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Gonzales Calls it Quits; Health Care Gets Personal for Presidential Candidates

Aired August 27, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: On the way out. Alberto Gonzales gives his critics what they want, his resignation as the attorney general of the United States. This hour, the reaction, the likely replacements, and a lonelier president who says his old pal was "dragged through the mud."
Plus, health care politics getting personal. On a day when presidential candidates are talking about the fight against cancer, we're going to examine their plans and how they're informed by their own painful experiences with cancer.

And caught in the storm -- '08 contenders face off tonight in New Orleans two long, hard years after Katrina. What would they do to step up hurricane recovery?

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

President Bush suggests Alberto Gonzales is being unfairly run out as attorney general. Critics from both parties say it's about time Gonzales steps down. Gonzales didn't say why he's leaving in mid-September, but the long-running complaints about his candor and his record, including the firing of those eight federal prosecutors, speak volumes. Next comes a possible fight over his successor and the final kicks on Gonzales' way out.

Our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is standing by with what's happening on the Hill. But let's go to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's following this story for us.

All of a sudden, after the president for weeks and weeks and weeks and was expressing his support for Alberto Gonzales and he was insistent he wasn't leaving, all of a sudden over the weekend he hands in his letter of resignation, Ed, to the president.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president has been digging in for months, and certainly there was a tinge of bitterness today.

This president hates giving in to his critics. He said he only reluctantly accepted this resignation. But after months of insisting the attorney general was effective, that this was just a bunch of Washington noise, for the first time today Mr. Bush acknowledged that all of this had become a distraction for his administration.

We're told the White House at least nudged Mr. Gonzales along. This was another headache the president didn't need right now. So, he gave in to the political reality of the situation, but not before one final blast at all the critics.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After months of unfair treatment that has created harmful -- a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position, and I accept his decision.


HENRY: Now, in an ironic twist, the president then flew from Texas to New Mexico, where he was raising money for Senator Pete Domenici, who has been at the center of the U.S. attorney controversy that really engulfed Mr. Gonzales. Now the president headed here to Washington State for another Republican fund-raiser.

How all this went down over the weekend, we're told the attorney general secretly phoned the president on Friday with his decision. Mr. Bush then invited Gonzales and his wife to the ranch in Texas for a quiet farewell.

You can see from the White House photo that was released that Mr. Gonzales clearly looks relieved. But also, there was a wide grin for the president as well.

Officials say that basically now they can get this behind them, all of this controversy. The president can focus on this upcoming progress report on Iraq. He has a lot of other issues to deal with -- obviously, all these subpoenas flying from Capitol Hill on various matters -- but he's going to be dealing all this -- with this now with a shrinking inner circle.

A lot less people from Texas who have been with him a long time in that inner circle -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What are aides -- you're traveling with the president today, Ed. What are top aides saying about when the president will nominate a successor?

HENRY: They're insisting that there's no timetable. They want to take a little bit of time to sort this out.

Obviously, Congress on a recess right now. So, the president doesn't have to do it immediately. But they realize, this could really be a knock-down, drag-out fight, unless they come up with someone with some consensus on Capitol Hill -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Gonzales says his last day will be September 17th. So, not a whole lot of time before that vacancy opens up.

Thanks very much, Ed.

Ed's traveling with the president out West.

When Gonzales testified before a Senate panel back in April, it was compared by some to the clubbing of a baby seal. Even with the attorney general's resignation announcement today, the bruising isn't quite over yet.

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

Dana, anyone on the Hill sorry to see Gonzales leave?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you remember that old line, "Don't kick a man when he's down"? Well, forget about it here.

We have gotten flooded with statements from lawmakers about this, several dozen in our inbox. And just a handful had anything positive to say, really, about Alberto Gonzales and his departure.

As you can imagine, the Democrats, though, despite the bipartisan exasperation with the attorney general, it was the Democrats that were most biting in their -- in their comments today.

Take a listen to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.


SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Under this attorney general, sadly, the Department of Justice had less credibility than even FEMA. Under Alberto Gonzales, the Department of Justice was a sinking ship. The president now has an opportunity to right the ship and chart a new course.


BASH: Now, what we are going to see here is really the first big confirmation battle since the Democrats took control of Congress. And it is one that the few Republicans who are coming out and defending the attorney general are saying and actually warning Democrats against being too overly partisan in this bruising battle that pretty much everybody expects to take place no matter who the nominee the president sends up will be.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, he is somebody who said that. But at the same time, what we are hearing from Democrats as they look forward is the same kind of thing, a warning as well.

They're warning, Wolf, of course, is to the White House, because what you hear, the word that you hear most today is "credibility". And credibility is something that Democrats and Republicans say that Alberto Gonzales simply doesn't have. And it's something that they say the next nominee must have in order to restore the confidence of the American people. But also in terms of the political context, get through with the least bruising battle here.

BLITZER: Well, I remember when the former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, resigned, there was similar talk of a bruising battle over a nominee that would happen before the Senate. And Bob Gates was nominated, came in as a former CIA director. And he basically sailed right through. It didn't turn out to be very bruising at all.

I suspect right now, Dana, what you're hearing is it depends very much on whom the president nominates. If he picks someone very partisan, very political, that could be a big, bruising fight. But if he goes above the fray, if you will, and picks some lawyer or someone with a lot of judicial experience, that person presumably could sail through as well.

BASH: You're exactly right. And, you know, the reality is that we do expect no matter who the nominee is for Democrats to bring up some of the major policy differences that they have with the Bush Justice Department, whether it's warrantless wiretapping or the Patriot Act or, you know, sort of pick your issue there.

But you're exactly right, what we are hearing is they want somebody with impeccable credentials in the legal community. You know, Senator Arlen Specter, he called in from Poland. He's on a trip there, and he actually suggested that the president nominate somebody from the club here, either a current or former senator, somebody who people on the Hill actually know very well.

Unclear if that's going to happen. But that is the kind of thing that is being recommended to the president -- send somebody up who could potentially sail through like Secretary Gates. But unclear if there's going to happen, since it has been really very vicious really when it comes to the policies across the board at the Department of Justice and the differences -- differences that the White House has with many members of Congress.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much.

Dana's watching the story on the Hill.

Dana Bash and Ed Henry, as all of our viewers know, they are part of the best political team on television.

Remember, for the latest political news at any time, go and check out our political ticker at

Also part of that best political team on television, Jack Cafferty. He's here, in the -- with "The Cafferty File". .

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Did I hear you liken the Gonzales thing to the clubbing of a baby seal?

BLITZER: That's what some observes had said when he went up for the testimony, that they were going to really hit him hard. That's what some of the pundits were suggesting when he went up to testify.


BLITZER: You remember a few months back when he was really, really coming under a lot of fire.

CAFFERTY: Yes, but baby seals can remember things.

This is a familiar story. Bedtime for Gonzo, and not a minute too soon. The resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales, another one of President Bush's loyal aides, leaving the administration. A little trip down memory lane.

President Bush vowed to stand by his personal lawyer and former White House counsel, Harriet Miers, after he nominated her to become a Supreme Court justice. She's gone.

He said Donald Rumsfeld would be secretary of defense until the end of his second term. He's gone.

Mr. Bush famously told former FEMA director Michael Brown he was doing a heck of a job. Not too long after that remark, he was gone.

Just this month, President Bush accepted the resignation of Karl Rove, his top adviser and the architect of his two election victories as president.

And as recently as a few weeks ago, President Bush got testy when reporters had the temerity to ask if the attorney general, who has trouble remembering things, still had his confidence.

Well, say adios, Alberto. You're out of here.

And for all of that's said about how steadfastly loyal George Bush is to his people, apparently there is a limit.

So here's the question: Why all of a sudden does President Bush decide to accept Alberto Gonzales' resignation?

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

BLITZER: You know, it's unrelated to a certain degree, but when the president expressed, Jack, his strong support the other day for Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, and said "he's a good guy" and "he has my support," I wonder how he must feel about that.

CAFFERTY: Yes. And then -- well, that was -- you know, all of this history aside, there's reason to believe that his position as the prime minister of Iraq is tenuous at best. And then -- you know, it's like -- it's like the boss saying, you know, "You've got nothing to worry about." Get worried then.

BLITZER: Yes. OK, Jack. Thanks very much.

Jack will be back shortly.

Now that Alberto Gonzales is about to make his exit, President Bush is even more isolated from his long-time Texas pals. He's not the first second-term president to suffer from lonely so-called lame duck syndrome. We're taking a closer look at that.

Also ahead, it's an issue that hits a number of presidential contenders very close to home, the battle against cancer. What the candidates want to do about it and their own personal struggles. We're going to take a closer look at how they've had to deal with their own problems involving cancer.

And Michael Vick pleads guilty to dogfighting charges and says he's very sorry. Will the suspended NFL quarterback go to jail? Will he lose his job altogether?

Stand by for more information on that.

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


BLITZER: Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are at odds with one another once again today as they try to promote the fight against cancer. And cycling star and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong is right in the middle of it all.

Armstrong is hosting a two-day forum on cancer issues in Iowa.


LANCE ARMSTRONG, CYCLIST/CANCER SURVIVOR: We want to know how the next president is going to fight for us and our loved ones against this dreaded disease. And throughout this campaign, I promise to make it my mission to keep cancer at the forefront.


BLITZER: Clinton and Edwards echoed Armstrong's strong concerns, citing their dueling visions for providing health care coverage for all Americans.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need to bring the same attention and focus and resources to the war against cancer as we have in other parts of the world. That money needs to come home to help us prevent, detect and treat cancer.



JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: About half the bankruptcies in America are the result of medical costs. We have to have a universal health care system so that every man, every woman in this country, when they're diagnosed with cancer, gets absolutely all the treatment that they need.


BLITZER: Edwards pressed on with a familiar attack on Clinton for accepting campaign donations from lobbyists. Clinton focused most of her fire on President Bush, accusing him of calling a halt to the war on cancer, and she called for a ban on smoking in all public places.

Democrats Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich also attended the Live Strong Cancer Forum today. Republican candidates Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee are scheduled to appear tomorrow.

For a number of the White House hopefuls, health care reform is an issue that hits very, very close to home.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Elizabeth Edwards' public battle with cancer as her husband runs for president is playing an unprecedented role in the 2008 race. But cancer and other serious health problems are also playing a bigger role among the candidates themselves.


SNOW (voice over): These candidates are openly confronting something once considered taboo, their health, and in several cases, cancer.

Among Republicans, for Fred Thompson, it's lymphoma, the most common blood cancer. For John McCain and Senator Brownback, it's melanoma, a sometimes fatal skin cancer. And for Rudy Giuliani, prostate cancer.

Democratic Joe Biden didn't have cancer, but he writes in his new book after the brain aneurysms he suffered after dropping out of the 1998 presidential race. He was absent for the Senate for several months.

Mentioning medical terms was once off limits on the campaign trail, but now they're often a topic brought up for discussion.

ROBERT GILBERT, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY: I think this is a very serious issue, potentially a very, very serious issue. One that could certainly break a campaign, not make a campaign, but certainly break one.

SNOW: Take the case of President Kennedy. Historian Robert Dallek says it was only in recent years that he discovered JFK had been hospitalized several times in the 1950s before he ran for president.

ROBERT DALLEK, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: They consistently hid this from the public because they feared that if it were known, the extent of the health problems he had, it might have destroyed his candidacy in 1960.

SNOW: Fast-forward to the 1992 presidential race. Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas talked about his bone marrow transplant to fight lymphoma. He openly demonstrated his stable health by swimming and said he was cancer free.

He died five years later. Had he been elected, he would have eventually been incapacitated and died in his presidency.

With Tsongas' situation in mind, Fred Thompson said even though he isn't officially a candidate yet, he wanted to be the first to tell the public about his 2004 diagnosis with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He made his doctors available to explain that, unlike Tsongas, Thompson's form of lymphoma is slow-moving and in remission.

DR. BRUCE CHESON, FRED THOMPSON'S DOCTOR: His likelihood of recurring is high, but this may not happen for a number of years.

SNOW: Thompson's doctor says if the lymphoma does reoccur, there are effective treatments that won't interfere with his quality of life to any great extent.

Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York in 2000 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, just as he was gearing up to challenge Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate. He dropped his plans and underwent radiation treatment.

The American Cancer Society says while most men with prostate cancer don't die from it, approximately 27,000 men a year do die of the disease.

RUDY GIULIANI (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Think for all intents and purposes the cancer is cured.

SNOW: Giuliani says he gets tested every six months.

For John McCain, medical checkups are more frequent after getting the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma, removed from his arm and temple in 2000.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My health is excellent. I see my dermatologist every three months.

SNOW: McCain is known to be extremely careful in the sun. Doctors say early detection of skin cancer is crucial since it can be aggressive and fatal if it invades the body.

But doctors say for many a cancer diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was. And with new treatments all the time, even five years can make a big difference.

DR. RICHARD WENDER, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY: For some people with certain cancers, those five years are the difference between life and death.


SNOW: We contacted all the campaigns of the candidates we mentioned. All say the candidates are in good health.

And in the case of John McCain, who turned 71 this week -- he's the oldest candidate -- a spokeswoman said that he'll be releasing medical records to prove he's in good health. That's something he's done in the past -- Wolf. BLITZER: Mary Snow reporting for us.

Mary did an excellent job on that piece.

Let's take a quick look at the survival rates for the types of cancer suffered by Republican presidential hopefuls Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Sam Brownback and Fred Thompson.

According to the National Cancer Institute, prostate cancer is almost never fatal in the first five years, and 93 percent of prostate cancer patients are still alive 10 years after their diagnosis. Non- Hodgkin's Lymphoma has a 63 percent survival rate at five years and the disease kills more than half of patients within 10 years.

Ninety-two percent of those who contract melanoma are alive after five years. Eighty-nine percent alive after 10 years.

Democrats are fighting Democrats in the crucial state of Florida. Will the feud over primary scheduling come back to haunt the party and its chances of reclaiming the White House?

Paul Begala and Leslie Sanchez, they're standing by for our "Strategy Session".

And just ordered this afternoon, in the wake of that China Airlines plane that exploded, a new rule for the most often flown jetliner here in the United States.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: In Greece, authorities are appealing for international help as high winds are sweeping dozens of wildfires across parts of the country. Dozens of villages have been engulfed by the blaze and more than 60 people are confirmed dead.

Check out these pictures from ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic games. Fires have actually reached the outskirts of the village and helicopters have been called in to protect the ancient site.

At last report, more than 100 fires were still burning. You can see them from space as well. Authorities say they do suspect arson. At least two people now in custody.

President Bush may soon be feeling a little lonely around the White House now that his last close ally from Texas is heading for the door. How might this affect his final months in office?

John King standing by with that.

And the Iraqi prime minister lashing out at his critics. Is there any hope for a unity government and for Nuri al-Maliki's future in power?

The former defense secretary, William Cohen, he's standing by for that and more.

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


BLITZER: Happening now, tracking bin Laden. There's a new report that U.S. troops narrowly missed the al Qaeda leader. We're going to show you just how close they may have come, and we'll tell you what he planned to do if they found him.

Brian Todd watching this story.

Also, not so fast. A Cuban newspaper publishes an essay signed by Fidel Castro. Is it enough to silence rumors among Cuban exiles in this country that he's very, very sick -- obviously, we know that -- perhaps even dead?

We're going to have a report from Havana. We'll go there.

And you may remember Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban refugee who was sent back to Cuba in 2000 after a long custody battle. Now there's a similar legal battle going on in south Florida. This time it's a 4-year-old girl stuck in the middle.

We're going to give you the details.

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

All that coming up.

Let's get back to our lead story, the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, announcing his resignation, after many months under fire and under investigation. Gonzales is the latest in a series of longtime Texas allies of President Bush calling it quits, as the president nears his final year in office.

Let's turn to our chief national correspondent, John King. He's been watching this story for us.

It seems, John, take a look at all those Texas pals the president came to Washington with, he's becoming increasingly more isolated from them.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, Wolf, the president has brought in some new blood into the White House. But you are absolutely right. He was known for years as someone who brought a small cadre of aides with him from Texas and stood by them. With Alberto Gonzales stepping aside today, the president has a bit of a housecleaning that hits quite close to home.


KING (voice-over): For the second time in two weeks, a goodbye that hit home.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In the long course of our work together, this trusted adviser became a close friend.

KING: Alberto Gonzales is stepping down. Like Karl Rove, he has been at this president's side dating back to his days as Texas governor, and, like Rove, he had become a political pinata for an administration whose days are numbered.

BRUCE BUCHANAN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS: Well, there's a time when, you know, the train has almost passed your station.

KING: Seventeen months left, and lame duck is a term that makes him bristle. But the departure of old friends magnify this president's increasingly lonely place. His approval ratings are in the dumps. The effort to define a post-Bush Republican agenda well under way, and the opposition Democrats run the Congress.

NEIL NEWHOUSE, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: The one saving grace, the only group that's rated lower than the president right now is Congress. That doesn't bode well for Democrats in Congress, truthfully, but their numbers are even lower than the president's.

KING: Even most Republicans are dubious, but those close to Mr. Bush see a small window of opportunity. And, to that end, a housecleaning makes sense. Say goodbye to political liabilities, even if it stings a bit, and move quickly to change the subject. For the president, that means fresh pressure on the Democrats to give his Iraq strategy more time.

BUSH: I congratulate Iraq's leaders on the agreement reached yesterday in Baghdad.

KING: Voicing confidence that Iraq's brawling political factions might finally find a path to reconciliation is a huge gamble, yet trademark Bush.

BUCHANAN: His hair is grayer. His wrinkles are deeper. But he still smiles. He still sustains the impression of being at peace with himself and confident in the decisions he's made.


KING: Also trademark Bush, Wolf, the departures of Gonzales and Karl Rove after months and months of the White House saying the president would not bow to Democratic pressure that his close friends needed to go.

BLITZER: Yes, we have seen this, John, on a few occasions, not only with Karl Rove and now Gonzales, but with Rumsfeld as well. The -- he was under enormous criticism. They waited until after the election, last year, for him to go. A lot of people think the election potentially on the Hill could have been different if they would have dumped him earlier. KING: Absolutely. You're right. Especially in the Senate, Republicans are furious that the president had plans to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld, but held that information until after the election.

But, again, Wolf that is trademark of this president's style. He doesn't like anybody telling him what to do, even members of his own party. The question is, what will he do next now when it comes to the attorney general? When the world came this morning that the favorite was the Department of Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, many of Capitol Hill, including Republicans, saying, whoa, the president might be looking to pick another fight here, because Secretary Chertoff has angered some Republicans for his work in pushing immigration reform, has angered many Democrats for his role in the post-Katrina response.

As the day has progressed, though, more and more signs from the White House that they are looking for somebody from more of a career prosecutor, less of a political pedigree, somebody who would be more conciliatory, much like the Rumsfeld model you just mentioned. When he finally left, they came in with Bob Gates. That confirmation, as you were talking earlier, sailed through. The question is, which approach will the president take with this vacancy?

BLITZER: All right, John, thanks very much.

I want to pick that point up that John just made with the former Defense Secretary William Cohen. He's a former U.S. senator. He's a chairman and CEO The Cohen Group here in Washington.

All right, put your hat on as a longtime Washington observer. You were a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for a long time.


BLITZER: Should the president go with someone who is controversial, like right now -- right now, a Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, or does he go with someone who can unify, sort of sail through that confirmation process? What signal should he send?

COHEN: I think, looking back historically, the difficulty has always been that presidents tend to pick their best friends or close friends to serve in that position, going back to John F. Kennedy with his brother, Bobby.

And you go through the history of this country, during the Nixon years, and you had John Mitchell, and others who have followed that line. It is -- it undermines -- it tends to undermine the credibility when you only have the perception that justice is being served at the pleasure of the president.

Justice must be done and must appear to be done, the administration of justice must be done properly, but also appear to have been done properly. So, the best case I can think of is during Jerry Ford's presidency, when he picked Ed Levi, who was totally outside the realm of politics, had high respect from the bar, respect from Republicans and Democrats, and did an outstanding job.

BLITZER: To be the attorney general.

COHEN: To be the attorney general. I would recommend someone of that caliber. I can think of a number of people. Perhaps Jack Danforth would be a terrific attorney general. Warren Rudman, my old friend, would be a great attorney general, because you are looking at somebody for a very brief period of time. We only have a year-plus to go, a year-and-a-half to go. It's not going to be a career position as such.

And, so, I think it needs to be somebody who enjoys respect on both sides of the aisle, impeccable reputation, personally and professionally.

BLITZER: Let's make a turn now to the other huge issue facing the president, what's going on in Iraq right now, specifically the criticism being leveled against the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. A lot of people think this guy simply is not up to the job. He's too much of a sectarian. He's too much somebody who opposes the Sunnis. He, himself, is a Shia. He's too close to the Iranian and now to the Syrians.

What's your sense? Does this guy have the ability to get the job done? Because so much of the military strategy of General Petraeus depends on the Iraqis stepping up to the plate.

COHEN: Well, he's had quite a bit of time. And each time we say just a little bit longer. I think time is running out. The criticism is not only coming from the United States. We had the new French foreign minister also called for his resignation as such or to step down.

BLITZER: Bernard Kouchner.

COHEN: Bernard Kouchner.

But the difficulty is, as the last piece and John just mentioned, that President Bush doesn't like to have anybody tell him what to do. I don't think any president of any country wants someone, or prime minister, to tell them what to do.

And I think what will happen is, as we see the Petraeus report coming forth, as we see support perhaps for the military side of the equation, there's going to be increased pressure on Maliki to either perform or to step down. And -- but I don't think it's going to be done.

The more we intensify the criticism, the likelihood is, he's going to continue to resist it. But a time will come in the next several months in which I think he will either perform and produce, or he will have to go.

BLITZER: William Cohen, thanks very much, our world affairs analyst, for coming in. Almost two years after Katrina, and now New Orleans is in the eye of a political storm. Several of the top White House hopefuls are gathering there today. CNN's Soledad O'Brien is moderating a candidates' forum there tonight. She's going to be joining us live to tell us why it's become a key campaign stop.

And Democrats fighting Democrats -- is Florida trying to pull a fast one on the way to the White House? We have details of this fight among Democrats. You're going to want to see what's going on right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The presidential campaign is winding through New Orleans this week. With the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina only two days away, some of the leading White House hopefuls are visiting a city still trying to rebuild from the devastating storm.

CNN's Soledad O'Brien is in New Orleans. She's joining us now live.

Soledad, you're going to be speaking directly to the candidates tonight. Give our viewers a sense of what's going on.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CHIEF TECHNOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENT CORRESPONDENT: Yes, in just about three hours, we're going be kicking off a Hurricane Katrina recovery summit. That means we get to sit down with some of the presidential hopefuls to talk about their strategies.

Hillary Clinton is going to be here, John Edwards also, Duncan Hunter. Barack Obama was here yesterday in New Orleans. And one of the things that he said was that planned on making rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina a top priority.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: America failed the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast long before that failure showed up on the television set. America failed you again during Katrina. We cannot, and we must not, fail for a third time.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Barack Obama unveiling his plan to speed up recovery in New Orleans.

OBAMA: We need to make sure that the hardest-hit areas get attention they need, and that the jobs of the rebuilding go to the folks who have been displaced.

O'BRIEN: The senator from Illinois is also calling for forgiving medical school loans for doctors who set up practice here, and wants to establish a local office of the Drug Enforcement Agency to help fight crime.

Tonight, rivals Clinton and Edwards will lay out their plans to get New Orleans back on its feet. SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe it is an American responsibility to rebuild New Orleans, not just one of Louisiana and New Orleans, but all of us working together.


O'BRIEN: The Democrats are spending a lot of time in this city. Edwards formally kicked off his campaign here.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm here in New Orleans to -- and in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans -- to announce that I'm a candidate for the presidency of the United States.

O'BRIEN: So, why all the attention? Because, besides Iraq, arguably, no other event has damaged the Bush White House more than Katrina.

EDWARDS: The money's not getting to the ground. It's not getting to the people who need help. I think some of it is bureaucracy. I think some of it is red tape. But these are all things the president of the United States could do something about it.


O'BRIEN: It should be an interesting summit, Wolf, because in the audience will be experts, whether you're talking about schools, you're talking about crime, you're talking about police, you're talking about rebuilding, you're talking about real estate, you're talking about insurance, full of experts who are all very interested in hearing what these presidential hopefuls have to say.

And, as we have heard from some of the folks who are milling around, they want some real answers to some of the tougher questions -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of us remember, Soledad -- I think most of our viewers -- your coverage right at the time of Katrina. What's it like to come back there now, two years later, and -- and see sights that you saw two years ago, obviously? Has it gotten better? Is it the same? Give us a little flavor.

O'BRIEN: Well, I would say the 20 percent of the city that's been rebuilt looks fantastic, looks absolutely great. If you're staying in one of the hotels along Canal Street, you won't be disappointed.

Eighty percent of the city that's been damaged, the neighborhoods look pretty bad. A lot of work has not been done. You look at some of the schools, some on their way to -- to having students back and -- and sort of getting their system up and running again. But it's still a slow process. We have had a chance to talk to the school superintendent, Paul Vallas, who is making some big changes. Can he bring in enough teachers to really get the students back and get them learning once again?

Not to mention the mental trauma. We spent a lot of time in Saint Bernard Parish, as well, where they don't even have a hospital. The law enforcement there says, what happens if one of my deputies gets injured, gets shot in the line of duty? It's a 90-minute ride to the hospital.

So, there's a lot of work, sad to say, that has to be done here. At the same time, they need the visitors. They need the tourist dollars to help rebuild this city -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Soledad, thanks very much.

And just a reminder to our viewers. Soledad will have a special edition of "A.C. 360," live from New Orleans later tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

Ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM: the fallout after the resignation of the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: His good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Justice has been served in the Justice Department.


BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more on the political fallout from the attorney general's big announcement. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

And Elian Gonzalez revisited. We're going to tell you about the custody battle for a 4-year-old Cuban girl that's going on right now. It's being likened to that celebrated case from seven years ago that captured America's attention.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Time now for our "Strategy Session."

Joining us for some reaction to today's big announcement, the resignation of the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, are Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

You're a good strategist. Pretend you're President Bush right now and -- or you're an adviser to the president. You have got to give him some advice. Which direction do you go in, in looking for a successor to Alberto Gonzales?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I think that Secretary Cohen, former defense secretary, gave you good advice and the president good advice. Bill Clinton turned to him, Bill Cohen, a Republican, to go into the Department of Defense after there had been some stumbles there in the Clinton administration. And, so...


BLITZER: When he picked William Cohen...


BLITZER: ... to become the defense secretary.

BEGALA: Become the head of the Pentagon, the opposition party in one of the four top positions in the Cabinet. Generally, people think Justice and State and Defense are the -- and Treasury are the top four jobs.

I would -- maybe not a Democrat. OK, Mr. President. I understand maybe you're not as big-hearted as Bill Clinton, who put a Republican in there as a Democrat. Don't reach across the aisle, if you can't do that, but someone who will be welcomed by the Democrats, a guy like Jim Comey, who was a top aide to John Ashcroft.

BLITZER: Former deputy attorney general.

BEGALA: Former deputy attorney general, very respected by the Democrats.

Even Paul Clement, the solicitor general, who is now acting attorney general, very conservative, clerked for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, for goodness' sakes, but respected by Democrats. I hope the president will go that way. I fear, though, he will go the more confrontational way and pick someone...


BEGALA: ... a fight.

BLITZER: What do you think, Leslie?


BLITZER: Which direction? Should be go for a fight or try to find someone who will sail through a confirmation process before the Senate Judiciary Committee?

LESLIE SANCHEZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: The bigger issue is, it's very unlikely any candidate is going to sail through. The Democrats have already announced this is going to be another piece of political theater. They want to rehash Katrina, different allegations, start more investigations. It's going to be trouble for any Republican moving to through that.

That being said, I think you have a lot of outstanding potential candidates. And -- and, with respect to Judge Gonzales, I think that the Chuck Schumer water torture should have ended on him months ago. I mean, I was one of the people that -- that said he was becoming ineffective and he needed to leave. And many Republicans, I think, agreed with that.

BLITZER: Paul, some of the names that are being floated out there -- and I say floated because it may be none of the above -- but we have heard Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, his name being floated, Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general. Ted Olson, you remember him, former solicitor general. George Terwilliger, another former Justice Department official.

Some of those names, like Chertoff, could be controversial. Some of the other ones might not necessarily be all that controversial.

BEGALA: Might not be. Again, I think I would prefer the two names I gave you a moment ago, either Clement, who is there now, or Comey, both loyal Republicans. Both served under this president in previous posts.

But I think some of those guys, particularly Michael Chertoff, you're right, could be really, really problematic for the White House.

Now, I do disagree with Leslie on this. I have talked to Democrats on the Hill today. And they're not spoiling for a fight. In fact, even Chuck Schumer was very restrained, I thought, today in his press conference. The name I keep hearing by analogy is Robert Gates.

The defense secretary sailed through after Donald Rumsfeld, a very controversial Pentagon chief. The new defense secretary, a loyal Republican sailed through, because he was the kind of person Democrats thought they could work with.


BLITZER: I guess it depends, Leslie, on who the president nominates.


BEGALA: So, this is not baked in. They don't have to have a fight here.


SANCHEZ: No. It's clearly -- it's clearly that.

And it's interesting when people say that about Chertoff, somebody who definitely had a tremendous amount of support, has shown a tremendous amount of leadership. And people can argue about certain details. But this was -- these were Democrats who supported him initially, and it was not -- not that far -- you know, long ago.

BLITZER: All right.

Paul, over the weekend, the Democratic National Committee, some are suggesting, declared war on Democrats. And, arguably, for the presidential election, Florida could be the most important state in the country. What is going on? Are the Democrats fighting themselves? Because, if they are, that's clearly going to weaken the party as a whole.

BEGALA: Well, there are some Republicans behind this as well. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, the current governor, Charlie Crist, seem to be jockeying to move up their primary as well to support the candidates that I suspect they support. In other words, Mr. Crist is generally thought to be supporting Rudy Giuliani, Jeb Bush thought to e supporting Mitt Romney.

They are trying to move this up as well. So, I don't think it's just that.

I think that the Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee, is doing the right thing here. Howard Dean is doing the right thing. As you know from my previous sessions with you, I'm often a critic of Governor Dean. I have not been a big fan of his. He's doing exactly the right thing now, which is, he's enforcing the rules.

Florida had a right to vote on these rules a year ago, and they voted for them. They can't change the rules in the middle of the game now.


BLITZER: Hold on...


BEGALA: So, Howard Dean is right now on this. And so, good for him for standing up for his party.

BLITZER: At issue is the -- moving up the calendar...


BLITZER: ... letting Florida have their primary in January, a lot earlier than some had wanted.

Here's what the popular Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, of Florida said: "If the Democratic National Committee sanctions Florida, then some of us in the Florida congressional delegation may ask an appropriate legal venue to determine whether or not a political party's rules can supersede someone's right to vote."

This is getting tense over there.

SANCHEZ: It very much so. It's not the first time you get legalese in Florida.

And I really...

(LAUGHTER) SANCHEZ: ... enjoy Paul's speculation that it's a Republican stimulant that's causing the Democratic problem. That's -- that's really nice.

But I would say this. I think it does -- the bigger issue is, it ends retail politics. With all of these states pushing their primaries forward, I mean, you are going to be looking at the Iowa caucuses on Christmas Eve. And it really is dangerous, not only -- not only dangerous for our process, but you could ultimately end up with primary candidates who you don't like in the summer. You know, it doesn't give you enough time to get to know them...


BLITZER: All right, hold your fire, because we have got to leave it right there.



BLITZER: Thanks very much, Paul Begala, Leslie Sanchez, a good discussion here in our "Strategy Session."

Why is President Bush accepting the attorney general's resignation now? Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail.

Also ahead, will a judge and fans buy Michael Vick's apology? We're taking a closer look at what -- what happened today, what happens next for the suspended NFL quarterback, now that he's pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges.

And a new report on a close call in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Did the al Qaeda leader slip through the fingers of U.S. forces?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: On our "Political Radar" this Monday, a new exit from Fred Thompson's team just weeks or even days before the Republican is likely to formally announce his presidential campaign.

The former Tennessee senator's communications director called it quits today. Thompson's former campaign manager left last month after differences with the "Law & Order" star's wife.

Republican Rudy Giuliani is taking a familiar swipe at the other party's presidential contenders. He says, if a Democrat wins the White House, he or she would raise taxes and ravage the economy.


RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The differences I can tell between the three leading Democratic candidates is the difference between a 25 percent and a 30 percent tax increase. It adds up to about, how about $3 trillion in tax increases? I didn't say billion. I said trillion. I'm not sure I can even write it, $3 trillion. How -- you have got a lot of zeros for $3 trillion.


BLITZER: Speaking in New Hampshire over the weekend, the former New York mayor said he would lower taxes and make President Bush's tax cuts permanent.

In Hartford, Connecticut, police have charged a suspect in yesterday's break-in at the office of Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd, and they say they have recovered the computer and the television taken from the scene. A 48-year-old homeless man is accused in the burglary. Police say he doesn't seem to have had any political motive.

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

Let's go to Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is: Why, all of a sudden, does President Bush decide to accept Alberto Gonzales' resignation?

Matt in San Jose writes: "The answer is simple. Gone-zales is going to take the fall for one of the many illegal activities the Justice Department is engaged in. It's about time for something to hit the fan. That something will quite possibly be Gonzo."

Gary in Texas: "The attorney general was about to be impeached for committing perjury before Congress. No one wants to hear the I- word, so you bet he accepted his resignation."

Barrett in Arkansas writes: "You have heard of Chinese water torture? Schumer, Leahy, et al are the drops of water on Gonzales' head. As a result of the constant dripping from those faucets, Gonzales realized America isn't worth killing himself over. You can't do better than a Democrat for the ability to ruthlessly beat up on Republicans for any reason, legitimate or not."

Tony in Seattle: "It has nothing to do with good government or restoring the integrity of the Justice Department. With even his own party against Gonzales, Bush couldn't afford full congressional hearings and further hemorrhaging. Might even be a move to stave off the well-deserved impeachment."

Gary in Ontario, California: "George Bush threw Alberto Gonzales overboard today because the administration is indeed a sinking ship and every man for himself. The few remaining in the Bush inner circle should don life vests and begin bailing water."

And Mike in Fargo, North Dakota: "Jack, the president decided to appease you, you and only you, by accepting the resignation of the attorney general. Turn the page, Jack. It's time for you to move on with your so-called life and find something else to bitch and moan about."



BLITZER: A friend of yours, Jack. Thanks very much.


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

Happening now: Michael Vick says his controversial crimes were the immature acts of a person who needs to grow up. After admitting he helped kill dogs in a brutal dogfighting ring, Vick now wants your forgiveness.