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"Historic Opportunity" for Peace in the Middle East; Giuliani's Risky Strategy; Beating Back the Oprah Threat

Aired November 27, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, hopes of ending years of conflict, with President Bush in the middle. Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreeing to work toward a peace treaty before the end of next year. What's different about these assurances?
Florida beams down rays of light for Rudy Giuliani. Could he win there but lose in the other early contests and still win the Republican presidential nomination?

And Hillary Clinton's campaign workers could be saying who needs Oprah? They are sending out their big gun, Bill Clinton, to beat back any political threat posed by an Oprah/Obama alliance.

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

We are witnessing history in the making. After years of bloodshed, suffering and conflict, Israeli and Palestinian leaders again are agreeing to try to give peace a chance. With President Bush right in the middle of things, what is being called an historic opportunity is under way. Israel's prime minister and the Palestinian President trying to grasp on to what could -- repeat, could -- be a pivotal moment to work toward a comprehensive peace agreement.

Today's agreement does not directly tackle all those tough core issues, as they are called, but the leaders do agree to confront them head-on in their negotiations.

Our White House correspondent Ed Henry is joining us from the scene of this Middle East summit in Annapolis, Maryland, at the U.S. Naval Academy. There is a timeline that's been underscored.

Give us the latest, Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. This is an achievement for the President. Very few expected any sort of agreement. There is a deadline of the end of next year, and it really was visions of 1993, Bill Clinton's famous handshake. But you will remember he left office empty-handed, and Mr. Bush has to do a lot of work to make sure he doesn't face the same fate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice over): A coup for President Bush, brokering this historic handshake, a join understanding between Israeli and Palestinian leaders vowing to reach a Mideast peace accord by the end of Mr. Bush's time in office. GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We agreed to engage in vigorous ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.

HENRY: The first serious stab at Mideast peace in seven years. And yet, this is really just an agreement to agree. Not peace itself.

AARON DAVID MILLER, FMR. U.S. MIDDLE EAST NEGOTIATOR: The real question is, will this process have legs? Three months from now will, in fact, we be looking at a situation which has been transformed?

HENRY: The parties acknowledge they did not address any of the divisive issues that have killed so many deals before.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY PRESIDENT (voice over): With great hope, but it is accompanied with great worry that this new opportunity might be lost.

HENRY: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared any final agreement should make east Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state. A possible deal-breaker for Israel. While Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert wants his nation recognized as a Jewish state, a potential stumbling block for the Palestinians.

EHUD OLMERT, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): The time has come to end the boycott, the alienation, and the obliviousness towards the state of Israel.

HENRY: And protests all the way from the West Bank to outside the gates of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis show it will be difficult for both sides to make tough compromises. But the talks could gain strength from over 40 nations being at the table. Especially Saudi Arabia and Syria. And the parties now have an American President pledging full engagement, though even Mr. Bush offered a dose of reality.

BUSH: ... do everything in our power to support the request for peace, but we cannot achieve it for them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Now the tough work begins at the White House. On Wednesday, Mr. Bush holding separate meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Then a late add to the schedule. We're now told there will be a trilateral meeting. All three men sitting down at the White House tomorrow.

Then Mr. Abbas, Mr. Olmert are going to have intense biweekly meetings from here on out to try to get this done -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry standing by over in Annapolis.

Ed, thanks very much.

We're going to have a lot more on this story coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM. Middle East issues looming large for the next occupant of the White House. But to get there, the candidates will likely need the state of Florida.

Right now we are unveiling some fresh CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll numbers on the Republican race in Florida. It shows Florida shining for Rudy Giuliani, at least right now. He comes out on top among likely primary voters, holding steady his lead in some of the recent other polls.

And Giuliani has a sizable lead over the closest competitors. Florida could be a make-or-break state for Giuliani.

Let's turn to our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's down in Florida in St. Petersburg.

You have been looking at Giuliani's Florida strategy. And it is critical for the former New York City mayor.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. It's a strategy that Giuliani himself jokes that gives his own aides ulcers because it is so risky, but the reality is that for Giuliani the Sunshine State is a must win.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice over): The Villages, Florida's largest retirement community where golf carts dominate the streets and many transplants from New York have an affinity for a certain mayor.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The best choice right now to me and a lot of people here will be Giuliani. He's strong. I think he can help us.

BASH: Giuliani is trailing in other early primaries states but dominating here, where Republicans appear more tolerant of his stance on social issues like abortion rights. In a new CNN/Opinion Research poll, only 19 percent of Florida Republicans say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe that Florida is going to determine the Republican nominee for President.

BASH: Giuliani long ago singled out Florida as his firewall. He trails in the first key nominating contests -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and is banking on a big win here on January 29th to reset the race and propel him into a crowded Super Tuesday and includes mega-states from New York to California.

Giuliani's Florida chairman concedes it's risky.

BILL MCCOLLUM, GIULIANI FLORIDA PARTY CHAIRMAN: If he doesn't win in Florida, the prospects for his being the nominee for the Republican Party are much less.

BASH: All the more dicey because in the new poll, only three in 10 say they definitely made up their minds, and early wins usually ignite momentum.

PROF. DARRYL PAULSON, UNIV. OF SOUTH FLORIDA: Over the last 20, 25 years, Florida has sort of reaffirmed the pattern of Iowa and New Hampshire. In that respect, it could be a problem for Giuliani.

BASH: Giuliani thinks this time is different. Florida's vote is earlier and his pitch is crime-fighting 9/11 mayor (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was there day and night. He was always there and got everything going.

BASH: Especially with those former New Yorkers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vote for Rudy. Don't forget.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And another reason that Giuliani thinks he can do well here is perceived electability. In fact, our new poll shows six in 10 Florida Republicans think he is the best shot at winning the White House next November. But if Democrats, Wolf, pick Hillary Clinton as their nominee, that might not be the case because our new poll also shows that Florida voters by a margin of nine points pick Hillary over Rudy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana in St. Petersburg for us.

Thank you.

Florida is even more important in this election because it's moved up its primary. But Florida, along with four other states have done -- who have done the same, those states are being punished. The Republican Party has stripped them of half of their delegates to next summer's summer national convention. But because Florida is so large, it's losing more delegates than the others, 57 of its 114 in total.

To win the Republican nomination, a candidate will need a majority of the total delegates over at the convention. We are watching all of this closely.

Meanwhile, Florida, as you know, is the scene of an upcoming showdown between the Republican presidential candidates, our CNN/YouTube presidential debate. That's tomorrow evening from St. Petersburg in Florida.

If you would like to see questions sent in for the debate, you can check out our CNNPolitics.com on the Web site. You can also get the latest from the campaign trail, the political ticker, and a lot more. The CNN/YouTube Republican debate, tomorrow night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He is in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: So be there or be square. Right?

BLITZER: It is a big debate.

CAFFERTY: The depth of the partisanship that grips Washington, D.C., it's paralyzed this country. Nothing of value to the middle class taxpayer ever gets done anymore. And it seems that it's worse these days than just about any time I can remember.

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson though has an idea. Richardson says that as President, he would bring the country together by appointing a cabinet of Democrats, Republicans and Independents. He says it's a way to ease the partisan bickering.

There is a limit, though. He joked that he wouldn't appoint too many Republicans.

The New Mexico governor also said that his cabinet would include people with direct knowledge of their department. For example, a teacher would be the secretary of Education. A farmer would be the secretary of Agriculture. And a veteran would head up the Veterans Affairs Department.

What a concept. No cronies, no hacks, no morons.

Richardson also vowed to be a grassroots President, saying that he would hold unfettered public forums where people could ask him any question they wanted, unlike the scripted meetings held by other politicians.

So here's our question this hour. How far would a bipartisan cabinet go toward easing some of the gridlock in Washington, D.C.?

E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

If they can't address the partisanship it's not going to matter who is in the White House or in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. The gridlock will just go on and on and on.

BLITZER: A fair point, Jack. Thank you. Thanks very much.

Bill Clinton versus Oprah Winfrey -- who has the most star power to rev up crowds and help their picks for the presidency? We are seeing the start of a new battle for attention on the campaign trail.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson says all but one of the Democratic presidential candidates are ignoring issues important to African- Americans. Even the only black candidate in the race. So who does the Reverend Jackson think is paying attention to African-Americans?

And he's equally comfortable in the political and church pulpits. That would be Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. He's out with a new ad about faith and the White House.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: While Israeli and Palestinian leaders are side by side in Annapolis right now, will some of the core issues like Jerusalem divide them down the road and sour a potential Bush administration triumph?

Joining us now to talk about this, the former congressman, former senator, former defense secretary, William Cohen. He is in the international business consulting world. He's head of The Cohen Group here in Washington.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming in.

WILLIAM COHEN, FMR. DEFENSE SECRETARY: A pleasure to be with you.

BLITZER: The fact when you look at that picture of the three of them, relatively weak with their own constituencies, is that good or bad for this peace process? The conventional wisdom it's bad because they don't have the clout to make those kinds of tough decisions.

COHEN: Well, what is the option under these circumstances? I was just at a conference in which the former chief of staff of Prime Minister Blair was asked a question, how did they throughout all of the years of the violence in northern Ireland, maintain the effort to promote peace? He said making a peace is like riding a bicycle. If you stop pedaling you will fall over.

We have stopped pedaling until recently. We are now pedaling. And I think that is a major dynamic under way that we ought to look forward to with some optimism.

BLITZER: Because the process, in and of itself -- until 2000, they were pedaling, it didn't work out at the end of the Clinton administration, when the president, Bill Clinton, tried to do it. But for the past seven years they really haven't been pedaling. Is that what you're saying?

COHEN: They have not been pedaling, the bike has fallen over. We've left it to the parties to try to reach an agreement. We realize that can't happen.

President Bush, to his credit, is saying I want to get involved in major way. I'm going to bring the parties together. I'm serious about trying to involve the United States in a way to help keep pushing the pedals.

BLITZER: Does President Bush have the clout, given the fact this is going to be an election year, and some are going to suggest he's already a lame duck, does he have the clout with the Israelis and Palestinians if necessary to twist their arms a little bit and make those -- and help make those kinds of tough decisions on sensitive issues like borders or settlements or Jerusalem?

COHEN: It remains to be seen, but what was important about this conference, you had more than 40 countries involved, key players -- Saudi Arabia, Syria, Palestine, the Palestinians, who are looking for a Palestinian state, Israel and the United States. Those are the key players, along with Egypt.

To the extent that all of these countries are now involved in pushing forward, hoping they can resolve these tough issues, then it becomes at least a greater possibility. Still remote in one sense, but this is something that we should be hopeful about.

BLITZER: I know you are hoping for a deal, but what do you think? Because you have studied this issue closely. When you were the secretary of defense, you worked the issue closely.

What do you think? By the end of next year, will there be an Israeli/Palestinian settlement?

COHEN: I think it's only in the realm of possibility, not probability. But that's something that ought to still continue to lift our sights up and say, if it's possible, let's see if we can make it happen, make it inevitable if we possibly can.

BLITZER: Let's hope they work out a deal. It's about time. Sixty years, a long time for that conflict to go on.

Thanks very much, Mr. Secretary, for coming in.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In presidential politics, who is afraid of Oprah Winfrey? That's what some in the Hillary Clinton campaign may be asking now that we've learned that Oprah will be campaigning for Barack Obama.

The Clinton campaign sending out its top gun. That would be Bill Clinton. He's brandishing his star power in Iowa today, saying this about his wife -- listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Here's why I think that she is the person to bring the right kind of change we need. First of all, what kind of change do we need? We need to get America back to the future. We need to get America back in the solutions business, in the innovation business. We need to get America back to working together on things that matter.

You want to end the partisanship in Washington? Give people something big to do together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley is following all of these events. She's out in Iowa right now.

How much time do they plan on spending, first of all, the major candidates in Iowa, leading up to the January 3rd caucus? CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I can tell you with the Clintons that they are now putting together his schedule and it is looking like, according to those inside the campaign, that for most of the days between now and the January 3rd caucuses, one Clinton or the other will be here in Iowa. That tells you a little something about the stakes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And so the roots that they have in Iowa, that's something I know you have been looking at, because this is a state that clearly is quite important right now.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. And the fact of the matter is this the strongest roots that the Clinton have here in Iowa is the fact that Bill Clinton was president. Remember, he didn't contest in Iowa because Senator Tom Harkin was running for president at the time. They have much better political roots in New Hampshire than they do here. And that's probably reflected in the polls, because as you know, this is pretty much a three-way tie at this point between Clinton, Obama and Edwards.

So they are working the political roots, and as I say, Bill Clinton, as president, really has the best connection with Iowa voters at this point. He can turn out a crowd, I will tell you that.

BLITZER: Especially those Iowa Democrats who are critical to her campaign.

All right, Candy. Thanks very much.

We are going to be looking at what could be a long-awaited turning point for the Middle East. We'll talk about it with presidential hopeful, Democratic senator Chris Dodd, the chances that this Annapolis conference will actually succeed where others have clearly faltered.

And he calls himself the White House race's "authentic conservative." We are going to tell you how the former preacher, the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, is turning the spotlight on his religious faith.

All that and a lot more coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, the battered housing market taking another hit. Home prices slumping from coast to coast.

And we're going to tell you which major U.S. cities are seeing the biggest drop and what it means for you. That's coming up.

Also, did what's called roid rage fuel the deadly Blackwater shootings in Baghdad? There are stunning new allegations regarding steroid abuse by Blackwater contractors.

We'll update you on that.

And it's been months since adventurer Steve Fossett was last seen alive. We'll tell you why his family now wants him declared legally dead.

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

A growing number of voters flocking to Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee right now. The former Arkansas governor and preacher is putting his faith front and center in a new ad airing in Iowa, where he's seeing surging support from evangelicals and a lot of others.

Let's go to CNN's chief national correspondent, John King. He is watching all of this unfold.

He is not your typical presidential candidate, I think, John. Maybe you disagree.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he is atypical, to say the least, Wolf. You know, you have one Republican candidate who jokes sometimes about his work in Hollywood, another who talks about his days as mayor. Others are governors. Others, their record in the Senate. But only one of the Republican candidates talks openly, frequently, and comfortably about his relationship with God.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice over): The Cathedral of the Pines is a rural New Hampshire jewel. This biblical phrase etched in stone more than familiar to the preacher-turned-politician from Arkansas.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I put my head on the pillow and I just want to make sure that, you know, that the father above is pleased. So, in essence, I can say I have got one client I have to please.

KING: Mike Huckabee is the surprise of the Republican race.

HUCKABEE: I'm here today to talk about Jesus and not to talk about me.

KING: And a real-time lesson in the often blurry line between God and politics.

HUCKABEE: If you have been a pastor, as I have, and then you run for office, there are some people that are incredibly uncomfortable with all of that.

KING: Huckabee is anything but uncomfortable about faith-based politics.

HUCKABEE: And faith does not just influence me. It really defines me.

KING: Before he was a politician he was a small town southern Baptist pastor. Not since religious broadcast or Pat Robertson sought the Republican nomination 20 years ago has someone so openly defined by faith shared the national political stage.

(on camera): Did you feel a calling to run, or is that an exaggeration when people say things like that?

HUCKABEE: You know, I'm not going to go around saying God wants me to be president, because the last time I checked God had not registered to vote in any of the primary states. Now, if he shows up to vote, I'm going to certainly solicit his support.

KING (voice over): His strength in Iowa comes from evangelicals who see him as authentic, as one of their own.

STEVE SCHEFFLER, IOWA CHRISTIAN ALLIANCE: Iowa has a large percentage of the constituency that comes from a conservative pro- family, pro-life perspective.

KING: The biggest short-term questions involve fund-raising and organization. In the long term, if there is a long term, the focus on faith that works on Iowa and South Carolina could be more controversial.

JOHN GREEN, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF AKRON: There is a large minority of Americans, perhaps 25 percent, perhaps a third of the electorate, depending exactly how you ask the questions, that would have some real doubts about having someone with a religious background, a clergy person, in high public office.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: So, perhaps a tougher for Huckabee to sell his past as a preacher to voters, Wolf, in a general election setting. But I'll tell you what. That's a question and a sales pitch Mike Huckabee would just love to get the chance to make -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And he is doing remarkably well in Iowa right now.

John, thank you very much for that.

Let's get to another man of the cloth involved in politics. That would be the Reverend Jesse Jackson. He's now saying that the Democratic presidential candidates are giving one key constituency what he's calling the cold shoulder.

Mary Snow is watching this in New York.

He's criticizing the Democrats, with one exception. Mary, tell us what's going on.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

The Reverend Jackson has praise for John Edwards, although he says he does not plan on voting for him.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SNOW (voice-over): The Reverend Jesse Jackson has a message to Democratic presidential candidates: You are ignoring African-American voters.

But he gives credit to John Edwards for focusing on poverty and launching his campaign in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. Jackson's column in "The Chicago Sun-Times" today is the second time this month Jackson has singled out Edwards, but Jackson is openly supporting Barack Obama.

(on camera): Are you thinking about changing your support?

REVEREND JESSE JACKSON, FOUNDER, RAINBOW/PUSH COALITION: No, I'm not. Nor am I thinking about campaigning for anyone. I'm really thinking about putting the focus on urban policy. I'm thinking about black America in a state of emergency.

SNOW: The Obama campaign says it has put an emphasis on urban policy in combating poverty, saying -- quote -- "We encourage Reverend Jackson to closely examine the senator's platform and take another look."

The Obama campaign calls Jackson's voice an important one, saying it is glad he too is keeping poverty and urban policy in the forefront. Jackson says there needs to be more of a focus on the subprime mortgage crisis that is hitting minorities hard. He says too much focus has been placed on Iraq.

But one Democratic strategist says, Iraq is also a crucial issue for African-American voters.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: African-Americans, more than any other group, want the war in Iraq to be over. So, there are a basket of issues that concern African-Americans, and they don't just include poverty and issues of criminal justice and discrimination.

SNOW: In South Carolina today, about 60 African-American ministers endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton. And recent national polls show she's been leading among black voters, with Senator Obama in second, followed by John Edwards. Edwards was asked about that today in New York.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think people in New York and across America and in the African-American community just need to hear my message. I mean, it is -- Jesse Jackson wrote about this in the last 24 hours -- it is the cause of my life to end poverty in this country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, Wolf, we also contacted the Clinton campaign for reaction. A spokesman says, Senator Clinton respects the Reverend Jackson, also calling him an important voice. The campaign points out, Senator Clinton has laid out what it calls a significant urban agenda -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary, thanks very much. We will talk a little bit more about this in our "Strategy Session" as well.

Mary Snow and John King, as all of our viewers know, they are both part of the Emmy Award-winning best political team on television.

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

President Bush says he worries about the consequences if the Middle East peace conference fails. But he says it is worth it to try. I will ask Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd what he thinks the chances for success really are and what it could mean for the White House race.

Plus, Barack Obama slams Hillary Clinton's Washington experience. He says the country needs an outsider right now. We will talk about that and more in our "Strategy Session."

And is Senator Ted Kennedy ready to tell all? He has inked a deal to write a book about his life. Just how many millions will he be getting for putting pen to paper?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Bush calls the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis a launching pad for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

It could mark a turning point. We all hope for a long-sought peace agreement.

Joining us now to talk about this summit, the prospects for a two-state solution and more, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Chris Dodd. He's been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for only 26 years.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

Is President Bush doing the right thing by convening these Israelis and Palestinians and so many others in trying to jump-start this peace process?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, look, we all hope it works. Let me begin there, Wolf, with you.

But, obviously, this is about seven or eight years too late, in many ways here. This should have happened a long, long time ago. The fact that the -- this administration basically almost eliminated the office here that was involved directly in trying to have a continuing effort here to bring about the two-state solution has been a terrible disappointment to many people, not only in this country, but throughout the Middle East.

The opinion of the United States in that part of the world today is the lowest it has been maybe ever. And, so, this is going to be very difficult. I don't think expectations ought to run too high.

BLITZER: But is it -- is it -- is it better late than never?

DODD: Well, certainly, it is better late than never.

But I think the idea that you are going to have this wrap up at the end of '08, as this administration leaves town, where were they the last six or seven years to be working on this? And, clearly, there is a correlation here between our ability to influence these events, our continuing military participation in Iraq.

So, these are all very complicated questions. We hope it works. Well, obviously, all of us hope it does.

BLITZER: Is there a downside, Senator?

DODD: Well, there could be.

I think you go through this and -- and raise expectations here, unrealistically. Had their -- this administration begun earlier to go through this process -- to have everything sort of culminate around the election of next year here is going to make it very difficult.

Now, again, let me emphasize, Wolf, I want to see this work. I hope it does. But, being realistic, this administration should have started this a long, long time ago.

BLITZER: The Palestinians, the Israelis are there. The Europeans are there, the U.N., obviously. The Syrians are there. The -- there's -- there's no doubt that the Saudis are there, some key players. But missing from this conference are two other key players, Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the Iranians, which, arguably, have a lot more influence in that part of the world than some of the players who are there right now.

Is it a mistake those two elements, Hamas and the Iranians, were not invited?

DODD: No, not necessarily.

Again, Hamas, I don't think, would have -- Hamas would have come anyway. I think it was important that Syria decided to come. And, clearly, the decision that the Israelis agreed with, to put the Golan Heights on the agenda, was a courageous act on the part of the Israelis. And it certainly had a lot to do with the Syrians deciding to participate.

And the fact that the Arab League is -- is deeply involved here and committed as well all raise prospects here. But, you know, you know as well as I do we have been down this road many times over the last quarter-of-a-century that I have been involved in these issues. It takes a lot of ongoing involvement and commitment, continuous involvement here.

This administration has been AOL -- AWOL -- excuse me -- when it comes to the Middle East. And, all of a sudden here, with a year or so to go here, to talk about a solution coming up prior to the elections in '08, again, I think it is awfully unrealistic.

And I would be remiss if I didn't say how disappointed I have been that this administration has not been engaged, as it should have been, over the last six or seven years.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about Iraq right now.

John McCain, your Republican colleague, who is also running for the presidency, he said this on Sunday: "Clearly, it is succeeding," referring to the military surge. "You would have to suspend disbelief to believe that it is not. Look, now the same people that, seven or eight months ago, were saying the military situation can't -- you can't succeed militarily, we have succeeded militarily on the ground. There is progress politically."

Is he right?

DODD: Well, I have great respect for John and -- and like him very much.

But I think, clearly, you put 30,000 troops in a province somewhere, of course you are going to get some semblance of peace. The question you and I need to ask here is -- is, once we leave, is that going to continue? And I think many people, including most of us here who have watched this, have serious doubts, given the failure of the political and religious leaders in Iraq to demonstrate a willingness to come together.

We have given that opportunity now for almost five years here to pull this together. They have failed to do so. So, I'm not as optimistic as John is about the fact that there is relative stability in some parts where we have actually inundated these provinces with U.S. troops to provide some stability and peace.

But the key question, the $64 question, is, once these troops leave, what happens? And when you have the Iraqi parliament take a 30-day vacation in August, watching the violence this year continue, although it has abated lately here, I'm not as optimistic about the outcome.

BLITZER: I want to give you a chance also to respond to the Reverend Jesse Jackson. He wrote a column in "The Chicago Sun-Times" today with a serious accusation against almost all of the Democratic presidential candidates.

He wrote this. He said: "The Democratic candidates, with the exception of John Edwards, who opened his campaign in New Orleans' Ninth Ward and has made addressing poverty central to his campaign, have virtually ignored the plight of African Americans in this country."

You are one of those Democratic presidential candidates. Do you want to spend to the Reverend Jackson?

DODD: Well, I -- I work with Reverend Jackson all the time. In fact, I was one of the few who participated last year in his Wall Street summit that he has periodically to talk about these issues here, and certainly been deeply involved in dealing with the predatory lending practices.

I'm sure he has observed that over the last number of months, since I became the chairman of that committee back in January, doing everything we can to get the stakeholders and others to keep people in their homes. So, I care deeply about these issues, not just this year around, but have been deeply involved with them over the last quarter- of-a-century on these questions involving many important issues that affect minority communities and throughout our -- throughout our country in urban areas as well.

So, I welcome his ideas and comments. We have worked very closely over the years. So, he may be talking about others, but our involvement on these issues go back a long time and are consistently there.

BLITZER: Senator Dodd, thanks for coming in.

DODD: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up in our "Strategy Session": the Democrats' race for the White House. Barack Obama has made his position clear on Iraq.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will immediately begin to remove our troops. I will remove one to two brigades, combat brigades, each month. And I will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months.

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BLITZER: But, on foreign policy, does he have the right experience to be commander in chief?

And Hillary Clinton said she was getting more aggressive. Now she is going directly after Barack Obama. Is that a sign that she has abandoned the so-called front-runner strategy?

Paul Begala and Jamal Simmons, they're standing by right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama has taken hits on his experience or alleged lack of it. Now he's hitting right back, saying an outsider is just what the United States needs right now in the White House.

Joining us to discuss that and more in our "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist and CNN political analyst Paul Begala and Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. We're going to talk to two Democrats today.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I like this.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Later in the week, we are going to talk to two Republican strategists...

BEGALA: OK.

BLITZER: ... and get their sense of what's going on, on the Republican side of this campaign.

The experience factor right now -- Barack Obama is really suggesting that Hillary Clinton's experience as the first lady does not necessarily suggest she has the experience necessary to be president.

BEGALA: Right.

I think that's silly. I think everybody understands that Hillary Clinton is an experienced person. In fact, Barack does better when he brags about his lack of experience, rather than pretending that being first lady did not teach Hillary something. He does better, like he did today, when he said: I don't have their kind of experience. That's jujitsu at its best, instead of -- of -- you know what he's doing? He's sounding like Ross Perot back in '92.

Remember, there, he was debating Governor Clinton of Arkansas, President Bush. And they said, Perot didn't have experience. He said, yes, I don't have any experience running up a trillion-dollar debt. And I don't have any experience taking bribes from lobbyists.

And he used his lack of experience as a badge of honor. And I think Barack does well when he does that.

BLITZER: And, as you know, Paul speaks as someone who clearly likes Hillary Clinton a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: And that's quite obvious.

So, what do you say in response to...

SIMMONS: Well, I'm lucky because I get to like them all.

But I will tell you, the one thing Barack sounds like to me is -- more so than Ross Perot -- he sounds like a former governor of Arkansas from 1992. And, if you go back and look at some of those debate clips from Bush vs. Clinton in 1992, what you see is Bill Clinton saying, experience isn't the only thing that counts here. Judgment counts as well.

And, so, Barack does -- Barack Obama does have that...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He makes a fair point.

Bill Clinton, when he was running as the governor of Arkansas, he didn't have a lot of foreign policy experience either.

BEGALA: Much -- much better argument -- well, yes, much better argument for Barack to say, experience does not equal judgment. Hillary has more experience, but she voted for the war.

That's a good attack. I think just it is a dumb attack when he says, she didn't learn anything as first lady. She was not Bob Rubin, the treasury secretary. She wasn't Madeleine Albright.

Come on. Give me a break.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: She knows her stuff.

But, if I -- if I were advising Barack, I would say, stick where you are stronger, which is, I had better judgment on the war. Hillary, for all your experience, you were wrong.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Here's what a spokesman for Hillary Clinton's campaign, Phil Singer, said.

He said: "Considering that Senator Obama was a state senator just three years ago, he's the last person to be questioning anyone's experience. If he is elected, he would have less experience than any American president of the 20th century."

That's a pretty stinging comment from a spokesman for the front- runner.

SIMMONS: Well, it is stinging.

I mean, the one thing that is different this year is that -- different than 1992 -- is that, in 1992, we weren't at war against international terrorism. At least we didn't know we were at war against international terrorism that year.

But, at the same time, you know, George Bush used to say about Bill Clinton, he was the governor of a state with fewer people in it than Manhattan, or something like that.

So, you know, this is -- this is one of these arguments that they will -- the ones with experience will make about the ones without, and the ones without experience will say, this is a change election and judgment is more important.

BLITZER: Is this new, more aggressive tone coming from Hillary Clinton's campaign a sign that she is becoming increasingly worried?

BEGALA: Sure, obviously. She's certainly acting like it, right?

And -- and -- and I think Jamal makes a good point. Rather than Barack arguing about experience, where he is weaker, he should argue about change, where he is stronger.

If Hillary is smart -- and I suspect she is -- she will talk a lot more about change. It is change that Democrats really want. Experience is fine in the eyes of most Democrats. But, mostly, what they want is change. Hillary tries to get the best of both worlds by saying, without my kind of experience, change is only a word, because you can't get anything done.

So, she is trying to backdoor -- she's trying to leverage experience into change. But that's -- change is what is going to win this thing.

SIMMONS: Well, here is what is good about this, is, as a Democrat, I want both of these candidates to come -- and John Edwards and the rest of them as well -- come under the fire now. It is better for us to know that they can take a punch and deliver a punch during the primaries than to have them get opened up like a pinata come next summer, when the Republicans have at them.

BLITZER: Because you know, whatever criticism the Democrats are leveling against each other now is nothing compared to the criticism they will get once there is a nominee and the Republicans will have an opportunity to focus in like a laser beam.

BEGALA: This toughens them up. This is better. A lot of Democrats whining and wringing their hands. Frankly, this has not been a very negative campaign for the Democrats. I -- I -- of course, I prefer Hillary. But I hope they both hit each other hard, because they...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: We -- we asked that Chris Dodd about this. And Mary Snow did a piece about the Reverend Jesse Jackson writing a column in today's "Chicago Sun-Times," saying that, with the exception of John Edwards, none of these Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama, whom he supports, is really addressing the issues of African- Americans.

"Democratic candidates," he writes, "are talking about health care and raising the minimum wage. But they aren't talking about the separate and stark realities facing African-Americans. It is no longer acceptable for candidates," Jesse Jackson writes, "to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to entrenched discrimination, and still expect to reap our votes."

First to you, Paul.

BEGALA: Yes. I -- I have a long history with Jesse. I love him. We are pretty good friends. But he's wrong. He's completely wrong.

In fact, this is the first time -- I think ever -- that you have had a very serious African-American candidate and the white candidate still competing for the black vote. In other words, in the past, when Jesse ran, all the white folks ran away and said, well, you get all the black votes.

When Al Sharpton ran, all the white candidates walked away from the black votes. Now Barack is running, a remarkably talented guy. But Hillary, John Edwards, the rest are saying, well, we are going to contest for those black votes. So, in truth, African-American Democrats are going to get more attention during this election in the primaries than they have ever gotten before.

SIMMONS: The other side of this is that you have got to also -- you know, there's a bigger basket of issues for African-American voters.

Issues of discrimination and poverty are always going to be important, as long as they exist the way they do. But, at the same time, if you -- if you look at polls of African-American voters -- I think there's a "Washington Post" poll from a month ago -- 38 percent of African-American voters said health care is one of their top two issues. The war in Iraq is a huge issue. We have got so many kids that are fighting in Iraq right now. Nobody wants Iraq to be over and for kids to come home more than African-American voters.

BLITZER: Good discussion, guys.

Paul, Jamal, thanks for coming in.

BEGALA: Thanks, Wolf.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Later in the week, we will get two Republican strategists to talk about what's going on, on...

BEGALA: I will hit the mute button then.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: We don't need to hear from them.

BLITZER: It is important to hear both sides.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thanks, guys, very much.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: People who need people -- Barbra Streisand sings the praises about her pick to be president. We are going to tell you who she wants. Also, some compared him to Ronald Reagan. Now some wonder if his presidential hopes are fading fast. Republican Fred Thompson, is his campaign right now in trouble?

And a shocking death: A star football player dies after being shot by someone who broke into his home. We are going to have the latest regarding Sean Taylor.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Who knew the governor of Florida is a fan of YouTube?

On our Political Ticker today: Charlie Crist used the Web site to submit a question for our CNN/YouTube Republican presidential debate tomorrow night in Saint Petersburg. The Republican governor's question concerns support for a national catastrophe fund for things such as hurricane disaster recovery.

Florida already has a state hurricane catastrophe fund. Governor Crist will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.

And the legendary singer Barbra Streisand is revealing her pick to be president. That would be Hillary Clinton. Streisand today is endorsing the former first lady. The singer says she is supporting Senator Clinton because of the historic nature of her campaign and because she feels Clinton can usher in change.

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

Just over five weeks away from the Iowa caucuses on January 3, and Senator Barack Obama the latest Democratic candidate using the Web, using the Web to go ahead and show cause-goers how easy it is to participate.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is here. She's joining us.

What's going on, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, you remember, the Hillary Clinton campaign recently went online to tell young Iowa voters that caucusing for Hillary is easy. They used Bill Clinton as a draw for that video.

Well, now new from the Barack Obama campaign, an online caucus education center, a host of Web resources the campaign says is aimed at Iowan -- Iowans of all ages. So, you can see it is designed at people who may not have been through the process before. You have got these animated figures who are explaining caucusing from soup to nuts.

There's a caucus calculator that explains the math of the evening. And there is an online video where viewers are assured that this can be fun and exciting amidst clapping and cheering, while promising to them that it really won't take very long. The Barack Obama campaign says that all of this is in addition to the face-to-face education they have been doing on the ground -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Abbi.

Abbi Tatton will be back.

Let's go back to Jack Cafferty right now. He has "The Cafferty File."

CAFFERTY: Give me a hand with something. What exactly does the Streisand endorsement represent?

BLITZER: It means that Barbra Streisand -- Barbra Streisand, great singer...

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: ... is supporting Hillary Clinton.

CAFFERTY: Reclusive, neurotic, over-the-hill vocalist endorses Hillary. I mean, is the ground supposed to shake now and lightning bolts fly out of the sky?

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Who cares?

BLITZER: She has got a lot of fans out there, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Oh, come on.

The question this hour: How far would a bipartisan Cabinet go toward easing some of the gridlock in Washington? Bill Richardson said, if he is elected, he will get independents, Democrats and Republicans around that Cabinet table.

Josh in New York: "A bipartisan Cabinet could help. A new president is the most important step, though. The partisanship in Washington flows from the Oval Office first and foremost. The partisan tone in Washington can immediately improve as soon as we have a president with a world view more complex than Bush's caveman logic."

Brian in Atlanta: "I don't think it will have much effect. I don't see very much difference in the two parties anymore. So, I don't see that that is the cause of gridlock. The Democrats won the last election. Nothing has changed. We're still in Iraq. The abominations, such as the Homegrown Terrorism Act, are still getting passed, just like the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act were passed before. The reason things don't change is because our elected officials don't want them to change and Americans are asleep at the wheel and not holding them accountable."

He might be on to something.

Thomas in Pennsylvania: "There's no way a bipartisan anything will work. You can't correct a problem by treating symptoms. The current gridlock is a symptom. The problem is the total corporate control and ownership of the government and Congress. And, unless and until corporate power is broken, no change will occur. It's the corporations, stupid."

Kelly in California: "Our administration is in critical condition. A bipartisan Cabinet in Washington might just be the life support we need. It seems to be working pretty well in California. Arnold Schwarzenegger has almost every political flavor in the book in his Cabinet, and they're functioning quite well."

And Joshua, New London, Connecticut: "I agree government has not done anything noticeable for the middle class. The question, though, about Richardson puzzles me. He's a politician. You really expect him not to appoint cronies, idiots and buffoons?"

We shall see -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We shall.

Jack, thanks very much.

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