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President Bush Speaks at Pentagon After Briefings With Military Commanders; GOP Presidential Debate; Interview With Mike Huckabee

Aired November 29, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to go right to the Pentagon right now. The president of the United States has been meeting with military commanders.
Let's listen in.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Deputy Secretary England, Admiral Mullen and the Joint Chiefs, we discussed the long- term needs of our military services and the importance of progressing with modernization. The men and women of this department, the Department of Defense, are helping to carry out the government's most important duty, protecting the American people.

Every day they confront America's enemies. Every day they work to stop the spread of dangerous weapons. And every day they guard against those seeking to bring another day of destruction to our shores.

The missions of this department are essential to saving America's lives. And they are too important to be disrupted or delayed or put at risk.

Beginning in February, I submitted a detailed funding request to the United States Congress to fund operations in the war on terror. Our military has waited on these funds for months.

The funds include money to carry out combat operations against the enemy and Afghanistan and Iraq. They include money to train the Afghan and Iraqi security forces to take on more responsibility for the defense of their countries. They include money for intelligence operations to protect our troops from the battlefield.

Pentagon officials have warned Congress that the continued delay in funding our troops will soon begin to have a damaging impact on the operations of this department. The warning has been laid out for the United States Congress to hear.

Recently, Secretary Gates sought to clear up any misperception that the department can fund our troops for an indefinite period simply by shifting money around. In fact, Congress limits how much money can be moved from one account to the other.

Secretary Gates has already notified Congress that he will transfer money from accounts used to fund other activities of the military services to pay for current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no more money can be moved. So he's directed the Army and Marine Corps to develop a plan to lay off civilian employees, to terminate contracts, and to prepare our military bases across the country for reduced operations. These are contingency steps that a prudent manager must take.

Secretary Gates and America's senior military officials have made a reasoned case to Congress for the funds they need to keep the military running. They have carefully explained the need to plan prudently should those funds not be forthcoming.

Secretary Gates puts it this way: "The Defense Department is like the world's biggest supertanker. It cannot turn on a dime, and I cannot steer it like a skiff."

The American people expect us to work together to support our troops, that's what they want. They do not want the government to create needless uncertainty for those defending our country and uncertainty for their families. They do not want disputes in Washington to undermine our troops in Iraq just as they're seeing clear signs of success.

Here in Washington, leaders have a responsibility to send the right message to the rest of the world. Let us tell our enemies that America will do what it takes to defeat them. Let us tell Afghans and Iraqis that we will stand with them as they take the fight to our common enemies. Let us tell our men and women in uniform that we will give them what they need to succeed in their missions without strings and without delay.

I ask Congress to provide this essential funding to our troops before the members leave on their Christmas vacation, and I thank the members of this department for their hard work, their sacrifice, their courage and their dedication to peace.

God bless.

BLITZER: So there it is, the president of the United States speaking over at the Pentagon, meeting with top Pentagon commanders, insisting that Congress must go ahead and appropriate the funds to continue the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats in the House of Representatives willing to provide another $50 billion as an interim appropriations measure, but they're saying that has to be linked to some sort of timetable for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

In the meantime, the standoff over funding continues, Democrats insisting that the Pentagon does have the leeway to shift funds around to make sure the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have the equipment, the weaponry that they need. Clearly, a major stalemate. The president now challenging the Congress to fully appropriate the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan before the Christmas recess.

We're going to continue to watch this story, get reaction to what the president just said from Democrats on the Hill and elsewhere.

Other important news, though, that we're following right now. Some are wondering if the Republican presidential candidates are recuperating. They endured smackdowns, boos from a ringside audience, and possibly some deep political wounds in our CNN/YouTube debate.

Let's go to the scene of that debate. Our chief national correspondent, John King, is standing by in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Only five weeks to go until the first ballots are counted in Iowa. This race last -- this debate last night really fueled things up, John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly did, Wolf. And for most of the candidates waking up today here in Florida, it is time to move on, leaving behind this state known for its warm temperatures, its relatively moderate politics, and for most of the Republicans now, a heavy focus on a place that is a lot colder and a lot more conservative.


KING (voice over): Five weeks to Iowa, and immigration is the most contentious debating point in the wide-open Republican race.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I said no to drivers' licenses, I also said no -- when a bill came to my desk giving illegal immigrants a tuition break, I said no, I would not do that.

KING: Mitt Romney's tough message is being delivered by mail, too. This glossy pitch to Iowa conservatives suggests his four top rivals support amnesty for illegal immigrants. They take exception.

FRED THOMPSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE Governor Romney supported the Bush immigration plan until a short time ago. Now he's taking another position, surprisingly.

KING: Governor Romney once did have a much softer view, speaking favorably in a "Boston Globe" interview two years ago about Bush and McCain proposals he now labels amnesty.

ROMNEY: Not taking benefits. And then at the end of that period, registering to become a citizen or applying to become a citizen and paying a fee. And those are things that are being considered, and I think that that's -- that those are reasonable proposals.

KING: Rudy Giuliani also draws then and now comparisons.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If I was president of the United States, I could do something about that by deploying a fence.

KING: He had a softer tone as mayor. In 1996, for example, he urged GOP nominee Bob Dole not to tap rising range (ph) seat (ph) about government benefits to illegal immigrants.

GIULIANI: This is an opportunity to show that you're a leader, a statesman, and that you can step beyond the most immediate form of public opinion and really go to the core of what makes America such a great country. KING: Senator McCain is a case study in the quicksand of immigration politics. The McCain-Kennedy bill collapsed in a conservative revolt, and the senator has all but given up on Iowa.

JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think we as Republicans, and those motivated by Judeo-Christian values, ought to understand that these are God's children, that there is a human side of this issue.


KING: Along with illegal immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage among the social conservative flash points in the Iowa campaign just unfolding, Wolf. And fresh evidence today that, like Senator McCain, Mayor Giuliani, for the most part, wants to minimize his role in Iowa's culture wars. Mayor Giuliani launching a big new TV ad today on taxes, targeting voters in New Hampshire -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There is some suggestion, John, and I wonder if you want to weigh in on this, that that opening salvo between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, where they really went after each other on the issue of illegal immigration, wound up potentially hurting both of them, especially in a state like Iowa, where a lot of the folks out there are not necessarily into this kind of negative attack politics.

KING: Well, they say they're not into negative attack politics, and certainly you do run the risk of that, but in a recent "New York Times" poll just a couple weeks ago, I think it was 86 or 87 percent of the Republicans surveyed in Iowa say illegal immigration was of serious concern to them. So, on the one hand, there is a risk of negative campaigning, on the other hand, in Iowa right now it is the defining issue of the Republican race, each of the candidates maneuvering, trying to get advantage, Wolf, with the conservative Republican base.

BLITZER: All right, John. Thanks very much.

John King on the scene for us in St. Petersburg.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's on the scene for us with "The Cafferty File" in New York.

It's interesting. It's interesting if you noticed that the big fireworks at the debate last night among the Republicans was over the illegal immigration issue, and the big fireworks at the Democratic debate out in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, that was over illegal immigration as well.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, everybody except the government is fed up with the 12 to 20 million illegal aliens in this country and the fact that our tax money doesn't seem to be used to secure the nation's borders. We're supposed to be fighting a war on terror.

You want into this country? Real easy, go to Mexico and walk across the border. It's a disgrace. And I hope that the voters keep the pressure on right up to Election Day. The reason McCain got it last night, if I've got a couple extra seconds, McCain found his fastball last night, but he talked about the reason immigration reform failed. And the reason it failed is the public didn't believe the federal government would close the borders.

They were ready to vote for some kind of immigration reform. Amnesty is what it amounted to. But they didn't believe they would get border security first. And so they said no dice. So it's a huge issue for both parties, and I suppose they need to keep it mind as we move forward.

The government wants more -- this is great news. The government wants more personal information about all of us like our birth dates and our gender before we're allowed to set foot on an airplane.

"USA Today" reports major airlines and travel agencies are now protesting such a proposal, saying it would be invasive, confusing and useless.


The Transportation Security Administration wants passengers to give this information so it says it can do then better background checks on the 700 million people who fly commercially every year in the U.S. They say this will result in fewer travelers being mistaken for terrorists.

However, the airlines say passengers will not want to give this more detailed information -- that's probably right -- which will make the whole process more time consuming. That's probably right.

The TSA is expected to take over passenger background checks from the airlines next year, so the government is going to handle this. That will be good.

And under an agency proposal published this summer, airlines and travel agents then would be required to ask travelers for their birth date, gender and full name. Currently you just have to give a last name and an initial.

Travelers would not be forced to give this new information. However, the TSA says those who don't comply might be more easily mistaken for a terrorist and might therefore be more likely to face delays, additional screening, or be denied boarding altogether.

In other words, if you don't tell the government what they want to know, they'll probably make it harder for you to fly. Just lovely.

Here's the question: Should people be required to give the government more personal information, like birth dates and gender, when buying airplane tickets?

E-mail or go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thanks very much. Good question. We'll see you in a few moments.

It's one Republican's otherworldly request. Listen to this.


MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And whether we need to send somebody to Mars, I don't know. But I'll tell you what, if we do, I've got a few suggestions, and maybe Hillary could be on the first rocket to Mars.


BLITZER: A presidential candidate offers his idea on keeping Hillary Clinton out of White House. Republican Mike Huckabee, newly emboldened and a major surge in popularity, he's standing by live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, part of Rudy Giuliani's time as mayor of New York, it's now back in focus. He's having to answer some serious questions about trips he took to the Hamptons, and how security costs for those trips were handled.

And she's the teacher accused of insulting religion for letting her student name a teddy bear "Muhammad." Now major developments in the case that's sparking international outrage.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: What a difference a few weeks make. Some hard campaigning, some memorable zingers also. Not very long my next guest faced a very tough challenge, getting the attention of voters. Now that has changed.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is surging in a lot of the polls right now, and his eyes are firmly on Iowa.

The former governor of Arkansas is here with us in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You're probably as surprised as anyone that your numbers are as high as they are, I'm assuming.

HUCKABEE: Well, now what makes you think I'm surprised? Actually, there is some surprise at how well we're doing, particularly in states like Florida and Texas, where we have not been able to do a lot of campaigning, spend a lot of money, hire people. I think it's a remarkable kind of surge that we're seeing, and not just in Iowa, but in other states as well.

BLITZER: Let's talk about some of the comments you made in the debate last night. The IRS, you say dismantle the IRS, is that right? HUCKABEE: Absolutely. We would do that if we enacted the FairTax, which moves us to a consumption tax. We get rid of all of the taxes that we have on productivity -- income, both personal as well as corporate. We end payroll taxes, taxes on savings, inheritance, capital gains, dividends.

You shouldn't penalize people for taking risk and being entrepreneurs. You also end the underground economy, because when you tax only at the consumption level, then you're also capturing those billions of dollars that are going untaxed that currently are in the hands of gamblers and drug dealers.

BLITZER: So all of the thousands of people who work at the IRS, all of the accountants out there who depend on their livelihood, what happens to all of them?

HUCKABEE: Well, first of all, the accountants will have a much better job taking people's money and investing it rather than just filling out paperwork for the government. And as far as the IRS, it's not the purpose of the federal government to just see how many people we can employ, it's the purpose of the federal government to operate our government more efficiently. And one efficient way to do it is to get rid of a $10 billion a year industry called the IRS, and a $250 billion a year compliance cost in American businesses.

BLITZER: All right. More than 100,000 employees at the IRS would be looking for new work. You understand that?

HUCKABEE: Well, there's 40,000 or more -- I think -- no, it's more than that -- 42 percent of the federal employees that are going to be retiring in the next decade. So frankly, by attrition, people who are out -- coming out of the IRS can find their way into other positions.

BLITZER: Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee, he had his little YouTube video that he released. Didn't necessarily promote himself on that video, but he attacked specifically you and he attacked Mitt Romney as well.

But listen to what he said about you.


HUCKABEE: Others have suggested a surcharge on the income tax. That's acceptable. I'm fine with that. Others have suggested perhaps a sales tax. That's fine.


BLITZER: Now, he put your clips, what you had said earlier, out on his video to show that you flip-flopped on these issues.

HUCKABEE: Well, it wasn't a flip-flop. First of all, if you noticed, that was about 110 pounds ago, and so I could use the excuse I was in a state of sugar stupor and was talking out of my head. But the reality is, that was a statement, about a minute's worth, taken out of context of a speech in which I was basically giving a put up or shut up speech to the legislature who had been saying we have got a $200 million deficit, and we don't like any proposal the governor has to fix it.

So I said, OK, you don't like my proposals? Here's one of yours, I'll take it. Here's one of yours, I'll take it. Here's one of yours.

What I was saying to them was, if you don't like my proposals, give me yours, but let's fix this deficit. And we did, Wolf. You know what we did? In 11 years as governor, income tax stayed the same, sales tax went up a penny. More importantly, I cut 94 taxes, a lot of those income taxes.

BLITZER: You took the pledge last night. You said you promised the president you wouldn't increase any taxes.

Is that right?

HUCKABEE: That's correct.

BLITZER: But what about if there's a national security -- some of the other candidates said they'll make that promise, but if there's a national security -- a war, and they have got no other alternative to raise the funds needed to support the troops to fight that war, they might have to increase taxes.

Is that -- is that a fair exemption?

HUCKABEE: It is a fair exemption that even Grover Norquist, who delivers the pledge, would be the first to acknowledge. But there's no reason to raise taxes at the federal level. It's not at the federal level that our taxes are too low, our spending is out of control.

BLITZER: Mitt Romney was here in THE SITUATION ROOM, sitting where you're sitting right now -- actually, he was up in Boston, but I was sitting where I'm sitting. And he attacked you and he said this...


ROMNEY: Ronald Reagan would have never said let's give tuition breaks to illegals like Mike Huckabee did. Ronald Reagan would have never stood by and pushed for a budget that more than doubled during his term as president.

Mike Huckabee, as a matter of fact, has a very different record than Ronald Reagan. And I'm pretty proud that my record stands up quite well.


BLITZER: All right. Do you want to respond to the former Massachusetts governor? HUCKABEE: Well, it's kind of interesting. I love it when Mitt Romney loves to wrap himself in Ronald Reagan, because he was the one in 1994 that said, I'm not a part of that Reagan/Bush thing. I'm an Independent. And he ran from Ronald Reagan until he decided to run for president.

Here's an interesting thing. It was Ronald Reagan who signed the amnesty bill in 1986 that now has given us so much grief. So I think Governor Romney needs to go back and do a little checking on Ronald Reagan.

It was Ronald Reagan, by the way, who promised he wouldn't raise taxes when he ran for governor of California in 1967. He raised them by a billion dollars, which would be $10 billion in today's terms.


BLITZER: So you're suggesting you're walking away from Ronald Reagan? Is that what...

HUCKABEE: No, I'm not. Is he, or is...

BLITZER: You. You.

HUCKABEE: Heavens no. But I never did. I was for Ronald Reagan back when Ronald Reagan was running for president in 1980. It didn't take me until 2008 to decide that I liked Ronald Reagan.

BLITZER: You got a bull's eye now, and you're back because you're, at least in some polls, either first or second. Are you ready for that?

HUCKABEE: You know, Abe Lincoln said when he was run out of town on a rail, "If it weren't for the honor of it, I would just as soon pass." And quite frankly, it's a good thing, at least, to be attacked. And you know, the fact is, the more these guys attack me, it seems like the better my numbers get.

So though I'm not enjoying it a bit, I can't really be that unhappy about it, because I said it last night, I'll say it again. When you're getting kicked in the rear, it just proves you're out front.

BLITZER: And you know what? A hundred and 10 pounds lighter, you look a lot better, you feel a lot better. We saw the pictures.

Thanks for coming in.

HUCKABEE: Thanks, Wolf. A pleasure to be back.

BLITZER: Good luck on the campaign trail.

HUCKABEE: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: One day after the Republicans faced off in Florida, how are the Democratic voters in that state feeling about the Democratic presidential candidates, especially now that the national party says it will punish Florida for breaking party rules?

And her case has sparked international outrage. A British teacher in Sudan accused of insulting Islam for letting her students name a teddy bear "Muhammad." There are new major developments unfolding right now. We'll share them with you.

All that, a lot more, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: Right from the start, things got ugly.


GIULIANI: ... that your whole approach to immigration was so -- was so...

ROMNEY: I'm sorry, immigration is not holier than thou, Mayor.

GIULIANI: You're going to take a holier than thou...


BLITZER: Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, all the rivals battling back and fourth in our CNN/YouTube debate. How do you feel about that?

We're measuring voter reaction.

And Rudy Giuliani facing serious questions for some trips he took to the Hamptons as the mayor of New York. Did he bill New York City offices for security and travel costs? What happened?

You're going to find out what the records show and how Giuliani is responding.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


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

Happening now: the conspicuous absence of President Bush's name. Republican candidates in last night's YouTube -- CNN/YouTube debate rarely uttered it. A linguistics guru explains how using it could be political poison. That's coming up.

The fair tax debate heating up -- GOP hopeful Mike Huckabee -- you heard him here -- strikes debate gold when he declares his support for a proposed overhaul. Could it work? We will ask our financial correspondent Ali Velshi.

And a coup attempt thwarted in the Philippines. CNN's Tom Foreman is standing by. He will take a closer look at the aftermath of the standoff at one of Manila's major hotels.

All that, a lot more coming up in our next hour.

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

The presidential candidates are pounding the campaign trail, talking about the issues that matter to you. But many of you listening are weighing what they're saying and if it's enough to earn year vote.

One day after our CNN/YouTube presidential debate, we're trying to gauge that assessment, that mood.

CNN's Dana Bash is still in Saint Petersburg, Florida. That's where the debate was last night.

Dana, you're talking to a lot of people, but, specifically, a key group that was watching this debate.


You know, of course, any -- for any candidate, a key goal for a debate is to sway voters who haven't yet made up their minds.

Well, CNN gathered a group of undecided Republicans here in Florida last night and gave each of these gadgets. And the point of these gadgets was to track every second of their reaction to the debate.


BASH (voice-over): It was the sharpest headline-making exchange of the night.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The policies of the mayor of pursuing a sanctuary nation or pursuing a sanctuary city...

COOPER: We have got a number...

ROMNEY: ... are, frankly, wrong.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So, I would say he had sanctuary mansion, not just sanctuary city.


BASH: But it did not go over well here, 24 undecided GOP Florida voters watching with special meters. Blue lines are men, yellow, women. Up means they like what they're hearing. Down means they don't.

ROMNEY: You, as a homeowner, are supposed to go out there and say, "I want to see your papers."

Is that what you're suggesting?

BASH: The bars dipped as it turned nasty.


GIULIANI: If you're going to take...


ANDERSON COOPER, MODERATOR: You asked him a question. Let him respond. Then we have got to move on.

GIULIANI: If you're going to take this holier-than-thou attitude...

BASH: These undecided Republicans liked substance, not spats.

On Iraq, a gender gap.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are winning the war in Iraq.


BASH: Women were turned off by John McCain's defense of the war.

SHARON TURNER, UNDECIDED VOTER: I think John McCain is wrong. I think this war that we're in is just like Vietnam, and there's going to be a lot of people left there. And it's not going to -- we're going to spend a lot of money on a war we can't win.

BASH: Another low, Mitt Romney on the Bible.

ROMNEY: I don't disagree with the Bible. I try and live by it.

BASH: Rudy Giuliani is often ridiculed for constant references to 9/11.

GIULIANI: Well, the most important thing to do is to make certain we remain on offense against Islamic terrorism.


BASH: But it works. He got one of the highest marks, especially among men, talking terrorism.

Mike Huckabee scored the best on likability.

LACE MOBLEY, UNDECIDED VOTER: Mike Huckabee actually impressed me with his candidness and also his ability to answer the questions that were broached to him.

BASH: And with these undecided voters, this got the most laughs.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson. That's what Jesus would do.



BASH: Now, many of the Republican voters CNN watched the debate with said that they were frustrated the candidates didn't talk more about things like health care and education, issues they say really affect their lives.

And, Wolf, all 24 of the undecided Republican voters said they came away from the debate still undecided.

BLITZER: Dana Bash in Saint Petersburg, thanks very much. Fascinating material.

Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani is moving to try to deflect some pointed questions aimed at trips he made to the Hamptons out on Long Island while he was New York City's mayor and how the costs of the security details during those trips were accounted for.

CNN's Mary Snow is joining us from New York. She's watching this story.

What are you learning, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, once again today, the presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani was asked about tens of thousands of dollars in security and travel costs, and how they were allocated for.

He said here in New York today that all his expense records were open and honestly held.


SNOW (voice-over): The questions involve security costs for then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's police detail that were billed out to obscure city agencies.

The broke the story, including documents for expenses in South Hampton, the same town where his then girlfriend, Judith Nathan, had a condo. Giuliani has admitted to having an affair while he was married. Nathan is now his third wife.

Regarding these security costs, Giuliani said:

GIULIANI: It was a perfectly appropriate set of expenses. I mean, it makes it looks like there's something wrong with this. I was covered by the police 24 hours a day every day that I was mayor. I was covered because there were threats to kill me.

SNOW: The expenses came into question after New York City's comptroller raised a red flag in 2002. He did an audit, and, among other things, found at least $34,000 in travel expenses billed to the Loft Board, which oversees converting city lofts. Their office says it didn't incur the costs.

The comptroller's office said it tried to get information to verify if the expenses were legitimate, but was told by city officials the information couldn't be provided because of security reasons. Giuliani was questioned about it during Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate.

GIULIANI: I had nothing to do with the handling of their records, and they were handled, as far as I know, perfectly appropriately.

SNOW: Republican strategist David Winston says he doesn't think the story will be damaging in the long run for Giuliani, but says it brings into focus once again messy issues about his personal life.

DAVID WINSTON, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: The issue it re-raises is his personal life, and it just takes it through one more cycle of discussion in terms of the variety of marriages. And, so, what he's got to manage here is a re-bringing up of those issues again.


SNOW: And, Wolf, one of the questions that remains unanswered is why these security costs were allocated to different city offices.

I just got off the phone with Rudy Giuliani's former deputy mayor, who says that he's trying to track that down, but this was a practice, he says, that was consistently done, and he says it was done to get these costs reimbursed quickly -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Mary Snow, watching this story for us.

They were three decades in the making, but could we see the first new fuel-efficiency standards hit the streets in the not-too-distant future? It all depends on what the U.S. Congress does in the coming days.

And he calls it the truth. Others are calling it negative campaigning. We will hash out GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson's latest ad in our "Strategy Session."

And could the all-too familiar 1040 forms one day become obsolete? Supporters of the so-called fair tax hope so. In our next hour, we will pick apart what it means, try to figure out if the proposed overhaul really works.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: All of us want to spend less to gas up our cars and trucks. Right now there's a potential multibillion-dollar solution under consideration.

It involves a push to improve gas mileage standards for the first time in 30 years. And a deal is close. Still, though, it's being negotiated. There could be a vote on it on the House floor next week.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent Jessica Yellin. She's on Capitol Hill joining us.

Jessica, actually, you're near Capitol Hill, a gas station up there on Capitol Hill. What -- what's going on?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they're still working out the details, but one nonprofit estimates that, if the current compromise becomes law, it could save U.S. drivers $25 billion the very first year it goes fully into effect. But there are loopholes in this bill big enough to drive a truck through.


YELLIN (voice-over): Supporters say it's a great deal for America.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: It's important for our national security. It is important to reduce dangerous global warming gases. It's important for consumers, because it will lead to lower gasoline prices.

YELLIN: The law would require that, by the year 2020, America's cars and trucks get an average of 35 miles per gallon. That's quite an improvement over current levels, 27.5 miles per gallon for cars, 22 miles per gallon for most trucks.

But there are major loopholes.

(on camera): For example, the new 35-mile-per-gallon average will apply to this car, but not to this truck. It's considered a specialty work vehicle for folks like farmers, even though we see plenty of these tooling around suburbia.

(voice-over): Another loophole? This SUV can run on alternative fuel, ethanol. Car companies will be able to count vehicles like this one as highly fuel-efficient. But there are already six million of these flex-fuel vehicles on the road, and drivers rarely fill them up with even a drop of ethanol, which most gas stations don't even carry. So, the manufacturers count them like hybrids, even though they're really gas-guzzlers.

DAVID FRIEDMAN, CLEAN VEHICLES RESEARCH DIRECTOR, UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS: The auto industry is looking to add more loopholes to this 35-mile-per-gallon standard. And, if history has shown us anything, any time you give the auto industry a loophole, they will drive a Hummer through it.

YELLIN: Some automakers have warned, increasing fuel efficiency standards too much will be expensive and cost jobs. Detroit's hometown representative says, Congress wants Americans to save on gas, but:

REP. JOHN DINGELL (D), MICHIGAN: We have got to do it in a way that doesn't -- that doesn't destroy our industry and our manufacturing.


YELLIN: Now, Wolf, even if this bill passes next week, it won't improve fuel efficiency anytime soon.

In fact, it's possible that the car manufacturers could put off improving fuel efficiency until right before this bill's final deadline goes into effect in 2020, even though some scientists say the technology is there today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin up on Capitol Hill, near -- at a gas station right near the U.S. Congress. Thanks very much, Jessica, for that potentially very important information.

In other news, many here in Washington, Illinois, and beyond are mourning. Former Republican Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois died today in Chicago of heart-related problems. He was 83 years old.

Over his decades-long career, Hyde gained much attention, including when he helped lead efforts to impeach President Clinton back in 1998. Hyde also gained attention as a staunch opponent of abortion rights. He retired from Congress this year. And, this month, President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In a statement today, the president called Hyde -- and I'm quoting now -- a tireless champion of the weak and forgotten."

A Republican candidate pulls no punches in his new campaign commercial. We will take a closer look at Fred Thompson's latest ad that takes pointed swipes at some of his GOP opponents.

And tens of thousands of Venezuelans hit the streets to protest a proposal to change the country's constitution. Could President Hugo Chavez's power play backfire?

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


BLITZER: The day after the CNN/YouTube debate no doubt has the Republican candidates reviewing their performances. Who were the winners, who were the losers in last night's two-hour battle of wits and words?

Joining us in our "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

Well, before we go to some of the specifics, who was the winner? Who was the loser?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I thought Mike Huckabee did a great job. He shined last night. He showed that he has some presidential fiber. He came across as an authentic guy. He was comfortable.

But John McCain also had a strong performance last night.

BLITZER: What did you think, J.C.?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I thought Huckabee, again, performed well. I think he showed why he's moving in the polls.

John McCain continues to be steady. We will see how it helps him. But I think I agree with Donna...

BLITZER: Fred...

WATTS: ... Huckabee and McCain.

BLITZER: Fred Thompson, in his YouTube ad that he released, he used it not necessarily to promote himself, but to attack a few of the others. Was that smart politics?

BRAZILE: Look, he has no choice. He's trailing now in the polls. He started late. He has to gain traction if some of those early states. So, I wasn't surprised that he threw out the first negative ad last night.

BLITZER: What did you think?

WATTS: Fred is trying to tap into the voters that Huckabee and Romney, that they are tapping into. He thought that, you know, he would be launched into probably the top two or three candidates.

But, as it's turned out, he's probably -- you know, he's fourth or fifth in -- in some polls, not getting the traction that he thought he was going to get. Huckabee should take that as a badge of honor. My -- my father dad used to say, dogs don't bark at parked cars.


WATTS: And Mike Huckabee is making -- make some gains, gaining some ground. He's becoming little more of a threat to not just Thompson, but several other candidates.

BLITZER: In Iowa, that's for sure, given the poll numbers there.

You know, the issue of race came up in a couple of questions over at the CNN/YouTube debate, why African-Americans aren't voting for Republicans, what to do about black-on-black crime in some of the inner cities.

And here's a little excerpt of what some of the Republican candidates said in response to these questions.


ROMNEY: In the African-American community today, 68 percent of kids born are born out of wedlock. And so we're going to try and once again reinculcate in this country the try of values that have made us so strong: family values. GIULIANI: Whether they are upper middle class, rich, middle class or poor, the -- good education is something that everyone in all these communities and all communities want.

HUCKABEE: I don't want to be a part of a Republican party that is a tiny, minute and ever decreasing party, but one that touches every American from top to bottom, regardless of race.


BLITZER: J.C., what did you think of those answers and the whole discussion of race at the debate?

WATTS: Well, at -- of those answers, those three candidates you showed us there, Wolf, I think Mike Huckabee has some credibility to say what he said.

I thought it was very telling the question where the gentleman said, you know, the black community, pro-life, pro-parental -- pro- choice in education, you know, pro-marriage, et cetera. And he said, why don't we vote for you guys?

And then Giuliani gave the answer. He said, well, welfare reform, and went back to 10 years ago.

Black people have accepted that welfare reform has happened. It's over with. I thought that was a canned answer by the consultant.

Mike Huckabee, on the other hand, said, you know, when I was governor, I did this, this and this. I took a disproportionate amount of the resources and I targeted those disproportionate problems that black America, poor white people, poor Hispanics, that they have.

He spoke to that black questioner. Giuliani gave an answer, I thought, that was for white conservatives.

BLITZER: What did you think?

WATTS: Bad move.

BRAZILE: Well, if they had a record, they could talk about their record in public office. Mike Huckabee has a record. He could talk about working with the African-American community.

Once again, it showed that the Republican community is out of touch with the African-American community. They didn't know how to talk about the rise in inequality of blacks and whites in education, in home ownership, in income. They didn't know how to talk -- address black-on-black crime.

So, I think that J.C. gave them some advice a week ago, Wolf. Get some black advisers. It's note too late to reach out to the black and Hispanic communities.

BLITZER: Mitt Romney was here on Monday. He disagreed with you. He says he does have minorities working in his inner circle, although he didn't spell out. But he suggested that you were misinformed...

WATTS: Well...

BLITZER: ... that he doesn't have any African-Americans...

WATTS: Well -- well, one, he's not taking their advice, because if he would have been taking their advice, he would have showed up -- he would have shown up at Morgan State. He would have shown up at the Urban League.

And I know for a fact, Marc Morial, director of the Urban League, did extend the invitation. I know Tavis Smiley extended the invitation. He didn't accept them. So, maybe I'm wrong on the other hand, but the point is, he didn't show up where he should have been.

BRAZILE: And let the church say, amen.


BLITZER: All right.

J.C. and Donna, thanks for coming in.

And coming up: Just how much information should you give up to fly? Just ahead, Jack Cafferty's question of the hour: Should people have to give the government more personal information, like birth dates and gender, when buying airplane tickets?

And the tax debate heating up, big time, after last night's GOP debate -- could a national sales tax successfully replace the IRS and the current tax system?

And his name was conspicuously absent in last night's Republican presidential debate. Next hour, we will ponder why almost no one mentioned President Bush.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: It's unclear if Barack Obama will show any of his dancing skills once again tonight over at the Apollo Theater. But he will be there to try to raise some money and support.

The Democratic presidential candidate hosts a night at the Apollo at the legendary theater in Harlem. It's a fund-raiser, and it will mark Obama's first trip to Harlem since he announced his plan to run for president back in February.

The White House is decking the halls, today unveiling this dazzling tree -- the first lady, Laura Bush, showing off the tree and many of the other White House decorations. And, in terms of edible treats, the White House holiday cookies this season are shaped like animals that live in the national parks.

Remember, for the late political news at any time, you can check out our political ticker at

Let's go to Jack in New York for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, Wolf: Should people have to give the government more personal information, like birth dates and gender, when buying airplane tickets?

Listen to this.

This is from an attorney, Robert, in Greenwood, Indiana: "I welcome the provision of non-invasive personal information, such as birth date and full name, if it allows law enforcement to do its job more effectively and simplifies the screening process. My name is Robert Johnson. There's a Robert Johnson on the FBI watch list. Whenever I fly on an airline that doesn't provide for middle initials on their reservation form, I get stopped at the counter, and an airline agent must call for special approval.

"I usually fly every week and often have the same agent in our small airport in Indiana check me in. He and I share a laugh at the lunacy, but the system does not provide specific enough information to allow me to pass without this frequent inconvenience. A little more detail, for example, birth date, could avoid this inefficiency. Who knows? Maybe Uncle Sam will send me a birthday card."

Glen in Atlanta writes: "Give more information for travel? No. Can you think of anything we have given the government that they have used well or for our benefit? Well, why do you think more personal information, like full name and date of birth and so on, would be any different? I will just wear clean underwear and be ready to be strip- searched as a suspected terrorist."

Joe writes from California: "Yes, Jack, there should be more reality screening and less concern about toothpaste, deodorant and hand cream."

Mark in Maryland: "Having a record or database of our in-country travels is what the communists did in the Soviet Union and what the Nazis would have done if they had had computers. This is a simple prelude to further government power, whether the people in government promoting it today even realize it or not."

And Ryan in Boone, North Carolina: "So, the airlines are protesting the latest government request for more information, saying the plan is -- quote -- 'invasive, confusing, and useless.' Could we not protest the entire government on the same grounds?"

I think so -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: new dangers for American ships in the Persian Gulf. Iran's Revolutionary Guard, labeled a top supporter of terrorism by the U.S. government, is now in charge of Iranian naval operations there. Would they dare attack the U.S. Navy? We are watching this story.

She allowed a teddy bear to be named Mohammed. Now a British teacher has been found guilty of insulting religion and sentenced to jail. We are going to tell you where.