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Hurricane Dean Bears Down on Mexican Beach Resorts; Vick Accepts Plea Deal; Iraq Progress and Politics

Aired August 20, 2007 - 15:59   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Hurricane Dean bears down on Mexican beach resorts, and it could be a monster by the time it gets there. We're in the storm zone. We're standing by for updates from the National Hurricane Center.
Also this hour, NFL star Michael Vick cuts a deal on dogfighting charges. Will it land him in jail and sink his career -- sink his career as a quarterback?

Also, two influential U.S. senators report military progress in Iraq, but if you think they're optimistic about the situation over there, think again.

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

Up first this hour, one official is calling it the kill zone, the areas where Hurricane Dean is likely to hit in the coming hours with ferocious power. Tourists have been fleeing Mexico's Caribbean coast in droves as the Category 4 storm churns closer and grows stronger. Mexico's state-run oil company is now abandoning its offshore rigs in Dean's path and evacuating at least -- at least, 14,000 workers. So far, at least seven deaths are being blamed on dean, which has barreled through southern Jamaica and other Caribbean islands.

Let's go first to our CNN hurricane headquarters. Our meteorologist, Jacqui Jeras, is standing by with all the late-breaking developments.

So, what's the latest, Jacqui?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, this remains a very intense storm right now, Wolf. And we're watching what's potentially a little bit of a wobble going on. And I put a piece of tape here on my wall to give you an idea.

The storm has been heading mainly due west the whole time. But watch this. The last maybe half an hour or so, we've been seeing this pulling a little bit up to the north.

It doesn't mean that this is going to be changing the track. Wobbles occur very often in the paths of hurricanes. But it's something we'll be watching very closely as this gets a little bit closer here towards the Yucatan peninsula.

Well, I'll show you the forecast track and just how close it's going to be getting. It's about 300 miles away from the coastline now. Moving at 20 miles per hour. So, do the math. If it stays at that speed, we're looking at landfall potentially around 2:00 a.m., give or take a little bit, on either side of that line.

The forecast cone of uncertainty still showing you a little bit wide here, but brings it south of Cancun. One thing to keep in mind is that this is going to be experiencing the dirty side of the storm, as we call it, where the most intense winds are.

We'll show you our Google Map with the spaghetti plots on it. Each line here represents our computer model. And you can see a very good consensus coming in just north of Belize and south of Cozumel. So that gives us very high confidence in where we think this is going to be moving.

As it crosses the peninsula, we're a little concerned sometimes when it interacts with land. It can change course a smidgen. So, we'll have to see what happens as it comes back off the other side of the peninsula, into the Bay of Campeche.

And all the models keeping it well to the south of Texas. So, things are looking much better for the U.S. mainland -- Wolf.

BLITZER: When you say it could change its direction a smidgen as it goes over the peninsula of the Yucatan, because a lot of our viewers, especially in Texas, they're wondering, if that smidgen could mean it goes further north and would then affect Texas much more abruptly.

JERAS: Well, I think that if it does take that kind of wobble and does pull it a little farther to the north, it doesn't necessarily change anything for Texas. What it would possibly mean is, slightly farther to the north, some of these northern line models up here for the Yucatan Peninsula.

We don't expect that this is any, you know, huge, significant change. It's just something to watch very closely. In the next couple of hours, we'll know for sure if it's a wobble or if we're seeing a little bit more of a significant pull up to the north.

BLITZER: When is the next forecast actually supposed to come out, Jacqui?

JERAS: That comes out at 5:00 Eastern Time. But a lot of times we'll get that a little bit early. So when we get it, we'll bring that along to you.

We've been wondering if we're going to see a Category 5 out of this with the next advisory, as the winds now are at 150 miles per hour. We need to go up to 156 in order for that to happen, so we'll break in and let you know if we get up to Cat 5 status.

BLITZER: All right. Sometimes that forecast comes in just a little bit before the top of the hour, so we'll stay with you.

Thanks very much, Jacqui. Don't go far away.

Hurricane Dean clearly on a collision course, heading right for Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

CNN's Harris Whitbeck is joining us now from Bacalar, in Mexico.

Harris, have there been a lot of people evacuated from the area around you?

HARRIS WHITBECK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's correct, Wolf. We're just a few miles outside the capital of Chetumal, which would be right in the path of Hurricane Dean as it makes landfall. And all along our drive down here from Playa del Carmen, which is about 300 kilometers north up the peninsula, we've seen traffic.

We've seen lots of trucks from the power company who have been driving here for days now. Some of these trucks came from the Hermosa (ph), from Tabasco from parts in central Mexico to get here to be in place to react to the aftermath caused by the hurricane.

We're at a gas station. We stopped to get some gas just to always have our tank tanked up. And there were long lines here. We've seen long lines of people stocking up on gas. In some cases, boarding up houses.

You haven't seen as much boarding up of houses here as you would, say, in a hurricane in the states because it's different situation. But people certainly are taking as many precautions as they can -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The whole notion of a lot of American tourists being down there right now, I assume many of them have left. But some are staying. Is that what you're seeing and hearing?

WHITBECK: Well, we saw that in Playa del Carmen. Again, that is just south of Cancun.

A lot of people decided to stay. And, for example, the Spanish government, which has a consulate in Cancun, decided not to evacuate about 7,000 Spanish nationals, 7,000 tourists who were there. And they decided not to evacuate them, because the hotels in which they were staying were deemed to be safe. Shelters in those hotels were deemed to be safe.

You've got to remember that after Hurricane Wilma passed through here two years ago, a lot of these hotels were reconstructed and built to a much stronger building code. So those structures, number one, are deemed to be much safer. And also, the storm's trajectory seems to indicate that Cancun and that part might be spared of it.

BLITZER: All right. Harris, stand by. We're going to be checking back with you.

Harris Whitbeck is on the scene for us in the Yucatan Peninsula at Bacalar in Mexico. We're going to have constant updates on Hurricane Dean over the next couple of hours here in THE SITUATION ROOM, including a fresh forecast from the National Hurricane Center. It's supposed to happen at the top of the hour, but often they release it just before.

Stand by for that.

Let's get to a stunning development now in the dogfighting scandal surrounding the football star Michael Vick. His attorney says the Atlanta Falcons quarterback has now agreed to a plea deal.

And Mary Snow is following the case.

Mary, what are the charges Vick is pleading guilty to?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick will accept a plea deal on federal conspiracy charges linked to the alleged illegal dogfighting operation.

Vick's attorney, Billy Martin, says Vick reached an agreement with federal prosecutors after he consulted with his family over the weekend. And in a statement, he says Vick would "... accept full responsibility for his action and the mistakes he made." And, he says, "Michael wishes to apologize again to everyone who has been hurt by this matter."

Now, U.S. attorneys in Richmond, Virginia, are not commenting at this time. The guilty plea could put vick in prison.

Now, earlier today, two sources close to the case told CNN that federal prosecutors had offered a plea deal, recommending a prison sentence between 18 and 36 months. Now, three of Vick's co-defendants last week pled guilty in exchange for reduced sentences. Vick is now expected to be in court next Monday.

As for his career, just a short time ago, the NFL issued a statement, saying that it's going to continue to conduct its own review under the league's personal conduct policy, and in the meantime, it says it has asked the Falcons to continue to refrain from taking any action until a decision by the NFL commissioner -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary. Thank you for that.

Mary Snow's watching this story, a plea deal by Michael Vick.

Let's bring in Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File".

Always good to see you right here in New York, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: We're together again.

Didn't take long for Vick's buddies to turn on him, did it?

BLITZER: They made a deal. It's a plea deal.

CAFFERTY: Yes. Right now. The BBC, Wolf, has dropped a fictional terrorists attack by Muslim suicide bombers from the plot line of one of its primetime programs. Here comes political correctness riding in.

An episode of a hospital drama called "Casualty" was supposed to show a young Muslim running into a bus station and blowing himself up, along with another Muslim wearing a suicide vest but failing to detonate it. British media reports say that senior executives had discussed this plot line in meetings but were eventually overruled by the BBC's editorial guideline's department.

Apparently, there were worries the scene would offend and would perpetuate a stereotype of young British Muslims. So instead, the episode will focus on the aftermath of an explosion caused by animal rights activists.

Apparently, it's OK to offend animal rights activists. Just don't offend the Muslims.

The decision's been met with criticism, including from the former chairman of the conservative party in England who was seriously injured in a terrorist bombing by the IRA back in the 1980s. He says it's a double standard since people were free to make dramas about terrorism during the violence in northern Ireland.

The BBC counters, saying it's ludicrous to suggest the subject of suicide bombers is off limits, and that with any story line there are lots of ideas that get put forward but don't make it into the series.

So here's the question: The BBC dropped a suicide bomb plot line from one of its programs to avoid offending Muslims. Does that make any sense?

E-mail your thoughts to, or go to

They're going to lay it on the animal rights people instead because there's less heat, I guess, to get from those folks.

BLITZER: You know -- all right. I want to get to that and we're going to get to the viewer e-mail as well.

But Jack, look at this. And I want to put it up and show our viewers.

There it is, "It's Getting Ugly Out There: The Frauds, Bunglers, Liars and Losers who are Hurting America," by Jack Cafferty.

This book is coming out.

Our viewers, Jack, they're going to be thrilled. They're going to be excited when they can actually go through hundreds of pages of what you have to say.

CAFFERTY: Well, I hope so. I hope you're right.

It will be out September the 10th. Wiley is publishing it.

You're not on the list of all of those cretins that we mentioned...

BLITZER: I'm not a fraud, a bungler, a liar or a loser?

CAFFERTY: Absolutely not. No sir.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you. Thank you.

CAFFERTY: Nothing but nice words. But thank you for mentioning it.

BLITZER: You name names. You name names.

CAFFERTY: Oh, yes. And there are actually some of the better e- mails that we've gotten over the years from some of our delightful viewers are included in the book. A few personal stories of how I developed the jaundiced view that I have of almost everything that goes on around me. And I'm looking forward to seeing how it's received by...

BLITZER: I think it's fair to say, if our viewers like "The Cafferty File," they're going to love -- they're going to love "It's Getting Ugly Out There".

Congratulations. We're excited about the release of the book.

CAFFERTY: Thank you very much for mentioning it. I appreciate it.

BLITZER: And we're going to be talking a lot about it every day.

CAFFERTY: All right. Good.

Buy -- you can order them from Amazon. Get them for Christmas right now.

BLITZER: Already they can. They can?

CAFFERTY: Right now. Go to Amazon and you can get it right now.

BLITZER: "It's Getting Ugly Out There" by Jack Cafferty.

Thanks, Jack.


BLITZER: Two senators just back from Iraq have some surprising things to say. It's a mixed bag of a progress report on the U.S. troop buildup and on political instability in Iraq.

Also, President Bush on border patrol. He's working to try to strengthen ties with U.S. neighbors to the north and to the south. But will frustrations over immigration and trade get in the way?

And we're also continuing to track Hurricane Dean's every move, the danger along the way.

Stay right here for up-to-the-minute forecasts. We're standing by for a brand new forecast. That's coming up later this hour.

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


Hurricane Dean is barreling toward Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula. It's still a Category 4, with winds of about 150 miles an hour. But six more miles per hour, it goes up to a Category 5 at 156. That's the highest category.

We're watching it. We're standing by for a new forecast. That's coming up later this hour.

We'll bring it to you as soon as we get it. Stay with us for that.

Other important news we're following right now.

Two influential U.S. senators are home from Iraq, and they're throwing themselves back into the red-hot debate over the war and when to bring the troops home. They're the current and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committees. That would be Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John Warner. Their progress report today is both mixed and provocative to a certain degree.

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

What are Levin and Warner saying, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what they're saying is actually pretty surprising, considering the fact that these are two men who oppose sending more troops to go to Iraq.

What they are saying coming back from this trip to Iraq is that on the military side, the president's strategy is actually having some progress. He said -- they are saying that there is some -- there are some positive results that they actually witnessed on the ground in Iraq.

However, and there is a big "but" here, they are still saying that they're pretty pessimistic on the progress on the political front. And in their joint statement, senators Warner and Levin said, "While we believe that the surge is having measurable results and has provided a degree of breathing space for Iraqi politicians to make the political compromise," they said, "we are not optimistic about the prospects for those compromises."

Now, Wolf, for the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee to come back and say that he is seeing any progress at all in the president's military strategy certainly is significant and will no doubt be jumped on by Republicans, who will use it and say, well, maybe we should give this strategy more time. Having said that, Senator Levin insisted that the plan he offered, the Democratic plan to bring troops home from Iraq by next spring, he sill insists that is the way to go despite what he saw on the military side there, because, he said, that's really the only way for Iraqis to stand up for themselves -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana, if you take a look at what Levin is saying specifically about the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, that's going to cause some shock waves out there.

BASH: It sure should. Senator Levin, in a conference call with reporters just a few hours ago, he said, essentially, that it is time for the prime minister to go, that the political situation is so bad on the ground now, that he wants the Iraqi parliament to come in and vote no confidence, have a vote of no confidence in the prime minister there. Because, he said, either he is unable or unwilling to end this the sectarian violence.

Listen to what Senator Levin said.


SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: The Maliki government is nonfunctional and cannot produce a political settlement because it is too beholden to religious and sectarian leaders.


BASH: Now, certainly no Republican or Democrat here in Washington had pretty much anything positive to say about the Iraqi government, but Senator Levin, as he put it, crossed the Rubicon here and really saying that he wants the Iraqi parliament to get him out and to have a new prime minister in there. He hopes somebody else who could at least try to bring together the sectarian factions that he says that's really hindering the political progress there.

BLITZER: Dana Bash on the Hill for us.

Thanks, Dana.

President Bush, meanwhile, is north of the border. This hour, he's holding talks with the Canadian prime minister, as well as the president of Mexico. It's Mr. Bush's latest attempt to try to reach out to the United States' closest neighbors on issues including security and trade.

Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is traveling with the president. She's joining us now live from Gatineau in Canada.

Suzanne, what's on the president's agenda for this meeting with the Canadian prime minister?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it really is fondly called the Summit of the Three Amigos. And this is something where we say there are not going to be announcements per se, but there are going to be some discussions here.

It is all about free trade, increasing trade at the same time. Making sure that the border is secure.

Now, when it comes to Canada, Canada's leadership, there is some frustration between U.S. and the Canadians. The Canadians have troops in Afghanistan. It's been very split among the Canadians, but Harper has at least committed to having troops through September of 2009.

Canadians are also frustrated with those tighter border security measures, requiring passports to enter into the United States. They say it slows people and commerce and essentially is costing them big money.

And finally, there is the Northwest Passage dispute. That is an international waterway through the Arctic. Canada is laying claim to it. The United States says it's an international passage -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You can't have a summit meeting with the leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada without talking about NAFTA and the fallout from that controversial trade agreement that was conducted, that went through during the first years of the Clinton administration. A lot of our viewers will remember the debate between the then vice president, Al Gore, and Ross Perot over NAFTA.

What's happening on that front?

MALVEAUX: Well, NAFTA is very complicated, as you know. There have been some successes. U.S. trade officials saying it has doubled the amount of trade from the three countries to the tune of some $900 billion last year. But it's also gotten very messy, Wolf.

You've got a dispute between Canada and the United States over soft lumber, softwood lumber, the taxes, the exports over that. That is actually going to be handled in an international court. So, there are both pros and cons.

A lot of people quite critical of NAFTA. They're looking for a better trade deal -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux on the scene for us in Quebec for that.

Suzanne, thank you.

President Bush's talks in Canada come at a time when North American trade relations are a flash point in the U.S. presidential race.

Democrat John Edwards has been taking direct aim at NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, while Hillary Clinton has been defending the pact supported by her husband when he was president. Listen to these remarks during a Democratic debate televised yesterday.


JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think we've had a failed trade policy in America. The question seems to have been on past trade agreements like NAFTA, is this -- is this trade agreements good for the profits of big, multinational corporations. And the answers to those questions on the trade agreements we've entered into has been yes.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: People ask me, am I a free trader or a fair trader? I want to be a smart, pro-American trader. And that means we look for ways to maximize the impact of what we're trying to export and quit being taken advantage of by other countries.


BLITZER: We're going to have much more on the political fireworks over NAFTA, especially among the Democratic presidential candidates. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session" later this hour.

The Democratic presidential candidates are arguing again over their resumes. Who's ready for the White House? Who's not?

Bill Bennett and Donna Brazile, they're standing by for our "Strategy Session".

Plus, we're standing by for a new forecast from the National Hurricane Center as Hurricane Dean prepares to storm Mexico resorts.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.


BLITZER: Hurricane Dean forcing Mexico right now to abandon oil rigs and send tourists packing. We're going to have a live report from the storm zone on the threat to lives and livelihoods.

Also, the National Hurricane Center preparing right now a new forecast of Dean's path and its power. We're going to bring it to you as soon as we get it.

That's coming up shortly right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Happening now, illegal immigrant parents in the United States call her their Rosa Parks. The woman was arrested in front of her young son and deported. Immigration rights activists are furious.

Carol Costello standing by with the story.

Deadbeat dads and moms. We're going to tell you why they may finally have to pay up to support their children if they want to get a new passport. And massive flooding is leaving a path of destruction in Oklahoma and Texas. More than a dozen people are dead. Many more have had to flee to higher ground.

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

The Atlantic hurricane season is getting off to a fierce start with Dean threatening parts of Mexico right now and threatening to grow into a monster Category 5 storm.

Gary Tuchman is on the hurricane watch for us. He's joining us live on the phone from Tulum in Mexico.

What -- what do you see? What are you hearing right now, from your vantage point, Gary?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here in Tulum, which is about 80 miles south of Cancun, everybody who can tourist wise is getting out of town, trying to go back to Cancun, where it's considered relatively safer, trying to get flights out of Cancun.

The residents here, for their part, though, are boarding up. And they are very good at doing so. This has been a hurricane magnet over the years. Two years ago, they had Hurricane Wilma come this way.

But, Wolf, the most interesting thing about this town, Tulum, is that this is a city that is home to Ancient Mayan ruins that have been here for more than 1,000 years. They are ruins because they're ruined from over the centuries. However, they have withstood the test of time. But there are many people are very scared the powerful nature of this hurricane could greatly damage these ruins that have been here for so many centuries.

BLITZER: Do you see any difference, Gary -- you have covered hurricanes in the United States -- in the preparation for this monstrous storm where you are in Mexico, as opposed to what we would see presumably in the United States?

TUCHMAN: Well, the preparations here are very impressive, Wolf. I would liken them to what I saw during Hurricane Rita, which was the hurricane after Katrina. Everybody prepared. And that's what they're doing here.

Not only did they have Wilma two years ago, but in 1988 they had Hurricane Gilbert, a Category 5 that decimated this area. So, it's very impressive.

Just this summer, I was on vacation in Japan when a typhoon came through, which is the same as a hurricane. And there was almost no preparation, which quite startle me. This is 180 degrees different.

BLITZER: Gary, standby, because we're going to be coming back to you. We are going to be checking out the situation in Mexico -- Gary getting ready for that hurricane there. And, in advance of the storm, tens of thousands of tourists, as you just heard, have fled Mexico or are trying to get to some higher ground. Residents clearly are getting ready. The island of Cozumel is off the East Coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It could be right in Dean's path.

Ricardo Garcia is a scuba diving instructor. He's joining us on the phone from Cozumel right now.

Ricardo, you have been through this, I assume, before. What's it like right now, from your vantage point?

RICARDO GARCIA, SCUBA DIVING INSTRUCTOR: Well, yes, we -- like your report say, it looks like it's a very strong phenomenon. It's almost a Category 5.

We're going to get the winds. Everybody here in the island is ready. The local authorities have been helping everybody. The army is here to help everybody. Everybody has water, food, gasoline. Shelters are ready. We are ready for Dean.

And, well, it looks like it's not going to be so bad as Wilma. I think we get a very good experience with Wilma. So, right now, we are ready for Dean.

BLITZER: Is there any sign of panic, at least from what you have seen, Ricardo?

GARCIA: No. There is no panic on the island. I think everybody's ready. Everybody knows what to do. Like I say, the local authorities been doing a great job. There's reports on the television every hour. And, yes, I don't know. We have the experience already for a few big twisters. So, we are ready.

BLITZER: What about the people who need help, the elderly, for example, or those who need assistance moving around? Are local authorities helping them move to safe -- safe buildings or higher ground?

GARCIA: Yes, they do. Like I say, the military, I see the army. The army's here. In Mexico, the army's basically to help the people.

There are patrol are all the -- everywhere, and, where they see people, they need help, they are moving to the shelters. Where they see the people are leaving houses that are not well done, they are moving to the shelters. We have about 20 shelters in the whole island.

BLITZER: When are they telling you in Cozumel, Ricardo, that the worst is likely to occur? How many hours from now?

GARCIA: How many hours from now? We are, well, right now, like, 8:00 at night. Everybody has to be at home. We're expecting the worst around 2:00 in the morning.

BLITZER: So, that's coming up in the not-too-distant future, a few hours from now.

Ricardo Garcia, good luck to you. Good luck to everyone over there bracing for Hurricane Dean. Thank you very much.

GARCIA: Thank you very much...


BLITZER: If Hurricane Dean does reach Category 5 status, it would cause major damage. Just to give you an idea of the impact, let's go back to August of 1969. That would be Hurricane Camille. It made landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast, north of the mouth of the Mississippi river, with winds reaching -- get this -- 190 miles an hour.

Camille killed more than 250 people, flattened nearly everything in its path. Twenty-three years later, Hurricane Andrew slammed into the South Florida. That was in August of 1992. The ferocious storm caused an estimated $25 billion in damage.

And, as Hurricane Dean is picking up strength and heading towards Mexico, we're getting I-Reports sent in to CNN showing the storm's effects on the Caribbean.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is joining us now.

Abbi, what are people on the ground experiencing? What are they sending in to us?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we're seeing right now pictures coming in from the Cayman Islands. I'm taking you now to Grand Cayman, where Dean passed by late this morning -- these pictures sent in to CNN's I-Report from Recky Lugg.

And bear in mind, this is when the storm was about 120 miles away from the Caymans. So, the islands spared the brunt of the storm. But, still, this is what they were dealing with here in George Town. Recky said that they had been told by police to stay indoors. So, this was the view around the house where he was, though he talked with us on the phone a couple of hours ago and said that things are getting better, so much so that another I-Reporter here, Jonathan Jorge, ventured out and took these pictures for us.

He ventured out on his bike, he said, which was quite a challenge. Heavy winds still. He said there was a little bit of flooding, floodwater coming in from the ocean, but really nothing like he thought. It was really the winds that people are dealing with.

And we have been getting these images coming in from around the region. is where you go to upload those videos -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, keep sending them in. Abbi, thanks very much.

Want to just let our viewers know, we're getting that new forecast in right now that we have been waiting for.

Jacqui Jeras is at the CNN hurricane headquarters.

Jacqui, tell our viewers what we're learning.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, we have learned that there's been a new change with the observations, and that's that the pressure is down a little bit. It's dropped a few millibars, while the winds, though, have stayed the same at 150 miles per hour.

Now, what tends to happen is that, when the pressure drops in a hurricane, that is a sign that the storm is intensifying, and the winds, then, tend to take a couple of hours to catch up and correspond with that. So, we may be looking at a Category 5 storm in the very near future, if that pressure continues to drop. We will see those winds pick up and we could get over 155 miles per hour to make it a Category 5.

The forecast track has shifted, just a smidge. And it's actually just bumped slightly on farther down to the south. There you can see the cone of uncertainty, still including folks here in northern Belize, and well south now of Cozumel. It is still taking a northerly track, but in the discussion they did mention that maybe it could be pulling a little bit more west-northwesterly, as we were mentioning earlier in the show, Wolf, that we saw maybe a little bit of a wobble.

But overall track to the west, and it looks like the storm is starting to pick up some strength.

BLITZER: And, just to be fair, the difference between 150-mile- an-hour hurricane and a 156-mile-an-hour hurricane, between a high- Category 4 or a low-Category 5, to the average person, to anyone out there, anything in its path, that's not much of a difference, is it?

JERAS: No, not so much at all. It will cause very similar damage.

BLITZER: And that damage could be extensive.

All right, Jacqui Jeras, thank you for that. We will check back with you soon.

Well, just when you thought the primary season calendar couldn't get much crazier, the 2008 voting schedule is being thrown for a loop once again. We're going to tell you what's happening right now. Wait until you hear and what it means for millions, literally millions, of voters.

Plus, do Democrats want change or do they want experience? That question stirring up the presidential race and pitting candidates against one another.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Get out your pencils. It's time for a refresher course on the changing primary season calendar, and you won't want to use ink. You may remember Florida's decision to move up its primary to January 29 set off a chain reaction.

South Carolina Republicans moved up their contest to January 19, the same day Nevada Democrats are holding their caucuses, and that has left Iowa and New Hampshire trying to figure out how early they need to hold their contests to preserve their first-in the-nation status.

And now -- get this -- adding to the upheaval, mega-state Michigan is considering pushing up its primary to January 15.

Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King.

John, we're going to see some enormous number of voters casting ballots very early in 2008, maybe even in 2007.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's possible, Wolf. It's very confusing. So, let's use THE SITUATION ROOM wall to try to show our viewers what the big difference is.

Imagine back, if you woke up in the morning of February 6, 2000, the last time both parties' nominations were up for grabs. On February 6, 2000, you would awake to having two states having voted, New Hampshire and Iowa. Now, look at what will happen if things stay roughly the same on February 6, 2008.

When you wake up that morning, more than two dozen states would have voted, including the mega-states. Michigan, you just mentioned, California, New York, Florida, so many states voting. And now let's put these numbers into context.

Again, back in 2000 when those two states would have voted by February 6, only 2 percent of the delegates from the Democratic and the national nominating conventions would have been selected. Fast- forward again February 6, 2008. If the calendar holds roughly as it is now, both parties would have picked, in those primaries and caucuses, more than 40 percent of the delegates who will pick the next nominees for president of the United States.

There's no doubt, Wolf, in anybody's mind that, if this calender holds, by the morning of February 6, you will have the nominees of both parties, very, very early.

BLITZER: Very early indeed, John.

So, how does this change campaign strategy?

KING: It puts a premium on raising money. It puts a premium on buying advertising early. In about a half-a-dozen of those states that allow early voting, watch for the campaigns to go in early, because, in past campaigns, somebody wins Iowa and/or New Hampshire, and they get momentum.

Some of the campaigns this time say, you know what? We can get a lot of votes in, say, California or in Florida before anybody votes in Iowa. So, they won't know about that momentum, if you will. So, early voting, paying a lot of money on TV ads.

BLITZER: John King, watching the calendar for us, thanks very much.

The Democratic presidential candidates have yet another debate under their belts, another chance to explain how they're different from their rivals. For some, it comes down to this, a choice between change and experience.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is joining us now.

Bill, so what are the Democrats looking for right now? Based on everything we can see, would it be change or experience?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, the answer to that question is yes.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Some years, voters are looking for experience. That's what got Richard Nixon elected in 1968, when the country was in turmoil. Other years, voters are looking for change. That's what got Jimmy Carter, a one-term governor of Georgia, elected in 1976, after Watergate.

What do voters want now? They're not sure. Roughly equal numbers of Democrats say, they want experience and new ideas.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D-NM), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, I think that Senator Obama does represent change. Senator Clinton has experience. Change and experience, with me, you get both.


SCHNEIDER: Democrats looking for experience are not unsure which candidate offers it. They prefer Hillary Clinton 3-1 over Barack Obama. Obama argues that judgment is more important than experience.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war.


SCHNEIDER: And the Clintons' experience can also be called baggage.

OBAMA: We're going to need somebody who can break out of the political patterns that we have been in over the last 20 years.

SCHNEIDER: Clinton's response? I know how to handle baggage better than anybody else.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And, you know, the idea that you're going to escape the Republican attack machine and not have high negatives by the time they're through with you, I think is just missing what's been going on in American politics for the last 20 years.


SCHNEIDER: Clinton seems to be holding her own on the change issue. She's running neck and neck with Obama among Democrats looking for fresh, new ideas. Many Democrats remember the Clinton years fondly, especially in contrast to the Bush years.

CLINTON: I want to change the cowboy diplomacy of the Bush administration. But I want to do it in a way that I believe will work, that will get results for America.


SCHNEIDER: Back to the future? Well, that's one way to talk about change -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider watching all this for us, as he always does. Thank you, Bill.

We're keeping a close eye on Hurricane Dean right now -- much more on that story coming up.

But, first, coming up in our "Strategy Session," as President Bush talks trade and security in Canada, NAFTA becomes a lightning rod on the campaign trail. But which candidate does -- does that apply to most?

Also, much more on the Democratic presidential field. Barack Obama plans to skip a series of debates and forums in the fall. Is that a good move, a bad move? Fodder for discussion. Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett, they're standing by right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We will get the latest forecast on Hurricane Dean. That's coming up. We just heard from the National Hurricane Center.

But, first, the war of words heating up between Democratic White House rivals Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Joining us in our "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and CNN contributor, conservative columnist, radio talk show host Bill Bennett. He's the author of "America: The Last Best Hope."

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

I'm going to play a little sound bite from Barack Obama from the debate yesterday. And I want to get your reaction on the other side, what's going on in this fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Listen to this.


OBAMA: What I'm suggesting is, is that we're going to need somebody who can break out of the political patterns that we have been in over the last 20 years. I wouldn't be running if I didn't believe that I was the person best equipped to do that.


BLITZER: The argument is, Donna, that he's got the -- the mantle, if you will for change, which is what a lot of people want. But Hillary Clinton's argument is, she's got a lot of the experience. Who is -- based on everything you're seeing, who's winning this battle right now?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, clearly, Senator Clinton because she's leading in the polls.

But Senator Obama once again yesterday proved that he's trying to bring about a different kind of experience to Washington, D.C., not the experience that led us into a war in Iraq, but an experience that would bring the country together, help us solve tough issues.

I thought Barack had one of his best debate performances thus far. And, clearly, he connected with a lot of voters yesterday. So, it was a win for Barack yesterday. But this debate over change vs. experience will continue to play out throughout the next couple months.

BLITZER: How do you see this unfolding, Bill?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think she's lapping him. He is interesting. He seemed very fresh early on. Now he seems more like a freshman, too many mistakes. He's still a good performer, but I think it lacks the gravity -- he lacks the gravity, the gravitas.

And she's got a problem, too, in that there's some distancing that she's doing between her, you know, ideas and her husband's ideas. But, I think experience is plainly winning for her on, on -- on her side.

BLITZER: Donna, as you take a look at the strategy that she has, a lot of people are suggesting she just has to be -- Hillary Clinton, if you will, not make any major mistakes, because, as long as she doesn't, she's going to be on the top, at least in the polls.

BRAZILE: Well, I compared it in the green room to watching a basketball game when North Carolina, Dean Smith, would deploy, what -- it it was the four corners.

BENNETT: Four corners.

BRAZILE: I mean, she is by far the front-runner. She has a great strategic message out there. She's -- she's running against George Bush and -- and the Republican majority that controlled this country for so much of this past decade.

And I think what Senator Clinton is trying to do right now is to position herself to being the Democrat that can best take on the Republicans. So, unless John Edwards and Senator Obama can go out there and define the type of experience and the change that they will bring about, she is right now going to continue to lead this race.

BLITZER: He's announced, through his spokesman, Bill, that he's going to skip some of the debates, some of the forums, simply too many of them, he says, that he needs to go out there and campaign.

Is this a smart strategy, looking down the road?

BENNETT: I don't think so, Wolf.

Donna mentioned basketball. He mentioned boxing. He's the challenger. He's got to fight. He's got to get as many fights as he can, and hope -- hope he can score, hope he can get a -- hope he can get a knockout punch.

But, again, she seems very comfortable, more comfortable in the debates. You know, he's running, in some ways, as the unifier. He wants to have new solutions, unify the country. She said, I counted, I think, three or four times yesterday: I know how to beat them.

That's us, my team.

You know, I know how to beat them. I know what these Republicans are up to.

And that seems to be something that's really getting the base going and organized in her favor. It seems to me a smarter strategy at this point.

BLITZER: The president, Donna, meeting today with the leaders of Canada and Mexico, reviving the issue, if you will, of NAFTA, which came up early during the Clinton administration, the president then, and Al Gore, his vice president, pushing hard to get it passed. It passed.

A lot of Democrats, though, don't like it. They think it's hurt American workers. John Edwards is being very, very tough on the whole issue of trade. Is this baggage for Hillary Clinton, the whole NAFTA deal that was done by her husband?

BRAZILE: I think what Senator Clinton is trying to do is position herself as not being a strong supporter of NAFTA -- she voted against CAFTA -- but, rather, you know, supporting strong labor standards, strong environmental standards.

Look, we have lost over 1.1 million manufacturing jobs since the implementation of NAFTA. And, so, it's important that Democrats, especially the base of the party, understand where these candidates stand on these trade issues.

But Dennis Kucinich, I believe, has the best position, which is to just go ahead and just rescind it all the way.

BLITZER: We have got to leave it there, guys, because we're out of time.


BLITZER: But we will continue this conversation down the road.

Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett, thanks to both of you.


BENNETT: Thank you.

Jack Cafferty is here. He's standing by with your e-mails on a TV plotline dropped to avoid offending Muslims.

Also, we're keeping you up to the minute on Hurricane Dean, the damage it's already done -- the threat ahead, as it likely grows into a ferocious Category 5 storm. That's the most powerful. We have reports from the storm zone, our hurricane headquarters. That's coming up.

And a new punishment for deadbeat parents involving their pocketbooks and their passports.

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


BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" right here in New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Good to be with you, Wolf.

The BBC dropped a suicide bomb plotline from one of its programs because they didn't want to offend Muslims. They substituted an animal rights group instead. Does that make any sense?

Rick in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: "Jack, let's see. Radical Muslims bombed trains in two countries, used airplanes as bombs to kill 3,000 Americans, and we should worry about offending them? I have yet to see any Muslim groups worrying about offending me or even criticizing the attacks."

Kevin in Lantana, Texas: "The BBC is wrong. Every nation has evil, sick, demented people. The Muslims have criminals, as well as those poor young men and women who are convinced by evil religious zealots that it is better to kill themselves and take out innocent people. How many future doctors, scientists, et cetera, have died that way? The Muslim world needs to stand up against this terrible practice. And television has a way of showing things that can, when done properly, incite change."

Shawn in Chicago: "Dropping a plot that involved Muslims and bombs makes no sense. Apart from Timothy McVeigh, the majority of bombers have been Muslims. That's not a stereotype; that's a fact."

J.J., Bells, Texas: "BBC is wrong. Al-Jazeera insults the rest of the world with its tripe. Hamas in Palestine has its wonderful children's show that shows Israeli commandos killing Mickey Mouse and a child promoting the killing of others, saying that suicide bombing is good. BBC is worried only about money and ratings, not insulting someone."

Mike writes: "The BBC show must be fiction, because they apparently don't want to depict the real-life, oft-repeated acts of blind terror carried out by real-life Muslim extremists. If you ask me, we need to offend this segment of the Muslim population as often as possible. It's abominable, the thousands of innocents that they have killed in the name of religion."

Art in Albany, Georgia: "How dare we offend a group of people who are trying to kill us?"

Remember I said they substituted an animal-rights group?

The last letter is from Anthony: "So, who's going to protect the feelings of Mahmoud the ferret lover?"

I don't know the answer to that.

BLITZER: Neither do I.

CAFFERTY: He's on his own.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.


BLITZER: Stick around.