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Romney's New Hampshire Headaches; Interview With California Congressman Duncan Hunter

Aired December 26, 2007 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: Mitt Romney's new New Hampshire headaches. Can he overcome the pain of back-to-back newspaper attacks?

Plus, Mike Huckabee's hunt, will it snare him votes in Iowa or will it backfire?

And John Edwards' game plan revealed -- eight days before the first presidential contest, does he have Hillary Clinton all figured out? Hot topics for the best political team on television.

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

Let's begin this hour in Iowa, where Democrat Barack is trying to get at Hillary Clinton through her husband. It's another round in an ongoing series of attacks and counterattacks between the Obama and Clinton camps.

CNN's Jessica Yellin is out in Iowa. She's covering Obama for us.

So, what's going on? What is he trying to accomplish in this latest effort?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Obama is trying to challenge Hillary Clinton on what they're calling their closing arguments here. That's the final case they're making to the people of Iowa before the caucus just a week away.

As you know, Senator Clinton's argument is that she has the experience to lead right away. And Bill Clinton has said that essentially going with Obama is taking a gamble because he doesn't have enough Washington experience. Well, Obama scoffed at that notion today, basically saying that's a sign of fear and unwillingness to change the status quo. Here's how he put it.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Don't, you know, try something different, because, you know, that's going to be too risky. You know, you don't know what you might get. So, even though you know what's been done in the past doesn't work, stick with it. You know, I know that that's not how America's made progress. (END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Now, Wolf, Obama's argument is that he is the man who can create real change in Washington and that's why voters should stick with him -- Wolf.

BLITZER: At one of his events today, some guy got up and he got all choked up. I want to play this little excerpt. Listen to this, listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And every so often, the Congress plays politics and decides will we fund health care for veterans this year? If so, how much? This system needs to be changed so that we can count on health care for our veterans who are returning now, more and more of them with terrible injuries, and we can't desert them.

Thank you, sir.


OBAMA: I want to shake your hand.


BLITZER: All right. That was an emotional moment there out on the campaign.

You have been watching all of this. Give us some perspective.

YELLIN: Well, Obama has been criticized for not being touchy- feely enough, if you will, with his audience. He has got a great style. He gets the crowd going, energized. But in terms of those intimate moments, sometimes, he has been criticized for lacking there.

And what we saw here was a moment when somebody was breaking down, needing maybe the human touch, and Obama showed that he can reach out and do that. He's working, I guess, on that likability factor. We usually talk about it with Senator Clinton. We see Obama working on it as well in just these final days before the vote.

BLITZER: And, Jessica, you have seen some significant differences in the crowds that they're attracting out there in Iowa, the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Barack Obama campaign. Explain.

YELLIN: It really is remarkable. You go to a Senator Clinton event and there are a huge turnout usually, many people, most of who are quite elderly. A lot of elderly women turn out. You go to Barack Obama events, very young people, including college students, people in their 30s and 40s.

Of course, they're crossover, but it's striking the extent to which their audiences are very different in terms of their age and demographic. And, in fact, Senator Clinton is trying to draw out the elderly woman's vote and Barack Obama is trying to draw out the youth vote. You see it represented in who comes to their events. They're appealing to their target audiences very successfully -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, normally, normally -- and this might not be a normal year -- older people tend to vote in much better numbers than younger people do. We will see how that unfolds this time.

Jessica, thanks very much.

Jessica we will be back with us later.

Let's get to New Hampshire right now. Mitt Romney is brushing off a second New Hampshire newspaper editorial urging voters not to choose him. But the Republican presidential candidate can't ignore some evidence that his campaign is on much shakier ground in the leadoff primary state.

Mary Snow is out on the campaign trail in New Hampshire watching this story for us.

Hi, Mary.


And Mitt Romney is really making his final push here in New Hampshire before heading to Iowa, and it comes as two newspapers here in New Hampshire in recent days have had blistering criticism of Mitt Romney, and he's seeing his lead in state polls eroding.


SNOW (voice-over): As skiers outside tried to keep firm footing...


SNOW: ... Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney tried to do the same. His lead has been slipping in New Hampshire polls and for the second time in four days, he has been the subject of stinging editorials in the state. The latest one is from "The New Hampshire Union Leader," criticizing him for changing positions on issues like abortion, saying the more he speaks, the less believable he becomes.

Romney answered his critics.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But if you look at my record as governor, you can see that my positions are the positions I carried out as governor. There's no change.

SNOW: Some political observers say the fact that Romney was in New Hampshire when most of his rivals are in Iowa is telling in itself.

DANTE SCALA, UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE: It means that Mitt Romney is hearing footsteps here and they're getting louder every day.

SNOW: Those footsteps are from John McCain, who has been gaining momentum in the state where Romney is still in the lead, but not by much. And Romney is trying to set himself apart from McCain on the issue of illegal immigration, targeting a compromise reform bill McCain sponsored and accusing the Arizona senator of supporting amnesty.

ROMNEY: I'm happy to talk about times when I have been wrong. But I don't recall Senator McCain saying he was wrong to say that all illegal aliens should be able to stay here permanently.

SNOW: The McCain fired back with this statement: "know something," McCain says, and it's pretty clear Mitt Romney is in one. It's disappointing that he would launch desperate, flailing and false attacks."


SNOW: And as for John McCain's position on illegal immigration, in that reform bill, he had sponsored earned citizenship, which some people said amounted to amnesty. He often asked about this in town hall meetings and when people voice their frustration about it, he has often said to them that he hears them and he gets their message.

And Romney is expected to really be harping on this issue, in particular, and tax cuts in these final days here in New Hampshire, as political observers say these are really the two issues that are going to really make a difference to Republican voters here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow in New Hampshire for us, thank you.

Rudy Giuliani is focusing in once again today on Florida, while many Republican rivals are braving the chill in Iowa and New Hampshire, as you saw -- Giuliani making a new push to win the votes of veterans in the January 29 Florida primary, one of Giuliani's must- win states.

Let's go down to Florida, Largo, specifically. John Zarrella is watching all this unfold.

What was his message today, John?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Wolf, first, Giuliani certainly appeared energized here this afternoon. He said he's feeling absolutely great. That's following a health care last week where he was briefly hospitalized. He said all the tests turned out just fine and he's moving ahead.

Now, he met with veterans here at the American Legion post in Largo. His message to them is, he's the best candidate for the military.


ZARRELLA (voice-over): A brief photo-op, then closed doors while Rudy Giuliani met privately with about a dozen veterans.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need to make sure we support our military, make sure it has the resources that it needs in order to get the job done.

TIM NEWLAND, VETERAN: And we are going to have a lot more veterans, you know, coming home from the current conflict. And it's essential that we take care of those guys.

ZARRELLA: While most of the Republican presidential hopefuls are campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire, Giuliani is in Florida. The former New York City mayor is hoping climate change will reinvigorate his campaign, which has gotten the cold shoulder from voters in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Polls have Giuliani leading in Florida, a state his campaign says is hugely important.

GIULIANI: This is also very big state. It's a state that is very diverse. You win Florida, it says something about your ability to win a general election. All the primaries are important, though. But this is particularly important.

ZARRELLA: If nominated, Giuliani says the issues in the general election, health care, taxes, terrorism, will be essentially the same, no matter which Democrat he faces.


ZARRELLA: Now, Giuliani believes that the Florida primary on the 29th of January will be and could very well be a springboard towards the big February 5 primaries involving about 20 states.

He said the bottom line, it's simple. You just have to win enough primaries to get the nomination -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What voting group down in Florida where you are, John, is Giuliani counting on the most?

ZARRELLA: You know what? His people say that certainly the veterans are key, and there are many, many veterans here. But his people also told me this afternoon there is no one constituency, because Florida is such a hugely diverse state -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we know there are a lot of former New Yorkers who have retired and live down there in Florida right now.


BLITZER: All right, I'm sure he's counting on them. John, thanks very much for that.

A presidential candidate suggests there is a smoking gun about Iran's nuclear ambition.


REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's like building a rifle, and you have got a barrel in one room, you have got a trigger assembly in the other, you have got a stock in the other. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Republican Duncan Hunter on what he thinks Iran is putting together. He thinks anyone who thinks Iran actually stopped its nuclear weapons program is flat wrong.

John Edwards' campaign is putting out its warnings about Hillary Clinton. It predicts she will try to frighten voters into supporting her as a special word of caution to many of you.

And an amazing story -- a girl in a deadly plane crash survives, then endures days in the mountains. She is now said to be talking.

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


BLITZER: Welcome back.

In about a week, everything we think about the presidential race could -- could -- dramatically change. Some candidates considered sleepers could spoil plans laid out by some of the top-tier candidates, as they're called. And that would shoot this race into an entirely new dimension.

Our senior political correspondent, Bill Schneider, is standing by. He's joining us.

Bill, there are some significant wild cards out there that you're watching for us.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: There certainly are, Wolf, at least one in each party.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): In the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been getting most of the attention, but there's a wild card in the Democratic race: John Edwards. Polls in Iowa show a tight three-way race between Clinton, Obama and Edwards. Edwards is betting heavily on Iowa.

DENNIS GOLDFORD, PROFESSOR OF POLITICS AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, DRAKE UNIVERSITY: John Edwards, we have to remember, never really left after the '04 caucus cycle. He had a good, strong organization here in Iowa.

SCHNEIDER: After some initial missteps, that $400 haircut, Edwards has adopted a strong populist message.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have fought for jobs and the middle class and health care. I have fought for the kind of working people in the middle class that I grew up with.

SCHNEIDER: If Edwards wins Iowa, he could become the Clinton alternative, instead of Obama. In the Republican race, the focus has been the hot race in Iowa between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. John McCain was written off last summer, when his campaign nearly ran out of money. But he may be coming back to life in New Hampshire, where he won the endorsement of an influential conservative newspaper.

McCain's now running a strong second in New Hampshire. In 2000, when McCain beat George W. Bush in the Granite State, he was the maverick. Now he's the candidate of experience.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It really has a lot to do with experience, and knowledge and background that I have on national security issues throughout my entire life.

SCHNEIDER: Republicans have mixed feelings about McCain.

GOLDFORD: His two main issues cut in opposite directs. Republicans don't like his stance on immigration. They do like his support for the war in Iraq and particularly for the surge.

SCHNEIDER: Those are the same feelings that Republicans have about President Bush.


SCHNEIDER: If McCain wins New Hampshire, the Republican race will look totally different. So will the Democratic race if Edwards wins Iowa. That's why they're the wild cards -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we will watch together with you. Thanks very much, Bill Schneider, reporting.

Eight days to go until the Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter trails severely in the presidential polls. But he's still trying to leave his mark on the race and the campaign debate.


BLITZER: Congressman Duncan Hunter of California is joining us now from San Diego.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

HUNTER: Hey. Great to be with you, Wolf. How are you doing?

BLITZER: I'm doing fine.

Let's talk a little bit about some of the issues. And I want to pick your brain. Put on your hat as the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. A couple issues involving Russia.

First of all, they tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile within the past couple days or so, capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. Should that be of any concern to the U.S.? HUNTER: Yes, it still is concern, Wolf. You obviously have lots of strategic systems, some of them very modern that the Russians have still targeted on American interests and on American territory. And you know, it takes two things to constitute a threat. It takes capability and intent.

While the Russian intent changed as the Berlin Wall came down, the capability remained, and the intent, and the shifting politics in Russia right now are still a cause for concern for the United States. Still a dominant nation of all of our potential adversaries, still a dominant nation with respect to strategic systems. Nuclear-tipped missiles still very, very effective, and I think we're going to have to be very vigilant.

BLITZER: So you're worried about that.

What about this other decision by the Russians now to sell a new anti-aircraft missile to Iran, a pretty sophisticated anti-aircraft missile? I suppose that worries you as well.

HUNTER: Yes. we have got to be drawing a line in the sand. And what's happened here, Wolf, is this -- every time we have moved toward really tough sanctions and tried to really put the -- put the pressure on Iran, China and Russia have worked to blunt really difficult sanctions, and, you know, we're getting closer to the edge of the cliff.

And the edge of the cliff is when the Iranians are able to refine this weapons material that's used for a nuclear device, where they get it up to the 50, 60 percent refinement level. And we should probably draw a line in the sand in which we say we're not going to let them get past what it takes for a commercial reactor, for a domestic reactor.

The problem that I'm worried about is that as we get closer to the edge of the cliff, I think the Iranians are trying to follow what I call a North Korean model. The North Koreans talked and built, talked and built. And finally one day they said we have nuclear devices, you're going to have to live with them.

BLITZER: But, Congressman, this latest national intelligence estimate that the CIA, the U.S. intelligence community put out saying they stopped trying to weaponize their nuclear program four years ago, a lot of people say that simply pulled the rug out from U.S. diplomats who were seeking to pressure the Russians, the Chinese and the Europeans, for that matter, to increase the sanctions on Iran.

HUNTER: And you know, the conclusion that they gave us and the conclusion that we drew, that they had stopped, is flat wrong, Wolf, because as you know, it takes a number of components to make a nuclear device -- the trigger mechanism, the initiation mechanism, and, of course, the nuclear material, the weapons-grade material. It's like building a rifle, and you have got a barrel in one room, you have got a trigger assembly in the other, you have got a stock in the other.

While they stopped some of the things, they continue to do the most important part of that program, and that is to refine uranium. And they're doing that at Natanz, as you know. And they have 2,952 centrifuges going full time trying to turn out this weapons-grade material, so they're going full bore on the most important part of the weapons program.

How can you reconcile that with a conclusion that says they have stopped? Absolutely an erroneous conclusion.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about your future.

Mike Huckabee was quoted in The New York Times magazine the other day as saying this about you: Duncan is extraordinarily well qualified to be secretary of defense.

Are you interested in that job?

HUNTER: Well, you know, right now what I'm interested in is the same thing that Mike's interested in. And I'm just starting my radio and television in New Hampshire.

I don't think there's any daylight in Iowa. I think that is a two-man race, and I think Mike Huckabee has waged a superb campaign in Iowa.

I think Iowa is definitely with him, way out front, with Mitt Romney trying to catch up. So I'm going to concentrating on New Hampshire.

I'm going to be in Nevada tomorrow with Chuck Yeager. We're doing work there. We're working the western caucuses and primaries.

I think that Iowa is a two-man race right now, but very nice of Mike. And he's really a quality candidate with great character. It's been a lot of fun to stand next to him, and as you have hosted a couple of the debates that he and I have been involved in, he's a great guy. But I'm going for the same thing he's going for right now.


BLITZER: And Congressman Hunter says he will support whoever is the Republican presidential nominee over a Democrat. He says that would include John McCain, who has a very different view than Hunter on the issue of immigration, also Rudy Giuliani, who, unlike Hunter, supports abortion rights. He doesn't think Giuliani, though, will get the nomination.

A Republican presidential candidate hunting for the kill, but Mike Huckabee has more than -- has his eyes on more than just wild game. We are going to take a closer look at what he's really shooting for.

And a nightmare for anyone who has ever been to a zoo -- a 300- pound tiger escapes and attacks. There is a death, casualties, and now a very, very disturbing twist. We will be right back.


BLITZER: Mike Huckabee is opening fire in Iowa, literally. Watch this.


MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: These three birds all said they would not vote for me on caucus night. You see what happened to them.


MATTHEWS: The Republican is on the hunt for game and for votes, and he may be taking a shot at Mitt Romney along the way.

And John Edwards' camp is predicting that voters won't be fooled by Hillary Clinton. Does the best political team on television think Edwards has it right?

Plus, she survived a plane crash and two days alone in the mountains. Now the parents of a 13-year-old survivor are speaking out.

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


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

Happening now: a presidential candidate on the hunt. Republican Mike Huckabee stalking wild game, but he's also hunting some bigger game. We are going to tell you why this photo-op actually matters.

John Edwards' campaign warning voters about Hillary Clinton -- his campaign predicts she will pull some classic Republican moves, says voters shouldn't be fooled.

But Hillary Clinton has a warning of her own. A new ad warns there is too much at stake in the looming election and that she's the one with a steady hand. It appears to be a direct swipe at Barack Obama. How will voters, though, respond? All of this, plus the best political team on television.

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

Let's go out to Iowa first, though, Republican Mike Huckabee joining the ranks of presidential hopefuls eager to be seen with a rifle in his hand and dressed in hunting gear.

That kind of photo-op can help candidates or it can also leave them wounded.

Let's go to Dana Bash. She went along with Mike Huckabee on this hunting trip.

How did it go, Dana, politically speaking?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it was definitely a different kind of strategy for Mike Huckabee, Wolf. He usually has small, traditional meet and greets with voters. That has had -- he's had success with those kind of events here in Iowa but instead today he began his final push here in the Hawkeye State with a play at imagery.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's going with us.


BASH: Governor, what kind of gun is that?

HUCKABEE: This is a Benelli 12-gauge Black Eagle.

BASH (voice-over): Mike Huckabee wants Iowans to know and see that he's a hunter who knows his stuff.

HUCKABEE: You know, it would help if I could get some shells.

Who's got those?

BASH: A not so subtle contrast to Mitt Romney, his chief rival here, who declared himself a lifelong hunter only to have his campaign admit he's only hunted twice.

HUCKABEE: Maybe it will show that, you know, I certainly understand the culture of being outdoors. It's not a -- it's not something I had to go and, you know, get a primer in.

BASH: The former Arkansas governor says he'd normally be duck hunting back home after Christmas. He claims he goes some 30 times a season.

But in Iowa, it's pheasants. And after a couple of misses...

HUCKABEE: Red is fire. So it's away from me.

BASH: ... Some problems with his safety lock...


BASH: He bagged a pheasant -- three for his whole party.

HUCKABEE: These three birds all said they would not vote for me on caucus night. You see what happened to them.

BASH (on camera): Governor, is that positive campaigning?

HUCKABEE: It's very positive. It's very positive. You vote for me, you live.

You don't? Hmm. There you go.

BASH (voice-over): Beyond the folksy, if-not-slightly morbid humor, a closing argument for Iowa voters.

HUCKABEE: That what I bring to the race is the most experience of actually running a government. And I think I also bring a level of authenticity and credibility to the campaign.

BASH: But even here, evidence Huckabee still has work to do -- fellow hunter Clint Robinson thinks he's going for Huckabee, but...

CLINT ROBINSON, HUNTER: Immigration is certainly an issue. It's -- his stance isn't necessarily in line with what I think needs to happen either.

BASH: Lucky for Huckabee, he got some quality hunting time to lobby Robinson.

HUCKABEE: Lunch will be at 11:30.

BASH: And maybe a meal.

HUCKABEE: Hey, Joy (ph), it goes real good with pomegranate.


BASH: Now, there is no way that Mike Huckabee was going to go hunting with the press corps and not make a joke about Dick Cheney, Wolf. He was asked whether or not he invited the vice president who, of course, notoriously accidentally shot his fellow hunter. He responded without missing a beat: "I really want to survive, you know, all the way through deal here" -- his way of saying no.

BLITZER: All right, Dana.

Thanks very much.

So can Mike Huckabee seal the deal with Iowa voters?

Joining us now to talk about that and more, CNN contributor Bill Bennett. He's also a Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute.

Also in Iowa with the CNN Election Express, CNN's, Jessica Yellin and our senior political analyst Gloria Borger.

All of them a part of the best political team on television.

All right, Bill, I'll start with you.

Can he seal the deal in Iowa?

WILLIAM BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, CLAREMONT INSTITUTE: First of all, I've got to say, what are we doing inside these rooms when these women are outside in the cold, Wolf?


BLITZER: It's unfair.

BENNETT: We've got a hunter/gatherer problem here, a little -- yes -- anyway, gender confusion. We'll deal with that later.

I don't -- I think he can seal the deal in Iowa. Let's ask the experts. I don't think he can seal the deal nationally.

It's a very interesting phenomenon.

Can I just say one thing as a former teacher of political philosophy in college?

You know, the cynical argument about politics -- and we're in this political season -- is that it's money, money, money -- money buys everything.

It sure didn't buy a lead in Iowa, did it?

I mean Mitt Romney has thrown money far and wide and deep. And Huckabee has had, what, one twentieth of the money?

And look where Huckabee is.


Now, when you...


BLITZER: ...let me just press you on this, Bill.


BLITZER: You're saying you don't think he can seal the deal nationally.

You mean to be elected president or to get the Republican nomination?

BENNETT: I don't think he can get the nomination. Now, this may be too idiosyncratic. He doesn't seem to me -- I keep thinking of the line from Ralph Waldo Emerson -- you know, the louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons. There's something wrong here. And as you look at the record, there are problems.

There are problems in terms of his record as governor and the commutation of those sentences, the pardons that he gave out; economic issues; tax issues. The "Foreign Affairs" article was a disaster.

BLITZER: All right...

BENNETT: Bob Dole responded to him today. I think he's going to -- now that he's getting the scrutiny, I think you're going to see -- see him drop some, but probably not before Iowa. BLITZER: I think what Mitt -- what Mike Huckabee, Gloria, would say in response to Bill Bennett is what he said on Sunday when he told Bob Schieffer this. He said -- let me read it to you: "When you go to places like Iowa, you find that what people are talking about and what they're concerned about is very different than what you see from the talking heads."

BENNETT: Right. Right.

BLITZER: "Maybe I pose a threat to those folks."

What do you think, Gloria, can he seal the deal, first of all, in Iowa, but then move on and get the Republican nomination?

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: OK, first of all, full disclosure. I guess I'm talking head, right, Wolf?

BLITZER: You are.

BORGER: But I can...


BORGER: I can also say that there is some sense here in Iowa that maybe Huckabee has peaked a little bit too early. You know, there's all of this buzz about John McCain coming back to the State of Iowa, some sense maybe that he's not going to win, that he could do pretty well.

I think what Huckabee has done is he's taken Mitt Romney down off his perch.


BORGER: And as Bill was saying, Romney has spent $17 million of his own money -- largely in Iowa and New Hampshire. And here comes this guy out of nowhere who knocks Romney's conservative credentials, appeals to the Evangelical who vote in these caucuses here in Iowa.

So he's going to do well. Whether he's going to win or not, I just don't know.

BLITZER: What are you seeing, Jessica, when you're out there in Iowa and you're watching this?

Because Huckabee has come seemingly out of nowhere to challenge Mitt Romney in Iowa and to challenge everybody else in New Hampshire, as well.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What I'm seeing, Wolf, is a lot of undecided voters. I'm surprised. I go to the Democratic events but I am surprised by the extent to which many of the people are going to see both candidates on both sides of the aisle because they really haven't made their minds up. And as much as they might say they're preferring someone right now, most of the people I'm talking to say they're willing to change in the next seven days. They're only starting to really hone in on their decision right now.

And so it seems like the fields are wide open on both sides of the aisle, because the voters simply don't know what they want yet.

BLITZER: How much of a factor do you believe, Bill, Ron Paul is in this Republican contest?

Because he's raised millions and millions of dollars. He's got very passionate supporters out there. And I think it's fair to say it's almost unpredictable what impact he'll have, first in Iowa and then in New Hampshire.

But what do you think?

BENNETT: Well, I think he made the case very well. He's a wild card, figuratively and literally. But he's got -- he's got passion. His people have passion. And governing this year, outside of passion, Wolf, is confusion.

I mean I think what, Jessica, just said is right. You've got -- you know, you've got the guy in front with 25 or 30 percent. You know, I'm not one who salutes and bows down before the undecided voter, you know, watching their every tick. But I'll tell you, there are so many undecided Republicans -- we hear from them every day on the radio show. People are still not clear.

I had a boomlet this morning for Jon Kyl, if you can believe that, because people are saying...


BENNETT: I know. I know. But people are saying I don't like any of these guys enough.

So there's so much indecision. We'll all try to sort this out. Anything can happen.

One thing I think is clear, and that was just mentioned -- McCain, as the kind of rock solid conviction Republican -- though people are very unhappy about, you know, campaign finance reform and immigration -- is making a come back. They know John McCain. He's familiar. They're uncertain about some of the others.

BLITZER: All right...

BENNETT: This could be some good days for John.

BLITZER: Stand by guys, because we're going to continue this and take a closer look at the Democrats, as well.

Hillary Clinton making what some are calling her final arguments to Iowa voters. We're going to show you her just released new ad.

Plus, John Edwards' warning to voters about Hillary Clinton.

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


BLITZER: We're back with one of the best political team on television.

Jessica Yellin, you're out in Iowa. You've been following these Democrats out there. Hillary Clinton has got a brand new ad that's now playing. It's sort of her closing arguments to the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire eight days before the January 3rd Iowa caucuses.

She's in trouble, though, right now. It's by no means inevitable she's going to win in Iowa, New Hampshire or down the road, the Democratic nomination.

YELLIN: No. This is crunch time for Senator Clinton. She once looked so far ahead of the pack. She's in a statistical dead heat with Barack Obama and John Edwards. And her new message, unveiled in this ad, is the same message we've been hearing, but driven home more emphatically, which is that she is the most experienced leader to get America through what they are suggesting are these crisis times, with the war overseas.

They show a picture of a house being foreclosed on and it says, we need a leader with a steady hand.

Well, her message, clearly, is that she's the one that really knows how to take care of America's problems from the get go and that we shouldn't mess around with beginners.

Well, this is the same message that Barack Obama has walked all over today and for the past few months, that John Edwards has criticized. But she's banking on it, because it is, far and away, her strongest suit right now. Iowans, by far, give her the most points for having experience and they value that. We talk to voters walking out of all sorts of events. They say that they really trust Hillary Clinton on experience.

The question is, do they want that more than change?

And that's really what this election will come down to a week from now.

BLITZER: And, Gloria, if Hillary Clinton wins in Iowa, that's great news for her moving on to New Hampshire. On the other hand, if she loses in Iowa to either Barack Obama or John Edwards, that clearly propels those two candidates.

BORGER: Sure. I mean if Hillary Clinton does not win in Iowa, it is by no means, Wolf, the end of her campaign. From day one, her campaign said, look, we don't expect to win in Iowa.

But I think what's really going to be interesting is to watch if she doesn't win, who does?

If Barack Obama wins, does he win by five points or two points?

And if John Edwards beats both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I can tell you, Wolf, we're going to be looking at who comes in third. That's going to be really important to Hillary Clinton if she's the third place person.

BLITZER: Correct me if I'm wrong, Bill, because I know you're well plugged in with conservatives out there. They were almost relishing a run against Hillary Clinton, seeming -- she was seemingly inevitable. They seem sort of disappointed right now that maybe she's not going to be the Democratic nominee. But give me your sense.

BENNETT: I'm not sure that's true. It all depends how the match- ups go. Some people really like the idea, for example, of a McCain/Obama match-up, because that's a clear experience advantage. But, you know, the chemistry changes as the people change.

But I've got to say, you know, how pitiless is politics, the way the wind change. I mean Romney is under attack now and siege, having a tough time. Hillary seems to be under attack, too.

Jessica Yellin said something in an earlier report I thought was really interesting, which is that the young people are coming out for Obama, the older people for Hillary Clinton.

Will the young people vote?

We know the old people will. So, you know, it's very hard to say.

But have we ever seen a Republican and Democrat, you know, slate -- both sides, at this point -- that is so unsettled?

In my experience, I haven't seen it. But I'll leave it to the (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: I assume a lot of college students, Jessica, are flocking into Iowa right now, during their break from school and they're getting involved.

But the question is this, who are they getting involve with?

YELLIN: By far, it's going to Obama. There is no question about that. He has a lot of enthusiasm.

The question, though, is, is it geographically dispersed enough?


YELLIN: Because in the State of Iowa, pockets of support aren't enough. You have to have support throughout the state. And college students tend to be concentrated. So he needs more than that.

BLITZER: And, Gloria...


BLITZER: Let me just...

BENNETT: Go ahead. Yes.

BLITZER: If Edwards wins in Iowa, that doesn't necessarily mean he's going to win in New Hampshire or South Carolina or any place else. But it does give him some life. It does give him some momentum.

BORGER: It absolutely would give him some life, some momentum.

But one thing we haven't talked about, Wolf, that we really have to look at on the Democratic side is, who is everybody's second choice?

Because in Democratic caucuses, you can kind of change your mind. Hillary Clinton is a lot of people's first choice. But she's not a lot of people's second choice. Obama is and Edwards is. And that could really, really help them out in the Democratic caucuses and help them to win.

And it's also going to be all about getting those young voters out there that you were just talking about -- but getting all of these voters to the polls on a cold, cold caucus night.


BORGER: And If you've got the organization, you might be able to win.

BLITZER: It's wide open -- I think all of us agree -- on the Democratic side and the Republican side.

Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

BENNETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: We'll continue this conversation.

Coming up, a deadly tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo. We now know the identity of the teenage victim and we're going to update you on the condition of two other young men still hospitalized. It's now officially a crime scene.

Plus, a young American girl is the sole survivor of a deadly plane crash in the mountains of Panama. Her parents speaking out to CNN for the first time.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: A tiger escapes at the San Francisco Zoo, killing one man, mauling two others in a shocking Christmas Day tragedy. And now, officials are trying to figure out exactly how it happened.

Let's go out there live.

CNN's Ted Rowlands is watching all of this.

There have been some important disclosures over the past couple hours -- Ted, update our viewers.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, first of all, the medical examiner has released the identity of the victim -- a 17-year- old young boy, Carlos Sousa, of San Jose, California, here at the zoo on Christmas, killed -- mauled to death by this tiger after it escaped its enclosure.

Also today, we were told that there is a criminal investigation going on from the San Francisco Police Department. They've declared areas of the zoo a crime scene. The reason is that while there's no evidence specifically pointing this way, they haven't ruled out the -- the possibility that someone may have let this tiger out, either intentionally or not.

At this point, however, it is still unclear how the tiger got out.


ROWLANDS (voice-over): The only thing that's clear at this point is that Tatiana, the 300-pound Siberian tiger, escaped some time before 5:00 p.m. Christmas Day, first killing a zoo visitor just outside the tiger's open air exhibit.

About 300 yards away, near a zoo cafe, the tiger attacked again -- two more visitors, both men, ages 19 and 23.

Police arrived to find the tiger sitting next to one of the victims. The officers yelled at the tiger when she started attacking the victim again.

CHIEF HEATHER FONG, SAN FRANCISCO POLICE: When the yelling was occurring, the animal turned and now turned toward the officers. And it is at that time that they fired.

ROWLANDS: The tiger was killed. The two surviving victims are in serious but stable condition.

DR. ROCHELLE DICKER, SAN FRANCISCO GENERAL HOSPITAL: I can tell you that the way that this occurred was typical, as I understand it, of tiger attacks. This is a wild animal -- and focus on being wild. And I think it was a combination of claw and tooth attack.

ROWLANDS: Zoo administrators and police say they still don't know how the tiger got out. The door to the exhibit was closed, according to the zoo, meaning the tiger may have somehow jumped out of the enclosure.

MANUEL MOLLINEDO, DIRECTOR, SAN FRANCISCO ZOO: All I can tell you, it's an open exhibit. There's a 20-foot moat and an 18-foot wall.


ROWLANDS: And that exhibit will be closed indefinitely. The zoo was closed today. They hope to open it as early as tomorrow. We talked to a family spokesperson of Carlos Sousa, Jr. the young boy that was killed. They said the family is obviously grieving the loss of this 17-year-old.

He said all three of the victims were friends. The two that were injured, they are expected to make full recoveries, Wolf. Infection is a concern, so they are hospitalized here tonight and will remain hospitalized, most likely, for the next few days.

BLITZER: We'll watch the story with you, Ted.

Thanks very much.

A 13-year-old American girl is the sole survivor of a plane crash in the remote mountains of Panama, where she spent two days injured and alone in the wilderness before being rescued.

CNN's Keith Oppenheim is following the latest developments.


KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are pictures of 13-year-old Francesca Lewis on a stretcher as she's being taken to a hospital two days after the plane she was in crashed. Francesca, from Santa Barbara, California, was on vacation in Panama with her friend, Talia Klein, and Talia's dad, Michael Klein, a 37- year-old hedge fund manager. On Sunday, a Panamanian pilot took them to photograph a volcano when authorities believe the single engine plane hit bad weather. Suddenly, there was no radio contact and the search was on.

VALERIE LEWIS, SURVIVOR'S MOTHER: It was a nightmare. It was a living nightmare.

OPPENHEIM: Valerie Lewis, Francesca's mother, spoke to us by phone. On Christmas Day, two days after the crash, Valerie learned the wreckage had been spotted. It turned out when rescuers got to the crash site, the sole survivor was her daughter.

LEWIS: She thought she was in her home and that there was a -- why was there an airplane wing in her home?

So she was delirious.

OPPENHEIM: Francesca was also dehydrated and her arm was broken. Francesca's mother says many helpers got her daughter to a hospital.

LEWIS: They carefully moved her onto a gurney. And then they had to carry her three-and-a-half hours to a helicopter.


LEWIS: Through extremely rugged terrain in torrential rain. OPPENHEIM: Francesca's parents rushed to Panama. En route, Kirk Lewis, Francesca's dad, spoke to his daughter on the phone.


KIRK LEWIS, FATHER OF CRASH SURVIVOR: Hey sweetie. We're going to see you real soon. They're -- they're bringing you down. And mom and Rosie's here, too. OK. OK. Good-bye, sweetheart. Bye-bye. See you soon.


OPPENHEIM (on camera): Doctors in Panama say Francesca is in stable condition. As for the dead, rescue crews went to the crash site Wednesday to remove the bodies.

Keith Oppenheim, CNN.


BLITZER: A little more now on Michael Klein, the man who took his daughter and her friend on that trip. He was chief executive and chief investment officer of the California hedge fund firm, Pacificor. He graduated from college at the age of 17, went on to become a major player out in Silicon Valley.

He founded two successful tech companies before joining eGroups, a giant e-mail communications service, which later was bought by Yahoo!

America's most admired men and women -- we're going to show you brand new, just released poll -- a list.

Will it impact the race for the White House?

Stay with us.



BLITZER: In our Political Ticker today, President Bush signs into law a $555 billion spending bill. Among other things, it allocates $70 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president signed the bill even though it has more than 9,000 earmarks, Mr. Bush saying he hopes the White House Office of Management & Budget can still find a way to eliminate some -- most of them.

All of Bill Clinton's campaigning for his wife may be helping his own image. In the annual Gallup Poll of America's most admired men, the former president is in a statistical tie with President Bush for the number one spot. Mr. Bush had a significant lead in that survey in the past few years.

Hillary Clinton tops Gallup's list of most admired women this year, but, she, too, is in a statistical tie with Barack Obama supporter -- that would be Oprah Winfrey.

Remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at

We have a look at some of this hour's Hot Shots.

In Minnesota, runners make their way along a snowy, 85-mile route.

In India, slum dwellers shout slogans against the government at a rally in Mumbai. They're demanding compensation after being displaced from their homes.

In Thailand, students prepare to let go of a lantern on the third anniversary of a Asian tsunami. More than 200,000 people were killed when the tsunami struck.

And in Afghanistan, a boy walks along the road hoping to sell billions just east of the capital.

Some of this hour's Hot Shots -- pictures often worth a thousand words.

Tomorrow -- this important programming note. A special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM will air at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, one week exactly to the Iowa caucuses. That plus our regular 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. show.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.


Kitty Pilgrim is sitting in for Lou -- Kitty.