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THE SITUATION ROOM

Countdown to Iowa Caucuses; Interview With New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson

Aired January 3, 2008 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And happening now: the countdown to the caucuses, only two hours until Iowans close the doors and cast the first votes for president.
Tonight, first-time caucus-goers make a huge difference for Democrats. We are watching the story.

Plus, Republican front-runners Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, they are taking very different paths on this decision day, one preaching populism, the other going correct . We are on the trail with the candidates.

And Bill Richardson's Iowa test. Will the Democrat come out of this contest able to carry on? I will talk to the White House hopeful live this hour.

I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The clock is ticking, and the moment of truth in Iowa is almost here. At 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 Central, the caucus doors will close and the voters will reveal their presidential choices. It is a close and unpredictable race for both Democrats and Republicans.

The candidates have been making their final pitches, but now they are ready to sit back and let the people decide. The best political team on television is standing by in Iowa as well as here at the CNN Election Center covering all the candidates, the caucuses and the issues.

Let's begin with Jessica Yellin. She is in Des Moines covering a key voting group especially for Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With Iowa up for grabs, Democrats were on a mad dash to shake hands and woo supporters. One group of Iowa's is getting extra-special attention -- first-time caucus-goers.

DAVID YEPSEN, "DES MOINES REGISTER": The effort to get out first-time caucus-goers is unprecedented. It's different from what we have ever seen before. There are more people and more effort and more money being spent.

YELLIN: It seems to be working. First-timers say they're driven to participate for different reasons.

MARK SIGN, PLANS TO CAUCUS FOR FIRST TIME: we have lost our standing in the world, our country is on a downhill slope, I think. And I thought it was time to get out and do something about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My feelings about the war in Iraq, of being a mother, you know, worrying about college and the future for my children, the economy as a middle-class family, you know, the price of oil and gas.

YELLIN: According to a recent "Des Moines Register" poll, 72 percent of Barack Obama's support is coming from first-time caucus- goers, largely college students and Independents, groups that are historically difficult to turn out. The same poll shows 58 percent of Hillary Clinton's supporters are first-timers. She's targeting older women.

One hurdle, caucusing can seem intimidating. This first-timer did his research on the Internet.

NATHANIEL JONES, PLANS TO CAUCUS FOR FIRST TIME: I know that there's a process of several alignments where you go through and voice your support for a candidate, see if you can get a critical mass of the people there to support them too.

YELLIN (on camera): What are the chances you don't show up?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm pretty sure I'm going, yeah. Yes, I'm going to go.

YELLIN (voice over): If the first-timers don't turn out, that's expected to help John Edwards. He needs them the least.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Wolf, there is a complicating factor here in the caucuses. Unlike a regular election, in which a voter can show up any time of the day, for the Democratic caucuses, you have to go between 6:30 and 7:00. The doors close then.

So, if a kid gets sick or your car breaks down, you can't show up late. This is why the campaigns are working so hard finding people to drive them or walk caucus-goers to make sure they turn out every Iowan possible -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin, thank you.

Democrat Bill Richardson says Iowans make up their minds at the very last minute. And he thinks many undecideds are moving his way.

Governor Richardson is joining us now live from the Polk County Convention Center in Des Moines.

Governor, thanks very much for coming in.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D-NM), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's leave Democratic Iowa caucus-goers with this thought. You are president of the United States. The first thing you do after you are sworn in is what?

RICHARDSON: I get the troops out of Iraq. I call the Republican and Democratic leadership. We get a timetable. I want to do it within a year. And then I say we have got to become energy independent. We have got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and then universal health care.

I would push for those three immediately, the first year, get them done. That's presidential leadership. But you can do it in a bipartisan way. And I have a record and experience that brings people together internationally. And, also, as a legislator, as a governor, I have managed a state. I have balanced budgets. Presidents that get elected usually come from the governor ranks. And that's what I'm counting on.

BLITZER: All right. So, what do you say to those who are now pointing to some successes on the battlefield in Iraq in recent months? The casualty rates are down. General David Petraeus seems to be getting a little hold on what is going on.

They are saying, if you listen to Bill Richardson, he is going to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory, because they seem to be moving in the right direction. How concerned are you about that criticism?

RICHARDSON: Well, it is unfounded. There is no military solution to the war in Iraq. There is a political solution. And that window is closing.

And I would say that what America needs to do is get the troops out, and the way to get them out is with a diplomatic plan that brings the three groups in Iraq together, a U.N. peacekeeping force, a donor conference. Bring Iran and Syria in.

It is called diplomacy. This invasion has not worked. And I have made Iraq the central issue in the campaign. We can't have universal health care without ending the war. We can't become a clean energy nation. We can't improve our schools without the $570 billion that we have spent in this quagmire that's going nowhere.

And the voters in Iowa and around the country are responding to that argument. It is resonating.

BLITZER: We have only got, what, an hour and 54 minutes before they close those doors at the Democratic caucuses, and then they make their decisions.

Looking back over these many, many months, what's been the biggest surprise to you?

RICHARDSON: The biggest surprise has been here in Iowa, how sophisticated the voters are, how good they are. They are good people.

They want America to be a country where we get things done. They want to be inspired. They want somebody to bring the country together. They are not divisive, like many on the national front that basically have given up, that are so pessimistic about what can happen to improve this country, you know, the dysfunctional relationship between the Congress and the president.

And what Iowa voters want and voters in New Hampshire and around the country is they want somebody that can resolve and deal with problems, but, mainly, Wolf, bring the country together. We are very divided. We are divided over the war, over immigration, over a middle class that today is extremely concerned with high health care costs, with foreclosures, with pensions.

And they want somebody that will say, I will be president. I will fix these problems, and, most importantly, I will follow the Constitution of the United States. That's what the voters want. And my message is resonating.

BLITZER: Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic presidential candidate, said the other day, if he does not reach that threshold of 15 percent, that so-called viability, he would recommend to his supporters that they support Barack Obama.

Have you been thinking about that, who you would recommend to your supporters they support, if you don't make that 15 percent viability threshold?

RICHARDSON: No.

I say to them, make up your own minds. Go for Bill Richardson. We have no deals. We want to get as many voters to give us that viability. And then my hope is to come in, in the final four, to go to New Hampshire and with a strong message of change and experience.

And I believe we are going to surprise a lot of people tonight. Those undecided voters are moving our way. My crowds are big. I sense momentum, but only if tonight all of our voters turn out. And I believe those supporting Bill Richardson will turn out. And we are going to be the surprise of the night.

BLITZER: So, what you are suggesting is, there are four tickets out of Iowa for the Democrats. Is that right?

RICHARDSON: That's right. And those are the four that are participating in the New Hampshire debate. This is something that I think is clear.

The American people want some clear choices. And I believe I will make that final four, maybe even crack the top three. And then we move on to the Western primaries, to New Hampshire, to Nevada, to New Mexico, to Arizona, Colorado, California on February 5, where I am going to be strong.

BLITZER: Don't forget South Carolina. RICHARDSON: And South Carolina.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: All right. Governor Bill Richardson, good luck tonight. Thanks very much for joining us.

RICHARDSON: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, remember, we are counting down to 8:00 p.m. Eastern, right now, what, an hour and 51 minutes to go, complete coverage coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty once again. He has "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Governor Richardson rattled off all those states without screaming. That's a good sign.

Remember when all we heard from Hillary Clinton was, "When I am the president, when I am elected president," et cetera? It's funny how things change, isn't it? Don't hear that so much from her anymore. These days, it's more like, "Well, if I am the nominee" or "I hope to be the nominee."

Ever since Hillary Clinton was asked if she favored giving driver's licenses to illegal aliens, she's been struggling.

And it couldn't be more obvious to anybody who is paying attention. Quick. Get mom and the kid out on the campaign trail. Let's try to convince the voters that I'm all warm and fuzzy, instead of the cold, calculating political machine that a lot of people think I am.

Is it working? Well, we'll know in a few hours if it's working in Iowa. But going into tonight's caucuses, Hillary is nowhere near the juggernaut and presumed nominee she once was. In fact, one major national poll now suggests Clinton could finish third in the Hawkeye State, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Granted, losing Iowa isn't like losing California, but consider this. Momentum's a funny thing. Have it, and you can do no wrong. Lose it, and you can lose everything. Hillary still has the lead in some New Hampshire polls, but Barack Obama is now leading in others. And New Hampshire votes next Tuesday. That's where that momentum thing comes in.

And what if she doesn't just lose in Iowa? What if she finishes worse than second, behind both Obama and Edwards?

That brings us to the question: What would a third-place finish in Iowa mean for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. You can post your comments on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we will know soon enough, an hour and 40 -- what, an hour, 49 minutes to go.

Thanks, Jack. We will check back with you shortly.

It's an incredibly tight race on the Republican side as well. And, as the minutes tick by to the caucus time, the candidates are hoping to make some last-minute gains. We are going back live to Iowa. That's coming up.

And we asked the caucus-goers why they vote, what they care about, and who they think will win. And how do the voters believe -- what they believe will happen from those far-flung caucuses once the caucuses are counted? We are going to show you a caucus night nerve center.

That's coming up. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Inside caucus rooms across Iowa tonight, it's likely to come down to two candidates, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. The two very different candidates have been going at it tooth and nail in recent weeks.

We have both of the campaigns covered. Dana Bash is covering Huckabee's campaign in Iowa.

This is clearly a critical contest for Huckabee tonight, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It is really testing time for this surprise candidate in the Republican race, Wolf. You know, for months there was no clear conservative favorite. And then Mike Huckabee appeared. But the question now is whether he has staying power.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): One last time, Mike Huckabee preaches his rare breed of Republican populism.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: People get elected and think they're the ruling class and that we're the serving class, and we're to serve them.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HUCKABEE: And it's got to be the other way around. That has to change.

BASH: The former pastor, former Arkansas governor is hoping his unusual, part-God, part-pocketbook, "I'm one of you" message carries the day.

HUCKABEE: Because people would rather elect a president who reminds them of the guy they work with, not the guy that laid them off.

(LAUGHTER)

HUCKABEE: I think they get it.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BASH: Huckabee is trying rally voters to an insurgent cause, evoking this, back of the pack to top contender in a matter of months.

But a barrage of ads hitting Huckabee's record on taxes, immigration, and spending have hurt, and misstatements on national security left questions about his readiness.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was a big Huckabee supporter until the Pakistan incident. And I got a bit worried about the foreign policy.

BASH: In the end, Huckabee knows he was a surprise candidate for dissatisfied evangelicals looking for a social conservative to trust.

Here, one last appeal:

HUCKABEE: But it comes from one's soul and one's gut. You know something? I didn't get into being pro-life because of politics. I became a political person because I am pro-life, and believe that one of the most important things we have to do in this country is protect each other.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, no matter what happens here tonight in Iowa, Huckabee insists he's going on to the next contest states of New Hampshire and South Carolina and beyond.

But, Wolf, New Hampshire is not as fertile ground for Mike Huckabee, particularly because he is a social conservative, does not play as well there.

And the other really important thing watch is whether or not he actually wins one of these early contest states, because longshots, if you look at the history of politics, really need to win one in order to survive -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much.

Let's move on to Mitt Romney's campaign right now, his final pitch in Iowa and the stakes for him, win or lose.

Mary Snow is in Des Moines watching this part of the story.

What was Romney's message over the past few hours, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Mitt Romney's message has been that this is a very tight race. He is really relying on people who have caucused in the past. And turnout is going to make all the difference.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Governor Mitt Romney.

(APPLAUSE)

SNOW (voice-over): Mitt Romney turned to the corporate world to make his final pitch in Iowa. He visited two firms, asking employees to caucus tonight, telling them the Republican race is razor-thin.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I need your help.

SNOW: Romney told the crowd tensions were high and made light of the sparring match he's had with chief rival Mike Huckabee.

ROMNEY: I saw just yesterday the chairman of Governor Huckabee's campaign said that he would like to knock my teeth out. And my only comment on that is, don't touch the hair.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: Romney played up his 25 years in business, declaring, "Politics is not my profession." He's been trying to convey the image of the Washington outsider who will use the private sector, not government, to reform health care and break the dependence on foreign oil.

But, when it came time for questions, the first one turned to the way he's run his campaign.

ALEXIS WARDEN, IOWA VOTER: I notice that you are one of, if not the only, right now that has a specific ad targeting a competitor. I was wondering, if you win the nomination, are we going to be looking forward to more of that in the general election?

ROMNEY: Absolutely. You can -- you can -- you can bet that what we're going to talk about is differences on issues.

BASH: Romney defends his ads that target rivals. He calls them contrast ads. Opponents call them desperate attacks.

Romney's family joined him on the trail for the final day in Iowa, but he's already focused on New Hampshire, launching a new ad there taking aim at Senator John McCain, his chief rival in that state.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And, Wolf, one thing we will be watching for is whether or not there's heavy turnout on the Republican side, because, if there is, that could prove to be a problem sign for Romney, because it would indicate that first-time caucus-goers are turning out. And those are exactly the people Mike Huckabee is targeting friend

BLITZER: Mary Snow, reporting for us from Iowa, thank you.

Terror takes a very heavy toll. A car bomb blows up as a crowded bus passes by. There are dozens of casualties. We're watching this story. We have the latest for you.

And presidential candidates are using the Internet to help the caucus-goers get to their precincts. We will take a closer look at the situation online.

Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: Democratic presidential candidates are using the Web in a last-minute effort to try to get people to the precincts for tonight's Iowa caucuses.

Let's go out to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, how are the candidates doing this?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, first of all, remember, this was a year ago now that the Democratic presidential hopefuls announced online at their Web sites with online video.

Today, as we head to the Iowa caucuses, it is all about Iowa and all about getting those supporters out. What Hillary Clinton has been doing at her site is signing up volunteers who can drive people to the precincts that are coming out.

They have got 5,000 people ready to do this. And they are offering other caucus day assistance as well at their Web site, like child care in seven different cities throughout Iowa.

For these Democrats, though, it is not just getting their supporters to the precincts. It is making them effective once they get there. As we have been talking about, this is a complex process. And for Barack Obama, like other Democrats online, talking people through this whole thing, what to expect when you get there, making sure these supporters can be effective, that they don't get poached by another candidate's supporters.

For John Edwards, that's -- his first-time caucus-goers, that's not so much of a factor. It is something Barack Obama has been concentrating on more. But, for the Edwards Web site, not leaving anything to chance. There's the caucus hot line for transportation issues, any problems.

And the time is ticking there. Look at that countdown clock, one hour, five minutes to go.

We are going to be tracking all of this, all the results as they come in online at CNNPolitics.com -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's one hour five minutes until they can start walking in. But it's an hour and about 35 minutes before those doors are closed, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, when it all really begins. Tonight, it is not just about who wins or loses. We will be looking at the issues Iowans care about the most and what those issues are telling us about this presidential race.

Plus, experience vs. change -- the candidates have presented voters with a choice. How will it play tonight in Iowa? We will see if the best political team on television has an assessment on what's going on.

And once Iowans have their say, how will we get the results? We are going to take you inside that quirky caucus process and how they actually tally the votes.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now: a new development in the case of the CIA interrogation tapes. A letter from 2003 warning the CIA not to destroy the videotape, that letter was declassified today. It was written by Congresswoman Jane Harman when she was the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. She warned that such a move would, in her words, reflect badly on the agency.

A criminal investigation now under way into the CIA's activities.

The Bush administration has made a high-level complaint to Saudi Arabia about the detention of a well-known blogger there. The State Department says, a clear message was sent that the U.S. stands for freedom of expression.

And is President Bush rooting for anyone in tonight's Republican caucuses? The White House won't say. The press secretary, Dana Perino, does say Mr. Bush is watching the race as an observer, but isn't spending much time on it. We will have a lot on that, plus the best political team on television.

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

When Iowans show up in the caucuses tonight, an hour-and-a-half or so from now, many will be questioned for our entrance polls. You've certainly heard over the years of exit polls. Tonight, there are entrance polls -- essentially the same drills, but for caucuses, we survey voters when they're walking in as opposed to when they're walking out. We asked them about themselves, the issues they care about and their presidential choices.

Let's bring in our expert on all of this, our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

What are we looking for as far as these entrance polling results are concerned?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Not just who wins, Wolf, but how they did it and why.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice over): Will key groups show up to caucus on this cold January night -- like older women?

They're strongly for Hillary Clinton.

And union members -- a key group for both Clinton and John Edwards.

Young voters and Independents don't usually show up in large numbers. Both Barack Obama and Clinton are counting on a heavy turnout of new voters.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Because all you folks who said you've never been to a caucus before are deciding to get involved for the first time, we might just pull this thing off.

SCHNEIDER: In 2004, Iowa caucus-goers went for John Kerry because they believed he was the most electable.

Will that help Hillary Clinton tonight?

OBAMA: The notion that I'm -- I mean, you know, that a viability or electability argument is being made by somebody who starts off with almost half the country not being willing to vote for them doesn't make much sense.

SCHNEIDER: In the Republican race, religion will be a key factor. Our entrance poll will tell us how much it matters to Republicans whether a candidate shares their religious beliefs.

Republican candidates have been busy attacking each other's records on illegal immigration.

Will illegal immigration turn out to be a major issue in the race?

And which candidate will it help?

Then there's the Ron Paul factor. He's raised a lot of money. His supporters are passionate.

Are there antiwar Republicans out there?

REP. RON PAUL (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to find out a few answers. Maybe the individuals that support me haven't been on the voting polls and that they will register and come out.

SCHNEIDER: Could Ron Paul be the big surprise of the night?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: What's on voters' minds as they show up to support one candidate or another tonight?

Well, that's what our entrance poll is for -- mind reading -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to share those entrance poll numbers with our viewers later.

That's all coming up.

So what will the political landscape look like after Iowa?

Who will be left in Iowa?

Who will move on to New Hampshire?

Joining us now to talk about that, our chief national correspondent, John King.

CNN's own Jack Cafferty. His best-selling book is called "It's Getting Ugly Out There".

And our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

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

Jack, how many tickets are actually out of Iowa moving on to New Hampshire?

CAFFERTY: The conventional wisdom is three, you know, the gold, silver and bronze. I think it depends on which party you're talking about. I don't know that there's three if it's a Republican prim -- a Republican caucus. There might be three if it's the Democratic caucus.

But, again, it depends on what the story is the next day. For example, if Obama should win and Hillary Clinton finishes second, and then John Edwards is third and it's close, then all three of them probably get a ticket out. But if Edwards should finish second, in the middle, between Obama and Hillary, the headline the next day is Obama wins, Hillary's stunning finish third -- not a mention of Edwards. It's going to be harder for Edwards...

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But (INAUDIBLE) point...

CAFFERTY: ...to get -- hmmm?

BORGER: What if it's just a point or two?

CAFFERTY: If it's a point or two, they all get to ride to New Hampshire and continue to, you know, throw punches.

BLITZER: They get to walk through the snow over there.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: What do you think about the conventional, historic notion, free tickets out of Iowa to New Hampshire?

BORGER: Well, I think on the -- let's talk about the Republicans, since Jack's done the Democrats. The Republican side is really interesting because John McCain is the candidate tonight who really can't lose. Even if he loses, he wins, because nobody expects him to do very well. And he's doing well in New Hampshire. And if Mike Huckabee wins and defeats Mitt Romney, who is really McCain's archenemy in this race, then that's a win -- then that's a win for John McCain, who can then go on to New Hampshire.

BLITZER: Expectations for John McCain, as you know, John, have been minimal in Iowa...

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: ...if at all.

JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And he has a small organization, but it's a hearty core of people who support him -- mostly foreign military people. If he can somehow come in third place -- that's why he went out there the last 24 hours, 30 or so hours -- if he could somehow come in third place, that would be a win for John McCain, because he was in Iowa -- you can count the number of trips to Iowa on two hands and have a few fingers left to spare. So that would be a huge boost for him.

But Gloria is right. If he comes in fourth, he still has his base in New Hampshire. And he is moving up in New Hampshire. The Romney people launched a new attack ad against John McCain in New Hampshire today. We're all worried about Iowa. Trust me, the Romney people aren't just worried about Iowa, they are worried about New Hampshire, as well.

CAFFERTY: Who does -- who does Giuliani root for tonight?

BLITZER: He roots for anyone except for Mitt Romney.

BORGER: Mitt Romney, yes...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And that would be good for him.

BORGER: Right.

KING: What has happened to Giuliani is fascinating. Nationally, he has dropped. As conservatives tune closer into the race, they realize Rudy Giuliani might have done a great job after 9/11, he might be a great man, he might have been a fine mayor. He is not a conservative Republican. And those are the primary voters. His national numbers have dropped.

In New Hampshire, Romney has stayed pretty stable. What has happened is Rudy has fallen and all that support, particularly for reasons, they say, are the national security issues, has gone over to McCain.

BORGER: If you look at the polls after the whole Pakistan issue, the question of terrorism gets raised again. And McCain's numbers went up, because Giuliani wasn't really in play. Nobody was talking about Rudy Giuliani because he wasn't in Iowa and New Hampshire. So it may be a strategy that backfires.

BLITZER: And Fred Thompson, he's hoping for a third place finish in Iowa tonight. That allows him to go on to New Hampshire. You heard him say it here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

CAFFERTY: I think Fred is hoping he has an excuse to quit. He looks tired to me. Some viewer earlier said he seems like he's out of gas already. And you get that perception, that his heart is not in this I don't know why, but that's the feeling I get.

BORGER: You know, there are a lot of Republicans that I talked to today who are already sort of putting the knife in Thompson's back, saying he blew this great opportunity, the Republican Party was for him...

KING: Yes.

BORGER: ...he could have been a great candidate and he blew it.

BLITZER: And there are already these stories that if he drops out, he throws his support to John McCain.

KING: There's no question Fred Thompson did not get in with the energy, the desire, the passion and the focus that many expected from him. But you also have surprises in politics. And this guy named Mike Huckabee came along and took up the oxygen Thompson thought would be his.

But, look, Fred Thompson has campaigned under one theme -- these are serious times -- whether the issue is Social Security, whether the issue is the war on terrorism -- these are serious times. We need a serious man in the White House.

His close friend in the Senate was John, McCain, who he thinks is a serious man.

Let's let the voters in Iowa vote. Perhaps Fred Thompson will surprise us.

If he does, he'll be in New Hampshire for the debate. But then he'll really fall back to South Carolina and try to be the Southern candidate.

But if he comes in fourth, or even a very, very distant third, do not be surprised if he's in New Hampshire this weekend, not to say I'm going to be in the debates but to say, you know, my friend, Senator McCain, should carry on.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by, because we have a lot more to talk about in this, the critical moments before -- before the Iowa caucuses.

We're going to continue our conversation with the best political team on television.

Also coming up, what to watch for in this first contest -- a viewer's guide to the caucuses.

If you want to see what's going on, this is information you need to know.

And Jack Cafferty is asking this question -- what would a third place finish in Iowa mean for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign?

Jack has your e-mail and a lot more coming up.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Jack, let's not forget Ron Paul. He's got some enthusiastic supporters.

If he comes in third in Iowa -- and people are saying oh, he's not going to come in third. He could come in third and that would not necessarily be a shock.

CAFFERTY: The most devoted bunch of supporters I've ever seen. We do these e-mails three times a day in THE SITUATION ROOM. All I have to do is mention Ron Paul's name and the computers can't handle the inflow of e-mails.

And, you know, it goes to something we talked about last night. There's a lot of dissatisfaction in this country about a lot of things. And Ron Paul, I think, is -- his ability to maybe succeed tonight is part of the evidence of that dissatisfaction.

The other one will be -- and the other thing to watch for -- is the number of Independents that show up tonight. It's expected there will be a greater number than they've ever had before to caucus with the Democrats. I think if those two things happen, Ron Paul does well -- if a lot of Independents show up. It might be beginning of something.

BLITZER: Well, you just came back from New Hampshire. You see the Ron Paul people out there.

KING: He's either got two guys who never sleep with a pickup truck full of Ron Paul signs who are driving around that entire state or he has more people out there that than it shows up in the polls.

Now, is Ron Paul going to win the Republican nomination?

I think we can safely say no. No disrespect to Congressman Paul. But he will perform above his poll numbers. All of the other campaigns believe that. And he is a potential wild card in New Hampshire, even if he only gets a little sliver, Wolf, because it will be from the independent-minded voters. Anti-war sentiment very strong in New Hampshire.

So even if he gets a little bounce out of Iowa and gets two or three points more in New Hampshire than he would have received otherwise, where does it come from?

Does it come from McCain, the independent Republicans he wants?

Does it come from Obama people, anti-war people?

We don't know that question.

So he is a wild card going forward.

BLITZER: A viewer's guide to tonight. You've seen a lot of these Iowa caucuses. Give our viewers out there some help in trying to understand what they're about to see an hour and 18 minutes or so from now.

BORGER: Well, I think what I'm going to be looking for Wolf, as I look at these numbers coming in, I'm going to look at the question of whether someone is a new caucus goer. Because if you bring in these Independents, as Jack was talking about, or new people who have never caucused before, then I think you're on to the change election -- something about change. That would be good for Obama.

I'm going to look at turnout. Turnout is really important, because if you do bring these new voters in, that might be good for Barack Obama. It might be good Mike Huckabee.

So the numbers are something that are going to tell us a lot -- not only about this election, but about New Hampshire. There are lots of registered Independents in New Hampshire. And about the state of mind of the American electorate for the entire 2008 election. We could learn a lot from the numbers.

BLITZER: What are you going to be looking for?

CAFFERTY: I think -- we were talking earlier.

If Barack Obama does well tonight, I think that's a powerful message.

I mean, who would have thunk it?

And yet he's leading in the polls. There are national polls out indicating tonight that Hillary could finish as low as third in Iowa. That's something -- until somebody asked her about driver's licenses, nobody would have given you a hundred to 100 to one odds on that. But I think Barack Obama is the story if he -- if he gets it done tonight. It's a huge story.

BORGER: Don't count on that.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But, John, you were just in New Hampshire.

Is there a spillover effect?

Do people in New Hampshire look and see what happened in Iowa -- they say they don't -- and that influences their votes next Tuesday?

KING: History would tell you that New Hampshire does not always -- and sometimes goes out of its way not to embrace Iowa's winners.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: But electability is a huge issue in both campaigns right now. Ideology matters in primaries. But what's so interesting about this campaign is electability does, too. You get voters who will be with Rudy Giuliani because they disagree with him on abortion but they think he's the most electable. That has dropped a little bit, but that's one of the reasons he was so high up in the national polls.

Hillary Clinton's support early on was viewed on -- you know, I love this Obama kid, but he's not tough enough to win a national election, so I'm going to be with Hillary Clinton. She is the most electable.

Well, if you start losing, then you're not the most electable, because the pre-season is over.

BORGER: Right.

KING: This is -- politics is, if you -- it's like sports except for one way -- there's a pre-season and then there's the playoffs. There's no regular season. You start losing now, you're out.

BLITZER: That's it.

Yes.

BORGER: And if Obama beats Hillary, he's tough.

KING: He's tough.

BORGER: He's tough and he can prove it.

CAFFERTY: You bet.

BLITZER: A little bit more than an hour from now, we'll start seeing what's going on. And we can stop talking -- at least for a few moments.

(LAUGHTER)

But then we'll start talking.

Guys, don't go away, because we've got the best political team on television. And our coverage is going to continue throughout the night.

Once again, just a little bit more from -- an hour from now, the caucusing will begin all across Iowa.

But how do the results get from the far flung caucus sites all over the state to you? Suzanne Malveaux standing by to show us.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): All eyes are on Iowa -- and they'll be watching this room, the nerve center of caucus night, where the votes are officially tallied, verified and announced.

CARRIE GIDDINS, IOWA DEMOCRATIC PARTY: It's going to all be computerized. Everything runs from our computers in our war room to the board up here to a secure media Web site to a public Web site and to media outlets across the country and the world.

MALVEAUX: Carrie Giddins from the Iowa Democratic Party says caucus results from precincts across the state are phoned in by party officials. The information is fed directly into a new computerized system to ensure faster and accurate results.

GIDDINS: When a precinct chair calls in to report the numbers from their precinct, they're using a secure code to get into the telephone line. They are also entering many numbers that they have to verify.

MALVEAUX: If the computer system crashes, they have six backup systems.

(on camera): Are you confident this is going to work with seven layers?

GIDDINS: I'm confident.

MALVEAUX: OK.

GIDDINS: Even if it's me running those numbers to that board, we'll make it work on caucus night.

MALVEAUX: On caucus night, all eyes will be on the board behind me, as it tallies up the votes throughout the evening. And the candidates pictures will appear. It's estimated it'll take until about 10:00 Central time and then we'll get a pretty good sense of the Democratic and Republican nominees.

(voice-over): The candidates will each have representatives at the hall to work with party officials to keep an eye on the results. And over 2,500 journalists have been credentialed from all over the world.

(on camera): NPR, TV Tokyo, National Journal, Real Clear Politics.

(voice-over): With no clear candidate in the lead for either party, Giddins says they expect more than double the number of journalists from four years ago.

(on camera): This is really kind of like, you know, the Super Bowl of politics.

GIDDINS: It is.

MALVEAUX: Right here.

GIDDINS: This is the place to be.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): The place to be to find out the first indications on who will face off in the run for president.

Suzanne Malveaux, CNN, Des Moines, Iowa.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Lou Dobbs getting ready for his show. That begins at the top of the hour. He's standing by with a preview.

What are you working on -- Lou?

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Well, Wolf, this may surprise you, but we are working on complete coverage of the final countdown to the Iowa caucuses. We'll also be reporting tonight on some of the top issues facing these candidates and this great nation of ours.

We'll be addressing the war on our middle class working men and women and their families facing a new challenge -- from skyrocketing crude oil prices and soaring commodity prices. We'll have that special report.

Also, our illegal immigration crisis -- Arizona is showing the entire nation how to tackle the impact of illegal immigration, but corporate elites are refusing to abide by the will of the people and the rule of law. We'll have that report.

And communist China's rising military threat to American interests around the globe -- new evidence tonight that Beijing is trying to build a military spacecraft to destroy critically important American satellites. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and this administration is ignoring those advancing challenges. One of the world's leading authorities on communist China, Gordon Chang, joins us.

We'll have all of that and a great deal more, coming up at the top of the hour -- Wolf.

Please join us -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Lou, thanks very much.

And Lou will be with us throughout the night for our coverage of the Iowa caucuses.

Bill Clinton's job in Hillary Clinton's administration -- what role might she give him if -- if she were elected president?

We'll tell you what one expert is now predicting. And they're back just in time for the Iowa caucuses. That would be late night TV talk show guys -- the best political jokes.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In our Political Ticker, it's been a frequent topic of speculation around Hillary Clinton's campaign.

If she is elected president, what role would she give her husband?

Now, a respected conservative legal scholar has a prediction. The Pepperdine Law School professor says former President Bill Clinton would be his wife's choice to become a United States Supreme Court justice. There is a precedent for such a move. William Howard Taft was president before serving as chief justice in the early 1900s.

Remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out CNNPolitics.com.

Let's go back to Jack Cafferty.

He's watching all of this unfold -- just a little bit more than an hour from now, Jack, it begins.

CAFFERTY: That would -- that would be something, wouldn't it?

Here come the judge.

BLITZER: Yes, right.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is what would a third place finish in Iowa mean for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign?

There's at least one national poll out there predicting that's where she's going to finish tonight.

John writes: "If Hillary Clinton comes in third in Iowa, she's through. You may put a fork in her. Her goose will be cooked. She's brought this upon herself, though. She's the one that used the strategy of running as the presumptive nominee with an aura of inevitability. The strategy has made expectations so high, that if she comes in third, it'll be considered a major, major loss."

Joshua writes: "As you stated, Clinton has already begun to lose that air of invincibility in the campaign. A third place finish in Iowa, coupled with her frigid demeanor, at times, and she'll most likely be in hot water. She plays old school politics regardless of how much she talks about not being included in the boy's club." Carlos in Phoenix weighs in with: "Hillary lives to fight another day. A loss in Iowa doesn't represent the end. It's the beginning of several contests where she can continue to prove that she's ready on day one."

Anellus (ph): "A third place finish for Hillary tonight will mean the voters of Iowa, much like those in the rest of the country, were able to see through the Clinton machine's rhetoric and games and resoundingly say not again."

Nate writes: "A third place finish not a death blow to the Hillary campaign, but the nation's eyes will soon turn to New Hampshire. Should Hillary finish behind Obama in New Hampshire after a third place finish in Iowa, she'll probably not recover.

And Terry in Chandler, Arizona: "What would a third place finish mean? Well, Jack, for one thing it will mean that those close to her will probably be careful about what they say. I am betting that Hillary has a bit of a temper and husband Bill will no doubt be on the receiving end of a tirade."

We'll see.

BLITZER: We'll see soon. It's just a little bit more than an hour from now, what's going on.

CAFFERTY: I'm so excited.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, stand by.

Thank you very much.

Better late than never -- late night, that is. Jay Leno, David Letterman and the other late night talk show hosts -- they're back on the air. And with them comes the return of some political comedy.

Jeanne Moos will take a look when we come back right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The best political jokes usually come late at night. But because of the writers' strike, this year the jokes are just plain late. You're looking here at Mike Huckabee, who helped welcome Jay Leno back on the air last night. But now the wait is over.

Jeanne Moos covers the return of a Moost Unusual American tradition -- roasting the candidates.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Better late than never -- just in time for the Iowa caucuses.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO," COURTESY NBC) JAY LENO, HOST: Now, caucus is a Greek word which means the only day anyone pays any attention to Iowa.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Political jokes are back, after two months of reruns that left fans adrift.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How am I supposed to know what's going on in the world? Seriously?

MOOS: Hillary Clinton introduced David Letterman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," COURTESY WORLDWIDE PANTS INC.)

CLINTON: Tonight he's back. Oh, well, all good things come to an end.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: And though Letterman left Hillary alone his first show back, Leno didn't.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO," COURTESY NBC)

LENO: In fact, it is so cold, Hillary Clinton can actually see Barack Obama's breath breathing down her neck.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Leno says he wrote his monologue himself since his writers are still on strike. Letterman reached a separate deal with the union that enabled his writers to come back.

The question is who's writing Mike Huckabee's one liners?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

HUCKABEE: And I think the...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Down on the picket line, the sign read: "Hey, Huck, Scabs Suck." Leno and Huck yukked (ph) it up as Leno played an old interview Huckabee did when the Arkansas governor's mansion was being renovated and the Huckabees moved into a trailer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO," COURTESY NBC)

LENO: In fact, it's a triple wide. It's actually enough we could get you and your chin in the whole thing.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Leno played this year's jib jab year ender.

(VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO," COURTESY NBC)

MOOS: But we've been stalling with the real headline on the return of late night. It's the beard.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," COURTESY WORLDWIDE PANTS INC.)

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: I know what you're thinking to yourself. You're thinking Dave looks like a missing hiker. Dave looks like a cattle drive cook.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: General Lee!

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Conan said he was growing his in solidarity with striking writers. Conan even put his beard to music.

(VIDEO CLIP FROM "LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN," COURTESY NBC)

MOOS (on camera): Maybe all the presidential candidates should consider letting their beards grow until election day. Well, maybe not all of the candidates.

CLINTON: God bless you.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: Nice beards all around.

Tonight, in one hour, epee, our special coverage of the Iowa caucuses begins. Join me and the best political team on television for complete results and analysis. Until then, thanks very much for joining us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.

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