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Briefing on U.S. Hostages Rescued From Colombian Jungle; McCain Campaign Makeover; Obama in the Center

Aired July 3, 2008 - 16:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, rescued American hostages reunited with their families. This hour, new information about their five-year nightmare as captives in the jungle.
We're standing by for a news conference in Texas.

Plus, the flip-flop primary. Many voters think both John McCain and Barack Obama have changed their minds for political reasons.

And McCain's campaign makeover, how the new guy running the show is trying to make the Republicans look better.

Wolf Blitzer's off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.


The rescue of three American hostages redefines the word "miracle." That, according to the niece of one former captive.

We are standing by to learn more about the condition of Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell. They are now at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where a news conference is due to begin very shortly. We hope to get more information about their long ordeal in the Colombian jungle and the way rebels were tricked into letting them go free.

President Bush spoke today about the rescue operation and offered praise for Colombian leaders.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak to President Uribe of Colombia. And he called to give me the good news that hostages had been rescued, including three Americans that had been held since 2003.

I congratulated the president. I asked him to congratulate his military and those who had planned it. And I told him what a joyous occasion it must be to know that the plan had worked, that people who were unjustly held were now free to be with their families.


MALVEAUX: Our own Brian Todd is there at the site of the news conference.

And Brian, what can you tell us about who's going to speak, what we're going to hear about the update on their conditions?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, just moments from now we're going to hear from the commanding general of U.S. Army South who is based here at Fort Sam Houston. He is Major General Keith Huber. He will be speaking, along with two medical officers who will update us on the physical and emotional condition of these men, two key areas that we're going to focus on.

Colonel Jackie Hayes is the chief of the pulmonary critical care unit here and Colonel Carl Dickens is an Army psychologist. They're going to be giving us the really crucial information about the physical and emotional condition of all three of these former hostages.

We are told that the family of one of them, Keith Stansell, is here in San Antonio. The families of the other two, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes are either arriving or about to arrive. But Keith Stansell's family is here.

Not necessarily on the base yet. That's unclear. But they're about to be reunited. So things are moving in a very fast pace here -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Brian, tell me a little bit more about the base. What do they actually do? What kinds of diseases do they treat? Or what are they focused on when they look at these captives?

TODD: We're told that the specialty here is tropical diseases, that they have a very good record in that department. And they really have focused on that quite a bit over the years.

We're also told that this base has been in the preparatory stages for these three men's return for a matter of years. Not just weeks and months, but years.

When they knew that they were going to try to possibly rescue or just otherwise prepare for them to be released, this was the place that they planned on sending them. So we should be hearing just moments from now, and maybe even right now how these men are doing.

MALVEAUX: And Brian, is there some suspicion that perhaps they were exposed to tropical diseases in the time of their captivity? Is that one of the reasons why?

TODD: It could very well be. The U.S. ambassador to Colombia was quoted as saying that two out of these three men have developed some kind of odd parasitic disease. Now, again, that's just coming from one official. So hopefully we'll get a lot more information on that in the coming moments.

Also, Marc Gonsalves was reported to have developed hepatitis somewhere along the way. That's a condition that really could worsen as you spend months and months and years in the jungle. So we will hopefully get an update on that as well.

MALVEAUX: Sure, Brian. What is the level of concern for these three individuals? Obviously they've dealt with a lot of health issues. But I understand, too, there were times that they were chained by the neck, that they really went through very harsh treatment during the time of their captivity.

TODD: Well, the emotional condition is going to be just the key factor. And that's why they may be at this base for quite some time.

You know, in these situations, you hear accounts from former hostages of the FARC who were held by them in the jungles that there were a lot of forced marches, that there are a lot of instances where they're woken up in the middle of the night and just, you know, hustled out, sometimes blindfolded and in other conditions. So that's going to take an emotional toll, and we hope to find out more about that.

MALVEAUX: OK. Let's take a listen, Brian.


MAJ. GEN. KEITH HUBER, COMMANDER, U.S. ARMY SOUTH: ... were under positive control outside of their five-year, five-month condition from Osequestrados (ph) as captives. I was privileged to receive them at 23:30 hours last night, 11:30 p.m., to look them in the eye, to welcome them home, to shake their hands, and to then escort them to the hospital, where they currently are undergoing phase two of the reintegration process which I will outline for you.

The department of defense has a reintegration process, a very thoroughly thought-out, detailed process to receive members who have been in captivity, members of the Department of Defense and civilians and contractors who are performing duties on the behalf of the Department of Defense. The purpose is to provide a transition back to normal life after the strains of captivity.

U.S. Army South is honored to be the Department of Defense designated agent on behalf of the United States Southern Command to conduct this process, a process that we have trained, that we have rehearsed, that we are prepared to perform. And in fact, last August, we did perform in the reintegration of an Ethiopian contractor who had been held captive for 84 days.

The reintegration process is designed to protect the family members and their returnees, and to provide health and welfare as they transition. It consists of medical screenings and care, psychological support, intelligence debriefings, and family reunions and support.

I am honored to tell you that I just returned from escorting Keith Stansell back to the hospital after I escorted him to his first private reunion with his incredible daughter, Lauren, who has been on the networks, his son Kyle, and his mother and father. And today I will be privileged to personally escort Marc and Tom to a private location for their first private reunions with members of their family. The reintegration process has three phases to it: the initial recovery, the transition location, which is the phase we're currently in, and then a home-based phase. There really is no set timeline. It's obviously individually-based upon the returnees, their condition, and their family members, but generally the initial recovery is done as quickly as possible, as you observed yesterday.

And the phase two for the transition is normally a two-to-four- day period. And then they return to a home location for follow-on care and the opportunity to share the lessons learned from their experience.

At this time I will turn the word over to the two medical experts that I have with me. In this case, initially Dr. Dickens. And I thank you for your attention.

COL. CARL DICKENS, PSYCHOLOGIST: Good afternoon, and welcome.

As you all know, this is definitely a good news story. And so we wanted to take the opportunity just to share some information about that good news story.

I think General Huber touched on some of the key points here in terms of the reintegration process and what it's designed to do. What I would like to do is just highlight a couple of other things about the integration process that I think are key and essential to this process.

As you know, these individuals, Marc, Keith and Tom, have endured five and a half years of separation from family, living in an environment that was particularly challenging. And the one thing that I can say about these individuals is that they're very resilient. They're very stress-hearty, and they're doing very well. And so I think that that certainly is a good news story.

The other part of it in terms of the reintegration process is that our job is to try to facilitate that transition back to their previous situation in terms of family, work, et cetera. And a way that we go about doing that is by helping them to gradually reestablish some predictability and control over their experience, help them identify some potential challenges that they may encounter as they make that transition, and then finally give them some action plans that they can use to help them as they go through that transition process.

As General Huber mentioned, this process is designed not just for the individual, but also to assist the family, because as you know, any time you have a reunion with someone who's been separated for a long period of time, there are things that you need to try to work through in order to ensure that it leads to a positive outcome. So that's primarily our job here during this reintegration process, is to try to facilitate that process and create conditions that will hopefully lead to success in the end.

I will now turn it over to Dr. Hayes.

Good afternoon.

COL. JACKIE HAYES, PSYCHIATRIST: My job has been to be the lead physician for the medical team that's been providing medical care for the returnees. We received them last evening at about 23:45, and at that time we admitted them to our medical facility for observation and evaluation.

We immediately brought them in and began an evaluation to include history and physical examination, laboratory evaluation, also x-ray evaluation, depending upon what needed to be ruled out. Our primary interest initially was to rule out any infectious diseases and provide isolation to prevent any infectious risk to other visitors or patients or family members, et cetera.

I'm happy to report that they are all in very good physical condition, very strong. The results of the test are pending at this point in time, but everything really looks well. They're in great spirits, and we're continuing the medical evaluation process as we speak, and hopefully everything will come back negative. So everything looks good at this point in time.

Thank you.

HUBER: OK. At this time we're going to open it up for questions.

Go ahead, please.


HAYES: We're currently evaluating for those possibilities to rule those diseases out. Currently, we have not confirmed any of those diagnoses.

HUBER: Yes, sir?


HUBER: The question is, how did you receive the news about the returnees, how did you take that and how did you react upon that news?


You're going to interpret it or do you want me to?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, your call.

HUBER: Thank you. I thought it was important that all of you were able to hear the interpretation of the excellent question.

There is a very well established communication channel for this system. As I said, for the last five years, we've been in preparation and in anticipation that this would occur.


And I received at 14:10 yesterday afternoon the official notification of this superb operation.

MALVEAUX: We've been listening to military officials out of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, what they are calling really good news here, saying three phases that these individuals who have been held captive for five and a half years in the Colombian jungle have to go through, an initial recovery stage, a transition, as well as follow-up care at a home base.

All three of those officials reporting good news, saying that they are very resilient, that they're doing well, that there this is a good news story. That they've ruled out infectious diseases.

They still have some medical tests pending the results. But they say pending those results, hopefully they'll come back negative. They describe all three of these individuals as strong and in good spirits.

So those three officials there giving the latest information, the update on those three Americans who were held captive in the Colombian jungle for the last five and a half years. We'll bring you more details as they become available.

Now, check out some of the stories that we're following in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

John McCain's campaign makeover leads to a new focus on jobs, jobs, and jobs.

Plus, new word on whether President Bush will attend the opening ceremonies of the controversial Beijing Olympics.

And voters express their lack of confidence in the presidential candidates to break partisan gridlock.


MALVEAUX: Now to the presidential race.

John McCain is wrapping up a south-of-the-border trip to Colombia and Mexico. Back here in the U.S., the man now running McCain's day- to-day campaign is scrambling to make changes.

CNN's Dana Bash here to join us a day after the shake-up.

What can we expect to see from the campaign from this day on?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, when there's a high-profile shake-up like they announced yesterday, expectations really skyrocket that there's going to be a turnaround fast, especially in this case, where concern was really high among the Republicans about the state of the McCain campaign. But I talked to several Republican allies of McCain today who told me they worry a source of the problem is actually the candidate himself, who likes to do things his way.


BASH (voice over): OK. So there's a new guy at the helm of the McCain operation. What's going to change?

First, McCain aides promise a makeover. Not his outfits, his events.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is indeed a change election.

BASH: Chastened by the optics of McCain's now infamous green screen speech last month, former television producer and Bush veteran Greg Jenkins is onboard for a visual revamp. For example, when McCain kicks off a jobs tour next week and talks economics in battlegrounds like Ohio, we're told he will appear with families. Sounds like Campaign 101, but until now, there was a lot of McCain and a teleprompter.

CNN is also told there will now be what a senior aide calls better "synchronicity" between the message McCain is delivering and where he delivers it. That after blowback for going to Houston, oil country, to say this...

MCCAIN: I'm a believer in the technologies that one day will free us from oil entirely.

BASH: Some changes are up and running. Straight Talk Airways took flight this week. Inside, a TV-friendly cabin for the candidate who revels in reporter freewheeling. McCain used to appear airborne in unflattering light that made supporters cringe.

Still, several associates tell CNN they worry McCain's "Straight Talk" sessions which he won't give up knock him off message. Like the time he stepped on a major speech by telling reporters about his running mate list.

MCCAIN: No, I can't tell you the list.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I know you don't have to tell me the list. I'm not delusional. But can you just, I mean, just give a sense of, you know, how many names are on there? How far in the vetting you've gotten?

MCCAIN: I think it's like 20.

SARA TAYLOR, FMR. WHITE HOUSE POLITICAL DIRECTOR: One of his strengths is that, you k now, people view him as somebody who's a true independent. That has impacts in a campaign. It's a challenge many candidates face. They like to run their own campaign.


BASH: Now, another change that you won't really see but is absolutely essential to any campaign is in the McCain political operation. Part of what Republicans in and out of the McCain world tell us that they were concerned about is that the campaign wasn't really organized to keep track of the ground operations in battleground states, Suzanne. And that is something, as you know, that is really critical because it is data that is crucial to measuring the progress and where they need to send resources or they don't need to send resources. It's something again we won't see, but it's something I'm told by a senior adviser that they're going to change.

MALVEAUX: And Dana, it will be interesting to see how these changes come about, whether or not they'll be really effective.

BASH: Exactly. We'll see.

MALVEAUX: OK. Dana Bash, thank you so much.

Free trade was a major focus of John McCain's trip to Mexico and Colombia. And he's trying to make it as an issue in his race against Barack Obama.

The U.S. currently has free trade agreements with 14 countries designed to limit regulation and tariffs on imported and exported goods. The North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada is one of the most high profile pacts and a subject of political debate.

McCain bills himself as a staunch advocate of NAFTA and free trade in general, and he's portrayed Obama as protectionist. Obama says he'd work with leaders of Mexico and Canada to try to amend NAFTA. And he says he'd eliminate tax breaks for U.S. companies moving overseas to better protect the jobs of American workers.

Barack Obama is stepping on McCain's turf again today, continuing his Fourth of July focus on patriotic themes. His subject, honoring veterans. His backdrop, the red state of North Dakota.

Let's bring in our own CNN's Jessica Yellin.

And Jessica, Obama has been playing up traditionally Republican themes this week, and he's getting criticized for it. What specifically has he done to anger some of the liberals?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, some of his liberal fans, Suzanne, are accusing him of moving to the center on a list of issues. The issue that rankles his base the most is warrantless wiretapping.

Now, last December, his position was -- he said he unequivocally opposed giving communications companies immunity cooperating with the government. Last week, oh, he says he'd support that very same immunity. Well, that's got thousands, almost 17 thousand liberal bloggers, in a rage on his own Obama Web site.

There's campaign finance reform. Obama was for taking public financing before he was against it.

On the D.C. handgun ban, he thought it was constitutional, then he didn't after the court ruled.

And then there's Iraq. Today he said he's open to refining his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. He says that's always been the case. But his flexibility is getting new emphasis these days. Obama insists we shouldn't read anything into that.

MALVEAUX: So, Jessica, how is the Obama camp responding to all of this?

YELLIN: Oh, well, Obama says he hasn't changed his position at all. And the campaign is pushing back particularly hard on the Iraq issue, saying he's always been, as I said before, flexible about the withdrawal plan.

But listen to what Obama had to say today about his intention to compete in red states.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe that the American people across ideological spectrums, across the political spectrums, are hungry for something different and something new. And so I want to tell them exactly what I intend to do when I'm president of the United States.

I also believe that if you look at the trends in many of these states, there are more and more Independents who aren't tied to a political party. And I want to make sure that we are reaching out to them, because I think there's the possibility of a significant realignment.


YELLIN: So he says he is reaching out to them, to swing voters basically -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Jessica, thanks so much.

Jessica Yellin.

Is Barack Obama reading from Bill Clinton's political playbook? Some people think he's doing some of the same things to win that Bill Clinton did to win two terms.

And Americans wounded in war deserve the best care. Well, today something happened in Washington to help make sure many of them get it. It's literally groundbreaking.


MALVEAUX: Our Carol Costello is monitoring stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Carol, what are you looking at?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Suzanne, President Bush attended the groundbreaking for a hospital to replace the troubled Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The almost $1 billion hospital is being built a year after "The Washington Post" exposed substandard conditions and treatment for wounded veterans.


BUSH: At this new center the Americans who fight for our freedom will get the compassion and support they deserve. This new medical center will be a place of courage. Our wounded warriors show that while the human body is fragile, the human spirit is strong. Anybody who has met the wounded at Walter Reed in Bethesda cannot help to be incredibly impressed by the courage and sacrifice of our troops.


COSTELLO: In other news, he couldn't wait until the end of the year. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin plans to leave his job with the Bush administration this month for a private sector career. The White House says the president considers him a loyal friend. Combined with his experience during the first Bush presidency, Hagin has served 14 years in the White House.

Job losses at another U.S. airline. American Airlines says it plans to cut 8 percent of its work force by the end of the year. That would be a loss of nearly 7,000 jobs. American, like its rivals, is eliminating flights as fuel prices soar.

Those are the headlines right now, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Carol.


Happening now: new reasons why every American should worry about keeping their job. The government reports tens of thousands of job losses last month. Is the industry you work in among those hardest hit?

And he's helped hostages get their freedom before. What does Bill Richardson think now about the hostages freed in Colombia? The New Mexico governor and former U.N. ambassador joins me.

And a scenic and populist cultural community is now deserted and devastated land. An infernal rages in California's Big Sur area. Evacuations are mandatory. But some people ignore it, choosing fight over flight amid the danger.

Wolf Blitzer's off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Well, there's a major announcement from the White House regarding an issue of enormous controversy. It involves China's hosting of the Olympic Games and many people's opposition to China's human rights record, and President Bush's decision over whether or not to attend the Game's opening ceremonies.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, has the very latest.

And, Ed, I know that this was a decision that kind of came as a surprise.


The White House finally confirming what had been somewhat of an open secret. The president will attend the opening ceremonies. But that admission only came after just a little bit more diplomatic tap- dancing.


HENRY: For the first time, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president will attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics this summer.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, he certainly is going to be going to China. And I would certainly think that the opening ceremonies will be a part of that trip.

HENRY: While the president has previously said he will attend the Olympic Games in Beijing, officials have danced around whether that includes the opening ceremonies. It's politically explosive because human rights groups have said leaders should skip the opening to protest China's record.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do we want?

CROWD: We want freedom!

HENRY: French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who has threatened to boycott the opening, now says he may go if China makes progress in talks over human rights with the Dalai Lama.

Perino was asked whether Sarkozy's standard may provide a model for the president. And reporters pounced on her comment that Mr. Bush will attend. In a sign of how sensitive the subject is, she immediately pulled back.

PERINO: I said it's a distinct possibility. I don't remember the last -- the actual words I said, but I would expect -- I think I said I would expect that the opening ceremonies could be a part of the schedule,

HENRY: As reporters noted she had been more definitive, the scene got comical. Perino sought help from her mother, who's visiting Washington for the Fourth of July, the first chance for mom to be at the White House to watch her daughter brief the media.

QUESTION: Mom? What do you say?


PERINO: Thank you. Mom, help me out!

Look, I'm not able to announce the president's schedule. But he is going to the Olympics. And I expect that the opening ceremonies could be a part of that trip. (END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Now, after that lighthearted moment, a short time later, Dana Perino did put out a written statement finally confirming the president will attend the opening ceremonies.

She told me that basically the president is going to support the athletes, and that also there's no bigger champion of religious freedom and human rights. And he thinks it's better to go and do that face to face with the Chinese president.

But, as you know, Suzanne, this is going to be a very, very controversial move. And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't mind having my mom at the White House every once in a while to help me out when I was in a jam.


MALVEAUX: Everybody needs their mom every once in a while.


MALVEAUX: Call on their mom.

Thanks, Ed.

HENRY: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: John McCain versus Barack Obama. Guess who Americans think flip-flops the most? Well, you may be surprised by a new poll.

And virtually all presidents do it. Now some people want them to stop.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We embarrass ourselves. We're the only country in the world that sends unqualified nonprofessionals out as our ambassadors.



MALVEAUX: In another story we're following, virtually every president has done it. Now one group wants future presidents to stop it, or at least dramatically curb it.

CNN State Department correspondent Zain Verjee explains.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, a prestigious group of former diplomats wants the presidential candidates to announce that they will restrain themselves when it comes to giving favors to political cronies.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) VERJEE (voice-over): Try breaking up this Washington marriage of politics and diplomacy. There's a rich tradition, new presidents giving friends and contributors plum diplomatic posts.

The American Academy of Diplomacy wants John McCain and Barack Obama to break with that past, writing, "Too often, ambassadorships have served as political rewards for unqualified candidates.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We embarrass ourselves. We're the only country in the world that sends unqualified nonprofessionals out as our ambassadors. We project a sense often of arrogance and of disrespect.

VERJEE: Non-career appointees as ambassadors has generally been about one-third of total appointments, the letter says. A new target in the area of 10 percent should be adopted.

President Bush's friends and contributors have landed some of the top ambassador slots. Former South Carolina politician David Wilkins is ambassador to Canada. The present non-career ambassador in Tokyo can trace his friendship with President Bush back to their investing in the Texas Rangers baseball team. And an the Texas Ranger partner is now U.S. ambassador to France.

Just as you need a qualified engineer to build a bridge, or a qualified chemist to certify toothpaste, you need a qualified person to take on some of the most serious diplomatic tasks of the nation.

VERJEE: Former Congressman Leon Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff for President Clinton, says political appointments are the reality of what happens in campaigns. Any change, Panetta says, is something that, frankly, is necessary, but likely is never going to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From my experience, it's healthy to have a mixture of political appointees and career diplomats. I think they can learn from one another.

VERJEE: Some non-career diplomats, like Howard Baker are applauded. The former Senate majority leader was ambassador to Japan, where experience, prestige and age are appreciated.


VERJEE: So far, neither presidential candidate has responded to the American Academy of Diplomacy -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Zain.

Voters are weighing in on which presidential candidates is a bigger flip-flopper and whether it matters.

Plus, inside John McCain's retooled strategy. His campaign now under new management and trying to get back on track.

And dolphins trapped and an even greater danger this holiday weekend.


MALVEAUX: It's something many presidential candidates get, but none of them want, a label that can be so politically poisonous, it's been known to send candidates scrambling before it sinks their campaign.

CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider joining us now.

And, Bill, you say it's kind of like generals.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they're always fighting the last war.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Welcome to the flip-flop primary. John McCain accuses Barack Obama of flip-flopping on campaign finance, and gun rights, and town halls.

MCCAIN: He promised that he would take public financing for the general campaign if I did, written, stated it numerous times, now has obviously betrayed the trust that people had in him that he would do that.

SCHNEIDER: Obama accuses McCain on flip-flopping on immigration and offshore oil drilling and taxes.

OBAMA: This is a person who opposed Bush's tax cuts before he was for them, who opposed drilling in the continental shelf before he was for them.

SCHNEIDER: Have voters noticed? Yes. Sixty-one percent believe that McCain has changed his positions for political reasons. But nearly as many believe Obama has done the same thing, a pair of flip- floppers. Shock? Horror? Maybe not.

In 2004, when George W. Bush called John Kerry a flip-flopper, the charge stuck. Sixty-five percent of voters that year called Kerry a flip-flopper. Bush? No flip-flopper, he. Mr. Resolve. But there's a fine line between resolve and stubbornness.

President Bush may have crossed that line. Now voters may welcome some flexibility in their leaders. They seem to want a leader who can bring the country together.

Senator McCain?

MCCAIN: And I will, as I often have in the past, work with anyone of either party to get things done for our country.

SCHNEIDER: Senator Obama?

OBAMA: ... that the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and the partisanship and the pettiness and the anger that's consumed Washington for so long.

SCHNEIDER: Do voters believe either candidate can end the partisan gridlock in Washington?

No. By more than 2-1, voters do not believe McCain can end the gridlock, despite his reputation as a maverick. Voters are a little more optimistic about Obama's ability to change Washington. But just over half don't believe he can do it either.


SCHNEIDER: Cynicism or bitter experience? After all, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush started out promising to be uniters, not dividers, and look where we are -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thanks, Bill Schneider.

In the "Strategy Session": Barack Obama goes to North Dakota and makes a pitch for the veterans' vote.


OBAMA: When our troops go into battle, they serve no faction or political party. They represent no race or region. They're simply Americans.


MALVEAUX: But is he using his time correctly in focusing on the right issues?

And the retooled McCain campaign promises to focus on jobs, jobs and more jobs. But how does that dovetail with his trip to Colombia and Mexico?

Paul Begala and Kevin Madden are here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: Want to go directly to Carol Costello, who is watching breaking news, developing news at this moment.

Carol, what are you looking at?

COSTELLO: Yes, we're just getting this in right now, Suzanne

An ConocoPhillips Alliance oil refinery that is south of New Orleans, there has been some sort of horrible accident there, one person critically burned, others apparently also burned, but not as -- not as critically. And, somehow, steam was released in a sort of industrial accident on the refinery. We don't know if there are flames there or not.

But, as far as we know, there are still -- police are there checking out the scene, as are firefighters, that several people have been taken to hospitals. When I get more information, I will pass it along -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you so much, Carol.

Will the shakeup help the campaign shape up? Well, that's what many Republicans wonder about the reassignments at the top of the John McCain campaign.

Here for the "Strategy Session" today," CNN political contributor Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, and Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney and a senior vice president for the Glover Park Group.

Thank you very much for joining us.


MALVEAUX: I want to start off first with John McCain here, obviously going to Colombia, Mexico, talking free trade agreements. We have taken a look at these polls, not -- the voters not really feeling that issue right now. And, next week, he's headed to Michigan. People are out of jobs. And they look to the free trade and they say, we don't like this.

Is it a mistake for him to be overseas and to be focusing on that?

KEVIN MADDEN, FORMER ROMNEY CAMPAIGN NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY: Well, look at the strategy. I mean, first of all, I think that the McCain campaign believes that, when John McCain goes overseas, he looks more presidential and the contrast works in their favor against Barack Obama.

And trade is a big issue to the economy, to economic voters in a lot of these swing -- a lot of these swing states, like Florida, like Michigan, like Missouri. So, I think he's trying to reach those voters from outside the country. The problem is, is, it didn't really work this week.

I think the story became a lot more about the process of being outside the country, rather than the policies he was trying to talk about. And that's always a very -- that's always a very distracting thing, when it happens in a campaign.

MALVEAUX: Paul, where do you think he should have been this week?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He should have been in America, where they actually vote for the president of the United States of America.

And particularly -- I think Kevin makes a good point -- particularly going to Mexico, less Colombia, where there's a very small free trade deal being debated. But the -- going to Mexico, a whole lot of Americans believe that their jobs were shipped to Mexico, because they were. And it's if he was taking a tour of all the places that the Bush- McCain economic policies have shipped jobs. Now he's going to come to Michigan and he's going to see where those jobs used to be. But they all said adios and headed to Mexico.

MALVEAUX: But, Paul, did at least he score some political points because of the hostages being released? He was there in Colombia at the time. And even Joe Lieberman saying, hey, look, he got a phone call from the president because he has got those kinds of credentials.

BEGALA: Boy, that is going to get him a lot of votes in Colombia.

The Betancourt release is a wonderful thing. And people in France are very happy about it. People in Colombia are all gassed up about it. People in America do not care. They would like a president who focuses on America for a change.

And that's part of I think Senator McCain's vulnerability, this $12 billion-a-month bill we have in Iraq, which Barack Obama is hammering every time he talks about the economy, the -- McCain's foreign policy expertise can very easily become an economic policy liability.

MALVEAUX: Let's talk about Barack Obama this week here. Obviously, this was the week of big ideas. That was his strategy. He started off talking about patriotism.

But the message really got overshadowed when you had Wesley Clark jumping in, criticizing John McCain over his military service, and you had Obama rolling out these major type of themes. Did it fall flat? Did it work?

MADDEN: Well, I think -- I was struck by how different it was from the campaign that John Kerry ran in 2004.

He talked in a very -- in a way that talked about disunity, how much he hated Bush, how much he was different from Bush. And, instead, I think Barack Obama did a smart thing by going to a place like Zanesville, Ohio, and talking in very unifying terms to a lot of voters who are still skeptical about him and still don't know a lot about him.

But I still think that the economy is going to be the issue there. And on economic issues that these voters are going to be making up their minds on, Barack Obama's rhetoric does not match the reality of his record. And that is exactly what John McCain has to do. He has to hammer home on those issues and that record.

BEGALA: Yes, Democrats traditionally, in the post-Bill Clinton era, have thought that they needed to run away from those sorts of values issues. Big mistake.

Barack is acting a whole lot like my old boss Bill Clinton, who, in his 1992 convention speech, Bill Clinton had the audacity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, right, because that is our pledge for all Americans. And he was reasserting that progressives are also the party -- in his eyes, more the party -- of faith and flag, patriotism, service.

And I think Barack did a very smart thing in reclaiming those issues and those values for Democrats.

MALVEAUX: OK. We're going to have to let it go at that.

We know that Barack Obama is going to be speaking in Fargo, North Dakota. We are going to get to that as soon as we can. And -- but we will get back to you as well.

We are standing by, live comments from Barack Obama. He's expected to talk about his position on the war in Iraq, Bill Clinton and good news for Barack Obama.

Coming up: The former president makes a prediction about a key swing state and the Democratic nominee.

And it took a helicopter, an unusual idea and incredible planning -- a dramatic rescue so unbelievable, it will go down in history.

And an amazing fight in a river in New Jersey. A pod of dolphins, they have been there for weeks. Well, we're going to take you out live on the water, so you're not going to want to miss this one.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

MALVEAUX: Barack Obama saying he's been consistent on his position of Iraq all along. He is now live in Fargo, North Dakota.

Let's take a quick listen.

OBAMA: And it is my view that, strategically, for us to perpetuate this war in Iraq, the way that John McCain has proposed, and neglect the extraordinary problems that we're seeing in Afghanistan, to continue to spend $10 billion to $12 billion a month, to continue to put enormous burdens on our military and military families, is not the best way to make the American people safe.

So, we are going to go visit Iraq. I want to have conversations with commanders on the ground, Iraqi officials. When I come back, that information will obviously inform how we shape our plans moving forward.

For example, does it -- what is the current training situation and how many residual troops might be needed in order to train Iraqis to stand up, both the army and the police? What is the current posture in terms of negotiations between the various Iraqi factions on critical issues, like how oil is distributed, oil revenues are distributed.

But, you know, let me be as clear as I can be. I intend to end this war. My first day in office, I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission. And that is to end this war, responsibly, deliberately, but decisively.

And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one to two brigades a month. And, again, that pace translates into having our combat troops out in 16 months' time.

So, the last point I would just make is that this is the same position that I had four months ago. It's the same position that I had eight months ago. It's the same position that I had 12 months ago.

Let me open it up for questions.



The training data that you talked about, can't you get that information in Washington? What cues, what kind of feel would you get in Iraq that you're not getting...