold down costs through more competition.

You know, Miles, to participate in this tournament, you have got to have a health care proposal. That's the ante.

O'BRIEN: So, the -- the trick for voters will be sorting it all out.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, indeed.

O'BRIEN: It's enough to give you a headache, isn't it?




O'BRIEN: All right, Bill Schneider...


O'BRIEN: ... thank you very much.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is portraying himself as the true conservative in the race for the White House. But video just posted online shows Romney distancing himself from the Republican Party back in 2002. He was, after all, running in Massachusetts.

Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, first of all, who posted this video?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Miles, this was posted by the Massachusetts Democratic Party, showing Romney, a Republican, sounding like anything but. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ... convinced that a state would be better off with all Republicans. As a matter of fact, I have been in a state like that for the last three years. It's not a good thing.

Very clear I think to people across the commonwealth that my "R" doesn't stand so much for Republican, as it does for reform.

I'm not running as...


TATTON: There is a clip from Romney's 2002 gubernatorial campaign. And it's not the only archival footage of Romney that has been posted on YouTube accusing him of a flip-flop.

Back in January, this video, posted anonymously, from Romney's 1994 Senate bid shows him talking about abortion.


ROMNEY: I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.


TATTON: That one prompted a response from Romney online. He went on to YouTube and posted this video, in which he said, I was wrong on some issues back then.

Well, the latest video is getting response, too, this one from Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, who brushed the video aside and said that it indicates Democrats view Romney as the greatest threat to them in 2008 -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: This is interesting for candidates. They now have a YouTube trail to worry about, don't they?

TATTON: They have -- they have to look all over the place. And, as you see, the candidates are responding in kind as well, Romney going online to address this issue in the forum where it was posted.

O'BRIEN: Abbi Tatton, thank you very much.

Up next in the program: What do Senator Clinton and Senator Edwards have against some of the other Democratic candidates taking part in those debates?

All that with Stephanie Cutter and Rich Galen here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) O'BRIEN: Well, it's first caught-on-tape moment of the campaign, best we can tell, careless whispers about their rivals caught on tape. Let's listen here to fellow Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards chatting after the NAACP forum.

Listen. And read up, too.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Christopher Dodd and Senator Joseph Biden.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: But we have got to cut the numbers, because they are -- they are just being trivialized. They're not serious. They're not serious.

You know, I think there was an effort by our campaign to do that, but it somehow got detoured. We have got to get back to it, because that's all we're going to do.


CLINTON: Thanks, Barack. So, our -- thanks, Dennis. Our guys should talk.


O'BRIEN: All right. I wish -- don't you wish the organ player just stopped?

Anyway, what they were talking about was thinning out the ranks of the Democrats who participate in the debates. You expected that kind of conversation probably, but it's always interesting to hear them in those unguarded moments.

Joining us to talk about it, Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist, and Rich Galen on the Republican side.

This kind of stuff, it's inevitable these days. You know, this -- we talked about YouTube. That's one factor, and these kind of off- camera moments. First of all, do they have a point, though? Should -- let's talk about on the Democratic side.


O'BRIEN: Should the debates be winnowed down a little bit? Because it's a cast of thousands right now.

CUTTER: Yes, well, this is a debate -- this is a -- quote, unquote -- "a debate" we have every four years of how you maximize the public forums.


O'BRIEN: The debate debate.


CUTTER: ... debates.


CUTTER: The debate about the debates...


CUTTER: ... and who participates. It happens every cycle.

And, you know, we have to remember that we are very early on in this cycle. We're still a year out from the general election campaign, six to eight months on figuring who the Democratic nominee is. It's always a frustration for the front-runners of how they can get their airtime and their points across and not have to deal with extraneous issues.

But, at the end of the day, they will be whittled down. But it's just going to take some time.



O'BRIEN: What do you think, Rich?

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think the -- and I think most people do like the fact that you have the Mike Gravels and the Tom Tancredos and the Dennis Kuciniches.

O'BRIEN: I think it adds interest as a viewer, right?


GALEN: And not only that, but it's their only chance to kind of -- many of them, Tancredo and Kucinich, as good examples, they know they're not going to be the nominee. But they're in here to make a point.

O'BRIEN: Throw a few bombs, you know?

GALEN: And it's their only chance to do it. They're good at their little piece of the action. And it makes the bigger campaigns react to them.


GALEN: And, if you can't -- if you can't figure out Dennis Kucinich, you're not going to figure out, you know, Fred Thompson or Rudy Giuliani.


O'BRIEN: And what's the lesson here about open mikes?


O'BRIEN: They never learn, right? They never learn.


GALEN: ... never learn.


CUTTER: ... never learn. You are always on.

O'BRIEN: It's a loaded gun.


O'BRIEN: Remember that, candidates. It's a loaded gun.

Let's talk about Barbara Boxer. When the Democrats came to power on the Hill, both sides, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, said, we're not -- impeachment is off the table. And now the I-word is entering into the -- the vernacular here.

Rich, let's talk about this for a moment. When Barbara Boxer says impeachment, is that music to your ears? Is that just great -- mean money for the Republican candidates?

GALEN: Well, remember the good old days of the San Francisco Democrats, where, you know, we made a fortune. We made a whole career out of the San Francisco Democrats.

Let me say this about Senator Boxer. If you -- if you were lost in an intellectual, you know, black box, you would not call on her intellect to be the bright light to show you the way.

O'BRIEN: Ouch.

GALEN: So...

O'BRIEN: Ouch.

GALEN: So, nobody -- nobody is sitting around, waiting to see what Babs is thinking about before they make up their mind. So...


GALEN: ... you know, it's just her mug on TV is...


O'BRIEN: All right. Let -- let's not go down that road any further.


O'BRIEN: Let's talk about impeachment.

Do Democrats overreach when they mention impeachment?

CUTTER: Well, I think that the point that she was making is that it's a constitutional right of Congress to exercise impeachment proceedings. And she wasn't saying that she was going to do it.


O'BRIEN: Oh, we all knew that. That's always been around.


CUTTER: That's right. It's always on the table.


O'BRIEN: High crimes and misdemeanors, we have -- we have had the civics lesson.

CUTTER: Right. Right.

O'BRIEN: But bringing it into the -- at this particular time, do you think that's a bad move?

CUTTER: I think that, you know, from what I have seen, it doesn't reflect where the American people are.

There are so many issues facing American families today, from, you know, how we get out of Iraq, how we pay for gas, how we send our kids to college, that the amount of time and tension and division it creates to -- to go down the impeachment road, I think they probably think it's not worth it.


O'BRIEN: So, your advice to them would be, shut up about impeachment?

CUTTER: My advice to them would be, never take it off the table, but, at this time, I think it's better -- our time is better served in finding an end to the war.

O'BRIEN: Never take it off the table, but -- but -- so, I -- you're -- you're having it both ways, aren't you?

CUTTER: Well, I -- I mean, it depends on what George Bush is going to do.


GALEN: Well, you didn't see people crowding into the frame to make sure they could be seen next to her.



O'BRIEN: It was -- it was a solo news conference.


CUTTER: He's got a year left.


O'BRIEN: What do you think?

GALEN: I think this is -- I mean, it's not going to go anywhere. And I really do think that -- I mean, I absolutely agree that -- that it does -- it does detract attention from the really important things, Iraq and -- and all the other things.


O'BRIEN: Have crimes really been committed here, I guess is a question to ask.


GALEN: Well, you -- you don't know until -- until you do an investigation.



GALEN: So far, no. But, you know, left -- Henry Waxman's got a long way to go. He may find something yet.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Let's talk about McCain. And I know you have a personal connection to this. Your son...

GALEN: My son was...


O'BRIEN: ... was, past tense...

GALEN: Past tense -- was the deputy campaign...


O'BRIEN: ... part of the blood -- what do they call it, bloody whatever week it was.

GALEN: Yes. But he -- he's happily...


O'BRIEN: What are you hearing, though?

GALEN: Well, you know, I -- it's -- it's -- I hear what everybody else hears, because now he's not there to kind of feed me inside info anymore. I hate that.


GALEN: But the -- but they -- they had their third fund-raiser in six months.

Susan Nelson has come on board -- three, by the way, very good fund-raisers. But they're -- so, that -- it's not the fund-raiser. I think it's the -- right now...


GALEN: ... it's the person they have been fund-raising for.

O'BRIEN: They have raised a lot of money, spent a tremendous -- where did this money go?

GALEN: Well, when you have 150 people on the payroll, it goes out in a hurry.


GALEN: It's not just their -- it's not just their salaries, but, as you know, it is also -- they rent cars. They're in hotels. They are eating things. They're on airplanes.


GALEN: It's very expensive.


CUTTER: ... lots of money to run a campaign.

GALEN: But, remember, and you were -- I mean, you -- you can speak to this better than I can.

Four years ago, John Kerry was, what...

CUTTER: ... 40 points down in New Hampshire.

GALEN: And out of money.



O'BRIEN: So, with that in mind, what's next? He's got $250,000 in the bank.

CUTTER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

O'BRIEN: That barely keeps the Straight Talk Express going 20 miles down the road, right?

CUTTER: Right. O'BRIEN: What do you do?

CUTTER: I think that a couple of things to keep in mind. Money is not always a reflection of public support.

And most voters out there have not made up their mind in the Republican primary. I think the Republican primary is very fluid right now. Anybody could come out ahead.

And, at this point four years ago, or in January of 2003, John Kerry was the front-runner. January of 2007, John McCain was the front-runner. They both fell in the summer. And I guarantee you that McCain has got more life to live in this race.

O'BRIEN: Really? So, reports of his demise, as Mark Twain would say, are...

CUTTER: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: ... a bit exaggerated, huh?

GALEN: Premature.


O'BRIEN: Premature. That's what -- that's the word.


O'BRIEN: Thank you for correcting me on that.

What do you -- do you agree with that? Does he...


GALEN: Yes, I think so. I think -- I think anybody who counts John McCain out -- I mean, one of the things that happens when you shrink these campaigns, I mean, what happens, as long as you have got enough money to get on Southwest Airlines from BWI to get up to New Hampshire, your campaign is alive.

CUTTER: Mm-hmm.

O'BRIEN: That's all it takes.


CUTTER: Mm-hmm.

O'BRIEN: All right. And maybe your son will get a job back. You never know.

GALEN: Well, I don't know about that.


GALEN: I think -- I think he's had his -- his fun.

CUTTER: Fred Thompson?

O'BRIEN: On to the next one, Fred Thompson.


O'BRIEN: We will see.

Rich Galen, Stephanie Cutter, thank you both for being here in our "Strategy Session."

CUTTER: Thank you.

GALEN: Thanks, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Appreciate it.

Still to come on the program: How would a major third political party change the presidential race? Jack Cafferty will have your thoughts.

And a sexual assault trial is sparking controversy, the judge banning the word rape. Really? Now many people, including the alleged victim, are outraged.


O'BRIEN: Jack Cafferty is in New York with "The Cafferty File," and he has words on a third party and whether we're ready for one -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is: How would a third major political party change the '08 presidential race?

Interestingly, nobody wrote in and said, everything's just fine the way it is. Nobody.

Don writes from North Carolina: "As a registered independent, I'm hanging my hopes on the work of Unity08 to create a viable third-party choice that I believe will win. If our third-party choice is just Ralph Nader, well, then we will have four more years of a broken government with a president who can't with a disjointed, lobbyist- loyal Congress."

Paul writes from Norman, Oklahoma: "Time for third parties in this country. For a supposed free society, it sickens me that we have more choices for toilet paper than we do political parties. The American political spectrum is too large to fall into just two groups. There needs to be more political diversity. The current political monopoly has done nothing but lead this country into war and debt."

Linda writes from California: "Jack, unless we do something to abolish the Electoral College prior to 2008, a third party has not a chance in hell. The Electoral College heavily favors the two-party system and only serves to swing more votes to a favorite." Steven in Florida: "As a lifelong Republican, I completely agree that a third party is needed, but only if it's a centrist party. The problem now is that only a polarizing candidate can get his party's nomination, a far-left one for the Democrats, far-right for the Republicans. That's what the nomination process gives us. We are a nation of centrists. It's too bad the political parties don't get it."

Jim in Wisconsin: "Everybody talks about a third party, as if someone new would be running, when, in truth, all those mentioned are just rehashed Republicans, Democrats, or, in some cases, both. A rose by any other name."

And Mary in Iowa: "If we had a third party, the American citizens just might get their country back. Hopefully, no more corporate interests or special interests or illegal aliens" -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Jack.


Happening now: U.S. troops in a battle with Iraqi police. A bloody raid in Baghdad nets an Iraqi officer suspected of organizing attacks on behalf of Iran. How deeply has Iran infiltrated the Iraqi forces?

An evangelist sentenced to die for practicing Christianity in communist North Korea -- a desperate effort to save him here in Washington.