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Rescued Hostages Return to United States; Wildfire Threatens California Tourist Spot

Aired July 3, 2008 - 18:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Barack Obama comes forward to deny that he has changed his policy on withdrawing troops from Iraq. And he's blaming John McCain's camp for portraying him as a flip-flopper.
Also this hour: inside the bold rescue of hostages in Colombia, how rebels were outsmarted and captives saved without firing a shot.

And she died face down on a hospital floor unnoticed until it was too late. Now her family is sharing her story, their horror and demanding answers.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Barack Obama offering a quick response to new GOP claims that he is shifting his position on Iraq.

Welcome to our viewers around the states and around the world.

The Democrats' nominee in waiting spoke to reporters a short while ago in North Dakota.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Apparently, I wasn't clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq.

I have said throughout this campaign that this war was ill- conceived, that it was a strategic blunder, and that it needs to come to an end. I have also said that I would be deliberate and careful in how we got out, that I would bring our troops home at a pace of one to two brigades per month, and, at that pace, we would have the combat troops out in 16 months.


MALVEAUX: Let's bring in our own Jessica Yellin.

Jessica, there seems to be a sense of urgency here. He says he has not switched his position. So, why this late-afternoon news conference?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It really is unusual, Suzanne, for a candidate to hold a second press conference in a day.

But the Obama campaign has been facing questions about whether the senator is backing off his promise to remove troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. The McCain campaign has even accused him of flip-flopping. So, Obama clearly felt enormous pressure to set the record straight.

Now, he insisted that his position is unchanged and that he is not equivocating. He says he would be open to refining his plan, but only because, as he puts it, that's what a good commander in chief does.

Let's listen.


OBAMA: ... always reserve the right to do what's best in America's national interests. And if it turned out, for example, that, you know, we had to, in certain months, slow the pace because of the safety of American troops in terms of getting combat troops out, of course we would take that into account. I would be...


YELLIN: Now, this is a crucial issue for Obama because not only is Iraq central to his campaign's agenda, but so is his promise of a new kind of politics.

He cannot afford to be seen as a flip-flopper or someone who has changed his position. Suzanne, the one thing I would add is that Obama, when asked specifically, do you guarantee troops would be out within 16 months of taking office, he didn't quite answer that one. But he said that that is his overall plan.

MALVEAUX: His intention. Good point, Jessica. Thank you so much, Jessica.

In Texas right now, three rescued American hostages are said to be in good condition, with clear eyes and incredible smiles. The former captives are reuniting with their families and adjusting to their new freedom after more than five years held by Colombian rebels in the jungle.

CNN's Brian Todd is in San Antonio area.

And there are challenges ahead obviously for these former captives.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, physical challenges, potential emotional challenges, they could be pretty severe.

It all starts today with their reunions with their families. But considering how long these men were held in captivity, it could be a long climb back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): The last time these three men saw civilization, the Iraq war hadn't started yet. Now former hostages Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell begin their readjustment after nearly five-and-a-half years as captives in the Colombian jungle.

The army general who brought Stansell to meet his family talks with about their reunion.

MAJ. GEN. KEITH M. HUBER, COMMANDING GENERAL, U.S. ARMY SOUTH: It made us all very proud that there were children there who were thrilled to see their parents, parent, and there were parents there who were overwhelmed with seeing their son back safe.

TODD: Officers at Brooke Army Medical Center say they are concerned about infectious diseases, but they won't comment on one U.S. official's account that two of the three men developed some kind of parasitic disease.

COL. JACKIE HAYES, CHIEF OF PULMONARY AND CRITICAL CARE: I'm happy to report that they are all in very good physical condition, very strong. The results of the tests are pending at this point in time. But everything really looks well.

TODD: A crucial and potentially difficult emotional transition now begins. Officials here are not tipping their hand much on how their extended captivity may have affected the former hostages.

COL. CARL DICKENS, ARMY PSYCHOLOGIST: Well, 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.


TODD: Now, the commanding general here says these three men may be here two days, they may be here four days, possibly longer. From there, they say it's up to them when they go home. Officials here say they will definitely follow up with these men after they are home -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Brian Todd, thanks for that good news.

The American former hostages were private contractors working with the Colombian government to stem the country's booming cocaine trade. More than half of all the coca in the world is grown in Colombia, making it the number-one producer of the plant from which the drug is made. Almost 193,000 acres were cultivated in 2006, down 90 percent from 2005.

That is thanks in part to growing interception by law enforcement -- 29 percent of Colombia's cocaine production was nabbed during that period.

Well, the stunning turn of events in Colombia will go down in military history as one of the most audacious and successful missions of its kind, an example of how sometimes it's better to outwit than outfight your enemy.

Let's turn to CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre.

And, Jamie, tell us how they actually pulled this one off.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Suzanne, the U.S. military prides itself on being the best in the world. But today around the Pentagon, there was open admiration for this textbook operation that freed the hostages without firing a shot.


MCINTYRE (voice-over): According to Pentagon sources, the U.S. help came back in February, when overhead surveillance spotted the rebels and their captives bathing deep in the jungles of southern Colombia. A commando raid was judged too risky. Instead, the Colombian military hatched a bold plan, dubbed Operation (SPEAKING SPANISH), Spanish for Operation Check.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was something that, at the beginning, we thought that the people who were proposing this operation was crazy. It was so audacious and so out of the common, that we thought it would be impossible.

MCINTYRE: Key to the deception were these two army helicopters repaint white as a disguise. They were manned by Colombian intelligence personnel who spent weeks rehearsing their roles as humanitarian workers and rebels aligned with another FARC commander, Alfonso Cano.

At 1:13, the helicopters reached the remote location where the Colombian army duped the rebels into bringing three separate group of kidnap victims together. The FARC were fooled apparently by government agents who had infiltrated their ranks into thinking they were handing over the bound captives on the orders of the other rebel commander.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People in the helicopter had to convince the guerrillas that they were, in fact, that they were part of the FARC. And they were so good that, in fact, one of the of the guerrillas that came into the helicopter armed with a pistol. He was convinced that he was the leader of the group, and he gave it.

MCINTYRE: At 1:35, the helicopter takes off and the pilot radios, generators ready, code, the 15 hostages are on board. At 1:41, when the helicopter is at 2,500 feet, soldiers overpower the rebel leader, who went by the name Cesar and a second guerrilla who had been tricked into coming along. Cesar was quickly stripped and subdued.

INGRID BETANCOURT, FORMER COLOMBIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I saw him with some -- with a bandana around his eyes and he was tied. And the next thing was hearing the major who was operating the operation, who said: "We are the national military. You are free."

MCINTYRE: Some 65 guerrilla fighters left on the ground had no idea what had just transpired.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we decided to not harm them and to allow them to go free, because we wanted this operation to be bloodless, not a single shot, not a single drop of blood.


MCINTYRE: The Colombian military boasts with pride that it planned, executed and carried out flawlessly the operation by itself -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Jamie.

Freed Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt was able to hug her children today for the first time in more than six years. The former presidential candidate noted that her children are now young adults who grew up by themselves while fighting to see her free.

Well, it is the disturbing video that has left many of you in shock, hospital workers and others leaving a woman to die on a hospital floor. New details about who she was.

A scenic and populous community is now deserted and devastated land. An inferno ranges in California's Big Sur area. Evacuations are mandatory. But some people chose fight over flight.

And it's apparently still Bill Clinton's message to Barack Obama. Yes, you can do what no other Democrat has since Bill Clinton.


MALVEAUX: A huge wildfire has forced residents of the beautiful California coastal area Big Sur to flea flee their homes this holiday weekend.

CNN correspondent Dan Simon joining us live now.

Dan, and are the firefighters gaining any ground on this blaze?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're really not, Suzanne.

Right now, it is go time for these firefighters. The fight to save the Big Sur community is on. We are standing literally in the parking lot of the command post. And you can see behind me all the smoke. The flames right now are advancing towards the heart of the Big Sur community.

Just south of here, we are told that engines have surrounded homes and businesses that are at immediate risk, including a very famous hotel in the area called the Ventana Inn. It just completed an $18 million renovation.

Again, we're standing in the parking lot. And our satellite truck engineer, the person bringing you these pictures, told us that he overheard a conversation just a short time ago between a highway patrol officer and some firefighters about the possible need to evacuate the command post.

I have never heard of a situation where you have to evacuate a command post. Normally, they put these in places an area where they think it will not catch fire.

Now, what is here at this command post? You have a number of trailers where fire crews and commanders make their decisions. Of course you have the media that is here and firefighters. Many of them actually sleep at the command post. So, again, the situation right now is critical as the flames are moving toward the Big Sur community, and fire crews doing whatever they can to protect any structures at risk -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, Dan, please be safe. Thank you, once again, Dan Simon.

John McCain is heading back to the U.S. after his trip to Mexico and Colombia. He is coming home to a campaign undergoing changes now that there's a new man that is running the show.

CNN's Dana Bash is here.

And, Dana, the changes are in the works, but you're still hearing that there are some concerns about the campaign?


I have actually heard a fair amount of worry that one problem is about McCain himself, his freewheeling style. And that, of course, as you know, is his signature, but it's also pretty hard to structure and focus.

But there is broad agreement among Republicans in and out of the campaign that the staff change announced yesterday is welcome and long overdue. And aides promise a McCain makeover is coming.


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

BASH (voice-over): Chastened by the optics of McCain's now infamous green screen speech last month, former television producer and Bush veteran Greg Jenkins is on board 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.

MCCAIN: Leaders -- lenders -- lenders who initiate loans.

BASH: CNN is also told there will now be what a senior aide calls better -- quote -- "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: Still, several associates tell CNN they worry McCain 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: Oh, I can't tell you the list.

QUESTION: How many names are on there? How far in the vetting process you've gotten?

MCCAIN: I think it's like 20.

SARA TAYLOR, FMR. WHITE HOUSE POLITICAL DIRECTOR: One of his strengths is that, you know, 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: And in McCain's case, that's what one source familiar with McCain's style called scattershot. Others simply call McCain unorthodox.

But I'm hearing plenty of worry in GOP circles, Suzanne, that one of the biggest campaign problems may actually be hard to change. And that is the candidate dislikes himself lacks discipline -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: That would be a tough one.

OK, thank you very much, Dana.

Some liberals are angry at Barack Obama. So they have parked himself on his campaign Web site. We will tell you why and what the campaign is doing about it.

President Bush makes a decision that puts him in the middle of an enormous controversy. It involves anger over China's Olympics.

And some people thought it was a terrorist attack, but it wasn't. But it was no less frightening when a van exploded.


MALVEAUX: There are new developments in a grim story that we have been following, the woman who collapsed on a hospital floor and was left to die. We now know she was a mother of six. And her family is speaking out for the first time.

A daughter talked to CNN.

CNN's Mary Snow joining us live.

And, Mary, what is she saying?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, Tecia Harrison tells us there are really no words to describe what her family is going through. She's heading to New York. She's going to be taking her mother's body back home to Jamaica after a funeral is held here this weekend.

And for the very first time, we now know details about what led Esmin Green to a city hospital.


SNOW (voice-over): By now, the shocking video has circulated the globe, 49-year-old Esmin Green left to die inside a New York City psychiatrist emergency room with no one coming to her aid for nearly an hour, other patients and security guards ignoring her. But this is the Esmin Green her friends want people to see. Fellow church members called her sister Green and say the church was her family for the past decade, ever since she moved to New York from Jamaica.

She left six children behind in the Caribbean. The youngest is now 14 years old. Green had been sending money home. Her older daughter, 31-year-old Tecia Harrison, told CNN she can't bear to think of the horrifying video of her mother's last moments.

TECIA HARRISON, DAUGHTER OF ESMIN GREEN: I haven't seen it and I don't think I have the heart or the mind to watch it, because that's my mother there. That's the woman that gave birth to me 31 years ago. I cannot watch that.

SNOW: Tecia says she wants to see for herself the hospital where her mother died and meet the people who knew her.

PETER PILGRIM, FRIEND OF ESMIN GREEN: Esmin Green is a beautiful person. She has a good heart. She loved people. She loved children.

SNOW: Green's friend Peter Pilgrim says he saw Green a few days from her death and says she was struggling after losing a job at a day care center. She had been forced to move out of her apartment.

Green's pastor says she had been hospitalized with emotional problems once before and recently appeared to be in distress again. So, the pastor called 911, a decision that now haunts her.

After nearly 24 hours in the waiting room, waiting for a bed, Green was found dead. The medical examiner's office says it's still trying to determine the cause of death. The medical records will be a focus of the investigation. Hospital documents say she was awake and sitting quietly at the very moment she was actually struggling on the floor.

A number of investigations are under way, including a federal investigation, looking into charges of abuse at Kings County that were detailed a the lawsuit filed in 2007. (END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, a spokesman for the City Health and Hospitals Corporation says seven people have either been fired or suspended pending termination. They include the head of psychiatry, the head of security, a doctor, two nurses, and two security guards. The hospital has also agreed to a number of immediate steps to ensure this will never happen again -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Mary, I know there is a lot of outrage over this story. What is the city doing about this?

SNOW: Well, at this point, the city is saying that it is paying for Esmin Green's funeral. A private donor has stepped up to pay for her family to come to the United States and travel from Jamaica. And a number of community groups have been banding together. And one of Esmin Green's friends said to us last night, it's very sad. Had she gotten this attention while she was alive, none of this would have happened.

MALVEAUX: Sure. Mary, thank you so much -- Mary Snow.


MALVEAUX: John McCain says there is no connection between his business to Colombia and the rescue of hostages held there. But questions persist about the timing. Our political panel is standing by.

Plus: Rush Limbaugh's fat paycheck. The radio host's political influence is being measured dollar for dollar.

And Bill Clinton gives Barack Obama some encouragement, a tidbit from their phone chat that we hadn't heard before.



Happening now: a politically explosive announcement. The White House now saying President Bush will attend the Olympic opening ceremonies in China.

Also, John McCain and the release of those hostages in Colombia. What role, if any, did he play? And how does he stand to benefit?

And it was the national anthem, but not the version that people were expecting. Now politics and race collide in the uproar.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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. White House correspondent Ed Henry has the latest.

And, Ed, President Bush made a pretty big decision today.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Suzanne. It was one of the biggest open secrets. And they finally confirmed it, that the president is going to attend the opening ceremonies, very controversial.

But this admission only came after just a little more diplomatic dancing.


HENRY (voice-over): 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.



HENRY: In a sign of how sensitive the subject is, she immediately pulled back.

PERINO: I said it's a distinct possibility here. (INAUDIBLE) the actual words I said. But I would expect -- I think I said 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 is 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mom, what do you think?


PERINO: Thank you. Mom, help me! 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.


HENRY: Now after that light-hearted moment, Dana Perino finally put out a statement clarifying once and for all the president is going to the opening ceremonies. She says he's just going to support the athletes and that he does support human rights around the world, but he thinks it's better to do that and press that case face to face with the Chinese government. Obviously, however, that is still going to be very, very controversial around the world -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Ed, thank you so much.

Campaign politics and the Colombia hostage rescue. Joining us to talk about that and more, Jay Newton-Smalls, she has covered both the White House and Congress for our sister publican TIME magazine. Also CNN senior analyst Jeffrey Toobin. And Robert George, associate editorial page editor of The New York Post.

I want to start off first, obviously McCain's trip to Colombia. He was there. And the just the day before, the president of Colombia said this is what's going to happen here. He tipped him off to this potential rescue effort of the hostages. And then let's take a listen here to what Senator Joe Lieberman, who was accompanying McCain, and McCain said about him being informed about this.


SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: I think it was a sign of confidence of President Uribe and the defense minister in Senator McCain, maybe in the two of us, that they were prepared to share this information last night, which was highly classified.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: These kinds of operations require weeks and months of planning and work. And I'm sure that it had no connection with our visit.


MALVEAUX: Jay, I want to start with you first. Does this ring true? Nearly six years there held captive, and you know, just a day or two, McCain is there, and then this all unfolds?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL, TIME WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, these operations take months and months to plan. And so the timing is serendipitous. But McCain underlined it that it was just coincidental and so did the Colombian government. On the other hand, Uribe did him a big favor, he brief him before it happened, he made it seem -- made McCain seem very presidential, McCain -- it gave the press lots of excuses to talk about McCain's own history as a prisoner of war. So it a big boon for him. Whether it was intentional or not, I don't know we'll ever know.

MALVEAUX: Well, Robert, I mean, what do you think here, is it possible that the White House could have said, hey, look, you know, this is probably a good time to go?

ROBERT GEORGE, N.Y. POST ASSOCIATE EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: Nobody really knows. I mean, it's probably one of the most serendipitous bit of good fortune for the McCain campaign in at least a couple of weeks. This is one of the first times that he was driving the day's news. He indeed does look presidential.

It is also the case that he has been in the Senate for about 20 years. He obviously has built up more relationships around the world, even in South and Central America. And so it's not surprising that Uribe would certainly share this information with him.

So, I mean, I don't think there is any necessary kind of a conspiracy. I just think it's -- he was definitely in the right place at the right time. And he has enough gravitas, as they say, that Uribe would take him into his confidence.

MALVEAUX: Jeffrey, serendipitous seems to be the buzz word here. You're laughing, you're smiling a little bit. Are you a little skeptical? Is anyone a little skeptical about this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, no. I think we are way over-thinking this. It's not even possible that this could have been arranged for McCain's visit. I mean, that is just completely out of the question. And the idea that McCain is reaping some benefit from this, if you were to ask 100 people on the street, 90 of them wouldn't even have known this raid took place. And the other 10 probably didn't know that McCain was there.

So I just think this is a great thing that these hostages are freed. It's a wonderful tribute to the Colombian military. But I don't think this has anything to do with John McCain or our election at all.

MALVEAUX: Robert, jump in.

GEORGE: And don't forget the 100 percent, Jeff, that didn't even know that there were any hostages in Colombia, actually, which is also part of it. But it's still -- I mean, I think it's still -- given some of the buffeting that the McCain campaign took this week, it actually was at least a bright spot.

MALVEAUX: Jay, does it actually help that he's in Colombia this week when so many people in those swing states are talking about jobs and the gas prices are going up, you know, out of the roof here, and he's talking free trade in Colombia? Are people really -- does it resonate with them?

NEWTON-SMALL: Well, certainly he was on the defensive this morning, I mean, even yesterday morning before he went, before he was even asked a question on "GOOD MORNING AMERICA," he jumped to the defense and said, well, this is why I'm going to Colombia. The whole trip he was on the defensive talking about why it was important to go, why it was important to talk about the drug war, the war on drugs, which is a subject that hasn't come up a long time in our news. But what the hostage situation did do is take the spotlight off this sort of awkwardness of the trip.

I mean, why was he going to begin with? And why was he going to Canada when he should be courting voters in the United States? He doesn't need to burnish he foreign credentials at all.

TOOBIN: But on the trade issue, I think McCain deserves a lot of credit, because this is a substantive, important issue. Does freer trade help the American economy or hurt it? Bill Clinton thought it helped. That's why he helped pass NAFTA. John McCain agrees. The Democratic Party has evolved away from that position now where these trade deals are very unpopular, particularly in the industrial Midwest.

So I think this is why we should have campaigns, to talk about issues like that. And I think McCain deserves credit for it.

GEORGE: Well, that's exactly right. And in fact, you know, Uribe is one of our most important allies down there. And the Democrats in Congress have been holding up that trade deal, which would help Uribe fight the FARC, so.

MALVEAUX: OK. We'll get right back to all three of you at the end of the break.

He has a huge new contract in hand. Rush Limbaugh poised to be a player in the presidential campaign. How much influence will he have on the race?

And Barack Obama facing a revolt by some supporters on his own Web site.


MALVEAUX: He's an icon of the right. So how will Rush Limbaugh impact the presidential race? We're back with our panel of political analysts: Jay Newton-Small of our sister publication, TIME magazine; also CNN's senior analyst Jeffrey Toobin; and Robert George, associate editorial page editor of The New York Post.

Obviously a fat contract here. We're talking about $400 million over eight years. That's a lot of money. Jay, do you think that that is going to translate into big influence here when it comes to how everything is spun?

NEWTON-SMALL: Well, certainly he had an impact on the primaries. Whether that impact was -- it's hard to judge it. I mean, he lead the conservatives against John McCain and John McCain became the nominee anyway. On the other hand, he said he missed with Hillary Clinton in the primaries, encouraging Republicans to cross over and vote for Hillary Clinton to create chaos in the Democratic primaries and seems to have been successful in that. There were hundreds of thousands of voters in Texas and Ohio that were Republicans that were voting in the Democratic primary. How many of those were Rush supporters or Rush listeners, we have no idea. But there certainly seems to have been some effect. So he seems to earn his paycheck, even if it is a pretty big one.

MALVEAUX: Do you think so, Robert? Do you think he's earning his paycheck -- or, Jeff, jump in.

TOOBIN: No, I just -- I think he has no influence. I mean, every campaign he has had for the past several years has lost. He was against McCain. He was for Hillary. In the 2006 midterm elections, he was for the Republicans. He lost all of those.

What people miss about Rush is that he is a fabulous broadcaster. He is great on the radio. He is entertaining. He's fun. He's funny. But he's not a politician. He's a broadcaster. And I think that's what's most important about him.

GEORGE: And the really key thing to keep in mind here is in the fragmented media universe that we have right now, he really is the closest that you have to a national broadcaster. He gets an audience of about 20 million people.

By contrast, the network news are lucky if they get 11 million, 12 million, 13 million a night. He is -- yes, he is an icon of the right. But the people who listen to him, you have cabbies in New York and D.C. who are not on the right, but they will be listening to him, because as Jeff said, he's a good broadcaster, he's entertaining, and he's informative.

MALVEAUX: And those cabbies, we know, because we've talked to them, those are the ones that are completely engaged here. Those are the ones reading the papers and listening to the radio.

GEORGE: And advertisers need to figure out how to reach people in this fragmented media universe. And if somebody can get 20 million people, you want to compensate that guy.

MALVEAUX: All right. Let's turn the corner here real quick. CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll showing here when asked who can end partisan gridlock in Washington, here's what the figures show. For Obama, 43 percent said yes, 52 said no. For McCain it was 31 percent who said yes, 64 percent no.

Why is it, do you think, Jay, that despite what some of the supporters of McCain would say, he has got a better record or more fleshed out record when it comes to crossing the aisle, working with Democrats that Obama consistently is coming out on top on this?

NEWTON-SMALL: Well, I mean, certainly when I spoke to Joe Lieberman a couple of weeks ago, the first thing he said was, look, John McCain has got this proven track record of the Gang of 14, you know, where he talked about the Supreme Court and judicial nominees.

He's -- you know, "McLieberman," which was the global warming bill he sponsored with Joe Lieberman. McCain-Feingold. He has got this track record of crossing over. But honestly will it matter? If Congress is controlled by Democrats and a Democrat wins the White House, will there be any partisan lockjaw to talk about?


GEORGE: I was going to say the same thing. I mean, most people are saying whether McCain wins the White House or Obama wins the White House, the Democrats are most likely going to be expanding their majority. So if Obama wins, you know, there's not going to be much partisan gridlock to the extent that some of the Republicans in the Senate may be able to slow things down if they don't have a 60-vote majority. But it's not going to be there.

MALVEAUX: Jeff, going to give you a quick last word.

TOOBIN: Well, I just think this is an election about change. It's not about stopping partisan gridlock. I think that's just a proxy for which candidate they're supporting. And at the moment, more people are supporting Obama.

MALVEAUX: All right. Jay, Jeffrey, Robert, thank you so much. Thanks for joining us.

Thousands of Barack Obama supporters are urging him to change his decision to vote for a bill overhauling the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. They've taken their fight to Obama's own Web site. Now Senator Obama is responding to their conditions. Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is here.

And, Abbi, who is he addressing?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Suzanne, this has had some of his supporters mad, and 16,000 at last count had joined this group on his own Web site, saying, please vote no on this FISA legislation. And then just in the last couple of hours, Senator Obama and his policy team have gone online to address some of their concerns.

In a blog post, Senator Obama says his decision to support this bill was not easy. He says in this post that he will work to remove a section of the bill that has caused most opposition, on telecom immunity. But he says and he repeats that overall he believes this compromise legislation is much better than an earlier version that he opposed.

Those policy advisers have just wrapped up a Q&A that has been going on in the last few minutes, 600 comments came in from people, we checked out of some of them. They range from people who were very happy that he did go online and respond to some of their concerns to people who are still disappointed in what they heard -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Abbi, thank you so much.

Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Colorado, what the former president is saying about that critical toss-up state. And would you have known better? The mistakes a driver made that caused this van to explode?


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

Carol, what are you watching?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Suzanne, let's watch this, shall we? A white van driving down a street near Miami when suddenly it explodes. You're going to see there is the white van, and suddenly you see it explode. One witness says he thought it was a terrorist attack. But now we know the van was loaded with gas containers and the driver made the mistake of lighting up a cigarette. He survived amazingly with only minor injuries, but the van is a goner.

Forecasters are keeping an eye on a potential hurricane way out in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Bertha formed off the coast of Africa. The second named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. Bertha is moving west/northwest, to early to say if it might threaten land.

A Western diplomat says the European Union is offering Iran a deal. Stop making centrifuges to enrich uranium for six weeks and we'll halt further sanctions for the same time. The E.U. is trying to revive talks on Iran's nuclear program. Iran says the program is for peaceful purposes, but Western nations expect Tehran is trying to produce nuclear weapons.

And sad news from Los Angeles where the man most famous for playing Bozo the Clown has died. Larry Harmon was 83 years old. Harmon was not the first person to play the clown with the orange hair and the big nose, but he bought the rights to the character and licensed it to TV stations. His publicist Harmon died of congestive heart failure.

Back to you, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Carol, thanks. That van driver, mighty lucky I'd say.


MALVEAUX: It's amazing to watch that. OK.


MALVEAUX: Thank you, Carol, thanks.

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 political favors to cronies.

(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."

RONALD NEUMANN, PRES., AMERICAN ACADEMY OF DIPLOMACY: We embarrass ourselves. We're the only country in the world that sends unqualified nonprofessionals 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 ambassador spots. 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 another Texas Ranger partner is now U.S. ambassador to France.

NEUMANN : Just as you need a qualified engineer to build a bridge or a qualified chemist to certify a 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 happen.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: 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 Japan where experience, prestige and age are appreciated.

(on camera): So far, neither presidential candidate has responded to the American Academy of Diplomacy -- Suzanne.


MALVEAUX: Thanks, Zain. On our "Political Ticker," John McCain sharing a religious moment in Mexico today with former Florida governor and supporter Jeb Bush. The president's brother was south of the border on a business trip to tag along with McCain for a visit to Mexico's holiest site for Catholics.

Barack Obama says he has gotten from a reliable source that he has a good shot at winning the battleground state of Colorado this fall. His source none other than Bill Clinton. Obama says he talked about his Colorado chances with the former president during their silence-breaking phone chat earlier this week.

And remember, for the latest political news anytime, check out The "Ticker" is the number one political news blog on the Web.

The candidates are getting out of control.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We can't have this behavior in the White House. None of this.


MALVEAUX: Jeanne Moos has some fun with the contenders for first dog.

And "Hot Shots," some of the day's best pictures.


MALVEAUX: Here's a look at some of this hour's "Hot Shots." In New Jersey, a crew member helps steady an American flag hot air balloon as it inflates. In Afghanistan, a blind student at a vocational school checks her answers after an exam. In India, truck drivers on strike over rising fuel prices, used downtime to play cards. And in Germany, an adult stork perches in its nest and feeds its offspring. That's this hour's "Hot Shots."

Candidates make lots of promises. Some of them turn out to be real dogs. Well, Jeanne Moos has the "Moost Unusual" tale of the presidential pooch poll.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This may look like place mat, but it's a ballot for potential first dog.

(on camera): I can see you in the White House, yes. Just imagine, White House dinners.

(voice-over): Meet a new breed of candidate. The American Kennel Club took note of Barack Obama's campaign promise to his kids.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We promised them that we will get them dog.

MICHELLE OBAMA, WIFE OF BARACK OBAMA: That was the bargaining chip. I was like, you want to run for president? We're getting a dog.

MOOS: Well, now you can vote at the AKC Web site on what kind of dog the Obamas should get.

M. OBAMA: We talk about this dog every day, every day, what kind are we going to get, you do know we're getting it.

MOOS: The Kennel Club says at least one of the Obama daughters has allergies. So they selected five types of hypoallergenic dogs.

DAISY OKAS, AMERICAN KENNEL CLUB: It's hair as opposed to fur.

MOOS: The candidates are: the Wheaten Terrier, the Bichon Frise, the poodle, the Miniature Schnauzer, and the Chinese Crested. Wait a minute, Chinese Crested is the dog that year after year...


MOOS: ... wins the ugly dog contest.

OKAS: When they get old, they do tend to lose their looks.

MOOS: But Nutmeg here is a show dog. Don't even mention the ugly dog contest to Nutmeg's owner.

(on camera): Does it annoy you? I mean, do you get mad?

AMY FERNANDEZ, CHINESE CRESTED OWNER: It annoys me intensely. I really wish they would stop having that contest. It's such a beautiful breed.

MOOS: Though it's bringing up the rear in the poll. By the way, this is not one of the criteria for selection.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Say Obama. Say Obama.

MOOS: Remember how the Clintons' dog, Buddy, fought with the first cat Socks? And current occupant Barney refused to get on Air Force One. And who could forget the time the president dropped Barney and Beasley tried to elude Secret Service agents.

Reagan's dog Lucky...

RONALD REAGAN, 40TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You don't stand up on me, do you?

MOOS: Had to be retired to the ranch because Lucky was too hard to control.

So are the five breeds up for election White House-ready?

OKAS: Oh, somebody peed. Come here. MOOS (on camera): It's just slobbering?

OKAS: Well, she's panting because of all the excitement.

MOOS: You can't walk around the White House with turkey in your ears.

You want to sniff anything.

We can't have any of this behavior in the White House.

OKAS: Flirtatious little boy, knock it off.

MOOS (voice-over): Should have tried that back when Bill was president.

OKAS: Knock it off.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


MALVEAUX: Well check out the new SITUATION ROOM screen saver. You can download at I'm Suzanne Malveaux in THE SITUATION ROOM. Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT," Lisa Sylvester is in for Lou -- Lisa.