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Candidates Prepare for CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate; Wounded Veterans Say They Are Denied Treatment, Disability Pay

Aired July 23, 2007 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, a ground-breaking presidential debate -- from we the people to YouTube on CNN. This time, Democratic candidates will face questions from you -- submitted via the Internet.
Wounded warriors say they've been denied treatment and disability pay. Now Iraq and Afghan veterans are suing the federal agency that's supposed to take care of them.

And he spent almost two decades in custody for drug charges. But Panama's former dictator, Manuel Noriega, is technically a prisoner of war.

Will that spare him from new charges?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


History unfolding history unfolding before your eyes. Just two hours from now, the Democratic presidential candidates will take the stage over at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina for a national debate.

But what a difference for this one. They'll have to answer questions from you posted on YouTube and presented here on CNN. Democracy in action and a debate like you've never seen before, right here on CNN, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, two hours from now. You're going to want to see that.

We're going to have much more on this debate coming up.

But let's get to some other news we're following right now, as well.

He wields extraordinary influence and carries unprecedented clout within the Bush administration. Much of it is behind closed doors. Now a new biography seeks to pull aside that veil of secrecy surrounding Dick Cheney.

Let's turn to our Brian Todd.

He's watching this story -- Brian, what are we learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Stephen Hayes got impressive access to Dick Cheney, more than 30 hours of interviews. Now, critics say Hayes got that access because he's sympathetic to Cheney. But from his book and our own interviews, we got fascinating detail on the vice president.


TODD: (voice-over): The most powerful vice president in modern history once considered the position, "a cruddy job." That's in the new book "Cheney" by Steven Hayes.

A Cheney aide tells CNN: "He did feel that way after discussions with his old boss, Gerald Ford, but that he had an understanding with President Bush from the start that his vice presidency would be different."

On Iraq, Cheney admits to Hayes: "The Coalition Provisional Authority was a mistake, wasted valuable time, that there should have been a government of Iraqis from the start."

Hayes talked about that with NBC.


STEPHEN HAYES, AUTHOR, "CHENEY": I mean it's a pretty big admission. This was, after all, the vehicle for post-war occupation that the Bush administration conceived and planned.


TODD: But critics say Hayes doesn't get into Cheney's mindset. One longtime Cheney associate told me, "Someone needs to ask Cheney directly, what happened to you, ask why he's far more secretive, suspicious of outsiders than when he was Ford's chief of staff."

One author who has written about the administration says this is what's not covered in most reporting on Cheney.

RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR, "THE ONE PERCENT DOCTRINE: It's Cheney and Bush with the door shut, making the key decisions. Sometimes others arrive -- Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice from overseas. But, ultimately, it's really two men who are -- who are really guiding the ship of state.

TODD: Cheney's office says the vice president has always said he's a team player and the president doesn't always take his advice.

On the criticism that Hayes is too much of a Cheney cheerleader --

MIKE ALLEN, POLITICO.COM: Steve brought an historian's perspective to this. He captured more. He used this time to learn more than anybody else is going to be able to.


TODD: Steven Hayes, who writes for the conservative magazine "The Weekly Standard," admits he is sympathetic to Cheney, but says he does not spare criticism from current and former officials. Hayes and other Cheney observers told me the 30 plus hours of access he had to the vice president is relative, that Cheney won't really open up to Stephen Hayes or anyone, no matter how close you get -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Any other special insights we're getting, at least in the quick read that you've had -- Brian.

TODD: Well, one source, a long time associate, told me that Cheney was close enough to reporters when he was Ford's chief of staff that he actually helped them pull off practical jokes on one another -- arranging to put a sheep in one reporter's room, luring another to Camp David for a nonexistent interview with Gerald Ford. That was back in 1976. So it kind of gives you an insight into how the man has changed a little bit.

BLITZER: All right.

Steve Hayes is going to be here with us tomorrow in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We'll talk a little bit more about the vice president.

Thanks, Brian, for that.

The war in Iraq certain to get a big part in tonight's CNN/YouTube debate. And there is a stunning development involving war veterans. They went off to from for their country and returned wounded in body, mind or spirit. Now a lawsuit on behalf of thousands of vets accusing the federal government of denying them disability pay and mental health treatment.

Let's go live to our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre -- Jamie, what's this all about?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this goes beyond the usual frustration with bureaucracy

What a group of wounded war veterans is charging is that what the government is actually doing is illegal in the Department of Veterans Affairs denying them, or sometimes delaying greatly, the benefits they say they deserve.

The issue is around Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, a well known effect of serving in combat. And they're saying that, in many cases, the government is deliberately diagnosing cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as personality disorders that existed before the war began, and therefore denying benefits to veterans.

In a class action lawsuit filed today in federal court in San Francisco, a group of war veterans represented by an attorney who had to sue on behalf of his own father to get veterans -- to get benefits after World War II -- has filed a suit seeking redress of this.

The Veterans Affairs Department says that it takes the -- very seriously trying to meet the needs of those veterans. But as we saw from the circumstances surrounding the treatment at Walter Reed, it's not just substandard housing, in some cases, but the real challenge that these veterans face is navigating the bureaucracy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, it's going to go on for decades. Some of the treatment, whether it's mental health or physical therapy for a lot of these wounded veterans that are going to be coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I assume there have been some studies how much this is going to cost the American taxpayers for decades to come -- not simply the cost of this war, which could go on for a while longer, obviously -- but in terms of the long-term.

MCINTYRE: Well, in terms of the treatment of wounded veterans, not just for mental and personality problems, but, also, you know, real physical wounds, as well, it's going to be in the billions of dollars. And I think, you know, when it comes to a case like, for instance, mental disorders where it's not always entirely clear what the cause is, the general feeling, I think, has to be that the veterans have to be given the benefit of the doubt and the assumption given that these things are related to service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Absolutely.

Jamie, thanks very much for that.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York for The Cafferty File.

I think you'll agree whatever it costs to treat these war veterans, that's what we're going to have to pay because they deserve it.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's an obscenity that veterans have to file a lawsuit against the federal government that they went out and risked their life and limb to protect. I mean that's an obscenity.

New Haven, Connecticut will soon be offering -- here's another one -- it's going to offer I.D. Cards to illegal aliens. This will give them a chance to open bank accounts in New Haven, get access to city services like the libraries.

New Haven officials overwhelmingly approved the program for municipal I.D. Cards last month, and it's scheduled to go in effect tomorrow.

Supporters say the program will improve public safety, give illegal aliens the same protections that legal residents get now.

Let me say that again. This will give illegal aliens the same protection that legal residents get now.

New Haven's administrator says two banks have already agreed to accept this new city card. Opponents say it will just serve to bring a flood of additional illegal aliens to New Haven, which will, in turn, strain social services and waste taxpayer dollars. One group is organizing a protest against these I.D. Cards tomorrow at New Haven's city hall and there's a North Carolina-based group that's put out flyers in 40 states urging illegal aliens to immediately move to New Haven. It reads, in both Spanish and English: "Come to New Haven for sanctuary. Bring your friends and family members, quickly."

So here's the question -- New Haven, Connecticut will offer I.D. Cards to illegal aliens, giving them access to things like libraries and bank accounts.

Is that a good idea?

E-mail or go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I guess if that's a government-issued I.D. Card, they can then travel and fly around the country, as well.

Is that right, Jack?

CAFFERTY: Io don't -- well, this is just for New Haven, Connecticut. But I, you know, I think this is just on the local level.

I love the group that's putting out flyers, though, around the country saying move to New Haven, bring your friends, bring your family -- do it quickly, before they change their mind.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much.

Still ahead, the Democratic presidential candidates preparing for their toughest line of questioning yet. That would be from you, during tonight's CNN/YouTube debate. It's less than two hours away. We're going to preview the event from every angle.

Plus, the Democratic Party chairman, Howard Dean -- he's standing by live to join us.

Also coming up, his U.S. prison term is almost up. France wants him next. CNN's John Zarrella looks at what the future hold for the former Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega.

And out of the frying span and into the fire. Britain's Tony Blair begins his new job -- not an easy one -- as Middle East special envoy.

What are his chances for success?

Stay with us.



(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's been almost two years since the hurricane struck and it seems like no progress has been made. Very little, but not enough.

Will the Gulf Coast be overlooked or will you guys send help?



BLITZER: We're just about one hour and 47 minutes away from a first of a kind debate. Anderson Cooper moderating tonight's CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate. It's live and interactive, 7:00 p.m. Eastern. That's coming up.

And you're also going to want to see the Republican presidential candidates on Monday, September 17th, from St. Petersburg, Florida, another CNN/YouTube debate there.

Tonight's debate is unique because the questions are being posed by people like you. For weeks now, viewers have been posting video questions on YouTube, the online video sharing Web site. Things could get very unpredictable.

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

She's down in Charleston at the debate site.

They could get -- force the candidates to go off their message, off script, if you will, which is not necessarily all that easy.

But is it important for them to do that?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think it's going to be important to do it, and here's why. You have people that have put in these questions who actually expect answers. And the way they've put in the questions has been really interesting. It is one thing, Wolf, for you and I to say let's suppose a person has a chronic illness and can't get health insurance, how would you help them do that?

It's another thing for someone to be sitting in their living room next to their father saying, my father has diabetes and he's going to die because I can't afford the medications that he needs.

How can you help me?

That's one of those questions that requires an answer that is less -- that is a little bit more than I have a great health care plan and you're really going to enjoy it and it -- it has, you know, X, Y and Z on it. It requires a very specific answer to that sort of thing. And that's why I think they're going to have to go off the script a little bit tonight.

BLITZER: And is there any candidate who really needs to do that desperately, if you will, tonight, to keep his or her campaign going? CROWLEY: I don't know about desperately, but I certainly think that there is a certain amount of heat on Barack Obama at this point. He is number one in fundraising, but Hillary Clinton has a two digit lead nationwide. The campaign will tell you that they're not that worried about that at this point in the campaign.

Nonetheless, he's got to reach out, particularly here in South Carolina, a very, very big state for him. Coming out of New Hampshire and Iowa, this is a state that really can make or break a candidate. So this is the place to have a performance that shines.

BLITZER: We'll be watching it together with you, Candy.

Thanks very much.

Join us, by the way, for a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM right after the debate. That will air at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, a special time -- 6:00 p.m. Pacific -- right after that two hour debate. These are live pictures you're seeing from the Citadel right now.

Let's check in with Carol Costello.

She's monitoring stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I have a rare site on Hawaii's Kilauea volcano to show you. Scientists say for the first time in 15 years, lava is oozing from a mile long fissure east of the volcano's crater. The small eruption wasn't seen until yesterday because of a tropical depression in the area. Kilauea has been erupting continuously for the past 24 years. This new eruption has not forced any new closures at nearby Hawaiian volcanoes in the national park there.

Massive flooding in parts of Britain is called the worst in modern history. It's so bad, it's threatening a major power substation serving half a million homes. Thousands of homes could be without running water for up to two weeks. Nine severe flood warnings have been issued by the U.K. Environment Agency. The agency says it will only get worse as rivers in southern England over flood due to runoff from torrential rainfall.

Time to take out of the trash from the International Space Station. Astronaut Clayton Anderson was one of two spacewalkers today who tossed a 1,400- pound ammonia tank over the side, along with other outdated equipment. The tank was sent to the orbiting lab in 2001 as a source of spare coolant. It will orbit Earth for a little less than a year before burning up in the atmosphere. So they're really not polluting space.

Barry Bonds' next crack at Hank Aaron's all time home run record is tonight, when the San Francisco Giants host the Atlanta Braves. Bonds is just three away from breaking Aaron's 31-year-old record of 755 career home runs. It could happen at home. Bonds is expected to play five or six games during San Francisco's upcoming seven game home stand. Bonds, by the way, turns 43 years old tomorrow.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It could be a birthday present.

We'll see what happens.

COSTELLO: It could be.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Carol, for that.

Still to come, the Democratic candidates getting ready for a ground-breaking presidential debate. The questions coming directly from the people posted on YouTube, presented on CNN. I'll speak about that and more with the Democratic committee chairman, Howard Dean.

He's standing by live.

And he's winding up a long U.S. prison sentence on drug charges.

Will Panama's former dictator, Manuel Noriega, face a new life or new charges?

Stay with us.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sick of negative political campaigns. So here's a hypothetical. If you were forced to vote and couldn't vote for yourself, which of the other candidates would you vote for and why?


BLITZER: We're only an hour and 39 minutes away from the start of a history making presidential debate. Instead of taking questions from a panel of journalists or from a prescreened audience, they'll be answering a huge variety of video questions that Internet users posted on the YouTube video sharing Web site.

Tonight, the questions as well as the answers, all will be making news right here on CNN. That's coming up, more on that.

But there's another important news story we're following right now and it involves a notorious name from the past that's back in the news. One time Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega has just about finished his prison sentence here in the United States. And now, because Noriega is technically a prisoner of war, his attorneys say he has to be sent home instead of going to France to face new charges.

CNN's John Zarrella is joining us now live from Miami -- John, what are you learning? What is the latest?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, it's funny, Noriega has been behind bars here in the United States now for 17 years. And now that he's about to be released, September 9th, his sentence is over. He was scheduled to be returned to Panama. All of a sudden, at the last minute, the government of France has stepped in and said, hey, we want him to face money laundering charges here in France.

Well, Manuel Noriega's attorneys say, look, he is a prisoner of war. He's had prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions. He has to be returned to his country, to Panama.

They went to court today, to federal court. They petitioned the court to uphold that prisoner of war status. And they are saying that what's happening now between France, Panama and the United States is a conspiracy because they say the Panamanian government doesn't want Noriega back.


FRANK RUBINO, MANUEL NORIEGA'S ATTORNEY: The government of Panama clearly is afraid of General Noriega. There are probably some Panamanian politicians who have been padding their pockets for many, many years and now they're afraid the general will come back and afraid that he may, for all I know, reinstitute himself in politics. But I guarantee you, he has no intention of doing that.

QUESTION: What does he want to do?

RUBINO: He wants to go back home. He wants to sit on his rocking chair, enjoy his grandchildren and be an elder statesman. He does not want to participate in Panamanian politics.


ZARRELLA: Now, the government of France alleges that Noriega laundered nearly $7 million through five French banks and through the purchase of three apartments in Paris. He was actually convicted in absentia 1999. They say that they will give him a new trial if he is returned to France to face those charges.

He was, in that 1999 trial, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

And, Wolf, there is a hearing in federal court this Thursday to try and sort it all out as to whether Manuel Noriega is a prisoner of war, as he was declared, and if he can be, in fact, sent to France to face these charges -- Wolf.


U.S. went to war, what, back in 1989 to --

ZARRELLA: That's right. BLITZER: -- in Panama as a result of what Manuel Noriega was doing then.


BLITZER: All right, a lot of material for lawyers to be fighting over, over the next several days and weeks, I assume.

John, thanks very much for that.

We want to give you a heads up about another important story we'll be watching tomorrow. The United States and Iran resuming high level talks about Iraq.

Let's get the latest from our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's round two, Iran and the U.S. face to face. The State Department says these talks will happen on Tuesday. They'll be at the ambassador level. And the topic -- Iraq's security only.

Iraqi officials will also be in the room.

The U.S. has accused Iran of fueling sectarian violence and giving Shia militants weapons that kill U.S. troops. The U.S. basically wants Iran to stop interfering and help stabilize the situation in Iraq.

Now, the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, explained why the U.S.

is engaging Iran directly again.


SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We think that this kind of engagement is important, that, at the very least, we can have a direct message to the Iranians that if they truly do want a more stable, secure, prosperous Iraq, they're going to have to change their behavior.


VERJEE: The U.S. says Iran has done nothing to stop meddling in Iraq since they talked back in May. This time, the U.S. says it wants results -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain Verjee reporting for us.

Thank you, Zain.

Coming up, you, too, can help make history. We're counting down to our CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate. You asked the questions in videos on YouTube. We put them to the candidates. It appears many of you are not -- not holding back. Also, new details on President Bush's health. We're going to tell you what his doctors say they found after the president underwent that colonoscopy.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, a clean bill of health for President Bush. The White House says doctors found no cancer in five small growths removed from the president's colon. Mr. Bush underwent a routine colonoscopy on Saturday.

A top U.S. AIDS researcher says the world is losing the battle with the virus that causes AIDS. President Bush's key adviser on AIDS spoke to a conference of leading HIV experts in Sydney, Australia. He told them more people are being infected with HIV than are being treated.

And the Taliban gives 23 South Korean hostages in Afghanistan another 24 hours to live. A Taliban spokesman says South Korea has until tomorrow to agree to withdraw its 200 troops from Afghanistan or they'll begin killing their captives.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


In about an hour -and-a-half, we're going to see the presidential candidates up close and personal.

CNN's Anderson Cooper hosts tonight's historic CNN/YouTube Democratic debate. It's live and interactive. The Democratic presidential candidates beginning to take questions submitted online by Americans. That debate 7:00 p.m. Eastern, an hour-and-a-half from now.

This is a debate the likes of which we've never seen before -- questions posed -- posted on the Internet, on YouTube, and put to the candidates here on CNN.

Let's go to Charleston, South Carolina.

CNN's John Roberts, the co-anchor of "AMERICAN MORNING," is already on the scene for us.

These candidates, these eight Democratic candidates, all of them are going to be update enormous pressure, John, because this is a unique new format. They don't know what these questions are, necessarily, unless they've gone through all 3,000 of them. And it's pretty hard to prepare for that. JOHN ROBERTS, CNN HOST: Well, I'm sure they have people that have looked at all of the questions, Wolf. But there are 2,989 of them that were submitted. And the danger here is with that many questions -- you know, you always know that if there's a moderator, a panelist or even a small town hall that there's a finite number of questions you can get but this is almost 3,000, Wolf.

So what's going to come out of left field? It's also a little bit different from the typical town hall debate because as we saw in 1992 when Bill Clinton just played this so beautifully, you can reach out to the person in the audience who was asked the question, talk to them one-on-one. This is going to take the candidates thinking about the person, wherever they may be in the country who was asked the question and trying to talk through the medium of television in this big hall to that one person.

And it may for some of the candidates pose a little bit of a challenge. Because talking directly to somebody through the medium of television is a lot different than talking to them in person. And that's when we see how genuine the candidates are. It's not necessarily what they're going to say that will be important, Wolf, but I think in this case how they'll respond.

BLITZER: Who do you think, John, whose strength will be showcased tonight and who is potentially in trouble?

ROBERTS: I'm going to make a bold prediction here. I'll bet when you look at the blogs tomorrow, you're going to see the person who did the best in this debate was Mike Gravel. And I think that Gravel is going to do well because he's sort of almost like a child - even though he's not exactly a child anymore but he's sort of a product of the YouTube situation. He has a tremendous amount of support from people on the Internet. He'll talk to these people right off the cuff. There's not many filters between here and here when it comes to Mike Gravel.

And I think people who have submitted these questions, people who are YouTube users are going to appreciate that. Other than Gravel, I think that John Edwards is going to do well because this is sort of his medium. He understands it. I think Barack Obama will do well. Hillary Clinton has been criticized by some people as being a little cold in these big settings but I think she's shown she's adept at using the Internet. We'll see how far she can go to making the connection. I also think that Joe Biden will probably do well. Chris Dodd I'm not sure about. Bill Richardson I'm not sure about either. But I will bet Mike Gravel will be the guy that most people will be talking about tomorrow in terms of how well he used this format.

BLITZER: John Roberts will be joining us after the debate at 9:00 p.m. Eastern for some more analysis. John will be anchoring from Charleston, South Carolina, AMERICAN MORNING tomorrow morning. And that starts at 6:00 a.m. Eastern. John, thanks very much.

Let's move on to some other news that we're following right now. He says he's an optimist and he'll need every ounce of hope he can muster. Britain's Tony Blair began his first visit to the Middle East today in his new job as an international peace envoy. But is that peace effort a mission impossible? Joining us now, our world affairs analyst, former defense secretary, William Cohen. He is chairman and CEO of the Cohen Group here in Washington. Mission impossible for Tony Blair right now?

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, mission very difficult. First of all, his mission is fairly narrowly prescribed. He is there to try and help Mahmoud Abbas build institutions that would support democratic reform and to help energize his leadership, Mahmoud Abbas.

BLITZER: Of the Palestinians.

COHEN: Of the Palestinians. So that -- that's really quite complementary to what the United States is trying to do at the same time. The difference is, you still have Hamas in Gaza. And the question then becomes, what can Tony Blair do in trying to build these institutions in the West Bank with Mahmoud Abbas? So I suspect given his personality, given his talent and given his advocacy and energy, he's going to take every opportunity to try and do more than what he's limited to right now and the building of institutions.

If there's a chance for him to help in the negotiations to bring about some sort of reconciliation, he's going to do that.

The real problem seems to me is, what are you going to do about Hamas? Can we isolate Hamas, marginalize them to the point where they have no influence? That's doubtful. It may be where he's an instrument whereby you could bring Hamas into the political process and hopefully have a united Palestinian position rather than divided one.

BLITZER: Looking ahead to this conference that President Bush talks about that's supposed to happen in the fall -- Condoleezza Rice will be trying to bring all the various moderate elements together with the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, the Egyptians, the Jordanians.

Will the other moderate Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, will they join and sit down with the Israelis and the others at this conference, something they refused to do until now?

COHEN: I think the Saudis have to be a fundamental part of this. There's going to be no resolution of the Middle East peace process without the support of the Egyptians, which has a peace arrangement with Israel. With Jordan, which has one. The Saudis do not. The Saudis have indicated they're prepared to recognize Israel and prepared to go back to these pre-'67 borders.

BLITZER: They said they'd only do that at the end of the process as opposed to the beginning.

COHEN: If we're going to have a reasonable solution, if we're going to have all the parties, the Saudis will have to be a part of it. They after all are going to be financing the rebuilding of the Palestinian state if it's created. BLITZER: So presumably they should participate in this conference as well. Let's look ahead to tomorrow, when there will be a second round of talks involving the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, and the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad. The focus of the discussion not Iran's nuclear program but the situation in Iraq. Is anything going on based on what you can see or are they simply going through the motions.

COHEN: Well, they're talking. We have very little leverage over the Iranians right now. There's no doubt in my mind that the Iranians would like to see the United States humbled to make an exit at some point in time, not today but in the reasonable foreseeable future, that we're on the way out and we've been badly damaged and wounded and our reputation impaired. I think that's what they would want to see.

The United States is also sending a message to Iran, don't count on this being a stable environment that you can continue to spread your own radical agenda. So there's something at stake for the Iranians here as well. And I think this is what the United States is going to talk to them about.

I think there's a bigger picture involved. You can't just confine this to talking about Iraq. You have to talk about their nuclear program. We don't have any leverage unless the U.N. will stand behind extending those sanctions against Iran. That gives the U.S. and the United Nations some leverage on them. Absent of that, it's going to be more talk without any progress.

BLITZER: He's an experienced diplomat, Ryan Crocker, he is a career foreign service officer, knows the Middle East about as well as any State Department diplomat does. So we'll see what he can accomplish, if anything. Tough challenge for him as well. Thanks very much.

COHEN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're getting close to t-minus one hour and counting until the CNN-YouTube presidential debate tonight. Coming up, I'll speak about that and more with the current chairman of the Democratic Party, Governor Howard Dean. He's standing by live.

Also, your thoughts on Jack Cafferty's question about I.D. cards that would give illegal immigrants access to things like libraries and bank accounts. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe that two gay men or two gay women are capable of loving each other to the level at which a man and a woman are?


BLITZER: As you can see in our countdown clock, we're only about 1 hour 19 minutes away from the groundbreaking CNN/YouTube debate. It will come to us live from the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. In a moment, we'll speak about it with Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman.

But first, there's another story that's causing a stir on the Internet right now. Some people apparently think that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Osama bin Laden have something in common. In an apparent sign of the times, someone made some references. And now the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is taking some heat.

Let's go to Carol Costello. She's following this story for us. How is Romney responding to this whole flap right now?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's: certainly offering no apologies. No apologies from Mitt Romney on this. He was caught on camera holding up that sign. Take a look at it along with me. Here he is with a supporter sporting a sign that says no to Osama, Obama and Chelsea's momma. This first showed up on and has gotten some feedback on the blogs, so much so a blogger who was once a Democratic campaign operative confronted him in New Hampshire asking, saying I'm just concerned because I can remember where I was on 9/11. How can you compare any American to Osama bin Laden, to which Romney responded ...




ROMNEY: I'm not -- you know what, lighten up, slightly. Lighten up. There are a lot of jokes out there. I'm not responsible for all the signs that I see that I'm with and just lighten up.


COSTELLO: Some folks say, yeah, OK, but Romney was seen holding the sign. And asked why he didn't read a sign he was holding up before someone snapped a picture, he said, he just didn't read it. The Romney campaign told us this was a seconds-long encounter. The woman approached him. He steadied her sign without reading it, someone snapped the picture. He had no idea who this woman was. He assumed she was a supporter, took the picture and off she went.


BLITZER: He said lighten up a little bit, but did he flatly say, I, of course, am not equating Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden?

COSTELLO: He said he's offering no apologies, he took this as a joke. He said, hey, I didn't read the sign, I didn't even know what was on it. So he's offering no apologies whatsoever.

BLITZER: Carol, thanks very much. Carol Costello doing some good reporting for us. Meanwhile Republican candidates get their opportunity to participate in a CNN-YouTube debate. The CNN/YouTube Republican presidential debate takes place in St. Petersburg, Florida, on September 17th. You might want to mark your calendars for that day.

Up ahead, Governor Howard Dean standing by to join us leave. We'll get his take on tonight's Democratic presidential debate. Also ID cards for illegal immigrants giving access to libraries, bank accounts among other things. Jack Cafferty wants to know if that's a good idea.

And you know about the videos for tonight's debate submitted by voters, but did you know the candidates have also sent in their own videos? We're going to give you a preview.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The government of Sudan is blocking the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force to Darfur.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What would you as president do to compel the Sudanese government to allow the United Nations to deploy its forces to protect civilians in Darfur and to protect civilians in eastern Chad?


BLITZER: We're counting down to the CNN/YouTube debate just about an hour and 15 minutes or so from now until Anderson Cooper hosts the first of its kind events for the Democratic presidential candidates. The CNN-YouTube debate coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Let's check in with Lou Dobbs to see what's coming up right at the top of the hour. Hi, Lou.

LOU DOBBS, CNN HOST: How you doing, Wolf? Coming up 6:00 p.m. Eastern, we'll be reporting on new evidence that powerful lobbyists, the Congress and the federal government are failing to disclose the whole truth about the safety of your food. The evidence indicates the meat you're buying may not be as fresh as it looks. We'll have a full report.

Also, new charges of a cover-up in the case of two former Border Patrol agents sent to prison for shooting and wounding an illegal alien drug smuggler who was given immunity by the Justice Department. Did the government of Mexico play a role in this case?

And the illegal alien open borders lobby has a new excuse for the failure of the amnesty legislation in the Senate. La Raza now blaming the collapse of that legislation on what it calls a, quote, "wave of hate in this country."

But La Raza is ignoring the facts that senators acted on the will of the people. We'll have that story and much more at the top of the hour. Please join us for that. And Wolf, we will also be previewing the YouTube-CNN Democratic presidential debates tonight coming up tonight in just a little over an hour. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thank you, Lou. Thanks very much.

So what's it like to stand on the stage before a national audience and face a barrage of questions while trying to score some points against your rivals for the White House? The former presidential candidate, Howard Dean, has been there. This debate, though, is somewhat different. He's now the chairman of the Democratic Party. Governor Dean joining us from South Carolina.

You're there. What advice do you have, governor, for these eight Democratic presidential candidates who are going to have this new and different format tonight?

HOWARD DEAN, DNC CHAIRMAN: Well, this is a big deal. This empowers ordinary Americans to get into what we call a two-way campaign, so you get to hear from candidates, ask them questions directly, all in front of a national audience. So we're delighted. The only advice I have is answer the questions that people ask. This really is the no spin zone when ordinary, real Americans get to ask the questions on YouTube. I think it's fantastic.

BLITZER: How aggressive should they be, though, in trying to differentiate themselves not from the president or Republican presidential candidates but from each other? In other words, for Hillary Clinton to try to make it clear she is no Barack Obama or John Edwards or whatever?

DEAN: I think the best thing that's happened so far is that we see really clear evidence the differences between the parties. All eight Democrats believe we ought not to be in Iraq and have said they have plans to get us out. All 11 or whatever it is, Republicans think we ought to stay in Iraq. All eight Democrats thought pardoning Scooter Libby was a bad idea. All the Republicans thought it was a good idea. So I don't care so much about the difference between individual Democrats, because they're not that big. The big differences are between the Democrats and the Republicans. And the bottom line is, if you want to get out of Iraq, you've got to elect a Democrat. If you want to get rid of the culture of corruption, you have to elect a Democratic president.

So as you know, I'm neutral, as long as they elect one of the people on the stage tonight I think the country will move forward.

BLITZER: One of the Republican candidates, Ron Paul has a different stance than the other Republican candidates on the situation in Iraq.

DEAN: Those of us that know Ron Paul know he's a libertarian, not a Republican.

BLITZER: Right. He's running for the Republican presidential nomination. Why do you believe in the public opinion polls the Democratic led Congress scores even worse than the president of the United States when it comes to job approval? DEAN: I think Congress always have problems. Frankly, the Republicans have obstructed the will of the American people. And I think the filibuster and the all-night session will help make it clear who is obstructing people in Congress.

We have an ethics bill that the Republicans have obstructed -- actually, a senator from this state obstructed, Senator DeMint has obstructed and stopped single-handedly for a while. That will be up in the next week or so.

We've had motions to get out of Iraq. Senator McConnell has stopped that with a filibuster. So we're in a little tougher shape in the Senate, where we don't have the 60 votes that you need to get anything done. But I think at the end of the day, the American people prefer new leadership and that means Democratic leadership.

BLITZER: But you know that a lot of Democrats say that they elected this Democratic majority in the House and the Senate, the primary mission was to get out of Iraq. It's now approaching almost a year the Democrats have been in the majority. The U.S. is still in Iraq. How worried are you as chairman of the party that your base, the Democratic base, is going to be angry at fellow democrats because the strategy in Iraq, the situation in Iraq continues full speed ahead?

DEAN: Well, first of all, where we do have control, which is in the House, we've been able to pass two bills to get us out of Iraq. We don't control the Senate yet. We have a small majority -- in fact now we don't have one because Senator Johnson is out and Senator Lieberman is voting with the Republicans on the Iraq question. So we start with 49 votes. It's our job first to try to get out of Iraq. And if we can't do that, we ought to make sure everyone understands it's the Republicans obstructing the will of the American people and the president's veto that is keeping us in Iraq. It's not the Democrats in the Senate, it's the Republicans in the senate and the president of the United States that is obstructing the will of the American people to get us out.

BLITZER: We're almost out of time but a quick question on the procedure tonight. Is it wise -- you're speaking as the chairman of the Democratic Party -- for all of these eight Democratic candidates to be invited to these debates? Or should the debates be more focused on the top-tier candidates?

DEAN: Well, as you may remember in 2004, if the debates had been focused on the top tier candidates, I probably wouldn't have been on the stage until about June. So I think we want to include as many reasonable folks as possible. Technically there are 139 running for the Democratic nomination. Obviously, we can't have them all up here. But these folks have been elected to things like Congress and the Senate and so forth in the past, and I think we've got the right forum including as many people as reasonably possible.

BLITZER: Governor Dean, thanks very much for coming in.

DEAN: Wolf, thanks for having me on. BLITZER: And voters are not the only ones who submitted YouTube videos for tonight's debate. CNN has asked the candidates themselves to submit their own short videos. Our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner is here. Jackie, could the candidates' videos give the other videos sort of a run for their money?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, nobody wants to ruin the surprise. All we have are a few clues. But remember this video from Mike Gravel where he stares at the camera and then just throws a rock into the lake? We talked to his campaign to find out about the video tonight and they said his films are more like independent films than Hollywood blockbusters and they think people are going to be very excited about what they debut tonight.

Of course there is Senator Clinton who asked people to help pick her campaign theme song and then she went ahead and asked people to submit entries for tonight's video. That user generated winner will debut tonight.

We spoke to Barack Obama's campaign and all they gave away is their video tonight will focus on how people can unite together make change. We want to know what you think of all of the videos tonight. Go to Give your I-Report, be our political pundit, our analysts tonight and we'll hopefully feature some of those after the debate, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jacki, for that.

Let's check back with Jack Cafferty. He is in New York with "The Cafferty File." Jack?

CAFFERTY: Help me out here. What's the significance of throwing a rock in the lake?

BLITZER: It was -- I remember that it was some sort of symbolic point he was trying to make. I'll get back to you on that, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Research that, will you. New Haven, Connecticut is going to offer ID cards to illegal aliens giving them access to things like libraries and bank accounts. We want to know if you think that's a good idea.

Renee in Illinois. "Sure it's a great idea if can be used as a means to legally deport them. As a registered nurse who works in an inner city emergency room I've taken care of the same name three times. Each time he was using a different name. My only question is can I apply for one? Then maybe I wouldn't have to work four 12-hour shifts a week to support my families and theirs."

Jamieson in Devon, Pennsylvania. "Illegal immigrants getting services they haven't paid for and don't have any rights to. Fantastic."

Al in Washington writes, "Hopefully, all illegal aliens will move to New Haven. Any place that dumb deserves to have them all. The rest of the country is sick of the sight of these freeloading criminal parasites."

Tariq, Raleigh North Carolina. "Jack, I have no problem with undocumented persons getting IDs. They live here and work here and contribute to our economy. They should not have to live in the shadows of the economy. I say regularize them all. And if more aliens come, all the better."

Tony writes, "Well, at least the town of New Haven can now track who they are and what they're doing. We know the federal government can't."

Mark in Oklahoma City. "Why don't we just go ahead and mail U.S. ID cards to every citizen in Mexico. That way when they get here they'll already have one."

And Adrian in Brooklyn writes this. "Free hourly shuttle service starts today. Please report to the corner of 4th Avenue and 47th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York. A light snack and soda is provided."

Presumably for the trip to New Haven. If you didn't see your e- mail here go to where we post more online along with video clips of "The Cafferty File." Wolf?

BLITZER: A very popular feature. Thanks Jack, very much.

Up next, the river of water runs through it and a new lease on life for a soldier who lost his leg. We're going to show you some amazing pictures in today's "Hot Shots." Stay with us. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Tonight 9:00 p.m. Eastern, a special SITUATION ROOM right after the CNN-YouTube debate. We'll get immediate reaction from the candidates tonight in THE SITUATION ROOM at a special time, 9:00 Eastern.

Let's take a quick look at some "Hot Shots." In England a man looks out over the River Thames from a bench now surrounded by water.

In Rhode Island a young Army vet who lost a leg in Iraq shows off a new prosthesis, the first of its kind.

In Romania, boats set sail at sunset at a lake in Bucharest where temperatures have soared to more than 100 degrees. Some of this hours "Hot Shots," pictures often worth 100 words.

Remember, the debate starts in one hour. LOU DOBBS TONIGHT starts right now -- Lou.