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Struggle to Reach Trapped Miners Continues; Do Union Votes Still Matter?

Aired August 7, 2007 - 16:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now -- the slow struggle to reach six trapped miners dead or alive as the search drags on and the anxiety builds. A mine boss is lashing out.
Also this hour -- Democrats work for union support. Who has the edge with big labor heading into a presidential campaign forum tonight?

And does the union vote still even matter?

Plus, White House hopefuls take notice that your house may be at risk. We'll look at new proposals to help homeowners pay their mortgages and to crack down on shady lenders.

Wolf Blitzer's off today, I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It could take another two days or more for rescuers to finally reach the six men trapped deep inside a collapsed mine in central Utah and the head of the company that runs the mine says the search has been too slow. Bob Murray held a lengthy and often angry news conference today, lashing out at reporting about the cave-in and defending his mining practices. Here's just a sample.


BOB MURRAY, CEO, MURRAY ENERGY CORP.: This is the first major accident I've ever had in one of my coal mines in 20 years of being in existence. The first major accident. And this was caused by an earthquake, not something that Murray Energy or Utah American did or our employees did or our management did. Or that the mine safety and health administration did. It was a natural disaster. The lord has determined. Already whether dead or alive from the percussion of the earthquake. But it's my job to get to them as quickly as possible and find out. And I will not leave this mine until those men are rescued, dead or alive.


MALVEAUX: And whether the miners are dead or alive, rescuers know exactly where they are. But getting to them is proving to be very, very difficult. Our own Brian Todd is keeping tabs on the search. Brian, where does this stand now?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, it's been about 34 hours since the collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine. And the rescue teams have moved in more than 300 feet. But today, the mine owner did say the progress was too slow.


TODD (voice-over): The fastest approach, drilling from abandoned shafts nearby, failed on the first attempt.

MURRAY: I'm disappointed. Disappointed with our progress in gaining access to these trapped miners. But, of course, to us progress is never fast enough in a situation like this.

TODD: Now, rescuers are working furiously on three other approaches, clearing the rock fall, drilling from above and drilling from the side. Officials say they know the location and they have the manpower and the equipment. But the mine owner says even if everything goes right, no approach will take less than three days to get through.

MURRAY: There is plenty of air in there for them to survive for weeks and there's water. But we don't know. We'll know in three days.

TODD: There has been no contact with the missing miners. But one positive sign, there has been no sign of fire or explosion. The Mexican consul in Salt Lake City say three of the miners are citizens of Mexico. The others have not been identified. Today, the families of all the trapped miners await every bit of news.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We arranged some food for them and did some meals, and they were holding up very well. They're getting frequent updates and I think that's helping them.


TODD: Even the U.S. military is involved in this effort. Offering a couple of transport planes to bring equipment from Pittsburgh that may be able to help her. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: And, Brian, what kind of openings are they actually talking about?

TODD: Well, we're told that there's going to be one or there may have already been drilled, one from above. Only two inches wide. That's to get air and water in. There's also going to be one from the side that's much larger. And of course they're also going to try to clear the original tunnel by removing the debris that's blocking it.

MALVEAUX: Brian Todd, thank you so much for the very latest.

Mine owner Robert Murray looked at reports from the U.S. Geological Survey and came away convinced that it was a natural earthquake that caused the cave-in. However, some quake experts are not so sure. University of Utah seismologists say their instruments registered the kind of seismic waves likely caused by a mine collapse, but they did add that there is too little data to draw a firm conclusion just yet. Now, this disaster has raised new questions about a practice known as retreat mining. It's used at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, and some experts say it is dangerous. In his news conference today, CEO Bob Murray blasted the former head of the federal mine safety and health administration Davitt McAteer. He has spoken out against retreat mining.


BOB MURRAY, CEO, MURRAY ENERGY CORP.: I wish you would take the word "retreat mining" out of your vocabulary. Those were words invented by Davitt McAteer, Oppegaard (ph), who are lackeys for the United Mine Workers and officials at the United Mine Workers who would like to organize this coal mine. You people don't understand that. I'm telling you that. That's a fact. Retreat mining had absolutely nothing to do with the disaster that happened here, nor was there any retreat mining happening at the time of the disaster.


MALVEAUX: Davitt McAteer joining us now from Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Thank you so much for being with us again in THE SITUATION ROOM, as you were yesterday. I want to start off first by giving you an opportunity to respond to the criticism from Bob Murray. You just heard what he said earlier today. Essentially saying that you do not know what you are talking about and that perhaps you even have ulterior motives for your analysis.

DAVITT MCATEER, MINE SAFETY INVESTIGATOR: The federal agency has stated that retreat mining was in progress at the time of the accident. For eight years I served as the assistant secretary for mine safety and health, and we know that retreat mining is a practice that is carried out in a number of mines in this country. And studies by NIOSH has suggested that it is a dangerous practice. It's up to the investigators to find out the actual cause of the explosion -- or I'm sorry, of the collapse. And that will be done over a period of time. I think the point here is that we should be focused on trying to rescue these miners and trying to get to them as fast as possible and not be engaged in an issue of some motivation. I simply can't -- I don't want to justify his comments with a statement.

MALVEAUX: Is it -- do you two have a history of some sort? Is this something that is personal or on a professional level here? Can you explain why it is that he lashed out?

MCATEER: I have no idea. When you're the head of an enforcement agency with 2,000-some inspectors from time to time those people that you're enforcing the law with take exception to that. And I appreciate that and I don't have any trouble with that. But there's no history that I know of.

MALVEAUX: You were also tapped to investigate the Sago mine, that explosion, that disaster. Is it possible that you will also be asked to investigate this mine collapse?

MCATEER: I don't know that I would be invited to investigate. In the case of the Sago mine, I'm a resident of West Virginia, and the governor here in West Virginia has invited me to investigate that particular problem. There are certainly qualified people in the state of Utah that the governor might ask to investigate that. I would be happy to participate. The point is that we're trying to learn from this accident, first try to get those miners out as quickly as we can. And, secondly, the saddest thing is that with this accident, we're seeing to be in a similar situation that we were in, in Sago, which is we don't have good data about the miners, because we're not in communication with the miners. That process has not been improved. We understand from Mr. Murray that there has been increased air and that's a good thing. But we don't have the way to get to them in a quick way and we're flying blind in an accident. And that's where we don't want to be in the future in terms of mine safety.

MALVEAUX: I just want to wrap up on this retreat mining, because obviously it's a controversial practice. Bob Murray says that that did not take place next to this cave-in or anywhere in the immediate vicinity. That practice, as you know, of actually trying to disrupt the mine, to get the coal to fall down intentionally, putting, of course, those miners at a greater risk. Do you have any evidence that retreat mining was the cause of this cave-in?

MCATEER: No, no one has ever said retreat mining was the cause of this cave-in. Once the retreat mining source comes from the federal agency that says this company was engaged in retreat mining. Retreat mining as a practice, as I mentioned, two NIOSH studies in '93 and '90 -- I'm sorry, in 2003 and '96 have suggested that retreat mining as a practice is a high-risk type of mining and there are more fatalities related to that. And those are the studies that we relied upon with regard to that.

MALVEAUX: So just to be clear, you said that you did cite a source that retreat mining does take place at this particular canyon?

MCATEER: The federal agency has stated that retreat mining does -- has been taking place at this particular mine.

MALVEAUX: Let's move on. Obviously, this is a very tenuous, dangerous situation for these miners that are trapped. Bob Murray talked about a number of things that could be done to reach them. One of them obviously is drilling from above. He talked about these two- inch holes here that they could possibly lower a scope for communications or even food and air. How does that actually work?

MCATEER: Well, what has to happen is that the mine -- you have to get and be very accurate with where you're dropping the hole. It's 1,500 feet of overburden and you've got to get that down through the strata and then into the location. The question is where these miners are, and are you going to hit the spot where the miners are. In the case of Quecreek that was done. In the case of Sago, we didn't hit the right spot. So that's the first test that has to be made. If you get it down there and get it in the right location, then you have to get a means to look down there and a means to communicate down. So, you would send down a small camera. You would send down some other means to try to communicate with the miners. You would ask them, therefore, to tap on the hole so that you can -- so they can send a signal back to you that they're alive. If that's the case, then you would try to get to them, some sort of food or some sort of sustenance. Recently the Chinese in rescuing miners there sent milk down that hole. And you would send the milk down to give them sustenance for a period of time until you could get a bigger hole at that location or until you could get horizontally into the mine and be able to recover the miners.

So it's a multi-step process. The difficulty is time is against us. As Brian Todd suggested at the top of this piece, we've been in here 34 hours now, and it takes time to do these things, and the longer we go, the more risk we have. And that's really what we're fighting is the time of getting to the miners and getting the information to them or getting the relief to them that we want. We learned at Sago and here again, we're learning that we can get to them, but it's a matter of time. And if they have sufficient supplies to live --


MCATEER: -- then we can get to them. But it is a matter of time.

MALVEAUX: Sure, Davitt McAteer, thank you so much. We will get back to you momentarily.

Americans got a wake-up call about mine safety more than a year ago. That is when 12 miners were killed in an explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia. Just months later congress passed and President Bush signed the most significant mine safety legislation in three decades. It includes these three key provisions -- hefty new civil and criminal fines on mines that violate federal safety standards, mines are required to store more oxygen underground to help keep trapped crews alive, and mines must have two experienced rescue teams available for quick response operations.

Now, we want to give you a look now at a stunning video taken right when the Minneapolis I-35 west bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. It is from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and you can see cars stopped as people realize something is horribly wrong. The camera slowly swings around and shows a huge hole from the collapsed bridge. Amid the smoke, you can see people scramble out of their cars to run. And some vehicles are teetering on the edge. CNN's Susan Roesgen joins us in the next hour in THE SITUATION ROOM for much more on this and the search and recovery effort.

The Democratic presidential race is heating up today with a new candidate forum and a brand new poll. We'll tell you if any of Hillary Clinton's rivals are gaining on the democratic front-runner and why she may have a problem winning over big labor.

Plus, can Rudy Giuliani count on his son's vote after his daughter seemed to reject him online? The answer ahead.

And next, while President Bush meets with his war council, there is new arguing over whether the mission in Iraq is winnable. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: U.S. troop levels in Iraq now are at their highest level ever after more than four years of war. That is the word today from the pentagon. President Bush meantime met with his top national security advisers at Camp David today, all this is playing out amid new and conflicting statements about whether the war can be won and whether the increase in troop strength is actually working.

Let's bring in our own White House correspondent Ed Henry. Ed, the White House made a big deal last week about those two scholars going over to Iraq and declaring that progress was made, but perhaps they overstated their case.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're absolutely right, Suzanne, last week Vice President Cheney himself, said look at these two war critics, Mike O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack, they wrote this op-ed in "The New York Times" when they came back from a trip to Iraq and it was headlined, "A War we Just Might Win." But it turns out there was a third scholar on the trip as well and he's declaring today in a new report that he does not have as rosy a view of the situation on the ground. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has just put out his own 24-page report and he calls it the tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq. He declares the continued U.S. effort is filled with serious risks and he adds, quote, "Like it or not the U.S. can only achieve even moderate success by a sustained surge for the least bad option and will have to face years in which it must operate in a climate in which it also will have to search for the least bad uncertainty."

Now Cordesman does acknowledge that there has been some real military progress on the ground in Iraq, but he attributes that to luck in large part. He says luck is a major factor and declares the surge is still a failed strategy. So a much different view from someone on that same trip. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: And Ed, you and I talk to analyst Michael O'Hanlon quite a bit about the Iraq situation. What is he saying today about the way his comments were made?

HENRY: Well it's interesting, Michael O'Hanlon today tells me he agrees with much of what Anthony Cordesman says in this new report. I can tell you that when you read the nuance of this report and the nuance of that op-ed last week, they are pretty similar, but the difference is "The New York Times" put a very rosy headline on it, a war we just might win. But when you read the details, it's pretty similar but the White House ran with that headline last week. A lot of other people ran with it as well. What's the White House saying today? Spokesman Gordon Johndroe told CNN that today's report quote, "Lays out both the progress that has been made in the last few months as well as the challenges that lie ahead. And he also notes that the author says that a precipitous withdrawal would not be a good idea.

As you know, the White House has been jumping on that as well. The idea that Democrats want a precipitous withdrawal even though they deny that. The bottom line is that a third think tank scholar was on this same trip and he has a much, much different view of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Ed, thanks for keeping them honest. Thanks, Ed Henry.

HENRY: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: The numbers appear to be adding up nicely for Hillary Clinton. Her presidential campaign is touting a new poll that gives Clinton a commanding lead over her rivals. Our Tom Foreman is following the story. And Tom, what are these numbers actually showing?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they show what the Clinton people really want to see, which is at least an indication that she's breaking away from the pack.


HILLARY CLINTON: Thank you, all, very much.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Hillary Clinton, on the trail and on the rise in the national polls. The latest survey taken this weekend by "USA Today"/Gallup puts her 22 points ahead of her closest democratic rival, Barack Obama. And that's up from national polls last month.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: People see her experience as a clear advantage in a time of terrorist threat. They believe she's qualified to be president. She's ready to be president and every time there's a confrontation between her and Senator Obama, she looks actually better.

FOREMAN: The Clinton and Obama campaigns do not see eye to eye over these numbers. With the Clinton camp touting the poll and Obama's team dismissing and it looking to polls in the crucial early primary states.

KEATING HOLLAND, CNN POLLING DIRECTOR: Some polls in Iowa and New Hampshire are showing a virtual tie. Other polls in those states are showing a lead for Clinton, but by a much smaller margin than the national polls do.

FOREMAN: A chief Clinton strategist says as the senator from New York increases her lead nationally, she's likely to see more attacks from her rivals. Both Obama and John Edwards criticized Clinton this weekend, for taking donations from lobbyists.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think my party, the Democratic Party, the party of the people, ought to say from this day forward, we will never take a dime from a Washington lobbyist.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you don't think that lobbyists have too much influence in Washington, then I believe you've probably been in Washington too long.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think based on my 35 years of fighting for what I believe in, anybody seriously believes I'm going to be influenced by a lobbyist or a particular interest group.


FOREMAN: You couldn't hear it much there, but she got booed for that comment. And think about this, while her national lead is growing, remember, there is no national primary. And as we pointed out in the states that lead off the primary calendar polls show a much closer contest. And as I always point out, we're still a long way away from the election if the early leads counted so much, we'd be talking about President Howard Dean.

MALVEAUX: Yeah, that's true. That's true. Still a long way to go.

FOREMAN: A long way.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Tom.

And the Obama camp says don't pay attention to those national poll numbers. But strategists are poring over them anyway. Do they see any silver lining for Obama? Paul Begala and Bill Bennett are standing by for our "strategy session."

And buyers beware with the housing market in a serious slump. The fed decides whether or not to raise interest rates. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: Our Carol Costello is monitoring the wires and keeping an eye on the video feeds from around the world. She joins us now with a closer look at other incoming stories that are making news. Carol, what are you following?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A couple of things, Suzanne. The Federal Reserve is leaving interest rates unchanged. They voted unanimously today to keep the federal funds rate at 5.25 percent. Says its biggest concern right now is inflation. Despite the slowing housing market there are some welcome signs for the economy. The labor department says worker productivity rose this spring, increasing 1.8 percent from April to June. Wage pressures also eased as labor costs rose 2.1 percent.

U.S. Senator Tim Johnson heads to his home state of South Dakota this month. It will be the first time he's been back there since he had a life-threatening brain hemorrhage in December. The 60 year old Democrat has been recovering in the hospital and at his home in Fairfax, Virginia. He plans to return to the senate next month. Johnson says his return would have been impossible without his doctors, nurses and therapists.

Jurors could begin deliberations next week in the trial of Jose Padilla and two other men on charges of supporting terrorism. The defense rested its case today and so did prosecutors. Padilla's lawyers called no witnesses. Neither Padilla nor his co-defendants took the stand during the 53-day trial. Padilla could face life in prison if he's convicted of giving support to Islamist terrorists' groups overseas.

It looks like the weather is improving for tomorrow's planned launch of the space shuttle "Endeavour." Seven astronauts are taking part in the mission to the international space station. One is former Idaho school teacher Barbara Morgan. She was Christa McAuliffe's backup for "Challenger's" doomed mission back in 1986. Morgan got a congratulatory call from first lady Laura Bush today. Mrs. Bush told her that teachers and school children across the United States are proud of her. Back to you Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks. We certainly are, Carol.

And the bridge collapse in Minnesota, right after it happened. We will have more of those new and stunning pictures. CNN's Susan Roesgen is standing by with a live report.

And the Democratic presidential candidates are gathering in Chicago, with their eyes on a political prize. The endorsement of big labor. But does the union vote count all that much these days? You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: Happening now, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is at its highest level since the U.S. invasion, about 162,000 U.S. forces are in the country, but are they making an impact? We'll take a close look ahead.

And former pot smokers get a second chance with the FBI. The agency lightens up on its drug crackdown among new recruits.

And movie star Mia Farrow's incredible offer to Sudan. Why she's willing to trade her freedom for a prison cell.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The Democratic presidential candidates have been seeing a lot of one another lately. They're faced off in Chicago tonight. Each hoping to win the endorsement of the nation's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO. Our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, is in Chicago.

Candy, this is a coveted endorsement. And they're all really fighting hard for it.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It absolutely is a coveted endorsement. And, you know, as they address these union members tonight, these seven candidates are talking to a key constituency, without which they would be hard-pressed to win a victory.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KELLY BERINGER, RESURRECTION HOSPITAL WORKER (singing): Going to lay down my sword and shield...

CROWLEY (voice-over): Kelly Beringer is a politicized woman, a nurse, trying to unionize her Chicago hospital. And along the way, she has broadened her sights.

BERINGER: I need a president who will take the direction of the people. A president who values, who respects the rights of workers.

CROWLEY: From the living wage, the freedom to unionize and the price and pitfalls of free trade agreements, nobody has courted union interests more heavily than John Edwards.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What we need is trade without tradeoffs, trade without tradeoffs for workers, trade without tradeoffs for jobs.

JOHN SWEENEY, PRESIDENT, AFL-CIO: There's no question that John Edwards has been raising the issues that are very close to the hearts of workers, and it has been, I think, motivating some of the debate.

CROWLEY: An umbrella group of unions, the AFL-CIO is the most sought-after endorsement. It could provide Edwards with the infusion of ground troops and money his third-place campaign could use.

PETER FRANCIA, PROFESSOR, EAST CAROLINA UNIVERSITY: But the dilemma that unions face is whether John Edwards can actually win the nomination, because labor does not want to back a loser.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can't keep the people down!

CROWLEY: Organized labor wants to avoid a 2004 repeat, when multiple union endorsements didn't bring victory to either Richard Gephardt or Howard Dean. An AFL-CIO primary endorsement looks unlikely this year, and the labor federation hopes member unions will not make hasty endorsements of their own, which is to say, all options are open.

SWEENEY: We are blessed with abundance of riches and good candidates who are very strong on so many of the issues that workers are -- have as their priorities.

CROWLEY: With its members divided over who to support in the primary, the AFL-CIO intends to bring its full and united forces to bear in the general election.

Outside her hospital in Chicago, the newly politicized Kelly Beringer is looking forward to '08.

BERINGER: Collectively, with these union people around me, I think that you have more power and influence on politicians and in the outcome of elections.

CROWLEY: About a quarter of 2006 voters came from union households. They voted two to one Democratic. (END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: Big labor clout has been in question over the past few years, in large part because union households are on the decline. But labor leaders look at the last election and those statistics and say it shows an energized labor union, one which will also be in evidence tonight where they're expecting 12,000 to 15,000 members of union households to be in attendance -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, a lot of people, Candy. Do we have any sense of who's doing better among the labor workers, the union workers, Obama or Hillary Clinton?

CROWLEY: You know, that's hard to tell. As you know, Hillary Clinton has been under a little bit of fire for an adviser that she has who works for a company that has done what labor considers some anti-union work. There is also the fact that her husband during his tenure was a promoter of globalization. But she has taken steps to distance herself from some of his policies.

Barack Obama has a pro-labor reputation here in Illinois. Not so well known outside of that. But he has been on picket lines and says he'll be on one as president if he needs to be.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you very much, Candy.

More and more Americans are losing their homes due to a crisis in the mortgage market. And presidential candidates are taking notice. They are proposing crackdowns and new regulations to protect homeowners. CNN's Kathleen Koch has been following the story and Hillary Clinton has a new plan that is out today.

Why now?

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, it's simple, because homeowners who are struggling right now to pay their mortgages are frightened. And that resonates with politicians like Hillary Clinton who know that a sensitive response can score votes.


KOCH (voice-over): Hillary Clinton Tuesday became the latest Democrat to propose a raft of regulations targeting unscrupulous mortgage brokers. She also wants a $1 billion fund to help counsel and aid homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need to put an end to fly-by-night mortgage brokers peddling loans to unqualified applicants based on inflated appraisals.

KOCH: John Edwards had already proposed easing bankruptcy rules and setting up bail-out pools for those facing the possible loss of their homes.

EDWARDS: We need a national predatory lending law that cracks down on so many of the abuses, you know, from front-end fees to excessive interest rates. We know what the abuses are. The problem is it doesn't fix the problem.

KOCH: A crisis in the subprime mortgage market has led to rising foreclosures and high anxiety on the part of working Americans. Political experts say savvy candidates are tapping into that fear.

STUART ROTHENBERG, COLUMNIST, ROLL CALL: Often the solutions are not as important as the empathy for politicians. And in this case, Senator Clinton and other Democrats are talking to real people, saying, you have problems, we understand that. And we are going to address them.

KOCH: Critics, though, warn the candidates' proposals could end up making mortgages more expensive and harder to get. They argue it's too soon to know whether major changes are needed.

BILL BEACH, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: This is more or less a knee- jerk reaction on the part of politicians running for office. You know, you have to let the markets work. That's what's so great about this country is that when we get something that's wrong, the markets work it out and generally speaking, we come out better.


KOCH: Senator Chris Dodd, another presidential candidate, is trying that tack, though, combined with not-so-gentle persuasion. He hosted a housing summit suggesting changes to lending practices that lenders would voluntarily agree to in lieu of mandatory change imposed by law -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Kathleen.

And let's talk more about those controversial subprime mortgages and why there's a crisis surrounding them right now. For Americans with weak credit who wanted to be homeowners, subprime mortgages were the answer. Before the housing boom went bust, lenders often looked past these tattered credit histories. In exchange, buyers took loans at interest rates well above the rate banks extend to customers with good credit.

Now Wall Street jumped on the subprime bandwagon, buying this mortgage debt and anticipating big returns. But now many of those borrowers are having trouble making their payments. And a record number are facing foreclosure. That is putting lenders and the banks that back them in financial hot water.

Families of the six trapped miners in Utah wait, hope and pray. The rescue effort is bringing them together in one of the worst of times. We will look at how they are keeping up hope their loved ones will come out safe.

And he hasn't declared his candidacy yet, but Fred Thompson already has a lot of support from his male voters. We'll take a close look at the politics of gender ahead in our "Strategy Session." You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MALVEAUX: In Utah, as rescuers inch closer to six trapped coal miners, the miners' families can only wait and hope. We are learning more about the men stranded hundreds of feet below ground. Mexico's consulate in Salt Lake City says that three are Mexican citizens.

We now go to CNN's Ted Rowlands.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, as the rescue effort continues inside the mine, outside the mine, loved ones of the trapped miners are forced to wait, an excruciating wait. They are getting updates. Most of the family members have gathered at this nearby school.

Mine executives come here multiple times during the day to give them the latest progress on the rescue effort. This entire community is waiting patiently to find out if these miners are alive. For these families, it is especially difficult just not knowing.


JULIE JONES, SON WORKS AT MINE: It's pretty much stillness, you know? You can hear a little bit of talking amongst themselves and once in a while they'll come and get some food. They don't say much. And we just nod and, you know, tap our hearts because our prayers are with them.


ROWLANDS: All six of the miners are being described as family men. They range in age from their early 20s to their late 40s. All of them are described by the mining company as experienced miners.

Three of the miners are Mexican nationals. And the Mexican consulate from Salt Lake City is here dealing with the families of the Mexican nationals. They say they're here to do anything they can.

The community also saying they can do -- they're doing anything they can for these families. But, really, all anybody can do is wait and pray -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Ted. Ted Rowlands will join us again next hour with the story of a mother who initially thought her son was trapped in that mine and then learned some surprising news.

Paul Begala and Bill Bennett are standing by for our "Strategy Session." A new national poll shows Hillary Clinton builds on her commanding lead in the Democratic race. But is Barack Obama right? Should we really be focusing on key state polls?

And Rudy Giuliani says it shouldn't matter whether or not he's a good Catholic,. at least not in his presidential campaign. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

MALVEAUX: Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton is widening her lead over rival Barack Obama. Joining us in today's "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist and CNN political analyst Paul Begala; and CNN contributor, Bill Bennett, he is Washington fellow at the Claremont Institute of the -- and also the author of "America: The Last Best Hope."

Let's start off with a poll here. This is the USA Today/Gallup poll. Democratic choice for nominee, we are looking at a 22-point spread here. Just take a look. Clinton at 48 percent. Obama, 28 percent. That is roughly about the same as in July.

Bill, what do we think is happening here with Obama's campaign?

WILLIAM BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it's -- I count 14 points and now I count 20 points. So I don't know who is doing the math at CNN. But anyway, excuse the old...

MALVEAUX: She's ahead.

BENNETT: Secretary of education -- she's way ahead and she's widening. He has kind of lost, I think, the jazz. When he first came out he was exciting, he was interesting, he was fresh, fresh face, was saying interesting things. Now it's more like he's a freshman. Seems naive. Seems inexperienced. Seems somewhat callow.

And she has been getting, I think, better and better. I think she has better in these debates. He has made a couple of really big blunders, particularly in foreign policy. American people don't like the idea of neophytes doing foreign policy.

MALVEAUX: Paul, do you think it has had that much damage in the last couple of weeks, when we have heard those comments about using a nuclear weapons, his stand on Pakistan? Is that really taking a toll now on his numbers?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it is. I think it's that plus the debates. Hillary is an extraordinarily good debater. Barack is a good one, she's much better. Barack is a better stump speaker. But most of us who are watching on cable, we don't see them give their stump speeches as much as we see them in these debates. Those are the big moments and the defining moments this early.

You know, now that -- what matters most are those early state polls, where are they are in Iowa, where they are essentially tied. Where are they in New Hampshire? They're essentially tied. But still, Hillary's campaign strategists have been telling us from the beginning that she wears well. That she'll do better over time. And a lot of people have been skeptical about that, because most Democrats don't like a frontrunner.

Right? We recruited (ph) the last time around. We are always looking to knock off the frontrunner. And in this case so far I think her strategists have proven to have been right, that over time she has worn very well and is so far resisting a very impressive campaign from Barack Obama.

MALVEAUX: Bill, what does Barack Obama need to do to catch up?

BENNETT: She wears well if you start by liking her. If you start by not liking her, the opposite effect can happen. And this is why it will be a polarizing nomination if she's the nominee, which I'm pretty sure she will be. I guess he has got to win Iowa and New Hampshire. I was listening to Paul yesterday and I think that's right. I think that is the strategy for Obama is win Iowa and New Hampshire.

Interestingly here, then, it is like -- we were talking in the green room, like Mitt Romney's strategy which is to win Iowa and New Hampshire even though he's way behind in the national polls. So I think Obama hopes that by -- if he does win Iowa and New Hampshire, momentum, polls may change overnight, if that's the case and he goes into these other primaries. If she wins Iowa, I think it's over.

MALVEAUX: Real quick, I understand our graphic was wrong. We actually do have that 22-point spread between the two. But let's go...

BENNETT: The math wasn't wrong. The graphics were wrong.



BENNETT: I built my life on this.

MALVEAUX: Let's go on. Let's talk about gender politics here. Really interesting numbers. And very consistent here. CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll here showing registered Democrats who say they will vote for Hillary Clinton, male, 38 percent. Female, 62 percent. And then you go on to take a look at the Republicans who will vote for Fred Thompson, male, 66 percent. Female, 34 percent.

Thompson not even officially in the race. But what does Fred Thompson need to do here to win over some of the women, a crossover?

BEGALA: First off, it's very, very early. But for a generation now we've had baked into our politics this gender gap where women tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic and men tend to be overwhelmingly Republican. That's why I'm a woman, OK?


BEGALA: No, but I'm kidding. But I think the challenge for each, Fred Thompson and Hillary Clinton are sort of mirror opposites. Can Hillary show enough strength in a time of war to attract male voters? I think yes. I think her task is easier because she's a very strong woman in the sort of Thatcher mode. Can Fred show enough empathy? Well, probably. He seems -- I don't know him, he seems like a pleasant guy. But that will be his challenge. Can he feel our pain, as Bill Clinton famously did?

MALVEAUX: But, Bill, it seems as if Hillary Clinton, when she does that, shows that strength, some people accuse her of being manly, not womanly here.

BENNETT: Not to worry, there's only one person I know of who has accused her of being that and that got slapped down. But she has been helped, I think, by Obama's mistakes because it has made her look more grown-up and responsible, particularly in that area, military affairs and foreign affairs.

But Fred Thompson is kind of a null set. I mean, when you say, what does he need to do? He needs to get in this race because, I mean, if he doesn't get in, this boat is leaving or has left. I'll tell you, when I watched the Republican debate -- I'm going to watch the Democrat thing tonight, these people are getting better. I mean, I know a lot of the American people are saying, why do we have so many debates?

You actually do get better at this. You learn something in the process. Fred Thompson has done a lot of nice clips out of the studio like he does the TV show, but that's different from the arena. He needs to get in soon.

MALVEAUX: What does he need to talk about in order to attract female voters? You said Hillary Clinton needs to beef up and talk about security. What does he need to address?

BENNETT: I think the issues of national security and domestic, the education issues, the health issues. Again, I think, you know, you talk about these issues not worrying so much about who -- which gender you're talking to.

Look, you said the gender gap for Hillary, 62 percent women, 38 percent men. That's 12 percent if my math is right, again, on each side. She has got a male gap. She has got a female gap. Say who you are. Say what your convictions are. Don't worry about the gender.

MALVEAUX: Now here's a hot topic. Let's talk about the role of religion. Obviously Mitt Romney recently saying he was sick of this holier-than-thou attitude that was coming from some of his fellow candidates as well as the critics. And then you have Rudy Giuliani here, this is at a town hall meeting in Davenport, Iowa, asked whether or not he is considers himself a traditional practicing Roman Catholic. And his response: "My religious affiliation, my religious practices and the degree to which I am a good or not so good Catholic, I prefer to leave to the priests."

Obviously, you know, multiple marriages here. Some family issues. Some problems here and a liberal record. He is trying to convince them that this is not so much of a big deal in the primary. Good strategy?

BENNETT: Right. Right, I think -- well, he will say more about this. He needs to be careful. There was a mistake -- I think Kerry made the mistake of saying it's personal, it doesn't really influence, you know, my beliefs other than my personal life. You can't have that neat a compartmentalization, it seems to me.

What Giuliani's strength is, is he comes across like a cultural Catholic. Someone who defended, you know, the Virgin Mary when they had this exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Someone who says, I may not live my life like this, but I'm a strong defender of traditional values. But I think he needs to say more about this, because the Catholic vote, Paul and I, again, were talking about this earlier, is very, very important.

You don't win without the Catholic vote, or very rarely.

MALVEAUX: Paul, I'll give you the final word.

BEGALA: Yes. There's not one political party that can hold both Bill Bennett and I, we're in different parties. But the Catholic Church does. It's an enormous voting bloc in this country, and a swing bloc. Rudy is being asked the same question as John McCain, which is, are you Catholic enough? And so when you say, don't ask, that's the wrong answer, that is the answer John Kerry gave. John Kerry is a Catholic, he lost the Catholic vote.

MALVEAUX: OK. We are going to have to leave it there. Paul Begala, Bill Bennett, thank you so much for joining our "Strategy Session."

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And after the Minnesota bridge collapse, would you be willing to pay higher taxes to make sure this doesn't happen again? The state's governor appears to be having a change of heart.


MALVEAUX: Just take a look at these pictures in Reidsville, North Carolina. A 7-year-old girl says she's scared off a man who pointed a gun in her face. The girl was in the convenience store where her mother works when the man tried to rob the store over the weekend.

In Croatia, frantic crews are trying to beat back a wildfire that threatens to consume the popular tourist city.

And in Hawaii, a steady flow of lava is makes its way down the Kilauea Volcano. It's a mile long and over 100 feet wide.

Your health tops our "Political Radar." Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson is calling for universal health care. The New Mexico governor unveiled his plan today while campaigning in Iowa. Richardson puts the price tag at more than $100 billion. But he says he won't have to raise taxes, says expanding preventive care would save billions of dollars.

And Rudy Giuliani's son says his dad would make a great president, a vote of support you might not find all that surprising from a candidate's child. Except there is this, the report yesterday that Giuliani's daughter was listed online as a fan of Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Tensions between Giuliani and his children have been widely reported, but 21-year-old Andrew Giuliani tells ABC News the feud has been overblown. But he also says he respects his sister's political views, 17-year-old Caroline Giuliani says her expression of interest in Obama's campaign should not be read as an endorsement.

And remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out the "Political Ticker" at And when will Republican Fred Thompson officially join the presidential race? Well, let's go to our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, Thompson's new Web site is up and running. So why isn't the candidate?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Right Suzanne, well, we're already at version 2.0 of the Thompson Web site while Thompson is still testing the waters. From the tools at the newly re-launched, it looks designed to bring together the so-called "Fredheads" who are anxious for Thompson to get in the race.

Enhanced networking tools, fundraising gadgets, so there is less in terms of issues at the site. Just this video, a "Fredcast," if you will, on federalism designed to appeal to small government conservatives. The site launched a couple of months ago in basic form, basically donate here. And at the time, sources close to the Thompson campaign were touting its fundraising success, $220,000 raised in the first day alone.

Since then, some people have been disappointed in Thompson's numbers. This site designed like many of the sites out there, designed to bring in more cash, although this one acknowledging: "We're doing things a little differently so we're off to a late start" -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you very much, Abbi.