Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Fred Thompson Joins Republican Presidential Hopefuls in Debate; Candidates Announce They Will Skip Michigan Primary

Aired October 9, 2007 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Republicans in their first presidential debate with Fred Thompson in the mix. Tonight, was Thompson's debut a hit or a miss? Why were Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani so busy arguing one with another?
Plus, what if they held a presidential primary and half the candidates simply skipped it? That's the situation tonight in Michigan where it's payback time for breaking Democratic Party rules.

And Mothers against Drunk Driving getting mad. Their target, new efforts to try to lower the legal drinking age in the United States to 18. I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, Fred Thompson's campaign is portraying his debate debut as a success because he tried to stay out of a slugfest between his rivals, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. But staying above the fray doesn't always guarantee you'll stand out with voters. Let's go right to our chief national correspondent John King. He watched this debate in Dearborn, it's now history. This debate, what about Thompson? A lot of people are asking this question, how did he do during those two hours?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He seemed a bit rusty Wolf, right at the top. He hasn't debated in more than a dozen years but more and more sure footed as the debate went on. Thompson came into this debate, his debut as you noted, with one key goal, try to reach out to the conservative base of the Republican Party, present himself as a conservative, a guy who can win the general election. So the first question went to Fred Thompson, he was literally standing at center stage among the nine Republican candidates. His right out of the box, Wolf, his effort to show Republicans watching around the country a Fred Thompson administration would mean low taxes and small government.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRED THOMPSON, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're enjoying low inflation, we're enjoying low unemployment. The stock market seems to be doing pretty well. I see no reason to believe we're headed for economic downturn.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Upbeat about the economy, saying he would lower taxes, he would also have a smaller government. But a regulatory environment Wolf that he said would encourage small business. Thompson also took a political risk in this debate when the subject turned to what about social security and Medicare, all of the candidates said something had to be done about it, but Thompson went out further, saying he would index to inflation benefits for future retirees. That as you know is a politically risky proposal. His campaign is portraying that tonight as proof that Senator Thompson is ready to take risky stands as he discusses these issues as the debates go forward. Wolf?

BLITZER: John, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, they got into it a little bit during those two hours as well.

KING: It's quite interesting. Now, all of the attention, of course, on Senator Thompson because this is his first debut. And since getting into the race, he has moved way up in the polls. But who is it atop the national polls? That would be Mayor Giuliani. Who is it atop the polls in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire? That would be Governor Mitt Romney. So the two front runners if you will, the national front runner and the early states front runner, focusing on each other, each questioning the fiscal conservative credentials of the other.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I brought taxes down by 17 percent. Under him taxes went up 11 percent per capita. I led.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's baloney. Mayor, you have to check your facts. I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts, I lowered taxes.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So a bit of an economic debate there between Romney and Giuliani. Wolf, one other subplot we saw throughout this debate, many of the Republican candidates ignoring the other rivals on stage and focusing instead on Senator Hillary Clinton trying to suggest they would be the toughest Republican candidate, the best Republican candidate to go against the candidate they believe will be the Democratic nominee next year.

BLITZER: So focusing almost exclusively on Hillary Clinton, all of these Republican presidential candidates, how does that play out among the Democrats? They were basically, correct me if I'm wrong, ignoring Barack Obama or John Edwards or the other democrats, they were trying to focus in only on her.

KING: Well, part of it is they look at the same polls we look at and think that she will be the nominee. But another part of it is, Republican strategists in all of the campaigns acknowledge it's a very difficult climate for Republicans. As of this moment, they would say the Republicans are a huge underdog in next year's presidential election. They see one Democrat who could unite the Republican base, get Republicans to turn out even if they're not completely happy with their nominee, and that is Hillary Clinton along of course with the support of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Two goals for the Republicans here, to show they would be strong in the presidential election in the fall and try to gin up their own base, if you will.

BLITZER: All right John. John King reporting for us from Dearborn, Michigan. We're going to have more on the debate. We'll hear from Bill Bennett here in THE SITUATION ROOM, that's coming up later.

But let's get to the Democrats and the bombshell that was dropped earlier today, also involving Michigan. Four Democratic presidential candidates pulled their names off the state's January 15th primary ballot. That would be Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson. They're signing with the Democratic National Committee against Michigan which broke party rules by moving up its presidential contest. But what about the democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton? Let's go to our senior political analyst Bill Schneider. Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, the Clinton campaign tells CNN that Senator Clinton will not campaign in Michigan or spend money there, but she does not think it's necessary to remove her name from the ballot. Her strategic calculation may be different from her competitors.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): At the very moment when nine Republican candidates are holding a debate in Michigan, four Democratic candidates, Joe Biden, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson, are filing papers to have their names taken off Michigan's primary ballot. Why are they dissing a large crucial state with a big labor vote? Michigan is defying National Democratic Party rules. It has scheduled its primary on January 15th, three weeks before states are allowed to start choosing delegates. The national party is allowing four states to jump the starting gun, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We've all signed a pledge saying that we will campaign in the first four states as prescribed by the rules.

SCHNEIDER: The leading Democratic candidates had already agreed not to campaign in Michigan or any other state whose primary violates party rules. So why are they taking the additional step of removing their names from the ballot? Could they be making a strategic calculation? Here's one, Biden, Edwards, Obama and Richardson, have to stop the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. If there's no campaign, the candidate most likely to win Michigan is Hillary Clinton. Her Democratic rivals don't want a Clinton victory in Michigan to count. They want Iowa and New Hampshire, where they have a better chance of stopping Clinton, to count more. Edwards said in a statement, "In these early states, issues matter more than money, celebrity, and advertisements. Voters want and deserve a candidate who represents real people, not corporate special interests."

(END OF VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: For Senator Clinton, winning even a non-competitive primary in Michigan could be useful. It would earn her a lot of good will in Michigan if the state schedules a later caucus to pick its convention delegates. And, of course, Michigan will be very important for Democrats in the general election. Wolf?

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thank you very much. Let's check in with Jack Cafferty, he's in New York with "The Cafferty File." Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY: Some new and troubling numbers out Wolf. More than half of all Americans have little trust in the media. A new gallop poll shows only nine percent of those surveyed say they have a great deal of trust and confidence in the mass media. That would be us, newspapers, radio, television. Thirty-eight percent say they have a fair amount of trust, 35 percent, not very much, and 17 percent, none at all. When asked how they perceive the media, 45 percent say it's too liberal. Thirty-five percent say just about right and 18 percent say too conservative. There are also some big partisan differences in the survey. Half as many Republicans as Democrats say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the news media. Independents also lean closer to the cynical views of Republicans than to the views of Democrats who are more trusting of the accuracy in the news. The one bright spot for the media is when it comes to local news Americans are more convinced of neutrality than they are of the national media. So here's the question -- how much do you trust the media? E-mail caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to nn.com/caffertyfile. Nine percent say they have a great deal of trust in us, Wolf, that's it.

BLITZER: That's not very encouraging.

CAFFERTY: That's not very good is it?

BLITZER: I don't think so. All right, we'll hear what our viewers have to say about it. You and I have a unique interest in this question as well.

CAFFERTY: Yes we do.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

Did the Bush administration tip off al Qaeda by leaking the latest Bin Laden video? A private intelligence firm was the first to find the terror tape. Do these counter terrorism companies have an advantage over government agencies?

Also, they can vote, they can go to war, but they can't legally drink. Some young Americans want to lower the age barrier but they're facing some strong opposition.

It seems a lot of people are hammering Fred Thompson. You won't believe what the late President Richard Nixon once said about the future presidential candidate. Jeanne Moos standing by with a most unusual look and a listen. Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A company that secretly spies on what terrorists are up to on the Internet now says one of its priceless anti-terror tools is worthless. That company is outraged and it's blaming the Bush administration. The company named sites as a leak out of the Bush administration closed an open door to spy on Al Qaeda. Our justice correspondent Kelli Arena is following this story. Kelli, this involves last month's Osama bin Laden video.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right Wolf. And you know there are several companies and individuals who provide intelligence and analysis to the government. The site institute is just one of those. These companies play a vital role in the war on terror because the mission is sometimes overwhelming.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA (voice-over): It was the first time Osama bin Laden's been seen on videotape in nearly three years, but the U.S. government wasn't the first to get the tape. It was a firm called the Site Institute.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It was a private company that contacted the White House to let us know that they had found an Osama bin Laden tape, asked us if we wanted to have the federal government review it.

ARENA: A small firm with exclusive access to a message from the world's most wanted terrorist? Just who are these companies and why do they have intelligence that the government doesn't? Ben Venzke runs another firm called Intelcenter and has contracts with several government agencies.

BEN VENZKE, INTELCENTER: Even with all the resources that the government has, there's not enough resources to apply to every kind of issue and challenge they're facing.

ARENA: Venzke won't say exactly how he finds terrorist videos, but says sometimes he can do it more quickly than the government. Cybersleuth Laura Mansfield doesn't have any government contracts, still she spends her days scouring message boards and blogs for hints that terror videos are coming.

LAURA MANSFIELD, LAURAMANSFIELD.COM: Because I'm not burdened by a bureaucracy, I'm just a private individual working on my own, I'm able to do things that perhaps -- for example, data mining. That's something that the U.S. government is not able to do in many cases.

ARENA: Many terrorism experts say the more eyes and ears the better and that the focus should not be on who gets the information first as long as it ends up with the government. Mike Rolince is a former senior FB counterterrorism official.

MIKE ROLINCE, BOOZ ALLEN HAMILTON: Are you getting it in a timely manner? Do you understand what's in it and can you use what's in it?

(END OF VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA: Well speed can sometimes be a benefit, it's the context and expert analysis that some of these firms offer that is more significant. On that front, a spokesman for the director of National Intelligence tells CNN that it appreciates all of the information it can get its hands on. Wolf?

BLITZER: Kelli, thank you. Kelli Arena reporting.

Meanwhile, a new Homeland Security report is raising some red flags about terrorism but it's aimed at the American public or at critical Democrats who are trying to curb White House wiretapping. Is that the case? Let's turn to our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. Suzanne, what's this all about?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, those are two very important audiences. First, of course, the American people, but also those Democratic critics. This is a strategy report, much in the works for the last five years, but its release a very important timing here because it is based looking at those democrats trying to fight that this warrantless wiretapping program is essential to fighting terrorism.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): We are a country at war and in constant danger. At least that's what President Bush says as the key rationale behind his updated strategy to keep the homeland safe. He begins six years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, we remain at war. Then his homeland security report goes on to say, "The most serious and dangerous manifestation of this threat remains al Qaeda, driven by an undiminished strategic intent to attack our homeland. Through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups, particularly al Qaeda in Iraq." So is anything new here? The U.S. intelligence community released its own threat assessment three months ago. They warned al Qaeda would continue to use its terrorist wing in Iraq to train foreign plot attacks on U.S. soil.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The language in this security report is almost verbatim what you would find in the national security estimate done in July.

MALVEAUX: What is different is the timing of the report's release. This is only the second homeland security strategy released by the administration. The last one was five years ago. But these dire warnings come on the eve of a critical debate in congress over the president's warrantless wiretapping program. The president insists he needs this program to go after the very same terrorist threats mentioned in this report.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Why now? Why today? Does it have anything to do with an effort to influence lawmakers who were taking up (INAUDIBLE) legislation on the hill today?

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Not that I'm aware of. This is a document that -- it's not unusual for a strategy document to be updated every five years.

(END OF VIDEOTAPE) MALVEAUX: But Wolf, as you know, the White House does very little without great deliberation. Even the Press Secretary Dana Perino acknowledging that she hopes this report will convince those Democrats and those critics that that critical program, that controversial wiretapping program, is much needed. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Suzanne Malveaux reporting.

Republicans rumble in Michigan. Fred Thompson makes his debate debut, while Rudy Giuliani squares off with Mitt Romney. How did they do? Bill Bennett standing by live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And a dwindling coalition in Iraq. One U.S. ally has a grand total of three soldiers there. What's America giving up to get this kind of help? Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: News around the world, there's been another deadly shooting by private security contractors in Baghdad. Iraqi officials say convoy guards fired on a car, killing two Iraqi women who were hit by a total of 19 bullets. Iraq's interior ministry confirmed that the contractor was an Australian firm Unity Resources Group. An American firm, Blackwater USA, is blamed for a shooting incident last month which left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.

The coalition of the willing in Iraq is steadily, steadily shrinking. Some U.S. allies, in fact, have only a tiny number of forces in Iraq. So what's the United States giving up to get this kind of help? Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd, he's watching this story for us. Brian, a lot of people are saying this so-called coalition of the willing is a coalition in name only.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. Some critics as you know have been calling it that for a while. But tonight, tough new questions about the real effectiveness of some coalition partners.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Critics say it's a sign of a dwindling coalition in Iraq, one that doesn't give America much return for its investment. Latvia has a total of three troops in Iraq, staff officers in administrative and planning posts. Here's what the U.S. gives Latvia. For starters, nearly $4 million in military aid this year and Latvia gets to send officers to the U.S. for training, that's part of a broader overall aid package to Latvia.

CHRISTOPHER PREBLE, CATO INSTITUTE: I think it is an awful lot of money frankly to maintain the fiction that this is a multinational action. The vast majority of Americans, the vast majority of everyone else in the world knows that this is an American mission. The U.S. is doing the lion's share of the fighting.

TODD: Nobody has presented evidence of a direct tie between the assistance and Latvia's contributions in Iraq. Another modest partner? Lithuania, nine troops in combat to support duties. A Lithuanian official tells CNN, his country has gotten about $6 million in military aid from the U.S. every year since the war started. In addition to millions more in other aid packages. Some analysts feel U.S. aid to these countries is worth it. Countries like Latvia helped bring down the old Soviet Union they say, have been key strategic partners well before Iraq, and --

CLIFF MAY, FDN, FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: Our soldiers, our marines, are not just warriors, they're also diplomats, they're politicians, they're involved in reconstruction. That's a hugely important part of it. And so if the foreign militaries who assist us get involved in that, that's fine.

(END OF VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And it's not all just behind the lines. One very small coalition partner, Moldova, 12 soldiers in Iraq, they've had about the same number there since the war started, they are involved in clearing explosives and a Moldovan official told me that since the war began they've liquidated about 400,000 devices. Wolf?

BLITZER: What is Moldova, as far as the aid package for Moldova, what do they get?

TODD: Well it's pretty interesting there. The U.S. government says it was nearly $18 million last year, but that has declined steadily since the war began. Moldova got about $36 million from the U.S. back in 2002.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much. The U.S. still has about 168,000 troops in Iraq right now.

Heated debate as Republican presidential candidates face off.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RON PAUL: Why can't we just open up the constitution and read it? You're not allowed to go to war without a declaration of war.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's Ron Paul. Fred Thompson was in the mix for the first time as well. Find out how all the candidates did. Bill Bennett standing by.

Plus -- a new push to lower the drinking age is facing an uphill battle. We're going to tell you who's putting up some fierce opposition. Stick around, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In their first debate since Fred Thompson joined the presidential contest, the Republican presidential candidates took on the question of Iran's nuclear threat. The moderator asked if as president they would need to go to congress to get the green light for military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You it down with your attorneys and tell you what you have to do. But obviously the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat. The president did that as he was planning on moving into Iraq and received the authorization of congress.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he need it?

ROMNEY: You know, we're going to let the lawyers sort out what he needed to do and what he didn't need to do. But certainly what you want to do is to have the agreement of all the people, leadership of our government, as well as our friends around the world.

RON PAUL, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Absolutely. This idea of going and talking to attorneys, totally baffles me. Why don't we just open up the constitution and read it? You're not allowed to go to war without a declaration of war. Now, as far as fleeting enemies go, yes, if there's an eminent attack on us, we have never had that happen in 220 years. The thought that the Iranians could pose an eminent attack on the United States is preposterous. There's no way. This is just --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not --

PAUL: This is just war propaganda, continued war propaganda, preparing this nation to go to war and spread this war, not only in Iraq but into Iran, unconstitutionally. It is a road to disaster for us as a nation. It's a road to our financial disaster if we don't read the constitution once in a while.

FRED THOMPSON, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think anybody running for president should diminish the powers of the office before he gets there and take a side in a hypothetical dispute. But I would say that in any close call you should go to congress whether it's legally required or not because you're going to need the American people. Congress will help you if they are voting for it or they support it or leaders especially in the opposite party are convinced. And looking at the evidence, that this is the right thing to do, that will help you with the American people. We have learned that over the long term in any conflict we've got to have the strong support of the American people over a protracted period of time.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Joining us now, our CNN contributor Bill Bennett of the Claremont Institute. Bill, thanks for coming in. All right, this was his debut, Fred Thompson. What did you think you watched all two hours of the debate earlier this afternoon?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Right, I think he did fine. He didn't overwhelm Wolf, but he certainly passed. He was a little tentative up front but he got better as the debate went on. Had a couple of laugh lines at the end. They didn't really turn to Thompson, people thought he might be attacked because he is the last man in. There was something of kind of a humorous attack by Romney, but he rebuffed it very well.

BLITZER: We're going to play that clip later.

BENNETT: Ok, good.

BLITZER: But did you get the sense that what he need to do was simply fail to make a mistake?

BENNETT: He didn't make a big mistake, and it was very odd to me Chris Matthews tried to trap him in the old grade school kind of thing, who's the prime minister of Canada. I don't think he should be doing that sort of thing. But Fred knew. It was Harper, Steven Harper and said so. Didn't make any big mistakes, again, didn't overwhelm. Pass. Fights another day. But you know there was so much anticipation about Fred Thompson. Is he meeting that standard? Don't know. But I think he did credibly.

BLITZER: Romney took a little swipe at him. You alluded to it. Let's play the clip.

BENNETT: Yes. Good.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, I've come to know these people now over these debates. Is this our sixth debate I think, something like that? And this has a lot -- this is a lot like "Law & Order," senator. It has a huge cast. The series seems to go on forever. And Fred Thompson shows up at the end.

FRED THOMPSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And to think I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, he came back with a nice retort there Fred Thompson.

BENNETT: Yes. Bright and able man. I thought it was a good retort. That showed him in that comfortable mode that people like so much. This is what Fred Thompson is about. I think the way this thing is shaping up I think it's Thompson or Giuliani. And if people are comfortable with Thompson and uncomfortable with Giuliani, that's a problem for Rudy Giuliani.

BLITZER: Because we played that exchange earlier in the hour, that exchange that tough exchange between Giuliani and Romney over who's better in terms of cutting taxes.

BENNETT: Well, that's kind of a microscope. That's good focus, Wolf, because this is you know the early stages. Everybody is going to be looking at Iowa and New Hampshire. It looks as if Romney is very strong in Iowa, has been very strong in New Hampshire but now Giuliani has him tied or at least so it appears. Those two early states are shaking down a lot. BLITZER: Why do you think is it going to come down to Thompson versus Giuliani and you've taken Mitt Romney because he's ahead in New Hampshire and Iowa in the polls.

BENNETT: I know. It's a very odd thing. But when you look at the national polls, he's not only increasing but he seems to have plateaued and some of the national polls, dropping a little. He's giving up space to Huckabee. Looking at this as a conservative you know who likes a good, coherent philosophy, you would really have to say Hunter and Huckabee kind of fit the bill of what conservatives are like. The problem is they are second tier. Huckabee looks like he may move into the first tier.

When you get into the first tier, you know McCain, everyone reveres him but it doesn't look like it's going to happen I think probably because of immigration. Romney, again, can't get up above that 9 percent. So you have Thompson and Giuliani. Giuliani show as lot of energy. He was very smart, a lot of Hillary Clinton in this debate. Boy, was she prominent.

BLITZER: But can at least some of the republicans, the social conservatives, hold their noses and go ahead and vote for Giuliani even though he has liberal positions on some of the social issues like abortion or gay rights?

BENNETT: Well, you know that is the question. And as you know and as you've reported a number of republicans, or conservative republicans, are talking about a third party candidacy, terrible idea in my view.

BLITZER: That would be a kiss of death for the republicans.

BENNETT: Kiss of death to the republicans. Give the election away I think. Big conference coming up, Family Research Council. All the prominent republicans in the country are speaking at it. This will be a focus in a couple of weeks.

BLITZER: Was it smart for the republican candidates during the debate earlier this afternoon in Michigan to go after Hillary Clinton per se and focus a lot of their attention on her?

BENNETT: Well, since she seems to be the presumptive candidate, I don't think it's a bad idea. Of course, it's how you do it. I though Giuliani was the most skillful. And it looked like the moderator was trying to generate that, you know this New York subway series, subway election. But, yes, I think this is a way to reassure the base for Giuliani, that he is a good, strong conservative. Hey, I'm the guy, he keeps saying, to take on Hillary Clinton. Fred Thompson with his aw shuck stuff and the Tennessee stuff is saying, I'm a very different guy. You should be more comfortable with me than with Hillary Clinton. A lot of dynamics.

BLITZER: You alluded to John McCain. I know you admire him a great deal.

BENNETT: Very much. BLITZER: But do you think it's over for him basically?

BENNETT: I don't know it's over. You know he's still standing. He's doing better than he did before you know a few weeks ago when he faded. He reminds people by his presence of his example. He got off a couple of lines today. And I have to say I guess he's given up Iowa. He kind of hit, he criticized ethanol. He was the only one who would do this. Anybody who goes through Iowa has to sort of ...

BLITZER: That's a sure sign that he's really not expecting to compete there.

BENNETT: Well, it's a sure sign he's being John McCain, the John McCain we know and admire. It doesn't look very hopeful.

BLITZER: His people are saying he's got to do really well in New Hampshire and then South Carolina. Can he?

BENNETT: Yes, he does. Yes, I think he can. He has that maverick thing, which they like in New Hampshire. And in South Carolina with the strong military presence, John McCain could do very well. Yes, he is still standing. He's kind of the lion in winter a little bit, has that kind of feel. But he's still standing.

BLITZER: Bill Bennett, thanks for coming in.

BENNETT: Thanks Wolf.

BLITZER: Former president Jimmy Carter, by the way, will be right here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow. You can send us some questions you'd like to ask him. Submit your video questions by logging onto CNN.com/situationroom. Some of those questions on video, we'll ask the former president of the United States.

An uphill battle to lower the drinking age. The idea is coming up against some strong and emotional opposition. You're going to find out what both sides are now saying.

Plus, we'll show you a controversial new TV ad about same-sex marriage.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's been two decades since the legal drinking age in the United States was raised to 21 for all alcoholic beverages but now some young people would like to change that and they have a fight on their hands.

Let's bring back Carol Costello. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's getting very emotional. It's a tough debate unfolding right now. CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And it depends on your age on which side you stand on that debate. I mean listen to this. Columbia University says one out of five drinks sold in this country is consumed by an underage drinker. One in five. Many of them get behind the wheel. It is a huge problem. Some say you've got to deal with reality, that legal and 21 law just isn't working. It's a preemptive strike. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD, has joined forces with the federal government and the American Medical Association to keep the legal drinking age in this country at 21.

GLYNN BIRCH, MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING: The 21 law saves lives and protects young minds.

COSTELLO: MADD is concerned with a not so quiet move to lower the drinking age to 18 led by blog sites like Choose Responsibility and YouthRights.org.

ALEX KUROKNAY-PALICZ, YOUTHRIGHTS.ORG: So on the one hand we're saying 18-year-olds are mature and responsible enough to handle every aspect of adulthood, then absolutely they're able to have a can of beer or glass of wine. It's absurd to have that double standard.

COSTELLO: And there are small signs their efforts have paid off. At least a dozen colleges are adapting social norm marketing which steers students away from binge drinking not by telling them it's illegal but by pushing them to moderate, responsible drinking.

In Kent, Ohio where Kent State University is located there is a push in city council to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. MADD in its new coalition calls that dangerous, telling us one-third of traffic accidents involving teenagers are alcohol related.

JAN WITHERS, MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING: I personally know what the effects of underage drinking feel like when Alyssa was declared dead.

COSTELLO: Wither's 15-year-old daughter was a passenger in a car with a drunk 17-year-old behind the wheel. Supporters of the lower drinking age don't dispute the numbers but say the taboo associated with booze only add to the problem.

KUROKNAY-PALICZ: If we were to really reform the way we approach alcohol in this country, that it would make it safer and we wouldn't see the problems we see on the roads and in our homes.

COSTELLO: It is an idea that has traction. But if MADD's coalition effort pays off, not for long.

Now I did talk with several universities today, one of them University of Virginia. A counselor told me kids look at the 21 year old drinking law like they look at the speed limit law, you know, as more of a suggestion than a law. She says it is time we at least talk logically about lowering the drinking age. Then she could teach kids responsibility instead of threatening them with punishment.

BLITZER: Carol, thank you; Carol Costello reporting. Crashes and cars in other vehicles, by the way, are the leading cause of death for 15 to 20-year-olds in the United States. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reports that 28 percent of young drivers killed in 2005 had been drinking. Of those, 23 percent had a blood alcohol level of .08, the limit for driving legally or higher.

Supporters of same-sex marriage are launching a multi-million dollar ad campaign in California this week. They haven't been able to legalize gay unions through lawsuits or legislation so they're trying to sell people on the idea the same way advertisers sell products like soap, toothpaste, other stuff.

Mary Snow is following the story. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. The debate over same-sex marriage in California at least on the front burner right now.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. Two things happening this week. A state bill that would allow same-sex marriages is expected to be rejected any day now. And gay rights groups are trying a new approach to get people's attention. It starts like a primetime TV drama. A bride falls, her veil gets caught, an old lady trips her. And that's where this California ad takes a turn, saying what if you couldn't marry the person you love? And the ad states, every day gay and lesbian couples are prevented from marrying. It's all part of a campaign supporting same-sex marriage and it's aimed at changing people's minds by appealing to their hearts. The campaign's backers say ...

GEOFF KORS, EQUALITY CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE: The ad is designed to put people in the shoes of lesbian and gay people and understand the pain and hurt that we feel in being denied the right to marry.

SNOW: The right for same sex couples to wed was banned in a California ballad in 2000. The state's legislature recently overturned it but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says he plans to veto the latest measure just as he vetoed a similar effort three years ago.

GOVERNOR ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, CALIFORNIA: We rely upon our courts to enforce our rule of law.

SNOW: A conservative group specializing in the defense of religious freedom wants to ban same-sex marriage and calls this latest ad propaganda.

BRAD DACUS, PACIFIC JUSTICE INSTITUTE: If it's opened up to two men and two women, it could very easily be opened up to protect polygamy or adult incest or any other kind of non conventional relationship outside of traditional marriage.

SNOW: Now responding to that claim, the gay rights organization Equality California Institute says right-wing groups will come up with all kinds of arguments not based in fact to prevent gay couples from marrying.

Wolf. BLITZER: Mary, thanks very much. Welcome to Washington.

SNOW: It's good to be here.

BLITZER: Mary Snow reporting.

A record setting settlement in a landmark lawsuit. We're going to have details of a deal to remove tons of pollutants from the air, millions of us are breathing. Some of us right now.

Plus, Richard Nixon slamming Fred Thompson. We have the late president's stinging remark on tape about the man who now wants to be president of the United States. We're going to play it for you right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: I want to go right back to Carol. Car crash out on the campaign trail.

What's going on, Carol?

COSTELLO: Well you know the Obamas are campaigning in Iowa, Wolf, where the car in which Michelle Obama and some campaign workers were riding in were involved in an accident involving a motorcycle. We understand the motorcycle rider was sent to the hospital. This is according to the Obama campaign. We don't know the condition of the motorcycle rider, but both Michelle and Barack Obama say their thoughts and prayers are with this injured rider. Barack Obama was not in the car, only his wife. She was uninjured. No campaign worker was injured either. When I get more, I'll pass it along.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Carol; Carol Costello reporting.

A record settlement in a landmark lawsuit that promises to cut pollution significantly from more than a dozen coal-burning power plants in the United States. Our chief environment correspondent Miles O'Brien explains what it means for the air we breathe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: How important, Miles, is this settlement to the environment?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CHIEF ENVIRONMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, if you breathe air, in the northeast as we do, it's important. It's just -- the situation is not going to improve quickly.

Let's take a look at this whole notion. First of all, you've heard the expression we all live downstream. In this case, we all live downwind. We're talking about 16 sites in the Ohio River valley, coal-fired electric utility facilities, that are particularly dirty. And they send their pollution this direction because that's the direction of the prevailing winds. That upset the residents of the eight states in the northeast, and that was the basis for a big lawsuit that got settled today.

Where there's smoke, there is ire. After eight years of hard haggling with a big polluter, the federal government today cut its biggest deal ever to clean up the air. Ohio-based American Electric Power forced to invest $4.6 billion in technology to clean up what it pumps into the air.

GRANT NAKAYAMA, EPA ASSISTANT ADMIN.: To give you a sense of the mammoth scale of these reductions, the amount of SO2 emission reductions will exceed all of the reductions from this settlement alone will exceed all the SO2 emissions from all sources in the states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut combined.

O'BRIEN: The justice department filed suit back in 1999. Pollution from the 16 coal plants, mainly in the Ohio River valley, is blown by prevailing winds to the northeast, creating acid rain and all kinds of respiratory and heart ailments. Eight downwind states and a dozen environmental groups also sued.

NAKAYAMA: We estimate that the annual benefits to public health and the environment, once the pollution controls are installed, will include a savings of approximately $32 billion per year in health- related costs associated with respiratory and cardio pulmonary illnesses including asthma.

O'BRIEN: American Electric Power issued a statement today. The chairman of the company said, "We have remained firm in our believe belief that we operated our plants in compliance with all of the provisions of the law," but this settlement, Wolf, is going to have potentially a ripple effect. There are four more cases outstanding the justice department is working on. They may follow suit.

BLITZER: How long before all of this falls into place to get implemented?

O'BRIEN: Well, not to be flip, but don't hold your breath. In this case, maybe people with asthma should. But it won't be until 2018. So if you take from the moment they filed the suit in 1999 until 2018, a child born on that day in 1999 would be going to college by the time the air will be cleaned up. But at least they're making progress.

BLITZER: It's a start. Thanks very much, Miles. Miles O'Brien, always good to have you in THE SITUATION ROOM.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Wolf.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here in THE SITUATION ROOM as well. He is joining us from New York.

Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Where there's smoke there's ire. I like that. It's a good line. Question this hour is how much do you trust the media? There's a new poll out indicates that most Americans don't have a lot of trust in a lot of what we do.

Richard in New York writes, "The media gets things wrong about a third of the time, run government propaganda about a third of the time, so I guess I believe them about a third of the time."

Nancy in Michigan, "It depends on which media you're talking about. You might as well ask if I trust presidents and not ask which one. The answer is different depending on who it is."

David in Philadelphia, "I think the issue is that too few companies own too many sources of our media. This results in a lack of diversity of our media. And too often the media address items that really aren't important, but since that is what we get, that is what we consider news."

Thomas in Florida writes, "I was very guarded at first as to whether you were trustworthy or not, until the day you wrote me back one afternoon telling me I was a jerk! Not only are you honest in your reporting, you're a great judge of character!"

George writes, "I don't trust the media at all. Each network has an agenda and all its reporters march to that drummer."

Bobby in California, "Jack, Dewey defeats Truman. Enough said."

Janice in South Dakota, "A leading story for part of this week, Britney Spears' custody battle and you ask if we trust the media? Not."

And Craig in Tampa, Florida, "I trust Lou Dobbs. You, I'm still worried about."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile where we post more of them online as well as video clips of the Cafferty File.

Wolf.

BLITZER: I trust you, Jack, and I trust Lou Dobbs. I trust both of you. Thanks for joining us. See you back here tomorrow.

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: Let's get right to Rick Sanchez. I trust him as well. He's coming up at the top of the hour. Preview, what do got here?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I knew you were coming with that. Thanks a lot, Wolf.

Hey, I think we're going to be making some news here. Former president of Mexico is going to be on the recorder tonight saying that what is going on in Irving, Texas, that we have been reporting exclusively on this show is a violation of human rights, his words. We'll break that down for you.

And then of course we've now found out that it's not just in Irving but there seems to be a panic in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Wolf. Tens of thousands of people are evacuating the city because of something they fear is about to happen in November. Also having to do with obviously immigration. We'll be all over this. We'll bring it to you right here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Excellent. Good work. Thanks very much, Rick, coming up in a few moments.

He sat out much of the early presidential campaign. Now Fred Thompson just can't seem to get a break from the media. Even, guess what, Richard Nixon is slamming him. You're going to find out what the late president said.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the Hot Shots coming in from the Associated Press.

In the West Bank, a girl holds up a lantern while another watches her own sparkler.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi boy looks at the wreckage of a car after a bomb exploded.

In Massachusetts, a boy chooses a pumpkin for his jackolantern.

And in Germany, check it out, an animal keeper pets a giraffe at Berlin zoo.

Some of this hour's Hot Shots.

Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson is take a beating from some pundits, media satirists, even the former president, the late president Richard Nixon beyond the grave.

CNN's Jeanne Moos takes a most unusual look.

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's enough to make a presidential candidate squirm and squeal. Poor Fred Thompson. In the press, they say he bombs. Even conservatives seem let down. A former counselor to President George Bush calls Thompson the biggest dud. Even having his name plastered on the wall behind him didn't prevent this mis-introduction at one of his very first campaign events.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fred Roberts from Tennessee.

MOOS: Roberts, Thompson, you know, the guy from "Law & Order".

THOMPSON: You don't seriously suspect the Russian mob.

MOOS: He got Russian right in the show, but in real life it was considered a gaff when he called present day Russia by its old name. And horror of horrors, he had to beg for applause after getting none at the end of a little speech in Iowa.

THOMPSON: First of all, could I have a round of applause?

MOOS: That ended up as a joke on "Saturday Night Live."

DARRELL HAMMOND, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: How about a round of applause, people? Your damn hands broken?

MOOS: The show went on to lampoon what critics say is Thompson's lack of fire in the belly.

HAMMOND: How badly do I not want to be your president? On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm about a 6.

MOOS: Then there was that lazy like a fox "Newsweek" cover. And it doesn't help to counter your lazy image by selling I'm with Fred golf balls on your website.

The final straw? President Nixon calls him dumb even from the grave. Thompson was republican counsel during the Watergate hearings, and this was on the tapes.

FORMER PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON, UNITED STATES: Oh sh--! He's dumb as hell. Fred Thompson. Who is he? Who is he? He won't say anything.

MOOS: After all that, the experts asked, he can act but can he debate? Thompson's very first answer had a deer in the head lights moment.

THOMPSON: I see no reason to believe we're headed for economic downturn.

MOOS: He got stuck between bickering Rudy and Mitt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And waste.

MOOS: Thompson said he didn't regret getting into the race late.

THOMPSON: I've enjoyed watching these fellows. I've got to admit it was getting a little boring without me.

MOOS: Romney even compared the debate process to "Law & Order".

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It has a huge cast. The series seems to go on forever. And Fred Thompson shows up at the end.

THOMPSON: And to think I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage.

MOOS: When it comes to being president ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can only dream, Arthur. MOOS: That's Fred, Fred Thompson. Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

BLITZER: Leave it to Jeanne Moos. This important note for you our viewers, tomorrow the former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM and you can send us some questions you'd like him to answer. Simply, submit your video questions by logging onto cnn.com/situationroom. We'll try to get some of those questions to the former president and he'll answer them. So go ahead and do that right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Jimmy Carter tomorrow our special guest.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us. Remember, we're in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons from 4 to 6 p.m. eastern and we're back live for another hour at 7 p.m. eastern until tomorrow, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Up next, Rick Sanchez with "OUT IN THE OPEN."

Rick.

SANCHEZ: All right. Thanks a lot, Wolf.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com