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U.S. Embassy Attacked in Serbia; McCain "Smear" Fact Check; Clinton-Obama Showdown: Key Debate Before Texas Contests

Aired February 21, 2008 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A very tense situation in the Serbian capital right now. Rioters attacking the United States Embassy in Belgrade, setting it on fire, as rage over Kosovo's newly declared independence is boiling over.
CNN's Zain Verjee is following developments. And she's joining us now live from the State Department.

This is not a type of story that diplomats around the world relish. It's clearly a very dangerous story for those U.S. Embassy personnel based in Belgrade.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: It's a dangerous, difficult and a volatile situation, Wolf. We're hearing now that the United States is starting to assess the damage that's occurred to its embassy compound in Belgrade and also pressuring Serbian officials to secure it.


VERJEE (voice-over): The U.S. embassy under attack -- the stars and stripes barely visible through the darkness and smoke. Protesters trying to knock it off its pole. Nearby, a huge demonstration in the streets of Belgrade. A smaller number of violators turned violent and tried to torch the embassy. A fire seen blazing in one room.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: The embassy staff is not at the chancellery or at the embassy. The only people that we have at the embassy -- right now at the embassy are the security people and the Marine guards.

VERJEE: Their job -- to protect equipment and classified documents. The embassy targeted because many Serbs are angry at U.S. support for an independent Kosovo, whose government declared its independence on Sunday. The U.S. quickly gave formal recognition to the new country on Monday.

A province of the former Yugoslavia, Serbians say Kosovo belongs to them. In Washington, a call for Serbian authorities to protect the U.S. compound.

MCCORMACK: We are in contact with the Serbian government to ensure that they devote the appropriate assets to fulfill their international obligations to help protect diplomatic facilities, in this case, our embassy.

VERJEE: Serbian police rolled in and, U.S. officials say, secured the embassy.


VERJEE: And, Wolf, an official, also from the Serbian embassy, tells CNN that it just took a while for the police to get there, simply because of the amount of people on the streets. The official said that we are committed to leading -- creating a situation of peace in the region and also to restoring calm. One other thing. The Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, on her way back from Africa, has just been briefed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Zain. Zain Verjee reporting, watching this dangerous story unfold.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's been looking at some of the I-Reports of the protests and the violence in Belgrade that we're already receiving here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What are we seeing -- Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we've just got these in in the last hour from Enrique Roid (ph), who's right there in the area, who describes how this went down. Basically, that this was a peaceful protest in the early hours, but then a smaller group broke off and then it got more dangerous. He said that it was pretty intense out there.

And his photos that he sent in a later batch of pictures to us at I-Report, show some of the damage -- not just to the U.S. Embassy, but a McDonald's the is trashed, other stores with broken windows. He said there was tear gas and he had to get out of the area -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi. Thanks. We'll stay on top of this story.

In fact, we're joined now by a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Belgrade, William Wanlund, who's on the phone.

Mr. Wanlund, thanks very much for joining us.

I know these are difficult moments for you and all U.S. Foreign Service personnel and others at the embassy. Tell us what happened.

WILLIAM WANLUND, SPOKESMAN, U.S. EMBASSY IN BELGRADE: Well, there was a -- there was a violent demonstration at the U.S. Embassy. There was a -- the embassy was breeched by some protesters. There was a small number of protesters. And the -- although the overwhelming number of demonstrators at this large march in Belgrade were peaceful, there was an element that pursued violent means...

BLITZER: (INAUDIBLE) that's now been found inside the embassy, Mr. Wanlund?


BLITZER: I understand they found a body there now, as well. WANLUND: Yes, we can confirm that. Unfortunately, there was a body found in the embassy. I don't have too many details about that, but it appeared to have been a protester who was caught in the fire that had been set by the protesters and not as a result of any interaction with U.S. security forces.

BLITZER: How many U.S. diplomats and staff -- how many Americans serve at that embassy and are they in any danger right now?

WANLUND: Well, there are about 70 American diplomats serving at -- serving in the embassy in Belgrade. And we're certainly pursuing what we think is reasonable caution, you know. But we don't feel that we're in any immediate danger. The secretary of state has been in direct contact with Serbian officials and has demanded that they be vigilant in their protection of U.S. personnel here, that they re- secure the embassy areas and that they take responsibility for the safety and the well-being of American personnel here.

BLITZER: Well, good luck to all the American diplomats who are undertaking this dangerous assignment over in Belgrade right now.

We'll stay in close touch. William Wanlund is a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Belgrade right now.

Let's move on to some other important news we're following, including John McCain's campaign. It's calling it a liberal smear, but "The New York Times" is standing by its controversial story, suggesting he may have given special treatment to a female lobbyist with whom he had a close relationship. McCain says flatly it is not true.

CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into the facts behind this story. He's joining us now.

Brian, what are you finding?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, questions are coming up now about McCain's dealings with this lobbyist's firm -- some of those dealings nearly a decade ago -- and whether he might have been influenced by one of the firm's powerful clients.


TODD (voice-over): John McCain says over the years, he's met with several acquaintances in Washington who represent various interests, but he staunchly defends his dealings with them.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That was my job to do, to get their input. And I was a -- people who represent interests is -- are fine. That's our constitutional right. The question is, is whether -- do they have access or unwanted influence. And certainly no one ever has.

TODD: But did McCain's dealings with lobbyist Vicki Iseman improperly affect his conduct as a senator? Iseman represented several telecommunications companies, including, at one time, a firm called Paxson Communications. Late in 1999, Paxson was trying to obtain the license for a Pittsburgh TV station -- a complicated and very contentious deal that the Federal Communications Commissions had to approve.

At the time, McCain was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and wrote two letters to the FCC chairman, urging the commission to get going on a vote.

MCCAIN: I wrote a letter because the FCC, which usually makes a decision within 400 days, had gone almost 800 days.

TODD: McCain points out he never suggested how the commission should vote, just that it should act in one way or another. But McCain also asked for commission members to give him assurances in writing whether they'd acted or not and gave them a deadline.

That prompted a rebuke from then FCC Chairman William Kennard, who wrote to McCain, "It is highly unusual for the commissioners to be asked to publicly announce their voting status on a matter that is still pending." The attorney representing the community group opposing the Pittsburgh TV deal says McCain's letters violated FCC rules two ways.

ANGELA CAMPBELL, ATTORNEY FOR PITTSBURGH COMMUNITY GROUP: The unusual pressure, by asking each commissioner to vote by a date certain or tell him by the close of business, you know, why they weren't. And also the fact that this letter was not served on the other parties that had opposed this deal.

TODD: McCain's campaign says his Commerce Committee staff did meet with opponents of the deal before the letters were sent and says the opponents, along with Iseman's firm, urged McCain's staff to pressure the FCC to vote. Iseman's firm, Alcalde & Fay, says their relationship with Senator McCain has been "professional, appropriate and consistent with his legislative jurisdictional and constituent duties."


TODD: McCain himself said today the letters were appropriate. Now, several months after the letters were sent, FCC lawyers concluded McCain's letters had broken the rules. But those lawyers said the violations were inadvertent -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting.

"The New York Times" is taking a lot of heat over the story, not the least of it for its timing. Let's go to Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES." He's here with the story, shall we say, behind the story.

Howie, what are you picking up?

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, "RELIABLE SOURCES": Well, Wolf, four "New York Times" reporters have been working on this story for months. And today's media echo chamber, the paper's critics and the McCain campaign have been trying to make "The Times" the issue.


KURTZ (voice-over): The bulk of the story about McCain's dealings with lobbyist Vicki Iseman rest on unnamed sources, which have been important on journalistic investigations as far back as Watergate, but which can undercut a story's credibility. McCain jumped on this question while his top advisers ripped

"The Times" -- a perennial target in conservative circles.

MCCAIN: I do know there was some interest, that it's "former aides," that this whole story is based on anonymous sources.

CHARLIE BLACK, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: The journalistic standards here aren't those of a third rate tabloid and the "New York Times" should be ashamed of themselves.

KURTZ: "The Times" is hardly the only news organization to utilize unnamed sources. "The Washington Post," CNN and other major media outlets use them occasionally, as well. "The Times" has promised in recent years to limit its use of such sources and explain why they can't be identified. Today's story says the key sources, two former McCain associates, said they had become "disillusioned with the senator." But that information appears only toward the end of the lengthy article.

The piece is carefully worded, quoting the former associates as saying they were concerned that McCain and Iseman might be having a romantic relationship and reporting that the senator and the lobbyist both denied it. One on the record source, former McCain strategist John Weaver, says he arranged a meeting in which a McCain aide warned Iseman to stay away from the senator.

The newspaper also raised previously reported questions about McCain writing letters to federal regulators that could benefit Iseman's telecommunications clients. Some commentators are questioning, without citing evidence, whether "The Times" held the story until McCain had all but sewed up the Republican nomination.

BAY BUCHANAN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: And the timing of it is an outrageous thing. If they had this kind of story at Christmas time, it should have been running at Christmas. They're playing politics with this story.

KURTZ: But "Times" executive editor, Bill Keller, tells me the story wasn't ready, wasn't fully checked and vetted until yesterday, and that the political calendar had nothing to do with his decision.

"The New Republic" reported today that Keller held up the piece because it wasn't solid enough and ordered it rewritten. But I'm told this was part of the usual editing process for a major investigative report.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Now, I should mention that my newspaper, "The Washington Post," cited unnamed sources this morning several times in its report on the senator and the lobbyist. As for "The New York Times," it doesn't claim to have proven that the relationship between John McCain and Vicki Iseman was anything more than a close Washington friendship. But the suggestion of an illicit relationship has made "The Times" a target of a fierce counterattack by some conservatives -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And this "New Republic" story which was just released, suggesting there was some sort of massive internal debate within the newsroom over at "The New York Times." What are you picking up on that?

KURTZ: I've done some reporting on that, Wolf. And, look, there's always internal debate over sensitive investigating stories, particularly involving a presidential candidate and the hint of an illicit relationship. I'm told that while there was a healthy disagreement over the tone of that story, when to run it, how much to include, that the people involved basically were doing what newsrooms do, which is airing their differences. But that this was nothing out of the ordinary, particularly for this kind of story.

BLITZER: Did you see much difference in your newspaper's reporting on this subject this morning, a front page story in "The Washington Post," as opposed to what "The New York Times" was reporting?

KURTZ: There was one...

BLITZER: Or were the two stories similar?

KURTZ: No, there was one very big difference, Wolf. And that is "The Washington Post" story did not make any suggestion or hint or insinuation about any kind of romantic relationship, allegedly, between the senator and Vicki Iseman, whereas "The New York Times" played that permanently. But that may have been information that our reporters simply didn't have.

BLITZER: All right, Howard Kurtz joining us. Thanks, Howie, very much.

KURTZ: Thanks.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: You've got to love this stuff, don't you?


CAFFERTY: This is great.

BLITZER: This is Washington journalism versus politics...

CAFFERTY: Well... BLITZER: ... and, you know, it's a tough business.

CAFFERTY: You know, that's why we come to work every day, is to go stand by the railroad tracks and hope for a train wreck. And today maybe we got one. Tonight, we might get another one. Hillary Clinton has debated Barack Obama 18 times so far -- but, arguably, none is as important as the one coming up in just a couple of hours.

Obama is on a roll. He's beat Clinton 11 contests in a row now. She's got to win the upcoming races in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania -- and she has to win them big if she wants to stay in this thing. Tonight' debate could help her do that. One expert tells "The Wall Street Journal," "Clinton doesn't have any extra opportunities. If Obama skates by and everyone says they both did well, it's over. That means he's won."

Some early indication of what we might expect from Clinton tonight comes from her spokesman, who predicts a civil debate, while also calling Obama a "candidate who, 36 short months ago was in the state legislature." Clinton also points to Obama as a risky choice, untested by international crises and the GOP attack machine.

On the other hand, Obama could say to Clinton, yes, but I'm ahead. Analysts say the challenge will be to create a sound bite that will spread like wildfire across the Internet, negatively define the other's campaign. Like in 1984, for example. Walter Mondale took out his opponent, Gary Hart, by asking where's the beef?

Or Lloyd Bentsen -- remember, slamming Dan Quayle's image with this zinger, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. And, Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Meanwhile, tonight's debate one of the hottest tickets in the Lone Star State. Forty-three thousand Texans entered a lottery to try to get one of the 100 available tickets.

So here's the question: What does Hillary Clinton have to do at tonight's debate to try to turn the tide?

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

This could be good stuff tonight or it could be a yawn. They could both be overly cautious and it will be a non-event.

BLITZER: Jack, we'll see. A little time between now and that debate. Thanks very much.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty will be back.

And we're less, as we say, we're less than three hours away from tonight's debate. We're going to live to Austin to check in with Jessica Yellin. She's covering the Clinton campaign.

Also, the Navy blows a crippled satellite to bits, raising serious concerns in China. We're going to show you why China is now demanding some answers.

Plus, the mad rush for those tickets that Jack was just talking about in tonight's Democratic presidential debate in Texas. You're going to find out why getting in depends on the luck of the draw.

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


BLITZER: Hillary Clinton needs Texas. And tonight, she'll have to walk a fine line while doing everything she can to convince voters to pick her over Barack Obama in that state's primary -- only, what, 12 days away. They face-off in Austin in less than three hours in a CNN debate in Austin. It's a match-up that could be Senator Clinton's last chance to try to seal the deal with Texas.

Let's go to CNN's Jessica Yellin. She's watching the story for us.

So what are they doing in the final couple hours before this debate -- Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT: They are prepping for tonight's big event, Wolf. You know, it is the fourth quarter. Time is running out. And Senator Clinton is looking for a way to make a comeback tonight.


YELLIN (voice-over): He started his day touring the home of the Texas Longhorns.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You've got to rub your horns right across that, huh, like that, huh?


OBAMA: I got you.


OBAMA: It's not a game, but it's a debate day.

YELLIN: She was on the job further south.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is a difference between rhetoric and reality. The reality of the people here in Webb County and Laredo is what I'm focused on.

YELLIN: For her, it's an uphill fight. Obama has won 11 contests in a row and raised more than three times as much money last month. The stakes are as high as they can be for Clinton. Her husband summed up why.

WILLIAM CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If she wins in Texas and Ohio, I think she'll be the nominee. And if you don't deliver for her, I don't think she can be. It's all on you.

YELLIN: Tonight's debate could be a turning point. He has more to lose and the key is to avoid a stumble like this.

OBAMA: You're likable enough, Hillary. No doubt.

H. CLINTON: Thank you so much.

YELLIN: It helped stir sympathy for Clinton, who won the New Hampshire primary three days later. She has to stop the hemorrhaging and avoid a sniping match like this.

H. CLINTON: I was fighting those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.

YELLIN: It backfired and he trounced her in the primary four days later. What can Clinton do? Renew her appeal to her base -- women, Hispanics and blue collar voters, who have been defecting to Obama. She's trying with a more personal approach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're often overworked, underpaid and sometimes overlooked. She understands. She's worked the night shift, too.

YELLIN: And she must try to convince voters that with just 69 delegates separating the two, this race is not over.


YELLIN: Now, Wolf, for Clinton the real key will be to encourage voters to scrutinize Barack Obama's case for the presidency or, as she had put it, to persuade them that he's all hat and no cattle without sounding negative. For him, the real trick will be to not mess up -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jessica.

That debate only two hours and 38 minutes away from now. We're counting down. The debate will be moderated by CNN's Campbell Brown, this presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over at the University of Texas. Remember, it airs tonight live, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.

Fallout from that satellite that the Navy blasted to bits. We're going to have details of the tension it's causing right now with China.

And there's enormous pressure for Hillary Clinton in tonight's CNN debate against Barack Obama. We're going to show you why she'll have to walk a very fine line and why this could be her last chance in Texas.

Plus, Britain changes its story about its role in that controversial U.S. anti-terror effort.

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


BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Carol, what's going on?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the British government changed its story today, citing two instances of cooperation with secret U.S. rendition flights of terror suspects. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband tells parliament two flights refueled in British territory in 2002. Now, the Brits have always denied cooperating with the rendition program, in which suspects were secretly taken to interrogation centers in cooperating countries, where critics allege the questioning included torture.

Things are just a mess in Ecuador. Take a look. A week's worth of torrential rain -- the worst rain in a quarter century -- has caused massive flooding. Nine of the country's 22 provinces are affected. At least 10 peopled have died. Some 10,000 are now homeless. Ecuador's president declared a state of emergency and ordered the army to help rescue crews.

A Tampa, Florida man probably wishes he had canceled plans to fly last Sunday. Benjamin Baines was caught at security carrying a box cutter in a hollowed out book. That's it. It wasn't terrorism, it was -- well, it was just dumb. Baines says the hollowed out book -- he used it to hide money and marijuana from his roommates, and he forgot he left the box cutter inside. He's going to do 30 days, but he could face 10 years on federal charges.

And if you're only listening to the TV right now, look up and watch the stage. Yes, that man joining in the dancing is the president of the United States. This is in Liberia, at the end of President Bush's five nation tour of Africa. He's done much more than dancing, however. He's also doled out more than a billion dollars in U.S. aid to African nations. Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. He gets -- we're getting used to watching the president dance. He's danced all over the world already.


BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Carol, for that.

So what do the Texas voters want to see in tonight's Democratic presidential debate?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think she should probably come off as a strong, independent woman and show more Americans that she's not Bill Clinton's wife.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean I like the message of change. I like their policies. And for them to focus on those and be positive about it, that's really what I'm focusing on.


BLITZER: Coming up, we'll be speaking live with Paul Begala and Jamal Simmons. And we'll ask them if they think Hillary Clinton can deliver and take Texas in what everyone agrees is a must-win primary.

Plus, fallout from that satellite that the U.S. Navy blasted to bits. We're going to have details of new tension it's causing with China.

We're back in 90 seconds. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


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

Happening now, presidential candidate Barack Obama picks up even more union support. The Change To Win Coalition, seven unions representing at least five million workers, joins the Teamsters, the service workers and food workers unions in the Obama camp.

A Nevada town gets all shook up -- a magnitude six earthquake early this morning heavily damages about two dozen buildings in Wells, Nevada. That's a town of about 1,300 residents. Officials report more than a dozen aftershocks, but only three injuries.

And a close call for three United States senators. After the meeting today with Afghanistan's president, bad weather forcing helicopters carrying U.S. Senators John Kerry, Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel to make an unscheduled landing in the Afghan mountains. Everyone, thank God, is safe.

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

Hillary Clinton will be coming under special scrutiny in tonight's presidential debate in Austin, Texas. Behind the delegate count, after some 10 straight losses, she needs a defining moment. Let's bring in Carol Costello once again. She's watching the story for us.

How is she going to do it?

COSTELLO: Well, it's a tough question and if I had the exact right answer to that question I would be a highly paid political consultant. But since I'm not, I can only make an educated guess. Senator Clinton needs some drama.


COSTELLO: Tonight's debate, number 15 if you're counting. It could be Hillary Clinton's defining moment, you know, the kind of moment that could persuade primary voters to cast a ballot for Clinton. Ross Ramsey, editor of the nonpartisan Texas Monthly.

ROSS RAMSEY, EDITOR, TEXAS MONTHLY: I think she has to draw a line for voters and say I'm on this side of the line. He's on that side of the line. It's a line you care about. You should choose me.

COSTELLO: But which facet of Hillary Clinton's personality is likely to draw that commitment? Is it the charming Hillary Clinton?

H. CLINTON: Well I have to agree with everything Barack just said.

COSTELLO: Is it the wonky Clinton?

H. CLINTON: I have a three step plan to bring the troops home starting now.

COSTELLO: Or is the aggressive Clinton?

H. CLINTON: You said two things. You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan and you talked about the ideas of the Republicans. I didn't talk about Ronald Reagan.

COSTELLO: For Clinton, that will be a tough decision. Potential voters we talked with today are all over the map as to which Hillary they would like to see.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think she should come off as a strong independent woman and show more Americans that she's not Bill Clinton's wife.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like the message of change. I like their policies. For them to focus on those and be positive about it, that's really what I'm focusing on.

COSTELLO: What could send Clinton's campaign into orbit is if she forces Obama into a huge gaff or comes up with a killer comment, a comment so awesome it will be played and replayed on television until your sick of it; a zinger like in one in 1988 when Dan Quayle compared himself to Jack Kennedy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

COSTELLO: Or the zinger Walter Mondale threw at Gary Hart in 1984, you know, when he accused Hart of being all flash and no substance.


COSTELLO: For those of you too young to remember, Mondale was playing off a very popular ad campaign for Wendy's.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a very big fluffy bun. Where's the beef?

COSTELLO: Which facet of Hillary Clinton's personality can best achieve the defining moment, the charming, the wonk or the aggressive? As Ross Ramsey told me, it's not likely to be the charming Clinton.


COSTELLO: Keep in mind debate is something Hillary Clinton is very good at. Barack Obama, well, he just needs to hold his own. If he doesn't doing anything wrong or anything that makes news, he will probably win.

BLITZER: All right, Carol. Thanks very much. Good reporting from Carol Costello.

So which side of Hillary Clinton will we see in tonight's debate with rival Barack Obama? Joining us here to discuss tonight's face- off in Austin, Texas, are CNN contributor and Clinton supporter, Paul Begala, and Democratic strategist and Obama supporter, Jamal Simmons.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Paul, let me start with you. Which Hillary Clinton shows up tonight?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Which one will we see, or which one do I want to see?

BLITZER: Which one do you want to see?

BEGALA: I want to see Hillary use that charm and humor to kind of stick the knife in on those populous economic issues. Keep in mind that John Edwards had several really effective critiques of Barack that were on these populous economic issues. He accused Barack of selling out to big credit card companies, not capping interest rates. He accused Barack of not covering poor people with health insurance. That's John Edwards. She could do that in a clever way.

If you believe the newspaper leaks, what her staff is thinking about doing is attacking Barack, saying he's not fit to be commander in chief. That's doing John McCain's job for him. I think that's a terrible idea. I don't think that's where Democratic voters are and Barack has the killer comeback to that one, Wolf. He could say well George Bush wasn't qualified to be commander in chief, Hillary, and you voted for his war. So I hope she doesn't do what her strategists are leaking to the newspapers. I hope she says what I say. Watch this, Hillary. Do what I say, not what your people tell you.

BLITZER: Well, which Barack Obama would you want to see tonight, would you want to see tonight, Jamal?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think you're going to see a charming, confident Barack Obama who is talking to people about -- really trying to convince them, I'm ready to be commander in chief. I think you're not going to see a lot of clever lines. You're not going to look for him to throw any long passes. He's just going to be a good solid candidate.

And I agree with Paul. I think according to that statement from Carol Costello, this is Hillary Clinton 3.0, 4.0, but she has to find a way to go at Barack Obama hard, get him to try to make a mistake and if she can, then to capitalize on that. But I think Obama has now been through this 15, 16, 17 times and he's ready for it.

BLITZER: Would it be wise for either of these candidates -- obviously they're going to talk about John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Would it be wise for them to refer to this latest allegation in "The New York Times" and the "Washington Post," the stories that emerged today? Would that be smart, Paul?

BEGALA: No. You know, look, first off there's an old Napoleonic maxim not to interrupt your enemy when he's busy destroying himself. I'm not sure McCain is destroying himself. I think I would let that stew. You know their concern right now is with trying to secure the nomination. I would not get in the middle of the McCain story.

I think the problem for Senator McCain in this story is the lobbyist angle and I think that's what they're mishandling. They're doing a good job of pushing off against the press, attacking "The New York Times." I thought Howie Kurtz' piece was real smart on that but I think McCain's worry is the lobbyist angle, not any other angle for this. I think they ought to stay out of that.

BLITZER: Do you agree, Jamal?

SIMMONS: Yes, I think there's a lot left to be known about this. The dangerous thing for Senator McCain right now is that every other news organization is going to be circling around, trying to figure out if there's any more meat here. If they find that meat, then McCain is in trouble. This cuts right to the heart of the lobbyist thing; not the personal relationship, but the lobbyist part. It cuts right to the heart of the McCain candidacy.

And tonight I think George Bush is a good common enemy for Democrats. You'll probably hear his name a lot and maybe a little Bush-McCain war or Bush-McCain economy to kind of tie McCain into it but not so much about the lobbyist scandal.

BLITZER: As someone who has experience in crisis management, Paul, what do you think? How is McCain handling this little crisis?

BEGALA: You know mixed. As I said, I give him very high marks for going after "The New York Times." I'm not saying that he's right. I'm just saying as a strategist, right? His problem is with his conservative base. The conservative base hates the "New York Times." He can use this to rally conservatives to his cause and he's doing that effectively.

What he's not doing effectively is he's diminishing the McCain franchise. The McCain brand is reform. Ever since he got caught in the cookie car with the Keating five problem many years ago, he's positioned himself as a reformer.

Well, who did he send out today to defend him against these charges that he was doing favors for a lobbyists? A whole army of lobbyists. I mean Charlie Black, Rick Davis, his campaign manager. I mean they're friends of mine, OK, but they're Washington lobbyists. That's the worst people he could have out there defending him on this. So I give him a 50/50. He's half right and half wrong the way he's handling this.

BLITZER: What do you think, Jamal?

SIMMONS: Well, the person I want to hear from right now is Governor Romney. He can't be too happy that he's sitting out on the sidelines when this story is breaking.

BLITZER: Do you think Huckabee knew something was in the works? That was the "miracle" he had been talking about, the You Tube moment that he had referred to. Do you think there's anything to that?

SIMMONS: I don't know if he knew anything or not. But I think it's clear that Senator McCain does have a problem here. There's I think it's an FEC question right now about a loan he took last fall and whether or not that has anything to do with his public financing. You know there are a couple of things that could cut right to the core of the McCain candidacy. And if you're one of his opponents who got out of the race, you might be thinking you pulled that trigger a little too fast.

BLITZER: Eight p.m. tonight is the debate. We'll all be watching with Paul and Jamal as well. Guys, thanks very much.

BEGALA: Where is the debate, Wolf?

BLITZER: That would be at the University of Texas.

BEGALA: The greatest college in the world right there.

BLITZER: Very proud alum. Guys, thanks very much.

SIMMONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Tens of thousands of people wanted them, but only a few got them. That would be tickets to tonight's Democratic presidential debate in Austin. We're going to have details of the tremendous demand.

Also, is Hillary Clinton losing some support among one of her strongest voting blocks, Latinos? I'll ask Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas. She's standing by live.

Plus, we're going to update on you on the missile strike that took out that crippled satellite and why it's now causing a new set of problems.

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


BLITZER: It's no exaggeration to say tonight's CNN Democratic presidential debate is the hottest ticket in Austin with tens of thousands of people, tens of thousands, fighting for a few hundred seats, if that.

Let's go to CNN's Ted Rowlands. He's watching this story for us.

How high is this demand, Ted?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's incredible, Wolf. Normally here in Austin, Texas if you are looking for tickets to something it's for a Long Horn football game but tonight it is for this debate.


ROWLANDS: University of Texas freshman Brendan Chan would love to see Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debate on stage. People clambering for tickets, is this a hot ticket?

BRENDAN CHAN, WANTS TO SEE DEBATE: Yes. Are you kidding me? I want to go so badly.

ROWLANDS: Unfortunately the only way in for Brendan and thousands of others was an online lottery that Texas Democrats held for just 100 seats. An astounding 43,436 people entered the drawing.

BOYD RICHIE, TEXAS DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Absolutely. We've never seen anything like it.

ROWLANDS: Boyd Richie heads the Texas Democratic Party where the phone has been ringing off the hook, people trying to get into the debate. He attributes the excitement to the candidates.

RICHIE: Well, we've got rock star candidates. That's the truth. People are excited about that. They want to see this debate.

KITTY PAGE, DEBATE LOTTERY WINNER: I jumped off the couch and said yay.

ROWLANDS: Kitty Page was lucky enough to win one of the seats to the debate. She's hoping to see a real battle on stage.

PAGE: I would like for them to really debate and really go back and forth.

ROWLANDS: Karla Schultz also won a seat. She thinks this is an opportunity of a lifetime.

KARLA SCHULTZ, DEBATE LOTTERY WINNER: I really think it's the historic significance of who the candidates are. It's really remarkable. They're neck and neck. They're both strong qualified candidates. We've never seen anything like this.

ROWLANDS: Gerardo Garcia is an artist in San Antonio. He says he's still undecided. Garcia will not be there in person, but says he'll be watching very closely. Garcia said he would like to hear exchanges between the two about immigration, health care, and uniting the country. He's hoping to hear something to help him choose a candidate which he thinks he won't pick until he's in the voting booth.

GERARDO GARCIA, TEXAS VOTER: Probably once I'm in there and I see the names and rethink exactly my stance on certain issues. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS: Wolf, we should note the debate is by invitation only, about 1600 seats. The bulk of those seats are controlled by the Democratic Party.

BLITZER: All right, Ted, thanks very much. Ted Rowlands in Austin for us.

Both Clinton and Obama are trying to lock down the Latino vote, a block in which Senator Clinton has had strong support. Joining us now is the anchor Maria Elena Salinas of the Spanish language network, Univision. She's a partner - Univision is a partner in tonight's Democratic debate with CNN.

Maria, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Is Latino support for Hillary Clinton slipping?

SALINAS: Well, it looks like some of the numbers that we've been seeing lately indicate maybe she's losing a little bit of her support. Remember it's been approximately six out of ten Latinos nationally and in Texas have supported Hillary Clinton.

Yet, some of the tracking polls that we have seen and that you have reported, of course, on CNN indicate she may be losing a little bit of ground. More importantly than that it seems that Barack Obama has been gaining support among possibly some of those undecided voters.

BLITZER: He's been gaining a lot of support among those blocks. Many of those blocks which were strong in her corner. Why is that? What do you think is happening?

SALINAS: Well with Latinos several things that have been happening. We have to remember first of all name recognition. Clinton is someone that Latinos supported, President Bill Clinton. They recognize Senator Hillary Clinton, of course, because of her husband and because of the work she has done as a senator. And also because they were so disenchanted with the -- you could say the very tough talk on immigration, the very negative tone of the immigration debate which they attributed to Republicans.

Now, as far as Barack Obama, many people on the street department didn't know who he was. In covering some of the previous primaries, we have noticed that not too many people were aware of who Obama was and what Senator Obama's positions were on the different issues the. There has been so much more attention that it looks like more than anything else he has gathered some of those undecideds.

Remember they are a lot of new, young voters. There's also a lot of recently naturalized citizens that are going to be voting for the first time and they are listening to what the candidates are saying and they're definitely going to be listening tonight. BLITZER: That Latino vote in Texas especially is very, very significant.


BLITZER: What do they both need to do tonight in the debate to try to shore up respective support?

SALINAS: Well, Latino voters are becoming more sophisticated. Certainly in Texas they're very much aware of the importance of their vote. They're very much aware also that both campaigns are trying to romance them, trying to romance their vote. So they are going to be a lot more demanding.

They're going to want to hear a lot more specifics on several issues, education, health care, the war in Iraq, immigration reform, and possibly one of the most important issues for Latinos in Texas is the war on the border. This is a border state that lives very intensely life at the border. They travel there for work, to visit their families, to shop, to eat. So they don't feel like they want to be divided.

Also remember there's generations and generations of Mexicans that have lived in Texas. Some of them cross the border and others just crossed by the border. So they're going to be listening intently to see how Obama and Clinton are going to explain why they voted to support the wall in the first place, and what they're going to do to try to stop it from being built.

BLITZER: All right. Good points. Maria Elena Salinas, thanks very much for coming in.

SALINAS: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Maria Elena is with Univision, our cosponsor in tonight's presidential debate.

So what does Hillary Clinton have to do at tonight's debate to try to turn the tide? That's our question this hour. Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail.

Plus, John McCain's lawyer, he is joining us as well. He's blasting "The New York Times" for its bombshell story about ties between the Republican presidential candidate and a female lobbyist, a story the McCain camp is simply calling a smear.

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


BLITZER: Military experts are tracking debris from the dead satellite destroyed by the U.S. navy missile. It was an unprecedented strike that appears to have been a direct hit. But critics, especially China, are now questioning U.S. motives.

Let's turn to our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre. He's watching the story for us.

What's the latest, Jamie?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, the Pentagon argued that this shoot down of a satellite was not just target practice for U.S. missile defenses but plush with the success, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he believes questions about the technology and whether it works have been answered.


MCINTYRE: It took just three minutes for the SM3 missile to lift off the USS Lake Erie and launch its sophisticated kill vehicle directly into the path of the dud satellite, 150 miles above the Pacific Ocean. From the ground it looked like a bulls-eye, a direct hit on the fuel tank. The sizable explosion along with a spectroanalysis of the resulting vapor cloud indicates the thousands pounds of dangerous hide hydrazine was dispersed harmlessly in space.

GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT, JOINT CHIEFS VICE CHAIRMAN: High definition imagery that we have indicates that we hit the spacecraft right in the area of the tank.

MCINTYRE: The Pentagon is still analyzing the data on the fuel tank, but there's little question the satellite itself was pulverized. No fragments have been tracked that are any bigger than a football. And so far most of the debris seems to be burning up in the atmosphere, posing no hazard to the people on earth.

The Pentagon argues the unprecedented shoot down was not intended as a warning to potential adversaries and that the U.S. has no plans to field satellite killing weapons.

CARTWRIGHT: Will I be able to convince everybody that that's the case? No. But at the end of the day it would have been in our judgment irresponsible to try to not -- to not try to remove some of this risk.

MCINTYRE: Count among the unconvinced Russia and China. Moscow called the shoot down an attempt to move the arms race into space. And China, despite conducting its own anti-satellite test last year, warned about possible harmed and called for more answers from the U.S.

On a stop over at the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded that the U.S. already provide a lot of information before the shoot down and is prepared to do more in the spirit of complete transparency.

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We are prepared to share whatever appropriately we can.


MCINTYRE: As for building anti-satellite weapons, the vice chairman of the joint chief said that the U.S. figured out how to do that 20 years ago and doesn't need to go back and do it again. Wolf, essentially he said been there, done that. BLITZER: All right, Jamie. Jamie's watching this important story for us. Thank you.

There are more than 3,000 satellites in orbit right now. In a future war, some of them would likely be targeted for strikes like yesterdays. Besides military satellites, there are five basic kinds; research satellites gathering data about our atmosphere and outer space, observation satellites monitoring earth's resources as well as pollution, then there are the three types of satellites most of us rely on, including weather, navigation, and communication satellites. A missile strike on any one of those satellites could severely disrupt daily life.

Let's get back to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File." He's watching it for us -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Pretty impressive stuff. You know I would volunteer to help draft the response to China on their demands for an explanation about all this. We can't say it on a television program but I would help write it. It wouldn't take long. It's a couple of words.

The question this hour is: What does Hillary Clinton have to do at tonight's debate to try to turn the tide?

Barbara writes from Georgia: "Hillary Clinton could prove that the experience that she claims for herself was not gained by osmosis from Bill Clinton. Then when she starts belittling Obama with coy remarks about his lack of experience, she might appear more credible. Borrowing the words from an Ernest Tub recording, I think Obama is going to waltz across Texas between now and March 4th."

Steve writes: "Hillary has to show she's better prepared than Obama to show that Obama has great lofty goals but that Hillary has solutions. While experience may not have been a major factor in previous administrations, Bush is living proof of that, the next president steps into a multi-nation, global war on terror, an economic recession and a total lack of trust in government."

Shannon in Bigfoot, Texas: "She had better 'get real' with all the Texans who have no interest in protecting illegal aliens and their illegal activities and tell us what she is going to do to stop the influx, immediately! Both candidates have totally ignored these issues so far. The Texas/Mexico border and the illegal immigration situations have nearly reached the point of all out war in this state."

Lori writes from New York City: "What does Hillary have to do to turn the tide? Well, get misty eyed, of course!"

Jen says: "First of all, Hillary has always used the word 'I' very frequently in her speeches. To the American public, she appears to be self-centered, not referring to others who helped her achieve the goals which she did attain. On the other hand, Barack Obama is a common user of the word 'we' and to the American people that shows inclusion. People are hungry to be included in the political process."

Darren in Michigan says: "Outside of Obama getting caught on Dateline's 'To Catch a Predator,' Clinton's campaign is already doomed."

And Casey in Tennessee points out: "Turn the tide? Didn't that whole lunar eclipse thing do that last night, Jack?" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: See you in a few moments Jack.

Lou Dobbs standing by. He's going to be joining us live.

Also John McCain versus "The New York Times," more on that story. His lawyer answers allegations in that story about alleged ties to a female lobbyist.

Plus, we're counting down to tonight's high stakes Democratic presidential debate. We'll take you live to Austin.

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


BLITZER: Check in with Lou Dobbs to see what's on his mind right now. His show begins in an hour.

Lou, when you take a look at this contest right now, independent voters out there, whether the moderate center on both sides or people who just don't see themselves as Republicans or Democrats, how do you think this is going to break when it comes down to the two person contest?

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, for the two-person contest moving into the general election, you know, I think you've got two candidates who are going to have to move quite a distance to get to the center. Independents in this country live at the center of the country as do most Americans. And these candidates, whether it's Obama, whether it's Clinton, whether it's McCain or even Huckabee, they got a ways to go to get to the center.

BLITZER: Because McCain's reputation out there is really as sort of a maverick and independent. He's gone against the White House on several issues. He's gone against his fellow Republicans on several issues, one of two Republicans to vote against the Bush tax cuts in 2001, as you remember. Only Lincoln Chafee, the former senator from Rhode Island, joined him on the Republican side.

DOBBS: Right.

BLITZER: Does that appeal to the independents out there?

DOBBS: I don't think so. I don't think so at all. I think that maverick thing is - you know I think most Americans and you know all of us can really only speak for ourselves but I truly believe most Americans want reason. They want compassion. And they want people who are concerned about a government that is not representing the majority in this country. They want the national interest represented. Not special interests or ethnocentric interests.

They want the common good represented. And they're desperate for that. I think we all are. The partisanship that is playing out this year, frankly, these candidates, as you know I'm an independent. I'm a populous. I don't have a dog in the hunt as I've said time and time again but I think these are amongst the most disappointing candidates we could have possibly put forward from a nation of 300 million people.

BLITZER: So does that mean a viable third party alternative candidate is not going to necessarily emerge or will emerge?

DOBBS: I happen to believe that a third party candidate will emerge because there is such a void here in leadership and that I think it's almost a certainty.

BLITZER: All right. But it's not going to be Lou Dobbs, right?

DOBBS: Well, as I have said before, you never say never and I might be a candidate last resort but I'm sure as heck not a candidate now. thank you very much.

BLITZER: Lou Dobbs, thanks. We'll see you here on CNN in one hour. Lots of news coming up on his program "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT." Lou, thanks very much.