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Florida Voters Head to the Polls; Interview With Florida Governor Charlie Crist; House Passes $146 Billion Economic Stimulus Package

Aired January 29, 2008 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, primary day. Huge numbers of people are voting in Florida, and the race between John McCain and Mitt Romney couldn't get much tighter.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue their battle. But as one racks up another endorsement, the other may claim victory in what some people consider simply to be a beauty contest tonight.

And it's your money. Now President Bush has just done something to try to help keep it from being wasted.

I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, an intense political opera is nearing its final act. Amid a chorus of insults and accusations, people are voting in Florida's primaries. What happens there should matter to you. On the Republican side, this is the biggest contest so far, with the winner snatching all 57 Florida delegates. Winner-take -all for the Republicans in Florida tonight.

And whoever wins could get a full head of political steam heading into Super Tuesday next Tuesday. Polls show a tight race between John McCain and Mitt Romney. Let's go there. CNN's Dana Bash is in Miami. She's watching all of this for us.

The candidates making final pitches, Dana, right now.


But, at this point, as you know, Wolf, it's not so much about the candidate's pitch. It's their campaigns' organization, getting out every last vote they think is going to for them. But with a race this tight, it is these candidates going neck and neck, going at it, vying for every last vote and going at it until the bitter end.


BASH (voice-over): At a polling station in Saint Petersburg, one last chance for John McCain to convince Florida Republicans their security matters most, and Mitt Romney is not their man.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The real key I think here in Florida is, who can keep America safe? Who is it that has got the experience, and background and knowledge to take on the challenge of radical Islamic extremism? Governor Romney has no experience there.


BASH: In nearby Tampa, Romney said the struggling economy trumps all else, closing the deal as the businessman who can help, warning, McCain cannot.

ROMNEY: One of the candidates out there running for president said that the economy is not his strong suit. Well, it's my strong suit.


BASH: The biting personal jabs evidence of Florida's high stakes, the winner likely the GOP front-runner. But for voters asked to choose between one candidate for the economy and another on national security, it's not that simple.

BUNNY COLLINA, UNDECIDED REPUBLICAN VOTER: For myself, it's the economics. I do believe the war is also, you know, a deep consideration, our boys over there and women, and families, what they're giving up.

BASH: Cue Rudy Giuliani.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm the only that has also managed an economy and been table to take it through a crisis.

BASH: But after putting his eggs in Florida's basket, he sat with a bowl of Raisin Bran and deflected questions about whether a dismal finish will bring his demise.

GIULIANI: We're not going to deal with any hypothetical questions. It would be counterproductive to do that. We're going to win. We're going to win today.

BASH: As for Mike Huckabee, he isn't expecting a strong Florida showing, yet used a voter handing him a golf club to take a primary day swing at a rich rival.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I wouldn't know what -- now, which -- let's see. Do you hold this end?


HUCKABEE: It will be like Mitt Romney eating fried chicken, right?



BASH: But the race for momentum out of Florida really is between Mitt Romney and John McCain. For John McCain, a prize here in a Republican-only primary could put to rest questions about his appeal among conservatives.

And for Mitt Romney, Wolf, it could reset the race for him once again and clearly give him the lead in terms of the delegates, the delegates needed to win the Republican nomination -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much.

Most of the polls in Florida close at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. All of them will be closed at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. We're counting down to 8:00 p.m. Eastern. Soon, we will have our first set of exit polls gauging issues important to Florida voters. That's coming up. We will share the exit poll numbers with you as we get them.

Also coming up, our special coverage of the Florida primary. I will be here with the best political team on television. Our coverage begins when all of the polls close in Florida. That would be at 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

On the Democratic side Barack Obama is in the Midwest right now, where he's picking up another endorsement.

Let's go out there. Suzanne Malveaux is standing by in Kansas City, Missouri, Missouri being one of the Super Tuesday states.

Suzanne, what's going on with Barack Obama today?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, another big endorsement coming from the governor of Kansas. He is in Kansas, obviously, to show that he can campaign and win some support in a Republican-dominated state. He needs the support to pick up delegates wherever he can.

But, Wolf, have to tell you the headlines seems to be everybody's eyes were on State of the Union, looking at tone, body language. But it wasn't of the president. It was of Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton. How were they going to react after that big endorsement from Senator Ted Kennedy?

Well, take a look.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): The headline was all about the so-called snub, this picture of Senator Barack Obama turning away from Senator Clinton as Ted Kennedy, Obama's new best friend and key endorser, extended his hand. The moment captured and dissected, reflecting the atmosphere of high tension and drama in the campaign. Today, Obama denied any slight, saying he was distracted by another senator.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Me turning away, I was turning away because Claire asked me a question as Senator Kennedy was reaching for her.

MALVEAUX: Out of Washington and on the road, his first stop his grandfather's hometown of El Dorado, Kansas, where he picked up a key endorsement from its governor. OBAMA: We're among friends here. We're -- we're family.


MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, as I mentioned before, it is not just kind a -- a kind of a trip down memory lane when it comes to that key stop in Kansas, but it really is about trying to prove that he can make some inroads where other Democrats have failed.

Barack Obama also, on his plane, dismissing Senator Hillary Clinton's stop, her last stop that she's going to make in Florida after the primary for Democrats. Obviously, we know the delegates don't count in that state. Barack Obama simply dismissing it as a beauty contest -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It may be a beauty contest, but a lot of Floridians, a lot of Democrats, will be voting throughout today. They have already voted, a lot of them, absentee ballots and into the night.

And a lot of the Florida Democrats take this race very, very seriously. It's a lot different than it was in Michigan, which was also penalized by the Democratic National Committee for moving up their primary, because, in Michigan, only Hillary Clinton and Dennis Kucinich, their names were on the ballot together with uncommitted.

In Florida, on the other hand, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, their names are on the ballot. So, a lot of Florida Democrats are taking this vote very seriously.

Candy Crowley, standing by, we're going to talking to her about this throughout the course of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Another person reportedly praising Barack Obama, that would be California Republican -- Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He isn't endorsing Obama, but he does tell "The San Francisco Chronicle" Obama's message of bringing people together is a good one. Schwarzenegger also says that he likes John McCain, without actually endorsing him either.

Governor Schwarzenegger, by the way, will by my guest here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.

Meanwhile, CNN will be a guest in his state. It's for two presidential debates, the Republican presidential debate tomorrow night in Simi Valley at the Reagan Library. The Democrats have their debate at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles Thursday night. Both of the presidential debates 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File."

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Did you have lunch with anybody important today?

BLITZER: No, just the staff.

CAFFERTY: He was at the White House yesterday. BLITZER: That was...

CAFFERTY: Had lunch with the president.

BLITZER: The food was much better there.

CAFFERTY: Yes. No, if you ate here, it's better...

BLITZER: Very good. Very good.

CAFFERTY: ... better almost anywhere.

Senator Edward Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama yesterday got a lot of people talking about what effect the backing of one of the Senate's most senior Democrats would have on Obama's campaign. Will the young senator from Illinois inherit the Kennedy mystique that was the late president's?

It's also worth noting Kennedy is far from the only member of the Democratic establishment who has decided to support Obama, instead of Hillary Clinton. The list is pretty impressive. These are powerful names, Senators John Kerry, Patrick Leahy, Kent Conrad, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, California Congressman George Miller.

It's interesting that they would turn their backs on Hillary, the wife of one of the party's most popular figures and a key player in the party herself. But a piece in "The Politico" today describes how Washington's liberal establishment has joined together around the view that former President Bill Clinton is tarnishing his legacy and hurting his wife's presidential chances in the process.

It points out how Clinton spent so much time as the dominant personality in the Democratic Party that it makes it easy to forget that a lot of Democrats never liked him all that much to begin with. And it seems like a lot of this anti-Clinton sentiment has now resurfaced in Washington, where some see Clinton's campaigning to be inappropriate and even offensive.

So, here's the question: Why are so many powerful Democratic leaders turning their backs on Hillary Clinton and endorsing Barack Obama?

Go to You can post a comment there on my blog.

BLITZER: I have got one, too, by the way.

CAFFERTY: I know you do.

BLITZER: Got a little entry at

CAFFERTY: What did you write today about?

BLITZER: I wrote about the excellent staff we have and what it takes to get me on the air.

CAFFERTY: That's probably a short article. Did you write about anything else?


BLITZER: No. It takes a village, by the way...

CAFFERTY: It takes a...


BLITZER: ... to get you and me on the air...

CAFFERTY: That's true.

BLITZER: ... as you and I know.

CAFFERTY: That's true.

CAFFERTY: All right. It's an election where the candidates are not necessarily campaigning, and there's no major prize at stake, especially the delegates.

So, why is Florida so important for the Democrats today? Candy Crowley is watching that story.

Hillary Clinton gets ready for a party. But after you hear what they will be celebrating, you might wonder why the big fuss.

And none of us wants to see our money wasted. Now President Bush does something to try to help stop that from happening.

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


BLITZER: It's primary day in the state of Florida. Right now, we're counting down to when the polls close. But, as the Republican candidates spend some of the day campaigning, the Democrats are doing something very, very different.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's watching this story for us.

So, what are the Democrats doing?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: They're doing something very unusual. They're having an election where the candidates didn't campaign, and the results may not even count.


SCHNEIDER: Florida Democratic voters are doing something amazing. They are having a spontaneous primary.

KAREN THURMAN, FLORIDA DEMOCRATIC CHAIR: This is all a grassroots effort. And it is fabulous. I have actually heard some comments where people said, you know, isn't this what campaigning is supposed to be about? It's about talking to our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues at work. It's about us taking the initiative to say why we are for somebody.

SCHNEIDER: The national Democratic Party says Florida's votes won't count because the state is holding its primary too early. The Democratic candidates agreed not to campaign in Florida. How can you have an election where the candidates don't campaign?

THURMAN: Our voters in Florida have been innovative. They have been out here with their cardboard cutouts. They have been doing debate parties. They have been having their teas. They have been -- I mean, they have been doing the campaign themselves.

SCHNEIDER: Like Democrats around the country, Florida voters are excited about the campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This election is about Hillary Clinton. And she stands for what I care about.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And why did you vote for him?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because I think he has the vision, the curiosity, the intellect, the capability, the everything to lead this country in a new direction.

SCHNEIDER: They want to be heard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hope we still vote for something, not for nothing.

SCHNEIDER: Are they disgruntled?

THURMAN: We have tripled the amount of absentee ballots that we have had in since 2004. That's huge. That's not disgruntledness.

SCHNEIDER: Florida Democrats are confident that whoever the Democratic nominee is, he or she will not want to lock Florida out of the party.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN-SCHULTZ (D), FLORIDA: We are going to go all the way to the convention to make sure that our voices are heard loud and clear on that convention floor.


SCHNEIDER: Without a campaign, who wins? Well, Hillary Clinton expects to, as the best-known contender. She will even be in Florida tonight to collect her prize, which is what? Momentum, she hopes, heading into Super Tuesday.

BLITZER: All right, we will see what happens. We will be watching every step of the way tonight in our coverage.

So, what are the big issues important to voters in Florida? Coming up, we will have the first set of exit polls. They're just coming in. Bill Schneider is going to have a chance to go through them. You are going to want to hear what people were thinking after they voted.

And Wal-Mart brags its prices are always low. Now the retail giant does something to slash its prices even more. How might you save?

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


BLITZER: As Bill Schneider just reported, Hillary Clinton will arrive in Florida tonight after -- after the polls have closed. All the polls will be closed at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. She says it won't violate the pledge she and other presidential candidates took not to campaign in Florida.

Let's get some perspective on this extremely unusual situation.

We're joined by our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

What's going on in Florida right now? Because it's hard to understand. A lot of people, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Democrats will vote, but the Democratic Party has told them, it really doesn't mean much in terms of delegates to the convention in Denver.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, here is the argument from the Clinton campaign. They say there will probably be record turnout on the Democratic side. They believe those voices should be heard. They also that believe many of these voters don't know that there will be no delegates from Florida seated at the National Convention in Denver.

So, what they have done here is, they have had Hillary Clinton come down here for a victory speech. Certainly, all the polls indicate she will have a major victory here tonight. And even though there are no delegates at stake, what the Clinton campaign argues is that eventually these delegates are going to be seated, that the widespread participation in Florida, in fact, demands that these -- -- quote -- "these voices be heard."

Now, of course, the Obama campaign is looking at this and saying, wait a minute. What you're trying to do here is too cute by half. Obviously, Hillary Clinton has not had a good week. She got shellacked in South Carolina. She lost a very important endorsement from Ted Kennedy, which was very high-profile.

And, so, obviously, the Barack Obama people say, this is just an attempt to grab a headline, to try to change the conversation and break Barack Obama's momentum or start some momentum for Hillary Clinton as she moves into these February 5 states.

BLITZER: There was a similar situation in Michigan, which moved up its primary ahead of the schedule. They were penalized. Their delegates there won't be seated supposedly at the convention either.

But, in Michigan, only Hillary Clinton's name and Dennis Kucinich's name were on the ballot. And then there was uncommitted. I take it in Florida all three Democratic presidential candidates, their names are actually on the ballot.

CROWLEY: Actually, more than the three. Most of the Democratic candidates, even those that have dropped out, are on this ballot here. And the Clinton campaign says, well, that's the difference. That's why we didn't go right before the Michigan primary and say that we want those delegates seated.

But remember the timing of this. On the eve of the South Carolina primary, on Friday, Hillary Clinton announced that she would direct her delegates to vote to seat the Florida primary delegates. And, again, the timing certainly looks like it is swayed to kind of campaign in Florida without campaigning in Florida. So, obviously, this is symbolic here. What exactly it means depends on which campaign you talk to.

BLITZER: All right. And we talk to all the campaigns.


BLITZER: Candy, thanks very much for that.


BLITZER: Republican presidential candidate John McCain scored a major last-minute endorsement in Florida. I will be joined by the states' most high-profile McCain supporter. That would be the governor, Charlie Crist. He will join me live. I will ask him why he picked McCain over Giuliani or the other Republicans.

And YouTube born again. There's a new spinoff of the popular online video site with a Christian slant, though, this time. We're going to tell you about it.

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


BLITZER: Happening now: Republican presidential candidate John McCain has been stressing his conservative credentials out on the campaign trail. So, why is a big part of the Republican Party base so skeptical about him? I will speak with conservative radio talk show host, the author and blogger Hugh Hewitt. That's coming up in our next hour.

Also in the next hour, a first look at which way today's high- stakes Republican primary in Florida may be breaking. Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, will start delving into the exit polls of voters.

And, on the Democratic side, is Barack Obama changing his position on an important issue to try to lure Latino voters? I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In last night's State of the Union address, President Bush announced he's going on the offensive against so-called congressional earmarks, those special projects slipped into spending bills very often at the last minute, with no scrutiny whatsoever. Today, the president moved to try to rein in the practice.

Let's get a breakdown on the political climate in Washington on this, the day after the State of the Union. We will go there. Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is looking into this part of the story.

The president just signed an executive order, Ed. Tell us about it.


The national debt, as you know, has reached a staggering number of $9 trillion on his watch. The president clearly trying to say that he wants to do something, and actually following the through with this executive order today to do something to rein in federal spending.

Last night, as you noted, he talked about vetoing any individual spending bill that does not cut in half earmarks based on last year's numbers. These are these pet projects put in by lawmakers in the last minute many times. In the Oval Office just moments ago, he went a step further by signing a specific executive order, saying that his federal agencies would not fund any of these projects if they're slipped in at the last minute and not put in there during in the light of day.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, this executive order says that any such earmarks this year and into the future will be ignored by this administration and hopefully future administrations, unless those spending projects were voted on by the Congress.


HENRY: Now, Democrats on Capitol Hill today firing back that they believe Mr. Bush is doing this a bit late in his presidency, that in fact about roughly half of the earmarks are sponsored by Republicans on Capitol Hill.

And, in fact, yesterday, the conservative "Wall Street Journal" editorial page rapped Senate Republicans, saying that they have to break their habit of using these special pet projects as a way to get reelected. So, this is a problem for both sides of Capitol Hill, the president now trying to push back against even his own party on this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry at the White House. We're going to have more on this story coming up, a very important part of the story.

Ed, thanks very much.

Let's get back to the big story, though, today, the Republican primary in Florida, Florida's big primary nearing its final act right now. Many voters are going to the polls to voice their picks among the presidential candidates.

My next guest has certainly made up his mind in a very public way. Charlie Crist is Florida's governor. He's joining us now from St. Petersburg.

Governor Crist, thanks very much for coming in.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST (R), FLORIDA: Wolf, great to be with you, as always. Thank you.

BLITZER: Tell us what the differences were on the issues, that you decided to support John McCain, for example, over Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney? Specifically, what issues influenced your high-profile decision?

CRIST: Well, trust, integrity, his statesmanship, his integrity, the fact that he has been so long a true statesman, a great patriot, a great American hero. All of those things really come to mind when you talk about who you want to be your public servant, your next president.

And it really came down to trust. I mean, I had to go through the, you know, very personal decision of who I'm going to vote for during the past week. And when I came to that decision John McCain was my choice, and I decided to share that with the people of Florida. I think it's important to do so.

BLITZER: Was his stance though on the domestic, economic issues, the money-related issues, or national security that was more important, that you liked where he stood, as opposed to the other Republican candidates?

CRIST: Well, both national security, certainly. It's hard to have the kind of credentials that John McCain does as it relates to safety and security and his strength, really, as it relates to that. But also economic issues.

I mean, having served as chairman of the Commerce Committee, working for years on trying to cut taxes, supporting the president's initiative to make permanent the tax cuts, all of those I think are incredibly important when you come to a decision like this. And then there's a gut feel, too, Wolf. I mean, I just like the guy. I think he's a good man. I know he's a good man. I know he'll be a great president. And that led me to my decision.

BLITZER: He wants to make those Bush tax cuts that were implemented in 2001, 2003, permanent. They're set to expire in the year 2010. But he was one of only two Republicans who voted against those tax cuts back in 2001.

Do you have a problem with that actual vote as opposed to what he's saying right now?

CRIST: Well, not when it's balanced with the rationale behind it, that he wanted reduced spending, reductions in our spending. That's very important. As a governor, I understand how important that is, because we had to reduce spending here in the Sunshine State. You have to be responsible. You have to prioritize your spending, just like families have to do every single day. John McCain understands that. And that's why I have such enormous respect for him.

BLITZER: But that was only part of his rationale in voting against those tax cuts. He also didn't like the fact that the rich were going to get the tax cuts, as opposed to the middle class or the poor. I'll read to you what he said on the Senate floor on May 21, 2001.

"The principle that guides my judgment of a tax reconciliation bill is tax relief for those who need it the most -- lower and middle income working families." And then a few days later, on May 26th, he said, "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cuts in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief."

Now, to a lot of observers out there that sounds like the same argument the Democrats were making against the Bush tax cuts. Do you have a problem with that?

CRIST: I don't have a problem with standing up for the common man and the common woman. I think it's awfully important that anybody who aspires to public service understands the wants, the needs, the desires, and the challenges that everyday people have to live with. We understand that here in the Sunshine State, and that's why I think Senator McCain is going to do very, very well tonight.

BLITZER: Rudy Giuliani supported what you really want in the state of Florida, given its history of hurricanes, a federal disaster fund to come in and help the people in Florida and elsewhere around the country deal with national emergencies. Rudy Giuliani supports it. Does John McCain support such a federal disaster fund?

CRIST: Well, he supports it more on a regional basis, which I can understand and I certainly respect. I mean, the gulf states have had a lot to deal with, with hurricanes of late. And I think he understands that it's important to take a progressional step towards trying to have more help for more people in a way that's responsible, prudent, and makes common sense. I respect that. And as Ronald Reagan used to say, Wolf, if you agree with me 80 percent of the time, you're probably my friend.

I trust this man. He's not going to say things just to appease me. He's going to say the things that are in his heart, and I think that's exactly what the American people want and deserve.

BLITZER: As you know, Governor, there's a lot of buzz out there, especially in your home state of Florida, that -- which is a critical state, as all of us know, in the contest in November -- that you could potentially be a vice presidential running mate. Is that something you've been thinking about?

CRIST: No, it's not. I mean, it's very flattering to hear that kind of talk, but my focus is Florida. Florida is what I care about. The people of this state have been very, very kind to me. I want to do honor their public trust and their confidence, do everything I can to fight for them every single day.

That's what my focus is. That's what the focus is today, to reduce their property taxes, to elect a great guy who is going to be a great president, John McCain. These are the kinds of things that Floridians care about. That's what I'm focused on, the things I'm sure your mother cares deeply about in south Florida.

BLITZER: A lot of mothers living in Florida care about all those things as well.

Governor, thanks very much. Senator McCain is a very fortunate guy to have a good friend and supporter like you down in Florida on this crucial day. Appreciate you joining us.

CRIST: It's a pleasure to be with you, Wolf, as always. And I'm pleased to have a friend like John McCain and you.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you very much. Governor Charlie Crist of Florida.

It's a crucial contest expected to shape the Republican race. Tonight you can join me and the best political team on television for instant primary results. Our coverage will start when all the polls in Florida are closed. That would be at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. You'll want to stay with CNN throughout the night.

President Bush says he's going after those special pet projects member of Congress slip into the federal budget. So why are more than 11,000 of those so-called earmarks exempt from his new executive order? We're watching this story.

And in the Republican presidential race, all eyes are on Florida. We'll have a first look at which way today's primary may be breaking when we check some of the numbers from our exit polls. Those numbers just coming in right now. Bill Schneider reviewing them.

All that and a lot more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Many Americans are asking exactly what kind of pet projects will be affected by President Bush's new executive order, and how quickly the spending will be reined in. Let's get a little factual reality check right now. CNN's Drew Griffin has been looking into these questions. He's joining us with more.

What have you found, Drew?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the president's executive order today and his tough talk on earmarks last night, it only applies to future spending, next year's budget, a budget that's going to be implemented basically without him. Critics, especially fiscally conservative watchdog groups, say the president has essentially dumped the earmark problem on his successor.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The people's trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks.

GRIFFIN: The problem is the government. And most in this room last night are also addicted to earmarks. These are the people that brought you 11,700 earmarks in this spending cycle. And this is the president who signed them all into law.

The president's threat to veto spending bills packed with pork and his executive order to ignore other earmark requests only applies to next year. This year's nearly $17 billion in earmarks are a done deal.

Like what? Airports were big this year, just not big airports. The two senators from Massachusetts got about $8 million in upgrades for the small airports near their vacation hopes on Cape Cod and Nantucket.

Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who didn't get his "bridge to nowhere," did get an airport in nowhere. Actually, Akutan, Alaska, the site of a mayor seafood processing plant whose owner gives money to Senator Stevens' campaign. There's money for a museum run by a congressman's wife. There's money for a museum for a mule. There's money for a museum shuttered all but two days a year.

(on camera): You must not be too busy if you can park your truck here, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. They've got a tour once a year in there.

GRIFFIN: So, last night, the president, who oversaw the largest run-up in earmarks in history, scolded Congress, saying next year you need to do better.


GRIFFIN: And Wolf, the watchdog groups I've been talking with today say all the president's really doing is kicking this can down the road. Democrats can literally just stall next year's spending bill until Bush is out of office.

And keep in mind, Wolf, even though the Republicans were standing up and cheering last night, as Ed Henry already reported, they are just as addicted to these earmarks as any Democrat in that chamber who didn't stand up and applaud.

BLITZER: Drew Griffin doing an excellent "Fact Check" for us. Drew, thanks very much. He's been watching this story for some time.

Another issue emphasized by the president last night, the importance of quickly passing a new economic stimulus package. The House of Representatives responded by approving the legislation just a short while ago.

Let's go to CNN's Brianna Keilar. She's covering this story for us. Brianna's up on Capitol Hill right now.

So what are you hearing about the fate of this stimulus package when it now goes over to the Senate?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, even though the House passed this plan for an economic stimulus package so overwhelmingly, that bipartisanship appears to be collapsing in the Senate. Senate Republicans saying they want to take this House plan and they want to push it through the Senate with no changes.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: This is not a time to get into some kind of testing of wills between the two congressional bodies. This is a time to show that we can rise above partisanship, do something important, and do it quickly.


KEILAR: And a GOP leadership aide is telling CNN that Republicans will filibuster to get their way. Meanwhile, Democrats are looking at a different proposal that would extend unemployment benefits. It would also extend the tax rebates in the House plan to include 15 million more senior citizens who are on Social Security.

However, it would also give tax rebates to the super rich. Think Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, folks like that. And that is not sitting with well with some Democrats, that there's no income cap on this.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: To take out the caps causes me to want to gag. OK? But other than that I like it. No, it's -- I think -- I think it would send the wrong message that we would spend an extra $5 billion to give me a rebate.


KEILAR: Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says, though, Democrats are going to try to win over as many Republicans as they can to make those changes. But the question now, Wolf, how long will that take?

BLITZER: All right, Brianna. Thanks very much. Good question. We'll see.

In our "Strategy Session," the former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani, he says he remains upbeat about today's Republican primary. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to win. We're going to win today. That's our answer. We're going to win today. That's our objective. And we're headed to California tomorrow to continue to campaign.


BLITZER: But will Florida voters make Giuliani the latest comeback kid, or will they send him back to New York City?

And Democratic voters will turn out for today's primary. They're turning out in huge numbers. But will they have any say in who the party nominee eventually will become?

Donna Brazile and Rich Galen, they're standing by for our "Strategy Session" right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: There's a great deal at stake for all the Republican candidates in today's Florida primary. The voting continues right now. Polls close -- all of the state polls close at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. But for the former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani, the results could make or break his campaign.

Let's get some analysis in today's "Strategy Session." Joining us are CNN contributor and Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist, Rich Galen. Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

This could be a long night, Rich. And let me pick your brain first.

The polls going in -- I don't know anything about the exit polls, but at least in the last few days showed an incredibly tight race between Mitt Romney and John McCain. So, you know, we may have to wait for hours and hours before we know who wins in Florida. And this is a lot at stake, because in Florida for the Republicans it's winner take all.

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Right, but it may well be that we have to wait until the absentee ballots are counted. And my sense is that the two campaigns that had active absentee ballot programs -- we're talking about hundreds of thousands of absentee and early voting ballots -- were Giuliani and Romney. Romney because he could afford it, Giuliani because he wasn't doing anything else.

But at the time when John McCain's campaign needed to have been doing their absentee ballot stuff, I don't think they had the money to do it. So it may well be that once those absentees are counted, it shifts pretty quickly in one direction or another.

BLITZER: Donna, we're talking about the Democrats in Florida in a moment, but what do you see happening on the Republican side? Because as I said, this could be a long night, assuming those earlier polls were accurate.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, if McCain wins the race tonight, he'll mop it up on Super Tuesday. And you can crown him the nominee tonight. If Romney wins, this race will go on like the Democratic race, a protracted battle, for another couple of months.

If Giuliani comes in third or fourth place, I think it will be difficult for him to raise money. Perhaps he'll participate in the debate, but clearly his campaign will lose any momentum they may have, and he's probably out of the race in a few days.

BLITZER: Some experts, Rich, have suggested that Giuliani takes votes potentially away more from McCain than he does Romney. That if Romney winds up winning tonight, he could in part at least thank Giuliani for being in the contest. Do you see it that way?

GALEN: Yes, I do. I think that's the conventional wisdom, that when you get in the southern part of Florida, largely northerners, snowbirds, whatever, that Giuliani's name and I.D. and the fact that he's been there makes much more of a difference than in the northern half of Florida, which, oxymoronically, is the southern part of Florida. It's where southerners actually live.

BLITZER: They say the further south you go in Florida, the more north you are.

All right. Let's talk about the Democrats, Donna, because, you know, there are a lot of Democrats, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, are voting today. Many of them don't have a clue that their vote isn't going to count as far as the delegate process at the convention in Denver is concerned.

Should that change? Should these voters, these Democrats in Florida who showed up today, should they really have a say even though their leaders decided to move up their primary against the wishes of the DNC?

BRAZILE: I don't know if they'll have a say in terms of what happens tonight, but clearly the Florida Democratic Party can put together an alternative process in March or April and still elect delegates to attend the convention.

Look, all of the leading candidates, including Senator Clinton, and as well as Senator Obama, signed the pledge to the four earlier states saying that they would not campaign there. They understood the process. That, coupled with the fact that we're really still trying to work with the Florida Democratic Party to ensure that there will be delegates at the convention.

Let me also say that there's another reason why a turnout is very high, in addition to the enthusiasm that Democrats have about the process. But there's a proposition.

Number one, on the ballot it's a constitutional amendment that would hike up, you know, public services. People are very afraid that this will cut public services, cut back education. So the Florida Education Association and all of their unions are spending millions of dollars to get voters to turn out.

So, if you're a Democrat in Florida, there's a reason to go out and vote today. You may not get a delegate, but you sure need to go out and vote against Proposition 1.

BLITZER: You know, some Democrats in Florida, Rich, are concerned that the Republicans going to benefit from what the DNC did in alienating Democratic voters who may simply decide, you know what? I'm going to become a Republican. Do you see it unfolding like that?

GALEN: Probably not. I think the -- going all the way back to 2000, I think those lines were drawn and they haven't softened at all. But, you know, Candy Crowley made the point a little bit ago, I thought an excellent point, that moving forward, the fact that Senator Clinton signed a pledge not to campaign in Florida, and then just decided to ignore the pledge that she had signed and is there hoping that she can...


BLITZER: But she's coming in tonight -- she's coming in tonight after the polls close.

GALEN: Yes. Well, but she was there raising money over the weekend, remember. So...

BLITZER: I think all -- haven't all of the candidates, Donna, been in Florida, private fundraisers in Palm Beach and elsewhere?


GALEN: This was a very public private fundraiser.

BRAZILE: There was no prohibition against raising money in Florida. It was just campaigning. So that's a prohibition.

And, Wolf, let me just say this. Florida officials moved their date up in violation of the rules on both sides. Republicans will only get half their delegates. On the Democratic side, no delegates. So, let's see what happens, but the Florida officials violated the rules, not the DNC.

BLITZER: But the DNC decided to strip completely Florida Democrats of their delegates, while the RNC decided simply to take half of the delegates away from the states that moved up their primaries.

BRAZILE: And we also stripped Michigan. And at the time, if you recall, we had to send a signal to the other states not to leapfrog and try to hold their contests before February 5th.

BLITZER: So, with hindsight, Donna, do you think it was a good idea?

BRAZILE: Yes, sir, because I believe that once you set the rules, everyone should follow the rules. Otherwise, we would have chaos in the process. And there's been a lot of chaos already.

BLITZER: You want to predict...

BRAZILE: I stand by my decision to back those rules.

BLITZER: Rich, you want to tell us who you think is going to win tonight on the Republican side?

GALEN: Yes. I suspect that Romney is going to win. I think those absentee votes are going to be determinative.

BLITZER: What do you think, Donna?

BRAZILE: I don't know. I'm not a Republican. But my hunch is that McCain, with the strong support of the governor, Senator Martinez, and some of the Congress people, he might just come from behind and win.

BLITZER: Well, I know we're going do be watching it very, very closely, guys. Thanks to both of you for coming in.

GALEN: Good night.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Right now you, too, can be part of the best political team on television. If you're in Florida, we want to know what it's like. Send us your videos, your pictures in these final hours.

You can send them to We'll feature some of your I-Reports in our election coverage tonight. And remember, our coverage begins when the polls close in Florida, 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Winning contests has its rewards. John McCain is getting more cash after some key wins. The campaign is considering a major move now regarding its finances. But what will it be -- will it be worth it?

And soon we'll have the first set of exit poll results in Florida gauging issues important to Florida voters and issues likely important to you as well. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: In our Political Ticker today, fallout from Senator Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Senator Barack Obama. The New York State Chapter of the National Organization for Women likens it to a slap in the face.

In a statement, the group calls it, and I'm quoting now, "the ultimate betrayal," saying women have stood by Kennedy over the years. The group suggests Kennedy can't handle the idea of a female president. Meanwhile, the national chapter of NOW is distancing itself from those comments from its New York chapter.

Hillary Clinton has earned the endorsement of an influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California says Senator Clinton is ready to tackle the nation's problems. Waters district is in California, a state holding a major primary on Super Tuesday. That's a week from today. We'll be speaking with Congresswoman Waters tomorrow, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And now that John McCain is taking in some more cash after some key wins, he's considering backing out of public financing. But that might not be all that easy. That's because of a political battle that's crippled the agency that oversees federal election laws. It gets arcane and difficult, but the lawyers will look at it.

Remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can check out You can check my latest ticker item there as well about the excellent staff that helps us prepare for these elections.

Jack Cafferty knows about that excellent staff. We have an excellent staff.

CAFFERTY: Well, you have a big staff. I have like two people. I have got Sarah (ph) and Sam (ph). That's it.

BLITZER: I need a lot more help. I need a lot of help.

CAFFERTY: But, well, you're a big guy. You're a big important guy. You had lunch with the president yesterday. I'm just a schlemiel that goes around and does these questions.

BLITZER: The vice president was at that luncheon, too.



CAFFERTY: Did he eat?



The question this hour is, why are so many powerful Democratic powerful leaders turning their backs on Hillary Clinton and endorsing Barack Obama?

Kim writes, "I hope they're supporting him because they're finally beginning to act like leaders and do what's right for the people of this country. Senator Obama is our best chance to make real change in the way Washington operates."

Barbara writes, "It's obviously to most of us that Bill is back- dooring his way into terms three and four. There's no way he can ever step aside in the West Wing and allow his wife to lead. His ego is too big and women are a toy for him, even his wife. He is, after all, Slick Willy." Mary writes, "Gee, Jack, you failed to mention all the senators who have endorsed Hillary, but that's par for the course. Perhaps that's why Obama is getting endorsements from big Democrats. Media bias. The Dems see that Obama is the media darling and want to join in the love fest, and I think resentment toward Bill has had an impact. After all, he led us for eight years to prosperity and relative peace. Go figure."

Candy writes, "It's not necessarily turning their backs on Hillary. We have two very interesting choices -- one who has been entrenched in the national political scene for a long time, and the other a newbie. One's a policy-wonk, the other a visionary. It's amazing we actually have a real choice. That is far different than turning their backs on one or the other. It's exercising their choice."

Fred writes, "The best thing that could happen in this campaign would be for you to just shut up. When you learn to report the facts instead of nit-picking to arouse people, we will all be better off."

Adam writes, "Because they actually know what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

And Ron says, "I asked my wife your questions. She says it's because Hillary is a ninny. Trust me, my wife is always right" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What is a ninny?

CAFFERTY: It's what a man's wife thinks Hillary is.