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THE SITUATION ROOM

Hillary and Barack Prepare for Texas Debate; McCain Defends Integrity

Aired February 21, 2008 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And happening now, John McCain defending his integrity amid reports suggesting he had some questionable ties to a female lobbyist years ago -- "The New York Times" standing by its report, but McCain's campaign saying it's the ultimate smear campaign.
Also, talk calmly or argue fiercely? What might Hillary Clinton do in our debate tonight to try to slow Barack Obama's roll? Only two hours away -- a preview with the best political team on television, that's coming up.

And burning anger, smoldering fires, tempers flared -- there's outrage at the United States as rioters attack the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade. So, what should the U.S. do?

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

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

How you view an unflattering report about John McCain depends on whom you believe. "The New York Times" calling it a fair reporting of the facts that look a long time to research. Some parties, though, mentioned in the piece say it's based part on fantasies, part of a -- quote -- and I'm quoting now -- "a campaign of character assassination." At issue, Senator McCain's connections to a woman who's a lobbyist here in Washington.

CNN's Dana Bash has more -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It sure is, Wolf. You remember, Wolf, when John McCain first ran for president eight years ago, he ran on a promise to clean up corruption and impropriety in politics, just like he is now. Well, a story suggesting that he is actually part of the problem in Washington is a big problem for his campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice over): With his wife by his side, a subdued John McCain issued an unequivocal denial.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm very disappointed in "The New York Times" piece. It's not true.

BASH: That emphatic not true was meant for every suggestion and allegation in this lengthy article, first that he had a romantic relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman.

(on camera): Senator, can you describe your relationship with Vicki Iseman?

J. MCCAIN: We're friends. I have seen her on occasions, particularly at receptions and fund-raisers and appearances before the committee.

BASH (voice over): On that, an assist from Mrs. McCain.

CINDY MCCAIN, WIFE OF JOHN MCCAIN: My children and I not only trust my husband, but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America.

BASH: Then the charge that McCain used his powerful position on the Senate Commerce Committee to help Iseman's corporate clients.

J. MCCAIN: At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust nor make a decision which in any way would not be in the public interest and would favor any one or any organization.

BASH: "The Times" also says eight years ago, during McCain's first presidential run, his advisers were so corn concerned about his relationship with Iseman, they confronted both and tried to block her access. Again, flat denial.

(on camera): Nobody on your campaign said, Senator, she's a problem, don't deal with her ?

J. MCCAIN: No.

BASH (voice over): The one-time source to go on the record is McCain's former top political adviser, John Weaver. He confirms to CNN he was worried and did confront Iseman, but insists it wasn't about a romantic relationship. Rather, that Iseman was spreading word around town that McCain helped her lobbying clients, something Weaver said would undermine McCain's reformer campaign.

"My concern wasn't about anything John had done. It was about her comments. It was about access she claimed to have head," Weaver told CNN.

McCain insists he knew nothing about that.

J. MCCAIN: I never discussed it with John Weaver. And so, as far as I know, there was no necessity for it. But that's a judgment that he made.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, Iseman's lobbying firm issued a statement calling the story, "fantasies of a disgruntled former employee," a campaign employee, I should say, saying it's without merit or foundation. And, Wolf, as for the McCain campaign, the irony here is that they're actually relishing in this controversy, because it allows the candidate who is trying appeal to conservatives to pick a fight with one of their biggest enemies, and that is "The New York Times." In fact, McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, he even issued a fund- raising letter today calling on donors to send money to fight the, "liberal establishment" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks very much.

McCain Republican rival is mostly staying away from this story. But Mike Huckabee did have this to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have campaigned now on the same stage and platform with John McCain for 14 months. I only know him to be a man of integrity. Today, he denied that any of that was true. I take him at his word. I have no further comment, other than that. I think for me to get into it is completely immaterial. Again, I only know him what I know him to be, and that's a good, and decent, honorable man.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Huckabee gave what's being called a never-surrender message over at the Alamo in Texas today, but it was largely overshadowed by the headlines involving John McCain. And we are going to have more on the McCain story coming up. His attorney, Robert Bennett, will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In just under two hours, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will do what they have only done once, debate one on one. It will be right here on CNN. It will be a substantive discussion, but sparks could fly now that Obama has beaten Clinton in 11 straight contests, and now that some people think Clinton must win in Texas.

Our senior political correspondence, Candy Crowley, is joining us now from Austin. She's watching the story.

How are both camps getting ready for this big debate less than two hours from now, Candy?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're talking with their aides. They have -- they do have practice session, although they're fairly loose, not exactly the way it's going to be tonight, but obviously both sides know that this is a very, very critical time for them.

The polls are close here in Texas. Time is running out, and there's not that much difference between the two of them in terms of delegate count, a very, very big time for both of them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY (voice over): A laid-back day belies a high-stakes night.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not a game. It's debate day. CROWLEY: For Barack Obama, now 11-0 with today's results from Americans abroad, the plan is this: do not fumble. Stick with what brought you to the game.

OBAMA: It's time to move beyond the politics of yesterday, because we are the party of tomorrow. We're going forward.

CROWLEY: And come prepared to play defense. Since last they met, he has been criticized for backtracking on taking federal campaign funds in the fall, not being full transparent about his business relationship with a now jailed land developer, and stealing words from a friend. All story lines the Clinton campaign has been pushing as part of her central theme that he is all rally and words, that she is experience and results.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's time that we moved from good words to good works, from sound bites to sound solutions.

(APPLAUSE)

CROWLEY: Having lost 11 straight, her game plan is as tricky as the time is crucial. She needs to be aggressive enough to slow him down. But too negative, and she looks like the old Washington the team that he's running against. Her main objective, go on offense, but don't go ugly. The dynamic will be something to watch. The Wisconsin primary featured the first negative ads of the season.

NARRATOR: Why won't Barack Obama debate these differences? Wisconsin deserves better.

NARRATOR: Tired of the same old politics? Vote for change we can believe in.

CROWLEY: But TV is one thing. Democrats have shown an aversion to nasty when the two share the stage. So who shows up tonight, the Bickersons of Myrtle Beach...

CLINTON: Slum landlord business.

OBAMA: A corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart.

CROWLEY: ... or the cooing couple of Los Angeles?

CLINTON: We're having -- we're having such a good time.

OBAMA: I wouldn't call it a swipe.

CLINTON: We're having such a good time. We are. We are. We're having a wonderful time.

OBAMA: Yes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: Atmospherics and issues, both, Wolf, tonight should be pretty interesting.

BLITZER: Candy Crowley watching this story for us -- Candy, thanks very much.

Please be sure to join us in about two hours from now, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama take part in that CNN debate in Austin. It's co-sponsored by Univision and the Texas Democratic Party. It airs on CNN beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, airs later tonight in Spanish on Univision. Journalists from CNN and Univision will asks the questions. CNN's Campbell Brown will moderate the debate.

Police have finally gotten things under control in Serbia, but only after rioters ransacked parts of the United States Embassy in Belgrade. Mass demonstrators smashed windows, set fires, and tried to pull down a U.S. flag. Afterwards, officials say a charred and burned body was found inside. An official says it appears to be the body of one of those protesters caught in the fire.

The State Department says the person was not an American, that all the Americans are safe. The State Department calls Serbian security at the embassy, "inadequate." Rioters are upset that Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia on Sunday. The United States government is among the nations recognizing that independence.

Let's turn now to Jack Cafferty. He has got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Wolf. President Clinton, the former president, says that if his wife doesn't win Texas in a week-and-a-half, it's over. And in case you have forgotten, Bill Clinton knows a thing or two about campaigns and elections. At the moment, polls show Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama practically tied in Texas. And, while she hopes to get a big share of the Latino vote, there are factors in Texas that actually might tend to favor Barack Obama.

For example, Texas has its own unique system where two-thirds of the delegates are decided on the primary results and the remaining one third are actually based on the results of caucuses that take place that same night. And Obama has killed Clinton in every caucus state but one. That was Nevada. And he even managed to win more delegates than she got in that one.

Texas is also an open primary. That means independents, Republicans can vote for the Democrats, if they want to. We have seen this type of contest work to Obama's advantage big-time time and time again. Think Wisconsin. And Texas Democrats have a weird system that rewards parts of the state that have voted heavily Democratic in the past with more delegates, places like Dallas and Houston, which, coincidentally, have lots of African-Americans, and Austin, which has a lot of white liberal. Advantage Obama.

On the other hand, low Latino turnout for Democrats in the last two elections means that some of those districts are awarded as few as two delegates each.

So, here's the question: Bill Clinton says if his wife doesn't win Texas, her candidacy is doomed. Is he right?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I have got a blog too, you know.

CAFFERTY: I know. What did you write about today?

BLITZER: CNNPolitics.com. McCain.

CAFFERTY: You wrote -- what did you say about that story?

BLITZER: You will have to read it, CNNPolitics.com.

CAFFERTY: I don't want to -- I'm busy. I don't have time. Tell me what you said.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: No, no, no. Read it. You will learn something. Thanks, Jack.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: John McCain's lawyer comes out swinging.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT BENNETT, ATTORNEY FOR JOHN MCCAIN: If you really analyze the story, it's like a big piece of cotton candy. When you bite into it, there's not -- there's not much there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Washington attorney Robert Bennett, he's been around a long time. He talks to me about the headline-grabbing controversy involving his client. That would be Senator McCain. So, why he says "The New York Times" got it wrong is important. We will hear what Robert Bennett has to say.

Plus, keeping tabs, why the U.S. military wants to make sure it scored a bullseye when it shot a malfunctioning spy satellite out of the sky -- lots more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now, John McCain's presidential campaign is fiercely beating back reports that are unflattering, to say the least, to the candidate. They include suggestions that Senator McCain gave special treatment to a Washington lobbyist several years ago and claims that some former aides actually worried McCain might have had a romantic relationship with the female lobbyist.

Robert Bennett is a lawyer. He's representing Senator McCain. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's also the author of a brand-new book entitled "In The Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer." What timing, to go come out with a book right at a moment like this. And we will talk about that shortly. But thanks for coming in.

BENNETT: Thank you, Wolf, for having me.

BLITZER: Now, let's talk a little bit about some of these allegations in "The New York Times"...

BENNETT: Sure.

BLITZER: ... and now followed up in "The Washington Post" as well.

BENNETT: Yes.

BLITZER: "The Washington Post" has a front-page story entitled "McCain Ties to Lobbyists Worried Aides." Among other things in "The Post," they say this morning, Members of the senator's small circle of advisers also confronted McCain directly, according to sources, warning him that his continued ties to a lobbyist who had business before the powerful Commerce Committee he chaired threatened to derail his presidential ambitions.

Now, he denies that. He denies that anyone confronted him about this among his senior staff. This is what he said earlier today. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Some of your aides intervened and confronted not just Ms. Iseman, but you in particular, saying, stop seeing her, don't have a relationship with her because this is going to hurt her. Are you saying that did not happen?

MCCAIN: I don't know if it happened at their level. It certainly didn't happen to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. So there's a discrepancy right there. Based on what you know, what's the truth?

BENNETT: Well, I don't know what the truth is. I take the senator at his word. But I can tell you when I looked into this, his senior staff also said that it had not occurred.

BLITZER: They do have in "The Washington Post," in this article by Jeffrey Birnbaum and Michael Shear, a direct quote from John Weaver, who had been one of his top advisers. He was let go last summer when his campaign was in trouble.

John Weaver, who was McCain's closest confidante until leaving his current campaign last year, said he met with Vicki Iseman -- the Washington lobbyist -- at the Center Cafe at Union Station here in Washington and urged her to stay away from McCain. Association with a lobbyist would undermine his image as an opponent of special interests, aides had concluded. Now, that's a direct quote from Weaver. It's not -- it's not some anonymous source.

BENNETT: But I understand that what Weaver said was it was not because he was concerned about a relationship, but that he had come to this understand that this lady lobbyist had made some statements to other people about her access to McCain. But Wolf, at some point in this I would like to tell you what's wrong with this story.

BLITZER: All right. Tell me right now.

BENNETT: Yes. There's a number of things wrong. First...

BLITZER: "The New York Times" story or "The Washington Post" story?

BENNETT: Well, with both stories.

BLITZER: OK.

BENNETT: Principally the "New York Times" story. We sat down -- I sat down with the reporters and spoke with them, and also staff and I submitted answers to their many written questions. We showed them maybe 10 to 12 instances where Senator McCain refused to do the things being asked of him by her lobbying firm and her, where he just declined. That's point number one. That never makes its way into the story. And I don't think that's fair.

Two, there is nothing to suggest in the story that any decision by John McCain, whether it benefited a client of this lobbying firm, or whether it did not, was ever contrary to the public interest.

BLITZER: There's one suggestion in "The Washington Post" and in "The New York Times" that he wrote a letter to the FCC on behalf of some Pittsburgh television stations trying to get a ruling on whether they could merge.

BENNETT: Well, he wasn't trying to get a particular ruling.

BLITZER: Just a decision. He wanted them to make a decision.

BENNETT: Which they were in their 800th day of not deciding. And it's perfectly appropriate. It happens every day, for members of Congress to nudge the bureaucracy along. I would point out that this is something like an eight-year-old incident. And it's just recycled from years ago. But there's nothing to suggest there was anything improper in that request.

BLITZER: Because if the chairman of the Commerce Committee writes a letter to the FCC, which it overseas, obviously that's going to have some impact.

BENNETT: And it should have some impact. That's one of the things we want members of Congress to do, to keep as part of their responsibilities to keep the bureaucracy honest. BLITZER: Let me read to you the statement that Bill Keller of "The New York Times" put out.

BENNETT: Yes.

BLITZER: And then you will respond.

"On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself. On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready. 'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats. This story was no exception."

So what are you saying about Bill Keller and his team at "The New York Times"?

BENNETT: Well, I'm not -- I'm not really questioning when they released it personally. What I'm saying is I think they went with the story before -- before they had the evidence. If you really analyze the story, it's like a big piece of cotton candy. When you bite into it, there's not -- there's not much there.

BLITZER: And the same for "The Washington Post"?

BENNETT: Yes, I think so. And when they did up the Keating Five, which, you know, I don't want to sound arrogant -- I think I know more about that than anybody. I was counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee. And even though I'm a registered Democrat, I recommended that McCain be exonerated.

And I will tell you, Wolf, after investigating John McCain for a year and a half and looking under every rock, I concluded he was an honest man. And I basically, because of that, recommended his exoneration, which I should add in full disclosure was not accepted by the committee.

BLITZER: Robert Bennett's book is entitled "In The Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer." And you have had a lot of trials over the years. We're going to continue this conversation Sunday on LATE EDITION. Thanks very much for coming in.

BENNETT: Thank you for having me, Wolf. I appreciate it.

BLITZER: And we're going to have a lot more on the McCain story coming up as well, including questions about "The New York Times" article. Stand by for that. The McCain camp is fighting back against the newspaper and its anonymous sources -- the full story on that here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, a strong earthquake rattles the Western United States. Buildings swayed and, in the words of one woman, it was the scariest thing ever.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: A presidential candidate vs. one of the nation's biggest newspapers, questions and controversy over controversial sources and just what "The New York Times" should have published. We will get the inside story -- Howard Kurtz standing by.

And damage control -- will the controversy involving John McCain devastate his campaign or rally conservatives around him? The best political team on television taking a closer look.

One week after Super Tuesday, the votes are in from a primary overseas. You're going to find out which candidate wins in the Democrats-abroad global primary.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, John McCain lashing out at "The New York Times," saying its story about his relationship with a female lobbyist is -- quote -- "not true." We look at how much it could hurt. Could it even help his campaign? We're watching this story.

And how will this impact the conservative vote our there? The counterattack from Rush Limbaugh coming in. And Mike Huckabee, he is watching this story unfold as well. The best political team on television is set to weigh in on all of this.

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

"The New York Times" is taking lots of heat right now over its story alleging questionable ties between John McCain and a female lobbyist, not least of all for the timing of the story.

Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES," is watching this story closely.

All right. What are you picking up? Because this is a very, very controversial development in this political campaign.

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No question about it, Wolf. Four "New York Times" reporters have been working on this story for months. And, in today's media culture, the paper's critics and the McCain campaign are trying to make "The Times" the issue.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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.

J. MCCAIN: I do notice, with some interest, that its -- quote -- "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 more than a close Washington friendship. But the suggestion of an illicit relationship has made "The Times" into a -- subjected "The Times" to a fierce counterattack by some conservatives -- Wolf. BLITZER: And there's also a story now in "The New Republic" suggesting there was this huge internal debate in the newsroom of "The New York Times" before this story was published. What are you hearing about that?

KURTZ: Well, there certainly was a lot of discussion between editors and reporters, Wolf, over the timing and the content and the tone of this story before it appeared on "The Times" Web site last night. My sources are telling me that that is not unusual at a major newspaper with a big piece, particularly one involving a presidential candidate and a woman and as sensitive a subject as this.

BLITZER: It doesn't get a lot more sensitive than this. All right, thanks very much.

Howie Kurtz, the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES," joining us. He's going to have good material Sunday morning for his own show.

So how damaging is this "New York Times" article for the McCain campaign? Joining us now from New York to talk about that and more, our senior analyst, Jeff Toobin; our own Jack Cafferty; and our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. They're all part of the best political team on television.

What's the answer? What do you think, Jack? How damaging, potentially, could this be?

CAFFERTY: Well, potentially it could be very damaging. A couple of quick points on Howie's piece. Newsrooms that don't have arguments and discussions about sensitive pieces before they're put into papers or broadcast on the air are news organizations you don't want to go within 10 miles of because they're no good. That's part of the process.

The other point is, it isn't about whether he and this lobbyist had a romantic relationship. That has nothing to do with anything. Nobody cares,, except if it's true, I'm sure his wife would be disappointed.

The issue is whether she had extra access or access that was somehow improper when he was the head of the Senate Commerce Commission and whether with that access she was able to gain advantage for her clients who had business before the Senate Commerce Committee. It has nothing to do with whether or not he had something going on on the side. Nobody cares.

BLITZER: You've studied thinks kinds of stories, Gloria, for a long time.

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BORGER: Well, it's sort of hard to parse it. It's a really long piece. Obviously, there were arguments in the newsroom about this. I can't question, as Bay Buchanan did earlier, "The New York Times'" motives. I think when a newspaper is ready to run a story, you know, it runs a story. But there are two stories here -- the question of an illicit affair, which, as Jack says, what is that?

Who cares about that, except Evangelical conservative voters, perhaps? But the other question is, John McCain is a reformer. That is his brand. Did he play favorites with any lobbyist? And the question is, did "The Times" prove that? And the answer is not so sure, because did John McCain just ask for regulatory clarity to speed up a process that had already taken twice as long as it should take?

Yes, he did that. Is that a favor? Does he do that for tons of lobbyists? Do all senators do that for tons of lobbyists? Of course they do.

BLITZER: And let's not forget, Jeff, that before the New York Republican primary, "The New York Times," on its editorial page, endorsed John McCain. They slammed Rudy Giuliani, the New Yorker, in the process. So this is the same newspaper, which has got quite a sensational story today, but also endorsed him only a few weeks ago.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I have to say, I have to question how sensational the story is. I don't think there is much damaging material in this story. I think there is an innuendo of a relationship between McCain and this woman. And as for any connection to favors, boy, I didn't see it even asserted, much less proved.

But I have to disagree with Jack and Gloria, who are dismissing the idea that an affair is of any significance. I mean come on. It may be of no significance to you, but this is still the United States, the country where Monica Lewinsky lives --

BORGER: Well --

TOOBIN: And if John McCain was proved to have an illicit relationship, for good or ill, that would have been a huge story and you know it.

BORGER: Can I just say something --

CAFFERTY: Then how do you account for Bill Clinton's approval ratings when he left office, after Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment being at the height of his eight years in office? I just don't think the public cares.

TOOBIN: Well, it --

BORGER: Well, can I --

TOOBIN: He was also impeached in the interim. So it was quite a -- it was quite an inconvenience.

BORGER: OK, but...

CAFFERTY: And he still had high approval ratings. BORGER: But can I just say, I don't think it's about the affairs with Bill Clinton, although, it may have -- it's about the lying and the question of the lying. And today John McCain did something that was very important. He stood up in that press conference and he denied bluntly all charges of whether he had an illicit relationship with this woman and whether he played favorites with this woman, in terms of her lobbying and her clients.

CAFFERTY: It reminds you of that line...

BORGER: Very --

CAFFERTY: ... I did not have sexual relations with that woman...

BORGER: He put --

CAFFERTY: ... doesn't it?

BORGER: But he put himself out on a limb here. I talked to a top McCain adviser today who said to me, John McCain would never go out and lie. So he has put himself on the line. These stories tend to get legs. We'll have to see what happens next.

BLITZER: One of his fiercest critics, Rush Limbaugh, who's been very critical of John McCain over the years, Jack, he said this today.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: It's a great opportunity here for Senator McCain to learn the right lesson and understand who his friends are and who his enemies are. And he's had that backwards for way too long.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Jack, what do you think?

CAFFERTY: Oh, Rush Limbaugh is just making a lot of noise, as usual. They're -- they were running a very serious risk of becoming totally irrelevant in this campaign. Now, all of a sudden, McCain needs the conservatives and the conservatives can support the candidacy of McCain in the face of attacks by that three-headed monster, "The New York Times." I mean that's just caca (ph).

BLITZER: Gloria, do you --

TOOBIN: Well, maybe --

BLITZER: All right, let me just bring in Gloria and then Jeff.

The Mike Huckabee factor in all of this -- he's been staying in the race, seemingly without any good reason given the math involved. But he said he believes in miracles. He says maybe there could be a YouTube moment... (LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: ... referring maybe to a Macaca moment, if you will. Do you think he was waiting for something, Gloria, like this to happen?

BORGER: You know, I don't know. I know that there were rumors about this story going way back before Christmas, when it was on the "Drudge Report," actually, or the rumor that "The New York Times" was working on this piece. So it was no secret in all the other campaigns that some story about John McCain might come out. I mean, you know, who knows what's in Mike Huckabee's mind at this point. I really don't.

BLITZER: What do you think, Jeff?

TOOBIN: Well, barring some additional disclosure, I think this story is going to go away very quickly, because I just don't think there's anything much there to talk about. I don't think there's -- I was surprised by McCain's denunciation of the story as false. There isn't really an accusation there to be -- to be false. I just think it's actually -- it's a one or a one-and-a-half day story.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, guys. We're going to continue this -- not this story.

But we've got other stories to talk about, including a big debate that's coming up right here on CNN. She has a tremendous amount riding on tonight's CNN debate. So how will Hillary Clinton present herself? You're going to find out why it could make all the difference as she faces off with Barack Obama in just a little bit more than an hour from now.

Plus, why Texans get to vote, twice.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

H. CLINTON: Well, I have to agree with everything Barack just said. Because I have a three step plan to bring the troops home starting now. You said two things.

OBAMA: You just spoke --

H. CLINTON: You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan...

OBAMA: Hillary, I'm sorry --

H. CLINTON: ... and you talked about the ideas of the...

OBAMA: You just spoke --

BLITZER: Senators... H. CLINTON: ... Republicans. I didn't talk about Ronald Reagan.

OBAMA: Hillary --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Very different sides of Hillary Clinton and her debate style. Let's discuss.

Jack, what do you think? Which Hillary Clinton do you want to see tonight?

CAFFERTY: It doesn't matter what I want to see. But I think the pressure tonight is on Barack Obama. She has nothing to lose in this thing. They've had 18 debates and she's lost 11 contests in a row. She can throw it all at the wall and see if anything sticks. All he has to do is avoid making the big mistake. And so I think he's probably under a little more pressure than she is. And it may or may not -- this could be a big yawn, but it could get ugly, as they say.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Yes, as you say. All right, go ahead, Gloria.

BORGER: I actually -- I actually think she's got a hard job tonight, because, as Jack says, all he has to do is not make a mistake. She's got to get under his skin. She's got to get to him. She's got to differentiate herself from him without appearing to be nasty, without appearing to be getting negative. And that's a really, really fine line to walk for anyone, much less a woman up against someone who's as good as Barack Obama.

BLITZER: What do you think, Jeff?

TOOBIN: You know, Wolf, there was a conference call for reporters yesterday with the leadership of the Clinton campaign -- Mark Penn, Harold Ickes and others. And I was really struck by the fact that there didn't appear to be any new ideas, new themes to be explored.

BORGER: Right.

CAFFERTY: Correct.

TOOBIN: You know, they were talking about that she's ready on day one to be commander-in-chief, to solve the problems in the economy. I just don't know what she's going to do that's different. I think she's tried being harsh in South Carolina. She's tried being nice in Los Angeles and she keeps losing. So I just think it's a very tough road for her.

BORGER: How about just trying to be yourself, finally?

TOOBIN: Well, I mean...

BORGER: You know -- TOOBIN: ... I don't think that's really fair. I mean, you know, these are all about strategy. I mean you have to decide whether you're going to attack the opponent. You can be yourself attacking or not attacking.

BORGER: Right. But I think she's had a little bit of trouble. She said after New Hampshire she found her voice. And maybe she did. But I'm not sure we've seen it again. And I think, you know, the question is --

CAFFERTY: Or that anybody is listening to her.

BLITZER: Jack...

TOOBIN: Yes, well, but...

BORGER: Well, (INAUDIBLE).

TOOBIN: ... maybe no one likes her voice.

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: I mean she keeps losing.

BLITZER: Who's the better debater, do you think, Jack?

CAFFERTY: Oh, I don't know. You know, Barama -- Barama! Obama has rhetorical skills that even surpass yours, Wolf. I mean he's even more capable of moving an audience than you are. She, quite frankly, is a little cumbersome to listen to. She's bright, smart as a whip. She has great command of minutiae and facts and details. But the risk she runs when she turns that faucet on is that you want to get a nap.

BLITZER: Some Democrats fear -- and I'll just put it out there, Gloria, that if she goes after Barack Obama too much, she, in effect, is doing work for John McCain.

BORGER: Right. And we've already seen that John McCain has picked up on a lot of her themes, most notably ready to be commander- in-chief, inexperienced and all the rest. You know, I actually think, Wolf, that she is quite a good debater, but he's better at having a conversation.

And it depends on what kind of debate they're going to have tonight. Are they going to sit around the table and just have a conversation? He's good. But if she's making points, she's pretty good at that.

TOOBIN: I think it's to his advantage that they will be sitting around a table and not at podiums.

BORGER: Yes.

TOOBIN: I think it's very hard to be negative when you're sitting right next to someone. Remember, the South Carolina debate...

BORGER: I have no problem with it with you.

TOOBIN: Yes, that's true.

(LAUGHTER)

TOOBIN: Well, you're just such a difficult person, you know, that --

BLITZER: All right, guys. In a little bit more than an hour from now, we'll watch this debate unfold right here on CNN.

Jeff, thank you. Gloria, thanks to you. Jack, we've got "The Cafferty File" still to come.

In Texas, Democratic voters can support their candidate not once, but twice -- once in a primary and once in a caucus. Let's bring in our Internet report, Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, how are the candidates getting their supporters up to the speed -- the speed on this complicated process?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Right, Wolf, as you said, in Texas, it is complicated. You can vote now in early voting or on March 4th. But whenever you vote, you can caucus for your candidate, as well. And these two, locked in battle for the state delegates, are making sure their supporters know exactly how it works.

For the Barack Obama campaign, they're calling this the Texas two step. And he was at this rally on Tuesday, in front of almost 20,000 people in Houston, instructing them on how to vote early, how to vote on March 4th and how to caucus.

And online, they've been recruiting volunteers to the caucus process. That's a process that has benefited Barack Obama so far. For Hillary Clinton, the real push right now is on voting early. She's been holding these rallies around the state at nearby, early vote locations and making sure everyone has this information online.

Early voting in Texas started on Tuesday. The Texas secretary of state's office says that turnout so far has been higher than in recent elections -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi. Thank you.

Let's check in with Lou to see what's coming up at the top of the hour.

He's got a preview -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thank you.

Coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern here, much more on what's at stake for these senators in tonight's presidential debate between Obama and Clinton right here on CNN.

We'll also be finding out whether the candidates will address an issue of concern to all Americans and in particular Texans -- the Trans-Texas Corridor of the NAFTA Super Highway.

And we'll be examining the role of Independent and Latino voters in this critically important Texas primary and caucus.

Also tonight, troubling new evidence of the worsening impact of our economic slowdown. Many middle class families defaulting now on their car payments. Repossessions are soaring. We'll have the story.

And the United States Navy has destroyed a disabled satellite. Incredibly, the Pentagon saying today it will share information about that shoot down with a nation protesting the shoot down. You guessed it -- Communist China.

What in the world is our government thinking? We'll be talking about that and reporting on it. And we'll be examining whether "The New York Times" went too far with too little in reporting on Senator McCain.

Please join us, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN, for all of that, much more, and, of course, all the day's news -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Lou, for that.

It's a primary that's not necessarily all that much talked about, but it still counts as a win. We're going to show you which Democratic candidate came ahead in the Democrats Abroad contest, the global primary. People all over the world participating, American citizens specifically.

And in today's political ticker, we'll show you what's going on there, as well.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In today's political ticker, make that 11 straight wins for Barack Obama. He apparently has appeal around the world, as Democrats living in other countries overwhelmingly picked him in a global primary. Democrats Abroad is a group approved by the Democratic Party. And Obama won about 65 percent of the vote.

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

CAFFERTY: I didn't even know they were out there. Democrats around the world?

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: It takes about two weeks for them to do their voting.

CAFFERTY: Yes. And he got 65 percent. She's got her work cut out for her. Bill Clinton says if his wife doesn't win Texas, her candidacy is doomed.

The question is: Is he right?

Andrew writes: "There's no doubt. Texas is, quite apparently, Hillary Clinton's Alamo. Not only is she falling behind in the delegate count, the recent primaries in Virginia and Wisconsin have raised questions about the loyalty of her base. If she can't decisively win among Latinos and working class Americans on March 4th, there is no reason for her to continue."

Blake in Texas writes: "I think so. However, I do intend to help get Hillary a Texas victory. I think she's a well-respected leader and has the necessary experience. I think Hillary is in the position she's in -- a losing one -- because the media have focused all their attention on Obama."

Dan in Colorado: "Actually, he's wrong, Jack. She's already lost. To go from so far ahead to be losing at this point in time makes it clear that she's already lost and is only staying in for her own ego."

Uche writes from Brooklyn: "He's right, Jack. For the first time in this campaign, Bill Clinton is right."

A Texan in Fort Worth weighs in, saying: "It's doomed. Texas won't support Hillary. Too many people down here despise Clinton politics and remember Bill for all the wrong reasons. Any margin of error is skewed."

Bibi in Texas: "Pretty much. I hope Texans don't drink the Kool- Aid and that they vote for the most qualified candidate. There are too many red flags on the Obama side."

And J. writes from State College, Pennsylvania: "Of course. Like they say, everything is bigger in Texas -- that includes the stakes for Hillary." -- Wolf.

BLITZER: See you tomorrow, Jack. Thank you. Thanks very much.

Coming up, a Moost Unusual look at what some pundits call Obama- mania.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It brings new meaning to the term infectious enthusiasm.

Jeanne Moss has a Moost Unusual look at how Barack Obama's supporters react to the candidate's every move.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They flock to see him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Obama. Obama.

MOOS: They repeat his name.

UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: Obama. Obama.

MOOS: Hopped up on hope, moving and ready to be moved emotionally. We like to call it swooning over Obama.

OBAMA: Thank you so much. Thank you.

MOOS: But it was the candidate's head cold that brought things to a head for us.

OBAMA: Some of you here, I've got a little bit of a head cold.

MOOS: Now, Hillary has had coughing fits and gotten sympathetic laughter. But when Barack Obama blew his nose in front of 17,000 supporters in Dallas...

OBAMA: I'm going to blow my nose here for a second...

(APPLAUSE)

MOOS: There were was murmur of applause and a bit of a chant -- for a nose blow? Talk about contagious -- it's practically religious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe in Senator Barack Obama?

MOOS: He's bathed in light. They hand him flowers. Hands reach out touch him -- cue the angels. His 2-year-old cartoon was prophetic. The media ought to do a story about all the fawning over Barack Obama. That is the media.

(on camera): After all, we in the press worship words -- especially well delivered ones.

(voice-over): Just listen to MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: The feeling most people get when they hear Barack Obama speak, my -- I felt this thrill going up my leg.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well...

MATTHEWS: I mean I don't have that too often.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... Well, let's talk about that feeling Chris gets up his leg when Obama talks, for starters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. No. No, no.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And it's all running down my leg and all this...

MOOS: The Obama swoon leaves some over the moon. And Obama loves us in Spanish. Listen to the theme song on the Web site Amigosofobama.

UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: Viva Obama!

UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: Viva!

UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: Viva Obama!

MOOS: Viva Obama despite the head cold.

OBAMA: If you're ready for change...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ready!

MOOS: Ready to change not just issues, but tissues.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: You've helped make our politics pod cast one of the most popular on iTunes. To get the best political team to go, you can subscribe at CNNPolitics.com or go to iTunes. You can also read my daily blog post -- CNNPolitics.com. Thanks very much for joining us.

Remember, in one hour the CNN debate in Austin, Texas -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. That's coming up one hour from now.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

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

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