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McCain Under Fire; Interview With New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez; Obama Fact Check; Who Scored More Points During the Democratic Debate?

Aired February 22, 2008 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, Hillary Clinton hopes that debating Barack Obama one on one will slow his momentum. But she faces some tough expectations. And a tragedy throws Senator Clinton's campaign off- kilter.

John McCain says he won't personally talk anymore about reports suggesting he had some questionable ties to a female lobbyist. But the White House is talking, and a new report suggests McCain is actually contradicting himself on one critical point.

And McCain responds to another controversy as well, the Arizona co-chairman of his presidential campaign now accused of abusing his power as a United States congressman and allegedly being paid for helping a scam. So, how is McCain reacting? All that coming us, plus the best political team on television.

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

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

They came, they sparred, but who will conquer? Right now, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton hope to build on their debate performances last night. He's holding rallies in Texas. She's campaigning there and in Ohio. But one of them canceled some plans due to a tragedy.

Let's go to CNN's senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a solid night for Hillary Clinton turned into a rocky day at so many levels.


CROWLEY (voice over): They parted well.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No matter what happens in this contest -- and I am honored -- I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored.

CROWLEY: And both felt good enough about how the debate went they did a little evening celebrating. SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I promise you we will not just win Texas. We will win this nomination. We will win this general election.

CROWLEY: They are looking at different crystal balls.

CLINTON: We are going to not only pick a nominee right here in Texas, but we are going to lay the groundwork for a great campaign this fall.

CROWLEY: Daylight was less forgiving than the night. The morning papers brought news she has lost ground in her must-win states. Her lead shrinking to seven points in Ohio, a tie in Texas.

Another story about money problems questioned her campaign's spending, including a single day expenditure of almost $100,000 on pre-caucus party food. But outside the disappointing news in her political world there was real life tragedy -- the death of a motorcycle policeman escorting the Clinton motorcade in Dallas.

CLINTON: We are just heartsick over this loss of life in the line of duty.

CROWLEY: A sobering tragedy which took its toll on the day. She moved forward with the Dallas event, pitching a central theme of her campaign -- her experience in a perilous world.

CLINTON: The president has to be ready and prepared to make decisions sometimes in a split second. You know, I have been honored to represent all of you traveling around the world to more than 80 countries. I know a lot of the leaders. I know a lot of the influential people in these countries.

CROWLEY: But she told an audience in Fort Worth it wasn't a time for politics and went to visit the dead officer's family.

Campaigning in southern Texas for most of the day, Barack Obama was taking some incoming about his statement that he would meet with the new Cuban leader without a change in behavior.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And again, I think it's naive to think that you can sit down and have unconditional talking with a person who is part of a government that has been a state sponsor of terrorism, not only in the hemisphere, but throughout the world.


CROWLEY: The Obama campaign shot back that McCain wants to continue with a 50-year-old failed U.S. policy that has not helped U.S. interests or the Cuban people.

Obama, in a written statement, went on to say that he is confident the American people this fall will choose the promise of the future -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy Crowley, reporting for us, thank you.

In the Republican race, lingering questions about ties to a female lobbyist following John McCain. He says he wants to move on, but that doesn't appear to be happening, at least not yet.

CNN's Dana Bash reporting from Indianapolis -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one of the golden rules of political damage control is to show you're not afraid to answer questions about a controversy, but then you try to move on.

John McCain is trying to do just that.


BASH (voice over): At a town hall in Indianapolis, it was all about changing the subject. John McCain tried to do that with tough talk on Cuba, so tough he even suggested he wants Fidel Castro to die.

MCCAIN: As you know, Fidel Castro announced that he would not remain as president. Whatever that means. And -- but -- and I hope he has the opportunity to meet Karl Marx very soon.

BASH: But on "The New York Times" story suggesting he had an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist, which enveloped his campaign a day earlier, McCain refused to answer more questions.

MCCAIN: I had a press conference yesterday morning. I answered every question. I do not intend to discuss it further.

BASH: That, even as President Bush's spokesman attacked "The New York Times," accusing the paper of intentionally trying to torpedo GOP presidential candidates.

"'The New York Times' does try to drop a bombshell on the Republican nominee," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "That is something that the Republican nominee has faced in the past and will probably face in this campaign."

MCCAIN: My campaign is not doing that anymore.

BASH: McCain wants to move on, but the story has turned a spotlight on the lobbyists and insiders who play key roles in his campaign. Of McCain's five top advisers, two, Rick Davis and Charlie Black, are senior partners in Washington lobbying firms. Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon do not lobby but work for firms that do.

MCCAIN: I'm proud to have them as part of my team.

BASH: The man running against Washington's special interests says there's nothing wrong with having advisers who lobby.

MCCAIN: It's not whether the individuals, many of whom are very honorable. It's whether a system or people have violated the trust of the people as the representatives.


BASH: One senior adviser, Charlie Black, still actively lobbies Congress while he works for the McCain campaign. Black tells CNN he helps McCain strictly on a volunteer basis and insists he never lobbies McCain, whom he's known for 30 years, on any issue for a client -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana Bash reporting from Indianapolis, thank you.

John McCain is also being asked about another controversy, but this one does not involve him. It does involve in Arizona co-chairman of his presidential campaign. That would be Congressman Rick Renzi of Arizona, who was indicted today for his alleged role in a scam.

This is how Senator McCain reacted to the news today.


MCCAIN: I don't know enough of the details or anything to make a judgment. This kind of thing is always -- is always very unfortunate. I rely on our Department of Justice and our system of justice to make the right outcome.


BLITZER: CNN's Brianna Keilar is joining us now with more on what Congressman Renzi is accused of doing.

Brianna, it's a list of scathing allegations.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, Wolf, the charges are serious enough that Congressman Renzi is not finding support from Republican leaders.


KEILAR (voice over): Arizona Republican Congressman Rick Renzi now facing 35 criminal charges, including conspiracy, money laundering, extortion, and insurance fraud, and the possibility of time behind bars.

DIANE HUMETEWA, U.S. ATTORNEY: Each of these are felony counts. So each of them are very serious. The penalties range from -- they are statutory penalties, mind you -- range from 10 to 20 years in prison and up to a fine of $250,000.

KEILAR: The government accuses Renzi of using his official position in Congress for financial gain. Federal prosecutors say Renzi insisted that a group of Arizona land investors buy property owned by Renzi's former business partner, James Sandlin. In exchange, Renzi would make sure the investors got congressional approval for a federal land deal they wanted.

The indictment says Renzi told investors, no Sandlin Property, no bill and promised a free pass for the land deal through the House of Representatives. Prosecutors say the deal made Sandlin $4. 6 million richer and allowed Sandlin to pay off a $700,000 debt he owed Renzi. And they allege Renzi covered up the flow of money into his personal bank account.

ANDREA WHALEN, IRS CRIMINAL DIVISION: The highly intricate investigation we are talking about today required agents to trace the flow of funds through numerous corporations and business entities, and an array of personal and business bank accounts.

KEILAR: The indictment also says Renzi misused money from his business, an insurance company, taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in clients' insurance premiums and funneling the money into his campaign account.

Renzi denies the charges. His lawyer issued a statement saying: "Congressman Renzi did nothing wrong. We will fight these charges until he is vindicated and his family's name is restored."


KEILAR: Republican Leader John Boehner called these charges completely unacceptable for a member of Congress and is urging Congressman Renzi to seriously consider if he can effectively serve in Congress -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, what's the next legal step in this process?

KEILAR: At this point, Renzi is scheduled to be arraigned in a federal magistrate court in Tucson, Arizona. That's on March 6, so about two weeks from now. Also being arraigned, his former business partner and also a Renzi lawyer who allegedly had a hand in the insurance fraud part of this case -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna, thank you very much.

We want to take a look at some other current and former members of Congress who have been embroiled in scandal. In 2006, former California Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham was sentenced to just more than eight years in federal prison for taking more than $2 million in bribes. Officials say it's the highest sentence ever for a former member of Congress.

Last March, former Republican Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio pleaded guilty to corruption charges. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Currently, the FBI is investigating taped conversations between Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and an oil company executive. And Louisiana Democratic Congressman William Jefferson was indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges, among them, that he took more than $500,000 in bribes.

Jack Cafferty is off today. He will be back on Monday.

Hillary Clinton accusing Barack Obama of plagiarism, but now she's on the defensive on the very same issue. Did she borrow some words for last night's debate? Coming up, her supporter, Senator Bob Menendez, joining us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, he will respond.

Plus, the U.S. government rolls out a high-tech weapon against illegal immigration. It will cover 28 miles of border. We're going to show you how it works.

And leave it to Texas. Its primary system is like no other. It's a primary and a caucus -- why Hillary Clinton says it has grown men on her campaign crying.

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


BLITZER: Hillary Clinton accuses Barack Obama of plagiarism, but is Senator Clinton herself stealing other politicians' words?

Earlier, I spoke with Barack Obama supporter, the former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Now let's talk to a Hillary Clinton supporter. Robert Menendez is a senator from New Jersey.

Senator Menendez, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Here's some words that Hillary Clinton said last night, and we have put them together with some words that John Edwards and her husband said. Listen to this.


H. CLINTON: Whatever happens, we're going to be fine.


JOHN EDWARDS (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What's not at stake are any of us. All of us are going to be just fine.



H. CLINTON: The hits I have taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That hits that I have took in this election are nothing compared to the hits that the people of this state and this country are taking every day of their lives.



BLITZER: All right. So, what do you make of this? Yesterday, Barack Obama said this whole thing about him plagiarizing from Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, his good friend, was part of the silly season.

Is this getting ridiculous?

MENENDEZ: Well, Wolf, just before I answer that, let me just say, I want to share my condolences as well and reiterate Senator Clinton's to the family of officer Lozada-Tirado, who died in the line of duty today. We take for granted even in the common movement of a motorcade the action of these officers. And the risk they face every day is enormous. And our heartfelt sympathies go out to his family.

BLITZER: We echo that as well.

MENENDEZ: With reference to the statement, look, I guess the Obama campaign couldn't deal with the incredible response that Senator Clinton got last night to a question she couldn't have possibly expected, didn't know what it was going to be, and answered sincerely and passionately and compassionately in terms of her response.

And this is a statement that all of us have -- millions of American families have used at some time or another, that, no matter what, we're going to get through it, we're going to be fine, something to that extent. Laura Bush used it in 2000. And Shaquille O'Neal used it in 2003, and Lindsay Lohan used it in 2007.

So, I really think that it's way over the top. What was important -- even in graciousness -- she was gracious last night to Senator Obama. And I would think that we need to get to the real issues that are going to make a difference in people's lives, the issues that Hillary has been talking about, the solutions to those problems.

BLITZER: All right.

You have said in the past -- and I will read to you -- you said: "The road to the White House comes through the Latino community. In fact, they possess the greatest ability to influence who the candidate for both parties will be."

In the latest Pew poll, it showed that her support among Latinos is slipping. In February, she had 63 percent to Barack Obama's 32 percent. Now, in this new poll, later in February, 46 percent for Clinton, 50 percent for Obama.

Is it slipping in the Latino community, based on what you're seeing? How worried are you, specifically in Texas?

MENENDEZ: Not worried in Texas at all. The reality is, we don't take any vote for granted, number one. And we're working hard for each Texas vote, each Ohioan's vote, each Rhode Islander's vote.

But the bottom line is, is that, in state after state, where the Latino community has had a significant presence, Hillary Clinton has done overwhelmingly well with them. She will do it in Texas again. She has a long history with the Latino community in Texas, going back 35 years ago, when she was in the Rio Grande Valley registering voters with Raul Yzaguirre of La Raza.

That's a long history. People don't forget in our community. We're exceptionally loyal to someone who has been our advocate, has stood by our side, understands our values. And she will do very well among Latinos in Texas.

BLITZER: All right.

One of your fellow superdelegates from New Jersey, state Senator Dana Redd, is switching her position. She says this: "It's time to unite behind a single candidate. And that's Senator Obama. He will have won, by the end of this contest, more popular votes, more primaries, more caucuses, more delegates elected by the people and deserves to be our nominee."

How worried are you that these superdelegates, at least some of them, are now switching from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama?

MENENDEZ: Well, to some degree, with all due respect to Senator Redd, I think that's a lot more about Jersey politics than it was about national politics.

But, to answer your broader question, the bottom line is that the only difference between these two candidates right now is 69 delegates to Senator Obama's favor. The road to the nomination...


BLITZER: It depends on how you do the counting. I don't know if you're counting -- are you counting Michigan and Florida?

MENENDEZ: No, no. I'm counting total delegates, those both pledged and those superdelegates in both camps.


BLITZER: You're not using Michigan and Florida?

MENENDEZ: No, no, not including Michigan and Florida.

BLITZER: All right.

MENENDEZ: Right now, the difference between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton in total delegates, both pledged and superdelegates, is 69.

So, the bottom line is the road to the nomination, the last time I looked, under the rules, was 2,025. So, we have got big states here, Texas, where Hillary has been talking about the home foreclosures, and is the only one who's got a real plan to stop the hemorrhaging of the American dream becoming the American nightmare, about how we create jobs in this economy, so it works for working families. How do we really cover every American, not just some of America?

So, the bottom line is, is that these states on March 4 are going to be incredibly important as we move forward in the nomination process.

BLITZER: And her husband say, if she wins Texas and Ohio, she will be the Democratic presidential nominee. We shall see. It's a tough challenge for both of these candidates.

Senator Menendez, thanks for coming in.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, what's the perfect age to be the president of the United States?


MCCAIN: I am older than dirt, more scars than Frankenstein, but I have learned a few things along the way.


BLITZER: Is one candidate too old? Is another candidate too young? We will have an in-depth look at the issue of age in the race to the Oval Office.

Plus, the U.S. is clearing Americans out of Serbia, as violence there escalates. We're going to have the latest on the attack on the U.S. Embassy. That's coming up ahead.

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



BLITZER: One of the themes of this primary season has been changing the money-driven culture of Washington politics. But you may be surprised to learn the role lobbyists are actually playing inside the campaigns at the very highest levels. Brian Todd is standing by to take a closer look.

Plus, critics say Barack Obama misrepresented an anecdote about a U.S. Army captain's deployment to Afghanistan without enough troops, training, and weapons. We are going to go straight to the source. You're going to see and hear what the Army captain himself has to say about the story.

And you think the delegate system is confusing? Wait until you see how they do it in Texas. It's both a caucus and a primary. Bill Schneider is standing by to explain.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


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

Happening now: growing scrutiny in the wake of a "New York Times" story suggesting Senator McCain gave special treatment to a female lobbyist years ago. CNN's Brian Todd standing by a take a closer look at the role lobbyists, super-lobbyists, in fact, are playing in this presidential contest.

They sparred once again last night. Then they hit the road -- hit the ground running. Now that the debate is behind them and the next big primary date is ahead, what's next for the Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?

And the odds are good we could have either the oldest president on record or one of the youngest. CNN's Carol Costello considers the age factor in this year's race -- all of this coming up, plus the best political team on television.

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

There's a new spotlight shining on the role lobbyists are playing in the McCain campaign after that very controversial "New York Times" article suggesting an inappropriate relationship between McCain and a female lobbyist in the past.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching this story for us.

All of these campaigns have Washington lobbyists playing significant roles, don't they, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They certainly do, Wolf, some of them very influential lobbyists, but John McCain is especially vulnerable now, because he's been so outspoken about this in the past.


TODD (voice-over): For decades, a crusader against special interests, John McCain now defends the high-powered lobbyists who have positions at the top of his campaign.

MCCAIN: These people have honorable records, and they have -- they are honorable people. And I'm proud to have them as part of my team.

TODD: He's talking about his campaign manager, Rick Davis, co- founder of a lobbying firm whose clients include BellSouth and Verizon.

The campaign said Davis was not available for comment, but stressed that he's not paid by the McCain campaign and hasn't done any lobbying in at least two years.

Charlie Black, one of McCain's top campaign advisers, is an active lobbyist, head of one of Washington's most powerful firms -- Lockheed Martin, AT&T among its clients. Black tells CNN he's not paid to advise McCain, doesn't lobby him, always makes sure there are no conflicts and says McCain is very even-handed when it comes to lobbyists.

CHARLIE BLACK, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: He listens to both sides. He then makes up his mind on the merits, on his principles and don't do favors for anyone.

TODD: McCain is certainly not alone. Among Hillary Clinton's top advisers, Harold Ickes, a registered lobbyist whose firm represents Verizon and Steve Richetti. His group has worked for Anheuser-Busch and G.M. But the campaign says he doesn't lobby Senator Clinton.

A top adviser to Barack Obama is lobbyist Steve Hildebrand. But the campaign says he's not currently working as a lobbyist. With some 35,000 lobbyists in Washington, is this unavoidable?

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: There is no small amount of overlap between the people who have the most expertise about politics and people who have lobbying on their resume.


TODD: Still Joan Claybrook, head of the watchdog group Public Citizens, says it's not what lobbyists tell their candidates, it's the money they bring in for them. And she says McCain leads on that score. Fifty-nine people who have registered as lobbyists are collecting money for him. The closest to that, Hillary Clinton, was 19. Barack Obama, the group says, has nine.

But Claybrook also says McCain is fiercely independent and less likely to be influenced by all of that than other candidates -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thank you.

Senator McCain is trying to move on from the lobbyist story. But will he be able to do that quickly?

Let's talk about that and more with our senior political analyst, David Gergen. He's joining us from Boston. Our senior analyst, Jeff Toobin. He's in New York. And our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. She's here in Washington. They are all part of the best political team on television.

David, let me start with you. What do you think about this whole lobby story -- the prominent role lobbyists are playing in McCain's campaign and several of the other -- in the other campaigns, as well? Is this a big deal or a little deal?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's -- I think when you one has to distinguish between lobbyists and the influence of money. Lobbyists, per se, are representatives of corporations. They're not doing anything illegal, indeed. You know, the whole country was set up -- if you read "The Federalist Papers" -- that are there are going to be interests whose voices want to be heard.

And these are the people that do that. And naturally, these companies turn to people who have been on the inside, know senators, know Congressman and members of -- or in the executive branch. So I think it's sort of unfair to people who actually -- most of whom all practice it very honestly to just sort of put them all in a group and say somehow there's a dark cloud over the very idea of lobbying.

Now, money can speak. And so there -- and when special money screams at individual members, then I think there's a real problem, especially when little people or blue collar people or -- you know, they are not represented. But I think in John McCain's case, up until this -- there's a new story out today which raises some questions about it -- but I think, basically, I think most people have concluded this did not hurt him. If anything, it helped him in raising money.

BLITZER: The story that David is referring to, Gloria, this new "Newsweek" story that's just come out. Michael Isikoff, their investigative reporter, saying that he's gotten a copy of a deposition that McCain actually gave back in 2002 in which he says this.

He says, "I was contacted by Mr. Paxton" -- one of these lobbyists -- "on this issue. He wanted their approval very bad for proposes of his business. I believe that Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint."

The -- that seems to be in contradiction of what McCain has said, that no one contacted him before he wrote that letter as chairman of the Commerce Committee to the FCC asking that they make a decision on these television stations in Pittsburgh.

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I think the main point here -- at least what the McCain campaign is saying -- that McCain did not lobby or did not do any favors on behalf of Paxson. Whether or not he can recall meeting with him, you know, is a question, I think, that's going to have to be settled. And this is sort of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

I think if you step back, though, the larger question is have these lobbyists affected John McCain and has he done his -- the people who worked in his campaign any favors or Paxson any favors? And nobody has proven that.

This is a story that could have legs for John McCain because reform is his brand, Wolf. And he can't lose that. But the notion that because you have some lobbyists working for you when you're a political campaign, that that's an evil thing, is sort of silly.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, what do you think?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, I think it's a little more serious than that because, first of all, this does seem like a complete contradiction. So McCain has to explain why, you know, he's -- this is -- doesn't appear to be straight talk, another one of his trademarks. But also, you know, as Gloria said, he is -- has made his reputation largely on the issue of campaign finance reform, you know, the McCain/Feingold bill.

And to have a campaign that doesn't have a few lobbyists in it, but is completely dominated by lobbyists and people who represent corporate interests, before the Senate Commerce Committee and elsewhere, where he serves, you know, I think it's something that's going to make his claim of being a reformer a little harder to make.

BLITZER: You know, David, they've taken this issue, though, and they've used it to their advantage, the McCain campaign, going after "The New York Times," which is a popular notion especially among conservatives. And today the White House jumped into this, as well.

"I think a lot of people here in this building," a spokesman said, "with experience in a couple of campaigns, have grown accustomed to the fact that during the course of the campaign, about seemingly, on maybe a monthly basis leading up to the convention, maybe a weekly basis after that, "The New York Times" does try to drop a bombshell on the Republican nominee."

Is that fair, what the White House is saying about "The New York Times? "

GERGEN: No. And it's altogether, I'm afraid, more typical sometimes of some of the excess this White House can sometimes engage in. Listen, Wolf, you and I both recall that when Bill Clinton was president, he often felt that "The New York Times" was extremely unfair to him. His predecessors thought "The New York Times" was extremely unfair to him out of the -- on the Republican side.

This goes with the territory. The "New York Times" has a big, big investigatory unit. They press hard on stories like this. Whether it's Whitewater or John McCain, they're going to be out there and sort of leading the pack, in some ways. And if you -- and the people in politics, as you know, feel hunted. They feel like they're being hunted down and they resent it and they lash out like this. But it's in the nature of journalism.

BLITZER: I remember when the Whitewater story was developing. It was "The New York Times" and later the "Washington Post," Gloria...

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: ... that really was aggressive, including when he was a candidate, Bill Clinton. So there seems to be a little bipartisan, you know, element in this --

BORGER: Equal opportunity.

BLITZER: And the Clinton folks were always complaining about "The New York Times".

BORGER: I think it's equal opportunity investigative journalism. You know, that's what it is. And I think "The New York Times" is an easy target -- by the way, just like lobbyists are an easy target. Two easy targets in this town.

BLITZER: And wrap it up, Jeff.

TOOBIN: Well, I think "The Times" did McCain a bit of a favor by focusing so much on a possible romantic relationship, which was absolutely not proven, and not focusing more on the lobbying and the money, which is, I think, ultimately, the more important question and the more dangerous territory for McCain.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by, because we're going to continue this conversation.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama rush back to the campaign trail fresh from their most anticipated debate yet. We're going to show you the impact of their very tight race.

Plus, Barack Obama sends bloggers into a frenzy with one particular claim about U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Is he playing loose with the facts?

You're going to hear exactly what he said. Our Jamie McIntyre is doing a Fact Check. You're going to want to see this.

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


BLITZER: It was a very closely scrutinized face-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. So how did they do in their Texas showdown? We're back with the best political team on television -- our senior political analyst, David Gergen, Jeff Toobin, Gloria Borger.

David, what do you think? How did they do last night?

GERGEN: They both did very well. Barack, the most improved debater in all of politics this season, I think, had an excellent performance. Hillary was fine. She was especially good in the last moment, that poignant moment, almost valedictory in tone.

However, she need to stop him last night. She didn't. The momentum remains with Barack Obama. And I think most people in politics feel that unless she turns this around in the next 10 days or so, he's likely to win one of the big two primaries on March 4th. And with that, it may conclude the campaign.

BLITZER: All right, here's the -- here's the sound bite from what a lot of people -- and David just referred to it, Gloria, they thought was her best moment.


CLINTON: The hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.


BLITZER: It was a moving moment right at the very end of the debate.

BORGER: Yes, it was a moving moment. And I think that there are a lot of people kind of scratching their heads saying, why don't they see more of that candidate during the campaign? You saw her a little bit more emotional after New Hampshire.

You know, this is a campaign in which the candidate has clearly had difficulty finding her voice, Wolf. And I think last night you saw a little bit of it. There was an internal debate in the campaign -- does she go tough, does she go soft? I think she did a little bit of both and wound up with kind of a status quo debate.

BLITZER: A lot of people think this was Barack Obama's best moment last night, when she raised the issue of his alleged plagiarizing.

Listen to this, Jeff.


OBAMA: This is where we start getting into silly season in politics and I think people start getting discouraged about it.


OBAMA: They don't want...


BLITZER: He got a nice round of applause with that. What do you think?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, Obama speaks English. He doesn't speak like a politician.


TOOBIN: And that's a very appealing quality. And he did do very well in the debate. And, you know, we'll see how the voters react to the performances. The one thing we know for sure is that Clinton really didn't raise any new issues, any new arguments that she hadn't raised before. And, you know, when her trajectory is clearly down, that seems to me a likely problem.

BLITZER: David, they have another debate next week before Ohio and Texas and Vermont and Rhode Island -- all of which come up on March 4th. Any advice -- any strategy you would give the two of these candidates?

GERGEN: Well, I think that Barack Obama last night was effective in part because he was a lot more substantive. He went into the details. And that makes for a more boring debate, but I think it strengthened the sense of him having gravitas and not being just sort of a, you know, a cult figure that he's been wrongly accused of being.

So I think what he needs to do is maintain that and not -- and, again, not make any mistakes. I don't think he made -- he may have made a couple of small mistakes last night, but there were no big ones. And beyond that, I think she needs to change her tone on the trail like immediately.

I would take that last moment and make buy -- make that an advertisement and be playing that all over the place and then go on the trail with that different kind, as Gloria says, more approachable, more connective kind of quality -- open herself up and then bring that into the debate and see if she can create some tension. I think otherwise, this debate is going to have a slightly anti-climatic feel, unless she can change begin to change things between now and then.

BLITZER: Gloria?

BORGER: But, you know, the question now with Hillary Clinton -- and she's got it tough both ways, because if she changes her tone completely, she will seem contrived. So even if she does do what David suggests she does, which may be a very, very good strategy, will we in the media say oh, that's the new Hillary Clinton. They decided to reinvent her because nothing else worked. It's tough now for her. It's very tough.

TOOBIN: You can't fake your personality on television. You are who you are.

BORGER: Really?

TOOBIN: And -- well, except you, Gloria.

BORGER: Thanks.

TOOBIN: But it's really -- you know, I don't think she can change. You know, she's an earnest kind of nerdy person and it's admirable in many respects, but that's who she is and...

BLITZER: Here's the best advice...


BLITZER: ... Here's the best advice for both of them. Let Barack Obama be Barack Obama, let Hillary Clinton be Hillary Clinton and just be yourself. That's good advice, I think, for everyone, as well.

TOOBIN: I agree.

BLITZER: David, thanks very much.

GERGEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: And Jeff and Gloria, thanks to you, as well.

Barack Obama on the folly of going to war in Iraq. You're going to find out why the story he tells of a U.S. Army captain has some asking if the story is true. We're doing a Fact Check. You're going to want to see Jamie McIntyre's report.

Plus, the number that could be just as important as the delegates. That number would be age. Carol Costello -- she's standing by to show us why it can both help and hurt a candidate. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: No sooner did he say it in last night's Democratic debate than blogs began attacking it -- Barack Obama's anecdote about an Army captain's deployment to Afghanistan without enough troops, training and weapons.

We asked our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, to check the facts -- Jamie?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the question is did Barack Obama correctly characterize what an Army captain said and is it accurate and does it support his argument that the invasion of Iraq took resources from the war in Afghanistan?

CNN got in touch with the Army captain in question with help from the Obama campaign. He requested anonymity because he's still on active duty. But the short answer is Barack Obama got the gist of the anecdote right, although he missed some important nuance. Let's start with what Obama said in last night's CNN Democratic debate.


OBAMA: You know, I've heard from an Army captain who was the head of a rifle platoon. You're supposed to have 39 men in a rifle platoon. He ended up being sent to Afghanistan with 24, because 15 of those soldiers had been sent to Iraq.


MCINTYRE: Here's what the captain said. "Fifteen soldiers with not sent as a group to Iraq. We lost 15 through normal reassignment and they were not replaced. Many of those 15 ended up in units going to Iraq, but I can't say that all 15 were there."

All of this happened five years ago, in the spring and summer of 2003, during the lead-up to an the invasion of Iraq. The captain was a first lieutenant then and his rifle company, from Fort Drum, New York, was sent to eastern Afghanistan.

OK, back to Barack Obama.


OBAMA: As a consequence, they didn't have enough ammunition, they didn't have enough Humvees.


MCINTYRE: It's true, the captain said. "There were no Humvees" to train with at Fort Drum and "not sufficient ammunition" for training before they left. So he said they had to go do that after they got to Afghanistan and they only had three days to get up to speed. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: They were actually capturing Taliban weapons, because it was easier to get Taliban weapons than it was for them to get properly equipped by our current commander-in-chief.


MCINTYRE: Were the soldiers scrounging for weapons? Well, not exactly. "The issue wasn't that we didn't have weapons. The issue was we couldn't get parts for the weapons, as they broke," the soldier told us.

So when the unit's .50 caliber machine gun broke down, he said, "from the large stockpile of weapons we captured over the long tour, we took the best functioning Taliban weapons we could use and we mounted that on our .50 cal." An interesting sidelight -- when then top commander, General John Abizaid, visited his frontline fire base, the soldier replaced the Russian machine gun with a broken American one just for show.

Now the officer is still in the Army and his final comment to us was, "It made me pretty angry at the time and I'm still pretty bitter about it."

So while it's true this unit didn't have all the troops, training and equipment this commander wanted, and that may indeed have been a result of the demands of the Iraq War, but they were not split up and the unit wasn't technically scrounging for weapons -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre. An excellent fact check. Thanks very much for that.

One candidate would be one of the country's oldest presidents, the other one of the youngest. So what role is age now playing in the race for the White House? Carol Costello is standing by. She's going to show us.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: There's another number beside the delegate count factoring into the race for the White House -- that would be age. On inauguration, John McCain would be one of the country's oldest presidents. Barack Obama would be among the youngest. Let's bring in Carol Costello.

She's watching this story for us. How does it factor into the race?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, age is already factoring into the race and it's really fascinating. You know, the candidates in both parties represent, arguably, three different generations. I mean think about it -- McCain is 71; Obama, 46; and Clinton, 60 -- age differences wide enough to define each candidate. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): It's the issue that for some just might trump race and gender -- age.

MCCAIN: I am older than dirt, more scars than Frankenstein, but I've learned a few things along the away.

COSTELLO: At 71, his energy is amazing. Maybe 71 is the new 61.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you ever worry that, like, you might die in office?

MCCAIN: Thanks for the question, you little jerk.

COSTELLO: McCain often mentions his 95-year-old mother -- something not many 71-year-old people can do. But still, the presidency is job like no other. Anna Quindlen wrote in "Newsweek": "The presidency, it ages a person in dog years. Each year in office is equivalent to seven years in the life of an ordinary citizen."

Compare George W. Bush in 2001 to George Bush today. Compare Bill Clinton in' 93 to Clinton in 2001. The presidency ages you. Then again, in the world of politics, 71 isn't really that old. The average age of the Senate is 62. Senator Robert Byrd is 90.

Still, polling after Super Tuesday showed McCain doing best with voters over 60. But it's not just McCain at 71 facing the age issue. Barack Obama at 46 is facing it, too.

ANDREW YOUNG, FORMER U.N. AMBASSADOR: It's not a matter of being inexperienced. It is a matter of being young. There's a certain level of maturity. You've got to learn to take a certain amount of (OBSCENITY DELETED).


COSTELLO: Born in 1961, Obama is technically a boomer. Still, "Boston Globe" columnist Ellen Goodman calls it a case of junior envy -- of aging baby boomers not willing to give up their influence just yet.

"Is it possible," Goodman asks, "that the same generation that didn't trust anybody over 30 when they were 20, doesn't trust anybody under 50 now that they're turning 60?"

And Hillary Clinton is 60. Her age issue has little to do with a number and everything to do with her generation.

ROBERT DALLEK, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: There is a generational divide here that is going to mean something in this election. And whether McCain is running against Clinton or Obama, I think you're quite right, that's going to be one of the interesting divides that we'll see in the campaign.

MCCAIN: Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock concert museum. Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event.


MCCAIN: I was tied up at the time. But the fact is...

COSTELLO: And Barack Obama is piling on, distancing himself from aging boomers in his book, "Audacity of Hope". He writes of Bill Clinton's time in office: "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation -- a tale hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago." And post-baby boomers are buying in. He scores best among young voters, Clinton among older folks.


COSTELLO: Now, if you're wondering at what age Americans think is the perfect age to be president, a recent "Time" magazine poll put it at 50 years old. Fifty -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fifty. It's a good age. All right --

COSTELLO: You should run for president.

BLITZER: Thank you. Have a great weekend, Carol. Thanks very much.

Among my guests Sunday on "LATE EDITION," Admiral Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence. LATE EDITION airs 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

You've helped make our politics pod cast one of the most popular on iTunes. To get the best political team to go, subscribe at or iTunes.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT." Kitty Pilgrim sitting in for Lou -- Kitty.