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THE SITUATION ROOM

Dueling GOP Races; Democrats' Iraq Dilemma; Facing Tough Questions on Iraq

Aired September 12, 2007 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, guys. Happening now, democrats desperately seeking a new Iraq strategy on this, the eve of the president's address to the nation. Can they find a way to bring republicans onboard and force Mr. Bush to change course? We'll talk about it with a republican leader in the house, John Boehner. He's visiting Baghdad right now.
Also this hour, they were grilled by members of Congress. Now it's our turn to ask the questions. We have brand new interviews with the U.S. commander in Iraq and the top American diplomat there, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, two different GOP races for the White House with different front runners. Which one matters most?

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

Up first this hour, democratic leaders in Congress are in an uncomfortable but all-too familiar place today trying to figure out how to play the political cards being dealt to them on Iraq. A long- awaited progress report on the war is behind them. The president's address to the nation is tomorrow night, and the way forward may be as murky as ever. Let's begin our coverage with our Congressional correspondent Dana Bash. She's watching all of this unfold.

So how, Dana are Democrats dealing with this hand that they've been dealt?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they will certainly going to try to change the course, but their first order of business here, Wolf, is really to try it debunk the notion that the president's plan that he will announce tomorrow night to bring the extra 30,000 surge troops home by next summer is any shift in strategy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: His plan is simply more of the same, to keep at least 130,000 troops, American troops, in the midst of an intractable civil war.

BASH: In the nine months since taking control of Congress, Senate Democrats have been unable to find enough republican votes to force a change in war policy, and the frustrated Democratic leader issued a challenge. REID: So I call on the senate republicans to not walk lock step as they have with the president for years in this war.

BASH: Despite that tough talk, behind the scenes democrats who just this summer insisted on a hard withdrawal deadline are now bowing to reality. Scrambling for compromise with republicans. There are signs more republicans may vote for a concrete withdrawal plan.

Republican Lisa Murkowski told CNN she had been against timelines until General Petraeus outlined his plan to bring 30,000 troops home. "It is, in fact, kind of a soft timeline," Murkowski said. "I will tell you it's caused me to step back from what I've said in the past."

Senators in both parties are bouncing around half a dozen ideas for consensus, including setting a goal instead of a deadline for bringing combat troops home. But without a withdrawal date, democrats risk losing votes from senators in their own party, especially presidential candidates.

BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: It appears clear to me that the president is not going to compromise short of the Congress forcing him to accept a shorter timetable, and absent that, we're essentially engaging in a bunch of symbolic action here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: But democratic leaders, the new democratic majority is under so much pressure to actually pass Iraq legislation, the leadership is much more willing to cut deals and try to find some way to show success in finally forcing a change in the president's war policy.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much. Dana is on the Hill watching this story.

Over at the White House, the press secretary, Tony Snow, is rejecting suggestions that Iraq is a war without end, but his tenure in the Bush administration clearly is ending. Today was Tony Snow's last briefing over at the White House.

Let's go to our correspondent there, Ed Henry. Did Tony Snow give us much information about what the president plans on telling the nation tomorrow night?

ED HENRY, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Tony did say today that the president has gone through more than 20 drafts of this big prime time speech. Obviously a lot of tinkering because the president has a tough sales job here. Your democrats charging if things are getting so good in Iraq, why is the president only cutting troop levels down to pre-surge levels? One of many tough questions that Tony Snow faced in a very contentious final White House briefing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

On his last day at the White House podium, the Tony Snow Show came to a close with the same old mix of certainty that things are getting better in Iraq and yet uncertainty about when it will over.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: To say you don't know when war is going to end doesn't mean you don't think it will end.

HENRY: Much like the show began 16 months ago.

SNOW: As the Iraqis become more capable to assume the lead combat roles and take over primary combat responsibilities, things obviously are going to change, but we're going to have to wait to see when that actually happens.

HENRY: Snow's personal appearance has changed noticeably since then because of his courageous battle with cancer. What's remained constant is his spinning the war with theatrics.

SNOW: All right. I give up. I give up.

HENRY: He plowed ahead, however, struggling to answer how a president who has insisted timelines for withdrawing troops would help the enemy now has a timeline to withdraw up to 30,000 troops by next summer. Or how the administration can claim success when they're bringing the U.S. footprint down to 130,000 troops, the same as it was in December 2006.

SNOW: Don't have the same country you had in 2006. You're assuming that nothing has changed. The whole -- what General Petraeus is saying is you are able to move forces out as a result of success, not simply -- this is not an exercise to get to a number.

HENRY: Pressed on democratic charges that Mr. Bush has an open- ended commitment in Iraq, Snow punched back.

SNOW: What I'm arguing is you might want to take the blinders off and take a look at what's going on because there have been significant improvements.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: I and others pressed Tony Snow on the fact that army officials have already testified it would be difficult to continue the surge beyond the spring and summer because of rotation issues anyway, so is this really a big change? Snow insisted that they could have tried to extend some rotations, so this was a big change essentially because the president is essentially leaning towards bringing home up to 30,000 of these surge troops. So the White House clearly trying to play this as a big accomplishment -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Ed, what is Tony Snow saying about further withdrawals beyond next summer once the 30,000 are brought back to the united states, getting down to 130,000, 135,000 level which existed seven, eight months ago? What is he saying beyond that?

HENRY: Well Snow said look we always knew that at some point the surge was going to end, that's where we're going now. So people should realize that, and he said, look, it could continue coming down. But, of course, he wouldn't add any details on exactly when. Again said as he has always said, it will be based on conditions on the ground. That's one of the central challenges for the president tomorrow night, which is the fact that he can't prognosticate too far down the road even as he talks about success. The White House never knows what's exactly around the bend and whether there will be some backslide on that success, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Ed Henry watching this at the White House.

We're going to set the stage for the president's address tomorrow night, a prime time address. We'll have a special two hour SITUATION ROOM. Coming up, our special coverage will begin at 7:00 p.m. eastern tomorrow night.

General David Petraeus and the U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker set the stage for the President Bush's Iraq address also by enduring yet more grilling about the war in Iraq.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been asking their questions yesterday and the day before. Now it's our turn. I spoke with Ambassador Crocker in an exclusive interview just a short while ago, and I asked him about Iran's meddling in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You met with the Iranian ambassador in Iraq twice, was anything accomplished?

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: I made it clear to the ambassador that we're aware of what they're doing in seeking to subvert security in Iraq and to foster attacks, not only on coalition forces, but also on Iraqis, and to say that it need to stop.

BLITZER: Did it lead to any positive change as a result of those meetings?

CROCKER: So far we really have seen no change on the ground.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more of this interview coming up in the next hour in THE SITUATION ROOM.

As for General Petraeus, he's still offering no guarantees about how long the U.S. mission in Iraq will last. Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr spoke one-on-one with the general earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, CMDR., MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: An average counter insurgents is a ten-year proposition. I don't know how long it's going to be in Iraq. I don't think anyone can predict that. What we can say is that it certainly will not be at the levels of U.S. commitment nor in the mission set that we have right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Once again we're going to have a lot more of both of these interviews coming up in the next hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. But coming up right now is Jack Cafferty and "THE CAFFERTY FILE."

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, Americans have some serious misconceptions about our constitution. A new poll shows 65 percent of those surveyed say that our nation's founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55 percent say the constitution establishes just that, a Christian nation.

The poll was conducted by a nonpartisan group, The First Amendment Center. It has results on the place of religion in our schools. 58 percent of those polled say that public school teachers should be allowed to lead prayers. 43 percent say that public schools should be allowed to put on nativity reenactments with Christian music. And 50 percent, 50 percent say teachers should be allowed to use the Bible as factual text in history class.

According to an expert at The First Amendment Center, the scariest number of all of these is that only 56 percent of Americans believe that freedom of religion applies to all groups, regardless of how extreme their beliefs are. A group says the poll does not mean that most people want a theocracy, but rather that the constitution reflects Christian values.

So here is our question this hour. What does it mean if most Americans believe the constitution establishes a Christian nation? E- mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

BLITZER: Thanks Jack. Jack Cafferty will be back shortly.

When it comes to the future in Iraq, should the president's commanders and political allies be careful what they wish for? I'll talk to House Republican Leader, John Boehner. He's on the ground right now in Baghdad.

Plus, top democrats take on the president when it comes to the war in Iraq, and they try to one-up each other along the way. Who's got the edge? Would it be Hillary Clinton or would it Barack Obama?

And a bitter feud between Republican presidential rivals Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney. One is accusing the other in engaging in smut and high-tech gutter politics. We'll tell you what's going on right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: While members of Congress still are absorbing two days of Iraq war briefings on Capitol Hill, one top republican is getting a firsthand look at the situation in the war zone. And joining us now, the republican leader in the House of Representatives, the minority leader, John Boehner. Thanks very much for coming in, especially coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from Baghdad.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R) MINORITY LEADER: Wolf, I'm glad to be with you.

BLITZER: Have you seen any evidence since you've been there that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki gets it, that he's ready to do what needs to be done to secure his country?

BOEHNER: Well, I think that they understand that more progress needs to be made on the national level. We're seeing a lot of progress, political progress on the local level, al Anbar Province, other provinces where local officials are rejecting al Qaeda, working with coalition and Iraqi forces to bring more security.

And many of us believe that this will help the Maliki government make the changes they need to make in order to bring about more political reconciliation on the national level.

BLITZER: Have you had a chance to meet with the prime minister?

BOEHNER: As you're well aware, Wolf, Ramadan is starting today and as a result, meeting with the high Iraqi officials is impossible.

What we're doing here is looking at what's happening on the ground, talking to local officials, looking at the progress that's been made with the surge and most importantly, thanking our troops for doing the job that they're doing here in Iraq.

BLITZER: Because I know that very often when a top leader in Congress goes abroad, the president would like to send a message through that leader. Are you delivering any messages on behalf of President Bush to the leadership of Iraq?

BOEHNER: No, Wolf, I'm here on behalf of House Republicans and frankly, Democrats as well. We have a bipartisan trip here to look at the conditions on the ground and I think it's important that the members of Congress have to look for themselves about the progress that's being made, the challenges that will be faced and the way ahead that will lead to success here in Iraq.

BLITZER: I want you to listen to what Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said during the course of his questioning General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Listen to Chuck Hagel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL, (R) NE: Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we are doing now for what? The president said let's buy time. Buy time? For what?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And I wonder if you'd answer those questions raised by Senator Hagel.

BOEHNER: Well, Wolf, I think it's important that we have success in Iraq because failure here means a destabilization of the Middle East, it means putting Israel in very serious jeopardy. And I think it means allowing al Qaeda to be able to recruit and grow and threaten then the security of the United States not only today but tomorrow.

And while success here in Iraq has been difficult, there's been no question that over the last three or four months we've had significant success and what we need to do is to follow the advice of General Petraeus. Continue to bring security here, continue to help the Iraqi security forces take greater control of the situation on the ground. That's eventually going to lead to Iraqis taking greater control of their own destiny and allowing our troops to come home.

It has been (ph) frustrating.

BLITZER: Mr. Leader, here's the question. How much longer will U.S. taxpayers have to shell out $2 billion a week or $3 billion a week as some now are suggesting the cost is going to endure? The loss in blood, the Americans who are killed every month, how much longer do you think this commitment, this military commitment is going to require?

BOEHNER: I think General Petraeus outlined it pretty clearly. We're making success. We need to firm up those successes. We need to continue our effort here because, Wolf, long term, the investment that we're making today will be a small price if we're able to stop al Qaeda here, if we're able to stabilize the Middle East, it's not only going to be a small price for the near future, but think about the future for our kids and their kids.

This is a very important effort on the part of the United States to secure our national interests and to secure our security interests, especially when it comes to al Qaeda, who has been our number one enemy here in Iraq.

BLITZER: Let me as you a political question resulting from General Petraeus' testimony. A lot of the experts think he did, in fact succeed in getting the president more time to continue this military operation, but a lot of the political experts are saying the Republicans should be careful what they wish for because if this continues with no real progress, with the Maliki government not taking the kinds of steps to come up and do what they need to do.

By November of next year, this could cost Republicans big time in the elections not only for the White House but for the House and Senate as well.

BOEHNER: Wolf, I understand that this is a difficult situation. I certainly understand that there's an election coming up next year.

But as I've said more than once, there are some things that are more important than the next election. And preserving the security for my kids and theirs is a lot more important to me than whether I get elected in the next election.

This is difficult, this means sticking to a game plan that is finally working. This is not the time to withdraw, allow failure to occur and to allow our enemies to regroup and to expand. We need to finish the job that we started and there's nothing short of success that's going to work for me.

BLITZER: Representative John Boehner, the minority leader, joining us from Baghdad. Be careful over there. We'll see you back in Washington, Congressman. Thanks for coming in.

BOEHNER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Remember Newt Gingrich, the former house speaker, still is looming out there as a possible presidential candidate. Here is the question, is there room for yet one more in the republican field? Paul Bagala and J.C. Watts are standing by for our strategy session.

Plus, how long are we likely to live. There are new statistics that are offering some clues. Stay with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello is standing by with a closer look at some other incoming stories making news.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A magnitude 8.3 earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia collapsing buildings along the Sumatra coast and killing at least nine people. Two tsunami warnings were issued and a small tsunami was detected self hundred miles away. The quakes a seven times weaker than the one that caused the devastating tsunami in 2004. That one killed more than 200,000 people.

The storm sweeping through U.S. housing and financial markets will take some time to settle. That's what the treasury secretary Henry Paulson told officials from some of the country's biggest financial firms today. He said it will take even longer to work through the problems in the sub prime market. This was a follow-up to proposals made by President Bush in August to provide more government help to those struggling with higher mortgage payments.

The Senate today ignored a White House veto threat and passed a $106 billion transportation and housing bill. President Bush had proposed cuts to the bill which he caused irresponsible and excessive. Senators passed it by a vote of 88-7. It will fund road and bridge construction project.

And the life expectancy for Americans has climbed to nearly 78 years. That's according to new figures released by the national center for health statistics. The number showed a drop in deaths from heart disease and stroke, but deaths from cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's all increased. The United States still has a lower life span than at least 40 other nations. That's a look at what's happening now.

BLITZER: That's pretty depressing. 40 nations do better than we do. All right, Carol. Thanks very much.

You may not have noticed, but the 2008 race for the White House is a split-level campaign. Bill Schneider is standing by to explain what's going on right now.

Plus, Mitt Romney denies he's behind a Web site Fred Thompson is blasting as "smut," but that's not resolving a brawl between two GOP presidential heavyweights.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, our Michael Ware's one-on-one interview with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq. What Tehran has to say about General Petraeus' allegations its behind lethal attacks in Iraq and that there's evidence to prove it. That's coming up.

Also defective Chinese toys in your child's hands. Who is to blame? Three recalls this summer alone involve the world's number one toymaker, Mattel. It's CEO answers some tough questions. Brian Todd working this story.

And Iran's very unlikely television hit. Millions of Iranians are tuning in each week to a heart-wrenching drama of European Jews during the holocaust. Carol Costello has that story.

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

If you have been following the wide open 2008 presidential race and the flood of poll numbers coming in, you might be struck with a case of double vision. Let's go to our senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

You're watching the national poll numbers as well as the numbers in some of the early caucus and primary states, and I take it there are some real differences.

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, there are. You might say this campaign is operating at two different levels.

We're seeing a split-level campaign. The national campaign is mostly about celebrity. Hillary Clinton is the best-known contender. She has a solid lead among democrats nationally, but where there's a campaign, things look different, like in the early voting states.

A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll in Iowa show a close race between Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama. The poll shows Clinton leading in New Hampshire but by margins smaller than her national margin. If Clinton's rivals are going to stop her, they'll have to do it in the early states, then the national polls could change as they did in 2004 after John Kerry beat Howard Dean in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Rudy Giuliani is the national Republican front-runner, with Fred Thompson breathing down his neck. Giuliani became a celebrity after 9/11. Thompson is a TV celebrity.

FRED THOMPSON, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can sit back and read somebody else's scripts, cash somebody else's checks. And that's enjoyable. And I highly recommend it, if you get the opportunity.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHNEIDER: But the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire is the candidate who's running fourth in the national polls.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm encouraged that, in the states I spend the most time, Iowa and New Hampshire, I'm -- I'm doing best.

SCHNEIDER: Where there's a campaign, things look different. In South Carolina, Thompson's slightly ahead. South Carolina voters may recognize his accent.

THOMPSON: It's good to be in a place where I know that, when I talk, people can understand what I'm saying.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SCHNEIDER: Where there hasn't been much of a local campaign, things look pretty much the same as they do nationally, like Florida, which has scheduled an early primary. A new Quinnipiac poll shows the national front-runners, Clinton and Giuliani, leading comfortably in Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: All the major Democratic candidates have signed a pledge not to campaign in Florida because its early primary violates party rules. That's good news for Hillary Clinton. If there's no local campaign, the national front-runner is more likely to win -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider with some good explanation for us, as usual -- thanks, Bill.

Two leading Democratic presidential candidates are sending a message today to President Bush, that he's not ready or willing to start yanking troops from Iraq fast enough.

On the eve of the president Iraq's address to the nation, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are speaking out today about the war, and they're trying to gain some political advantage over one another as well. Take a listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Tomorrow, the president will go before the American people to announce that he is going to withdraw 30,000 troops from Iraq by next summer. He is, in essence, going to tell the American people that, one year from now, the number of troops in Iraq will be the same as one year ago. We need to tell the president that is simply too little, too late.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I opposed this war from the beginning. I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed the war in 2003. I opposed it in 2004 and 2005 and 2006. I introduced a plan in January to remove all of our combat brigades out of Iraq by next March.

And I am here to say that we have to begin to end this war now, not tomorrow...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: ... not the next day, not six months from now, but now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Has the political dynamic changed as a result of what we have heard in recent days involving the war in Iraq?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Certainly not from the Petraeus report, but what it's done is given some of those that are running behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton a chance to kind of show the difference they have.

For instance, you see John Edwards coming out today and saying, listen, it's very clear now. You have to have a timetable. And, if there isn't a timetable, there shouldn't be any funding, sort of pushing both of them to take a harder stance.

Bill Richardson saying, you can't just, you know, take out combat troops. You have to take out all the troops. So, it gives sort of the -- the lower tier, if you will, or those behind the two front- runners, a chance to come in and speak to the party base, which, as you know, is very, very anti-war.

BLITZER: You had a chance to hear Senator Barack Obama's speech today. And then Hillary Clinton decided she was going to weigh in as well, as if she didn't want to be upstaged by her Democratic rival.

But both of them speaking on this, the eve of the president's address to the nation. I guess they preemptively wanted to stake out their positions.

CROWLEY: Absolutely.

And it's not as though they're staking out new positions. But what is -- what -- the dynamic that's interesting here with the two of them is that you notice that Barack Obama was talking about, I opposed this in 2002 and 2003. So, he tends to move backwards and -- and make the contrast: Hillary Clinton was for this war at the beginning.

She tends to move forward and say, here's what we do from now on.

So, whenever they have this debate, it kind of comes down to those two things, because, if you look at the two of them side by side at this point going forward, there's not a lot of difference, and the advantage then goes to Hillary Clinton, because she's seen in a number of polls as the person with the most experience.

BLITZER: Candy, thanks very much -- Candy Crowley reporting for us.

Democratic presidential candidates, one by one, are answering a wide variety of questions today from PBS host Charlie Rose. Their answers will be presented online in the latest effort to engage a Web audience this election cycle.

Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, what are the details?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the Democrats have been answering questions from a moderator, some of them submitted online. We have seen all that before.

But what's different about this forum is how the candidates' responses are being presented, online first of all, and in a series of bite-sized video chunks that Web users themselves can arrange online any which way they please.

Say they want answers on the issue of Darfur, for example. They can line up the candidates' responses and compare them. Or maybe a Web user just wants to hear from, say, Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich. They will be able to make that choice online as well.

All this video will be posted tomorrow at Yahoo.com. The Web site Slate and "The Huffington Post" are participating as well. This is the latest in getting Web users engaged in this political race here. We have seen it already. CNN and YouTube teamed up in July for the debates with the Democratic candidates. The Republican candidates are up next for that experience November 28, and more than 1,500 video submissions already, Wolf, online for that.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks very much.

Abbi Tatton, Candy Crowley, and Bill Schneider, as all of our viewers know, are part of the best political team on television. Remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can always check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Is there still room left in the Republican field? The former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is not necessarily giving up on the idea, not yet. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

And Cuba's Fidel Castro -- get this -- he's now saying that the American public has been duped into believing a fallacy about what happened on 9/11. An exclusive interview I had with a top Cuban leader, that's coming up here as well.

Stay with us. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the Republican presidential race, there's a war of words, and it's getting louder and it's getting nastier, on one side Mitt Romney, on the other, Fred Thompson -- at the center of it all, a Web site accusing Thompson of being phony and a lot worse than that.

Let's go to Mary Snow. She's following this story for us.

These accusations, some of them, were pretty tough, Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are, Wolf. And they're tough fighting words.

Fred Thompson has come out swinging. Mitt Romney is denouncing the attack on his rival, denying he had anything to do with it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Republican Fred Thompson's campaign calls it smut and high-tech gutter politics. They blame the Romney campaign for creating this stinging anti-Thompson Web site, phonyfred. But Mitt Romney denies that, telling the AP the site is juvenile and offensive.

The site itself is no longer online, but "The Washington Post" captured this image of it with titles such as "Pimp Fred," "Moron Fred," and "Playboy Fred," language that makes even seasoned political strategists bristle.

DAVID WINSTON, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: I think it is sort of important to find out exactly where that Web site came from and -- and -- and who is responsible for it, because that sort of discourse is just way beyond the pale.

SNOW: The site was linked to a person working for a Romney operative in South Carolina. The Thompson camp accuses the Romney campaign of what it calls a "half-baked cover-up attempt that does not even pass the laugh test."

A spokesman for Romney says: "We made it clear that we did not approve of the site and asked for immediate action to make sure it was again in no way affiliated with the campaign."

LARRY SABATO, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA CENTER FOR POLITICS: The Internet has become the wild, wild West of American politics. You can do things on there anonymously. It's very difficult to trace.

SNOW: In this case, the phonyfred site was tied to this man, Wesley Donehue. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. He is seen here on a Web site linked to the South Carolina firm Tompkins, Thompson, and Sullivan. Two of the partners work for Romney, including one well known in South Carolina politics, Warren Tompkins.

SABATO: This is a hardball player on the Republican side. He would probably embrace that title.

SNOW: Back in 2000, Tompkins worked for the Bush campaign in South Carolina. It was there where John McCain faced a smear campaign involving rumors he fathered an illegitimate black child. Media reports implicated Tompkins and Bush campaign officials, but both strongly denied having anything to do with it. McCain lost the primary in that state.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, we did reaching Warren Tompkins today for comment on the anti-Thompson site, but we have been unsuccessful.

Now, the Associated Press does quote him, saying he knew nothing about the Web site. And he said the creator of the site has been, in his words, "severely admonished" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How long was this site up, Mary?

SNOW: You know, it was only up for a brief time. And, on Monday, that is when it was removed. And the Romney campaign started getting questions about it. And the Romney campaign said, once it started looking into it, it demanded also that the site be taken down.

BLITZER: All right. Pretty rough politics out there.

Thanks very much, Mary Snow, reporting.

Still ahead here in our "Strategy Session": Both sides seek an edge from General Petraeus' testimony, but what are the potential political consequences?

And Newt Gingrich sets a $30 million price tag on getting into the presidential race for the -- for the White House, the Republican race that is. But is there a market for his kind of conservatism out there?

Stick around. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: General David Petraeus this week may have bought the Bush administration some more time in Iraq, but is it a case of be careful what you wish for? And what will his recommendations do to the Democrats' credibility in their quest to end the war?

Joining us now for our "Strategy Session," two CNN political analysts, Democratic strategist Paul Begala and former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

Some are suggesting, J.C., that, yes, Petraeus got some more time, but you know what? This could come back to hurt the Republicans in November of next year in a big way, if this war is still continuing, not only the presidential contest, but the House and the Senate races as well.

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I think Republicans investing in the war being successful in execution in Iraq being -- going well. And I think General Petraeus and the president, I think they're doing it for the right reasons. The Democrats are investing in the war not going so well and...

BLITZER: But, if the war isn't going so well next November, and it's just more of the same, the $2 billion, $3 billion a week, a lot of American troops still dying, no hope that Nouri al-Maliki's government is going to do what they have promised to do, that could have political ramifications for the Republicans.

WATTS: Well, it -- it -- it can, but I don't think you change -- I don't think you say we're going to pull out because it's not going well.

What has been -- what has happened, they have tried to fight -- find the right formula, the right strategy. General Petraeus believes that we're on the right track. He says there's a lot of work to be done, we have got a long way to go, but we're on the right track.

BLITZER: But we're...

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: So, I think he's doing it for the right reasons.

BLITZER: But we're talking about the political fallout. And, for the Democrats, there's a pitfall as well. If the same thing has occurred next November and the Democrats still have failed to end the war, there is going to be a lot of bitterness and rancor among the Democratic base: You're in the majority.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Why didn't you stop this war?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And there may be some primary challengers to some of the Democrats who the base may think is not being sufficiently anti-war.

But I would still rather be in the Democrats' position than the Republicans. The war is unpopular. It's going to continue to be unpopular. And the president is doing something really foolish this week, Wolf. And I think it shows this they miss Karl Rove and they miss Dan Bartlett, the two top strategists who have left.

They had General Petraeus on center stage, chest full of medals, four stars on his shoulder. What are they doing? They are pushing him offstage as quickly as possible and replacing him tomorrow night with a national prime-time address by George W. Bush.

Well, the country respects General Petraeus. The country doesn't like George W. Bush. And, more importantly, his credibility will be the issue now. The Democrats, starting Thursday night, will no longer have to say, well, gee, I think that very impressive general, with all those charts and all those stars, I think he's wrong.

Now they are just going to say, Bush is a liar, which the whole country thinks he is.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BEGALA: It's a big mistake to put Bush out there.

WATTS: Well, I think General Petraeus, what -- Wolf, everybody has been pointing to the report by General Petraeus in September. It has come. It has gone. He's kind of given his assessment -- his assessment, not the administration's assessment.

I think the American people, I think they trust that. I think what the president is doing, he's just kind of affirming that, hey, we changed the policy. You wanted a change in policy. We changed it. Now we're having some success. Let's give it time to continue to work.

And I think that needs to be the message. I -- I'm not so sure that the American people -- the American people want this thing to work. They don't want it to fail.

BLITZER: You know, a lot of people were suggesting that Fred Thompson waited too long to get into this race. But, in this new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll that came out yesterday, look at this.

Giuliani is at 27 percent. Thompson is at 26 percent, statistically a tie, McCain down at 14, Romney 10, Gingrich six. This is in the national polls among registered Republicans, which raises this question. If it wasn't necessarily too late for Thompson, is it too late for Newt Gingrich to jump into this contest?

BEGALA: I think no. Run, Newt, run.

Because the same forces that created space for Fred Thompson I think will still be at work once people learn more about Fred Thompson in the Republican primary. And that is, Republicans are unhappy with their field. Most Democrats are pretty happy with their field. Most Democrats would take any one of them and be happy.

Republicans are deeply unhappy, and that creates a vacuum. And Newt could fill that vacuum. And he's a dynamic and energetic and intelligent guy. He could very well do this.

BLITZER: Here is how he's quoted in "The Washington Times."

He said, "I will decide based on whether I have about $30 million in committed campaign contributions and whether I think it is possible to run a campaign based on ideas, rather than 30-second sound bites" -- vintage Newt. But now this is a new factor, $30 million he says he needs in committed campaign contributions. And that could encourage him to throw his hat in the ring.

WATTS: Well, he said several weeks back, if he -- if he could get $30 million in pledges, that he -- he -- he would consider doing it.

I think Paul is right. As I have traveled around the country, I don't think Republicans have concluded who their front-runner is, who their candidate is going to be. Fred Thompson, I think he's going to probably get by with getting in so late. Those numbers show that he's picking up some of that vote.

But, again, I think the vote is still open. If Newt gets in, how is the vote redistributed? We don't know that. But, at the end of the day, this ideas factory, I'm not so sure that he will do that.

BLITZER: Newt Gingrich certainly does have good name recognition. I think everybody knows who Newt Gingrich is. That won't be a problem for him.

BEGALA: No, that's great.

And, again, I think he was, and maybe unwittingly, one of Bill Clinton's best friends. Clinton was able to work with him and get things done, but, also, he provided a very useful foil, because he's willing to say outrageous things. That may be a good thing in a Republican primary, though.

BLITZER: What do you make of this fight between Mitt Romney and -- and Fred Thompson? We just saw Mary Snow's excellent piece on this Web site that emerged, phonyfred.org. It's now been taken, but it -- it's getting pretty nasty, pretty ugly out there between these two Republicans.

WATTS: Well, and it's only just begun, Wolf. It gets -- it gets worse.

Unfortunately, this is why the American people are so disillusioned, and I think especially on the Republican side. Republicans are disillusioned because these type -- these type of things happen, and then people say, no, no, it wasn't me, it wasn't me, just like what happened to John McCain in South Carolina in 2000, everybody saying, it wasn't me, it wasn't me.

Well, somebody did it. And it was disgraceful, what happened to John McCain. And I think that's disgraceful, what they're doing to Fred Thompson.

BLITZER: Usually, they wait a little later in the cycle before the nastiness emerges. But it's pretty nasty out there.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Well, and what on earth is Mitt Romney doing hiring some of the same sleaze merchants who were associated with the sleazy campaign that Bush ran in South Carolina?

Here, Mitt Romney's great appeal is that he's clean, he's decent, he's honorable, and he hires these sleaze merchants. And this -- I think this could redound to his detriment. The question is, will Thompson stand up and fight back? Will he do like -- you know, like, say, the Democrats and Bob Shrum always do, which is just surrender and don't respond to the attacks, or will he respond with great force and fury, which is what I would advising him to do?

WATTS: Well, you know, and one way to look at that, Wolf, somebody going after Fred Thompson, that means they're a little bit concerned about Fred Thompson.

You know, my papa used to say, dogs don't bark at parked cars.

(LAUGHTER)

WATTS: So, Fred Thompson must be a concern to somebody if they're stooping to that depth this early in the campaign.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Neck and neck between Giuliani and Thompson in our poll.

BEGALA: And let's hope they stoop even lower, J.C. I want...

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: Get all the way in the gutter, man.

BLITZER: Paul Begala and J.C. Watts, guys, thanks for coming in.

Christianity and the Constitution -- Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail on Americans' misconceptions.

Also, an exclusive interview with Iran's ambassador to Iraq. He's dismissing a new U.S. progress report on Iraq as all theater. He spoke to our Michael Ware. You're going to want to hear this.

Plus: the blame game over tainted Chinese products, the world's number-one toymaker called on the carpet today up on Capitol Hill. But will that make toys your children are playing with any safer?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The battle for Florida tops our "Political Radar."

Mitt Romney is hitting the airwaves there today with a campaign commercial. It's the Republican presidential candidate's first major ad buy in the Sunshine State. The former Massachusetts governor is in third place in the latest poll of Florida Republicans.

Florida is becoming more of a player in presidential primary politics now that it's moved up its primary to January 29. The ad, which touts Romney's accomplishments, is already on TV in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

The former Virginia Governor Mark Warner intends to run for the Senate next year, that according to Democratic sources who are speaking to the Associated Press. Longtime Senator John Warner, no relation, recently announced he would retire, rather than run for reelection in 2008. Mark Warner is expected to reveal his plans with an e-mail announcement tomorrow.

The former governor is a Democrat, and the retiring senator is a Republican. Democrats hope Mark Warner's entry into the race will give them a good shot at taking back that seat from the Republicans.

And, remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can always check out our political ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

You can always check out Jack Cafferty here in THE SITUATION ROOM, because he's got "The Cafferty File."

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: You know, I read somewhere that you're part of the best political team on television. Did you know that?

BLITZER: Do you know that you are as well?

CAFFERTY: I had no idea.

BLITZER: All of us.

CAFFERTY: Yes, I -- I will tell you, I was stunned. They -- a nonpartisan outfit did a poll on this.

And the question we asked this hour is: What does it mean if most Americans believe our Constitution establishes a Christian nation?

That is just stunning to me.

What is that noise? Is there a -- it sounds like a subway train going through.

Tom writes from Minnesota: "It shows we have become a nation of narrow-minded dunces who mindlessly repeat the sermons that are heaped upon us by right-wing religious zealots, people who watch way too much television and read way too few books. We're getting more xenophobic by the day, and it troubles me greatly."

Mike in Georgia: "It's true, Jack. This country was indeed built upon Christian values. It's in the law. It's in the Constitution. It's everywhere. The bad news, in my opinion, is that we are abandoning those values at an alarming rate."

Dave in Ontario: "It means most Americans don't even know what their own Constitution says. That can happen when you get most of your news from Dial-A-Prayer and Pat Robertson."

Paul in Brooklyn: "Jack, it means, as usual, the majority of the American citizenry is either too lazy or too dumb to read the damn thing. The Constitution was written to grant every citizen the right to practice any religious -- or none at all -- that they choose to follow, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or the Church of Ralph. The Constitution grants each and every one of us the right to worship as we see fit."

Nate says: "Some people fail to realize that America was founded by deists and those who believed in a firm separation of church and state. If people want a theocracy, they can look at the early history of the Catholic Church or the Middle East to see how much of a good idea state-sponsored religion is."

And Davey writes, "Most Americans also think McDonald's makes the best hamburgers."

We invite you to join us next Wednesday, September the 19th, a week from this here very day. At 8:00 Eastern time, we're going to do a one-hour special of "The Cafferty File" focusing on just how ugly it's getting out there. Get it?

You can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile, or you can send us your I- Reports. And you can also e-mail us to Jack@CNN.com.

I like that Web address, Jack@CNN.com -- Wolf.

BLITZER: "It's Getting Ugly Out There" is the title of Jack Cafferty's new bestselling book.

CAFFERTY: Indeed.

BLITZER: I recommend it highly.

Jack, stand by.

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