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Voters Still Undecided?; Interview With Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee

Aired December 21, 2007 - 18:00   ET


JEROME LEE, FATHER: The children will have a part of Dustin to be able to play with. And he's going to always be a part of our family.
DORNIN: A four-legged military hero now ready for playtime as a civilian.

Rusty Dornin, CNN, Atlanta.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Mike Huckabee defends himself after getting stung by the secretary of state. She called his criticism of the president's foreign policy ludicrous. Find out what Huckabee has to say for himself in a one-on-one interview.

Plus, Hillary Clinton's rivals accuse her of a new flip-flop on Iraq. We will look at what she said and why fellow Democrats are pouncing.

And the primary season wild card. Why are so many early voters still undecided less than two weeks before the first presidential contest?

Wolf Blitzer's off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Republican Mike Huckabee is suggesting there is nothing ludicrous about pointing out policy differences with President Bush. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, well, sees it differently. She didn't mince any words when asked today about Huckabee's charge the Bush administration has a bunker mentality on world affairs.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The idea that somehow this is a go-it-alone policy is just simply ludicrous. And one would only have to be not observing the facts, let me say that, to say that this is now a go-it-alone foreign policy.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If we are so unable to point out policy differences and how things would change under a new administration, then maybe we shouldn't run for president. We will just keep the current one in office.


MALVEAUX: Well, let's bring in CNN's Dana Bash on the campaign trail in Iowa.

Dana, Huckabee is facing a lot of questions about his own foreign policy positions and experience now, certainly in the hot seat.


And, as you know, Suzanne, this is a problem or at least a question that nearly every governor running for president faces. Now, Mike Huckabee says that he wants to find peace through strength, and also, as you just heard there, he insists that challenging the president of his own party is not heresy.


BASH (voice-over): At an Iowa town hall, a Mike Huckabee supporter asks what to tell friends concerned he's not ready to be commander in chief.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The question is foreign policy experience. As a governor for two-and-a-half years, I made numerous trade trips. I also was involved in a number of meetings where we not only brought businesses from the international community to our state.

BASH: With GOP voters, Huckabee avoids his controversial arrogant bunker mentality phrase to describe the president's foreign policy, but pointedly calls for a more open-minded post-Bush era.

HUCKABEE: Never, ever yielding one ounce of U.S. sovereignty to anybody, but also being a nation that recognizes and respects that there are other people in the neighborhood.

BASH: He says this about Iraq.

HUCKABEE: We made major mistakes in the way we executed the war.

BASH: His approach to war?

HUCKABEE: I subscribe to the Powell-Schwarzkopf philosophy that says, first, that you have the kind of military that is so incredibly strong, that nobody on this planet even thinks about wanting to engage it in a battle.

BASH: On the stump, this Republican takes controversial positions that have not gotten much attention. He preaches a populist message, wary of free trade, and calls for cutting ties with Saudi Arabia.

HUCKABEE: Tell the Saudis, keep your oil; we don't need it, any more than we need your sand, and we're not going to allow to you manipulate our world, our economy, and force to us pay both sides in the war on terror, our tax dollars paying for the military, and our oil dollars paying for the side of the terrorists and the funding of them.

BASH: Tough talk some call out of the mainstream.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, SENIOR FELLOW IN FOREIGN POLICY STUDIES, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: The idea that we can get into a name game of insulting the Saudis doesn't really fit with any tradition in modern -- modern Republican or Democratic politics.


BASH: Now, Huckabee's rivals are pounding away at him. They suggest his world view is simply naive, but he actually plays this up, plays up the criticism that he's getting on the stump. He tells Iowa Republicans that this is simply an example of how the Washington establishment does not like him, and he says that he is going to have their interest at heart when he -- if he is president, both at home and abroad -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Dana.

And coming up, we will hear more from Mike Huckabee on foreign policy and questions about his campaign in his interview with our chief national correspondent, John King.

And right now, some of Hillary Clinton's rivals say they're startled, even stunned, by something she said, and they're outright accusing her of flip-flopping. It involves when she would withdraw troops from Iraq if elected president.

Let's go straight to our Brian Todd.

Brian, the Clinton campaign is pushing really back hard on this one, claiming that she has flip-flopped.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are, Suzanne, fighting those charges pretty steadily tonight. The charges stem from an answer that Mrs. Clinton gave on Wednesday when asked how she proposed to bring the U.S. troops home from Iraq. Take a listen.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think we can bring home, you know, one to two combat brigades a month. That's what all the military advisers that I consult tell me whom I trust and respect. So, I think we can bring nearly everybody home, certainly within a year, if we keep at it and do it very steadily.


TODD: Her opponents now leaping on that. John Edwards says he was startled by the comment. Bill Richardson calls it a stunning flip-flop from what Mrs. Clinton said in a September debate.

Now, according to Richardson, Mrs. Clinton said then that she could not commit to getting U.S. troops out in five years, let alone one year. But we have found her comments from that debate on MSNBC, and it's not quite that cut and dry.


CLINTON: It is my goal to have all troops out by the end of my first term. But I agree with Barack; it is very difficult to know what we are going to be inheriting.


TODD: Then that it was her goal to have troops out by the end of her first term, not what Richardson claims, that she couldn't commit to getting them out in five years.

Mrs. Clinton's campaign says Richardson is misquoting her and attacking her for something she never said. And the campaign points out she has always left the door open for leaving a residual U.S. force in Iraq indefinitely. And those latest comments don't seem to contradict that either, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Brian Todd, thank you so much.

Now a reality check on the presidential race with the first contest just around the corner. The candidates are scrambling across the early voting states, knowing that there is a big cloud of uncertainty that is hanging over them.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is here.

And, Bill, can the campaigns take off for the holidays or are they going to work, like us?


WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Not when there are so many voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who are still undecided.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): The Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns have been going on for nearly a year, and look how many voters are still undecided. In Iowa, 34 percent of likely Democratic caucus- goers and 40 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers say they're still trying to make up their minds. The numbers are even higher in New Hampshire -- 38 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans still haven't decided who they're going to vote for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know it will be Democrat, but haven't made a final decision.

SCHNEIDER: And talk about procrastinators. Consider this. As of last weekend, according to an online survey, two-thirds of Americans had not finished their Christmas shopping.

Retailers say over the past few years, people have been waiting longer and longer to do their Christmas shopping. Some stores are staying open all weekend to capture those last-minute shoppers. Campaigns can't shut down for the holidays either. They need a big sales pitch to capture those late deciders.

Who are they? They're more likely to be strong partisans than Independents. Partisans know what they're looking for. Independent voters, not so much. They don't do much shopping.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm an independent voter, and I think I'm either going to go for Ron Paul, as a Democratic (sic) candidate, or else Dennis Kucinich as a Democrat.

SCHNEIDER: Voters are taking longer to make up their minds for the same reason shoppers are waiting until the last minute, not because they're lazy, because even with all those candidates to pick from, nobody has been able to close the sale.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think a lot of the candidates have good ideas, but I'm not 100 percent sold on any of them.


SCHNEIDER: More and more Christmas shoppers are buying gift cards,, which is a way of saying, well, I can't make up my mind; let somebody else decide. Can voters do that? Well, they can just say home and let others decide for them -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, thanks, Bill. I think we're all going to be working through the holidays as the candidates. Thanks, again, Bill.


MALVEAUX: And now Jack Cafferty joining us from New York.

Jack, what are you following?


MALVEAUX: Lucky you.

CAFFERTY: That's right. I'm out of here tonight for about 12 days.

High gas prices, slumping home sales, and declining values and the whole sub-prime credit mess all teamed up to make 2007 a pretty lousy year for a lot of people. The latest CNN poll shows 57 percent of Americans think our economy is already in a recession. But you wouldn't know it down on Wall Street. Bonus checks at the big investment banking firms are up 14 percent this year.

Check this out, four of the biggest investment banks -- Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns -- will pay out $30 billion in bonuses.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein will get $70 million. Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld will get a $35 million stock bonus. Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne are forgoing their bonuses this year. But they are probably going to be okay.

Mack got more than $40 million in stocks and options last year. Cayne received a bonus of more than $33 million.

Average Americans who invested in these banks that are paying out these big bonuses probably might be scratching their heads, and rightfully so, because, see, if you own stock in a lot of these companies, well, the value of your investment is down about 45 percent.

So, here's the question: Is it wrong for Wall Street to reward its employees with big bonuses this year?

Go to and post your thoughts on my new blog -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Jack. I'm sure we will be getting a lot of responses on that one.

He is a Republican who criticized the Republican White House and got blasted for it. Does he regret what he said?


MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They're already out -- you know, this cow is out of the barn. So, you know would I do it again differently? I don't know.


MALVEAUX: But Mike Huckabee tells our John King that he's not afraid of taking a stand.

Also, one Democratic presidential candidate makes a surprising admission. You will want to find out who and what they're thinking about now.

And it's your money, billions that Congress wants to spend. Should it be used for, well, olive fruit fly research and other pet projects?


MALVEAUX: He already was getting hammered by his Republican rivals. Now Mike Huckabee also is absorbing a jab from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The former Arkansas governor's foreign policy views now in the spotlight, along with his criticism of President Bush and his new role as a front-runner.

Our chief national correspondent, John King, is in Iowa.

John, you interviewed Huckabee on all of these issues today, obviously, a lot to cover.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A fascinating conversation we had, Suzanne.

I began by asking about Secretary Rice's description of his view of the Bush administration foreign policy as ludicrous. Governor Huckabee says he admires Secretary Rice and thinks she's brilliant, but he stood by his comments that the Bush administration at times is arrogant and has a bunker mentality.


MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think people want to know, are there places not only where we're similar, but places where we're different? And what I'm specifically referencing is when you engage the military, you need to be very careful that when you put those battlefield commanders on the ground, you listen to them. And if they say you need 300,000 troops, you don't say, I'm sorry, but you're going to get 180,000 troops and that's all you're going to get.

KING: But you say -- you use words like bunker mentality and arrogant. She responds with ludicrous.

Do you regret those specific words, not the big points you were trying to make, but those specific words that...

HUCKABEE: They're strong words.

KING: And they have rankled people inside the White House at the highest levels, and they have become an attempt by your opponents to say this guy's not ready.

HUCKABEE: They're strong words, but this is a strong issue.

KING: Looking back now at the dustup this has caused within your own party -- you're a Republican seeking a nomination -- would you edit those words if you could write it again?

HUCKABEE: Well, I can't write it again. They're already out -- you know, this cow is out of the barn. So, you know would I do it again differently? I don't know.

It reflects what I was trying to communicate. And, again, I think, sometimes, we're so afraid that we're going to offend somebody that we don't take a stand. I think America is looking for a leader that takes a stand and is not so afraid of, oh, is somebody not going to like what I say?

Anything I say, somebody is probably going to find fault with it. And I would rather have people know where I'm coming from, get a clear picture of that, then to think that I'm so completely bland and vanilla that I don't have any convictions, that I don't have any thoughts or opinions that can be articulated.

I think that's what leadership is about. It's taking a stand. People don't have to agree with it. I'm fine that people don't always agree with what stand I take. I think that's when you start welcoming the dialogue and the discussion that ought to come. It's when we don't have the dialogue and when we don't take stands that the country suffers.

KING: Your rivals have tried to use this politically. Let me ask in two parts. One is Governor Romney, who raises the question about, this is a Republican criticizing a Republican president.

He's obviously trying to play to party loyalty in a state that President Bush has carried and where he's still popular among Republican voters, saying, this guy should be over there with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Mike Huckabee is criticizing our president. It's disloyal.

HUCKABEE: My pretty solid assumption is, he has not read the article. Someone should ask him, did he read the article before he made the comments?

If not, then I think it shows a lack of preparation on his part to make comments about something that he's not familiar with. He may have since read the article, but my guest is, when he first made those comments, he had not even read the article.

KING: Senator Thompson has taken a different view. He doesn't make it about the Republican -- internal Republican politics. He says, he did read it, and that he finds, especially where you talk about Iran and you say Iran was helping us in Afghanistan, Iran was willing to help the United States against al Qaeda, and then the president says axis of evil, and the Iranians sort of retreat, that they think all of a sudden they have an adversary in the United States, he says that -- essentially, that you're naive, that you don't understand the threat. And he says that you think you can sweet-talk.

HUCKABEE: I understand that there is clearly hostility with that nation, and we don't trust them, and we can't let them have nuclear arms.

That's not an option for us. But we also have to look beneath the surface. And any time you fire a high-powered rifle, you better know where that bullet could potentially go. And there are long-term implications of each decision that we make that we have to be very thoughtful of, get the best possible advice, and particularly not just see what it is going to do when it first hits the surface, but how deep will it go and how deep will the wound be?

KING: I assume by that, you mean that, while evil empire might have been a brilliant phrase used by Ronald Reagan, axis of evil, you think, was a mistake that has caused long-term damage?

HUCKABEE: No. No. I'm not even saying the president made a mistake in calling it an axis of evil, because I think you have to look at Iran's leadership right now as truly evil. There's no doubt about that.

This is not a person that we can, again, deal honestly with. He has already said that he would like to see the annihilation of Israel. He would certainly, I'm sure, be quite pleased if we disappeared. So, that's not a person we sit down and have cookies and tea with, have a gift exchange at Christmastime. KING: If you look at our latest poll here, you're not only ahead by eight points. You have a 2-1 edge over Governor Romney, who is your closest competitor, among women, a gender gap within the Republican electorate here. Why?

HUCKABEE: I talk about issues that people care about who are sitting around their kitchen table. It's not just the cookie-cutter Republican issues of, we're going to cut taxes; we're going to lower spending. And I certainly believe in that and talk about it. And I did it as a governor.

You know, I'm talking about things like health care, how much it costs to get to work every day when gas prices go up. And I'm talking about things like hunger and poverty, taking better care of this environment. Those are things a lot of Republicans don't talk about, quality of education.


KING: We also talked about Governor Romney's efforts in recent days, Suzanne, to paint him as soft on crime. Governor Huckabee said he does not think the 16 people he executed while he was Arkansas governor would feel that way.

I asked him how it feels to have the lead with 13 days to go here in Iowa. He said it feels great. He's very optimistic, but he also said he's constantly looking over his shoulder -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: No surprise there. Thanks, John. Fascinating interview.

KING: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: John McCain has a new campaign ad. It is a Christmas story from his days as a POW in Vietnam. You will see the ad and I will talk about it with the best political team on television.

And Barry Bonds goes back to court, but you might not believe what he asked the judge.




MALVEAUX: John McCain unveils his holiday season campaign ad on a very serious note. McCain invokes his days as a prisoner of war, as he tries to get more mileage out of his rebound.

Plus, Hillary Clinton keeps trying to prove that she's the Democrat most likely to be elected president. But are the voters buying it?

And climate change makes the list. What stories would you rank as the top news events of the year? All that and the best political team on television.



Happening now: Well, forget Oprah Winfrey. Hillary Clinton brandishes her weapons to woo women voters, Dorothy Rodham and Chelsea Clinton. We will tell you where the mother-daughter-granddaughter act is going next, and why.

John McCain's new Christmas ad combines a cheerful message with a painful story. It concerns his time as a prisoner of war. You will see it and I will talk about it with the best political team on television.

And your money, billions of dollars earmarked for congressional pet projects, should it be really spent researching ways to kill off fruit flies and other proposals?

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

Hillary Clinton brings some special guests along her latest campaign swing in New Hampshire, her mother and her daughter, Chelsea.

Well, our own Mary Snow is in New Hampshire.

Mary, you have got three generations on the trail. I guess the big question is, will it really help the candidate, Hillary Clinton?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, certainly, yes, the Clinton campaign is hoping so.

And this is the first time that Chelsea Clinton and Dorothy Rodham have joined Senator Clinton on the campaign trail here in New Hampshire. They have done so in Iowa. They, as you said, were billed as special guests, making the rounds with her today, this as Senator Clinton is really making a push for women voters in this state ahead of the primary, but she's also trying to make an appeal to all voters beyond the Democrats she's trying to court here.

By appealing to other voters, she's trying to stress that she can work with Republicans to get things done.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, as president, I will do something that George Bush has failed to do, work with the other party to get things done.


CLINTON: I will work across the party lines to get the big jobs of reforming health care and education and energy and global warming accomplished to make progress together. I can do that because it's what I have done for the last seven years. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Now, the bottom line on what this is translating to, or what she's hoping it is translating to, is to send the message that she is electable.

And, as this primary gets closer, the candidates are coming out to try to stress that they would be the one better suited to run up against a Republican in the national election.

And, certainly, with the voters here who are not decided yet making these decisions late in the game, that is one key question that a lot of them are looking at, is, who is electable? She is trying to stress that by constantly hitting home the theme or stressing the theme that she has

SNOW: And as this primary gets closer, the candidates are coming out to try to stress that they would be the one better suited to run up against a Republican in the national election. And certainly with voters here who are not decided yet making these decisions late in the game, that is one key question that a lot of them are looking at, is who is electable?

She's trying to stress that by constantly hitting home the theme, or stressing the theme, that she has experience and leadership -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK, Mary Snow. Thank you so much.

Joining us now, the best political team on television.

CNN contributor Carl Bernstein. He is author of the Hillary Clinton biography, "A Woman In Charge".

CNN's Jack Cafferty, of course, in New York. His book is called "It's Getting Ugly Out There".

And on the trail in Iowa, our own CNN's Dana Bash.

We want to start off -- first of all, we heard Mary Snow. She's out there with Senator Clinton. The mother, the daughter, everybody is getting into the act here -- Jack, is she electable?

CAFFERTY: Well, I don't know the answer to that, Suzanne. They all say if they're going to be elected they'll work with the other party and then when they are elected, they somehow forget all about that idea.

We talked about Hillary campaigning with her mother and daughter a week or so on this program. The country knows who Hillary Clinton is and my guess is almost everybody is not only aware of who she is, but they've -- they have an opinion about her. And the fact that her mother and her daughter are wandering around New Hampshire with her, I don't think, is likely going to change a whole lot of minds on that score.

Hillary Clinton is Hillary Clinton. You either like her or you don't. And she's no different because her mother is with her than she was if Bill was with her.

MALVEAUX: Carl, Jack says people are wandering around the state there. But I -- I want to bring up the -- there's the poll that shows there are 44 percent that say they like her and 44 percent who say they don't -- evenly split on this likeability factor here.

How does she convince people that she's more appealing if she brings her -- her mom and her daughter along?

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, AUTHOR, "A WOMAN IN CHARGE": She's trying everything that she's got. But I think the important thing is the question of whether she would work across party lines. She, like, I think, all the presidential candidates in the Democratic candidacies, indeed, are people who would work across party lines. And, at the same time, she's someone who, the first time around on health care, said she would demonize anybody who stood in her way. So people still have this very stark choice between these two sides of Hillary Clinton.

And increasingly what we're seeing in this Iowa run-up -- it's amazing that we've heard all this for months now and a vote hasn't been cast -- is the very different sides of Hillary Clinton. And I think the only way that people are really going to get to know her is to go back, look at her life, look at her record, read about her, go now too the Web, read my book if they choose...


BERNSTEIN: other books. But they have got to go beyond these daily polls and people every day saying...


BERNSTEIN: ...the campaign has moved an inch. You've got to go deeper.

MALVEAUX: All right...

BERNSTEIN: Who is the person?

MALVEAUX: Dana and I are laughing a little bit at that little pitch that you got in there for your book there. But...

BERNSTEIN: No, but I said other books.

MALVEAUX: Other books, too.


BASH: Hey, I've got it on my nightstand. I'm not going to say anything.

MALVEAUX: Dana is at work writing a book as we speak -- so, Dana, how does this play, the fight for the female vote here?

Obviously, that seems to be very important among Republican candidates, as well.

BASH: It is. It is very important. And, certainly, we saw that in the poll that CNN did this past week, particularly here. There is a pretty big gender gap when it comes to the Republican vote here. It may not matter that much, Suzanne, because, look, the percentage of Iowans who actually caucus is incredibly small and a majority of them are actually men.

But I can just tell you, just being out with Mike Huckabee, a lot of people who go to see him are women. They're women. They bring their kids. And they are women who -- no shocker for Mike Huckabee -- women who say that his faith is the reason why they like him. It's a thing in their gut, Suzanne. It's trust and likeability. And that is something certainly women -- we know we definitely go for the issues, just like men do. But there is also something that we can sort of sense, if you will, that perhaps men don't necessarily vote that way. And that is what I'm definitely finding on the trail with Mike Huckabee. There's no question about it.

MALVEAUX: And, Jack, you and I talked before. I know you're taking off after this show. You are on vacation. You are long gone. You're leaving some of this stuff behind, Jack. But, you know, there are a lot of those candidates out there, they're not going to have a holiday. They are campaigning up through the holiday, up until caucus day, up until primary day.


MALVEAUX: Do you think that helps or hurts them?

CAFFERTY: Well, I think they're forced by the mood of the season to tone it down a notch or two. And I welcome that. I'm tired of listening to all of them. It used to be that when Iowa and New Hampshire, for example, held their caucuses and primary later in the year, the candidates would simply suspend their campaigns over the Christmas season. They can't do that now because the first votes are cast on January 3rd. So they have to keep campaigning. But they can't be throwing mud and being shrill and harsh and calling people names, because it doesn't fit the mood of the season. And I'm -- that's something we can all be grateful for, I think.

MALVEAUX: Carl, what do they have to -- obviously, they have to strike a balance here.

What do they have to emphasize?

BERNSTEIN: Bah humbug.


CAFFERTY: Well, come on.


BERNSTEIN: I think what they're trying to do is emphasize whatever is going on at the moment that shows where they're vulnerable and try and plug that -- that leak in the dike, as it were. And there are a lot of leaks right now in the Clinton campaign and they're trying to scramble with women. They're trying to scramble on the question of bold leadership. They're trying to scramble bipartisanship.

And, at the same time, the Obama campaign is very obviously concerned on this question, does he have enough experience. And the Clinton campaign is really rapping him on it.

The most interesting thing, I think, that's happened in the last few days is Bob Kerrey's endorsement of Hillary Clinton, in which he talked that Obama didn't have the necessary experience. He raised the fact that he had once gone to school in Indonesia and brought up some Muslim notions. He has then...

MALVEAUX: Well, Dana...

BERNSTEIN: He has since retracted that, sent a letter to Obama that looks like an endorsement for Obama rather than Hillary, even though he's really endorsed Hillary.

MALVEAUX: I want to get Dana in real quick...


MALVEAUX:, if I can.

BERNSTEIN: Silly season.

MALVEAUX: Silly season.

Dana, real quick, if we -- if I can, how that faith is playing a role in all of this and the holiday season -- helping or hurting?

BASH: Well, look, I mean every candidate has -- pretty much has a Christmas ad up. That is certainly a no-brainer. But I can tell you that I've actually been fascinated by how Iowa voters -- I've been here for several weeks now -- how they are sort of dealing with the Christmas issue. And it's fascinating to me because many of them have said you know what, yes, when we open our mailbox we have, you know, 20 pieces of mail from candidates and maybe just a couple Christmas cards. We're not used to that at this time of year.

But they take such pride in this tradition that, you know, certainly it's not necessarily the way they're used to it later in the year, after Christmas. But they just sort of shrug their shoulders and say you know what -- it is what it is. We can deal with Christmas. We can deal with the Iowa caucuses at the same time. It's all right.

MALVEAUX: OK, great.

BASH: That's what I've been hearing from the vast majority of voters.

MALVEAUX: We'll get back with you all in just a moment here.

And more of the best political team ahead.

John McCain has a new Christmas ad and we're going to take a look at his message.

Also ahead, President Bush wants to get rid of some pork. It is stuffed into a massive Congressional spending bill meant to pay for lawmakers' pet projects.

But will President Bush be able to get some of the pork out of it?


MALVEAUX: As the candidates compete with their Christmas ads, can any of them top John McCain's story from his captivity in Vietnam?

Back to our members of the best political team on television -- CNN contributor Carl Bernstein, CNN's Jack Cafferty and CNN's Dana Bash.

I want to start off by playing a little bit of the ad that just came out for the holiday season.

Let's take a listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: One night after being mistreated as a POW, a guard loosened the ropes binding me, easing my pain. On Christmas, that same guard approached me. Without saying a word, he drew a cross in the sand. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas.


MALVEAUX: So, Jack, this is a very different kind of ad than what we've seen from some of the other candidates -- rather somber.

But will this turn them off?

Will they think, boy, this is -- this is a real downer?

CAFFERTY: Well, I don't know why it would turn them off. Christmas is -- the cross and Christmas are kind of synonymous. I think it's very dramatic. I think when it comes to certain issues, John McCain has reference points that none of the rest of the candidates have. The question in my mind is whether everybody will get as hysterical over McCain's cross in the sand as they got over Huckabee's bookshelves.

MALVEAUX: Dana, what do you think?

CAFFERTY: And that remains to be seen.



BASH: Well, his is pretty blatant. You know, the question about Huckabee was whether it was subliminal. But I think what's really interesting about this ad, Suzanne, is that, you know, when you look at the Republican field and all this talk about faith, John McCain is not one of the people that talks about his faith at all. He really -- you know, it's not an issue for him. He's not known as a churchgoer. So the fact that he chose to marry sort of this idea of faith with what Jack was just talking about, what he's best known for, which is his service in the war, is quite interesting. So -- because he found sort of the place to highlight Christmas for him and highlight his faith.

MALVEAUX: Carl, does he strike the appropriate tone?

BERNSTEIN: Yes, well, I thought it was a bookshelf. But, look, he has the most inspiring life story of all the candidates and that's what he's trying to show us here. It's probably an effective ad.

MALVEAUX: Let's move on to the Associated Press. They love to put this out at the end of the year. This is the Top 10 stories of 2007. I don't know if there are any surprises for you guys. But anybody want to take a guess at what the first one is -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Well, I know what the first one is.


CAFFERTY: It's the Virginia Tech shootings.

MALVEAUX: You cheated.

CAFFERTY: I read the list.

MALVEAUX: You cheated.

OK, is it a surprise...


CAFFERTY: I didn't know it was cheating.

MALVEAUX: You prepared. OK.

Is it surprising that that beats Iraq, that Iraq is number three?

CAFFERTY: Yes, to me it is.


CAFFERTY: And here's the reason why. Because the Virginia Tech shootings are a random act committed by a madman that affected -- granted, it affected the student population and the faculty on that campus. But to me, the most important story of the year should be the story that has the largest impact on the greatest number of people -- whether that's the war in Iraq, whether that's the possible slipping of our economy into a recession, whether it's the campaign for the nation's highest office.

I don't think a single, isolated act by somebody who is obviously mentally deranged qualifies as the top news story of the year.

MALVEAUX: Dana, what do you think?

Number two was the mortgage crisis. Obviously, that impacts a lot of folks. And then followed by Iraq.

BASH: Absolutely. You know, and -- you know, I tend to agree with Jack. That sort of surprised me that that was the number one issue, given all of the major news stories that we all covered over the past year.

But the thing that's interesting about the mortgage crisis is just from the perspective of the campaign trail of how much that is playing out on the campaign trail. I mean, if you want to look at why, perhaps, of the issue of foreign policy, the issue of foreign policy, the issue of the war and sort of, you know, transferring over to more bread and butter issues -- the economy, for voters -- that is the single biggest reason. People are feeling it. People are feeling the pinch. And, you know, I personally think that probably should have a little bit higher than it was.

MALVEAUX: Carl, one of the things that was interesting, too, the immigration debate came in at number nine. Obviously, when you look at the Republican field, that is like their top issue here, among some of them. They look at that as very, very serious. But it really -- it kind of went -- it went down a little bit below.

BERNSTEIN: You know, I don't know who makes these lists at the A.P. which is...

MALVEAUX: Journalists.

BERNSTEIN: ...which is a great reporting organization, but a bad list making organization. The real story -- and with all due respect to the victims in this horrible, horrible event in Virginia. But the real story is George Bush's dominance of the Democrats who won the Congress and his continuing ability to wage this war without being restrained in the least and to get his way with almost anything without serious stopping by the Democrats.

MALVEAUX: Does it surprise any of you that the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales didn't make the list, the top ten?

CAFFERTY: I think it did. It did make the list, didn't it?

Isn't it ten?

MALVEAUX: No, it didn't make it. That was Iran's nuclear program. It didn't make the list.

CAFFERTY: Well, the sooner we can forget about that little squirrel, the better.


CAFFERTY: So it's just as well it's not on the list.

MALVEAUX: Well, Dana...

BASH: I think...

MALVEAUX: interesting...

BASH: I think...

MALVEAUX: Go ahead.

BASH: I was just going to say, I think the story that could have been on there is how many stories we've done about why he had stayed so long.


BASH: That was probably the most interesting story about Alberto Gonzales.

MALVEAUX: And one thing that was interesting, Dana, Anna Nicole Smith -- the saga, the death, obviously tragic. But that -- that actually came ahead of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, if you can believe that. That did make the top 10...

CAFFERTY: Bob is right about the A.P....

MALVEAUX: ...but it actually...


BERNSTEIN: Why are we -- why are we taking this seriously?


BERNSTEIN: I mean, really, as journalists -- any of us...


BERNSTEIN: This is ridiculous.

MALVEAUX: Well, then we're not going to take it seriously, Carl, OK? (LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: We'll take it with a grain of salt.

BASH: Well, I will say -- I will say, though...


BASH: I will say, though, that, you know, let's face it, that's a commentary on society. I mean you look at every magazine in the newsstand, you talk about what people are talking about at the water coolers...


BASH: ...I mean whether it's sad or not, that's a fact.

MALVEAUX: All right, thanks so much, guys.


BERNSTEIN: Well, people just...

MALVEAUX: I'm sorry, we've run out of time. We've got to go. We're going to leave it there.

Thank you so much.

President Bush has given his budget director a challenge -- review pet projects in the budget sent to him by Congress and find creative ways to cut the waste.

But as our Brian Todd explains, that may be easier said than done.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, you've got nearly 10,000 of these projects total in the latest spending bill. And one of the reasons the president is sounding alarms is that days after he got this bill on his desk, we're just now beginning to take a hard look at these projects -- some of which seem to border on the absurd.


TODD (voice-over): At it again -- members of Congress using their positions to target billions of your dollars for their pet projects back home. They're called earmarks. And nearly 10,000 of them are in a $555 billion catchall spending bill for next year -- called an omnibus -- that was just rammed through Congress without much review.

It's on the president's desk. Presidents usually sign them, but this one may try to weed out some of the waste.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm instructing Budget Director Jim Nussle to review options for dealing with the wasteful spending in the omnibus bill.

TODD: What's wasteful?

CNN asked the group Taxpayers For Common Sense.

STEVE ELLIS, TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE: Two hundred and thirteen thousand dollars for olive fruit fly research in Montpellier, France.

TODD: That was requested by Democratic Congressman Mike Thompson of California. One of his aides says the research is being done by a U.S. government facility in France looking for ways to kill off fruit flies, which he says are a tremendous threat to California's growing olive industry -- a big employer.

The first lady's library in Canton, Ohio employs people, too, including the daughter of Republican Congressman Ralph Regula, who, according to Taxpayers For Common Sense, wants $126,000 of your money to help the library buy Abigail Fillmore's 19th century catalog of White House books.

His wife, who founded the library, told CNN the place was built with private donations and this was the only earmark for it.

MARY REGULA, LIBRARY FOUNDER: It is the National First Ladies Museum and Library. And it is under the National Park Service. And if that money looks bad, then I don't think people think that's bad.

TODD: But if the president wants to kill funding for it, experts say he can.

BRIAN RIEDL, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: The president can sign an executive order telling agencies to ignore the earmarks that are listed in the conference reports that accompany these bills and that are not part of the bills and, therefore, not binding.


TODD: But Brian Riedl says that would touch off what he called "a nuclear war" between the president and Congress, since the vast majority of members from both parties have pork projects.

What are some of the president's other options?

He could challenge some of the more vague pork projects or he could ban a practice called phone-marking -- when members call up agencies directly and tell them what they want money for -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Brian.

And big bonuses for bankers -- Wall street employees get increases as stock prices die.

Jack Cafferty joins us in a minute with your e-mails.

And Elizabeth Edwards talks about her stress while toy shopping. We'll tell you what she had trouble avoiding at the stores.


MALVEAUX: On our Political Ticker this Friday, Senator Chris Dodd is willing to acknowledge what some other presidential candidates will not -- that he'd be open to the job of vice president.

Listen to this.


SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can't rule those things out. I always get annoyed with people in politics who say well I'd never ever do that. Obviously, what I want to be is the president and be the presidential nominee. And I think we've got a darned good shot at this thing.


MALVEAUX: John and Elizabeth Edwards' young children won't find any toys from China in their stockings this year. Mrs. Edwards says that they decided to buy only USA made toys because of the rash of recalls of products made by China. But she says she had a hard time finding American made products online and in local stores.

And remember, for the latest political news any time, check out the Political Ticker at

Jack Cafferty again, joining us, from New York -- Jack, what do you have?

CAFFERTY: The question is, is it wrong for Wall Street to be rewarding its employees with big bonuses this year?

The top four investment banks will hand out $30 billion at the end of the year to some of their top execs.

Lorelei in Boynton Beach, Florida writes: "It's a disgrace to give big bonuses to Wall Street. They don't deserve them. The small investor is being squeezed out and once again the middle class is taking it on the nose. There are a great many things wrong in America, and Wall Street is one of them -- and Congress is another."

Greg in Pennsylvania: "Life is not fair, Jack. In a perfect world, there would be no poverty, no one would go hungry or homeless, people would be hired for and working in the jobs for which they were best suited. Good performance would be rewarded, poor performance would be penalized. In reality, corporate executives are outrageously overpaid, receive monstrous bonuses for mediocre work and the multi- million dollar severances after losing billions for the companies they run. It's as futile as complaining about the weather."

Salem writes -- this is a good letter: "Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, deserves his massive bonus for making risky but shrewd decisions that have dramatically increased profits for his firm. Under Blankfein's watch, a tiny gold of Goldman traders were allowed to bet against the subprime market. It resulted in nearly $4 billion in profit. For the other firms that have suffered greater loss, keep in mind the employees" -- and I don't buy this at all -- "they work from 7:30 until midnight." Oh. "It makes sense to give them a big bonus."

I don't buy that part. But the first part about Goldman Sachs is good.

Anthony in New York writes: "Instead of granting bonuses to its employees, Wall Street ought to return the money to the Treasury, pay off the astounding debt that we have courtesy of this administration. They've seen this surplus of money because of the outsourcing of jobs and tax cuts for the wealthy. Maybe we should allow these CEOs to continue to gut these companies. That's what Curious George seems to want."

Joe writes: "Their piggish behavior one part of the larger problem -- corporate boards of directors put the shareholder third, after the CEO and then themselves. Corporations have used their riches to promote laws and regulations that would put shareholders in control of the board. Sadly, we have boards who serve at the pleasure of the CEO."

And Robert in Tampa, Florida: "The story is a synopsis of the Bush economy -- the rich get richer, while the middle class gets poorer." -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Jack, thank you.

And get a jump on the best photos appearing in tomorrow's papers -- everything from a sky high skier to pilgrims in Bethlehem -- pictures to ponder, when we return.


MALVEAUX: Here's a look at some of the Hot Shots coming in from our friends at the Associated Press -- pictures likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow.

In Gaza, a Hamas supporter wears a mask during a funeral in a refugee camp. At least five alleged militants were killed during an Israeli Army raid.

In southern Germany, a skier soars from the new Olympic ski jump during a competition.

In the West Bank, a Christian pilgrim prays against a pillar in the Church of the Nativity. It's believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

And in California, a 4-month-old panda cub falls on her head after tumbling off a tree limb. She makes her public debut Saturday -- well, if she lives that long.

Well, that's this hour's Hot Shots -- pictures worth a thousand words.

Join Wolf Blitzer this Sunday for "LATE EDITION." It's a year-end special, "THE BEST OF LATE EDITION," featuring interviews with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, some of the '08 presidential candidates and more.

Thanks for joining us.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux in THE SITUATION ROOM.


Kitty Pilgrim is in for Lou -- Kitty.