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Giving Ground on Iraq: Senate Democrats Mull Compromise; Fred Thompson's New Role; Senator Craig: Resigning or Not?

Aired September 6, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, giving ground on Iraq. Senate Democrats considering a compromise on a hard timetable for withdrawal. Will it help them get some of what they want from Republicans?
Also this hour, the candidates, the candidate. We're now on the campaign trail with Republican Fred Thompson on this, the first full day of his presidential campaign.

What message is he trying to bring to the mix?

And the definition of experience. Is Barack Obama drawing a line against his Democratic rivals or blurring their differences? I'll ask presidential candidate John Edwards.

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

Up first this hour, the Democrats' September strategy on Iraq. At the start of a month that may prove pivotal for the war, Senate majority leaders are rethinking their political options.

Let's go right to congressional correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She's on the Hill for us.

Some are suggesting, Jessica, the Democrats are blinking.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they certainly wouldn't put it that way.

One Senate Democratic aide said to me that what Democrats are feeling right now is a new willingness to work with Republicans, and they say that's really because they just don't have the votes they need to get anything controversial on Iraq through the Senate.


YELLIN (voice over): John McCain is sensing weakness in the Democratic position on the war.

JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, my sense of the momentum is that they've lost the momentum, otherwise they wouldn't want to sit down with Republicans and negotiate a difference resolution.

YELLIN: Democratic leaders indicate they're considering legislation that does not contain a firm deadline for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq. Senator Harry Reid says nothing is off the table. And the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is floating the idea of requiring a goal for withdrawal rather than a date certain.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI), CHAIRMAN, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I think that change in language is worthy of consideration.

YELLIN: Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi is signaling a softening of her position.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: We have encouraged our members to reach out to their friends, to their colleagues on their committees in any way to see what opportunities there might be to work together.

YELLIN: Why the change of heart? Because Democrats are failing to pick up new Republican votes. Even wavering Republicans and those up for re-election have not agreed to support legislation that contains a date certain for withdrawal, but a compromise holds risk.

Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd says "... by removing the deadline to get our troops out of Iraq, you have lost this Democrat's vote."


YELLIN: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emphasizes, Wolf, that Democrats are still considering a number of alternatives and they will ultimately only support legislation that does lead to a change of course in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Are the Democrats though a bit nervous that General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, when they start testifying on Monday, that this could undermine their position? They will presumably make the case that the U.S. military increase is beginning to show some signs of progress.

YELLIN: But they will consistently, the Democrats, hammer on the message that it has not led to political progress in Iraq, which they say was the goal of the surge. And without that political reconciliation, they say the surge is a failure.

BLITZER: And that's a point that Senator John Edwards makes as well. We're going to be speaking with him just in a little while right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Jessica Yellin on the Hill for us.

Let's get to Fred Thompson's new role as a presidential candidate. The "Law & Order" star is campaigning today in Iowa after launching his bid for the Republican nomination in true Hollywood style. That would be on "The Tonight Show".


FRED THOMPSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're where we need to be right now. And that's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about.


THOMPSON: I'm running for president of the United States.

LENO: All right!


THOMPSON: Thank you.


BLITZER: Now that he's an official candidate, let's take a look at Fred Thompson's stance on some of the key issues.

As a senator, he voted for the use of military force in Iraq and he supports President Bush's Iraq policy right now.

He backs stricter enforcement of existing immigration laws, but he says he opposes blanket amnesty programs. He does support expanding the visa program for skilled workers.

Fred Thompson opposes abortion rights. He says Roe versus Wade is a bad law and bad medical science.

He also opposes same-sex marriage. He's personally against civil unions, but he says laws on those unions should be left to the states.

Thompson voted for President Bush's 2001 tax cuts and he voted for in favor of a private savings account program to supplement Social Security.

Let's go to our chief national correspondent, John King. He's on the campaign trail for us in Iowa.

You're watching this, the first full day, John, of Senator Thompson's campaign. Give us a little sense of what's going on.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The first full day, Wolf. In just a few moments, the first bus tour as an official candidate.

The buses will roll from Des Moines up to Council Bluffs. Senator Thompson getting to have some of the retail politics that have made Iowa famous.

His first official speech as a candidate came just moments ago, and in it Thompson implicitly criticized some of his Republican rivals, saying he has conservative views. And when you hear him speaking those views, you can rest assured they are views he has always had and always will.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go Fred go! Go Fred go!

KING (voice over): The big challenge now is to make it worth the wait.

THOMPSON: So the preseason is over. Let's get on with it.

KING: Fred Thompson used his first rally as a declared candidate for president to label himself a common sense conservative and the Republican Party's best hope of keeping the White House in a campaign in which the Democrats are heavy favorites.

THOMPSON: My friends, our country needs us to win. Our country needs us to win. I am ready to lead that fight.

Let's do it together.

KING: But this tiny crowd at the campaign kickoff highlighted concerns that Thompson waited too long and is too far behind his rivals in building an organization. Eight other Republicans have been at it for months already, but Thompson suggests that he alone is the complete package to keep taxes low, no amnesty, anti-abortion conservative, and more.

THOMPSON: We must show the determination that we are going to be United as an American people and do whatever is necessary to prevail not only in Iraq, but in the worldwide conflict that lies beyond Iraq.

KING: There are many questions, and a late start means the answers needs to come quickly.

TUCKER ESKEW, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: There's time, but he'll have to come out of the gate strong. He's got that potential and he's got a party that is looking for its man on a white horse.

KING: Early staff turnover in some cases because of friction with the candidate's wife, Jeri, who is also raising some eyebrows.

WHIT AYRES, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: Senator Thompson's executive experience is substantially less than that demonstrated by Mayor Giuliani or Governor Romney. Therefore, people are going to evaluate Senator Thompson's executive ability through the way he organizes his campaign and sets up his organization.

KING: A little biography is part of every rollout. Sixty-five years old, a man from modest roots in small town Tennessee. A prosecutor, a senator, a lobbyist, off and on, but most of all known for his roles in the movies and on TV.

Looking the part of a president is the goal now and there is little room for error.


KING: Two days in Iowa, again, including his first bus tour as a candidate. Then two days in New Hampshire, Wolf, off to South Carolina. The key test for Senator Thompson right out of the box, can he raise a lot of money fast and can he build on the appeal now that he is an official candidate that he had when he was still on the sidelines? Many of his rivals predict this is a campaign that will quickly flame out. The Thompson team says it will prove them wrong -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Some of his critics say that his stump speech, at least until now, before he became an official candidate, was weak, it didn't inspire the crowds out there. How's he doing? You heard his first stump speech out in Iowa today. Did he have it?

KING: I talked to a number of his supporters here as they left the room, and many acknowledge that that is a weakness, or at least something he does not excel at. They said he is not Ronald Reagan when it comes to giving a big stump speech, but they said...

BLITZER: It looks like our satellite transmission from Iowa just froze up, but I can assure you John King is just fine. It's a technical problem. We apologize for that.

Jack Cafferty understands technical problems.

You've been in television, Jack, for how many years?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I bet we lost the satellite because we either ran over our reserve time or we didn't pay enough money to reserve it for longer.

Who knows?

BLITZER: Well, who knows? Maybe somebody pulled out a plug or something. You never know.

CAFFERTY: OK. As long as John's all right.

BLITZER: Yes, he's fine.

CAFFERTY: Time for Congress to force a change in Iraq policy by attaching a date for troop withdrawals to future war-funding bills. So says Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards.

On a conference call with reporters, Edwards said, "It's time for Congress to stand its ground. If there's no timetable, there should be no funding."

Edwards is calling for the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops and he thinks the rest of our forces should be redeployed over a period of nine months. The former senator says Congress faces a critical moment to do the will of the American people and resist what he calls an incredible P.R. campaign by the White House to continue with its current policy. Edwards adds that it's up to the Congress to use its power of the purse in order to enact change and to push Iraqi leaders toward a political solution.

So that's our question this hour. John Edwards says it's time for Congress to attach a timetable for troop withdrawals to any future funding for the war in Iraq. Is he right?

E-mail your thoughts to or go to

Did you get all my audio, Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, you were there, no satellite problems from New York.

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: We got a good connection there, Jack. Thanks very much.


BLITZER: And coming up, my interview with John Edwards. That's next. I'll press the Democratic presidential candidate about the situation in Iraq, U.S. relations with China, some cutting remarks about him from another White House hopeful.

That's coming up next.

Also, fresh off their latest debate, did the Republican candidates tell it like it is? We'll have a fact check on their face- off last night.

And will he resign or not? We're going to have the latest on Senator Larry Craig's bathroom scandal and his second thoughts and now third thoughts about his future.

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


BLITZER: There's a collective sigh of relief on Capitol Hill today among some Senate Republicans and the scandal surrounding their colleague Larry Craig. There's now word from the Craig camp on whether or not his resignation announcement still stands.

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

You're watching the ups and downs, in or out, what he's doing, but you're also getting new some information on what he had planned on doing, Dana, even before his arrest in that bathroom at the Minneapolis airport.


Two political advisers to Senator Larry Craig tell CNN that he had already planned to decide and announce that he was not going to seek re-election in 2008, and he had planned to announce that even before this news of his bathroom bust broke. Now, his aides could not say when exactly Senator Craig made that decision, but they insist it was well before this scandal made headlines. Now, one of his top confidantes, longtime confidantes, Greg Casey, somebody I talked to, he says that Craig told him about this a while ago -- again, before this broke -- and according to Casey, "He and Suzanne" -- that's his wife -- "had decided that he had been in Congress long enough and it was time for him to go."

Now, this disclosure, Wolf, to CNN comes as the Craig team -- Craig aides are trying to dispel the notion that the senator is trying to hold on to power even after he announced on Saturday that he does intend to resign.

Now, Tuesday night, you'll remember that Craig aides said that maybe the senator would hold on to power, would say in the Senate if in fact he could get the charges cleared by the end of the month. But that caused a huge political frenzy, especially among Republican leaders who thought that they had taken care of this, that they had successfully pushed Craig out the door. And now Craig advisers are trying to make clear that all the senator wants to do is clear his name and his reputation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because even under the best of circumstances for him, let's say they decide to, OK, withdraw that guilty plea, he's still going to be charged. He'd still have to go through a trial which would be rather unpleasant and very embarrassing, not only for himself, but for Republican leaders in the Senate.

BASH: No question about it. And, you know, that is why -- what Craig aides say is that they insist that they're not changing their strategy here today. They're saying that all along, at least since Tuesday, they have said that Senator Craig will resign unless his charges are cleared.

They're saying that is still the case, but they are changing their language because Republicans here saw that as a trial balloon. It fell with a thud. So now they're trying to be a little bit more precise and make clear that they know it's an uphill battle legally and politically for Senator Craig to stay.

BLITZER: All right, Dana. Thanks very much.

Dana Bash on the Hill.

The United States and China, the world's biggest consumers and polluters. President Bush and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, had much to talk about today when they sat down just ahead of the Asia- Pacific summit in Australia. Twenty-one nations accounting for almost half of world trade.

High on their agenda, the recall of thousands of Chinese-made goods -- actually millions of Chinese-made goods.

CNN's Elaine Quijano has more in Sydney, Australia -- Elaine.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Bush calls the relationship between the U.S. and China complex. Well, today he and China's president, Hu Jintao, had the chance to sit down and discuss those complex relations in a 90-minute meeting. Afterwards, the two leaders said they covered a range of topics including Iran, climate change and religious freedom. And against the backdrop of products, recalls and consumer concerns in the United States, President Bush said the two also talked about product safety issues.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The president was quite articulate about product safety. And I appreciated his comments.


QUIJANO: Also on the agenda, increasing communication on military matters, including a possible future hotline between the two countries' armed services. Bush aides hope an announcement will come soon.

Now, President Bush also accepted an invitation by the Chinese premier to attend next year's Olympics taking place in China. Bush aides say President Bush will attend as a sports fan and not to make any kind of political statement.

Meantime, here in Sydney, the president will make remarks to the leaders of the APEC summit who have gathered here for this week's forum. The president will also sit down for meetings with the president of Russia and South Korea -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elaine Quijano traveling with the president in Australia.

We're going to hear from John Edwards momentarily. He has a very, very different point of view when it comes to U.S. relations with China and for the president to attend the Beijing Olympic games.

That's coming up, my interview with Senator Edwards.

Fred Thompson's presidential bid may be getting off on the wrong foot in New Hampshire. The Republican jumped into the presidential race after opting out of the GOP debate in New Hampshire.

Donna Brazile and Leslie Sanchez are standing by live to weigh in on the fallout in our "Strategy Session".

And Thompson's rivals take a shot at Iran's nuclear threat and U.S. military options. How far would they go to stop Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb?

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



BLITZER: There's new reason to wonder how Democrats define experience. That's the latest twist in the showdown between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

We're going to take a closer look at the changing race to bring change to America.

And John Edwards takes on some fellow Democrats over Iraq and he takes on the president over China.

My interview with John Edwards just ahead right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Happening now, an international manhunt under way for alleged terrorist plotters. Authorities are looking for at least 10 more suspects linked to a foiled terror attack on U.S. targets in Germany.

We're going to go live to the U.S. military base in Ramstein. That's coming up.

Sharp criticism of the Homeland Security Department coming days before the nation remembers the 9/11 attacks. Auditors here in Washington say the department has made progress, but has fallen far short of meeting its performance expectations.

We'll have a report on that.

And concerns that alleged hostile acts in the Middle East could cause a new conflict in the region. Syria issued a strong warning to the Israeli government today after what it called enemy aircraft from Israel flew over Syria.

Our report on that also coming up.

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

Barack Obama is looking for new ways to stand out from his leading Democratic presidential rivals. At issue, the differences between the candidates and the definition of the word "experience".

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

Bill, are the differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democratic side getting any clearer?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: No. The Democratic frontrunners are doing their best to make them blurrier.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): Democratic voters seem to have their race sorted out. With Hillary Clinton, you've got experience. Eighty percent of Democratic primary voters say she has the experience to be president. Only 41 percent think Barack Obama does.

Hold on now, says Obama. SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I find it amusing, this whole experience argument, because I've been in public service for over two decades now. I've been in elected office longer than John Edwards or Hillary Clinton.

SCHNEIDER: It depends on what the meaning of "experience" is.

OBAMA: What people seem to mean when they say I don't have enough experience is I haven't been in Washington as long as they have. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't think that's necessarily a criteria for gauging experience.

SCHNEIDER: In his new ad, Obama claims he has experience as a Washington outsider.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When he passed Illinois's most sweeping ethics reform in a generation, it wasn't to win favors from political insiders.

SCHNEIDER: Democratic voters seem to agree. With Obama you get change.

Two-thirds believe Obama will try new ways of solving the country's problems. Only 42 percent think Clinton will.

Hold on now, says Clinton in her new ad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She has the conviction. She has the experience. If we're red for change, she's ready to lead.

SCHNEIDER: She claims her experience means she knows how to bring about change.

Wait. Here comes another Democrat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now we need experience and change. Bill Richardson offers both.

SCHNEIDER: And just what the Democrats need, a Republican kibitzer to sound off on Obama, Clinton and John Edwards.

RUDY GIULIANI (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And so my real concern is, you have three leading Democratic candidates, none of which have ever run a city, a state or a business.


SCHNEIDER: So, just when Democratic voters thought they had the whole change versus experience thing sorted out, the candidates come in and muck it all up -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks very much.

Bill Schneider is our senior political analyst.

Let's get now to the Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. He's looking for ways to gain traction against the two frontrunners, senators Clinton and Obama.

I spoke with Senator Edwards just a short time ago. I began by asking him about President Bush's statement today that he's anxious to accept an invitation to the Beijing Olympic games this summer and whether this is a good time for Mr. Bush to be doing that given issues with China over the genocide in Darfur, tainted products and sanctions against Iran.


JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think that this is a time where America faces huge challenges with China. You just went through most of them.

We've had problems with them on the Iranian issue. We've had problems, obviously, with millions of toys having to be recalled in the United States.

We have a huge trade deficit. We know that they're manipulating their currency.

We know that there are continued human rights abuses in China. So, we have huge issues with China that have to be dealt with and confronted.

BLITZER: And what about the -- the -- the notion of attending the Olympic Games? Are you thinking, as some are already thinking, that maybe the United States should boycott those Games?

EDWARDS: Well, I wouldn't -- as president, Wolf, I wouldn't -- I certainly wouldn't suggest that at this moment.

But I wouldn't take any option off the table. I mean, we have huge issues with China. One that I don't think you made mention of is the need for Chinese cooperation on the ongoing genocide in western Sudan and Darfur.

But we have enormous issues with China. Their internal economic development seems to drive absolutely everything they do. It certainly is the driver of their foreign policy. They need to make sure they get energy. They want to make sure that they get oil. They want to make sure that they're growing their economy internally, which also means they're willing to devastate the environment in the process.

So, we have huge issues with the Chinese. They're growing their military in a very opaque manner, so that we can't actually see what's going on. So, we have issues with China, and we need to be dealing with them directly.

BLITZER: Here's what Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, said in part at the Republican debate last night in New Hampshire. Your name came up, thanks to him.

Listen to what he said.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You did hear, by the way, that John Edwards also has a plan. Mine is to let people save all the money they want, tax-free. His is to let you save $250 a year tax-free.


ROMNEY: That was my reaction, yes.


BLITZER: All right. I'm not sure that that -- he said that at the -- at the debate. He said that at a town hall. But he said something very similar at the debate last night.

What do you want to say to Mitt Romney about that criticism that your -- your -- your proposal is not much of a tax cut for the middle class?

EDWARDS: He's just got it dead wrong.

I mean, Mitt Romney would give America four more years of George Bush. What he's going to do is continue George Bush's war on working middle-class Americans. I mean, what -- what we will see with Mitt Romney is exactly what he's been proposing, which is more tax relief, more help for the richest people in the country, not doing anything for working middle-class families.

I mean, what -- what I have proposed is that we restructure, have real tax reform, so that the highest-income Americans, the people who have been most fortunate in this country, are paying their fair share of taxes, and that we actually have very specific tax cuts to help people to save, to help people send their kids to college, to help families with their child care costs, all aimed at strengthening and growing the middle class.

We just have a fundamental disagreement about -- he thinks the tax system is working fine and that we need to create more help for the richest people in the country. I don't. I think that working middle-class people are the people who need help.

BLITZER: You're getting a lot of endorsements from major organized labor unions right now, but some of the critics say, you know, it didn't do Dick Gephardt a lot of good. He -- he -- he got a lot of those union endorsements, and he didn't do very well in his bid for the presidency.

What do you say to those who say that, you know what, organized labor is not today what it used to be?

EDWARDS: Well, what I say is, every one of us, Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, myself, have been competing very hard for these union endorsements, because we all understand the same thing.

First of all, the unions, the -- for example, the unions who have endorsed me, the Carpenters, the Steelworkers, the Mine workers, and today, the, Transport Workers, I mean, all these unions -- it represent over two million working families in this country -- they all have clear representation in the early states. They make a huge difference in organizing in the early states. - And it also just sends a signal to the American people and to Democratic Party voters and Democratic Party activists about who they believe would be the best president, who they think would be the strongest candidate in the general election, and who they think would do the most for working middle-class families.

So, this has been a very competitive process. All of us have been appearing before these people, making the case that we would make the best president. And, with over two million union members supporting me, I'm way ahead of anybody else right now, and I'm proud to have their help.

BLITZER: And you're -- and -- and they probably will help you in this bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

I want to talk a little bit about Iraq. We don't have a lot of time.

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York, said something yesterday that's causing some controversy. I want to play the little clip and get your reaction.


SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: It wasn't that the surge brought peace here. It was that the warlords took peace here, created a temporary peace here.


BLITZER: He's referring to the Al Anbar Province.

I wonder if you agree with him, that it wasn't necessarily the U.S. military that -- that has turned it around a little bit, but it was the -- what he called the warlords, the Sunni tribal sheik leaders, who have turned things around.

EDWARDS: Oh, I think it's both. I think a fair assessment would say it's both.

I think the American military certainly made a difference there, but they were working in conjunction with the Sunni tribal leadership, who made a determination that they needed to do something to stop al Qaeda, that al Qaeda was a -- was a bigger threat than the American presence. And, so, they began to cooperate with us.

But I -- if I can go one step further, Wolf, I think the bigger question, instead of just looking at isolated parts of Iraq, is, has there been -- and this should be the question for -- for Petraeus -- has there been any serious political progress? Because, without political progress, there can't be stability in Iraq. And all these other things are supposedly aimed at supporting political progress. And, at least from what I see, I don't see any sign there's been any political progress.

BLITZER: Senator Edwards, thanks very much for coming in.

EDWARDS: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: From Oprah to Iowa, former President Bill Clinton has been out in full force this week campaigning for his wife, and he's continuing to play a significant role in the New York senator's White House run.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

So, what is Bill Clinton, Abbi, doing right now?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, Bill and Hillary Clinton asking online donors, let's do lunch.

Remember, the two of them teamed up for this online "Sopranos" spoof earlier this year. Well, now both Clintons have sent out e- mails to supporters, saying, make a contribution to the Hillary Clinton campaign this week, and you could get the chance to sit down for a meal with Hillary and Bill to discuss Hillary Clinton's candidacy.

Now, we have seen this win a chance to have dinner or a meal with a candidate already this cycle. In offering dinner with Barack, the Barack Obama campaign focused on small donors online. Now, the campaign said, it was so popular, so successful, that they have run another round this week.

Well, now Hillary and Bill Clinton teaming up for another Web push, but their lunch won't be in a diner. In the e-mail, they're saying this is going to take place at the Clinton's D.C. home. And Hillary Clinton has said that she promises to buy the groceries -- Wolf.

BLITZER: In the old days, Bill Clinton could really have a meal. I remember watching him eat way back when. He's had some health problems since then. He's lost a lot of weight. And I'm sure his diet, his cuisine, has changed considerably since then.

Thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

The Democratic presidential candidates have sparred over how they would deal with Iran. How far would the Republicans go to prevent a nuclear showdown? Their military options are now on the table. That's coming up.

And did Republicans get their facts straight during their latest debate face-off? Our truth squad is on the case.


BLITZER: The presidential candidates have made very clear their views on the war in Iraq, but what about Iran? That country refuses to scale back its nuclear program. And there are growing fears here in Washington that, along with nuclear power, Iran could one day produce nuclear weapons. So, what are the options?

Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching the story for us -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the question to the candidates, what if Iran is on the brink of producing nuclear weapons and the U.N. will do nothing move than impose sanctions? What's your next move then?


ROMNEY: When they see our military in our hand, a possible blockade or possible aerial strikes, they recognize we mean business.

TODD (voice-over): And if that doesn't work?

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator McCain put it very well a few months ago. He said it would be very, very dangerous to take military action against Iran. But it would be even more dangerous if Iran were a nuclear power.

TODD: But only one candidate was specific about the military option.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And you would look, probably, at the pattern of what the Israelis did with the Osirak reactor that Saddam Hussein built back in the 1980s, when eight F-16s came over the horizon and took care of that problem.

TODD: What would an American military strike look like?

COLONEL SAM GARDINER (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: It would probably be about a three-day air campaign with aircraft like the B-2, cruise missiles fired from ships and aircraft. And we would go after the facilities we know about.

TODD: But it's not clear how far such strikes could set back Iran's nuclear program.

MAJOR GENERAL DONALD SHEPPERD (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: And the problem with all of these kind of strikes is, except for the reactors, which are above ground, you don't know what you're really hitting.

TODD: But the airstrike option also carries significant risk. Iran could respond with a blockade of Gulf oil, a flood of aid to insurgents in Iraq, or worse.

GARDINER: They could go after us in Afghanistan. They could even do terrorist attacks on U.S. facilities. There could be a very high price to pay for the use of a military option.


TODD: And what about the option of a ground invasion? Well, analysts say that could be more conclusive, but would be very difficult to do, given the tough terrain there, the U.S. commitments in Iraq, and the reaction it would cause in the Middle East, a delicate problem for whichever president faces this issue, if negotiations and/or sanctions against Iran are not successful -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Not many good options, no matter what.

Thanks very much, Brian, for that.

Let's get a closer look now at what the Republicans said in their latest debate and whether their claims were overblown or were they accurate.

Mary Snow has been doing some fact-checking for us.

Mary, what have you found?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we looked into some of the claims made by various candidates. Although they were rooted in truth, we found some claims were overstated.


SNOW (voice-over) (voice-over): One key fact put to the test in Wednesday's debate, is the Bush administration's so-called military surge in Iraq working?

ROMNEY: The surge is apparently working.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Governor, the surge is working. The surge is working, sir.

ROMNEY: That's just what I said.

MCCAIN: It is working. No, not "apparently"; it's working.

SNOW: This week's Government Accountability Office report was not conclusive about the success of the U.S. military operation. And President Bush has asked Congress not to jump to conclusions before General David Petraeus presents his assessment next week.

On the controversial topic of Guantanamo Bay, Rudy Giuliani said this.

GIULIANI: We can't close Guantanamo, because nobody will take the people there.

SNOW: That's not completely true. Some countries won't take back Guantanamo detainees. The Defense Department reports, 435 detainees have been sent to more than two dozen countries since the camp opened in 2002. Currently, about 65 are eligible for release. On the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, this from Congressman Duncan Hunter.

HUNTER: Those guys get taxpayer-paid-for prayer rugs. They have prayer five times a day. They have all gained weight.


HUNTER: The last time I looked at the menu, they had honey- glazed chicken and rice pilaf on Friday. That's how we treat the terrorists.

SNOW: While the menu and prayer rugs Hunter mentioned are not being disputed, it's just part of the story. In January, the FBI released a report on the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, reporting, witnesses saw prisoners "chained hand and foot in fetal positions to the floor, with no chair, food or water."

And on the subject of torture and interrogation methods, Congressman Tom Tancredo said this.

REP. TOM TANCREDO (R-CO), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Certainly, water-board, I don't believe that that is -- quote -- "torture."

SNOW: Water-boarding is a torture technique similar to simulating drowning. While Tancredo may not believe it's torture, the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense has said otherwise. The new Army field manual prohibits water-boarding as an interrogation technique.


SNOW: Now, on the topic of same-sex marriage, Senator Sam Brownback defended his opposition to same-sex marriage by saying that, in some northern European counties, 80 percent of firstborn children were born out of wedlock.

That appears to be an overstatement. Brownback's campaign sources information to one conservative writer, who cited that 80 percent statistic from one county in Norway -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Mary Snow, reporting for us.

Mary and Brian Todd, 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, you can check out our political ticker. Go to

Fred Thompson delivers his campaign message in Iowa.


FRED THOMPSON, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I feel this is another door to serve the country that I love. So, the preseason is over. Let's get on with it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party is feeling slighted that Thompson didn't show up at their debate in New Hampshire last night. Does the newest face in the race have some damage control to do?

And what did we learn from last night's debate? John McCain seemingly had a good night, but was it enough to get his campaign back in gear?

Donna Brazile and Leslie Sanchez, they're standing by, right here in our "Strategy Session."

We will be right back.


BLITZER: He's now a former Hollywood star. That would be Senator Fred Thompson, launching his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, but in true Hollywood style, on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

But should he have been elsewhere, like the Republican debate in New Hampshire?

Joining us now for our "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez.

Leslie, should he have been in New Hampshire, skipped the late show? He could have done that another -- another time, "The Tonight Show," and instead done the Republican debate with the other candidates?

LESLIE SANCHEZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: You know, many Republican consultants will say, yes, he should have been there. I would have dragged him to the debate. I tend to disagree.

I think he's going to -- he has set his own timeline. He made a strong showing. He's going to get a tremendous amount of publicity. What it does do, though, is, it makes the New Hampshire debate almost moot, because now he's a contender and it changes the entire dynamic of the race.

BLITZER: Arguably, more people were watching "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" than were watching the Republican debate.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. The key questions are their delegates. Remember, in order to win the Republican nomination, you need delegates.

And while Jay Leno is a great human being, Fred Thompson needs to go out there and begin to close the deal and get some delegates.

BLITZER: Who do you think did really well last night among the Republican candidates who did show up? SANCHEZ: Yes, I think John McCain did outstanding, not only because the platform was national security. He showed his expertise. I mean, he really showed some life and energy people were still looking for.

And you can't forget, he has a very consistent base. While a lot has started to peel off, that -- he does have a voting bloc that maybe needs to be paid attention to.

BLITZER: A lot of people think McCain did really well last night.

BRAZILE: I have to agree. Perhaps we should ask him more questions about his age, because, clearly, he was turned off by that question.

But he came across last night. He had spark. He had energy. He had enthusiasm. He did very well, had a solid performance.

But my best moment of the debate, before I drifted off to night- night, was seeing Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee going after it on Iraq. That...

BLITZER: That was really a moment.

BRAZILE: Oh, I enjoyed it.

And, of course, I sided with Ron Paul on the issue, but I thought it was a very passionate moment in the debate.

BLITZER: Who was hurt, if anyone, among the eight Republican candidates, do you think?

SANCHEZ: I -- I wouldn't necessarily say they were hurt. I would say a lot of candidates are going to -- to see that they didn't get as much out of this debate as they wanted to because of the Fred Thompson factor. I mean...

BLITZER: Some people think Rudy Giuliani, for example, was hurt, because, on some of the social issues, some of the other Republicans were going after him.

SANCHEZ: Well, you know, there's two brackets in the Republican Party. There's the social conservatives. And the fight is really going to be between Thompson and Romney. And then there's the economic conservatives, who are the moderates. It's really be a McCain and a Giuliani.

As those two, you know, winning contenders move out, that's when we are going to have a two-tier race.

BLITZER: Do you think anyone was hurt by their performance last night?

BRAZILE: Well, I thought -- I didn't think the mayor did that well. He was flat. He had to once again answer questions about his social views. He had to go back into his marriage. He's not a perfect person.

But I -- I thought, overall, Duncan Hunter, who seemed to have some -- some answers on Iraq, didn't come across that well as someone who can compete for the top tier.

BLITZER: Do you think anyone missed Jim Gilmore or Tommy Thompson?







SANCHEZ: Well, you know, that's the point.

BLITZER: Well, let me put you on the spot, both of you. Who is going to be the next Republican presidential candidate to drop out?

BRAZILE: Duncan Hunter. That's easy.


BLITZER: All right.

What do you think?

SANCHEZ: Tancredo.

BLITZER: Tancredo. Some suggesting Brownback.

Ron Paul, presumably, he will stay until the -- until the end, right?


BRAZILE: Well, he has a lot of Internet support. And, after last night, he may have some independents looking at him.

BLITZER: here -- let's go back to Fred Thompson.

The chairman of the Republican Party in New Hampshire was not happy that Fred Thompson didn't show up, saying this, "For him to then go on 'Jay Leno' the same night and be trading jokes, while other candidates are having a substantive discussion on issues, is not going to be missed by New Hampshire voters," to which, in effect, here's what Thompson said about that.

Listen to this.


THOMPSON: And I will tell you something else. You know, for those who talk about the New Hampshire situation, I'm certainly not disrespecting them, but it's a lot more difficult to get on "The Tonight Show" than it is to get into a presidential...





BLITZER: What do you think?

SANCHEZ: Right. You know, it wasn't probably the best line in kind of ingratiating yourself with New Hampshire voters.

I mean, the bottom line is, he got on a plane immediately, was headed to Iowa, New Hampshire.

BLITZER: He is going to spend two days in Iowa. Then he's going to go to New Hampshire for two days.

SANCHEZ: Exactly, pressing the flesh, getting to know the individuals, and making his case.

The next 30 days are going to be critical. If he falls flat, in terms of not gaining that enthusiasm, then you are going to have to wonder where those independents who have been holding their vote are going to go.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BRAZILE: Well, I hope he brings some -- some trinkets from the "Jay Leno" show, because he has a lot of kissing and making up to do this week in New Hampshire.

BLITZER: What about the -- the staff problems he's had? He's lost some key staff aides. Another one, we're told, has just announced he's leaving. That doesn't necessarily bode well for Fred Thompson's organizational structure.

SANCHEZ: I wouldn't -- I wouldn't even -- I would just discount that.

And I think a lot of has to do with the fact, in formation of this campaign, if you know the folks on the inside, a lot of people were just coming to get the -- you know, the ball moving. And now they're putting a very senior operation in place. And they have to be to be competitive. There's -- it's a tough fight.


BRAZILE: That's not a small thing in a presidential campaign. (CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: ... staff.

SANCHEZ: But, if you look historically at where most campaigns are, the fall, he's preparing himself, and I think the campaign he has now is ready to move forward.

BLITZER: But, you know, there's -- a lot of these disgruntled ex-staffers are blaming his wife, saying, you know, she's too much involved; he should have a little distance from her on -- in terms of the day-to-day operation.

You -- you buy that?

SANCHEZ: I don't buy that at all. And we're not going to know.

I mean, they could make up anything about -- you know, everybody has an axe to grind. And who knows why anybody left? The bottom line is, how is going to he perform in the next 30 days? And I think that will tell.


BLITZER: And the Democrats would be wise to not discount a Hollywood actor, given history.

BRAZILE: We have had some problems with other B-rated actors that became president.


BRAZILE: So, I agree with Terry McAuliffe, who said today that I'm not going to discount him because he's an actor.

But, look, in terms of spouses, we know that this -- this presidential cycle, the spouses are really making a lot of news. And, if Mrs. Thompson has something to say, well, bring it on.

BLITZER: OK. We will be watching.

Good "Strategy Session," guys. Thanks very much, Donna Brazile, Leslie Sanchez, for coming in.

Does John Edwards have the right approach to getting the troops out of Iraq? Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail.

Plus, is this time for the Democrats to be making a compromise over a troop withdrawal in Iraq, a compromise with the Republicans? I will speak to a leading anti-war Democrat, Congressman John Murtha. That's coming up.

And an update on the massive search for missing adventurer Steve Fossett.


BLITZER: Let's go right to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: I was watching the sound bite you played of Fred Thompson on "The Tonight Show" about how it's easier to get into a presidential debate in New Hampshire than it is on the -- I don't know how he is going to do in the election, but he's going get murdered in the New Hampshire primary.

BLITZER: Yes, they're not going to be happy with him.

CAFFERTY: That's -- I mean, come on. That's just stupid.

The question: John Edwards says it's time for Congress to attach a timetable for troop withdrawals to future funding for the war in Iraq. Is he right?

David in Allenstown, New Hampshire, speaking of New Hampshire: "If Congress really wants to stop the war, it's simple. Stop paying for it, period. Nancy Pelosi ultimately controls the budget/purse. She can end it tomorrow. But the Democratic Congress has no guts. They would rather use the war to beat the Republicans than end the war."

James in Idaho writes: "As much as I am loath to admit it, I think the Republican candidates have it fairly right on this one. We cannot simply pack up and leave a region that our meddling has violently interfered with, but, then again, that isn't really the problem. The problem is the people leading us in the present. I have a great deal of respect for our military, but George Bush as a sounding board for a military go-ahead is just frightening."

Ross in Florida writes: "John Edwards is simply trying to get votes. The idea of a hard withdrawal date that conflicts with experienced military personnel reflects ignorance and a lack of understanding relative to the consequences."

Don't use such big words.

Jean writes: "Yes. He is absolutely right and politically astute. No other candidate is doing anything about withdrawing our troops from an increasingly useless projection of force."

Bill in Tennessee: "Which branch of the service was Edwards in? Stop his funding."

And Mike in Texas: "Of course John Edwards is right. He's actually been right since the day he said 'I was wrong' about his vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. John Edwards is leading, as is Senator Dodd. Senators Clinton and Obama, what say you?" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

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

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