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THE SITUATION ROOM

Obama-Clinton Marathon; McCain Lobbies Senator; The Stalemate and the Standoff: What to Look for Tonight

Aired February 12, 2008 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Barack Obama hopes to clean up in the back yard of the White House. And Hillary Clinton is looking beyond today's Potomac primaries to big state battlegrounds she desperately needs to win.
Plus, the super-delegates dilemma. I'll speak live with senator and former presidential candidate John Kerry. We'll talk about the prospect of a potentially ugly convention fight. And does he think Al Gore would be the right person to broker a peace deal?

John McCain returns to some familiar turf. He's pitching party unity to his Senate colleagues and counting on new wins over Mike Huckabee later today.

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

Less than three hours from now polls close in Virginia. We could get the first results of today's presidential match-ups along the Potomac River. In this still very much unsettled primary season, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are certainly hoping to have a good night tonight. They both took time to cast votes on a key Senate battle earlier today, but colleague Hillary Clinton was a no-show. She spent her time doing satellite interviews in upcoming battleground states of Wisconsin, Texas and Ohio.

The Clinton camp make no bones of having low expectations in today's contests in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. One hundred sixty-eight Democratic delegates are up for grabs. For the Republicans, 113 delegates are at stake. We'll get early clues about today's vote roughly in about an hour from now, when the first exit poll information is released.

Bill Schneider going through all of that. Dana Bash is covering the GOP race.

Let's walk over to Jessica Yellin. She's covering the Democrats for us.

An important day for these two presidential candidates, Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A very important day, Wolf. As you know, today they're voting in the Potomac primaries, but Senator Clinton's camp is talking all about Texas and Ohio. That's because they are not optimistic about the results of today's vote. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our goal is to win the most delegates from the voters. And if we've accomplished that, I think we're going to be able to lay fair claim to the nomination.

YELLIN (voice over): And today's primaries are expected to give the senator from Illinois a boost. With a large number of African- American and affluent white voters in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, the demographics appear to favor Obama. He's done very well with such voters in caucuses and primaries so far this year. But he's lowering expectations.

OBAMA: I don't win until I win. I was expecting to win in New Hampshire. We lost. I remember that. I remember exit polls showing me up by two in Massachusetts. I lost by 15. We're never expecting to win.

YELLIN: Hillary Clinton isn't waving the white flag in today's contests, but she appears to be downplaying them.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. I've been through all of that.

YELLIN: The senator from New York is looking ahead to delegate- rich Texas and Ohio, which vote March 4th. Ohio, with its working- class voters, and Texas, with a large number of Latino voters, seem like friendly territory for Clinton.

CLINTON: I mean, Ohio and Texas, we're going to see a real focus on the differences between us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: But Texas and Ohio don't vote for another three weeks. And a political hat trick by Barack Obama today after his sweep this weekend could give him some powerful momentum. The question, Wolf, is, is there such a thing as momentum in this race -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica, thanks very much.

Here's CNN's new estimate of where the Democrats' fight for delegates stands right now. Check it out. Hillary Clinton has a total of 1,157 delegates, narrowly leading Barack Obama, with 1,145. The former candidate, John Edwards, has 26.

Clinton has the edge because she has more so-called super- delegates than Obama. Obama actually has won slightly more delegates in the primaries and the caucuses to date. Just more than 2,000 delegates are needed to clinch the Democratic nomination at the convention in Denver.

On the Republican side, John McCain continues to hold a commanding delegate lead over his current and former opponents. He has an estimated 723 delegates. Mitt Romney has 286. He's out of the race. Mike Huckabee, who's still in the race, has 217. Ron Paul has 16. He's still in the race as well -- 1,191 delegates are needed to lock up the Republican nomination at their convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Senator McCain is certainly hoping to move closer to clinching the nomination when the Potomac primaries are decided later tonight. But he still has Mike Huckabee on his back, and he still has to convince many conservatives that he's their candidate as well.

Let's turn to CNN's Dana Bash. She's watching this story for us.

He's meeting with his colleagues on the Hill, Dana. What is he saying?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, for the first time in a very, very long time, Wolf, John McCain went to the weekly Republican Policy Lunch here, and we're told that he said to his colleagues here pretty much behind closed doors what he said in public, that he hopes to get their support, he hopes that the party unites behind him. But he knows he has a lot of work to do.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice over): Off the campaign trail and back to a familiar place, his day job in the Senate. But John McCain's first face-to- face encounter with Senate GOP colleagues in a while is a prime chance to overcome his biggest challenge now.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Party unity, all work together, get our candidates elected and re-elected. You know, kind of a get-together and talk about their agenda, as well as mine.

BASH (on camera): Are you going to encourage them to get behind you and talk about...

MCCAIN: Oh, yes. But they know me well enough. I just need to talk about how we want to move forward and how we need to continue to try to unify the party.

BASH (voice over): McCain is now in campaign Never-Never-Land. Not yet the GOP nominee, but mathematically almost there. Ahead of three Tuesday primaries he must win, his campaign schedule is remarkably light. McCain tells CNN he's quietly working on his transition -- how to keep his edge and find a clear message.

MCCAIN: One of the things I spent the day doing was talking about, if I'm fortunate to get the nomination, to keep doing what I did in the primary -- the bus, the town hall meetings, the kind of environment that we were able to create. You don't want to get into one of these detached, you know, kinds of things where you lose touch with people, and you lose, frankly, the way you got to the dance.

BASH (on camera): How do you do that?

MCCAIN: Well, we'll have town hall meetings. And we'll have a bus for jerks like you to come on and spend time with us.

BASH (voice over): Meanwhile, showing up on the Senate floor means encounters of all kinds, even with Democrat Barack Obama. The two men chatted it up during crucial national security votes they could use against each other in the race for president, if either gets the chance.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, McCain later said that that conversation with Barack Obama was "friendly, very friendly."

Now, meanwhile, Wolf, Mike Huckabee, he, instead of staying here around the area for the Potomac primaries, he is watching the results tonight back home in Arkansas. He had no campaign events today, but on his plane going back to Little Rock, he said to reporters once again, despite his long odds here, despite the fact that he's well behind in the delegate count, he promised that he's going to stay in this Republican race until somebody gets that magic 1,191 delegates to officially become the nominee -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana, what was with that expression, "jerks like you"? I mean, you're not a jerk, in my opinion.

BASH: Well, thank you. You know what? That's John McCain's humor. I hope -- I hope it was clear there by his smile that he was kidding around. That's kind of the way he likes to talk to reporters, especially those who were with him on his bus quite a bit. So that was McCain humor, I think.

BLITZER: All right. Well, for the record, I don't think you're a jerk. I don't think your colleagues are jerks either.

BASH: Why thank you.

BLITZER: I think all of you are doing a hard job, and you're doing it very, very well. Thank you, Dana.

And stay with CNN for complete coverage of the Potomac primaries. I'll be right here through THE SITUATION ROOM today and into our special coverage at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. That's when the polls in Virginia close.

The best political team on television will be here as well with analysis as the votes come in. You're going to want to stay with CNN throughout the night for all these results.

Dana Bash and Jessica Yellin are part of the Emmy Award-winning best political team on television. And remember, for the latest political news any time, you can check out our political ticker at CNNpolitics.com.

The ticker, by the way, is number one -- the number one political news blog on the Web right now. It's also where you can read my latest blog postings as well.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's joining us for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Maybe you want to write tomorrow on your blog about John McCain referring to Dana Bash as a "jerk".

BLITZER: I know, that was...

CAFFERTY: What is wrong with him?

BLITZER: He was trying to be funny.

CAFFERTY: It's not funny. It's not funny at all. He should watch the tape. It's not funny.

Suddenly, against all odds, the once-mighty Clinton campaign beginning to feel like the last days of Pompeii. That is the lead sentence in a terrific piece by Tom DeFrank in today's "New York Daily News."

Although he insists it's too early to write off the Clintons, DeFrank writes about a "growing sense of doom and dread surrounding Hillary's campaign." Adding that their insistence that things will turn around in Ohio and Texas sounds eerily like Rudy Giuliani's "wait until Florida" turnaround strategy.

"The New York Times" also reports today how Clinton has been boxed into to a must-win position in those two March 4th races in Ohio and Texas. However, even though the candidate herself is reassuring anxious donors and super-delegates that the nomination is not slipping away from her, some people aren't convinced. Several Clinton delegates, super-delegates, say they're wavering now because of Barack Obama's momentum after his weekend victories, and some say they might end up going with the flow and supporting whichever candidate appears to show the most strength.

Here's the thing -- Obama's momentum doesn't show signs of slowing down. On the contrary, polls suggest he has a commanding lead in today's Potomac primaries -- Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C. Polls also show him gaining strength in both Wisconsin and Hawaii. Those are states that vote next Tuesday.

The Clinton camp says this, "There's no evidence that voters are voting based on momentum. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary." They point out that Obama's victory in Des Moines, in Iowa, didn't translate to a win for him in New Hampshire.

Here's the question: If Barack Obama sweeps the rest of February's contests, where does that leave Hillary Clinton?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, where you can post a comment on my blog.

Post a comment about John McCain calling Dana bash a "jerk," too. I might read one or two of those later.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Jack Cafferty. See you in a few moments. We're standing by for the first exit poll information about an hour from now. Bill Schneider is going through those numbers. He'll be joining us.

Every primary night is important, and in some ways different. Just ahead, we're going to tell you what storylines to look for tonight.

Plus, I'll ask Senator and super-delegate John Kerry if he would cast a convention vote for Barack Obama even though his state voted for Hillary Clinton, the Democrats in Massachusetts.

And in this history-making election year, President Bush condemns an age-old symbol of racial violence and hatred.

Lots more coming up. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're watching the voting right now in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and we're counting down to the first exit poll information and the first official results.

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

A little viewers' guide, what can we expect over these many hours to come, Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what we're looking for is two big storylines -- a standoff in one party, and a stalemate in the other.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice over): Can Democrats break out of their stalemate? That depends on whether either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama can show strength where they've been weak.

Clinton needs to rung stronger with African-American voters, where she got just 16 percent of the vote on Super Tuesday, and Independents, where she got 37 percent. She needs a breakthrough with young voters and college graduates.

The challenge to Obama is to pick up support with women and voters who didn't go to college. Plus, constituencies where the Illinois senator could not break 35 percent of the vote on Super Tuesday -- Latinos, Catholic voters, rural voters, and seniors.

Clinton runs well with Democrats whose top issue is the economy. Is Obama gaining credibility on the economy? Obama has done well with Iraq voters. Can Clinton convince Democrats she's just as anti-war as Obama is?

Here's the big question -- is the Democratic division deepening? Is hostility growing between Clinton's supporters and Obama's supporters to the point where it will be tough for either contender to unite the party?

The Republican race is not so much a stalemate as a standoff. Can John McCain get the party base to rally behind him? McCain got less than a third of the vote from conservatives on Super Tuesday.

Now that Mitt Romney is out of the race and President Bush has given McCain his blessing, is the Arizona senator making progress resolving conservatives' doubts about him? Every vote for Mike Huckabee says, no, he's not.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: How can we tell if the Democratic stalemate has been broken? One Democrat starts to build up a big lead in delegates. Super-delegates start shifting toward the front-runner. And one candidate shows growing strength in Texas and Ohio, where it looks like the Democratic race could be decided, unless it isn't.

BLITZER: And I know within an hour you're going to be getting those exit polls and we're going to be sharing them with our viewers right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Bill, thank you very much.

With the Democratic race as close as it is, it could be decided by those so-called super-delegates, the almost 800 current and former party officials that can vote for whomever they please at the convention at the end of the summer. Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, how can we track these super-delegates online?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Right, Wolf. Who are these super-delegates? Where are they across the country? And which way are they leaning? Well, those are questions attempted to be answered online as interest in these super-delegates grows. And this is a new map that's trying to show you where they all are.

This is from a technology executive, Rick Klow (ph), attempting to map where these super-delegates are across the country. We can move in to the Potomac primary states around here that are voting today. Rick says he's an Obama supporter, but that this is a nonpartisan site. It's part of a collaborative effort where anyone can edit the information online.

And right now, they have got about 60 percent of the super- delegates as everyone pitches in with information. And it's growing all the time. CNN is tracking this information, in constant contact with these almost 800 super-delegates. Right now, our latest count, Hillary Clinton ahead 234. And this has just been updated in the last hour. Barack Obama is at 156.

But these numbers could all change. They could be in flux. Because the truth is, the super-delegates can change their minds at any point right up until they vote at a convention -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you. And you can track the result from the Potomac primaries as they come in later tonight, minute by minute, state by state, county by county, in fact. All night long. Just go to CNNPolitics.com for that, plus analysis from the best political team on television.

Millions of Americans worry they could lose their homes. Now the federal government is announcing something to try to help keep that from happening. This new anti-foreclosure plan could save your home.

And we're only hours away from the first poll closings in today's Potomac primaries. Coming up, we'll also get the first exit polls showing what's on voters' minds on this day.

Lots more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Could votes where you live sway the outcome of tonight's presidential contest? You can find out where the candidates really need to go to pull off their big wins.

And will it take former presidential candidate Al Gore to help settle this race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? You'll find out what's happening as I ask another former Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry. He'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, we're only a few hours away from the first poll closings in today's presidential contests. With races in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., what's helping voters decide whom to vote for? We're going to have the first exit polls coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And Republicans for Obama. He keeps talking about them on the campaign trail, but how many of them actually exist? And in terms of switching parties, might many Democrats do that for John McCain?

I'll ask Democratic strategists Paul Begala, Jamal Simmons if their party should be worried.

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

By most accounts, this is expected to be a winning night for Barack Obama and John McCain in the so-called Potomac primaries. But in this unpredictable presidential race, you never know what actually will happen.

Let's go to our chief national correspondent, John King. He's watching this story for us.

Hillary Clinton, if she has a shot tonight at winning some of these contests, what does she need to do? JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, let's look at the key states. One assumes that -- let's pull this down a little bit and we'll pull out the state of Maryland. One assumes that Washington, D.C. -- heavy African-American, the mayor is on his team -- one assumes Washington, D.C., goes for Barack Obama.

We will know early on as we watch the results in Maryland whether Senator Clinton is doing well by looking up here in Baltimore. The African-American population is up here. She needs to do -- Hillary Clinton needs to do well here with the help of the former mayor, who is now the governor, Martin O'Malley, cutting into Obama's margins here.

This is Montgomery County, Maryland, here. Hillary Clinton needs to do well here. This is where Barack Obama will find those affluent Democrats who have tended to support him in past contests. There's also a lot of senior citizens though in this part of Montgomery County. If Hillary Clinton can do well there, she might be able to offset him some in Maryland.

Now, let's shift over to Virginia, Wolf, the state you know very well. I'm going to shrink it down just a little bit. Same issues at play. Hillary Clinton needs to do very well out here among rural Democrats, down into southwest Virginia, but other areas to watch for closer to Washington, D.C., this is Fairfax County. It is one of the more affluent counties in Virginia. Again, a place where one would expect Obama to do well based on past contests, but also a lot of professional women who have been the backbone of Senator Clinton's support.

So, by looking at Fairfax County early on as the Democratic results come in, we will get a sense of whether Senator Clinton is being competitive in the state. And then we will look further out here into the rural areas as well to see if she's doing well down state, where her economic message might have more play, down here with lower-income Democrats where she has tended to do well, Wolf, in past primaries.

BLITZER: Well, what about McCain? If he has any vulnerability, it would be in the southern part of Virginia.

KING: Exactly right. I'm going to pull Virginia out again. I'm going to clear the telestrator. A couple of areas to watch in Virginia as we go on in the night. This is a potential battleground area right down in here, Chesapeake and Norfolk. Why? Norfolk is a heavy military area, naval bases down there. You would expect McCain to do well.

Chesapeake, though, is the home of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and the Christian Broadcasting Network. Some evangelicals in there serious. So, it could be a bit of a battleground along the coast. If Mike Huckabee is going to surprise us in Virginia tonight, one early scene of that would be here in the Chesapeake area. The other area for Mike Huckabee to watch is out here, the rural western part of the state. This is where you find your Christian evangelicals. This is where Mike Huckabee spent most of his day yesterday, trying to get rural Republicans to come out and support him. Otherwise, up here, this is an area John McCain knows very well, the Washington suburbs. He expects to do quite well. And again down here on the coast.

So, we will look early on in some of these key counties, Wolf, to see if there are any indications of a surprise, and then we can look closer and closer as the results come in.

BLITZER: John King is going to be busy tonight at that wall throughout the night.

John, thanks very much, a lot of useful information there.

You have been hearing a lot about the Democratic super-delegates and how they could make your vote potentially irrelevant. There are 796 lawmakers, governors, other VIPs. Unlike committed delegates, super-delegates can vote for whomever they want.

That means, in a close race, such as exists right now between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the candidate with the most of your votes could actually lose to the person with the most super-delegates. Democrats created this whole situation after the 1980 election, so party elders could have a bigger say in who became a nominee.

In 1984, Walter Mondale actually beat out Gary Hart for the nomination with the help of those super-delegates. That was the last time Democratic super-delegates played a pivotal road in deciding a nominee. But, once again, that could happen in this current Democratic race. It's that close.

My next guest is one of those super-delegates. He's endorsing Barack Obama. That would be Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. He was the Democratic presidential nominee four years ago.

Senator Kerry, thanks for coming in.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Glad to be with you. Thank you.

BLITZER: The people, that Democrats, at least, in Massachusetts voted for Hillary Clinton. It was pretty decisive, 56-41 percent. You're committed to Barack Obama. What do you tell the Democrats in Massachusetts who voted for her why you're going to support Barack Obama as a superdelegate?

KERRY: Well, this is not going to be decided by any one state. This is decided by the nation. And that's why we have a series of primaries and caucuses across the country. Right now, Barack Obama has won 16 to Hillary Clinton's 11 of those states. And I believe that as we go forward you're going to see his delegate count grow.

I believe that, ultimately, it would be a mistake on either side, whether it's Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, for super-delegates suddenly to come in and say, to hell with you, the people. You all voted across the country. And we're going to change the outcome.

I believe that whoever has the delegates and the vote at that point in time is really in a very commanding position. And I think super-delegates are going to have to listen to that very, very carefully and think twice before overturning it.

BLITZER: So, what do you say to the Democrats, though, in your state, in Massachusetts, who voted by 15 points for Hillary Clinton? What do you say to them, you know, why you're rejecting their recommendation?

KERRY: Well, we're a democracy, as you know well. And they know it well, too, and respect that. And the fact is that, you know, where you are in the majority is what counts. In the end, there are a lot of states now that are voicing their opinion about Barack Obama. Let's see what happens tonight and as we move into the next days.

But I don't think it's insignificant, Wolf, that, over the course of the last -- America has gone to the polls or to the caucuses over seven days. Today is the eighth day that we will vote. And the fact is that Barack Obama has won seven of those days, in terms of numbers of delegates and votes and basically tied for one of them.

Today is the eighth day. And, if, at the end of the eighth day, Hillary Clinton has essentially, you know, basically tied in one place and not won any of these other states, that's a very commanding position for Barack Obama. At that point, I believe the momentum is even going to grow stronger and super-delegates are going to begin to waiver who have committed to Hillary Clinton. And we will see what happens.

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY: But we're not there yet. Let me emphasize...

BLITZER: Yes.

KERRY: ... we're not there yet.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask you...

KERRY: People are voting even as we speak. Right now, Barack Obama is the clear underdog, in the sense that he is running against a 20-year established political machine with all of its connections. And he's done a remarkable job to get where he is. And it's happening because there's a grassroots movement of people who want change.

BLITZER: And what happens if she loses, let's say, next Tuesday in Wisconsin and maybe even Hawaii, which, of course, is where he was born, Barack Obama, but then goes on to win impressively on March 4 in Texas, Ohio, and your neighboring state of Rhode Island. What happens then?

KERRY: Well, we have to see where the delegate count is. I mean, personally...

BLITZER: What if it remains very close?

KERRY: Well, if it's close, then I think the person who is in the lead is going to have a strong argument that they're winning a majority. And you have to look at where the votes are at that point in time.

BLITZER: But why not wait until Pennsylvania at the end of April?

KERRY: Well, it's very possible, if one candidate does well enough in the next days -- and I hope it's Barack Obama -- that you have got enough daylight in terms of delegates that Pennsylvania is not going to make that ultimate difference.

I can't tell you that today. What I know is that, as Maryland and Virginia and District of Columbia are voting today, it's a close race. Those votes count enormously. We need people to go out and vote and hopefully embrace this coalition that Barack Obama is building.

I mean, look at what's happened, Wolf. It's really not -- it's very significant. In red-state Virginia, you have Governor Tim Kaine supporting Barack Obama. In red states Kansas, Arizona, Nebraska, in the North Dakota, South Dakota, you have -- in Missouri -- you have either the senators or the governors supporting Barack Obama.

And these are savvy, capable political leaders. They're supporting him...

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY: They're supporting him because they see in him the ability to unite the party, to bring independents and Republicans to the table, and to win in November.

BLITZER: Well, why did the savvy people, the Democrats, in Massachusetts reject your recommendation, Ted Kennedy's recommendation, the governor Deval Patrick's recommendation? All three of you endorsed Barack Obama.

KERRY: Boy, you guys -- you guys are really fixated on that. And I'm not surprised, and nor was Ted Kennedy. He was 37 points behind two months out. It's the state that gave Bill Clinton the largest margin he got anywhere in the country. And they have strong ties there. We were -- we just wanted to make certain that we took our fair share of delegates out of there, and we did, and won Connecticut and won Maine and other -- and Nebraska and Washington and other places across the country.

So, you know, we respect the voters of our state, obviously. We both live by them. But the fact is that, in the end, this race is going to be decided across the country. And you have to look at -- at what kind of coalition, not just for winning an election, but for governing, that Barack Obama is building.

It is enormous, that you look at a 2-1 margin in -- in Nebraska. You look at a huge margin in the state of Washington, in Kansas and other states. I think that's very, very significant. And I will be interested, as you will, to see what happens tonight, whether or not that pattern continues, because it demonstrates the strength of his candidacy for November, indeed, I think the building of a new and different coalition for change in America.

BLITZER: There's no doubt he's a very strong and formidable candidate. So is she. That's why this story is so strong and so compelling right now. And we're going to let it play out the old- fashioned way. Let the people vote.

KERRY: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: And they will make up their minds. And we will see what happens next. Senator Kerry, good of you to join us.

KERRY: Great to be with you. Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

And coming up later here in THE SITUATION ROOM, I will be speaking with a Hillary Clinton supporter. The former Clinton press secretary Lisa Caputo, she will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And please be sure to stay tuned to CNN for complete coverage of the Potomac primaries. I will be joined by the best political team on television as the results come in from contests in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. The first polls close at 7:00 p.m. Eastern in Virginia.

Voters in Washington, D.C., and Maryland and Virginia, by the way, are having their say right now. We're standing by for the first clues about the candidates they like, the issues they care deeply about. We will bring you the first batch of exit poll results. That's coming up early in our next hour.

Plus, President Bush offers a stark reminder in this historic election year of new progress and old hatred.

And is there any chance that Mike Huckabee will be pushed out of the Republican race later tonight? I will ask Donna Brazile and Terry Jeffrey. They're standing by live for our "Strategy Session."

Lots more coming up on this important day -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Two hours and 18 minutes or so until the polls close in Virginia. We're standing by for that -- lots more political coverage coming up, but other important news we're following right now.

February is African-American History Month. And, today, President Bush honored the long and varied contributions African- Americans have made to this nation. But the president is also using the occasion to condemn what many consider to be a very hateful and deeply offensive symbol used to terrorize blacks. I think everyone recognizes that.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Elaine Quijano. She's joining us now with more.

Extremely strong words from the president at the White House today, Elaine.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Extremely strong, Wolf. Good afternoon.

Wolf, during an election year that is notable certainly for the diversity of the candidates, President Bush today both touted process when it comes to race relations in the U.S., and, at the same time, reminded people the country still has a long way to go.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(MUSIC)

QUIJANO (voice-over): It's an annual White House event, celebrating African-American History Month. But amid the festivities this year, President Bush condemned what he called a symbol of suffering, the noose.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The noose is not a symbol of prairie justice, but of gross injustice. Displaying one is not a harmless prank.

QUIJANO: Explaining its history, the president said the noose played a central part in a campaign of violence and fear against African-Americans.

BUSH: Fathers were dragged from their homes in the dark of the night before the eyes of their terrified children. Summary executions were held by torchlight in front of hateful crowds.

QUIJANO: The president's comments come after a recent wave of racially charged stories, including a news display in the Jena Six case, and this comment from a Golf Channel anchor.

NICK FALDO, ANALYST: Take Tiger on. Well yes, maybe they should gang up for a while until...

KELLY TILGHMAN, GOLF CHANNEL ANCHOR: Lynch him in a back alley.

BUSH: Lynching is not a word to be mentioned in jest. As a civil society, we must understand that noose displays and lynching jokes are deeply offensive. They are wrong. And they have no place in America today.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

QUIJANO: Now, today's event wasn't just about a hated symbol. The president also honored four people for their contributions to African-American history -- the president expressing hope for continued progress when it comes to race relations in the U.S. -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Loved seeing the Temptations at the White House as well. Thanks, Elaine, very much.

In the "Strategy Session": John McCain forecasts what his run for the White House would look like.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: One of the things I spent the day doing was talking about, if I'm fortunate to get the nomination, to keep doing what I did in the primary, the bus, the town-hall meetings, the kind of environment that we were able to create.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But would a McCain sweep later tonight kill any chances Huckabee might have?

And while voters in the Potomac primaries vote, Senator Clinton heads to Texas. On this day, has she actually given up on today's contests? Donna Brazile and Terry Jeffrey, they are standing by.

And, remember, we're just a little bit more than two hours away from the polls closing in Virginia.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Just a little bit more than two hours away from the first poll closing in tonight's presidential contests in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. If Hillary Clinton loses, what success could she still try to claim? Let's talk about that and more in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our CNN political analyst the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and the conservative commentator Terry Jeffrey. He's editor in chief of the Cybercast News Service.

Donna, does Hillary Clinton measure success tonight by the margin of her loss? Because everybody simply assumes, including her own campaign, she's going to lose in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. tonight. What's going on?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, before I address that question, let me address something that sort of disturbed me in the last segment with John Kerry. At the bottom of the ticker, which you have nothing to do with, there was a headline, "Voters are irrelevant. Super-delegates will decide."

That's not true. Voters are very relevant. They're very important. And we want voters to turn out, of course, here in the Potomac region, as well as in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Texas. So, they're very relevant. You're very important. And you will decide this election. And we're excited about that. I had to say that. Senator Clinton...

BLITZER: It's a good point. And super-delegates -- and you're one of those super-delegates -- they're important. But, certainly, no one is suggesting the voters are irrelevant. And, if we did that, you know, obviously, that was a mistake.

BRAZILE: Yes, we might be considered gravy, but the potatoes are the real voters out there. They're the people who are going to turn out, as they are today in this cold, inclement weather. They're the people that the Democrats are relying on to win in the fall. And they're the people that we're excited about today. So, go out and vote.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: I will be there soon.

BLITZER: All right. So, how does -- how does Hillary Clinton measure success for herself tonight?

BRAZILE: Delegates. She's going to pick up delegates. She may not win these states, but she will pick up delegates. This is about delegates.

The Obama campaign is now claiming that they may have more pledged delegates. Hillary Clinton will pick up delegates, delegates here in the District of Columbia. She will pick up delegates in Maryland and Virginia.

And we know that she will pick up delegates in Wisconsin, Hawaii, of course, Texas, Rhode Island, and other states. The key issue right now is, how do we determine momentum? Barack Obama has significant momentum. He's out there. He's not just picking up delegates, but he's picking up money. He's getting great media attention.

And, yes, he's also getting the kind of scrutiny that you would expect from someone who is on the verge on becoming -- verge of becoming the front-runner in this race.

BLITZER: Given the nature or the way they divide up delegates on the Democratic side, Terry, even if one person wins all these contests, they could actually emerge with roughly the same amount of delegates because of the proportionate way they divide up the delegates through congressional districts.

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR IN CHIEF, CYBERCAST NEWS SERVICE: Well, they could, Wolf. But I have a hard time believing that these leaders in the Democratic Party, who are the super-delegates, if in fact Barack Obama emerged with the popular vote and the delegates to be the first black American to be nominated by an American political party with a very good chance of being elected president of the United States, that they would turn around and veto him at their convention and nominate Hillary Clinton instead. And I think it's telling that, in the last few days, the Clinton campaign has started to spin that where she really needs to win is a few weeks down the road in Ohio and Texas. I believe that, if we get a sweep from Obama today, and then a week from today in Wisconsin and Hawaii, he wins two more, I just don't see how any kind of momentum ever shifts back to Hillary. And I think part of it will be because precisely those super-delegates will all start to shift over to Obama...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Does he have a point, Donna?

BRAZILE: Well, there's no question that super-delegates can -- they understand which way the wind is blowing. We understand that, if voters are out there saying, you know, we prefer this candidate over the other candidate -- look, if you start seeing 70/30, not 55/45, in terms of voter preference, there may be a slight shift toward one of the candidates vs. -- vs. the other.

But this is has been a very dynamic process. People are very excited. And let's just give the voters an opportunity to weigh in. I like what they're doing.

BLITZER: All right. If -- if McCain sweeps tonight, what happens to Huckabee?

JEFFREY: I don't know. He might drop out, Wolf.

But I think that, actually, Huckabee is performing a valuable service for the Republican Party and for conservatives. First of all, he's giving people a place to vote if they don't want to vote against McCain. Secondly, he has an opportunity to make -- force McCain to make clearer, more definitive commitments on some conservative issues where Huckabee is to the right of McCain.

And, personally, I believe, in a general election, if McCain is positioned to the right on those issues, particularly cultural issues and immigration, he will stand a better chance of winning the kind of swing voters that help Republicans in a general election. Those tend to be culturally conservative voters in the Northern Midwest.

BLITZER: Does he make John McCain, Donna, a better potential Republican presidential nominee by remaining in this race and competing against him right now? Or does he -- by staying in, does he sort of embarrass him from time to time by winning these -- these states?

BRAZILE: I think he's performing a miracle for John McCain by allowing conservatives a place to park temporarily, until they have an opportunity to talk to John McCain, to figure out where he really stands on the important conservative principles they all agree upon.

So, I think he's playing a great service to not just John McCain, but the Republican Party. Look, they have to rebuild the house that Ronald Reagan created back in the 1980s. And they're going to need some conservatives, because the liberals, the independents, the Hispanics and others have said goodbye.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much for coming in, Donna and Terry -- another good "Strategy Session" here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

JEFFREY: And thank you, Wolf.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Next week, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton take part in a CNN debate in the key battleground state of Texas. It takes place on Thursday, February 21, in Austin. It's co-sponsored by Univision and the Texas Democratic Party.

It airs live here on CNN beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. It airs later that night in Spanish on Univision. Journalists from CNN and Univision will ask the questions. A CNN anchor will moderate the debate.

He's a former U.S. senator, a former astronaut, and he's a well- respected figure in the Democratic political world. Who is John Glenn -- John Glenn endorsing for president? You're about to find out.

And we're only a little bit more than two hours away from the first poll closing in today's Potomac primaries -- coming up, the first exit polls showing what's on the minds of voters on this day.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our Political Ticker this Tuesday: Former U.S. Senator and astronaut John Glenn is giving Hillary Clinton a boost today in the critical battleground state of Ohio. He endorsed Clinton in Ohio's March 4 primary.

Another setback today for Republican hopes of regaining strength in the House of Representatives. Seven-term Arizona Congressman John Shadegg announced today he won't seek reelection. He's the 29th House Republican in the past 13 months to decide to leave office.

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

Let's check out Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" right now. You know, the Republicans are going to have a hard time getting reelected, with all these congressmen deciding they don't want to play.

CAFFERTY: I mean, they must sniff something in the wind. I mean, they're running for the exits.

BLITZER: They like being in the majority.

CAFFERTY: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: But they don't like being in the minority. CAFFERTY: Well, you know, I guess that's human nature, right?

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: All right, here's the question this hour: If Barack Obama sweeps the rest of February's contests, where does that leave Hillary Clinton?

We have gotten a ton of mail. People can't get enough of this politics and the election. They love it.

Julian writes: "It leaves her dead in the water. Obama's time is now. He's leading a movement. There's no ordinary campaign, this. It's the capturing of a Zeitgeist at a pivotal moment in history. And Barack Obama is waking the sleeping giant in the American psyche. Momentum? This is only the beginning."

Joan writes: "If Obama's campaign continues strong and leaves Clinton behind, it would make Hillary another martyr in the historical march towards women's rights, and it would again prove that white men like you are still maintaining the glass ceiling through your biased reporting."

"Obama," writes David, "is leading a diversified movement that is continuously gaining strength. Thank you, George Bush, Dick Cheney, for generating this movement. The establishment in this country is in trouble, black or white, not just at the presidential level, but at all levels of government. Obama will win the nomination, be a very good president. We're sick and tired of being sick and tired. And we're going to take our country back. When Obama sweeps tonight, Clinton should start seriously considering what is best for the country and the party and step aside."

Dan writes: "It leaves her to continue talking about the issues and the things that matter, not like Obama-Oprah-Kennedy, who only can say change. Maybe things will change for the better when Americans realize he's a phony."

Kai writes from Oregon: "Jack, the Clinton-Bush dynasty is about to end. And I, for one, am thoroughly enjoying watching it burn, crumble, and slowly topple over."

And, finally, Chris, in Orlando says, "It leaves Clinton teary- eyed on March 3rd, in the hopes that she will win Ohio and Texas on March 4th."

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you. See you in a few moments.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, the Potomac primaries, crucial battles in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. It's the closest the candidates actually will get physically to the White House during this election year. But is one candidate already looking ahead to the next big showdown?

And with whispers and sidelong glances, some Republicans are coming out for Obama. He even has an Eisenhower in his camp.

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