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President Bush Welcomes Pope Benedict XVI; Bitter Battle Hurting Obama?

Aired April 15, 2008 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, history in the making -- the scene, President Bush hosting Pope Benedict XVI for his first U.S. visit as pope, the backdrop, a raging presidential race and the candidates courting American Catholics, who have picked eight of the last nine presidents.
Also, John McCain wants to help struggling Americans save their homes and all Americans save on gas and taxes. But how? He's out today with a new plan.

And Hillary Clinton slams Barack Obama, suggesting a vote for him will mean another President Bush. Is their bitter battle hurting Obama?

All that coming up, plus the best political team on television.

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

Right now, many of the one billion Catholics worldwide and about 70 million here in the United States are watching Pope Benedict XVI as he visits the United States.

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

Only a couple hours ago, Pope Benedict landed on American soil. Now, over the course of six days, he will meet, he will pray, and he will speak with many people, with the president of the United States, dignitaries, church leaders and everyday people as well.

Brian Todd is joining us now from Andrews Air Force Base. As I said, the pope landed there two hours ago.

Brian, he was pretty blunt in also discussing on the flight over the whole priest sex abuse scandal.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He certainly was, Wolf, some extraordinary remarks, and he wasn't necessarily expected to speak at length about the scandal, at least not on the trip over here. That is almost history-making in and of itself.

Now, as far as the events here, they were planned to the very minutest detail. And from his touchdown until the moment he left this Air Force base, it seemed to go off flawlessly.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): A highly-anticipated welcome at Andrews Air Force Base. Pope Benedict XVI arrives on a plane dubbed "Shepherd One," flying an American flag from one window and a Vatican flag from the other.

The red carpet is rolled out. The honor guard is drawn up. And a delegation of Catholic officials lines up to greet him. And cheers from the invitation-only crowd in the stands, Pope Benedict XVI sets foot on American soil for the first time as pope.

President Bush meets him on the tarmac, along with the first lady and daughter Jenna Bush, the personal welcome at the Air Force base an honor the president has not accorded any other visiting dignitary during his presidency. The pontiff just president then step inside the terminal for a private greeting.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president and the first lady feel great respect, love and friendship for Pope Benedict. And the White House staff across the board, we are all very excited.

TODD: The arrival is choreographed for television, since only a few hundred people can be there in person.

AMBASSADOR NANCY BRINKER, U.S. CHIEF OF PROTOCOL: Everyone tries to do their part to make sure it is in, every way, that even those who aren't here today feel as if they're part of this -- this series of events.

TODD: But a biographer of Benedict says the high-profile ceremony is probably not foremost on the pope's mind.

DAVID GIBSON, BELIEFNET.COM: All the pomp and circumstance that you see and the bands and the military dress, et cetera, that you see at the airport is not who he is. It's not the focus that he wants. He wants the focus to be on the mass, on Jesus Christ, on the words that he says.


TODD: The pope's next public appearance will be tomorrow morning at the White House. Then it's off to the Catholic Basilica in Washington for a very important conference of Catholic bishops.

On Thursday, the pope holds an open-air mass at a stadium that can hold almost 50,000 people. That's the brand-new baseball stadium in Washington.

So, Wolf, those are the highlights of what's turning out to be a very ambitious agenda.

BLITZER: Very ambitious, indeed.

All right, get back to the comments he made aboard that flight on Shepherd One, the Alitalia airliner that brought him to Andrews Air Force Base. Tell us how the pope dealt with this issue of priest sexual abuse. TODD: Well, again, he was not expected to necessarily get into it in a very public fashion. He was expected to address the scandal somehow, but no one really knew how he was going to do it.

What was extraordinary, Wolf, was how blunt he was when he was asked about the scandal and how the church has been reacting to it, how the leaders of the church feel about it.

Here's what he said.


POPE BENEDICT XVI: Really, it is a great suffering for the church in the United States and for the church in general, for me personally that this could happen. If I read the histories of these victims, it's difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give love of the God to these children.

We are deeply ashamed, and we will do all that is possible that this cannot happen in future.


TODD: Now, it's not clear if the pope is actually going to meet with any of the victims of the sex abuse scandal. That has been kind of left open. He has not done so in a very public fashion as of yet.

Another controversial point to this trip, Wolf, the city of Boston, widely seen as being at the center of that scandal, was on the original list of cities that the pope would visit. It has been taken off the itinerary.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much -- Brian Todd reporting from Andrews.

We're following Pope Benedict XVI's historic visit to the United States. And we're also looking back at memorable meetings between a president and a pope.

Pope Paul VI was the first to visit the U.S. back in October of 1965. President Johnson met with him in New York and gave him an interesting gift, an autographed photo of himself. The first pope ever to visit the White House was Pope John Paul II in October 1979. President Reagan went on to his first Vatican visit in 1982. He apparently had some trouble keeping his eyes open during the jampacked European tour over a year after he was shot himself.

In 2004, President Bush met with John Paul at the Vatican, giving him American's Medal of Freedom, but afterward, the pope expressed his grave concern about the war in Iraq.

We're going to have much more on the pope's visit to the United States coming up, including a conversation with the president of Catholic University here in Washington. That's coming up soon. But let's get back to the presidential race right now, exactly one week before the crucial Pennsylvania primary. Hillary Clinton has the edge in the latest polls there, while Barack Obama can't seem to escape questions about being labeled "elitist."

Let's go to Candy Crowley, our senior political correspondent. She's in Philadelphia watch this right now.

Is it just more of the same on this day, Candy?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, not exactly. The issue did come up on the campaign trail today, but the big question has always been, what will the effect of this be? And we're beginning to get a clue here about what that might be.


CROWLEY (voice-over): Amid campaign hopes he may weather the storm, Barack Obama faced a question, albeit a friendly one, about the elite issue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It isn't far from uppity, OK? And I think the Clintons are getting away with something that they must be called on.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think there are racial overtones to the attacks going on right now. I think that it's politics. And this is what we do politically. When we start getting behind in races, then we start going on the attack.

CROWLEY: Obama's controversial remarks hit the fan Friday, and his advisers are encouraged by two new polls out today covering the aftermath of those remarks.

They tentatively suggest he has not been badly hurt. A Quinnipiac survey in Pennsylvania found Hillary Clinton with the same six-point lead she had a week ago. A Gallup tracking poll taken entirely after the controversy arose shows Obama leading nationally by 11 points.

Said one Obama aide, for all the hand-wringing and obsessive coverage, nothing has changed. Maybe, but the campaign still feels the need for a pushback ad.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that, many of you, like me, were disappointed by recent remarks that he made. And...

NARRATOR: There's a reason people are rejecting Hillary Clinton's attacks, because the same old Washington politics won't lower the price of gas or help our struggling economy.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CROWLEY: Leading in Pennsylvania, Clinton's parallel ad, unusual because it's a negative one from a front-runner, airs now across the state. The candidate dropped the subject in a speech to newspaper editors, using only familiar shots at Obama.

CLINTON: When the campaigns conclude and the banners are torn down and the speeches are finally finished, all that's left is the choice we have made. We have seen the power of the presidency placed in hands unready or unwilling to address the tasks that lie ahead.

CROWLEY: It is only a momentary pause, apparently. Clinton aides insist the elite issue is important to voters and provoked a strong reaction among them.


CROWLEY: Noting there, it was another poll showing a wide lead of Clinton's in Pennsylvania. The Clinton campaign says they will see the effect when the primary takes place Tuesday.

But, looking ahead, Wolf, there is a new poll out in Indiana, does not bode well, at least at this moment in this snapshot in time, for Hillary Clinton. This poll by "L.A. Times"/Bloomberg shows that Hillary Clinton in Indiana is down five points -- Wolf.

BLITZER: But I just want to point out, there is a sampling error of four points in that poll. So, it potentially could be worse, might be better for Hillary Clinton, depending on how that sampling error actually works. But that's the nature of all polls.

Candy, thanks very much for that -- Candy Crowley in Philadelphia.

John McCain has been revealing a major plan for savings regarding issue No. 1, the economy and your money.

Dana Bash is in Pittsburgh. She's watching this story for us.

He's fighting hard when it comes to the economy, at least on this day, Dana.


You know, one of John McCain's biggest challenges is battling a perception started by his fellow Republicans during the primaries that he doesn't understand economics. Another is pushed by Democrats, that he's out of touch with Americans' economic woes.

Well, his lengthy think here at Carnegie Mellon University today was aimed at debunking both.


BASH (voice-over): It was a new twist in pocketbook politics. John McCain said he wants a summertime suspension of the federal gas tax, hoping voters will reward him this fall. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Because the cost of gas affects the price of food, packaging, and just about everything else, these immediate steps will help to spread relief across the American economy.

BASH: McCain aides say he will ins introduce Senate legislation soon, which would save consumers 18.4 cents a gallon per gas, 24.4 cents for diesel, from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

But the reality is, gas tax holidays have been pushed many times before and never enacted, because it funds federal roads. It was one of several tax breaks McCain proposed in this much-anticipated address, laying out his economic policies and hitting Democrats for theirs.

MCCAIN: They're going to raise your taxes by thousands of dollars a year, and they have the audacity to hope you don't mind.

BASH: In addition to making permanent the Bush cuts McCain once opposed, he wants to eliminate the alternative middle class, which McCain says would save middle-class families $2,000 a year, double the exemption for each child, from $3,500 to $7,000 a year, cut the corporate tax rate, and invest in research and development.

McCain advisers say that would cost $225 billion, though one Democratic group estimates $300 billion. To raise revenue, affluent Medicare recipients would pay more for prescription drugs.

MCCAIN: Those who can afford to buy their own prescription drugs should be expected to do so.

BASH: And, in an appeal to independents and disillusioned Republicans, McCain repeatedly vowed to cut wasteful spending.

MCCAIN: Somewhere along the way, too many Republicans in Congress became indistinguishable from the big-spending Democrats they used to oppose.


BASH: And McCain said that he would freeze all federal spending that is nondefense spending for one year while the government looked at the effectiveness of federal programs.

He insists that he can save a lot of money by cutting pork-barrel projects, Wolf, but there were some things in this speech that were noticeably absent. Actually, there are some things not in this speech, I should say. And those are, first of all, his pledge earlier to balance the budget in his first term or any discussion at all of the billions of dollars that go to fund the war in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana. Dana is in Pittsburgh.

Thank you.

Let's go back to Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack. JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, food inflation in the United States is now at its highest level in 17 years and it's probably going to get worse.

The rising cost of everything from milk to eggs to chicken hurting a lot of Americans, especially the poor. It's tough on businesses, too, places like bakeries and delis, who have to explain higher price to their customers.

Last year, U.S. food prices rose four percent. That's compared to an average 2.5 percent increase for the last 15 years. And the government says this year could be worse, perhaps as high as 4.5 percent.

For a lot of poor people, costlier food means having to give up something else in order to eat. The Food Bank of New Jersey reports the sticker shock could cause some of the poorest Americans to go hungry. They say a family of four is eligible for a maximum $542 a month in food stamps. They say that never lasted the whole month before, and now it lasts for even fewer days.

The price jumps for various foods are due to a lot of things, including higher commodity costs for things like wheat, corn, soybeans, milk, the ingredients, and higher energy and transportation costs.

And these higher costs don't just impact consumers here at home. Economists say, in Bangladesh, for example, 30 million of that country's 150 million people could be going hungry. In Haiti, the prime minister booted over the weekend because of riots over the price of food.

So, here's the question: What's the answer to rapidly rising food prices?

Go to, post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack, very much. See you in a few moments.

Now that the pope is here in the United States, what do the millions of American Catholics watching and listening actually want to hear? I will talk about the important issues on the agenda right now with Father David O'Connell. He's president of the Catholic University here in Washington.

Also, with us his new plan to save you money, is John McCain trying to sound more like a man of the people? I will put that question to the best political team on television.

And a plane crashes into a crowded marketplace -- the latest on those who survived and died.

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


BLITZER: The pope will be holding mass at Washington's new baseball stadium, Nationals Park. He will speak at the United Nations. He will visit New York's ground zero, a lot, a lot on his agenda.

Let's get some more insight on this historic visit to the United States.

Joining us once again is Father David O'Connell. He's president of the Catholic University here in Washington.

Tell us about this man, because, for most of the viewers out there, including most of the Catholics, this is their real introduction to this new pontiff.

REV. DAVID O'CONNELL, PRESIDENT, CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY: When I came to Catholic University, it was the first time I actually met him and talked to him.

He's really a shy man. He's -- he's very clearly a scholar, a little bit reserved. He has a good sense of humor, speaks English incredibly well, understands the nuances of the language, and very, very eager.

BLITZER: And he's been a frequent visitor to the United States over the years.

O'CONNELL: Been here a number of times. That's right.

BLITZER: So, he's going to feel almost at home as he goes about these next six days.

O'CONNELL: Did you notice as he was coming down the stairs, he looked so eager and so enthusiastic for a man of his age?

BLITZER: We saw a smile come...

O'CONNELL: A smile on his face. He's just happy to be here.

BLITZER: And tomorrow he's going to be received by the president and the first lady on the South Lawn of the White House. Probably -- I don't know -- 8,000 or 10,000 or 12,000 people have been invited to come out there for that. That's going to be quite a dramatic event.

O'CONNELL: The original plan was 5,000. It's up to 12,000 now ticket-holders. In fact, a friend of mine, Monsignor Baddick (ph) from Bethlehem, came to spend these day with him. He's going to join him there. And it's just going to be a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for us to see the pope.

BLITZER: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, or...


O'CONNELL: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

BLITZER: Oh, really? Because I thought maybe you meant from Bethlehem, Bethlehem, outside of Jerusalem.

O'CONNELL: There may be days he wishes he was there.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a little different Bethlehem.

Then, tomorrow night, the president is going to be holding this dinner -- some would call it a state dinner -- in honor of the pope, but he's decided to not necessarily go to that White House dinner.

O'CONNELL: Popes really don't eat in public. It's not customary. It's not tradition.

In fact, one time -- I heard the story recently that when the pope, Pope John Paul, went to the Philippines, Imelda Marcos had invited him to meet with some of her friends. And when he walked into the room, it was a dinner. And the pope had some soup, but his companions made sure that there was no more food provided and he was brought out of the room. It's just not customary.

BLITZER: You're going to be receiving him at Catholic University on Thursday. I guess that's a pretty nerve-racking ordeal for you.

O'CONNELL: Well, oddly enough, I feel pretty calm. It's however -- it's huge. It's just an awesome opportunity.

BLITZER: Tell us a little bit about how long you have been planning for this, preparing for it.

O'CONNELL: Well, we first heard the -- the committee first heard about the visit on Labor Day weekend of last year. I know that, remember it well, because I was headed to the Jersey shore.

BLITZER: You had to keep that secret, too.

O'CONNELL: And I had to keep that secret until November, until was made. I tried to work behind the scenes to do as much as possible. But it really is a very complex process.

And the security alone, as I have seen in the broadcast so far, the emphasis on security is the primary emphasis.

BLITZER: Which is understandable.

We're going to pick your brain throughout these next six days.

Father O'Connell, thanks very much for coming in.

BLITZER: Thank you, Wolf.

O'CONNELL: Father David O'Connell is the president of the Catholic University in Washington.

Laura Bush gets her own TV show, for an hour, anyway. The first lady be asking questions, instead of answering them. And she will have a special guest of her own. We will explain what is going on. And former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who recently signed with a talent agency, he's trying to build on his popularity by launching a new project. We're going to tell you what he is up to -- lots more news coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: When the pope speaks, millions of Americans listen. But, when it comes to the presidential race, one Vatican analyst says:


JOHN ALLEN, CNN VATICAN ANALYST: Benedict XVI is not a superdelegate riding into town to deliver a key endorsement.


BLITZER: So, what might voters do after they hear from the pope, especially when he talks about immigration, and Iraq, and abortion, and other sensitive issues?

Also, amid his visit, the candidates are courting Catholics, who picked eight of the last nine presidents.

And want to save money on your taxes and on gas prices? John McCain thinks he has the way. We will talk about that and more with the best political team on television.

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


BLITZER: We're getting some very disturbing news in from Senator Arlen Specter's office, a press release just coming out saying that Senator Specter has been diagnosed with what is being called an early recurrence of Hodgkin's disease. Hodgkin's disease is cancer of the lymph system.

Senator Specter's recurrence was diagnosed based on a routine PET scan, which showed small lymph nodes in his chest and abdomen. A follow-up biopsy of one of the chest lymph nodes was positive for recurrence. A bone marrow biopsy was negative.

No symptoms of Hodgkin's disease, but, obviously, the doctors are watching this very closely. And Senator Specter in the statement says he will begin the protocol of dealing with this recurrence once again.

It was only last Friday that I spoke with the senator about cancer, his battle against cancer, his new book on the subject. And I asked him how he was feeling.



Let me make one other point about what I talk about in this book, "Never Give In." And that is I had two diagnoses of fatal diseases.

Once Lou Gehrig's Disease, the doctor was wrong. Once a malignant brain tumor, the doctor was wrong.

And in this book I tell about them in some detail to tell people that -- get a second opinion. Even the best doctors can be wrong.


BLITZER: And in a statement that's just been released, Senator Specter says: "I was surprised by the PET Scan findings because I have been feeling so good. I consider this just another bump on the road to a successful recovery from Hodgkin's, from which I have been symptom- free for three years."

We wish Senator Specter, of course, only -- only the best and a quick and speedy recovery.

Let's get back to our top story now, the pope here in the United States here now. Many of the roughly 70 million Catholics sure will be listening to what he has to say, even as they ponder how to vote for the next president. The candidates are making a big push for the Catholic vote right now.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, has more -- Ed?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Catholics make up about 20 percent of the electorate. So in a close election, they can clearly tip the balance. But the fascinating part is at this point, nobody has any idea which way they're leaning.


HENRY (voice-over): Catholics are critical in November. There are 70 million of them in America and they picked the winner in eight of the last nine presidential elections. Catholic voters up for grabs will be listening to the pope very closely for any divine guidance.

ALLEN: Benedict XVI is not a superdelegate riding into town to deliver a key endorsement. On the other hand, I think it would also be terribly naive to think there's no political subtext to the pope's presence in the United States.

HENRY: The Democrats, both in favor of abortion rights, are trying to highlight other subjects where they agree with the pope.

CLINTON: He's been a strong voice on behalf of what we must do to deal with poverty and deal with injustice.

HENRY: Hillary Clinton has an edge among Catholics in the primaries. But Barack Obama is trying to shake that up in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania, with the endorsement of anti-abortion Catholic Democrat, Bob Casey, Jr. OBAMA: Ironically, the first school I went to in Indonesia was a Catholic school.

HENRY: Republican John McCain could run into trouble over the Vatican's opposition to the Iraq War. But the pope has recently expressed concern that a quick U.S. pullout from Iraq could cause a humanitarian crisis.

PETER WEHNER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE AIDE: And I think that McCain's view of the nature and threat of Islamic terrorism is very consistent with what the -- what the pope has -- has said.

HENRY: McCain is also in sync with the pope on abortions. But a recent Pew Poll found 51 percent of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal. So, the Catholic vote is not monolithic, making it hard to decipher which way they will go.

LUIS LUGO, PEW FORUM ON RELIGION AND PUBLIC LIFE: The Catholic vote as a whole is -- is a fascinating study, because it is -- it is the quintessential swing vote in American elections.


HENRY: Now, strategists in both parties privately say that Catholics could swing to John McCain if he does a couple things, if he stresses social issues, like abortion, a lot more and if he also wears his religion on sleeve a bit more.

But, as you know, those are two things that John McCain has not been comfortable with so far. So, you have to pay close attention to that -- Wolf.

Ed Henry, thank you.

Let's continue this discussion. And for that, we're joined by our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. She's here in Washington. Jack Cafferty in New York and Jeff Toobin, our senior analyst, as well.

The timing of this visit, Jack, by the pope coming a week before Pennsylvania, right in the middle of this political battle, what do you think the fallout could be?

CAFFERTY: Well, I don't know that there will be a great deal of fallout in Pennsylvania, because I'm sure that the papal visit was not predicated on the Democratic race for the nomination.

BLITZER: A lot of Catholics, though, in Pennsylvania.

CAFFERTY: I understand. And as Ed pointed out, though, they don't vote as a bloc. The Catholic community pretty evenly split on some of the issues the Catholic Church has held fast to -- celibacy, gay rights, abortion, stem cell research.

Half of American Catholics think that the Catholic Church is out of date on some of this stuff. On the other hand, Catholics who support John McCain will, you know, be in line with the church's position on right to life, although opposed, as Ed mentioned, to the war in Iraq.

I think the one guest that Ed talked to that mentioned a subtext is probably the best we could do with the visit here. I don't think there will be anything too overtly political to come out of this.

BLITZER: And the poll that Jack was referring to, Gloria, should Pope Benedict XVI maintain church policies, 50 percent, according to this "Washington Post"/ABC News poll said yes, 45 percent said no.

All right, give us your sense.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that shows you a split among Catholics. Look, the important thing for the Democrats right now, Wolf, is to show that they are not the secular party, that they believe in faith. And we saw that at the Compassion Forum over the weekend, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to talk about their faith.

But, remember, Hillary Clinton won with Catholics in Texas and in Ohio. And they could be very, very important to her as we head into Pennsylvania. They are a swing vote, as Ed's piece points out.

BLITZER: But not a monolithic swing vote by any means.


BLITZER: All right, Jeff, go ahead.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You know, one of the great stories of American politics over the last hundred years is the evolution of the Catholic vote. It used to be that being a Democrat was part of being a Catholic. In 1928, Al Smith, the first major party candidate who was a Catholic; John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president.

But the Reagan Democrats were really Catholic Democrats who went over to the Republican side, in large part because of social issues. And that vote has really decided the outcome of most of elections since then.

BLITZER: Jack, that's a good point that Jeff made.

Can the Democrats in this cycle win back those so-called Reagan Democrats?

CAFFERTY: Well, it remains to be seen. I think the Compassion Forum that Gloria was talking about was a good step on the part of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I think it was a mistake for John McCain not to participate in something like that, if these issues that we're talking about are really that important to the electorate.

In the back of my mind, I keep thinking the economy and the Iraq War are going to trump a lot of the more subtle kinds of issues that we're talking about here. The country is hurting, it's in recession, the war is bankrupting us. And I'm not so sure that people are going to look at the fine print on issues such as Catholicism when they make up their minds.

BORGER: But there's something else to consider here, and that is that Hispanic voters are now a large part of the Catholic vote.

CAFFERTY: That's a good point. True.

BORGER: And that's something, when you look at John McCain, for immigration reform. You know, that could help him if he's also with some Catholics on issues like abortion.

TOOBIN: In 2006, one big reason the Democrats retook the House and the Senate is that Catholics moved back to the Democratic Party. We'll see if that continues two years later.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by, because we have more to discuss here, including John McCain today unveils a new economic plan -- part Republican, part populist, appealing, perhaps, to Independents. Could he please them all?

Plus, we have details of a big announcement from McCain's former rival, Mike Huckabee. You're going to be interested in what's going on.

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



MCCAIN: All these tax increases are under the fine print of the slogan "hope." They're going to raise your taxes by thousands of dollars a year and they the audacity to hope you don't mind.


BLITZER: That's John McCain earlier today, announcing his new economic policies. Among other things, once again promising to maintain the president's tax cuts and make them permanent if he's elected to the White House.

Let's continue our conversation with the best political team on television -- Jeff, what do you think about what McCain is now saying?

TOOBIN: Oh, me?

BLITZER: Yes, Jeff. Jeff Toobin.

TOOBIN: I thought you said Jack.



TOOBIN: Look, John McCain, former maverick. You know, he has become a standard Republican. And Republicans have won most of the recent presidential elections. And their main issue has been the other guys will raise your taxes. He criticized the 2001 Bush tax cuts on the grounds that they were regressive, that they hurt the budget deficit. That kind of talk is all gone. It's all about cutting taxes now.

BLITZER: Gloria?

BORGER: You know, I think, though, we heard something a little bit different today. Yes, he does support Bush on making his tax cuts permanent. But there were also some counterintuitive things, some really populist things.

For example, talking about how Americans have a right to be offended by the extravagant pay and pay packages of CEOs whose companies don't make any money; talking about a moratorium on gas taxes for the summer for American drivers; more tax cuts for the middle class; saying the wealthy elderly should pay more for their prescription drug benefits. You know, I think a little bit of the populist John McCain came out there.

BLITZER: Well, let's listen to that corporate payouts, what he talked about, also, in the speech. And then I'll let Jack weigh in.


MCCAIN: Something is seriously wrong when the American people are left to bear the consequences of reckless corporate conduct while Mr. Cayne of Bear Stearns, Mr. Mozilo of Countrywide and others are packed off with another $40 million or $50 million for the road.


BLITZER: All right, that's not necessarily your typical Republican rhetoric -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: This, you know, this -- with all due respect, this is just a lot of nonsense. What about the $200 billion a year that our government is pouring into that war that John McCain is so fond of that he thinks we ought to be there for another hundred years?

He wants to suspend the gas tax for the summer -- no chance of that happening. It's been tried before. That money goes to the states for the roads and highways. They're not going to give it up -- $195 billion in total is what he's advocating, but no talk about where the money is going to come from.

We don't have the money. We have $9 trillion in debt thanks to the last eight years of Republican government, which has made Democratic tax and spenders, the old-fashioned kind, look positively tight-fisted. This is all the same old nonsense -- you know, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. No explanation of where the money is going to come from.

What are you going to cut? What government agencies and programs are going to be done away with in order to come up with the dough for this?

This is a lot of political garbage.

TOOBIN: Well, but it's also it's very different from the way John McCain used to talk. He used to be one of the Republicans who used to talk about the deficit a lot. But now that's...

BORGER: He is talking about it.

TOOBIN: And what's he proposing to do about it, Gloria?

BORGER: Well, he's going to --


BORGER: You know, he says they're going to -- he's going to use the line item veto again. And he says...


BLITZER: Well, he says...

TOOBIN: That's unconstitutional.

BLITZER: He says he has to find...

CAFFERTY: Where is he going to get that from?

BLITZER: ...a way to make it constitutional. That's what he says.

BORGER: Yes, right.

BLITZER: Once it's constitutional, he'll try to get it passed again.

BORGER: Yes, but he's not going to...

CAFFERTY: This is just ridiculous.

BORGER: ...he's not going to sign those spending bills. He is going to veto spending bills, I guarantee you that. And he's going to end pork barrel spending. Yes, he did not talk about the war and that is the elephant sitting in the middle of the table. But I think what we saw today was a John McCain positioning himself to go after those Independent voters with a kind of a populist economic message, saying everybody has to pay their fair share.

CAFFERTY: If anybody buys into this stuff...

TOOBIN: And, also, by the way, I mean the...

CAFFERTY: Go ahead, Jeff.

TOOBIN: I'm sorry. Well, I just wanted to say about this gas tax business, I mean this is a country where a bridge just collapsed in Minneapolis because we aren't investing enough in infrastructure.


TOOBIN: I don't know how popular it is to take money away from the gas tax -- I mean not that that has any chance of passing anyway...


TOOBIN: But it's a -- even as a stunt, I don't think it's very effective.

BLITZER: And he didn't say, I don't think, Gloria or Jeff or anybody who read it, because I looked at it briefly, he didn't necessarily say there should be higher taxes on Exxon Mobil, for example, which is raking in, what, a lot of billions of profits...


BLITZER: ...because of the...

BORGER: He's talking for a corporate tax rate cut.


BORGER: But I mean I...

BLITZER: He wants to see that -- those corporate tax rates go down.

BORGER: He's playing both sides, right? He's playing both sides. But it was a little counterintuitive for me to hear the first Republican in this presidential race rail against extravagant CEO pay. That's probably a good idea for him.

CAFFERTY: Where is the message about the $53 trillion of unfunded liabilities for Medicare and Social Security? Where is the balanced budget talk, about getting this country back in, you know, something of approximating a break even spending mode?

BLITZER: All right.

CAFFERTY: There was none of that. It was just all pie in the sky, we'll give you this, give you this, give you this. It's nonsense.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, stand by. You're coming back with "The Cafferty File."

Gloria and Jeff, we'll see you back here tomorrow. Thanks very much.

Let's check in with Lou to see what's coming up at the top of the hour. I know he's working on an excellent show -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": And, Wolf, your panel, they need to remember, you know, any one of these candidates sounding a populist note is music to my ears. So tell them to relax a little bit.

Up at the top of the hour here, Wolf, we'll be telling you about a stunning warning over escalating drug cartel violence along our southern border with Mexico. Now, our State Department says large areas of Mexico, specifically along our border, are simply a war zone and American citizens in serious danger. We'll have that report.

And corporate elites betraying working men and women and their families again. Those elites and their friends in the United States Senate demanding the importation of even more cheap foreign workers. Is anyone going to stand up for our middle class?

And the presidential campaign could be at a turning point after Senator Obama's outrageous criticism of small town America. One of the senator's top supporters is Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. He's among my guests here tonight.

And three of my favorite radio talk show hosts join me.

Join us for all of that at the top of hour here on CNN -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Lou. See you in a few moments.

So what's the answer to rapidly rising food prices?

That's our question this hour. Jack Cafferty and "The Cafferty File" with your e-mail. That's coming up.

Plus, First Lady Laura Bush in a new role. It's something we've never seen her do before.

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


BLITZER: On our political ticker, Laura Bush will get her own TV show -- for an hour, that is. NBC says the first lady will host the 9:00 a.m. slot of its "Today Show" next Tuesday, the morning of the Pennsylvania primary. Mrs. Bush will get to ask the questions instead of having to answer them. And she'll have a special guest of her own, daughter Jenna Bush. The two of them are coming out with a book.

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee today officially launched his new political action committee. It's called Huck PAC. A statement says the pack's goal is to raise funds for Republican candidates while promoting "conservative, smaller and more responsible government." Huckabee recently signed with a Hollywood talent agency, is also launching a new Web site to plug candidates and to collect donations. Remember, for the latest political news anytime, check out The Ticker is the number one political news blog out on the Web. It's also where you can read my latest blog post. I posted one just before the show on the pope's visit to the United States.

With hundreds of thousands of people requesting free tickets to see the pope this week, some ticket holders are trying to cash in on Web sites like eBay and craigslist.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's watching this story for us.

How much are these tickets supposedly going for -- Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, in this post here, a hundred for a ticket that should be free. And that's just to catch a glimpse of the pope in a viewing area tomorrow. As for tickets to a mass, well, this seller on eBay wants five hundred bucks for a pair of tickets in Washington.

The Archdiocese of Washington has been sending out cease and desist letters to some of these online sellers. A spokeswoman, Susan Gibbs, says that they give out 46,000 tickets. They're non- transferable and selling them is fraud.

Plus, there's church law to think about. The mass is a sacrament and selling a sacrament is prohibited.

Still, if you look online, you're going to find lots of these posts of people trying anything, desperate to get one of these tickets this week. There is an official waiting list in Washington. If you join it right now, you've got about 10,000 people ahead of you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And don't -- don't expect to get a seat, probably, because those tickets are hard to come by.

Thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

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

CAFFERTY: Food prices, Wolf, on the rise at rates we haven't seen in 17 years. The question is: What's the answer to rapidly rising food prices?

Justin in Chicago: "How about we start paying farmers to grow more food instead of paying them to not grow anything? Then we can sell a surplus of food to the rest of world at lower prices, thereby having them rely on us for a necessary resource instead of the other way around."

Barry in Miami: "We can either boycott, revolt or starve. As citizens and consumers, we can curtail spending. It's the only form of protest we have left. And considering how fast my money is evaporating, it won't be much of a stretch. We Americans are too fat and complacent, only willing to sacrifice if it's someone else doing it. We've learned from the best, because if Washington gets fat, you know it will be us that has to go on the diet."

Courtney in South Windsor, Connecticut: "Stop growing food for fuel. The use of corn to make ethanol is impractical, illogical and clearly immoral. Though fuel costs are indeed influencing the costs of food, the shortages thereof would be far less if farmers around the globe weren't replacing crops of rice and other dietary staples with ethanol-bound crops. This practice is abject bull and needs to stop before there are food riots around the world."

Gretchen writes: "We Americans can't do much about the internal political situations that keep food from the people in Haiti or other countries around the world. However, we can do something right here in America. It's called plant a garden."

Brent in Texas: "The bread basket of the world is going to turn into a rusty bucket if we allow ourselves to be forced into oil drum slavery. If we don't stop and fix the energy problem in war time like fashion, the story of our great lifestyle is over. It's time we took care of America. Then we can again help the world with the food that they need."

And one of my favorite e-mails in a while, Michael writes from Georgia: "Let's stop trying to figure out how to cram an ear of corn into a Lexus."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, go to my blog at You can look for yours there, along with hundreds of others -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much. See you back here tomorrow.

In some circles, if you take a president in the last months of office, add a Republican candidate, what do you get?


CLINTON: President Bush and John McCain, I'm taking to calling them McBush.


BLITZER: CNN's Jeanne Moos delves into the new buzz word. That's coming up next.


BLITZER: Political humorists have a new character to try to bat around. He, they, are McBush.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos on this Moost Unusual wave of political satire.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They may have rubbed heads and patted hands, but that doesn't make them one and the same man, does it?

CLINTON: President Bush and John McCain, I'm taking to calling them McBush.

MOOS: So have a lot of other critics -- in cartoons, in Web videos, trying to tie McCain to an unpopular president. Get out your sarcasm detector when you see "McBush for President," "four more as great as the last eight."


MOOS: Adding "Mc" can mean you're a hunk.


MOOS: On "Grey's Anatomy," they try to come up with new McNicknames.






MOOS: But forget actors. Even a certain left leaning news anchor is combining McCain and Bush.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: McBush versus the truth.

MOOS: There's a Web site called John McBush 2008. There are no McBush T-shirts.

(on-camera): Seeking even a McNugget of information, we called McDonald's to see if the company had any reaction to the McBush nickname. Alas, no response.

(voice-over): Critics are having a field day making these two seem like a couple.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If he wants my pretty face standing by his side at one of these rallies, I'll be glad to show up.

MOOS: McBush meets Obillary, described in "The Urban Dictionary" as the trifecta of Obama, Bill and Hillary -- or just Obama and Hillary, seen here in a disturbing match-up of their facial features. Or this political freak of nature caption, why choose if you can combine?

To uncouple himself from an unpopular president, maybe John McCain should dig up some of the exchanges from back when the two men were rivals. MCCAIN: It's not the Washington mentality, it's the grown up mentality.

BUSH: And, John, you know, grownup or non-grownup.

MCCAIN: You should be ashamed.


MOOS: Make a McCain commercial out of that and separate the Mc from the Bush. But worse things could happen to your name, as Barack Obama is constantly reminded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For the Taliban has been gaining strength and Obama bin Laden is still at large.

OBAMA: I think that was Osama bin Laden.


MOOS: How about when former attorney general, John Ashcroft, was talking to college students?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That the elected representatives of this country, including Osama -- you know, not -- Obama.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I did not mean it. I'm sorry about that. I apologize publicly to...

MOOS: Compared to that, McBush is downright McDreamy.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: That's it for today. Thanks very much for joining us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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