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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Bush Announces Plan to Boost Economy; South Carolina Prepares to Vote

Aired January 18, 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: To our viewers, happening now: Even President Bush admits America could be on the brink of recession and he's now pushing Congress to give the economy a big shot in the arm.
Also, Democrats are seizing on the economy, but they're also going after one another. We're following the presidential candidates in Nevada on this, the eve of their next big contest.

And Southern comfort, which Republican will find it in South Carolina tomorrow? We're on the campaign trail in a state where campaigns traditionally have been made and broken.

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

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

President Bush is trying today to stay on top of an issue that is driving the race to replace him. Of course that would be the economy. He's now laid out his vision of what Congress should do to give strapped Americans some immediate relief. Let's go to the White House.

CNN's Kathleen Koch is standing by.

The president toning down his normally optimistic statements about the state of the economy.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Quite so, Wolf, a dramatic change of tone for this president, who is often accused by Democrats of being far too optimistic about the economy. But, you know, the R- word, recession, focuses people's attention. It's gotten the attention of this White House.

And, today, the president admitted the economy needs a boost.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH (voice over): A shot in the arm to keep the economy healthy, a rare admission by a president that the economy he once described as strong and getting stronger needs help.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They are areas of real concern.

KOCH: The stimulus package President Bush is prescribing would be large, $140 billion to $150 billion. It would include tax incentives for businesses and tax relief for the American people. President Bush wouldn't give specifics, but sources on Capitol Hill say the White House has suggested tax rebates similar to those given in 2001, when individuals and families received checks for between $300 and $600.

BUSH: This gross package must be built on broad-based tax relief that will directly affect economic growth, and not the kind of spending projects that would have little immediate impact on our economy.

KOCH: But Democrats insist spending programs, combined with tax rebates, would be most effective.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: We know extending unemployment insurance is one of the most effective stimulus proposals because we have deployed it successfully in the past and it gets the most bang for the buck.

KOCH: Democrats are also upset that tax rebates would not help the poorest Americans, those who don't earn enough to pay income taxes. Aides on Capitol Hill say a plan that ignores the most needy won't pass, but the administration says that's not what this stimulus package is about.

ED LAZEAR, CHAIRMAN, COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISERS: Not on thinking about ways to distribute and take care of different needs. Albeit those needs, perhaps, particularly important, we believe that this is what we're talking about right now, and that's growth.

KOCH: Democrats do applaud the president's decision not to insist extension of his tax cuts due to expire in 2010 be included in the package.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH: So, when might a stimulus package become a reality? Both sides are saying as soon as possible, perhaps a matter of weeks.

Wolf, this is certainly the kind of item that the president would love to tout in his January 28 State of the Union address.

BLITZER: Kathleen Koch, at the White House, thank you very much.

Out on the campaign trail, Democrats say they would do better than President Bush helping Americans in these tough economic times. Republicans are talking about what they would do as well. All the presidential candidates are focusing in on fears about the economy. It's part of their strategy to win contests tomorrow.

CNN's Dana Bash has more now on South Carolina's Republican primary.

Actually, Dana Bash is standing by.

I want to go to Jessica Yellin in Las Vegas first. The Democrats are getting ready for their caucuses out there tomorrow and they're making final appeals to voters.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are, Wolf. They are addressing voters' concerns about the economy. But they're also taking time to beat up on each other, trying to fire up their supporters and make sure they get a strong turnout tomorrow.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You are what we have.

YELLIN (voice-over): On the campaign trail, the candidates are promising to heal economic wounds.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think your government that you pay tax dollars to should do more to help small businesses.

EDWARDS: We modernize our unemployment insurance laws to cover more people, that we get help to the states directly.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have called for a tax rebate. Every American immediately gets $250, and then an additional $250 if the economy keeps on getting worse.

YELLIN: Sounds substantive, right? Well, while the candidates are taking issues, the campaigns or their supporters are on the attack.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hillary Clinton (SPEAKING SPANISH)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: The ad says Hillary Clinton supporters went to court to prevent working people from voting, and Hillary Clinton has no shame. The ad is paid for by a labor union that supports Barack Obama. Now John Edwards is calling Obama a hypocrite, since the ad is paid for by one of those reviled special interest groups.

EDWARDS: I hope Senator Obama will call for this ad, first denounce the ad, second, call for it to be stopped.

YELLIN: And camp Clinton is getting in on the circular firing squad, leaping on this from Obama.

OBAMA: I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.

YELLIN: Clinton supporters say they're stupefied, baffled that Obama would praise Ronald Reagan, a man they say made life worse for women, minorities, and the homeless, and proves she's the real Democrat in the race. (END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Wolf, the tit-for-tat didn't stop there.

This afternoon, Senator Obama accused Senator Clinton basically of cribbing from his economic stimulus plan. But the Clinton people laughed. They say she came out with her plan first.

Bottom line, there's not a love lost out here on the campaign trail -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin in Vegas for us -- Jessica, thanks very much.

Let's head over to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Dana Bash is watching the Republicans. They're getting ready for a contest tomorrow. Normally, what happens in South Carolina for Republicans goes on to happen as far as the Republican eventual nominee is concerned.

This year could be different, though, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. Republicans take a lot of pride in the fact that here in South Carolina in the fact that they traditionally, at least in recent history, do pick the GOP nominee.

But tomorrow's primary may not just be a test about whether the Republicans can beat one another in the primary. It also may be an early indicator of whether they can beat a Democrat in November.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Mike Huckabee's final plea for South Carolina votes goes like this.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And if you want someone who understands what life growing up in the South, growing up like so many of you did would be in the White House, I ask for your vote and your confidence.

BASH: Fred Thompson is going for Southern bonding too, his drawl a bit thicker here.

FRED THOMPSON, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It sure is good to be among folks that don't think I know -- that I talk funny and know how to cook green beans.

BASH: Any advantage helps for GOP candidates facing their first Southern contest.

HUCKABEE: Every year since 1980, South Carolina has picked who the next Republican nominee would be.

BASH: Critical because of that and winning in the South is also a test of whether a Republican can win the general election. Look at this map. In 2004, the only big Northern state George W. Bush won was Ohio. It was the Southern states in red that propelled his victory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you cannot win in the South, you will not win the presidency. That's a fact of life for Republican candidates. It's actually a fact of life for Democratic candidates as well.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And we're going to join together here in Nevada in a great campaign.

BASH: Which makes former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's decision to leave South Carolina in search of delegates in Nevada risky.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the biggest challenges for Romney is, can he compete in the South? Can he appeal to social conservatives, the evangelical wing of the Republican Party?

BASH: But South Carolina poses the greatest challenge for this man.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We will win tomorrow.

BASH: John McCain must prove he can win among Republicans outside New Hampshire, where independents fueled his comeback, trying his form of South Carolina bonding.

MCCAIN: It has enriched my life to be able to be among the most patriotic citizens in this country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, I talked to some Republicans, and they say it is critical for the party to reach beyond the conservative South and find a nominee who can do that.

Now, that might be true, but the reality, Wolf, is that you can't win without your base. And the ideological and geographical base of the GOP is right here in the South -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks very much. Dana will be watching the story unfold with all of us tomorrow.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: They just say anything, don't they?

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Anything. They're shameless. They will say anything.

BLITZER: Are you surprised? Are you surprised?

CAFFERTY: All right. You know, things are getting ugly out there on the campaign trail -- excuse me; I couldn't help myself -- when the candidates start going after the news media. And that's what's happening right now.

First, there was that heated exchange between Bill Clinton and a local TV reporter in California, the former president getting visibly annoyed when the reporter asked him about the decision to allow caucuses in Las Vegas casinos, where a lot of Barack Obama supporters work.

Enter Republican candidate Mitt Romney. When he was asked about the role of lobbyists in his campaign by an AP reporter yesterday, he became defensive. He said he don't have no stinking lobbyists running his campaign.

What he does have though is a high-level adviser who's also the chairman of a large communications firm. Oh.

And John Edwards is whining about the media, too. His campaign is launching a full-on assault on the media for what they claim is inadequate and unfair press coverage. His communications director says -- quote -- "For the better part of a year, the media has focused on two celebrity candidates" -- unquote. He wasn't finished whining.

He said, the media continued to focus on Obama and Clinton, despite the fact that Edwards beat Clinton in Iowa and that polls show competitive races in states like Nevada and South Carolina.

You see, complaining about the media comes as naturally to a politician as having his hand out.

Here's the question. Is it the news media's job to keep all the candidates happy?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and get on my blog and have yourself a merry time -- Wolf.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much. And I have read your blog, and they do.

To some, it's a symbol of pride, for others, a symbol of pride. One governor says there are more important issues to talk about.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GOV. MARK SANFORD (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If you were to talk to the vast majority of South Carolinians, they would say that we do not need to be debating where the Confederate flag is or is not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: South Carolina's governor talks about the Confederate flag and other issues that have crept into the presidential race.

Also, Barack Obama explains his weaknesses. How much will they really matter? And regarding that British Airways flight that came down short on the runway, just before it landed, its engines simply stopped responding. We will have the latest.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: South Carolina has once again been the scene of some nasty politics. Once again, a lot is on the line there, with just hours to go until the Republican primary.

And joining us now, the Republican governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford.

Governor, thanks very much for taking a few moments to join us.

SANFORD: My pleasure.

BLITZER: All eyes on South Carolina tomorrow. You have got a big Republican contest. We're looking at some of the headlines in the major newspapers today, old loyalties vs. new passions, split South black Democrats.

If we take a look at some of these other headlines in "The Wall Street Journal" on the opinion page, Huckabee and values vote. If we look at some others, "The Washington Times," McCain/Romney hit over Confederate flag. And I think we have one more that we will put up there "USA Today," states try to pull plug on robo-calls.

Are these the issues that voters in South Carolina are obsessed about right now going into the Republican primary?

SANFORD: Probably not.

I mean, I get dizzy listening to all the headlines that you just walked through over the last couple seconds.

I think it's much more simple than that. People care about pocketbook issues. They care about the degree to which they are going to be able to provide for the family and those that they love. They care about America's place in the world, because they know that it's going to have an impact in the long run in their ability to do so. They care about I think things much more immediate than sort of the world of politics that you were just walking through.

BLITZER: It seems almost, whenever there's a Republican primary in South Carolina, the Confederate flag all of a sudden becomes another issue.

I'm going to play two excerpts of what McCain and Huckabee have been saying in recent days about this issue. I want to weight in.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MCCAIN: I cannot be more proud of the overwhelming majority of the people of this state who have joined together, taken that flag off the top of the capitol, put it into the place where it belongs.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HUCKABEE: In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we would tell them what to do with the pole. That's what we would do.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, two different positions, obviously. Who's right in this?

SANFORD: Well, it depends who you talk to.

BLITZER: What do you think?

SANFORD: I guess that's the nature of politics.

What I think is that the nature of a compromise is that everybody gives up a little something, and nobody walks away completely happy. And, so, I think that, if you were to talk to the vast majority of South Carolinians, they would say that we do not need to be debating where the Confederate flag is or is not, that it was taken down. It was put in a place of memorial on the statehouse grounds. And that was the compromise.

Not everybody walked away happy, but that was the compromise that was worked out. And, at the end of the day, what they care more about is what kind of education their kids are getting, what kind of health care are they getting as they age, what kind of check are they going to be able to put into the family bank account to make sure that they're able to not only put bread on the table, but frankly help to fulfill some of the dreams that go with building a family.

So, I think that there are much more immediate issues that people are focused on here in South Carolina than where the flag is or is not. And, with all due respects to folks in your line of work, Wolf, that's one of the things that people seize on from afar. But it's not the bedrock of conversation here in South Carolina on a daily basis.

BLITZER: All right, fair enough.

You wrote what I thought was a powerful piece in the state's largest newspaper, "The State" on January 11, in which you said you're not going to vote for Barack Obama. Obviously, you're a Republican. But you praised him and you praised what this says about our country right now.

Among other things, you said this: "Within many of our own lifetimes, a man who looked like Barack Obama had a difficult time even using the public restrooms in our state. What is happening may well say a lot about America. And I do think, as an early primary state, we should earnestly shoulder our responsibility in determining how this part of history is ultimately written."

Give us your mind-set. Why did you think it was so important to write this piece right now at this critical moment?

SANFORD: Well, it plays into a larger conversation that we're having as a family of South Carolinians on in fact the structure of our government.

The structure of our government, tragically, is an 1895 Constitution that was written by a fellow by the name of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, who was anything but progressive. His quote from the floor of the United States Senate was: We of the South have never -- basically -- seen the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will.

That was his kind of thinking. And so if that's the constitutional framework from which you operate, again, a lot of good people in our system operating from that system, it's worth changing.

So, what we have been about as an administration is trying to break some glass ceilings, trying to break some ways things have been done in the past, because it's important to all of us, black or white here in South Carolina, to change some of these things. And a benchmark, if you will, in the way that things are progressing I think is the fact that you can have a vibrant and real candidacy by a black man here in South Carolina.

And I'm awfully excited about that. Again, not going to vote for him, but I'm excited about what that says in terms where we are as a country and where we as a state.

BLITZER: Good luck this Saturday. Good luck next Saturday with the Democrats.

Governor, thanks for joining us.

SANFORD: I much appreciate it. Thanks so much.

BLITZER: And this programming note about the South Carolina primary: CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute are sponsoring a Democratic presidential debate in Myrtle Beach on Monday. That's Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Please join me and Suzanne Malveaux and Joe Johns Monday night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.

If you see him more, will you vote for him? John Edwards says, if he got more airtime, he would absolutely have more support. We are going to check to see if he's right.

And what was a man doing near the U.S. Senate office building with a shotgun? Police want to know. We're going to tell you what happened just hours ago right here in Washington.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: Barack Obama gets a second try at getting a debate answer a little bit more right.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: See, if I had gone last, I would have said, my biggest weakness, I like to help old ladies across the street.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Obama has some fun at his rivals' expense -- the best political team on television getting ready to weigh in on that and a lot more.

Also, John Edwards fighting to get out of the Obama/Clinton shadow. We're going to take a closer look at his grab for the spotlight and for votes notice Nevada.

And Huck's army ready to deploy nationwide. We're following the marching orders online.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now: John Edwards, mired in third place in the Democratic race for the White House, he's in desperate need of a win right now. Will Nevada or South Carolina breathe some fresh life into his campaign?

Also, the debate question Barack Obama wishes he could do over. We are going to show you what he said was his greatest weakness and what he now maintains he would say instead.

Plus, how to fix the economy -- you're going to find out what the candidates are actually saying. Who has the best plan?

All of this, plus the best political team on television.

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

John Edwards is staking a lot on his campaign out in South Carolina, where the Democrats hold their primary one week from tomorrow. But the Democrat also is fighting for a piece of the action in Nevada, the caucuses there for the Democrats tomorrow. Our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, is watching all of this unfold in Las Vegas.

He's struggling to get some traction out there. It's not so easy when you have two these rivals sort of hovering over this Democratic contest.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely.

And John Edwards thinks it's been like that throughout this campaign. He's up against these two rock stars. But, basically, the Edwards camp has found someone else they think they're fighting. They say this is a three-way war, not just against Obama, not just against Clinton, but also against the news media.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY (voice-over): On the fourth stop of a two-state day, John Edwards campaigned in a hotel bar in Elko, Nevada, and cut loose.

EDWARDS: Whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS: That's got a kick.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

EDWARDS: Thank you.

CROWLEY: He's having fun, said an aide. But it would be more fun if he won.

EDWARDS: The only way we're going to have real change in this country is to have somebody with some guts and determination and fight who's willing to fight these entrenched interests.

CROWLEY: Edwards' passionately populist campaign was first off the starting block. Before polls said Americans cared most about the economy, his message was about a system failing the poor and squeezing the middle class. He has often led the discussion -- first out with a health care plan, an economic stimulus plan. Other numbers -- second in the Iowa caucuses, third in the New Hampshire primary, third in Nevada polls. John Edwards needs a win.

EDWARDS: I have to start getting more delegates.

CROWLEY (on camera): And where will that be?

EDWARDS: I don't -- I don't make that prediction. I mean we've got a very long time to go. I honestly think that it's -- it's dependent on -- I honestly think it's dependent on when I get heard in a relatively fair way. Because if I get heard, it will work. I think -- I absolutely believe, based on all the data, that people will be for me, if they hear from me in a way that's even remotely even with the other two candidates. CROWLEY (voice-over): He blames the news media for his struggling campaign and so do his supporters.

JOHN JESSE, EDWARDS SUPPORTER: Because he is not getting the coverage that he deserves. I mean he's a great man. He would be a great president.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa.

CROWLEY: It's a frequent complaint of struggling campaigns -- an age old chicken and egg question.

EDWARDS: If you cover me and I'm heard, we'll be successful.

CROWLEY: At this stage of the game, does Edwards need a win for media coverage or media coverage for a win?

The campaign is looking for both any way it can get them.

DAVID BONIOR, EDWARDS CAMPAIGN MANAGER: But right now, there's only six delegates separating the top, Mr. Obama, from us. And it's very, very close. And when we get out of here tomorrow, the vote could very well be split three ways again. So down to South Carolina, where it will get split again.

CROWLEY: And somewhere he needs to win.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

CROWLEY: And at this point, the Edwards campaign is not predicting a win in South Carolina, though it's where he won in 2004. It is where he was born.

Basically, the overriding philosophy of the Edwards campaign at this point is that somewhere along the line voters will begin to get buyer's remorse and number three will get a second look -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy, thanks very much.

Candy Crowley watching this story for us from Las Vegas.

Nevada's caucuses -- Democratic and Republican caucuses tomorrow. South Carolina's Republican primary also tomorrow -- only hours away.

Let's talk about that and more with our senior analyst Jeff Toobin, our own Jack Cafferty and our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. They're all part of the best political team on television.

Does Edwards really have a point in the complaint he has, Jack?

CAFFERTY: No. I mean this campaign has been going on since January.

What is it now, January again?

He's been to all the debates, which have been carried and tuned in -- watched by millions and millions of people across the country -- many, many debates, not just one or two. It's a common complaint for politicians if -- you know, if they're down in the polls, it's the media's fault. And if they're up in the polls, it's because they're great guys.

The short answer is no, I don't think he's got a complaint.

BLITZER: It is fair to say, though, Gloria, that it's hard to compete with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I was just thinking, Wolf, you know, he's running against these two rock stars. And it's very difficult for him because they sort of suck all the oxygen out of the room. And truth be told, John Edwards is the original populist in this race. And now suddenly the notion of populism, as we talk about economic stimulus packages and an economy that's not doing very well, the notion of populism is growing more popular. And -- but Edwards can't seem to get any traction because he's got these two stars ahead of him.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: But, also, if you -- you know, he is running as a populist and he sounds like a populist. But if you look at his positions on the issues, they're really not that different from Clinton's or Obama's -- on health care, on Iraq -- and even on the stimulus package. Yes, there are subtle differences. So it's not like there are dramatic issue differences that he can call attention to when he gets...

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: ...when he gets the attention that he does get.

BORGER: But, you know, he always likes to say...

CAFFERTY: Here's the other point...

BORGER: ...he was first, right?

They play this game, who was first with economic stimulus and Edwards says he was.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

TOOBIN: Right. I mean...

CAFFERTY: But six months or eight months ago, who do you think was better known in this country, John Edwards or Barack Obama?

I will bet you everything I have in my pocket...

TOOBIN: I think that's a good point.

CAFFERTY: ...that it was John Edwards.

BORGER: Yes. CAFFERTY: He ran for this office once before. The public knew who he was. The fact that Barack Obama came along and captured the imagination of voters has partly to do with the times we live in, the general dissatisfaction of the electorate and the fact that he has a message that's resonating with people. And, quite frankly, there isn't a hell of a lot John Edwards can do about that.

BLITZER: You know...

CAFFERTY: As far as Clinton being a rock star, I think the jury might still be out.

BLITZER: Let's talk about this for a second, Gloria. I want you to weigh in. We asked in our new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, which candidate has the personality and leadership qualities a president should have?

And look at this -- 60 percent of registered voters, Democrats and Republicans and Independents, said McCain; 59 percent, Obama; 55 percent, Clinton; 41, Giuliani; 40 percent Romney; Huckabee, 38 percent.

Were you surprised that McCain came out on top?

BORGER: I really wasn't, because McCain's entire campaign is about leadership. That's what he talks about. He talks about experience openly. He talks about leadership. He talks about his history, his national security credentials. And he's also kind of a crossover candidate. You know, he appeals to Democrats and Independents, as well as Republicans. So it doesn't really surprise me that he's number one on that scale.

TOOBIN: But he's also the best known, nationally, of the Republican candidates.

BORGER: Yes.

TOOBIN: And I think that's a big factor. You know, we've been following Romney and Huckabee go from Iowa to New Hampshire to Michigan. But in the rest of the country, which is, of course, most of the country, they're still not very well known, whereas John McCain has been a national figure for a decade.

CAFFERTY: When you put that...

BLITZER: You know, Jack...

CAFFERTY: When you put that...

BLITZER: ...before you answer that, Jack, I want to put some other numbers up, because I really want you to weigh in...

CAFFERTY: Before you do that, though...

BLITZER: All right.

CAFFERTY: ...can we go back to that thing full screen just for a second?

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: Look on the right hand side down at the bottom. The right hand side is no -- has the personality and leadership qualities to be president. Look who's in last place -- Mike Huckabee. You know, I mean that might speak to the idea that a lot of people thought that win in Iowa was maybe going to be his moment in the sun.

BLITZER: All right...

CAFFERTY: I don't know, but it's interesting.

BLITZER: That's a fair point.

And look at these numbers, though. We did some checking. In the new poll that we just released today, we asked about President Bush and his job approval rating exactly -- almost exactly one year until there is a new president, January 20th, 2009.

His job approval rating is still in the 30 -- the low 30s, 34 percent. We then compared it to exactly this time with Ronald Reagan, when he had one year to go in his second term. His job approval was at 49 percent. And Bill Clinton's job approval number was at 62 percent when had he one year to go in office.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Very quickly, let's ask all of you for your thoughts on this.

Jack, first to you.

CAFFERTY: Well, I think, you know, different times generate different poll numbers for sitting presidents. President Bush has had, you know, the terror attacks, the war, he's got an economy that's in trouble. And his rating hasn't been much above 35 for a couple of years now, I don't think.

Clinton's time, he had a stock market bubble on Wall Street. Everybody was making a ton of money. We had a budget supplies. So I think the times have a lot to do with those numbers.

TOOBIN: But even with a...

BORGER: But that's...

TOOBIN: Even with that high number, Bill Clinton couldn't get a president of his party elected.

BLITZER: Yes.

TOOBIN: Even though Al Gore got more votes, he didn't -- he wasn't inaugurated, if you remember.

BLITZER: Gloria? BORGER: Reagan's popularity number was post-Iran-Contra and Bill Clinton's was post-Monica Lewinsky. And he's almost double what George Bush's popularity is now.

What does that tell you about what the public thinks about George Bush?

(LAUGHTER)

BORGER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: It's not something we can go into in great detail.

BLITZER: Stand by, guys.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: We're going to continue this conversation.

It's topic number one on the campaign trail right now.

So how will the economy and efforts to give it an immediate boost impact the race for the White House?

The best political team on television will weigh in.

Plus, meet a political reporter unlike any other out on the campaign trail.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I said well, you know, I don't hang on to paper real well. My desk is a mess. So I need people to help me filing and keeping on schedule and things like that. And so my two colleagues -- Senator Edwards says my biggest weakness is I'm just so passionate about poor people and helping them. And then Hillary says my biggest weakness is I'm so impatient to bring about real change in America.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Now I didn't -- nobody had clued me in...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ...that, you know -- see if I had gone last, I would have said my biggest weakness -- I like to help old ladies across the street.

(APPLAUSE) (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Barack Obama in Reno, Nevada today, reliving a moment in that last Democratic presidential debate and having a little fun in the process.

He's got a good sense of humor, you've got to admit -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: He's terrific. That's a rock star. And the other two lied. You know, they lied.

(LAUGHTER)

BORGER: He told the truth -- my worst problem is I've got a messy desk. They told some bogus baloney story. They lied. He didn't.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: They were saying what their greatest assets were, in effect, and not what their worst problems were.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: You know, if...

TOOBIN: ...giving the classic politician answer...

BORGER: Yes.

TOOBIN: ...which they all -- which is, you know, this is often asked in debates and they always come up with phony baloney answers like, you know, I care too deeply, I work too hard.

(LAUGHTER)

TOOBIN: And, you know...

BORGER: Oh, please.

TOOBIN: ...and I think Obama sounded like a human being.

BORGER: You know, it's just taking spin to a whole new level. I mean it's absolutely ridiculous. I winced when I heard it the first time and I think Obama is right to make fun of it. It's very good for him, because he's saying to folks, I'm the truth teller. That's been his entire campaign -- I'm the truth teller.

BLITZER: Is it the role, Jack, of the moderators in a presidential debate like this, to then hold these guys to the fire and say, I didn't ask what your best attributes were, I asked what your worst were.

(LAUGHTER) CAFFERTY: Well, it's a good thing because they still wouldn't have been through answering that question. That would have gone on hours beyond the end time.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: I don't know. You know, I mean I guess you tread a fine line. You moderate all these things. I don't know if you -- you don't want to jump ugly with them, because they're trying to give you an answer. But those two answers that Edwards and Clinton gave, compared to what Barack Obama said, I mean there's chapters and chapters of stuff right there. That's very funny stuff.

BLITZER: I want to...

(CROSSTALK)

CAFFERTY: Very revealing.

BLITZER: ...actually switch for a second, Gloria.

If the economy improves between now and November -- let's say the stimulus package really has an impact, the markets are robust, people are not losing their homes, things are going in the right direction -- who gains the most because of this bipartisan cooperation between the Democrats in Congress and the White House in forging a good economic stimulus package?

BORGER: Well, I'm going to give you two answers. One is the sort of Pollyanna answer, which may be true, which is that both parties, that maybe people won't want to throw the bums out of Congress when it comes time to reelect their members of Congress, because they actually believe that they got something done during a crisis.

The other part of this is that it probably, in the long-term, helps Republicans who are very uncomfortable in talking about economic stimulus packages. And if this gets done and Bush led it and was president, it can get them off the hook, to a certain extent, on the economy issue, because the Democrats are much more comfortable on this terrain than Republicans.

TOOBIN: But wait a second, Wolf. Wolf, you're assuming that the stimulus is A, going to pass, and, B, going to work.

BLITZER: Sure.

TOOBIN: The economy is a problem right now. And I think that's what we know for sure. And I think given that fact, it's a problem for the Republicans.

BLITZER: Well, I'm just asking a hypothetical, if it worked...

BORGER: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ...and it turns the economy around, who gains the most.

Jack?

CAFFERTY: Well, whether it does or it doesn't, whether it works or it doesn't work, I think the idea of voting every incumbent out of office come November is a terrific idea. And I hope the voters don't pay attention to any of the stuff that happens between now and then.

Vote for anybody except the people who are ruining this country in November.

TOOBIN: Yes, but...

CAFFERTY: Anyone.

TOOBIN: ...that's Jack's weakness. He just cares too much about the country.

(LAUGHTER)

TOOBIN: And I think -- you know, I think it shows.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Well...

BLITZER: All right, guys, we've got to leave it there. We're out of time. But we'll see you all here tomorrow. We've got a lot of coverage coming up tomorrow.

Jack, you've still got The Cafferty File coming up tonight.

Lou Dobbs is getting ready for his excellent show that begins right at the top of the hour -- Lou, what are you working on?

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Most excellent show, indeed.

Wolf, thank you.

We're working on a lot, including the president's so-called shot in the arm stimulus package for the economy -- a plan that apparently won't do much to address the root causes of our economic malaise, but may provide some much needed help.

Also, drug cartel violence on our southern border with Mexico is simply out of control. The Bush administration hasn't really noticed that yet, but we'll be bringing it to their attention. Twelve people, in fact, killed in the border city of Tijuana this past week alone. The government of Mexico now wants the United States government to help. We'll have the story.

We'll have a special report for you on an act of vandalism that sparked outrage in the United States Marine Corps and throughout the country -- anybody who cares about the U.S. military. The target of that vandalism -- a Marine who is now serving his second tour in Iraq. And I've got to tell you, Wolf, I want you to watch this, because this, partner, is justice and the justice system at its best. And by the way, carried out by some former Marines. So we're going to have that story for you.

The Democratic presidential campaign turning nasty one day before those caucuses in Nevada. I'll be talking about that with -- three of the best political analysts in the country.

Join us for all of that and more, all the day's news, at the top of the hour -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: I said you had an excellent show and I meant it.

Lou, thanks very much.

DOBBS: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: We will watch that report especially.

DOBBS: You've got it.

BLITZER: They call themselves Huck's Army. Mike Huckabee's grassroots supporters have been active in South Carolina. You're going to find out what they're planning to do next.

Plus, we're going to show you who Michael Bloomberg apparently met with. And that's fueling more new talk about a possible Independent White House run.

Stick around.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Checking our Political Ticker, Republican John McCain is using a unique tactic to counteract some supporters of rival Mike Huckabee. A new McCain Web ad features clips of Huckabee praising McCain.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM JOHN MCCAIN FOR PRESIDENT CAMPAIGN AD)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator McCain, no matter what anyone may say, is a genuine conservative. John McCain's a hero in this country. He's a hero to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Another sign that Michael Bloomberg is considering perhaps launching an Independent presidential campaign despite his frequent denials. The Associated Press reports the New York mayor met with former campaign manager for Ross Perot's third party presidential bid over a decade ago. Clay Mulford is considered an expert at getting ballot access -- which would be key to an Independent third party run for the White House.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can check out CNNPolitics.com. You can read my blog there, as well.

As Mike Huckabee focuses in on South Carolina's Republican primary tomorrow, his grassroots supporters online are looking further ahead. The group dubbed "Huck's Army" is getting ready to deploy nationwide.

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

She's watching this story.

Who's behind this effort -- Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's two 19-year-old twins, Brett and Alex Harris, who, when they're not running their Christian Web site for teenagers, they're manning this site, HucksArmy.com, a grassroots Web site for Huckabee volunteers.

We spoke to them a month ago. They had fewer than 2,000 members -- now, 13,000. And while they've been at work in South Carolina making phone calls, going door-to-door campaigning, their main focus, says Brett Harris, is the February 5th states -- Super Tuesday states, where the Huckabee campaign has fewer resources.

Right now, they're looking at California, for example, trying to get a volunteer coordinator up and running in every single one of those counties.

They've got their work cut out for them. The Huckabee campaign tells us today they have no staff or offices in any of the February 5th states, apart from their campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, and that these supporters -- the grassroots supporters will be key -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

Let's check back with Jack Cafferty.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: All right, the question this hour -- is it the news media's job to keep all the candidates happy?

They -- you know, if something goes wrong, they whine about the media.

Amena writes: "No. But it's the media's job to keep me happy and I'm not happy with the skewed coverage of this primary season. I need to hear about all the candidates, not just the ones you think will win or the ones that are arguing with each other."

Erik writes: "No. Just plain no. I think a lot of the point of the primary is to test the candidates. And if they keep it together, it proves they're able to be our president. Please keep poking and prodding the candidates. If they can take so much now, they can probably handle a lot in the White House."

Patrick says: "That's absolutely absurd. If the news media tried to keep all the candidates happy, then they'd have nothing to report. The candidates will twist and turn everything, no matter what the media says, so that they can continue to skirt the issues people care about and keep fighting among themselves."

Hannah says: "Are you kidding me, Jack? The media's job is to tell the public the truth, not to coddle politicians whose main goal in life is to gain power at any cost."

Eugene: "Of course it's not the media's job to keep all the candidates happy. But it is the job of the media to keep all of the citizens informed. What are the facts? What's the percentage of air time spent discussing Obama versus air time spent discussing Clinton versus air time spent discussing Edwards? I don't know, but it's all too much."

Dave in Grand Junction, Colorado says: "Are you kidding, Jack? Maybe our country wouldn't be in the mess it's in if the media didn't try so hard to keep the politicians happy."

I don't try to keep them happy.

Do you, Wolf?

BLITZER: No. I just try to keep them honest.

CAFFERTY: No. There you go.

BLITZER: It's not easy, though.

CAFFERTY: No.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Have a great weekend.

CAFFERTY: You, too.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: See you Monday.

BLITZER: It gives a whole new meaning to the term cub reporter. A fourth grader out on the campaign trail with Rudy Giuliani as a member of the press corps. You're going to want to stick around and see this.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: She's part of the pack out on the campaign trail covering the presidential campaign. But this young journalist gives a whole new meaning to the term cub reporter.

CNN's John Zarrella has the story from Florida.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): You're never too young. Just ask 9-year-old fourth grader Shelby Fallin.

SHELBY FALLIN, SCHOLASTIC REPORTER: What is it that you like about Mr. Rudy Giuliani?

ZARRELLA: Shelby is a reporter covering the presidential candidates.

FALLIN: My name is Shelby Fallin and I work with "Scholastic News".

ZARRELLA: "Scholastic" is a publication read by students across the United States. Shelby was chosen as one of "Scholastic's" kid reporters based on essays she wrote -- one about why she'd make a good reporter. That was easy.

FALLIN: Thank you, Alex.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I wonder what's for lunch today.

FALLIN: Me, too, Priscilla (ph). Let's go to Carly in the kitchen.

What's cooking, Carly?

ZARRELLA: Shelby's been reporting for Griffin Elementary School in Lakeland, Florida since second grade.

CINDY FALLIN, SHELBY'S MOTHER: She's always been one that can pretty much do anything she sets her mind to.

ZARRELLA: Shelby's first assignment on the campaign trail -- covering Republican Rudy Giuliani. As you'd expect, education is important.

FALLIN: If it wasn't for education, there wouldn't be "Scholastic" magazine and I wouldn't have a...

ZARRELLA (on camera): Did they tell to you say that?

FALLIN: No.

It's...

ZARRELLA: And you wouldn't have what?

FALLIN: And I wouldn't have this reporter job.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Like a veteran reporter, she's studied her questions and with the rest of the media, waited. (on camera): You have five questions.

FALLIN: Yes.

ZARRELLA: If you only get to ask him one, which one is it going to be?

FALLIN: I'm going to ask him if -- how will you lower the gas prices if you were president?

ZARRELLA (voice-over): But the day didn't go as Shelby or anyone else expected. A bomb threat forced us to move to another location, where we waited again.

FALLIN: I think that it's kind of long, but I'm getting used to it.

ZARRELLA: After two hours, the candidates showed up and spoke to supporters, but didn't take questions. For Shelby, this was a learning experience.

But what about that interview?

Monday on his way through Lakeland, Giuliani stopped and Shelby got her one-on-one.

How did it go?

Well, you'll just have to read her article to find out.

John Zarrella, CNN, Lakeland, Florida.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: Tomorrow, primary races in South Carolina and Nevada -- the caucuses there. and the best political team on television has it all covered. Please join us beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern with results as they come in.

We'll be back on the air at 7:00 p.m. Eastern for more. It's going to be a busy day for all of us tomorrow at the CNN Election Center.

On Sunday, among my guests on "LATE EDITION," Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. "LATE EDITION" airs Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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

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