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THE SITUATION ROOM

Laying Blame in CIA Leak Scandal; Clinton, Obama Play Rough; Conserving Conservatism: Looking Beyond the Bush Era

Aired November 21, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, one of the president's own former staffer's explosive indictment that the highest ranking officials in the White House helped mislead the public in the CIA leak scandal.
Also, Mitt Romney under attack. He calls political stunts against him vicious and un-American. And he's even more outraged at questions that people who support him could be behind it. Romney airs his anger right here.

And they served tasty bits of news, feeding many hungry viewers. For that, they're our Political Turkeys of the Year.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We are following stunning claims against the Bush administration from none other than a former White House insider. As a yet unpublished book, former press secretary Scott McClellan says high- ranking officials in the White House helped to mislead the public in the CIA leak scandal.

Now, you might recall that in 2003, the then press secretary told reporters that Karl Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby were not involved in the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson name. Well, now McClellan is saying something very, very different.

CNN's Jessica Yellin is at the White House.

Jessica, you have more details. This has been really an amazing story.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It has been, Suzanne. And today I talked to the publisher of this upcoming book by Scott McClellan, and that publisher dials it back a bit. He says in the rest of the book McClellan makes it clear that at no point did President Bush tell him to lie about this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any comments at this time?

YELLIN (voice over): During the frenzy surrounding the leak of a CIA operative's name, then White House press secretary Scott McClellan announced that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby had nothing to do with it. SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They're important members of our White House team, and that's why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved.

YELLIN: But in an upcoming book, McClellan admits there was one problem -- it was not true. "I unknowingly passed along false information." And he makes this accusation, that "... five of the highest-ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so." Among them, "... the President himself."

That is raising questions about what Mr. Bush knew and in what way he was involved. The White House issued a swift response. "The President has not and would not ask anyone to knowingly pass on false information." And the world "knowingly" could be key.

Earlier this year, McClellan told CNN Mr. Bush was misled just like he was.

MCCLELLAN: I said what I believed to be true at the time. It was also what the President believed to be true at the time based on assurances that we were both given.

YELLIN: The outed CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson pounced on the news, calling it shocking, saying it adds support to her civil case. But former chief of staff Andy Card says there must be more to the story, though he hedged on his own role in the matter, telling CNN, "I cannot imagine that I would have knowingly asked Scott McClellan to say something that's a falsehood."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Suzanne, when I spoke to him today, Andy Card also suggested that he would like Scott McClellan to come out and give the full story of what happened, but McClellan is not talking and the publisher also told me they kept this excerpt short deliberately. The book comes out next April -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Jessica, it seems that it's not surprising that they would release this now and just leave a lot of unopened and unended (ph) questions here. You and I trying to get Scott, as well as others to at least be a little bit more clear, but the language here he's using very familiar to what we heard on the podium -- very fuzzy, very vague.

YELLIN: Yes, there's a lot of parsing here, but I do think what the publisher said adds a little bit of light and context. He actually used the word "conspiracy," saying Scott makes it clear the President was not involved in any kind of conspiracy to mislead the public.

MALVEAUX: And Jessica, you and I both know that this White House knows how to go into damage control mode. It seems quite obvious that they picked up on this so quickly.

YELLIN: Absolutely. And they responded very quickly, and, frankly, folks here who have covered McClellan and this White House, as you and I both have, know that he has a real desire to clear up what happens then. And so he's eager to get this story out, too. But there seems to be a bit of back and forth with the publisher. No more word until that book comes out next April.

MALVEAUX: OK. Jessica, thank you so much. Good to see you.

One day before Thanksgiving, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are locked in a political food fight. They are hurling barbs at each other, with Clinton suggesting that Obama is too inexperienced to be President. And Obama comparing Clinton to President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

CNN's Dan Lothian has more on that from Manchester, New Hampshire.

And Dan, this is a rivalry that we are seeing really heat up here, a war of words, and obviously these two candidates must really be feeling the heat.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They really are feeling the heat. Of course, this is a very important state here in New Hampshire, and of course Iowa -- the two critical states in this campaign. But when you look at the polls, Hillary Clinton still has a very strong lead here in New Hampshire, but the latest showing that her numbers have slipped a bit. Obama's numbers have gone up just a bit, and that is the reason we're seeing so many fireworks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice over): Helping to prepare meal boxes for the needy, Senator Barack Obama worked the assembly line at a food pantry in Manchester, New Hampshire.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thanksgiving is a time where we're grateful for what we have, but we also are thinking about those who don't have.

LOTHIAN: That was all he wanted to talk about, putting down the gloves and picking up cans of beans one day after sparring with Hillary Clinton over foreign policy experience and her comment that she had met with many world leaders.

OBAMA: I was wondering which world leader told her that we needed to invade Iraq.

LOTHIAN: This surge and heated exchanges between the top two Democratic candidates began earlier in the week when Obama said this...

OBAMA: You know, probably the strongest experience that I have in foreign relations is the fact that I spent four years living overseas when I was a child in Asia, in southeast Asia.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With all due respect, I don't think living in a foreign country between the ages of 6 and 10 is foreign policy experience.

LOTHIAN: Obama tried clarify his point.

OBAMA: It gives me some judgment and perspective around what other people think about America.

LOTHIAN: For much of this race, Hillary Clinton had been directing her harshest criticism against President Bush and her Republican rivals, campaigning with a sense of inevitability that she'll be the Democratic nominee.

Here's an ad released on Tuesday in the Granite State.

ANNOUNCER: Here they go again. The same old Republican attack machine is back.

LOTHIAN: But the tone of this race now seems to be changing as Clinton's closest Democratic rival inches up or ahead in the first two states that matter, Iowa and New Hampshire. The question is, how will voters here take to this more stepped-up war of words?

SCOTT SPRADLING, WMUR POLITICAL EDITOR: Negative attacks work everywhere you go, but here in New Hampshire it's not received as well as it might be in other states, where you really see the fisticuffs.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Suzanne, Senator Obama was asked today about Oprah Winfrey volunteering for his campaign. Now, while he has not confirmed to CNN that she will be out on the trail here in New Hampshire and in Iowa, he did say to the extent that she can highlight some of the key points of his campaign and reach a new audience, they welcome her support -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Dan, thank you so much. It certainly will mix things up.

So who is up and who is down? And who could be out in New Hampshire and Iowa? Well, for the freshest polls and the latest fights, the political ticker blog and more, check out CNNPolitics.com.

And now time for "The Cafferty File." Jack Cafferty joining me from New York.

Jack, nice to be with you.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Suzanne, good to see you.

"To Read or Not to Read" is the title of an alarming new report that shows Americans are reading a lot less and our reading proficiency is getting a lot worse. The National Endowment for the Arts based this research on about two dozen studies from various government and non-government agencies, and it shows the trend is especially strong among older teenagers and young adults. And if it's not reversed, it could have a considerable negative impact on the future of this country. Although reading scores are up among elementary school students, researchers say that once kids enter adolescence, they read less and, in effect, they're not as good at reading anymore. Consider this -- 38 percent of employers rate high school graduates as deficient in reading comprehension, while a full 72 percent rate them as deficient in writing.

Needless to say, good reading skills pay off in many ways. For example, higher earns, more job opportunities. Reading skills also correlate to things like increased voting, volunteerism and charity work. Skeptics of the study say it lacks specific information about online reading and doesn't account for the "different ways in which we read."

So the question is this: How troubling is a new report that says Americans are reading less?

E-mail us, caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Jack, thank you so much.

Do conservatives need to refocus on conservative ideals? Well, one of President Bush's former speechwriters will tell you what he thinks. Michael Gerson will be here.

Also, money can't buy everything. Despite spending huge amounts in Iowa, Republican Mitt Romney is facing a serious political threat from another presidential candidate with far less campaign cash. Romney will tell you how he feels about that right here.

And of course the winners are -- they're the politicians and officials who gave you lots of food for thought. Certainly no cranberry sauce needed, and their actions baked up Political Turkeys of the Year.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Well, as the Bush administration winds down, a debate is under way about whether Republicans have lost their way and need to refocus on conservatism's ideals, as well as goals. An important voice in that debate, of course, is Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for the president. He has just put out a book called "Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals and Why They Deserve to Fail if They Don't."

Michael, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL GERSON, FMR. BUSH SPEECHWRITER: Great to be here.

MALVEAUX: And congratulations on the book, of course.

GERSON: Well, thank you. Thank you.

MALVEAUX: You have been referred to as the president's wordsmith, his moral compass, even his conscience at times. And I read the book, and you say here Republicans need to shed their mean, anti-government image. That in some ways they've lost their way.

Who is to blame? Is it the president, the head of the party, Vice President Cheney?

GERSON: You know, I think there's a backlash against the leadership of Congress because of the failure in Congress, a backlash in many ways against the administration. But I argue in the book that it's possible to be an economic conservative and also believe that you can address poverty. That you can be a social conservative, which I am, and also believe we should be helping African children.

These are great moral causes that unite Americans, that appeal to their aspirations instead of just their interests. And I -- you know, I think these ideals are going to be important for the Republican Party as it moves forward.

MALVEAUX: Now, following politics, obviously you have seen then president lately vetoing a slew of bills, spending bills in particular. We saw one for children's health care.

Is he not pandering to those exact Republicans who you say have lost their way?

GERSON: Well, I've been in print critical of the decision on S- CHIP. I actually think it's a program that works. And a lot of Republican governors support it around the country.

There are great financial pressures here. I don't want to minimize the fact that government spending is a problem. But I believe that Republicans need to compete on education and health care and global warming and a lot of other issues, or they're going to really be left in the cold.

MALVEAUX: Well, do you think the president is sending the wrong message? Is he making a mistake when he vetoes these spending bills for health care for children?

GERSON: Well, I think he was right on immigration, I think he was right on prescription drugs. I think he's been right on a lot of issues. But I have been critical on this issue in particular.

Republicans need to offer some hope, particularly for lower-to- middle-income people in America that health insurance is available and accessible. And if they don't support this idea, they're going to have to come up with one of their own and they're going to have to talk about it effectively in public.

MALVEAUX: Have you talked to the president recently about this, your opinion on this? No?

GERSON: Not about this specific issue, no.

MALVEAUX: OK.

GERSON: So... MALVEAUX: Well, let's talk a little bit about politics -- obviously the race. In your book you say that, "If Republicans run in future elections with a simplistic anti-government message, ignoring the poor, the addicted, and children at risk, they will lose and they will deserve to lose."

The only person, the only candidate here who's talking about poverty as a central issue is a Democrat. That's John Edwards.

GERSON: Right. John Edwards...

MALVEAUX: So do the Republicans deserve to lose?

GERSON: Well, actually, I talked with Mike Huckabee the other week. He is a Republican that's talking about populist economic issues, about the need for, you know, income mobility in this country. He does talk about poverty in a certain way.

I like that about him. I like some of John McCain's themes as well. But John Edwards gets credit, I think, for raising this issue.

I disagree with a lot of his prescriptions, because I propose in my book specifically conservative ideas, conservative and free market ideas to help raise the poor and empower people. But I think he gets credit for raising it.

MALVEAUX: So based on your definition of heroic conservatism, who deserves to win?

GERSON: Well, right now I'm very impressed with Huckabee. I don't -- I don't endorse him, because I like McCain and I like some of the others as well, but at least he's addressing these issues, these economic populist issues about people that feel -- stagnant incomes, people in this country that don't feel like they're getting ahead.

Republicans, you know, can't just talk about budgets. They also have to talk about people. Eventually, you need that message.

I was involved in the last three presidential campaigns in one way or another. I know eventually you have to appeal broadly and you have to address these basic issues that people are talking about.

MALVEAUX: But how are the Republicans faring? Obviously with immigration they're losing Hispanics support against a comprehensive reform on immigration.

GERSON: I think that's a huge problem. A huge problem.

MALVEAUX: Hurricane Katrina, obviously there's been no follow-up when it comes to the anti-poverty movement that the president talked about shortly after Katrina.

GERSON: Yes. Well, I agree with you completely on immigration. This is a situation where particularly the Republican leadership of the Congress is actively alienating the fastest-growing group of voters in America. People with -- who are entrepreneurial and have conservative social values, often natural votes for Republicans. And they're being actively alienated by this party. It's one of the reasons I think they're on the wrong track.

And I talk in the book about Katrina, the disappointment. You know, with Democrats as well after Katrina.

We're mainly interested in blame instead of addressing these issues, and Republicans are mainly interested in budgets. I think we're going to have to rise above those kind of debates and address these fundamental problems, particularly of race and poverty in America.

MALVEAUX: Let's talk real quick about a book that will be coming out in April, a good friend of yours -- you were in the White House at the same time -- Scott McClellan. An excerpt that was released here saying about the Valerie Plame case and misinformation he had given to reporters at the podium. He said, "I had unknowingly passed along false information and five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so. Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president's chief of staff, and the president himself."

What do you make of what Scott is doing here?

GERSON: I read that, too. And right now, of course, the charges are pretty sketchy. The rest of the book isn't there, we don't know anything about what that means. And there's a lot of debate about that today.

MALVEAUX: Do you think he's trying to rewrite history or save his name or throw the president under the bus? What do you make of it?

GERSON: You know, I don't know. I guess I would need to know more. I mean, this is something I don't have any firsthand knowledge about, but it certainly does not fit my view of the president I know, Andy Card that I know, who's a man of great character. I was always tremendously impressed with Andy Card's, you know, transparency and honesty.

MALVEAUX: so this doesn't ring true to you?

GERSON: It does not ring true to what I have seen both with the president and the chief of staff at the time. So that's all I can say. But right now those charges are pretty sketchy. I mean, it's hard to make any judgment because there's no detail there.

MALVEAUX: OK. Michael Gerson, thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

GERSON: Good to be with you.

MALVEAUX: We appreciate it.

And one day before Thanksgiving, some children are giving thanks. Your heart will likely be warmed at what they're doing to help the families of troops serving at war.

And Barack Obama talks about drinking and experimenting with drugs while growing up. You'll hear what he says woke him up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, a shocking allegation about an award-winning photographer. The U.S. military says he got incredible pictures of terror attacks in Iraq because he is a terrorist. Wait until you see the evidence.

Also, President Bush's dilemma of where to draw the line and whether he can stop Pakistan's leader from trampling democracy instead of promoting it.

Plus, the most sacred symbol of Christianity may be made in sweat shops. We have explosive new allegations aimed at China.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Mitt Romney's strategy for Iowa and New Hampshire, spending big, finishing first, and rise in momentum, has been pretty solid, at least until this week's polls came out.

Our Dana Bash has been traveling with the Romney campaign in Iowa and joins us from New York.

Dana, how has this week's news changed the whole picture here, the strategy?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's interesting, Suzanne. Mitt Romney actually did get some good news this week in New Hampshire. Poll numbers show him with a comfortable lead there now, but in Iowa, Romney's lead has all but evaporated, posing a threat to his long-held strategy on how to win the GOP nomination.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice over): Day 42 and counting campaigning in Iowa.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's good to see you.

BASH: Mitt Romney has invested more in Iowa than any GOP presidential candidate. Fifteen TV ads, the first nearly a year ago.

ROMNEY: We're spending too much money, and that's got to stop.

BASH: Early endorsements were key.

CHUCK LAUDNER, IOWA STATE GOP CHAIR: I think everybody would agree that Mitt Romney has the best operation on the ground.

BASH: But the value of those big early investments is now in question. A new "Washington Post" poll shows Romney in a statistical dead heat in Iowa with rival Mike Huckabee.

(on camera): How worried are you about Governor Huckabee? He is right on your heels here.

ROMNEY: Well, I recognize you've got a lot of good people that are going to be in this race. It's going to be really tight.

BASH (voice over): The former Massachusetts governor now downplays his goal here, saying he just wants to place no less than third in Iowa's caucuses. But the reality is Romney's strategy to win the nomination depends on early victories, first in Iowa, then Michigan and New Hampshire.

Romney has made significant inroads with Christian conservatives, key to the Iowa vote. But Huckabee's climb is more evidence many are leery of Romney, worried his conversion to abortion opponent and emphasis on opposing same-sex marriage are more political calculations than personal convictions.

PASTOR DARRAN WHITING, HUCKABEE SUPPORTER: I just don't know that I can believe the change that he wants me to say that he's encountered. I'm not convinced that he is as conservative as I am.

BASH: Romney's response?

ROMNEY: I don't think there's a single elected official in the country that's been a more tireless advocate for protecting the traditional marriage and preventing the spread of gay marriage than I've been.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Though Romney now plays down expectations for an Iowa win, he does -- what he does and how he does there, Suzanne, is one of the defining questions of the GOP race now, whether he can get enough momentum to derail Rudy Giuliani, who is, of course, the front-runner nationally -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Dana, I understand, in your interview with Romney, you also got a chance to ask about this controversy, even what some people are calling a conspiracy, over some polling questions. Tell us what that is about.

BASH: Well, you know, Suzanne, push polls are essentially a political attack disguised as legitimate polling.

And, last week, GOP voters in New Hampshire and Iowa, they got calls casting aspersions on Mitt Romney, especially his Mormon faith. Well, some of Romney's rivals and what some of those in rival campaigns, they have privately suggested that his own supporters were actually behind it. Now, that was a Machiavellian move -- that -- This is what they suggest -- to elicit condemnation and discourage those kinds of tactics closer to Election Day.

Here's what's Romney's reaction was when I asked him about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: You have got to be kidding.

BASH: I mean, I -- have you...

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Are you confident?

ROMNEY: You think -- I mean, obviously, the -- the beneficiaries of push polls that attacks me is not me. Somebody else has obviously pushed that forward. I have no idea who it was, but I hope the attorney general of New Hampshire finds out who it is, and we can get that resolved.

I think it's the same kind of conspiracy theorists you're raising that say, oh, we brought down World Trade Center ourselves. It turns everything on its head.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, as you just heard, an incredulous Romney denies anyone associated with him has anything to do with what he calls a vicious attack on him and his faith -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK, Dana, thank you so much.

Well, you better not be tired of turkey yet. The biggest one of the year is waiting in the wings. Our Bill Schneider can't wait to reveal who it is.

And later: Barack Obama's controversial confession in front of high school students. Our "Strategy Session" looks as whether he should have said it at all.

Plus, 200 lashes for a rape victim. We will have the latest on the sentence that has put Saudi justice on trial.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: And there's a major development in the presidential race. All eyes have been watching New Hampshire for when it would hold its presidential primary. Well, now we are getting word that -- just when that will be. The first-in-the-nation primary will be January 8. That is five days after the first caucuses in Iowa.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner made that announcement just a short while ago.

We bring in our own Bill Schneider to tell us.

What do you make of it, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's the last date New Hampshire could have picked, because their state law says they have to be at least a week before any similar event.

And January 15 is when Michigan has scheduled its primary, which the Republicans are competing in. So, they couldn't have picked any date later than January the 8th to hold their primary. But it's only five days after Iowa. What that means, substantively, is that Iowa becomes even more important, because there's very little time between the Iowa caucuses now and the New Hampshire primary, just five days for the whole New Hampshire campaign.

MALVEAUX: Sure.

And, of course, on another note, they gobbled up lots of news media coverage and served tasty tidbits that kept hungry viewers satisfied. And, right now, some people are still picking through, well, the leftovers of what they did.

And, of course, Bill, you have got more to explain on -- on this story, this Thanksgiving twist.

SCHNEIDER: That's right.

What we have got is turkeys, of course. They're foolish creatures, overstuffed, noisy, and self-important. In fact, they're a lot like politicians.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): How do you become one of our "Political Turkeys of the Year"? By doing something foolish, like, say, turkey number five, John Edwards, who spent $400 on a haircut.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can come from nothing to spending $400 on a haircut.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

EDWARDS: There are great opportunities.

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS: So embarrassing, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHNEIDER: Yes, it was.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have had a Congress that spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop.

SCHNEIDER: And how about turkey number four, that fake FEMA news conference during the California wildfires?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, I will be glad to take some of your questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far. Thank you.

SCHNEIDER: Thanks for asking? Not necessary. The questioner was a FEMA employee.

Turkey number three, the attorney general suffers an amazing memory lapse when asked about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I don't recall having specific questions.

I don't recall such a conversation.

Senator, I don't recall that -- that occurring, again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: Exasperated Republicans finally gave up on him.

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: And I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.

SCHNEIDER: Done.

Turkey number two, Larry Craig pleads guilty, pays a fine, and agrees to step down if the court denies his appeal.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), IDAHO: Therefore, it is with sadness and deep regret that I announce that it is my intent to resign from the Senate, effective September 30.

SCHNEIDER: Not done, even though the court denied his appeal.

Turkey number one, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer promotes a plan to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens.

GOV. ELIOT SPITZER (D), NEW YORK: Over the last two months, I have been advancing a proposal that I believe would improve the safety and security of the people of my state.

SCHNEIDER: The plan meets with overwhelming public opposition, enough to trip up a presidential contender.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.

SCHNEIDER: Governor Spitzer's response? Oh, never mind.

SPITZER: I have concluded that New York State cannot successfully address this problem on its own. I'm announcing today that I am withdrawing my proposal.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And now it's time to answer my annual Thanksgiving question.

What three national disasters would occur if you dropped your Thanksgiving platter? The answer? The downfall of turkey, the breakup of china, and the overthrow of grease. So, be careful out there -- Suzanne.

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: OK. Bill, thanks.

No shortage of turkeys, as well as you're getting into the holiday season. Thanks again, Bill.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

MALVEAUX: In the "Strategy Session": Barack Obama's candid talk about drug use.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There were times where I, you know, got into drinking, experimented with drugs. You know, there was a whole stretch of time where I didn't really apply myself a lot.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Will his past drug indiscretions help or hurt him in the Democratic primary?

And a third poll shows Mike Huckabee on the move in Iowa. Could he actually win the caucuses? Donna Brazile and J.C. Watts are standing by here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Well, it's a tighter race than expected in Iowa, and some surprising talk about drugs from Barack Obama.

With me for today's "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist and CNN political analyst Donna Brazile and former Republican Congressman and CNN political analyst J.C. Watts.

Thanks for joining us, of course, in THE SITUATION ROOM. I want to start off with a poll here -- this is an ABC News/"Washington Post" poll -- to give you a sense of what's happening in Iowa among the Republicans.

Here's what we're looking at, the numbers, Mitt Romney, 28 percent, Mike Huckabee at 24 percent, Fred Thompson 15 percent, Rudy Giuliani 13, and then the list goes down here.

Mitt Romney, I mean, he spent a ton of money and a ton of time here. What is going on? How -- if you were Mitt Romney, what would you be thinking at this point?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I would be thinking that I'm in trouble in Iowa, because I -- when we went to the straw poll probably two-and-a-half, three months ago, he had spent well over $2 million. Mike Huckabee spent about $150,000, and he came in second.

And I think that was the first sign that Mike Huckabee had a chance to get some traction in Iowa. And I think he's talking to the evangelical conservatives. He's picking up some steam. He's getting some traction, because the evangelical community, if they don't trust you on the social issues, they're going to ignore you on the economic issues.

And that's where he's getting his traction. And, of course, he's within the margin of error in Iowa, because he's speaking to that constituency.

MALVEAUX: So, if he doesn't get Iowa, doesn't he lose the -- the strategy that's kind of front-loading the states from the very beginning? Does it all fall apart?

WATTS: Well, that was his strategy.

And I think, coming out of Iowa, you see John McCain gaining some ground in New Hampshire. John said, I'm going to win. I -- I mean, he said, I'm going to win New Hampshire.

So, he feels pretty good about his chances there. I would be pretty nervous if I was -- if I was Mitt Romney.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: If I was Mitt Romney, I wouldn't be too concerned with this poll, for two reasons.

One, on all the top issues, the deficit, the economy, immigration, Mitt Romney is still leading. Secondly, Mitt Romney has an organization in the state. And everyone knows that the caucus- goers, if you can grab them and bring them out, they will stand up for you that night.

So, I -- if it was Mitt Romney, I would enjoy my Thanksgiving, get back on the ground and try to shore up some of my support.

(CROSSTALK) MALVEAUX: But, Donna, is there any -- is there any risk here, though, the same thing could happen that happened to Howard Dean? I mean, he had an insurmountable lead leading up to Iowa. It all fell apart. Is that possible that that could -- could be the case for Romney as well?

BRAZILE: If I was advising the Romney campaign, I would go back to all my ones, the people who say they're definitely going to attend the caucus, and say, you know, how was your Thanksgiving? I know Christmas is coming around the corner. Will you still go to the caucus and support me?

I would also focus on my twos, the people that are leaning toward supporting my candidacy, and shore them up as well. Look, I still believe that Mitt Romney has the organization, the resources to win the Iowa caucuses.

WATTS: Well, then and I will say this. I do think he has to be concerned in Iowa, because when -- when Mike Huckabee got 18 percent of the vote and spent $150,000 at the caucus -- at the straw poll, he has gained ever since.

Mitt Romney has kind of stood still. Considering all the resources he's put into it, I'm wondering now, are those -- are those supporters still there the way they were three months ago?

BRAZILE: He had a 16-point surge, but it didn't come from Mitt Romney. It came from other candidates. It also came from the undecided column.

So, this is -- this may be a temporary beep in the polls, as voters decide during the holidays if they still want to shop around.

MALVEAUX: Let's take a look at what is happening with the Democrats.

Yesterday, a rather surprising speech, but we had heard it before, from Barack Obama, that he had used drugs in the past.

But I want to take a listen to what he said at a high school in New Hampshire.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: There were times where I, you know, got into drinking, experimented with drugs. You know, there was a whole stretch of time where I didn't really apply myself a lot.

And it wasn't until I got out of college -- or got out of high school and went to college that I started realizing, man, I have wasted a lot of time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: So, Donna, does this help or hurt him? We have had heard in the past Clinton "I didn't inhale" kind of answers here. Does this work for him?

BRAZILE: I think it's -- I think he's being transparent. I think he's being honest. He's putting it out there. He's talking to young people about the dangers of drugs. He did it in the right way. I congratulate him for putting it on the table and getting it behind him.

WATTS: Well, I -- God bless him for being transparent.

Suzanne, I think it's very difficult for somebody in politics to take a snapshot of a person's life 25, 30 years ago, and say, when they run for president and run for city council, try to project that that's who they are.

I think -- he talked about it in his book. This is not the first time he's talked about it.

MALVEAUX: But, J.C., I mean, Romney -- Romney says -- Romney says, this is a bad idea.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: Listen, he says, it's just not a good idea for people running for president of the United States, potentially could be a role model for kids, to talk about their personal failings, that it really opens the doorway to other kids' thinking here. He says it's irresponsible.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: But you know what? Mitt Romney has no color on his campaign. He has no person -- he has nobody on his campaign that looks like me, so I could say, are you going to be a role model to black kids? Wouldn't you want to be their president as well?

I mean, I could have some problems with that.

So, again, it's easy to take a snapshot of a person's life and try to project that that is who they are. But I guarantee you, all 15, 16 candidates running for president, on the Republican and the Democrat side, they're going to have something there in their past that they wouldn't want anybody to know. So...

MALVEAUX: So, J.C., do you...

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: Him or her without sin cast the first stone.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: Do you have a problem with Romney's campaign, that he doesn't have people, black people on his campaign?

WATTS: Well, I think all campaigns should. I think you're running for president of the United States to be the president for red, yellow, brown, black, and white.

And I have talked to some of his people -- some of his people about that. You know, African-Americans will have problems with that, when they don't see people that look like them in your inner circle making decisions.

And I think that probably had some bearing on the fact that didn't show up at Morgan State, didn't show up at the Urban League. Somebody that looks like me would have said, hey, look, Governor, you probably need to at least call Marc Morial and talk to him about this.

MALVEAUX: Is there any Republican candidate now who you feel reflects -- has an accurate reflection of the population, that has enough black representation?

WATTS: I think Mike Huckabee -- I think Mike Huckabee gets it. I think John McCain gets it. You know, those two, I know. I have worked with John McCain. So, this is not an endorsement, but those two, I know. I think they get it.

MALVEAUX: And, Donna, last question to you here.

Obviously, in the Iowa poll, it shows that more people are actually concerned with new ideas and new directions, 55 percent, as opposed to this idea of -- this analogy -- this idea of experience here, some 49 percent.

Is that a problem for Senator Clinton?

BRAZILE: No, I don't think so.

Look, she leads on both counts in many polls. And this poll here may reflect some of the growing anxiety about her vulnerabilities. But she will bring about change. She's a woman. She will bring strength and experience to -- to -- to the ticket. I don't think that voters are -- are yet ready to say strength vs. experience or freshness vs. change. Hillary provides both, but so do Obama and many of the other candidates.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: OK.

I'm going to have...

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: ... talking about experience, if that's her -- if that is the reason that you should vote for a president, in the general, she has problems with that. John McCain has much more experience. Mitt Romney has just as much experience.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: ... just don't have color.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: ... just don't have color.

MALVEAUX: OK.

WATTS: I wonder if she will use that in a general election, this experience issue.

MALVEAUX: We are going to have to wrap it up there.

BRAZILE: Happy Thanksgiving.

MALVEAUX: Happy Thanksgiving to both of you.

WATTS: Thank you. You, too.

When it comes to politicians, a new poll suggests which ones Americans would most like to invite to Thanksgiving dinner. Well, see if their choices agree with yours.

And some children are going the extra mile to support U.S. troops in Iraq. See how they will be helping military families back home.

And lights, camera, prayer. We will look at a strategy to change Hollywood.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Barack Obama makes a political debut in South Carolina. He's airing his first campaign commercial in that state. And it's called "Hope and Change." In it, Obama promotes his experience as a community organizer and civil rights attorney.

And which presidential candidate would you most like to have at Thanksgiving dinner? A new poll shows some of your choices. Hillary Clinton tops the list, 27 percent of those surveyed choosing her. Twenty-four percent choose Barack Obama. After that, Rudy Giuliani comes in third with 22 percent. Seventeen percent picked John McCain. Fourteen percent chose Fred Thompson. And 13 percent of those surveyed said they would want to join John Edwards over for Thanksgiving dinner.

And, remember, for the latest political news any time, check out the Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

And, of course, politicians always talk about supporting U.S. troops, but, sometimes, it takes ordinary people to show everyone how it's done.

CNN's Ed Henry found some young people who are doing a lot more than just talking the talk.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KELSI OKUN, CO-FOUNDER, THANKSUSA.ORG: We started the actual treasure hunt at this table.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Three years ago, sisters Rachel and Kelsi Okun sat down here to map out how to give thanks, not just to U.S. troops, but their relatives who sacrifice so much.

RACHEL OKUN, CO-FOUNDER, THANKSUSA.ORG: You know, we're trying to do what we can as, you know, a little family to help those families out there, let them know that we're thinking of them, we're really thankful for all that they do.

HENRY: Especially kids struggling to pay for school supplies or college tuition with a parent deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

K. OKUN: They give us the right to be who we can be, and we want to give it back to them.

HENRY: The girls love treasure hunts, so they created one online to help raise money for their new charity, Thanks USA, that got a lift from President Bush.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Child who started treasure hunts to raise money to help kids go to school. It's a remarkable country.

HENRY: Thanks to their dad, Bob Okun, a Republican lobbyist for NBC Universal.

K. OKUN: My dad has some good connections. So, he helped us. He was, like, one of our helpers, like, biggest helpers.

HENRY: They have given out more than 1,000 scholarships worth at least $1,000 apiece to people like Eleanor Cassilly, a freshman at Catholic University, who found it difficult to pick a college while her father was away in Iraq.

ELEANOR CASSILLY, CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY FRESHMAN: I had to do my college applications and my whole search with just my mom.

HENRY: Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says nonprofits are essentially to helping military families, when the federal budget is so tight.

MARGARET SPELLINGS, U.S. SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: It just shows that -- what one person can do, or, in this case, two people can do, I guess.

(LAUGHTER)

HENRY: The girls swear they don't have designs on public office. But, with the gusto they have for the latest online treasure hunt debuting on Thanksgiving Day...

K. OKUN: Www.thanksusa.org.

HENRY: ... a career in sales just may be in the cards. ED henry, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: And Jack is in New York with "The Cafferty File."

Jack, what are you working on?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is, how troubling is an NEA report that says Americans are reading less?

Steven in Valley Stream, New York, writes: "As a professor of literacy, I'm very concerned about the reading report, especially because the future teachers of America, who are supposed to be role models for literacy, don't read and don't seem to get the importance of reading for pleasure. The latest NEA report on the decline of reading is one more red flag about our educational system in the United States."

K.C. in Washington writes: "I think this is very troubling. I would almost die if I couldn't curl up with a nice thick novel. But, then again, I don't know very many teens or young adults who read for fun, like I do. To them, it's just a chore. Why read when you can talk on the phone, play video games, or hang out with friends? Something needs to be done, and soon. You learn when you read, not when you discuss what outfit to wear to the mall."

Paul in Tennessee writes: "Americans, especially young Americans, are creating a new written language designed for text messages and e- mails. They're also reading much more online, vs. traditional newspapers and books."

Dave in Louisiana writes: "As a high school teacher, I can tell you I'm not surprised by the results of the study you mentioned. For years, math and science have taken center stage as part of our nation's administrative educational policies. It's hard enough as a teacher to get kids to read when fighting this instant society that they are exposed to. Fast food, video games and the Internet have all contributed to the negative attitude that our youth have about sitting down and reading a book simply for pleasure."

And Greg in Pennsylvania says: "Not as troubling as knowing that fewer Americans are able to read. I prefer getting my news from CNN, as opposed to the newspaper, as do many truly intelligent people. Those who are functionally illiterate watch FOX" -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Jack, thank you so much.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: the cost of holiday travel soaring for millions of Americans, as the price of crude oil and gasoline inch toward record territory. Find out if there is any relief in sight.

Also, top White House officials, including President Bush himself, linked to the spread of false information to the public -- details of stunning allegations by his former press secretary.

And China, a late entrant into the space race, now making up for lost time. Will the next man on the moon be from the People's Republic?

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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