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Slugfest Over Kids' Health; Hate Crimes and War Funding; Top Republican Presidential Candidates Skip Minority Forums

Aired September 27, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Democrats try to hammer the president with children's health care and hate crimes. This hour, the votes, the veto threats, and who may pay a price in the end.
Plus, John Edwards on our CNN Election Express bus. And he's making news about the way he will finance his presidential campaign. He's also making no excuses for the provocative things his wife has to say.

The Democrat is our kickoff interview aboard the CNN Election Express.

And what if they held a presidential debate on the minority issues and most of the top contenders simply opted out? We'll try to figure out what the Republican candidates are thinking with the help of the number two senator on the Republican side, Trent Lott.

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

Right now, the Senate is nearing a vote that pushes a lot of emotional hot buttons involving kids, health care, government spending, and presidential priorities. It's the latest attempt by Democrats to try to stick a thumb in the eye of Mr. Bush and some of the Republicans.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Jessica Yellin, who is watching this story for us.

On this particular issue, it's not your typical, all Democrats versus all the Republicans. Is it, Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, Wolf, you're right, it's not. This is an unusual Washington slugfest. It's all over the children's health insurance program that gives health care to kids whose parents make too much for Medicaid but not enough for private insurance.

Well, both sides are blaming each other for failing to come to an agreement. And this time it's pitting Republicans against other Republicans.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: They have taken an SCHIP hostage and they want in exchange -- what they want to exchange is Republican support for government-run health care, courtesy of Washington.

YELLIN (voice over): He's talking about a bill that would increase funding for that children's health insurance program. The president has vowed to veto the bill saying it's socialized medicine. But a number of Republicans are breaking with the White House.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: It is very difficult for me to be against a man I care so much for, my own personal president, on such an important bill.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), MAINE: Children are either going without coverage or their parents are financing their care on credit cards hoping that they can stay abreast of their debt.

YELLIN: One of the Senate's leading fiscal conservatives supports the bill. He says the president is trying to keep down spending but predicts Mr. Bush will change his position in time.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: And this may be an opportunity for President Bush to learn a lesson, as President Clinton learned on welfare reform. After we sent him three bills he eventually signed one. But eventually right wins out.

YELLIN: Meantime, Democrats are gearing up for the president's veto.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He will be vetoing health care for almost four million children. And he will be putting ideology, not children, first.

YELLIN: They plan a temporary extension of the program, and then they will keep up the pressure on Republicans by bringing this bill to a vote again soon.


YELLIN: So, in the end, Wolf, this is really a spending fight. It's just that Democrats decided the first spending fight of the fall would be over children's health insurance. Neither side want to cut off the kids that are currently in the program, but they are going toe to toe over how much they should increase this program -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Going into this vote today it looked like the Democrats may be able to override a presidential veto in the Senate, but not necessarily in the House. What's the latest?

YELLIN: That's exactly where things stand right now. There is some rumbling among Democrats in the House that they might be able to get a veto override next week, but they say that's just optimistic thinking. Right now it looks like the House would still uphold a presidential veto.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

An important story. We'll be speaking about that with Trent Lott. That's coming up as well. Let's get to another bold new move by Democrats right now, a move that may prompt the president to reach for his veto pen again. The Senate today attached hate crimes legislation to a must-pass Pentagon spending bill.

Our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is watching this story for us.

What's so controversial about all of this, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it is already a federal crime, Wolf, to commit a crime against somebody based on their race, religion or national origin. What this Senate bill does is to expand that to include gays and lesbians. And, in fact, it is named after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was beaten to death because of the sexual orientation.

Now, Democrats, at the behest of Senator Ted Kennedy, brought this up during a debate on the defense bill. And he says that's exactly where it should be.


SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Hate crimes are domestic terrorism, and like all terrorist acts they sink to bring fear to whole communities through violence on a few. And just as we have committed ourselves to fighting terrorists who strike from abroad, we must make the same commitment to swift and strong justice against homegrown terrorists.


BASH: Now, this hate crimes bill -- measure, I should say -- got 60 votes, just enough to pass. Most Republicans voted against it because they say that they didn't think it has any business or place being part of a defense bill. And also, some Republicans argue that specific groups in society should not be singled out to -- for protection against any crime.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: It is a mistake in my judgment, Mr. President, to begin to treat people unequally based on the same conduct because of notions that some crimes are simply more despicable than others based on the individual against whom it is perpetrated. All crimes of violence are crimes of hate.


BASH: Now, Senator Cornyn and some other Republicans said that they do think the president would veto this defense bill based just on the idea that this hate crimes measure is part of it. But an administration official also pointed out, Wolf, that the president has threatened to veto this defense bill because of several other defense- related issues that are part of that bill -- Wolf. BLITZER: Senator Barack Obama, Dana, he went to some length to make sure that he cast a vote on this hate crime legislation. Tell us about that.

BASH: That's right. He came here and he was supposed to not be here. He was supposed to be appearing on "The View" at the exact same time that this vote was happening.

You know, it's a good thing he got here from his perspective because, as I mentioned, this bill passed just by 60 votes. So if he wouldn't have been here -- this measure, I should say -- if he wasn't here, this hate crimes measure wouldn't have passed.

So, "The View" was left without a headliner guest this morning, Wolf. I just happened to look online -- I missed it this morning -- I looked online and it looked like they filled the time rather -- in a rather colorful conversation. And I will just leave it there.

BLITZER: I'm sure they will have no trouble inviting him back down the road.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: In the presidential race, the top Republican contenders are taking a pass on a debate tonight in Baltimore, and it could hurt their efforts to win over minority voters.

Our chief national correspondent, John King, is here with us.

So why are these Republican frontrunners not participating in this debate tonight?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They cite scheduling conflicts, Wolf. And we have heard from both Democrats and Republicans that too many interest groups, too many news organizations want to have too many debates keeping them away from the campaign. But this particular episode is raising questions because of long, simmering doubts about Republican commitment to African-American outreach.


KING (voice over): It is billed as historic...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... featuring the Republican candidates for president.

KING: ... Republican candidates for president at a primetime PBS forum moderated by journalists of color. But the four leading GOP hopefuls, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Fred Thompson, won't be there. They cite scheduling conflicts, angering moderator Tavis Smiley.

TAVIS SMILEY, DEBATE MODERATOR: No one, black, white, brown, male or female, Republican or Democrat, ought to be elected president in 2008 if they think along the way they can ignore or otherwise disrespect voters of color.

KING: Former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell calls it a missed opportunity for his fellow Republicans to reach out to African- Americans.

KEN BLACKWELL (R), FMR. OHIO SECRETARY OF STATE: I think that there's downside to -- for some of these -- for some of these candidates.

KING: But Blackwell says a packed early primary calendar forces tough choices and that African-Americans have a tiny role in the Republican nominating process.

BLACKWELL: You have to make choices. I think that once we get to the general election, they're not going to have a difficult time getting Republicans to speak before these audiences.

KING: "Republican Candidates Again Reject Minority Audience" was how the Democratic National Committee put it. The "again" is a reference to others snubs, including the cancellation of a GOP debate by the Spanish language Univision network because Senator McCain was the only leading candidate to commit.

Just last week, the president was asked about Republican candidates skipping debates with African-American or Latino sponsors.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My advice to whoever will be our nominee is to reach out to the African-American community, as well as other communities.

KING: But Mr. Bush's own effort is often questioned. He boycotted NAACP conventions his first five years in office and finally attended in 2006 and lamented his party's poor standing with African- Americans.

BUSH: I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African-American community.


KING: Mr. Bush got 11 percent of the black vote in his re- election campaign, nine percent in the first vote.

Wolf, Republicans say they would like to do better than that in this election cycle. But some say because of this controversy, it's not necessarily off to a great start.

BLITZER: Don't these Republican frontrunners, the presidential frontrunners, run the risk not only of alienating minorities, whether Hispanics or blacks, but also alienating a lot of whites who feel uncomfortable, uneasy with a candidate who seems to be insensitive to the minority concerns?

KING: If they do time it time and time again, the campaigns concede the question is yes. But they also say -- and they cite our own Republican YouTube debate as an example, that we had scheduled it earlier, some Republicans couldn't make it because of conflicts. We agreed to move our debate, now we expect the candidates to be there. They say perhaps these sponsors could have done the same thing, agreed to negotiate a different date with the four candidates.

But on the big question of sensitivity to racial minorities, yes, if they do it time and time again. So what the campaigns say is, later in the campaign, when you have fewer candidates, or in a general election, when it's one-on-one Democrat and Republican, these sponsors should come back and schedule another one and expect the Republicans to be there.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, John. Good report.

John King, Dana Bash, Jessica Yellin, as all of our viewers know, they are part of the Emmy-award winning best political team on television.

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

Democrat John Edwards says no way his wife has crossed the line.


JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I embrace my wife speaking her mind. She's a strong woman, she's got her own opinions. She doesn't and should not ask me whether she can express her opinion.


BLITZER: The Democratic presidential candidate opens up onboard the CNN Election Express. And he reveals new information about his campaign fund-raising.

Also coming up, Hillary Clinton has a show-stopping debate moment. But was it at the expense of her husband?

And the New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, making what some are considering to be a stunning comparison between insurgents in Iraq and the revolutionaries who fought to create America.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Right now, the mayor of New York City is comparing the Iraq war to the American Revolution. Michael Bloomberg saying there are important lessons to be learned.

And CNN's Deborah Feyerick is in New York.

Very curious comparisons. And give us the context, give us the story, Deb.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, says he's not running for president in 2008. In fact, the Democrat-turned-Republican is very quick to downplay the idea. But like most politicians, he does spend time thinking about the war in Iraq, and his take on it is that U.S. military tactics today are like those used by the British during the American Revolution, while the Iraqi insurgents fight like the young Americans in the 1700s, determined and unconventional.


MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), NEW YORK: It was an insurgent kind of attack on trained, disciplined, uniformed soldiers who fought in rigorously planned ways. And we're trying to adjust to that.


FEYERICK: Now, Mr. Bloomberg also suggested that President Bush has to do a better job explaining to Americans why they are still fighting in Iraq. He said pulling out of Iraq too early could lead to similar smaller wars with insurgents closer to the U.S., and he suggested the U.S. has to change its fighting style.


BLOOMBERG: We have lots of airplanes. We have lots of missiles. We have lots of big weapon systems. But they aren't terribly useful in Iraq. And we have got to figure out some ways to do that, because, sadly, it looks like those are the kinds of wars we are going to have to fight going forward.


FEYERICK: The multibillionaire mayor says the war has become too partisan and that the public no longer trusts military officials. He said the U.S. builds some weapons systems not because they are needed, but because it creates jobs and jobs get votes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Straight talk from Michael Bloomberg.

Thanks very much.

Deb Feyerick watching this story.

Presidential campaigns can be tough on any candidate's marriage. But right now, some are wondering if Hillary and Bill Clinton are at odds over a concern that affects a lot of Americans. It comes after Hillary Clinton gave what some are calling a curious answer at a Democratic debate last night in New Hampshire.

Let's go to Carol Costello. She is watching the story for us.

It concerns the extremely sensitive issue of torture -- Carol.


It might have been curious, but Hillary Clinton certainly scored last night with her answer to a question about the use of torture. Now, let me explain. Tim Russert, the moderator, asked Senator Clinton a "what if" kind of question. He said, "Senator Clinton, this is the number three man in al Qaeda. We know there is a bomb about to go off and we have three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?" And then Russert read a quote from a prominent Democrat who said he would allow for such an exception.



CLINTON: I think it's dangerous to go down this path.

TIM RUSSERT, MODERATOR: The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year. So he disagrees with you.

CLINTON: Well, he's not standing here right now.


RUSSERT: So there is a disagreement?

CLINTON: Well, I'll talk to him later.


COSTELLO: Now, the audience certainly ate that up. They were clapping, they were laughing. It was a great moment.

It certainly seemed unscripted. And perhaps went a long way to answer questions about who would be deciding policy if Hillary Clinton gets to the White House.

And perhaps it obscured the fact that Senator Clinton now seems not only to disagree with her husband on the use of torture, but with herself. Last year, she was quoted in the daily news that under certain conditions, the president could OK torture, but her camp told us today after talking with experts she has determined torture should not be part of American policy.

I don't know, Wolf. I'll be most watching that debate will remember only the witty part of that exchange.

BLITZER: She was very, very sharp on her feet coming out of that. A lot of people will remember that, Carol. Thanks very much.

Carol Costello reporting.

John Edwards is doing something his top Democratic presidential rivals won't be doing. At least they say so far. We'll see if that changes.

A surprising campaign announcement is coming up in his interview aboard CNN's Election Express. And Barack Obama's wife drawing a surprising line in the sand in Iowa. Did she hurt her husband's chances in the primary expectations game?

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



BLITZER: Republicans are at odds over a bill to expand a popular children's health care program. And Democrats are trying to make the most of it. I'll ask the number two Republican in the Senate, Trent Lott, if his party will be haunted by this issue, as some Democrats are suggesting.

And is John Edwards' wife Elizabeth becoming his political attack dog? The Democratic presidential candidate responding to that question onboard our CNN Election Express.

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


BLITZER: Senate Republicans have a tough choice to make later today -- support the president's rejection of a bill to expand a popular children's health care program or risk being labeled "anti- child" by Democrats, maybe even by some Republicans.

Joining us now, the number two Republican in the U.S. Senate, the minority whip, Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MINORITY WHIP: Glad to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The other day I interviewed the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. She minced no words. The legislation to expand this children's health insurance program passed overwhelmingly in the House.

Listen to what she said about a promised presidential veto.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: This president will be haunted by legislation to support America's children for as long as he is president.


BLITZER: All right. Now, you disagree with her. You support the president. But there are a lot of Republicans who disagree with you. LOTT: Well, you know, this is a perfect example of the type of partisan politics that goes on in Washington now all the time. It's not about trying to take care of the children. But it's about, how can we get a political advantage?

Wolf, look, Republicans -- I mean, is it -- do you really believe Republicans don't want to help poor low-income children? That's just not believable.

BLITZER: Well, what do you say...

LOTT: But let me go ahead.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

LOTT: We are the ones that created and started this program in 1997. I voted for it. I was the majority leader in the Senate when this program was created. It's been a successful program.

The problem has been that, slowly but surely, Democrats and, quite frankly, some governors around the country and others, have been adding adults and moving the income level up higher and higher and higher to where now in some states, it's 350 percent of poverty, up to almost $80,000, where children are coming off of private insurance and going on to this so-called CHIP program to help children.

BLITZER: But Senator...

LOTT: We want to do it and we can do it.

BLITZER: But Senator, it's not just partisan Democrats. You have a Republican like Chuck Grassley, who is well versed in this issue, and he says the president is wrong and you are wrong. And there are a bunch of your Republican colleagues in the Senate and a lot of them in the House who say that they are going to stand with the Democrats on this issue. They don't want to go against expanding this popular program.

LOTT: We are willing to expand the program to make sure we cover low-income poor children. What we don't want this to become is slice by slice, this is the back door entry into government-run health care.

That's what -- I mean, this is supposed to be for children. Do you understand that? Now it's also for adults.

Yes, some Republicans support it. And I have been disappointed in that. Their argument would be they were trying to hold some restraint to make sure that it stayed in certain boundaries. But this is a massive increase, $35 billion increase over...


BLITZER: There are some people saying -- some people suggesting there could be as many as 70, maybe even more, senators who will disagree with you and that would be enough to override a presidential veto in the Senate. LOTT: So what? In this case, you know, when happens at one body may not matter because the House, to their credit, thank goodness, they're going to stand up and do the right thing for the children and for fiscal responsibility. They are going to sustain the president's veto, and then hopefully we can sit down, rationally, and work out an agreement to preserve this program.

It can be done. It shouldn't be allowed to lapse. But there's going to have to be some give and take. Yes, there is going to have to be give on -- on the Republican side, on the president's side, too.

But here is a classic example of where no good deed in Washington goes unpunished. No matter what might be started with good intentions, Democrats will find a way to explode the costs, particularly if it means...

BLITZER: All right.

LOTT: ... Uncle Sam will run the program.

BLITZER: What about this other promise to -- or at least threatened presidential veto involving hate crimes legislation attached to a Defense Department bill that the president is now threatening to veto as well?

You stand with the president on this, because a lot of Democrats and Republicans say it is time that hate crimes be considered a federal crime, that it is part of the counterterrorism or anti- terrorism part of the -- of the country.

LOTT: You know, Wolf, you need to understand it is not just where I stand with the president. I got elected as the whip for Republicans, you know, in the Senate.

So, if the president is right, I am going to be with him. And, when I don't think he is, I won't be.

BLITZER: Is he right on this one? Is he right on this one?

LOTT: I think he absolutely is.

There are a lot of problems on it. Number one, it is on the defense authorization bill. Again, the Democrats are using our military men and women to attach a non-germane, unrelated issue that's strictly, you know, a social engineering sort of thing, where the states, by the way, are doing a good job.

Where there have been hate crimes, check the record. I think you will find the states have been -- been effective. They have been aggressive. We don't need this.

And, to Orrin Hatch's credit, he said, look, let's at least get the statistics. Let's see if there is a need for this. And, if there is, then, we will -- we will find a way to do it. But to add it on the defense authorization bill, which has pay for our military men and women, which has the money for the equipment they need to keep from getting injured and killed over there, and then we start attaching non-germane, you know, social issues on the Department of Defense bill, I just think that's wrong.

And, on the substance itself, this is -- you know, this definition has been expanded beyond what I think anybody really understands what it means. I asked some people questions. What is the added additional categories? And I had -- I asked people, well, what's this category? What are we talking about here?

So, I think there is a problem of how it is done and -- and what's in it.

BLITZER: All right.

LOTT: I hope it will be dropped in conference, will be dealt with separately. Maybe we can work it out in an acceptable way. But, if it is left on the defense bill, I hope the president will veto it, and we will sustain it.

BLITZER: All right, we will see what happens. You have got a lot going on in the Senate today.

Senator, thanks for coming in.

LOTT: OK. Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And Senator Barack Obama's chances of winning the critical Iowa caucus is at issue today. That's because his wife, Michelle, is suggesting that his Democratic presidential bid -- bid hangs on the outcome of the leadoff caucus state.

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

Who is the candidate to beat in Iowa, first of all, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, every hear of a candidate named "expected"?


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): In Iowa, everybody is running against the phantom candidate called "expected." They all want to do better than expected.

MIKE GLOVER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Typically, you try to play down your expectations, and say, you know, if I finish third, I will be very happy.

SCHNEIDER: That's why political observers were surprised when Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, said at a campaign stop: "Iowa will make the difference. If Barack doesn't win Iowa, it is just a dream."

Was she raising expectations? Let's not make too much of this, Obama campaign says. She was just firing up the troops. The Democrat who is really expected to do well in Iowa is John Edwards. He came in second in Iowa last time. And he's invested a lot of time and money in the state.

GLOVER: There is a feeling in the political circles that, if he doesn't do very well here, he is going to have to some explaining to do down the road.

SCHNEIDER: Iowa can be treacherous for front-runners. It finished off Howard Dean last time, when he did worse than expected.




SCHNEIDER: Hillary Clinton is trying to play down expectations for Iowa. Hard to do when the former governor is your campaign co- chair. Iowa separates the starters from the non-starters. It is already happening on the Republican side. Winning this summer's Iowa straw poll raised expectations for Mitt Romney and drove Tommy Thompson out of the race.

Why is Iowa looming larger than ever this time? Because the campaign has been going on for so long.

GLOVER: People are hungry to begin seeing voters start to make decisions in this race, and the effect, those early decisions gets a huge megaphone.


SCHNEIDER: Iowa seems to be having a whole different campaign. Nationally, Hillary Clinton is the clear Democratic front-runner. In Iowa, the Democratic race is close. The Republican front-runner in Iowa is Mitt Romney. In national polls, Romney is coming in fourth -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider looking at this closely, as he always does -- thanks, Bill, very much.

John Edwards takes on a question many Democrats are asking. Does Hillary Clinton have too much baggage to win the White House? You are going to hear what Senator Edwards' answer is in our leadoff interview aboard the CNN Election Express.


BLITZER: A surprising announcement from a top-tier presidential candidate -- it concerns Democrat John Edwards, his efforts to raise money, and a choice he has now made that his two top competitors have not made. It's a decision some feel could put the Democratic Party potentially at a huge disadvantage, should Edwards become the nominee.

Let's go to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley. She is in Durham, New Hampshire, watching this story.

Explain, first of all, the significance of what he told you, Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, as you say, he's the first top-tier candidate to say, listen, I will accept federal matching funds, working within the federal campaign system.

What this means is that John Edwards will agree to campaign spending limits. But what this is, Wolf, is part of a fall mission that Edwards has to try to draw a bright line between himself and Hillary Clinton.


CROWLEY: You have been pretty tough on Hillary Clinton about taking lobbying money, and have come really close to accusing her of being -- you know, selling access to the government in some of the fund-raisers that she has had.

The truth of the matter is, these are enormously expensive campaigns. How do you deal with that?

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They are hugely expensive. And I don't want -- I don't want to sound holier than thou about this.

I mean, I have raised millions of dollars. I have raised more money in this campaign than any candidate in 2003-2004 raised at this stage of the campaign. I have never taken money from any Washington lobbyist. Senator Obama, for this campaign, his campaign, has joined me in not taking lobbyist money. And I have called on all the other Democratic candidates to do the same thing.

Now, Senator Clinton's response to this, what she said last Sunday was she thinks that's not the answer. She takes lobbyist money. And she says that is not the answer. The answer is public financing.

Well, we have a public financing system for presidential campaigns. So, we should find out if -- if she means what she says, whether she's willing to commit to public financing in this presidential campaign.

And, if -- if she's not, then she should explain to America why she didn't mean what she said.

CROWLEY: Well, will you commit to public financing?

EDWARDS: I will. I think this is a -- I have thought a lot -- a great deal about this.

And, again, I want to go back to the not sounding holier than thou. I myself thought early in this campaign about the possibility of not taking public financing. CROWLEY: Now, are we talking about primary matching funds or are we talking about general election matching funds?

EDWARDS: We are talking about through the campaign, period.

I will commit as a presidential -- because this is not about -- it's not about a money calculation. This is about taking a stand, a principled stand, for what's right. I believe in public financing.

I have said that many times. I have said it during the course of this campaign. If I believe that, I ought to be willing to commit to public financing of this presidential campaign.

And so should anyone else who says they are for public financing. And, if not, they ought to explain to the country why they don't mean what they say.

CROWLEY: Now, a cynic might suggest, uh-oh, this means he is having trouble raising money.

EDWARDS: Yes, and -- and my response to that is, I have raised more money than any candidate had at this point in 2003-2004. We are raising way above our budget in this campaign. We have plenty of money to run a very serious campaign.

But it is worrisome, seeing the amounts of money that are being raised in this presidential campaign. It is. I mean, we are headed toward hundreds of millions of dollars being raised and spent just on my party's side. This is not healthy. And it is not good for America.

And this campaign should not be a fund-raising contest. This campaign should be about ideas, specifics, vision, and it should be about the character of the candidates to actually be president of the United States.

CROWLEY: So far, you are the only one of the top three that has committed to this. Doesn't this put you at a disadvantage?

EDWARDS: No, I don't think it does.

I think that, first of all, I have got the money I need to run a serious campaign. I hope that the other two will join me. As I said, Senator Clinton has said she's for public financing. So, she can step forward and -- and show that she actually means it by doing it in this campaign.

CROWLEY: Do you think a Clinton ticket would hurt Democrats down-ballot?

EDWARDS: I mean, in places around the country, I hear politicians running in tough places in local races express concern about the possibility of her being at top of the ticket.

But I think the only test for that is the election itself.

CROWLEY: Is Barack Obama experienced enough to be president?

EDWARDS: I don't know the answer to that either.

I don't think that's possible, first of all, to know at this moment. I'm not in the camp that believes you have got to have been in Washington for 25 years to be -- to be qualified to be president. In fact, I think, in some ways, that's -- that's a burden that you carry around with you, if you have been there that long, if you have been there as long as Senator Clinton has and -- and some others.

But, I mean, there is a threshold. And I guess, a couple of years ago, Senator Obama was in the state legislature in Illinois. I think this -- he is going to be tested.

CROWLEY: I want to ask you Mrs. Edwards and her role in the campaign, because I have talked to some supporters of yours who think that her pretty forceful criticism of Hillary Clinton at times has kind of crossed that line into sort of that vice presidential attack- dog mode.

Have you been uncomfortable at all with some of the things that she has said? Do you think she has crossed the line?

EDWARDS: No, no. I -- first of all, I embrace my wife speaking her mind. She is a strong woman. She has got her own opinions. She doesn't and should not ask me whether she can express her opinion.

I mean, I embrace her ability to do that. And I applaud her for it. Does she say some things that are different than what I say? Yes, of course. We're two human beings. We are not the same person. There's nothing unexpected about that.

So, no, I don't -- I hope she will keep speaking her mind.

CROWLEY: So, you don't think it diminishes you in any way to have her out there pounding?

EDWARDS: No. I think she should be out there saying what she thinks.

Now, I think most of these things have risen in the context of her being asked very specific questions. And, when she is asked a very specific question, she has this really odd characteristic for somebody in politics. She actually answers the question.

And, so, when you or anyone else, any journalist, asks her a direct question, she answers it.

CROWLEY: Has George Bush accomplished anything in office that you approve of?

EDWARDS: That takes a little thinking.

He has raised the amount of money that America is contributing to the global fight on AIDS. He has talked -- in fact, he did it at the United Nations a few days ago -- talked about global poverty. I don't think he has done nearly enough, but he has raised it as a serious issue.

I think those are the two things that come to mind. I mean, I think he has been devastating to America and the world as a president, unprecedented. And I think it is very hard to find good things in a bad batch of bad things.

CROWLEY: A lot of people have said he's the worst president in history. Do you agree?

EDWARDS: He is certainly the worst president in my lifetime, and he could be the worst president in history.


CROWLEY: So, once again, Wolf, John Edwards saying: Look, I'm (AUDIO GAP) take public financing of my campaign, challenging the two others in the race in the top tier, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, to do the same.

They have raised a whole bunch of money. Very unlikely that either campaign will do this. In fact, there's reason to believe that they will look upon this as some sort of stunt by Edwards.

But, again, remembering what this is about, this is about John Edwards spending his fall and his winter defining the differences between himself and Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: Candy Crowley with the CNN Election Express -- a big announcement from John Edwards today -- thanks very much.

Hillary Clinton seems to have an answer for everything in the Democrats' last night debate.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is my goal to have all troops out by the end of my first term.

When I'm president, I will do everything to protect and preserve Social Security.

Getting back on a path of fiscal responsibility is absolutely essential.


BLITZER: Did the Democratic front-runner give debate watchers the answers they wanted to hear. Donna Brazile and J.C. Watts, they're standing by for our "Strategy Session."

And they will take on the question: Are top Republicans effectively giving up on the minority vote by skipping a debate tonight?

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


BLITZER: Tonight, a historically black college will host a forum on issues that minorities care about. But the top four Republican presidential candidates will not be there. And that's caused some outrage in the African-American community.

Joining us now in our "Strategy Session" are two CNN political analysts. Donna Brazile is a Democratic strategist. And J.C. Watts is a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

Newt Gingrich said the other day, this decision from the top four Republican candidates to skip the debate tonight that Tavis Smiley is moderating: "For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African-American or Latino audience is an enormous error. It just fundamentally -- it's just fundamentally wrong. Any of them who give you that scheduling-conflict answer are disingenuous. That's baloney."

What do you think about this decision?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, you said in the -- before the break for this segment, you said, are Republican candidates giving up on minority voters? Minority voters are giving up on Republican candidates.

You know, I think this is a travesty. I -- Marc Morial, I talked to Marc Morial here a couple of months ago.


BLITZER: He's the president of the National Urban League.

WATTS: President of National Urban League, that's right.

Marc tried to get Republican candidates to come to the convention. Couldn't get anybody to come, due to scheduling conflicts, supposedly. Tonight, the deal with Tavis Smiley out at Morgan State, historical black college, couldn't get anybody to show up there of the top four candidates.

I just -- I have a hard time buying this scheduling conflict. And I think it is a slap in the face to African-American voters to say, we do have some issues. We want to get your thoughts, your ideas on where you choose or where you are going to be wanting to take our country.

I think there are some good things Republicans have done. But these type of things just -- just wipes out, just washes away the bridge that -- what little bridge that has been created.

BLITZER: The efforts that were done in 2000, 2004, you think they are going to be gone in 2008?

WATTS: Well, I -- you know, I was on Al Sharpton's radio show today, and we talked about it. I have talked to African-Americans all over the country about this that call, asking me my thoughts about this.

You can't defend this. And it makes the party look extremely bad. And I suspect there's -- the consultants that they have around them, I suspect they have no African-Americans that could say to them, hey, look, you are making a huge mistake, and don't think you are going to get to the general election and be able to put up a few radio commercials and TV commercials saying, come vote for us, and think that the black community -- community is going to fall for it.

BLITZER: And not just the black -- the Latino community as well.

What do you think?


Look, the African-American and Hispanic community make up more than 20 percent of the voting-age population. And, while the Republicans have not fared well with African-American voters, 40 percent of black women are up for grabs in South Carolina. They are undecided. The Republicans are making a very bad, poor electoral decision.

The road to the White House is not segregated. It will go through states that are very diverse, with minority populations exceeding, in some cases, the white population.

BLITZER: And the point I made earlier -- and John King and a lot of experts have made this point -- it is not just black voters or -- or Hispanic voters. A lot of white voters don't want to see a candidate who is perceived as being insensitive to minority concerns.

WATTS: Well, now, Wolf, if you are to be a quality alternative, you have to be where the (INAUDIBLE) is needed.

If Republicans want to be an alternative to Democrats, they have to be where the alternative is needed. And, if you don't show up to say what the alternative is or to talk about your plan to deal with poverty, your plan to deal with health care, your plan to deal with -- with education, people don't know that. And, again, I think it is -- it's a real blow to the party, especially these candidates.

BLITZER: What do you think about last night? The Democrats, all of them, got together in New Hampshire for their debate at Dartmouth College.

I want to play a little clip. We played it earlier. I will play it again, Hillary Clinton answering a question from Tim Russert.


CLINTON: And I think it's dangerous to go down this path.

TIM RUSSERT, MODERATOR: The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year. So, he disagrees with you.

CLINTON: Well, he's not standing here right now.



RUSSERT: So, there is a disagreement?

CLINTON: Well, I will talk to him later.



BLITZER: They were disagreeing on when, if ever, it would be appropriate to torture a suspected terrorist to get some information that could prevent the deaths of thousands of Americans.

BRAZILE: Look, she's the front-runner. She had an opportunity last tonight to answer some questions. And she was honest.

But, look, she dodged some questions. She dodged the Social Security question. She didn't really put her proposal on the table. I also thought that, despite the sharp elbows that were coming from people like Joe Biden and John Edwards, Senator Clinton was able to just deflect and, you know, clearly kept on her game.

WATTS: Well, it's -- obviously, she's playing the four-corner offense.

BRAZILE: I said that.

WATTS: She wants the clock to run out. She is the front-runner. And her strategy going into these debates will be, do no harm.

Now, I think, last night, she probably damaged herself a little bit, simply because she -- I think she deflected too much. She didn't take on...


BLITZER: All right, hold on one second.

We have got a little audio problem. So, I want to apologize to our viewers out there. They are having a tough -- a tough time hearing J.C.

But you know what? The next time both of you are here in our "Strategy Session," they will not have any problem hearing J.C.

BRAZILE: I mean, for J.C. not to be heard, that is a travesty.



WATTS: You didn't hear me? (LAUGHTER)


BRAZILE: The only black Republican willing to show up with a black Democrat...


BLITZER: He was making some brilliant, brilliant analysis as well.


BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much.

We will continue this in a few days.

New developments in an emotionally and racially charged case. It concerns the Jena Six and something that could change the dynamics of the case. We will have details.

And did Saddam Hussein have the chance to save himself and stop any U.S.-led invasion? There is a report out suggesting the Iraqi leader may have been willing to accept a $1 billion deal to go into exile. So, what is the White House saying?

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


BLITZER: The former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is flirting with the idea of running for the presidency, today kicked off a series of workshops for his new advocacy group, American Solutions. The event was held in a very different location, at a virtual Capitol Hill in the online community called Second Life.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She is watching this for us.

So, who showed up, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, first of all, Wolf, there was the virtual Newt Gingrich. There he is at the podium, looking somewhat more dashing than the original.

And, today, he was facing this cast of characters. Some of the people we met was the cat in the front row in the Obama T-shirt, this self-described virtual Republican activist -- she put on a little bit more clothing before Gingrich actually arrived -- and, then, in the back, sundry protesters and people general flying around.

In Second Life, tens of thousands of people are online at any one time operating these virtual versions of themselves. And politics here is growing. There are unofficial headquarters for the presidential candidates. And, last night, there was a debate watching party.

And, then, today, Newt Gingrich doing this press conference -- we were told that he operated this avatar of himself, himself, from Atlanta, Georgia. And he spoke on everything from online fund-raising to virtual debates, saying he would welcome a dialogue with any of the Democratic front-runners in this very forum.

Asked if he was going to run, this virtual Gingrich said, just like the real one, he didn't know -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.