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Obama's Ex-Pastor Reacts to Criticism; McCain: Obama Favored by Hamas; Governor Brad Henry on Going Against the Majority

Aired April 25, 2008 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, neck and neck in Indiana. New evidence Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are in for another fierce battle.
Meantime, Obama is dealing with a familiar distraction, the words of his former pastor.

We'll tell you what's going on today.

John McCain makes a provocative claim about Barack Obama. The Republican suggests Obama is the candidate of the Islamic militant group Hamas.

We're looking into this story right now.

And President Bush wants to show you the money. We're going to tell you what he's telling taxpayers and why he hopes it will send them to the stores.

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

Barack Obama wanted to talk to Indiana voters about the soaring gas prices that make their lives tougher every single day, but today the Democrat found he couldn't ignore an ongoing source of controversy. That would be his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

After clamming up and lowering his profile, Wright is now speaking out publicly about the impact on -- and it's having an impact, potentially, at least, on the Obama campaign.

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

It's a familiar problem over these past few weeks for the senator, Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It really has been, Wolf. Today it seems Barack Obama was trying yet again to put that Reverend Wright controversy behind him. He fielded a question about the latest statement from his former pastor.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I understand that he might not agree with me on my assessment of his comments. That's to be expected.

So, you know, he is obviously free to express his opinions on these issues. You know, I've expressed mine very clearly.

I think that what he said in several instances were objectionable. And I understand why the American people took offense. And, you know, and as I indicated before, I took offense.

YELLIN (voice-over): Barack Obama speaking out on new comments by his former pastor.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT, BARACK OBAMA'S FMR. PASTOR: And put constantly other and over again...

YELLIN: The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in an interview airing on PBS Friday night, stands by past sermons that became a political firestorm.

WRIGHT: ... controlled by rich white people.

YELLIN: Wright said his words regarding the 9/11 attacks and race relations were taken out of context. He also reacts to Obama's criticism of him.

WRIGHT: He's a politician. I'm a pastor. We speak to two different audiences.

And he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. Those are two different worlds. I do what I do. He does what politicians do.

OBAMA: Here in Indiana gas costs...

YELLIN: Also today, Obama criticized oil companies. At a gas station in Indianapolis, he called for a tax on their profits to help Americans struggling with high fuel costs. And he explained why he opposes a plan that John McCain proposed and Hillary Clinton supports to suspend the federal gas tax this summer.

OBAMA: You don't know that the oil companies are actually going to pass on the savings to the consumers or whether they're just going to -- you're just going to see an increase in prices when the gas -- by the same amount that the gas tax goes down. And it would deplete the highway trust fund that we need for rebuilding our roads and our bridges.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: To be back in Bloomington...

YELLIN: Both Obama and Clinton are campaigning across Indiana today...

OBAMA: All right. Well, thank you so much, everybody.

YELLIN: ... where the race appears to be a dead heat. Clinton started her day in North Carolina, which along with Indiana, votes on May 6. She once again urged Obama to face off in a debate.

H. CLINTON: But the only question I can't answer is why Senator Obama won't debate me in North Carolina.

(APPLAUSE)

H. CLINTON: And I'd sure like to give an answer with a date and a time, and I said I'll go anywhere, any time to have a debate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now, Obama says there have been 21 debates so far this campaign. He thinks voters have a pretty good idea where he and Senator Clinton stand. And he says he just wants to talk to as many people in North Carolina and Indiana as directly as possible -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Jessica Yellin.

Eleven days before the Indiana primary, there's no evidence out today that the Democratic contest is about as close as they come. When you average the latest poll of polls, all the major polls of likely Democratic primary-goers, you're going to find there's a dead heat right now, 45 percent for Obama in Indiana, 45 percent for Hillary Clinton.

The race does appear to have tightened since Clinton's win in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. A Bloomberg/"L.A. Times" poll taken back April 10th through 14th had Obama leading in Indiana by five percentage points. Right now after Pennsylvania, 45/45 each.

John McCain is teaming up today with former rival Mike Huckabee, and they're both weighing in on Barack Obama. The Republicans were together in Huckabee's home state of Arkansas. It was their first joint appearance on the campaign trail.

Let's bring in our Dana Bash. She's watching this story for us.

Dana, Huckabee was also, among other things, asked today about Barack Obama and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And obviously his response is interesting given the fact that Mike Huckabee is a former preacher.

So, what he was asked specifically while he was riding on John McCain's bus with him is whether or not he believes that the views of the pastor are the same as the views of the congregates.

Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No. I think that would be a little bit presumptuous to ever assume that just because a pastor says something in the pulpit everybody in the pews agrees with it. That's rarely the case. Influential, sure. Necessarily transferable, usually not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: So there you hear Mike Huckabee really giving Barack Obama and, of course, Jeremiah Wright a little bit of a pass there, saying he doesn't think the two should be or are connected at all. But, you know, it was interesting. You sort of saw there Mike Huckabee leaning back on John McCain's bus. That was very much the feel there, clearly a very -- kind of a buddy/buddy situation, atmosphere.

You remember these two rivals, they really didn't criticize each other much at all. In fact, Mike Huckabee said that he's happy to be with McCain because they don't have anything to unsay.

He also said that he is -- obviously he had a lot of support in the Christian conservative community. He said he is working with them, talking to social conservatives to make sure they go out for McCain.

BLITZER: I think Huckabee is going to be a very good surrogate for John McCain. McCain's going to be lucky to have him out there, especially with these conservatives who are out there. Huckabee himself, as you say, a former Baptist minister.

Now, what's this that John McCain was suggesting today to bloggers that Barack Obama is the candidate of choice for Hamas?

BASH: That's pretty much what he said, Wolf. In fact, just as you said, John McCain did a conference call with bloggers today. In fact, let's look at specifically what John McCain said to them.

He said, "I think it's very clear who Hamas wants to be the next president of the United States. So apparently has Danny Ortega and several others. I think the people should understand that I will be Hamas' worst nightmare." He went on to say, "If Senator Obama is favored by Hamas, I think people can make judgments accordingly."

Now, that comes, Wolf, just a couple of weeks after McCain's campaign manager actually sent a donor letter, a fund-raising letter trying to raise money on this idea that Hamas supports Barack Obama. Now, the reality is Hamas does support Barack Obama.

You remember the political adviser Ahmed Youssef (ph) to the prime minister. He actually said that he does want Barack Obama to win. He likened him to JFK, said that he would be somebody who would be good for president if he were president.

Now, as you can imagine, the Barack Obama released a statement reacting to what Senator McCain said. I'll read you what the statement said. This is from an Obama spokeswoman.

"We want to take Senator McCain at his word that he wants to run a respectful campaign, but that is becoming increasingly difficult when he continually tries to use the politics of association and make claims he knows not to be true to advance his campaign."

Now, they make the point -- they make the point in the Obama campaign that Obama has repeatedly rejected the policies and ideals of Hamas. But, you know, I talked to one of McCain's senior advisers about this, Steve Schmidt (ph). He said, "We're going to continue to push this." He said that they think this is fair game because, they said, this is an issue of policy.

They reminded me and I'm sure other reporters that Barack Obama has said that he would not close the door to meeting with leaders like the head of Iran. And they say that this is absolutely fair game. So we'll see.

BLITZER: But he differentiated between leaders of countries as opposed to Hamas.

BASH: He did.

BLITZER: He said he would not meet with the leaders of Hamas until Hamas accepted Israel's right to exist. So he made a clear difference between leaders of what the U.S. government...

BASH: That's correct.

BLITZER: ... regards terrorist organizations like Hamas, as opposed to countries, whether it be North Korea, Venezuela or Iran.

BASH: That's correct. And I just also want to point out and I think it's important to note that John McCain has said -- we talked about this even this week a lot -- that he's going to run an above- the-fray campaign. But he was talking to bloggers. He knew pretty much what he was doing.

He knew the kind of audience he had here. And this is the audience that fuels things like this.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Dana Bash reporting for us.

Let's check in with Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Just when it seemed like the controversy surrounding Barack Obama and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was dying down, it's back all of a sudden. Reverend Wright's speaking out for the first time since this story broke.

Wright was -- of course you know this -- Barack Obama's pastor thrust into the political debate a couple months back when clips from some very fiery sermons he has given in the past suddenly appeared on YouTube, and then immediately afterwards on the cable television net works, where they ran continuously. That includes this net work.

The controversy forced Barack Obama to give a speech on race relations which seemed to quiet things down. But now in an interview that'll air tonight on PBS, Wright says the repeated airing of those sound bites is unfair and devious.

He may have a point. He doesn't apologize for anything he said. Obama's called Wright's words wrong, said that they express a profoundly distorted view of this country.

When asked how he feels about what Senator Obama has been saying about him, Wright said this: "It went down very simply. He's a politician. I'm a pastor. We speak to two different audiences and he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor, but they're two different worlds."

This isn't all we can expect to hear from Jeremiah Wright either. He's scheduled to speak at the National Press Club Monday and is the keynote speaker at an NAACP dinner in Detroit this weekend. This is all happening while North Carolina Republicans are airing a television ad in that state which is focused on the Obama/Wright relationship.

It's getting ugly out there.

Here's the question: Does Reverend Wright speaking out now help or hurt Barack Obama?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. You can post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that.

A superdelegate's endorsement is under scrutiny right now. Why did the Oklahoma governor Brad Henry back Barack Obama when his state's Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton? I'll ask Governor Henry about that and the unusual timing of his endorsement.

Also coming up, an invitation to donate to the Obama campaign, but the money won't be going to Obama.

We're going to tell you what to watch for online.

Plus, brand-new evidence of what voters are looking from. Here's a clue. It's not a tax.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's a ceremonial job that's turned into a high-stress occupation. We're talking about the Democratic superdelegates. Let's check where the fight for their support stands right now.

Roughly 300 of about 800 superdelegates will be seated at the national convention in Denver. And they, those 300, remain uncommitted, at least so far. The pressure is growing for them to choose sides.

The rest of those superdelegates, they've declared their support for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, although they're still capable of changing their minds if they want to. Clinton has a slim advantage in the superdelegate count right now, according to a CNN estimate, while Obama leads in total delegates.

Joining us right now is one superdelegate who took a stand this past week, the Democratic governor of Oklahoma, Governor Brad Henry.

Governor, thanks very much for coming in.

GOV. BRAD HENRY (D), OKLAHOMA: Thank you, Wolf. Glad to be here.

BLITZER: It took guts, political guts on your part to endorse Barack Obama given the outcome of what the Democrats voted in your primary, 55 percent for Hillary Clinton, 31 percent for Barack Obama, 10 percent at that time for John Edwards. That was a pretty crushing win for Clinton.

Why did you decide to go against your -- the majority of your fellow Democrats in Oklahoma?

HENRY: Well, you know, this was a decision that I certainly didn't take lightly. I considered it for a great deal of time, followed the campaigns, talked to the campaigns. And, you know, I think as a superdelegate it is incumbent on me to -- to really study the candidates and make a decision that I think is best for my state and our country. And, you know, the landscape, the political landscape, has changed significantly since Oklahoma voted on -- back on the so-called Super Tuesday.

BLITZER: What specifically changed? In other words, why were the Democrats in Oklahoma wrong and you're now right?

HENRY: No, no, no. The Democrats in Oklahoma are certainly right. We're all right.

You know, the great thing about each voter in Oklahoma and across this country, has an opportunity to vote independently, to weigh the issues, weigh the candidates, and vote the way they believe is best for their state or country or whatever motivates them. I think people in Oklahoma understand and respect that the superdelegates -- I mean, Clinton -- Clinton and Obama both got the pledged delegates that represent the voters here in Oklahoma. But I think people understand and respect that superdelegates are free under the rules to exercise their own independent judgment just like regular voters are.

And I certainly hope people, and I believe people respect that. So, you know, for me it came down to who is best for our state and our country. And I honestly belief that Barack Obama, who I think is just a really great guy, is the best person.

BLITZER: Was there one issue -- was there one issue, a substantive issue, whether a domestic or a foreign policy issue, that convinced you he would be a better president of the United States?

HENRY: You know, I think for me, anyway, as a Democratic governor in a so-called red state, I understand that the way to get things done is to work together in a bipartisan manner, to bring people to the table, to reach across party lines and build consensus. And I just believe that we need to shake things up in Washington, D.C.

I don't like the way business is don't in Washington, D.C. There's partisan gridlock and finger pointing which has plagued that city.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But was it health care? The war in Iraq? What was the specific issue that convinced you he was better?

HENRY: Well, I think Barack Obama has good ideas across the table. I don't know that it was any one particular idea.

I like his plan to provide better, higher quality, accessible, more affordable health care to Oklahomans and to Americans. I like his ideas on education. I like his ideas on the economy and job creation.

But for me it really came down to who can really exact the change that we need in this country? We're all sick and tired of the partisan bickering and finger-pointing and gridlock in Washington, D.C. We want somebody who represents the future, not the past.

BLITZER: All right.

HENRY: Somebody who'll do it the new way, not the old way. And I think Barack Obama best represents that change.

BLITZER: It was intriguing you made your announcement the day after the voters -- the Democratic voters in Pennsylvania voted by almost 10 percent in favor of Hillary Clinton. Was that a factor?

HENRY: Not really for me. I mean, I frankly thought Pennsylvania was encouraging.

Just weeks ago, Barack Obama was down by more than 20 points in Pennsylvania. He made up substantial ground and only lost by 10 points on Election Day.

There's not really a significant change in the delegate lead, Barack Obama. I think it's inevitable that he will be the Democratic nominee.

And I think it's important now -- and that's how the landscape has changed since the Oklahoma vote. I think it's important now that we begin to unite as a party and that superdelegates begin to formalize their decision, and we get behind our candidate well before the August convention. Otherwise it's -- you know, a divided convention will not be good for the ticket in November.

BLITZER: Governor Brad Henry of Oklahoma.

Thanks, Governor, for coming in.

HENRY: Thank you. My pleasure. BLITZER: Many of you want someone, anyone to do something about the high prices for all the things we need. Now President Bush says help is on the way.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This money is going to help Americans offset the high prices we're seeing at the gas pump and at the grocery store.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president is talking about money millions of you will be getting much sooner than earlier expected.

And for anyone still thinking about that Supreme Court decision that the critics say snatched the presidency from Al Gore in the year 2000, one justice has a new message for you, and I'm quoting now, "Get over it."

Find out who said that and why, and a lot more right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

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

Happening now, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress is not happy with Bill Clinton. The superdelegate James Clyburn, the number three in the House of Representatives, reportedly says that blacks think the Clintons will do anything to damage Obama so he can never win.

Clyburn has more to say. We have a full report coming up.

Also, regarding the man shot dead hours before his wedding, police officers accused in the death are now found not guilty.

We'll have the reaction in New York City. And one presidential candidate is reacting as well. That's Barack Obama.

And to help meet troop levels should the military ask courts to dismiss or delay cases involving soldiers accused of crime so they can serve in Iraq?

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

If you could use more cash to pay for gas and food, President Bush wants you to know extra money is now on the way. Amid disturbing news about the nation's economy, today the president put out some good news for millions of Americans.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Elaine Quijano. She's watching the story for us. It involves those tax rebate checks. What's going on, Elaine?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Wolf. Well, President Bush now says those tax rebate checks will start going out via direct deposit on Monday instead of next Friday, as had been previously announced. The news really a clear attempt to demonstrate yet again that the White House is taking decisive action to address the sluggish economy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

QUIJANO (voice-over): As the economy continues to falter, some Americans are altering their shopping behavior.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now I approach it with a list, and I get only what's on the list. And I get what I have coupons for.

QUIJANO: With Americans feeling the pinch, President Bush says tax rebate checks, part of the $150 billion economic stimulus package, are coming to mailboxes and bank accounts sooner than previously announced.

BUSH: Starting Monday, the effects of the stimulus will begin to reach millions of households across our country.

QUIJANO: In keeping with his role as the economic cheerleader in chief, the president again avoided using the term recession.

BUSH: It's obvious our economy is in a slowdown.

QUIJANO: Why the nation's economic doldrums don't yet meet the technical definition of a recession, a new study by the National Conference of State Legislatures concludes some states are in such poor financial shape, that they appear to be in a recession already, part of the reason, with property values and income down, tax revenues have fallen off, revenues many forecasters had counted on, leaving budget gaps that are growing wider.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

QUIJANO: Now, as for those tax rebates, the president said he expects the first paper checks to be mailed out in two weeks. And the Treasury Department says that it expects it will have sent rebates to some 130 million American households by this summer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Cash is on the way.

All right, Elaine, thanks very much.

Elaine -- and, as Elaine just reported, some of you will be getting those tax rebate checks Monday directly deposited into your banks. That will continue most of next week and through May 16.

As for those paper checks, the old-fashioned ones, the government says they will start going out on May 9, the last mailed by July 11. When your rebate goes out depends on the last two digits of your Social Security number.

Of course, the government hopes you will be using that money to boost consumer spending to try to boost the economy. So, national retailers, like Sears, Kmart, Kroger, they are offering discounts for shoppers who actually spend their rebate checks at their stores.

Anything affecting your home and bank account is clearly a top issue. So, you want to know what the next president of the United States will be doing. But, in the presidential race, do people think important issues are being drowned out by a sea of candidate animosity and attack ads?

Let's go to our senior analyst, Bill Schneider. He's been looking at this situation for us.

Bill, are the voters happy with this campaign?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No. They want to know, where are the issues?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The Democratic campaign has gotten intensely personal. Hillary Clinton runs ads criticizing Barack Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, CLINTON CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: Harry Truman said it best. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Who do you think has what it takes?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: Obama runs ads criticizing Clinton for criticizing him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, OBAMA CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: What's Hillary Clinton's answer? The same old politics, misleading negative ads.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: The news media encourages them.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC ANCHOR: Senator Obama, do you think Senator Clinton can win?

SCHNEIDER: What do the voters think of all this? Not much. A national poll taken by the Pew Research Center in the days leading up to the Pennsylvania primary reveals a sharp increase in the number who say the presidential campaign has become too negative. Twenty-eight percent felt that way in February. Fifty percent feel that way now.

Among Democrats, the volume of complaints has more than doubled, from 19 percent to 50 percent. What happened to the issues, voters want to know.

H. CLINTON: Thank you.

SCHNEIDER: Sure, Clinton won the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. But two-thirds of the voters said they thought she attacked her opponent unfairly. That could have consequences. Among Democrats who felt Clinton was unfair, 20 percent said they won't vote for her in November if she's the Democratic nominee.

Half of Pennsylvania primary voters thought Obama's attacks were unfair. That perception could hurt him even more, because Obama claims to be a different kind of politician. Nearly a third of those who believed Obama attacked his opponent unfairly say they won't vote for him in the fall if he's the nominee.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The candidates believe they have aired all their big issue differences, and this race still isn't resolved. So, what's left to do but try to discredit each other personally? That's what happens when a campaign goes on too long -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And this one's been going on for a long, long time.

SCHNEIDER: Yes.

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

People Googling Barack Obama this week may have seen Web sites inviting you to donate to Barack Obama for president, but they are not from the Obama campaign. And the campaign wants an investigation.

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

What are these sites, Abbi, called?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the Web address is donatetoObama.org, donatetoBarackObama.com.

Here's what they looked like when they found them -- when we found them earlier this week, the Barack Obama logo, his photo. And if you clicked on that donate button there, you would be invited to give up to $2,300, but you wouldn't be giving to the Barack Obama campaign. Read on and you will see that you're giving to a group calling itself Concerned Citizens For Obama.

These Web sites are registered to a man called Lou Carrioti (ph) in Washington State. We spoke to him earlier this week. He said that any money raised through these sites would go to support the candidacy of Barack Obama. And he said he didn't think the Web sites were misleading, saying it does say Concerned Citizens For Obama.

But the Barack Obama campaign disagrees. Campaign lawyer Bob Bauer yesterday wrote to the Department of Justice asking for an immediate investigation, writing that these activities -- quote -- "appear clearly intended to deceive supporters of Barack Obama" and pointing out that there's no record of this group being registered with the Federal Elections Commission -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, what's the response from this Web site?

TATTON: Wolf, we have been trying to contact Mr. Carrioti since that initial conversation earlier this week. He hasn't responded to our inquiries.

But we have been checking in on his Web site. And we saw that the logo disappeared and then the photo. And if you look at it this afternoon, it looks like he's trying to get rid of it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi, thanks very much.

In this heated election year, a flashback to the disputed 2000 presidential race. The Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is defending the high court's decision back then, and he's telling disgruntled Democrats and others to "get over it."

Plus, the White House hopefuls get distracted again, but for very different reasons. In our "Strategy Session," we will take a closer look at why they keep veering off message.

And later: powerful criticism of the former President Jimmy Carter. We're going to tell you who's calling him a bigot.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It was the wildest presidential election in memory. That would be the 2000 recount in Florida that made hanging chads famous. Who could forget? Now a powerful new call to let the past stay in the past.

Let's bring in our Brian Todd. He is looking at this story for us.

Why turn back to the Bush/Gore standoff now? What is going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's clear that the Florida recount in 2000 still resonates. Analysts say many Florida voters are still angry about it. But one man who was at the center of the decision that fall has a fairly abrupt answer for that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): In his typically blunt manner, the Supreme Court's conservative standard-bearer says he and his court owe no apology for their decision in the 2000 Florida recount that swept George Bush and Dick Cheney into the White House.

Pressed by CBS' "60 Minutes" on accusations that the decision was purely political, Justice Antonin Scalia responds, "Nonsense."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "60 MINUTES")

ANTONIN SCALIA, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: Gee, I really don't want to get in -- I mean, this is -- get over it. It's so old by now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: Contacted by CNN, representatives for Al Gore said he would not comment.

But a former Gore press secretary did respond.

CHRIS LEHANE, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY FOR AL GORE: If you actually take a look at what Scalia is saying here, I think it only -- only reinforces concerns out there that this was very much of a political decision.

TODD: Justice Scalia told "60 Minutes" the Supreme Court merely did what it was asked to do in that contentious autumn, and places the ball in the Democrats' court.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "60 MINUTES")

SCALIA: It was Al Gore who made it a judicial question. It was he who brought it into the Florida courts. We didn't go looking for trouble. It was he who -- who said, I want this to be decided by the courts. What are we supposed to say? Oh, not important enough.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: The Gore campaign did take the case at one point to the Florida Supreme Court. But, before that, the Bush team has actually been the first side to go to court with a lawsuit in federal district court in Miami.

After the recount, one audit sponsored by a group of media companies, including CNN, suggested that, if the Supreme Court had allowed the recount to continue, Bush still would have been elected. Another media study was inconclusive.

Analysts say, Scalia's comments still strike a nerve because of the charged political climate this year. And Florida's again in the middle of it.

TOM FIEDLER, FORMER EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE MIAMI HERALD": It's as if the not-yet-healed scab has been peeled back once again with the threat that the 1.7 million Florida Democrats who voted in the Florida presidential primary are being told that that was an illegitimate contest.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: That, of course, refers to the refusal of the Democratic Party to seat Florida delegates at the convention because Florida moved up its primary against party rules.

Now, that's not likely to resonate as heavily as the 2000 recount. But Tom Fiedler says it could still hurt the Democrats if Floridians feel that they haven't been treated fairly here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: But he did offer a legal justification for that decision back in 2000.

TODD: He did. Scalia said that the -- the main issue of the case, on whether the Florida Supreme Court had violated the Constitution by pursuing a recount without a statewide standard, he said that decision on the court wasn't even close. He said it was 7- 2.

But, of course, we know the overall -- the overall Supreme Court decision on Florida was razor-thin, that 5-4, very dramatic, that vote.

BLITZER: And he was on "60 Minutes." He's on promoting a new book.

TODD: He is, yes.

BLITZER: OK. Thanks very much for that, Brian Todd.

In our "Strategy Session," message distraction, McCain and Clinton have fallen victim to it, and so has Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I understand that he might not agree with me on my assessment of his comments. That's to be expected. So, you know, he is obviously free to express his opinions on these issues. You know, I have expressed mine very clearly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So, how do the candidates stay on message? And could any of these distractions make a difference in November? We will speak about that and more with Donna Brazile and Kevin Madden.

Plus, he's the former White House press secretary. Now he's the newest member of the best political team on television. We're talking about Tony Snow. He's standing by to join us live -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In today's "Strategy Session," the presidential candidates try to stay focused. But, sometimes, they're thrown off message, not always by a critic, but sometimes by a supporter.

Take Barack Obama. Surely, he wants to move on from Jeremiah -- the Jeremiah Wright controversy, but the reverend is not moving on.

Here's his reaction to the widespread airing of a few of his words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "BILL MOYERS' JOURNAL") WRIGHT: When something is taken, like a sound bite for a political purpose, and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public. That's not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic, or, as the learned journalist from "The New York Times" called me, a "wackadoodle."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: As for Hillary Clinton, some have said her husband distracted her campaign with comments like these about the Obama campaign.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that they played the race card on me. And we now know, from memos from the campaign and everything, that they planned to do it all along.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And John McCain has had to deal with Republican distractions. Just yesterday, the radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said this.

And I'm quoting now: "Riots in Denver at the Democratic Convention would see to it we don't elect Democrats. And that's best damn thing that could happen for this country, as far as anything I can think."

Joining us now, our senior political analyst the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

What do you think, Donna, about all these distractions that these three candidates face right now? How do they deal with this, because, presumably, they say they want to deal with substantive issues?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, of the three that you just mentioned, the only one that is relevant is Bill Clinton, because Bill Clinton is a spouse, former president.

And I think, whenever he steps on Senator Clinton's message, it is -- it does cause a firestorm. On the other hand, Reverend Wright is Senator Obama's former pastor. He's addressed it. But Reverend Wright has decided to go public and to explain his views and his values. He has every right.

Rush Limbaugh is a -- you know, he's in a league of his own, quite frankly. And I would hope that Senator McCain or Senator Clinton and Senator Obama wouldn't have to spend so much time distracting themselves from their central message, rather focus on the problems facing the country.

KEVIN MADDEN, FORMER ROMNEY CAMPAIGN NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, Donna's right. And the toughest part about Bill Clinton is, who in the Clinton campaign can go up to Bill Clinton and say, you have to stop talking? I mean, you know that there's nobody in there with that sort of -- that sort of weight to actually carry that message.

And I think, with Rush Limbaugh, you know, John McCain and Rush Limbaugh have had a long history of not agreeing on a lot of things. Rush Limbaugh has never been a cheerleader for John McCain. So, the idea that it would tethered to his campaign, it's going to be easy to keep -- for him to keep his distance.

BLITZER: I write on my blog post today at CNNPolitics.com, Donna, about the pressure that no doubt is being leveled right now on John Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards before the North Carolina primary on May 6 to endorse one of these two candidates. Presumably, their endorsement could help one of the candidates.

What do you think? Do you think he's going to come down and make an endorsement between now and then?

BRAZILE: Well, I haven't talked to Senator Edwards since he got out of the race. Clearly, his endorsement would carry a great deal of weight, not just in North Carolina, but across the country.

But, given the stakes at this -- this hour, perhaps John Edwards will just hold his -- his vote until the bitter end, and perhaps help to bring the party together.

BLITZER: The other day, Elizabeth Edwards did endorse Hillary Clinton's health care plan as being superior to Barack Obama's health care plan. She's a cancer survivor -- obviously, health care an enormously significant issue. Some saw that as a hint that the Edwards family was moving towards the Clintons.

MADDEN: I'm actually going to agree with Donna here. I see very little chance or very little reason why they would actually wade into it at this point.

This would be an endorsement for John Edwards that he would have to own and carry all the way through the end of the convention. This is probably more of an indication of Elizabeth Edwards' dedication to health care as an issue than it is the political future of John -- John Edwards with any of these candidates.

BLITZER: Would it make a difference, do you think?

BRAZILE: Perhaps, absolutely.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: In North Carolina, I mean.

BRAZILE: Look, at a time that they're both struggling to, you know, beat one another, there's no question that John Edwards speaking out, helping them close the deal in North Carolina and across the country, it could be helpful. BLITZER: Are these endorsements really that important?

MADDEN: There are very, very few endorsements that mean a lot. I think this is -- right. This is one that, in the particular state of North Carolina, it would be an incredible validator with those voters there. He has a long, storied history of threat voters supporting him, especially with the Democratic constituency down there. It would go a long way.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I mean, Charlie Crist's endorsement of John McCain in Florida was a major help for John McCain.

(CROSSTALK)

MADDEN: Nobody felt the Charlie Crist endorsement more than the Romney campaign. It was five points in the back of his pocket, and he knew how to use it.

I suspect that John Edwards has about that many points in the back of his pocket as well.

BLITZER: Ed Rendell's endorsement of Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, I think, was pretty significant.

BRAZILE: Well, that's Ed Rendell -- Ed Rendell had a political machine, a very popular governor.

John Edwards has been out of public office for a long time. And, you know, United States senator, they don't have really the kind of weight that governors and mayors normally carry in a state.

BLITZER: McCain is blasting -- or not blasting, but he's trying to encourage the GOP in North Carolina not to run these governor ads against Barack Obama, saying he doesn't want to go there; he doesn't think the GOP in North Carolina should go there. They're getting ready for an advertising campaign. That's what they say.

What do you think?

MADDEN: I think he's doing the right thing.

Look, this is going to be a campaign that we're going to beat the Democrats with by comparing world views, by comparing attributes. John McCain has an advantage that he's a stronger leader. He has more experience than either one of the Democrats.

It ought not to be a race where we inject, you know, these type of issues that divisive for the country. Instead, there ought to be a unifying dialogue that we have here, but make it about the issues and why the Democrats are wrong, not because they're going to introduce some race into the issue, like -- like the party is trying to do down in North Carolina.

I expect that the party has provincial reasons for why they're trying to continue forward. But John McCain has made it very clear -- and I think he will benefit from that -- that he tried to get that ad pulled.

BLITZER: What they're trying to do, the GOP in North Carolina, as you know, Donna, is link Democratic candidates who are up for reelection or up for election, link not only those candidates to Barack Obama, but to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

BRAZILE: The Republican Party in North Carolina is doing a great disservice to the legacy of the Republican Party that helped to free the slave. And I will leave it that.

BLITZER: OK. And we will leave it at that as well.

Donna, thanks very much for that.

Kevin, thanks for coming in.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton appeals to North Carolina, not just for votes in the upcoming primary, but also to watch her husband's campaign (INAUDIBLE)

And the Bush administration presented what is called proof of a North Korean-style nuclear reactor in Syria. A day later, some experts are weighing what exactly that proof was.

And doing time used to be an instant rejection for military service. Now duty in a war zone could mean a suspended sentence. We will tell you what's going on.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our political ticker, Hillary Clinton suggests her husband is succumbing to temptation out on the campaign trail. The former president, who has struggled with his weight in the past, apparently is finding plenty of good food to sink his teeth into in North Carolina.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

H. CLINTON: My husband and my daughter and I, we have been having a great time. Now, you have got to -- you have got to help me out here, though, because my husband loves North Carolina.

And he loves barbecue. And he's been eating a lot of it across the state. And I -- I know how much fun he's having, but -- OK. Send him to the beach. You will serve him fish. That's a deal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can check out CNNPolitics.com. Let's go back to Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Does the Reverend Wright speaking out now -- he's in a televised interview tonight on PBS -- does his speaking out now help or hurt Barack Obama?

Lindy in California writes: "I think the interview could help, if it makes people slow down and be more curious about who this person really is. I was initially shocked by the Wright sound bites, but I knew there was more to the story. And, today, I took Roland Martin's suggestion and listened to the complete post-9/11 sermon. I suggest that you and your media buddies do the same. The sermon is nothing like those sound bites. For most of the 35-minute sermon, I found it to be very moving and even healing."

J.T. in Atlanta writes: "Excuse me. Reverend Wright is off his rocker, huh? Ask the Bell family. Sean Bell was killed in a hail of 50 gunshots. And, today, a judge found the three New York City cops involved innocent. Until you live 24 hours in someone else's shoes, mainstream America has no earthly clue. I hope Barack doesn't go to any black church in America this weekend, because it will certainly be headline news on Monday. Most of them will be preaching from Reverend Wright's script."

Brad in West Lafayette, Indiana: "It certainly does not help him right now in light of his fight with Senator Clinton, as it makes it headline news again. It could, however, help in the general election against Senator McCain, because it may bring a sense of closure to the issue now."

Chuck in Alabama: "Every time he utters Obama's name, he hurts him. His comment about them speaking to two audiences is intriguing. Who does he see as the members of those two audiences? As I understand it, the word of God is for all of us, and anyone trying to be the leader of all of US ought to be speaking to all of us."

Francie in Greenville, South Carolina: "My guess, it's because -- is it's because he missed the excitement of the media attention, which suddenly died down. Being in the resurrection business, he wants to resurrect his fleeting celebrity" -- talking about Jeremiah Wright. "It's as though he used his pulpit for performances, peppering his sermons with controversial issues, which attracted even more churchgoers. Hallelujah. Pass the basket."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile and look for yours there. There are hundreds of them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack.