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THE SITUATION ROOM

McCain Explains to Veterans; Clinton's Puerto Rico Push; Interview With Former Senator Bob Graham

Aired May 26, 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, a Memorial Day explanation from John McCain. The former POW delves into a dispute with Barack Obama over veterans' benefits. And he defends his commitment to America's troops.
Also this hour, Hillary Clinton's big push in Puerto Rico. What does she hope to accomplish with just days left in the Democratic primary season? We're going to have that. And we're also going to tell you why Bill Clinton says his wife is the victim of a cover-up.

Plus, the Ohio challenge. Can Democrats come together to win a crucial swing state? We're getting the big picture aboard the CNN Election Express.

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

Up first this hour, Memorial Day in presidential politics. The holiday honoring America's war dead seems to play to John McCain's strong suit as a former POW and the only major candidate who served in uniform. But today McCain felt compelled to strongly defend his vote against -- repeat, against -- the veterans benefit bill, a vote that has been sharply criticized by Barack Obama, among a lot of others.

We begin our coverage with CNN's Mary Snow. She's covering McCain's holiday appearance out in New Mexico, watching this story for us.

All right, Mary. Update our viewers. This is a huge battle, and it's getting personal between Barack Obama and John McCain over veterans' benefits. What's going on?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this has been a battle that's been brewing over the past couple of days. Now, today, Senator McCain and Senator Obama refrained from specifically targeting each other on this Memorial Day, but here in Albuquerque earlier today, Senator McCain did defend his stance on that GI bill that's become a point of contention on the campaign trail.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Senator John McCain marked Memorial Day with fellow veterans in Albuquerque. He talked about patriotism but didn't avoid politics. He responded to criticism from Democrats, particularly Senator Barack Obama, for opposing a GI bill that would extend education benefits to veterans. He didn't mention Obama by name, but he did refer to fellow veteran Senator Jim Webb, who introduced the bill.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It would be easier, much easier politically, for me to have joined Senator Webb in offering his legislation.

SNOW: The bill applies to people who have three years of service. McCain says he's concerned it would encourage people to leave the military after one enlistment. He wants the benefits tied to length of service.

MCCAIN: At a time when the United States military is fighting in two wars and we're finally, finally beginning the long, overdue and very urgent necessity of increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps, one study estimates that Senator Webb's bill will reduce retention rates by 16 percent.

SNOW: But others, including Obama, say it would encourage enlistment. And Obama has been targeting McCain for his opposition.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't understand why John McCain would side with George Bush and oppose our plan to make college more affordable for our veterans. Putting a college degree within reach for our veterans isn't being too generous. It's the least we can do for our heroes.

SNOW: And the argument has turned personal, with McCain highlighting his military service.

MCCAIN: I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans. I grew up in the Navy.

SNOW: McCain last week took aim at Obama, saying he didn't need to be lectured by someone who chose not to serve in the military. A charge Obama says made no sense.

OBAMA: I didn't serve, as many people my age, because Vietnam was over by the time I was of draft age.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And Wolf, Senator Obama is also here in New Mexico. Just a short time ago he paid tribute to veterans in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He did not mention Senator John McCain by name, but he did talk about his own personal history, mentioning and talking about the fact that his grandfather served in World War II -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary. Thank you.

Barack Obama, as Mary said, is in New Mexico. That's a key battleground state in his likely match-up with McCain in the fall. We're going to have a full report on Senator Obama's day. That's coming up shortly.

While Obama and McCain campaign out in the Southwest, Hillary Clinton is more than 2,000 miles away in Puerto Rico right now. She's making a major push before Sunday's primary in Puerto Rico with time almost out in this primary season.

Let's go out to San Juan. Our Suzanne Malveaux is joining us now live. She's watching this story.

Senator Clinton is there, what, with her whole family? Are they that much involved in trying to get the vote out in Puerto Rico, Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. I mean, this is a very important contest for Hillary Clinton.

There are two sayings that are going around right now in Puerto Rico. One is, "Si, puedemos." That is, "Yes, we can."

Barack Obama here on Saturday, but it was a quick visit. This is the message from Hillary Clinton in the local paper -- it is "Any time, any place," challenging Barack Obama to yet another debate over Puerto Rican issues. The whole family here emphasizing that they're going to campaign very hard for the last remaining big contests.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will come to Puerto Rico. I promise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. Thank you.

CLINTON: I will be a president who actually comes to Puerto Rico.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): For Hillary Clinton, campaigning in Puerto Rico is a family affair.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many grandchildren all together now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING SPANISH)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She said that she -- she lost count.

MALVEAUX: Several events were set up in people's homes to convey a sense of being intimately involved.

CLINTON: If he makes a career in the Army, that when I'm president we'll begin ending the war in Iraq. And you will not have to worry about him going back to Iraq. That's what I hope.

MALVEAUX: Clinton also brought her own family...

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But in Puerto Rico...

MALVEAUX: ... to remind voters how good her husband's administration had been to the island, providing federal aid following Hurricane George and getting rid of the controversial bombing range in Vieques.

If Barack Obama wins Puerto Rico in six days, he will reach the critical threshold in delegates to become the Democratic nominee. But Clinton is the favorite here, expected to pick up more delegates and votes. So maintaining her lead here means another day in the race.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: And Wolf, some of the key issues when it comes to Puerto Ricans her is obviously the status of Puerto Rico, now a commonwealth. Some pushing for statehood or independence. Hillary Clinton saying that she would leave it up to the Puerto Ricans to decide what is in their best interest, but that she would deal with that within her first term. Also bringing an end to the Iraq war, two issues that she talked about earlier today.

There are four million Puerto Ricans here. There's another four million on the mainland. And she is certainly hoping -- hoping, Wolf, that that is going to work in her favor -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux looking ahead to Puerto Rico on Sunday.

Thanks, Suzanne, very much.

Fifty-five delegates up for grabs in Puerto Rico's primary. It has more delegates at stake than over half of the states that held contests this primary season. As an unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico has a say in the primary process, but not -- repeat, not -- in the general election in November. Residents of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island do not get to vote in November.

A familiar Memorial Day scene -- President Bush laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery. The last time he'll mark this holiday as commander in chief. It was an emotional day for Mr. Bush as he got closer to turning over the reins to a new president.

Let's hear from him and from the candidates who likely will face off for his job in the fall.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On this Memorial Day, I stand before you as the commander in chief and try to tell you how proud I am of the sacrifice and service of the men and women who wear our uniform. They're an awesome bunch of people, and the United States is blessed to have such citizens.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: On this day of all days, let's memorialize our fallen heroes by honoring all who wear our country's uniform and by completing their work to make sure America is more secure and our world is more free. But let's also do our part, service member and civilian alike, to live up to the idea that so many of our fellow Americans have consecrated.

The idea of America, that is the essence of patriotism. That is the lesson of this solemn day. And that is the task that lies ahead.

God bless you and may God bless the United States of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: Your ambitions may not have led you to war. The honors you sought were not kept hidden on battlefields. Many of you -- many of you were citizen soldiers.

You answered the call when it came, took up arms for your country's sake, and fought to the limit of your ability, because you believed America's security was as much your responsibility as it was to the professional soldiers. And when you came home, you built a better country than the one you inherited.

It is a privilege and an honor to be in your company.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're waiting to hear from Hillary Clinton. She's about to make some statements, presumably on this Memorial Day holiday about the men and women in uniform. Once she does, we'll bring you her comments as well.

Jack and "The Cafferty File" have the day off. They'll be back tomorrow.

Barack Obama is in the early stages of his vice presidential search. Could he use a Florida connection?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB GRAHAM (D), FMR. U.S. SENATOR: The reality is, if the nominee of your party for president of the United States asks you to serve in almost any capacity, most people are going to say yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The former senator Bob Graham tells us if he's gotten any feelers from the Obama campaign about the number two job.

Plus, the true meaning of Memorial Day. U.S. troops carrying on in Iraq after losing five -- repeat, five -- of their comrades. CNN's Arwa Damon revisits the men of Delta Company.

And you'll need to look closely if you want to catch a glimpse of President Bush raising campaign cash for John McCain. We'll tell you why right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As Barack Obama closes in on the Democratic nomination there is no -- repeat, no -- underestimating of the importance of the electoral-college-rich state of Florida or the support of party leaders in the state.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now from our Miami studios, the former Democratic senator from Florida, Bob Graham. He's a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and he's joining us right now.

Thanks very much, Senator, for coming in.

GRAHAM: Thank you, Wolf. Thanks for the invitation.

BLITZER: It seems every four years your name surfaces as a possible vice presidential running mate on the Democratic ticket. We all remember it was high on the list back in 2004. Politico, the Web site, now says your name is once again being considered out there, noting that you won five consecutive statewide races, most by wide margins, in the notorious swing state.

Anybody in touch with you yet about that?

GRAHAM: I've had no contact. And from my past experience, Wolf, I know this is the decision made 100 percent by the Democratic nominee.

BLITZER: What do you think? Is that something you might be interested in?

GRAHAM: Wolf, the decision is going to be made by the nominee. The reality is, if the nominee of your party for president of the United States asks you to serve in almost any capacity, most people are going to say yes.

BLITZER: I think that's a fair assessment.

You're 71-years-old. John McCain is 71-years-old. Should age be a factor in this race right now?

GRAHAM: I think whatever the American people think is relevant ought to be a factor. Whether you're too young, too inexperienced, or too maybe long in the tooth, it's up to the American people.

BLITZER: But you feel pretty good, I hope?

GRAHAM: I feel very good. This has been an extremely good period of my life, Wolf, other than the fact that I haven't had a chance to be with you very much.

BLITZER: All right. Well, we're going to change that in the coming weeks and months.

What do you think? I take it you have not endorsed one of these Democrats yet. Is that right?

GRAHAM: That's correct.

BLITZER: Why not?

GRAHAM: Well, I want to get this situation of the Florida delegates solved. And I've tried to be an honest broker in doing so. I think this could be a serious issue in November if it's not handled properly in May and June.

BLITZER: Well, they're going to meet, the DNC Rules Committee, this Saturday. What do you want them to do?

GRAHAM: What I want them to do is stop looking in the rearview mirror at what happened a year ago, Wolf, and let's look forward to what will put us in the best position to carry the fourth largest state in the nation in November. And I think that means treating the Democratic voters of Florida respectfully.

We don't think we had anything to do with all this problem, and yet we're the ones who are being spanked. And frankly, a lot of Floridians are tired of that, and they want to see a different attitude from the National Democratic Party.

BLITZER: So do you want the delegates seated along the lines of the actual election outcome in Florida, even though none of the candidates went out there and actually campaigned?

GRAHAM: Here's what I'd like to see. I'd like to see all the delegates from Florida seated, each with a full vote.

I think part of the delegation should be allocated based on the flawed January 29 election. But it was the only election we had.

I think the other delegates -- and it should be about 50/50 -- should be allocated based on how America has voted. We say in Florida, truthfully, that Florida is the microcosm of America. America is the microcosm of Florida. Therefore, I believe the fairest way to allocate the second half of the delegates is on the basis of how America has selected its delegates.

BLITZER: What about this notion of only giving the delegates in Florida half their seats, which is what the Republicans did?

GRAHAM: Maybe the Republicans ought to sanction their delegation, because they were the ones, frankly, who passed the law that put this early primary into effect. But there's no reason why Democratic voters in Florida should not be fully represented at the convention in Denver. We consider ourselves to be victims, not perpetrators.

BLITZER: Who would have a better chance carrying Florida, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? GRAHAM: Both will have an excellent chance. I think both will carry Florida if we don't make...

BLITZER: The polls show Hillary Clinton stronger.

GRAHAM: Both will carry Florida if we don't make some mistake such as the way we handle this delegate selection and seating process.

BLITZER: Because, you know, right now the polls show that she would be ahead of McCain by a wider margin than Barack Obama.

GRAHAM: But both will carry the state.

BLITZER: How do you know that?

GRAHAM: I know it because, first, they are very strong, effective people on the issues that Floridians care about. In the last week, both were not state. Both had very strong appearances before the various constituencies that make up the voters of Florida.

This is also a time when Florida is being hammered, as is the nation. Economically, we have one of the highest rates of foreclosures in the country, high rates of unemployment. We've lost scores of our people in Afghanistan and Iraq. And today, on Memorial Day, we are particularly sensitive to their sacrifice and the foreign policy judgments that cause them to be placed in a position of harm's way.

BLITZER: A couple of questions about Jimmy Carter. Then I'll let you go.

He's now suggesting that after June 3, the final two primaries in Montana and South Dakota, Hillary Clinton should start thinking about dropping out given the math. Is he right?

GRAHAM: I think that's her decision to make. She's a very experienced, wise person. And I know she has the best interest of America and the Democratic Party at heart.

BLITZER: He also told a group in England that Israel has 150 nuclear weapons. You're a former chairman of the Intelligence Committee. Is he right?

GRAHAM: Well, I can't comment specifically, but as of today, Israel is not a declared nuclear power. It is not one of those seven or eight countries in the world which are professedly nuclear.

BLITZER: Is it appropriate for a former president to be talking about Israel's reported nuclear arsenal?

GRAHAM: I don't know exactly what the president said. But what we might know or speculate on that is very sensitive and highly classified.

BLITZER: Senator Graham, thanks very much for coming in.

GRAHAM: Thank you, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: A warning today from the top to the troops in the field. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying, from officers to the enlisted (ph) politics has no place in the military, so zip it.

And it's considered to be an historically pivotal state in presidential elections gone by. Which way will Ohio swing this year? Our CNN Election Express and Bill Schneider, they're live from the banks of the Ohio River.

That's coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, gasoline at bargain prices on New York's Long Island, and cars are lining up. Some stations there have pumps so old they can't roll the price of $3.99 a gallon.

A Boeing 747 splits in two during a botched takeoff. We take a look at what might have happened to make it crack up. You're going to want to see this story as well.

And right on target at last. The Mars Phoenix lander snaps photos like crazy while NASA engineers remain downright giddy over the successful touchdown. Our Miles O'Brien is watching this story.

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

Tomorrow, President Bush headlines the first in a series of fund- raisers for John McCain. But most Americans won't see more than a quick glimpse of the two Republicans together. The McCain camp is making sure of that.

Let's go straight to our White House correspondent Ed Henry. He's watching this story for us.

The president certainly can raise a lot of money for John McCain, but there's a downside and that's beginning to play out right now. Tell our viewers, Ed, what's going on.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Mr. Bush is still very popular with Republican campaign donors. So, John McCain wants to tap into that, without getting too close to the president, as you can imagine, a very delicate dance.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): Two months after President Bush tap-danced at the White House, waiting for John McCain to show up for his endorsement, there will also be some fancy footwork this week, as the duo embarks on their first joint fund-raiser.

While the event was initially planned to be open to cameras at the Phoenix Convention Center, it's been moved to a private residence and is now closed to the media. So, there will only be brief pictures of McCain and the president on an airport tarmac.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: If John McCain is to win in November, it's not going to be on a Bush coattail.

HENRY: Democrats already use chummy photos for ads, charging a McCain victory will amount to a third Bush term.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE AD)

NARRATOR: Is John McCain the right choice for America's future?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: A McCain aide acknowledged, the Arizona event was originally supposed to be open, but chalked up any confusion to the campaign still working out the kinks on its first event with the president.

The McCain aide said the senator is absolutely not trying to minimize public photos with Mr. Bush. And the White House agrees.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The McCain campaign has a practice of having their fund-raisers as -- as closed press.

HENRY: Closing the fund-raiser gives McCain the best of both worlds. A candidate trailing the Democrats in the money chase gets help from the fund-raiser in chief, without getting too close to a president whose disapproval rating reached 71 percent in the latest CNN poll.

"The Phoenix Business Journal" reported, the event was moved to a private home because tickets were not selling well. So, McCain was worried about not filling up the Convention Center. A McCain aide told CNN that report is, "not based in fact."

But the campaign is refusing to release how much money they're expecting to raise.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Now, on Tuesday night, we're not expecting to see a picture of the president and Senator McCain until after the fund- raiser. That just so happens to also be after the nightly newscasts -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Ed Henry, at the White House.

Let's get to the battleground state of Ohio right now, a state that could be decisive in the general election. Our senior political correspondent, Bill Schneider, is on the river's edge across from Cincinnati. He's with the CNN Election Express right now. There it is, the CNN Election Express.

What are we looking for in Ohio, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what we're looking for is the answer to the question of the moment: Can the Democrats come together?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Ohio voted twice for Bill Clinton, narrowly. Then it voted twice for George W. Bush, narrowly.

PAT CROWLEY, POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER": It's a microcosm of the country. You have the big urban areas, about half- a-dozen of them. You have huge growing exurbs (ph), the big McMansion suburbs. And then you some parts in the eastern part of the state that some of the of the most economically depressed in the country.

SCHNEIDER: Hillary Clinton won the Ohio primary. If Barack Obama gets the Democratic nomination, will her supporters in Ohio rally behind him? Some said yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He has the ability to make change. And that's why I would vote for him.

SCHNEIDER: Some said they would go with John McCain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is because of John's experience. I just feel more comfortable with him leading our country.

SCHNEIDER: This longtime observer of Ohio politics says Obama needs some of Clinton's fighting style.

CROWLEY: They want a good fight. And they want somebody who will go toe to toe for them and with them. And he needs -- he's going to have to show some of that.

SCHNEIDER: If Obama's the nominee, Senator Clinton says she will do her part.

CLINTON: I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that anyone who supported me, the 17 million people who have voted for me, understand what a grave error it would be not to vote for Senator McCain -- Senator Obama and against Senator McCain.

SCHNEIDER: There's a scene Ohio Democrats will be waiting to see.

CROWLEY: I can see a rally in downtown Cincinnati or Columbus or out in the hills of southeastern Ohio where she would throw his arm around -- around Barack Obama, and that would be a huge help.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SCHNEIDER: Ohio has lost nearly a quarter-of-a-million manufacturing jobs since 2000. A lot of the voters here are hurting. They want specifics. What are the candidates going to do to help them? -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Bill, thanks very much. Bill is out in Ohio for us, a key battleground come November.

A top-ranking U.S. military officer has a blunt reminder for the troops. He says this: Stay out of politics. We're going to take a look at the motive behind the message.

Plus, a weekend with John McCain -- did any of the guests gain an edge, as McCain weighs in on his vice presidential options?

And, later, Bill Clinton's allegations of a cover-up, a cover-up that he says is hurting his wife.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has a pointed warning for the United States military.

Admiral Mike Mullen is issuing a simple directive: Politics and the military don't mix.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. She's watching this story for us.

What is Admiral Mullen specifically telling the forces he oversees? And he oversees the entire U.S. military.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that's right.

As the political heat ratchets up, the top military officer is basically saying, let us know who wins. We don't want to get involved.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): From the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a blunt reminder for the troops.

Writing in a military magazine, Admiral Michael Mullen said, "The U.S. military must remain apolitical at all times and in all ways." He says, "Political opinions have no place in the cockpit or camp or conference room."

Last November, Mullen was already thinking about how to keep the troops out of politics.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, JOINTS CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: First of all, stay focused on that need, recognizing that it is a very challenging time politically, because of where we are in the run-up to electing a new president, and also in recognition that we have operations going on around the world that a new team will have to seize on day one and make decisions about what they're going to do.

STARR: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the top military adviser to the president of the United States. Mullen is well aware he could be serving a new president on day one, a president who may alter U.S. policy in Iraq.

Mullen's message is for the most junior troops and the most senior generals.

MULLEN: There is very little that I'm involved in right now where I don't think about how that will apply in 2009, and that we need to be mindful of that and ready for a new administration, whoever that is.

STARR: Regulations have long prohibited military personnel from engaging in political activities while on duty. This year, the policy was updated, tightening the rules for reservists as well.

Troops are encouraged to vote, but they cannot participate as military personnel in partisan activities.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Mullen also has been worried about the political role and influence of senior retired officers during the election season. His bottom line, everybody should remember, there are still troops on the front line -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. All right, thanks very much for that, Barbara.

Memorial Day is especially poignant for those troops still out in the battlefield. And let's not forget, 140,000 U.S. troops right now are still stationed in Iraq.

CNN's Arwa Damon is joining us now from Iraq, where more than 4,000 U.S. forces have died since the conflict started had. She spent some time with U.S. troops out there, spent a lot of time, in fact, over these years. Let's go to Arwa right now.

How are U.S. forces in Iraq observing this Memorial Day?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it really depends on where you are. The small base where we're located, there are actually no Memorial Day service observances of any sort, not because they don't want to remember the dead -- they do every single minute of every single day -- but because the wounds are still so fresh.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON (voice-over): Staff Sergeant David Julian loved children. He used to say that's what made all of the sacrifices worth it. SPEC. TOM RINI, U.S. ARMY: It's not all fame and glory. It's a lot of hard times over here. But without Americans willing to pay that price, who's going to? It makes it worth it to know you might provide a future for those kids.

DAMON: We met Sergeant Julian and the men of Delta company back in September, but just two months ago, he and four fellow soldiers and their interpreter were all killed when a suicide bomber struck their patrol. Every second of every day, those who survive remember their fallen comrades.

PFC. ERROLL MCHUGH, U.S. ARMY: It's hard. Because, you know, the thought of possibility of losing more guys is the possibility that happens every day as we go out but I know it's what they would want. They wouldn't want us just sitting around mourning for them and they would want us still out doing our job.

SGT. ROBERT HUDSON, U.S. ARMY: I lost my crew. I was in a tank platoon and a tank platoon by itself is like a family. To tell you the truth, I have got soldiers underneath me and if I break down, then they don't know what to do so I kind of got to do it for them. Plus, you can't show emotion over here because if you do, you'll get ate up. You can't let it get to you.

DAMON: Each soldier here displays that determination.

LT. GREGORY FREDLUND, U.S. ARMY: At the end of the day, it's them taking that burden on saying we're ready to go out, I want to protect my platoon. I want to protect my soldiers and my brothers to my left and right and they took that burden on to go back out again.

SPC. JORDAN TUCKER, U.S. ARMY: The bond we have together is something I really never found anywhere else and it's the stress and it's the hazards that really bring us together.

DAMON: It's a bond borne out of the experiences they can only share with each other, knowing that some of their comrades will not be going home.

SPC. THOMAS WEBER, U.S. ARMY: I will remember them as five guys who were doing their job, who were doing what they raised their right hand and swore to do and I will think more than anything about the fact that Staff (ph) Sergeant Julian had daughters born while they were here.

CAPT. WES WILHITE, U.S. ARMY: I want them to know that those five, just like everybody else that's laid down their life down here, to know that they gave up everything, they sacrificed everything for what America is about.

FREDLUND: I would love to bring all my men home. I would love that more than anything. To not do that, it's going to be very bittersweet going back.

(END VIDEOTAPE) DAMON: Despite that emotional and physical exhaustion that the troops are going through, the mission tempo here has not slowed one bit. They really can't afford to succumb to the grief and to the emotions. They all say that they will deal with the pain of their losses when they get back home -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa, thank you -- Arwa Damon reporting from Iraq.

Coming up in our "Strategy Session," Senator John McCain says his age is a nonfactor in 2008.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: Watch me campaign. Come on, on the bus. Come on, on the bus again, my friends, all of you. You're all welcome. Come on. Watch me campaign. We keep a heavier schedule. We campaign harder, I said at the beginning of the primary, with respect and affection for my opponents in the primary.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But, eight years ago, he had a much different prediction about what he would be doing right about now. We're going to bring you those comments.

And, by the end of the week, we will know much more about the fate of Michigan and Florida's delegates. Will Hillary Clinton keep going if she doesn't like the outcome?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Republican presidential candidate John McCain takes another step towards solidifying his White House push. He met over the weekend at his ranch in Arizona with some potential running mates. So, what did they accomplish, if anything?

Let's discuss in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, Hilary Rosen. She's a Democratic strategist and political director for HuffingtonPost.com. And Republican strategist and CNN political contributor Leslie Sanchez.

Guys, thanks for coming in.

What do you think, Leslie? What was going on at this get- together out West?

(CROSSTALK)

LESLIE SANCHEZ, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think they ate a lot of barbecue. I think they had a great time.

I mean, if you look at the comments of Governor Jindal from Louisiana, he said that talk of vice presidency did not come up. I think it was an opportunity to talk strategically about the Republican coalition and what it's going to look like moving forward. But it was a time to, more importantly, get to know each other and maybe -- maybe what a McCain Cabinet might look like.

BLITZER: Hilary, as a Democrat looking in at the Republicans, does it really make a difference who McCain picks, in terms of his chances come November?

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Oh, sure. If anything, it might make more of a difference for McCain than it has in several years, because of his age. And...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: So, who should be like the -- without mentioning names, what should he be looking for?

ROSEN: Well, he's got to look for somebody who is sort of vigorous enough to do -- to keep up with him, in some respects.

BLITZER: A much younger person, in other words?

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: A younger person.

ROSEN: But also someone with management -- probably, the reason it didn't come up with Bobby Jindal is because I don't think he's a serious candidate.

BLITZER: He's only 36-years-old.

ROSEN: He just don't have what it takes.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But Mitt Romney might be a serious...

ROSEN: Mitt Romney might be just end up being the last guy standing, after all of the others are eliminated.

BLITZER: What about Charlie Crist? He's a younger guy, but he's not that young.

ROSEN: You would like to think that McCain would be most comfortable with a good friend like Charlie Crist of Lindsey Graham or someone like that, but it's just probably not going to work culturally and because of their -- his more progressive politics. Who knows where that goes.

BLITZER: What do you think?

SANCHEZ: You know, I think one thing we know about John McCain is, he comes from an unusually vigorous stock. He's a very strong individual and very much a maverick. If you want a scripted person, that's not going to be John McCain. I think he's ultimately going to decide to partner with somebody who's going to broaden the Republican coalition and who may not always agree with him, but can fundamentally guide the course on principles of cutting spending and smaller government.

(CROSSTALK)

ROSEN: But he likes this discussion, because there's been some criticism of the McCain campaign, that he's not moving fast enough, that he's not getting things organizes well enough, they're getting too distracted by the big issues.

So, he likes the -- the discussion of, OK, now he's really seriously thinking about the next step.

BLITZER: There was a big story in "The New York Times" yesterday on the front page precisely about that.

Let's talk a little bit about what McCain -- he got a clean bill of health, pretty much, I think, on Friday from his doctors, including our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who went the records, said he seems to be in pretty good shape right now.

Eight years ago, after he dropped out of the race, he was asked, well, would you think about it down -- down the road, in 2008? Listen to what he said, because this video tape just surfaced.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: In 2004, I expect to be campaigning for the reelection of President George W. Bush. And, by 2008, I think I might be ready to go down to the old soldiers home and await the cavalry charge there.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He's a funny guy.

SANCHEZ: He is.

BLITZER: He's changed his mind, obviously.

SANCHEZ: Yes. No, John McCain's not a normal guy. He's a very -- 50 percent of that was right, in terms of campaigning for Bush.

I what you see here is, he has a sense of humor. He knows how to poke fun at himself. He also is not a normal person, in terms of his capability. He works harder than probably candidates half his age. And that's the truth of anybody who's ever campaigned with him. He's more up front. He's more honest. And he's going to tell you and speak his mind. And I think, very much so, that's what's unique about him.

BLITZER: All right, let me switch gears. Before you -- I want to talk about this a little bit. I want to talk about something that you're really well plugged in. What's going to happen at the DNC this Saturday, when the Rules Committee meets, and they have to work out what to do about those delegates in Michigan and Florida? What are they going to do?

(CROSSTALK)

ROSEN: Well, there's a lot of pressure on Howard Dean to be a leader and to -- to move the party through this in a way that gets some -- gets some grace back in this process.

BLITZER: How do they do that?

ROSEN: And, so, I think what you're going to see is, Dean is going to lead the committee. He has a majority of the votes on the committee. Neither Hillary Clinton, nor Barack Obama probably have the majority of votes. Dean holds the majority. And I think we're going to see him come up with a compromise that neither advantages, nor disadvantages the candidates, based on where they are right now.

BLITZER: Give us an example. How do they do that?

ROSEN: So, either they do that by giving them half the votes, as you suggested before with Bob Graham, or they do...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... because there's some speculation that they will do the Republican model, which is strip Michigan and Florida of half their delegates, not all of their delegates.

ROSEN: They will do one or the other.

But we have to remember that the members of this committee and the chairman himself are the very same people who warned Michigan and Florida not to do this. So, they're just not going to go and pretend as if it never happened, the way Bob Graham wanted them to.

BLITZER: What do you think?

SANCHEZ: You know, I think it's the beginning of a process. As much as Democrats would like to believe they're going to get an endgame, a soft conclusion, and everybody is going to sing kumbaya and move forward, I think, strategically, if Hillary Clinton thinks that she can continue to make her way through Denver, even though they may be slightly wounded, she will fight to do that.

I think one thing is interesting. If you listen to her message, I think she realizes there is an endgame now. It's much more conciliatory. It's much more about building the party. If anybody's changed their message, it's Barack Obama. I think he's reaching out an olive branch to her, in terms of tone.

ROSEN: I don't think Hillary Clinton is bringing this to Denver. I don't think there's any scenario under which that happens. I think Michigan and Florida delegations are going to be in control themselves over whether they will agree with the DNC proposal. And Hillary Clinton really is going to be left making her argument to superdelegates. And she still has a good argument, in terms of the states she's won, in terms of the popular vote that she's gaining. So, that's going to be...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Bob Graham, you just heard him here in THE SITUATION ROOM. The former senator, former governor of Florida, he knows that state well. He says, either of these Democrats can carry Florida only if the DNC works out a deal that allows these Florida votes, these delegates, to be seated, not half, but in full measure.

ROSEN: Well, whether -- whether, you know, these couple of hundred people have a good time at the Democratic Convention, I think, isn't going to matter that much to the voters of Florida. They're going to care about the economy, the war. They're going to care about health care. That's what's going to win a Democrat in Florida in the fall.

BLITZER: And those are the big issues; you agree?

SANCHEZ: Well, I would disagree. I would say John McCain is probably most aggressive in that state and most favorable.

BLITZER: I know both of them will be very -- they will be spending a lot of time in Florida.

ROSEN: It will be a tough state.

BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much for that.

Senator Ted Kennedy battling brain cancer, but that isn't stopping him from living life. We will explain what he's doing.

But, first, controversial comments from former President Carter, could it upset the race for nuclear weapons in the Middle East?

And former President Bill Clinton with a passionate defense of his wife's candidacy for the White House. You're going to want to hear what he's saying -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots," pictures coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press.

In Wisconsin, veterans stand at attention as they form the color guard for a Memorial Day service.

In Florida, a mother leans on the grave site of her son, who was killed in Iraq.

In Virginia, a 2-year-old girl shakes hands with members of an American Legion rifle corps at the War Memorial Richmond.

And, in Florida, once again, after decorating her father's grave site with flags and flowers, a woman bends down to kiss the tomb -- some of this hour's "Hot Shots," pictures often worth 1,000 words.

On our Political Ticker right now: Barack Obama picks up another handful of superdelegates, including three more in Hawaii. By CNN's count, Obama now has 1,967 total delegates. That puts him 52 short of the number needed to clinch the nomination right now, without Florida and Michigan. Hillary Clinton has 1,780 delegates. That's 246 short of the number to clinch.

A new poll suggests Obama heading for a big win in Montana, one of two states that holds contests on the final day of the primary season, June 3. The Mason-Dixon poll of likely primary voters in Montana shows Obama with 52 percent support, compared with 35 percent support for Clinton.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro is criticizing Obama's plan to keep the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. But in a column published in Cuba today, Castro also called Obama -- and I'm quoting now -- "the most advanced candidate in the race."

We will have much more on this story and a lot more, including Obama's willingness to hold direct talks with Cuba. That's coming up in our next hour.

Senator Ted Kennedy is feeling well enough today to compete in an annual sailboat race between Nantucket and Cape Cod. It's been about a week since he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. Kennedy skipped the first part of the race on Saturday, but his spokeswoman says, today, the wind was just right.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out CNNPolitics.com. That's also where you can download our new political screen-saver and where you can check out my blog posts.