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Special Edition: The Next President

Aired July 27, 2008 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "LATE EDITION": This is a special LATE EDITION, "The Next President."
It's an intense battle for the White House and its being watched around the world; from intimate Town Halls in the United States.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) PRESUMPTIVE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Americans are sitting around the kitchen table tonight figuring out whether they can keep their home or not.

BLITZER: To enormous rallies in Europe.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESUMPTIVE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Let us remember this history and answer our destiny and remake the world once again.

BLITZER: Tonight we bring it all home to you. Barack Obama faces tough questions about his stand on the military surge in Iraq.

OBAMA: I have not heard yet, somebody ask John McCain whether his vote to go in Iraq was a mistake.

BLITZER: And you'll hear me ask John McCain that question in my one- on-one interview with the presumptive Republican nominee.

MCCAIN: The fact is that Saddam Hussein was bent on the development of weapons of mass destruction.

BLITZER: With 100 days to go until the election, CNN brings you the two leading candidates.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From Washington, this is a "Special Late Edition: The Next President."

BLITZER: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Yes, this is not our usual Sunday morning air time. But today, is anything but just another late edition. We have the opportunity to bring you both leading presidential candidates in two extensive in- depth interviews.

Senator Barack Obama appeared before the Unity convention of Minority Journalists of Chicago and took some tough questions. We'll bring you that conversation in just a few moments.

But first we have a one-on-one interview with Senator John McCain. I began by asking him what he would do on day one in the Oval Office.


BLITZER: And joining us now, the Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Senator McCain, welcome back.

MCCAIN: Thanks, Wolf. Good to be back.

BLITZER: Let's talk about you're elected president of the United States, It's January 20th, 2009, first day you're in the Oval Office. After you're sworn in, what's the first thing you do?

MCCAIN: You sit down with your National Security advisors and say how can we keep the peace in the world? What do we need to do and what actions do we have to take? What actions have worked, which ones haven't? Which policies haven't worked? And keep this nation safe and secure.

And then, of course, how do we restore trust and confidence in government? We've got to take some measures to reform the way that government does business, the way Congress does business and get Americans trust and confidence back in this country and in their government. And that means reforming the way the government does business, which Americans have lost trust and confidence in.

BLITZER: And what about what -- that a lot of people call issue number one, the domestic economy, which seems to be in real serious trouble right now by almost all accounts will still be in serious trouble in January of next year. What's the first thing you do on the economy?

MCCAIN: Restrain spending. It's the first thing we have to do. We have to restrain out-of-control spending. We have to reform government. We have to embark on measures to keep people in their homes, to keep their taxes low, to create new jobs, and to get our economy back moving again. And that's part of the trust and confidence.

We've got to regain the trust and confidence of the American people because we have to act together. We have to put our country first. The Congress and the government is fundamentally gridlocked as we know. And that's why we see the all-time low approval ratings of Congress.

And so we have to sit down together, Republican and Democrat together, and start working for the good of this nation. Keep people in their homes, provide them with affordable and available health care, create new jobs all across this country. We can do it.

And one of the major, major aspects of this, of course, is energy independence. The price of a gallon of gas is killing, is harming the fixed income Americans very badly. They are the ones that drive the oldest automobiles and drive the furthest. And so we have to have this positive movement and mission, a national mission to become independent of foreign oil.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to get to all those issues one by one.

Let's talk a little bit about some national security issues. You're President of the United States. You vowed you will capture Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Now, we know that President Bush since 9/11 has been doing the best he can. What would you do differently?

MCCAIN: Well, I'm not going to telegraph a lot of the things I that I'm going to do because then it might compromise our ability to do so. But look, I know the area. I've been there. I know wars. I know how to win wars, and I know how to improve our capability so that we will capture Osama bin Laden or, put it this way, bring him to justice. We can do it. I know how to do it.

BLITZER: If you capture him alive, what do you do with him?

MCCAIN: Of course you put him on trial. I mean there are ample precedents for that. And it might be a good thing to reveal to the world the enormity of this guy's crimes and his intentions, which are still there, and he's working night and day to destroy everything we stand for and believe in.

BLITZER: Do you do him a regular civilian trial here in the United States or is it a war crimes tribunal, a military commission? What kind of legal justice would you bring him toward?

MCCAIN: We have various options. But the Nuremberg trials are certainly an example of the kind of tribunal that we could move forward with. I don't think we'd have any difficulty devising an internationally-supported mechanism that would mete out justice. And there's no problem there.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk about the war in Iraq right now. With Charles Krauthammer "The Washington Post" Conservative columnist, he writes that the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al Maliki in recent days, quote, "voted for Obama casting the earliest and most ostentatious absentee ballot of this presidential election."

If you were President and Nouri al Maliki is still the elected Prime Minister of Iraq and he says he wants all U.S. troops out, what do you do?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I know Prime Minister Maliki rather well. I know that he is a politician, and I know that they are looking at upcoming elections. I know that he knows and the other leaders know there that it has to be condition-based.

Any withdrawals, which we will withdraw, we have succeeded. The surge has succeeded. And we're on the road to victory. And we will be out of there. And we may have a residual presence of some kind as I've always said, but the fact is the surge has succeeded.

And the fundamental here is that I supported that surge when it was not the popular thing to do. Senator Obama opposed it, said it wouldn't work, even voted to cut off the funds for the men and women who are fighting over there, and still -- and he still doesn't understand to the point where he doesn't agree that the surge has succeeded.

No rational observer -- no rational observer who sees the conditions in Iraq today as opposed to two years ago could possibly -- could possibly conclude that the surge hasn't succeeded.

So he sees it as a political issue. He doesn't understand the importance of this victory and the consequences of failure and benefits of success. If we had done what Senator Obama wanted to do, which by the way, initially would have been the troops out last March, we would have had greater Iranian influence, we would have had an increase in sectarian violence, we would have seen possibly a wider war in the region which would have drawn us back.

So I can assure you that Prime Minister Maliki understands that conditions have to be kept. And I want to find that -- to tell you again, General Petraeus, one of the great generals in history, strongly disagrees with Senator Obama. And our highest ranking military officer also says it would be a very dangerous course. We're not going to go down that road.

BLITZER: Well, but if Maliki persists, you're president, and he says he wants U.S. troops out and he wants them out let's say, in a year, or two years, or 16 months, or whatever, what do you do? Do you just -- do you listen to the Prime Minister?

MCCAIN: He won't. He won't because he knows it has to be condition- based.

BLITZER: How do you know?

MCCAIN: Because I know him, and I know him very well. I know the other leaders. And I know -- I've been there eight times as you know. And I know them very, very well.

BLITZER: So why do you think he said, that 16 months is basically a pretty good timetable.

MCCAIN: He said it's a pretty good timetable based on conditions on the ground. I think it's a pretty good timetable as we should have horizons for withdrawal, but they have to be based on conditions on the ground.

This success is very fragile. It's incredibly impressive but very fragile. So we know, those of us who have been involved in it for many years know that if we reverse this by setting a date for withdrawal, all the hard-won victory can be reversed. We're not ready to sit to do that. Too many brave young Americans and their families have sacrificed too much.

But we will be out. And the difference is we'll be out with victory and honor and not defeat. Senator Obama has said there's a possibility under his plan we may have to go back. I guarantee you after they withdraw under what we are doing; we'll never have to go back. BLITZER: All right. You also made a very serious charge against Senator Obama, you've repeated it, you say you stand by it, that he would rather lose a war to win a political campaign, raising questions about, you know, his motives.

Joe Klein writing in "Time" magazine says, "This is the ninth presidential campaign I've covered. I can't remember a more scurrilous statement by a major party candidate. It smacks of desperation."

Those are strong words from Joe Klein, whom you obviously know. But tell us, what are you charging, what are you accusing Obama of doing?

MCCAIN: I am accusing -- I am stating the facts. And the facts are that I don't question Senator Obama's patriotism. I'm sure that he's a very patriotic American. I question his judgment, because he lacks experience and knowledge; and I question his judgment.

I'm not prepared to see the sacrifice of so many brave young Americans lost because Senator Obama just views this war as another political issue, which he can change positions.

And everybody knows that he was able to obtain the nomination of his party by appealing to the far left and committing to a course of action that I believe was -- I know was wrong. Because he said the surge would not work. He said it wouldn't succeed. No rational observer in Iraq today believes that the surge did not succeed.

So he just treats it as another political issue because he doesn't understand. And he doesn't have the knowledge and the background to make the kind of judgments that are necessary. And this war has enormous ramifications. If we had lost it, we would have faced enormous challenges in the region, throughout the world, increased Iranian influence; perhaps even having to come back in a wider war.

So he simply does not understand and treats it as another political issue.

BLITZER: But he says that when it comes to judgment, that back in 2002 and 2003, early 2003, before the war, he made the right call in opposing the war to begin with, and he says you blundered, you made the wrong call in supporting going to war against Saddam Hussein.

MCCAIN: I'd be more than happy to go through all of that again and historians will. That fact is that Saddam Hussein was bent on the development of weapons of mass destruction. And I'll be glad to discuss that. The fact is what did we do at a critical time when we were about to lose the war? We were losing the war.

Senator Obama wanted to get out. I wanted the surge which was not popular. The surge works. And now, what do we do in the future? Do we continue on the path to victory and we've succeeded or do we set a time for withdrawal and jeopardize and possibly reverse all the gains that we have made? That's the question on the minds of the American people today.


BLITZER: Up next, part two of my conversation with the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. We'll turn to CNN viewers like you for some of the tough questions.


ROBERT WEISMAN, ILLINOIS: Senator McCain, do you agree with or would you unequivocally reject and repudiate the Bush doctrine of preemptive war.


BLITZER: And later, we'll hear Senator Barack Obama at the Unity Convention of Minority Journalist in Chicago. He answers some very tough questions.

This is a Special Late Edition, "The Next President."


BLITZER: Welcome back to "The Next President" a Special Late Edition. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

In just a few minutes we'll bring you Democratic Senator Barack Obama's appearance today, before the Unity Convention of Minority Journalists in Chicago.

But first, here is part two of my interview with the Republican Senator, John McCain.


BLITZER: We invited our viewers, Senator McCain, to submit some video questions for you, sort of our video version of a Town Hall meeting.

Jonathan Collins of Tampa, Florida says he's very liberal but he says he has no connections to either campaign. He asks this question. I'll play it for you. Listen to this.


JONATHAN COLLINS, FLORIDA: Can you please, in layman's terms, so the entire world will know when these events happen, we have won the war in Iraq, can you please give us your definition?


BLITZER: Go ahead, Senator. I guess the question is define victory in Iraq.

MCCAIN: Sure. It's the classic outcome of a successful counter insurgency, which the strategy is -- an effective government, a secure environment, a social and economic and political process that's moving forward; very importantly, a legal system that is functioning to protect the rights of the people. Americans withdrawing and the Iraqi people having a chance at freedom and democracy, which obviously they were never going to have under Saddam Hussein and we avoid the risk of a wider war. We reduce the influence of Iran in the region. We have a positive impact even as far away as Afghanistan because success breeds success.

But an Iraq that is a stable, normal country. And it's not over, as I said. Al Qaeda is not defeated. They're on their heels but they are not defeated. That's why we have a ways to go.

But the progress, by any parameter, has been dramatically good, and that's the path to victory in Iraq. And you can see it every single day in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and around the country, and I say thank God.

BLITZER: I have a bunch of short questions, and hopefully some short answers.

MCCAIN: Sure. Short answers, ok.

BLITZER: We'll go through with some straight talk, some straight talk as you like to do right now.

If Israel were to decide its existence or its security were threatened and bombed Iran's nuclear facilities, would U.S. presidents stand with Israel?

MCCAIN: I can only tell you I will not discuss hypotheticals and I can't. But I can tell you this; the United States of America is committed to making sure that there is never a second holocaust. That will be what I will do as President of the United States.

BLITZER: If you were president would you move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?



MCCAIN: Right away.

BLITZER: Like as soon as you were inaugurated, right away you'd inform the State Department to do that?

MCCAIN: I've been committed to that proposition for years.

BLITZER: The -- we have this question from Robert Weisman of Skokie, Illinois. He considers himself on the liberal side of the spectrum but he asks this question. Listen to this.


WEISMAN: Senator McCain, do you agree with or would you unequivocally reject and repudiate the Bush doctrine of preemptive war?

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Did you hear the question?

MCCAIN: Well yes. That's a very, very tough question and it's based on the judgment of a commander-in-chief. No nation can wait until it is attacked when it is clear that there is going to be an impending attack from either a terrorist organization or a hostile nation.

So those kinds of judgments need to be made by presidents. And again, you have to have the knowledge and experience and background to make those kinds of judgments. Do I favor preemptive war, of course not; none of us do. But it's the first obligation of the President of the United States to secure our nation and make sure that we are not attacked and American lives are lost or sacrificed.

So that's why I said when you asked me earlier, what was my first thing I would do as president, and that's to make sure that everything has been done and is being done to secure America's safety and security.

BLITZER: All right. We've got a few more quick questions.


BLITZER: If you were president, would you take steps, would you work to repeal Roe versus Wade?

MCCAIN: I don't agree with -- I don't agree with the decision. It's a decision that's there. I will appoint judges to the United States Supreme Court that do enforce strictly the Constitution of the United States and do not legislate from the bench.

BLITZER: Do you support a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States?

MCCAIN: Once we have secured the borders, and I have not changed my position, we tried twice in the United States Senate with comprehensive immigration reform, which meant securing our borders, temporary worker program that works and a path to citizenship for many, not all, but certainly many of the people who are already here illegally.

Americans want the borders secured first. We can do that and we can establish a truly temporary worker program through the use of biometric tamper-proof documents. And we can put some people, or a lot of them, on the path to citizenship, requiring they pay fines, learn English, do all the things necessary by the principle that they cannot have any priority of those who either waited or came to this country legally.

BLITZER: Given the high price of gas right now, you recently changed your position on offshore oil drilling but you still oppose drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. If the price continues to go up, could you see yourself changing your mind on ANWR, as it's called?

MCCAIN: These are ways to attack a fundamental problem as we all know that are hurting Americans. First, let's get offshore drilling going. Let's do it now. We can do it now. Oil company executives say it could be as short a time as one to two years.

Contrary to the belief of some, just the president's announcement of the lifting of the Federal Moratorium had an impact on the futures cost of a barrel of oil. Let's get going drilling offshore first and let's do whatever is necessary and that includes nuclear power; both of which Senator Obama opposes.

BLITZER: You're in Colorado right now. They have an initiative on their ballot in November that would eliminate affirmative action. I don't know if you're familiar with that referendum, but is that a good idea?

MCCAIN: I'm not familiar with the referendum, Wolf, it's hard for me to say. I've always opposed quotas.

BLITZER: On the vice president front, this is the final question, Senator, there're stories out there you want to do this before the Olympic Games start in Beijing on August 8th and not wait any longer. Are those reports true?

MCCAIN: I can't comment on the process that we're going through, and I'm sure you understand. And every nominee of the party has gone through this. And I appreciate you asking the question but I can't comment on the process.


BLITZER: Just ahead, Senator Barack Obama took questions today at the Unity Convention in Chicago.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have visited churches and synagogues, when will you, or is it in the plans for you to visit a mosque.


BLITZER: In just a moment we'll continue this Special Late Edition, "The Next President."


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Don Lemon. We'll get back to a "Special Late Edition" in just a moment.

But first we want to catch you up on the headlines, right now.

We start out with panic and death in Turkey. Two explosions rock in Istanbul suburbs killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 150. Istanbul's governor calls the blasts an act of terror. There have been no claims of responsibility.

Horror today in a church in Knoxville, Tennessee; a man with a shotgun killed one person and wounded several others during a kid's play. They were acting. And suspect is identified as 58-year-old Jim Adkinson (ph). He's being held on a million dollars bond on one count of first degree murder. No reports of any children being hurt in that incident.

Firefighters put out a fast moving brush fire that forced people to evacuate the Los Angeles Zoo. The fire in nearby Griffith Park burned 16 acres and for a while it threatened a breeding center for endangered California condors.

We'll have more in a little bit right here in the CNN newsroom.

We want to send you back now to a "Special Late Edition," including Barack Obama at the Unity Conference. That's after a quick break.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to this "Special Late Edition, The Next President." You just heard my interview with Senator John McCain. Now we turn to Senator Barack Obama who spoke at the Unity Conference of Minority Journalists in Chicago. The moderators were CNN's Susan Malveaux and "Time" Magazine's managing editor Ramesh Ratnesar.

And we begin with the senator's answer to the question of what he sees as policy priorities after last week's visit to Iraq and Afghanistan.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, we've got to get Afghanistan right. If you've got Al Qaeda, you've got the Taliban in training camps and safe havens just a few miles inside the Pakistan border that can act with impunity, then it is going to be hard for us to stabilize Afghanistan. And those folks are in a position then to plot how to kill Americans. We've got to get the Pakistani government involved in a much more significant way than they are right now.

The other thing we have to do is get the entire world united around the need for both big carrots and big sticks to present to the Iranians so they stand down on nuclear weapons. We cannot afford a nuclear arms race in the mideast. As volatile as it is, we cannot have Iran getting a nuclear weapon which triggers a decision by other countries in the Gulf to get nuclear weapons, that would not only affect our ability to operate in that theater but that offers the prospect of terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. And there's no more important security agenda for us to address than the possibilities of nuclear proliferation.

RAMESH RATNESAR, "TIME" MAGAZINE MANAGING EDITOR: Senator, I want to ask you about a subject you've had to address repeatedly on this trip, which is the situation in Iraq and the question whether the surge has helped improve conditions there. During the primaries you criticized Senator Clinton for failing to say that her vote authorizing the war was a mistake. Now we have commanders on the ground pretty much saying that the surge has succeeded. And you've that if had it to do all over again - you'd still would have voted against the surge. We're not going to ask you whether - you know, change your position here.

OBAMA: You're not going to ask me but go ahead. RATNESAR: But I would like to know whether you feel that after the last five years, haven't we learned that a commander in chief needs to be willing to acknowledge mistakes or errors in judgment when circumstances change?

OBAMA: You know I have to say it is fascinating to me to hear you guys reemphasize this over and over again. I have not heard yet somebody ask John McCain whether his vote to go into Iraq was a mistake. I haven't. During the entire week that we were having this conversation. And so the question is what are the strategic judgments that have to be made in order to make America safe. I strongly believe that going into Iraq was a disaster strategically. It distracted us from finishing the job in Afghanistan.

I have acknowledged repeatedly in every one of these interviews that the fact that we put more troops in there helped to quell the violence. I've been saying that all week. The question is whether or not my position in suggesting that we need to begin a phased withdrawal, we should have begun it earlier, whether that position that I took was a mistake, and I do not believe it was. Because I continue to believe that the only way for us to stabilize the situation in Iraq - I believed it then and I believe it now - is for the parties to arrive at a set of political accommodations.

Now, any time you put 20 to 30,000 U.S. troops anywhere in the world, they are going to perform brilliantly and that is going to contribute to keeping the lid on violence. The question is whether or not that military action alone is sufficient to solve the problems. And had there been a continuation of a civil war in Iraq in which Sunnis and Shias were going at each other full bore, in which Sunnis were still in line with Al Qaeda. Using military solutions to that problem would not have been sufficient, in my estimation.

Now, we don't know what would have happened have we followed my plan to begin a phased withdrawal to put pressure on the Maliki government to start negotiating more effectively with some of these other parties. But that is no way takes away from the great work that our troops did and the terrific tactical work that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have engaged in. The key now is how do we move forward. And I think that people believe that at this point we are in a position to start drawing down our troops partly because we've got to get some troops into Afghanistan and there's no other place for us to get them.

RATNESAR: Based on what you saw on your trip, you feel that the timetable you set out for redeployment still makes sense?

OBAMA: I think it's realistic. I think that obviously General Petraeus wants as much flexibility as possible. And as I said during my trip, if I were in his shoes, I'd want as much flexibility as well. But when you've got the Prime Minister of Iraq, the people of Iraq saying they are ready to take more responsibility when we're seeing more Iraqi forces take the lead in actions, we need to take advantage of that opportunity particularly because we've got to deal with Afghanistan. And we can't keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq at a time when we've got enormous pressing needs here in the United States of America including, by the way, taking care of veterans who are coming home with posttraumatic stress disorder, disabilities, and they are still not getting a lot of the services that they need.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Senator, I want to use a word that you like to use, audacity, a lot of people looked at the trip, and they saw the palaces, the world leaders, the 200,000 that were gathered in Berlin, and they said the audacity of this trip, it looks like he's running for president of the world. And a lot of people looked and they want to know, what out of this trip did you take away that you feel makes you a stronger candidate to be a leader here?

OBAMA: Let me make a couple of points. First of all, I basically met with the same folks that John McCain met with after he won the nomination. He met with all these leaders. He also added a trip to Mexico, a trip to Canada, a trip to Columbia, and nobody suggested that was audacious. I think people assumed that what he was doing was talk to world leaders who we may have to deal with should we become president. That's part of the job that I'm applying for.

So I was puzzled by this notion that somehow what we were doing was in any way different from what Senator McCain or a lot of presidential candidates have done in the past. Now I admit we did it really well. But, and that - that shouldn't be a strike against me. If I was bumbling and fumbling through this thing, I would have been criticized for that. So that's point number one.

I don't know the political affect of this when I come back. I think people are worried about gas prices, they are worried about job security, they are worried about their retirement funds, as the stock market goes down. So probably a week of me focusing on international issues doesn't necessarily translate into higher poll numbers here in the United States. Because people are understandably concerned about the immediate affects of the economy and that's what we will be talking about for the duration.

I do think that in terms of me governing, being an effective president, that this trip was helpful. Because I think I've established relationships and a certain bond of trust with key leaders around the world who have taken measure of my positions and how I operate, and I think can come away with some confidence that this is somebody I can deal with.


BLITZER: Barack Obama's conversation with minority journalist in Chicago today. When we come back, more questions from the audience.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the United States were to have a president of color, would there still be a need for affirmative action?


BLITZER: We'll be back with more of the "Special Late Edition, the Next President." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Still ahead, more of today's Q&A with Barack Obama. You're going to want to hear what he has to say about questions of race and religion. And this programming reminder, coming up in the top of the hour, an encore presentation of CNN's ground breaking "Black in America." Here is a preview.


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Cory lives with his girlfriend Gina and their one-year-old daughter Janice in the Queens Bridge projects, one of the poorest and toughest communities in America.

Did you got to college?

CORY: Yes, community college. But then I had my first daughter so I stopped to start working.


BLITZER: Don't miss the chance to see the documentary everyone is talking about. That's "Black in America." It begins right at the top of the hour but up next we'll go back to Senator Barack Obama's appearance before the Unity Convention of Minority Journalists in Chicago. He took questions about America's attitude towards Muslims and the future of affirmative action. Stay with "The Next President, a Special Late Edition."


BLITZER: Welcome back to "The Next President, A Special Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. In his first public appearance since returning from his trip, he was in Chicago with a convention of minority journalists. He was asked about his response to anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States as well as the future of affirmative action.


LEONARD PITTS, JR., "MIAMI HERALD": Good morning, senator. Leonard Pitts Jr., columnist of the "Miami Herald" and member of the National Association of Black Journalists. You have repeatedly denounced false rumors that you are a Muslim. My question and what I'm wondering is whether you feel you have gone too far, whether or not in answering these questions without challenging the implicit assumption that there's something wrong with being a Muslim, you have actually done harm to the cause of Muslims. You have visited churches and synagogues. When will you - is it in the plans for you to visit a mosque?

OBAMA: Well, Leonard, I have to say, this is a classic example of a no-win situation, right? So I try to correct something that is false, and then people say why are you correcting this thing in a way that isn't sufficiently - well, let me put it this way. First of all, I have repeatedly on various occasions said I am not a Muslim but this whole strategy of suggesting I am is indicative of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have to fight against. So maybe you haven't seen those quotes but they are out there, and I've said them on more than one occasion. And I've said them on television, and I've said them in print.

I just don't like the idea of somebody falsely identifying my religion. I expect that you wouldn't appreciate it either. If you were a Muslim and somebody consistently said you were a Christian, I suspect you would want to have that corrected, because that's offensive to your faith. I think my credentials on supporting Muslim- Americans are very strong. Keep in mind, I'm the person who talked about discrimination against Arab-Americans in my convention speech in 2004, something that I haven't heard too many other politicians talk about in the height of the scare after 9/11.

I have visited mosques here in my community repeatedly and met with Muslim leaders on a wide range of occasions. So what I would ask is that I am treated like other candidates in terms of expectations and that people look at my entire record when it comes to anti-Muslim bias, when it comes to discrimination against Muslims or Arab Americans, I have been at the forefront of those fights and will continue to be when I'm president of the United States,

PITTS: Senator, let me ask you a no-win follow-up. Do you think you would have come this far if you were a Muslim?

OBAMA: You know, that's a hypothetical that I don't know how to answer. I will tell you this that the American people are more tolerant and more open-minded than, I think, a lot of the pundits give them credit for. And I think right now what they are interested in is who is going to help them get a job, who is going to make sure that they are able to send their kid to college, who can deliver for them. And if they have confidence that I am going to be able to make their lives better or work with them to open up opportunities for them to achieve the American dream, I think I'll have their support. And if I -- if, on the other hand, they think I'm not going to help them do that, then it doesn't matter what my religion is or what my skin color is, I probably won't get their support.

MALVEAUX: One more question from the audience.

JOHN YANG, NBC NEW, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Thank you, Senator. I'm John Yang, NBC News White House correspondent and a member of the Asian-American Journalist Association. I would like to ask you about affirmative action. Just this morning Senator McCain endorsed an Arizona ballot initiative that would end preferences based on race and gender in that state. The author of that initiative Ward Connolly says you're very success undercuts the argument for affirmative action. If the United States were to have a president of color, would there still be a need for affirmative action?

OBAMA: Well, look, I am a strong supporter of affirmative action when properly structured so that it is not just a quota, but it is acknowledging and taking into account some of the hardships and difficulties that communities of color may have experienced, continue to experience, and it also speaks to the value of diversity in all walks of American life. We are becoming a more diverse culture and it's something that has to be acknowledged.

I've also said that affirmative action is not going to be the long- term solution to the problems of race in America, because, frankly, if you've got 50 percent of African-American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn't really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action. Those kids are not getting into college. And you know, there have been times when I think affirmative action is viewed as a shortcut to solving some of these broader, long-term, structural problems.

I also think that we have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children, who are advantaged, aren't getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who struggled more. That has to be taken into account. So I think that, whether it is in terms - particularly when it comes to college admissions, what I'm interested in is programs that take a wide range of issues into account. I think the university or college should be able to take into account race, but they should also be able to take into account hardship and difficulty in making assessments on whether or not a young person is deserving of opportunity.

I am disappointed, though, that the John McCain flipped and he changed his position. In the past he had been opposed to these kinds of war referendum or initiatives as divisive, and I think he's right. You know, the truth of the matter is these are not designed to solve a big problem, but they are all too often designed to drive a wedge between people. And one thing that I'm absolutely convinced about after traveled all across the world over the last week, is that one of our greatest strengths is the fact that we come from so many different places, and, yet, we are all Americans.

The Iraqis and the Afghans, when they talked to me about our military, not only were they impressed with how effective our military was, but they were also impressed with the fact that we had people from all walks of life who looked different, all joining together as Americans. They were impressed with the fact that our main commanding officer now in Iraq is an African-American. That, I think, is what makes America special. We shouldn't lose that. We shouldn't either lose that or see that as a source of division. It should be a source of pride. And when properly structured, affirmative action I think can be a part of that.

MALVEAUX: And Senator, if I can follow-up with this one point. It was about a year ago, you were with many of us in this audience and asked if you were black enough. Obviously that question, you have 90 percent approval rating from the African-American community.

OBAMA: No. I'm too black.

MALVEAUX: Too black. I didn't say that.

OBAMA: No, I'm just teasing, but it does point to this. I mean and this is why I was getting into Leonard's question. I mean, I do think that there is this sense of going back and forth, depending on the time of day, in terms of making assessments about my candidacy, and I think that what we are trying to do is to simply work as hard as we can around the values and ideals that led me into this race. And I think what are needed right now in order for us to move this country forward.

MALVEAUX: Thank you very much, Senator, for sharing your impressions of your trip and taking our questions this afternoon.

OBAMA: Thank you. I enjoyed it. Thank you very much.


BLITZER: And that's our "Special Late Edition, the Next President." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Stay right here to see the program everyone is talking about. CNN's groundbreaking documentary "Black in America" with Soledad O'Brien is coming up, next.