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Obama Hits McCain on Homes; Clinton Supporters Resist Obama

Aired August 21, 2008 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Barack Obama hits John McCain where he lives. After the Republican couldn't say how many homes he and his wife owned, Obama is pouncing right now, and McCain is trying to explain himself.
And this hour, we're standing by to hear from Senator Obama live. He's still in Virginia. We're getting new hints about his vice presidential choice and just how soon the big announcement may happen.

In fact, he's just told "USA Today," the newspaper, he's made up his mind. He's not yet revealing his choice.

And the Bush administration's new in our convention countdown.

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

John McCain opened the door and Barack Obama stepped right in, blasting the Republican today as rich and out of touch. At issue, the number of homes owned by the McCain family. It's a number McCain wasn't able to come up with when asked yesterday, and that could be a new break for Senator Obama only four days before the Democratic convention and perhaps only hours before his vice presidential announcement.

The Democrat is campaigning today once again in Virginia, with one prospective running mate, the governor, Tim Kaine. Obama has an event this hour. We plan to go there live. Stand by for that.

Jessica Yellin, in fact, is standing by in Virginia. But let's go to Ed Henry right now. He's watching this story for us.

Obama turning the tables on McCain, blasting him for not knowing how many homes he and his wife really own.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the irony here is that John McCain has really been gaining steam in recent days because of the fact that for the first time in a long time, he's been staying on message. Yesterday, he veered off message, and in his campaign has spent the day today trying to stem the political damage.


HENRY (voice-over): It was an attack John McCain served up to Barack Obama on a silver platter.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Somebody asked John McCain, "How many houses do you have?" And he said, "I'm not sure. I'll have to check with my staff." True quote.

HENRY: In an interview Wednesday with, McCain got that question and seemed to stumble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many houses do you and Mrs. McCain have?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think -- I'll have my staff get to you. I can't tell you. Condominiums... I'll have them get to you.

HENRY: The McCain camp insists the senator knows the answer. The couple has four homes, their ranch near Sedona, as well as condos in Arizona, California and Virginia. But the Obama camp insists the total is higher if you include their investment properties, citing a study by

OBAMA: And by the way, the answer is John McCain has seven homes. So there's just -- there's just a fundamental gap of understanding between John McCain's world and what people are going through every single day here in America.

HENRY: McCain took the day off in Arizona, but his campaign fired back at Obama by invoking his ties to Tony Rezko, who was convicted on federal bribery and fraud charges. McCain spokesman Brian Rodgers said of Obama, "Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii, and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of the convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses?"

On the same day Obama bought his Chicago home in 2005, Rezko's wife bought a vacant lot next door, meeting the seller's request that both properties sell at the same time. Obama, who later bought part of that lot, has denied any wrongdoing, but expressed regret about the appearances.


HENRY: Now this is one of those classic campaign food fights where they trade jabs back and forth. It might normally go right past the voters, but in this case, with the economy in tough shape, with that housing crisis out there, it could be politically explosive -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Does it make McCain, Ed, more vulnerable right now? What are you hearing?

HENRY: Well, certainly the fact when you look at what's happened in recent months, the fact you remember Phil Gramm, his close friend, a few months ago said the economy is not really that bad, the problem really is that America has become, I think he said, a nation of whiners, that really blew up in McCain's face at the time. You start stringing some of these things together, that could make him vulnerable -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Ed.

Let's continue to see what's going on.

Jessica Yellin, she's in Virginia watching all of this unfold.

Another day we heard Senator Obama really once again going after Senator McCain on this and other issues.


Barack Obama is having a field day with some of McCain's recent comments, not just the house gaffe that Ed was just reporting on, but also McCain's comments at the Saddleback forum last weekend, when he was asked, "How much money is rich?" McCain said $5 million.


YELLIN (voice-over): For Barack Obama, it's a gift from John McCain.

OBAMA: I guess if you think that being rich means you've got to make $5 million, and if you don't know how many houses you have, then it's not surprising that you might think the economy was fundamentally strong.

YELLIN: The Obama campaign is convinced this message is on the money, and they're taking it all the way to the bank. They've already released this ad...

NARRATOR: When asked how many houses he owns? McCain lost track. He couldn't remember.

Well, it's seven. Seven houses. And here's one house America can't afford to let John McCain move into.

YELLIN: And top surrogates are hitting 16 states to mock John McCain for, in the campaign's words, losing track of his houses. Obama supporter and VP shortlister, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, made the case on CNN.

GOV. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA: He couldn't count high enough, apparently, to even know how many houses he owned.

YELLIN: The Obama campaign believes this line of attack will persuade voters that McCain is out of touch with regular folks and can't fix what he doesn't know is broken. It could also defuse charges that Obama is elitist. It's as if they're saying, who is the snob now?

OBAMA: And if you're like me and you got one house, or you were like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don't lose their home, you might have a different perspective.

YELLIN: All this comes as Obama keeps everyone guessing about his running mate. Shortlister Tim Kaine joined Obama on the stump. Was the joint appearance a hint or a head fake? That's anyone's guess.


YELLIN: And Wolf, the Obama campaign continues to say that everybody will find out the name of the vice presidential pick at the same time, that it will go out over a text message first. And meantime, all of the likely shortlisters are staying mum. It's going to be a long night for a lot of people watching and wondering -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They'll be looking at their BlackBerrys and their cell phones to see when that message goes out.

He did just tell "USA Today," the newspaper, Jessica, that he has made up his mind. He won't tell us yet who that vice presidential selection is, but there are some intriguing hints in what he said.

He said, "We had some great choices." He said he wanted somebody who was "prepared to be president and who will be a partner with me in strengthening this economy for the middle class and working families."

But listen, Jessica, to this. He went on to say he was looking not just for a partner, but for a sparring partner. And let me give you the exact quote from "USA Today." "I want somebody who is independent, somebody who can push against my preconceived notions, and challenge me, so we have got a robust debate in the White House."

In other words, he's saying, I don't want just some yes man or yes woman. I want somebody who is strong and could help me be a better president.

I guess for people reading the tea leaves, what do you think when you hear those kinds of intriguing comments?

YELLIN: Well, when he talks about somebody independent, somebody who is not going to just hang back and let him take the lead all the time, it sounds like he's going with the change candidate. We've been saying, does he want somebody who's going to reinforce experience or reinforce his change message. That would sound like a Tim Kaine, the governor we talked about just now, or Kathleen Sebelius, the governor of Kansas.

But really, Wolf, who knows? You could argue it any which way. We won't know until Obama tells us.

BLITZER: And it could be a Joe Biden, for that matter, an Evan Bayh, or maybe even a Hillary Clinton. They all potentially could fit that description.

All right. Thanks very much. We're going to be watching our BlackBerrys and monitoring this story closely. It's a new era right now.

The Obama and McCain match-up is as close as it's ever been. Check out this trend line from our CNN Poll of Polls.

Obama now leads McCain by just one point when you average the latest presidential surveys. The last time it was this close was back in early June, when Obama also had a one-point edge. Obama's biggest lead over the last several months in this same Poll of Polls came in late June, and again in mid-July, when he was eight points ahead of McCain.

The percentage of voters who say they're unsure about the presidential choice has fluctuated between nine and 15 percent. So that's very intriguing.

In fact, there's a new Poll of Polls that's just coming out now, a brand new number, a two-point spread, a very tiny difference between Barack Obama and John McCain. We're watching the story.

Jack Cafferty has the day off today, but still ahead, lots more going on here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're watching a bunch of stories for you, including Barack Obama. He's made up his mind, he tells "USA Today," but when will he tell the rest of us who he's chosen as his running mate? We'll give you the timeline as best as we know it.

Plus, new evidence that Obama isn't winning over a lot of Hillary Clinton supporters. Bill Schneider's standing by with some advice on how he might change that.

And why late-night comics seem to be getting more mileage out of John McCain than Barack Obama.

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


BLITZER: It could be an ominous sign for Senator Barack Obama. With only days to go before the Democratic convention in Denver, almost half -- yes, almost half -- of Hillary Clinton's supporters during the primary process say they still aren't ready to decide who they will support for president of the United States. John McCain's numbers in the most recent polls have been going up as well.

Let's go to Bill Schneider. He's watching this story for us.

Bill, what can Obama do right now to reverse this latest trend, which clearly isn't going in his direction?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Take a cue from the Clintons, and maybe even take a Clinton.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): Hillary Clinton's on board.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: To anyone who voted for me and is now considering not voting or voting for Senator McCain, I strongly urge you to reconsider.

SCHNEIDER: Are they listening? "The Wall Street Journal"/NBC News poll reports that a bare majority of Clinton supporters say they will vote for Obama. Twenty-one percent favor McCain, while 27 percent are still undecided or say they will vote for somebody else.

Another poll shows John McCain has been making gains among white men and working class whites, the same voters who delivered for Clinton in the primaries. How does Obama reach those voters? The same way Bill Clinton did in 1992, and Hillary Clinton did in the primaries -- economic populism.

CLINTON: If I tell you I will fight for you, that is exactly what I intend to do.

SCHNEIDER: Look who's a born-again populist now.

OBAMA: But what I can do is I can say, I'm going to wake up every day thinking about you and thinking about how to make your life a little bit better.

SCHNEIDER: Obama even used his new populist edge to slice up McCain.

OBAMA: Because I don't think that the 463,000 Americans who've lost their job this year are seeing the great progress that John McCain has seen.

SCHNEIDER: Here's another idea: Put Hillary Clinton on the ticket. It would turn the Democratic convention into a love-in, 4,400 delegates singing "Kumbaya."

Would Clinton add to the ticket? Apparently.

If Clinton were the Democratic nominee for president, the Journal/NBC poll shows she'd leading McCain by six points. Obama's lead in the poll? Three.


SCHNEIDER: Iraq was the issue that got Obama the nomination. The economy was Hillary Clinton's issue. So if Obama is going to win this election, he's going to have to do it on the economy, and that means finding the populist touch, because face it, populism is popular -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It sort of works, too, at least in a lot of these contests.

Bill, stand by. We're coming out to Denver to join you very soon.

Gloria Borger is already out in Denver right now. She's at the CNN Election Express, getting ready for a big convention there, then on to St. Paul for the Republican convention.

This tightening, dramatic tightening, not only nationally, as important as that is, Gloria, it's also tightening in several of these battleground states, especially in Florida right now and elsewhere. And there's a message that Senator Barack Obama has to hear from this.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I think Barack Obama needs to take the opportunity at this convention to reintroduce himself to those voters, those Clinton voters you were just talking about, Wolf, who don't really know who he is or what he stands for. That's why you hear him now singing Hillary Clinton's populist message a little bit. He's got to be really specific at this convention, telling voters what he can do for them.

We've heard a lot about change. We understand that. Now they want to make sure that he's going to work for them, and that he won't be a risk.

BLITZER: What about this notion that, you know, McCain and his campaign were trying to promote Senator Obama as an elitist, but now McCain doesn't even know how many houses he and his wife actually own, and she's heiress to a fortune, as all of us know.

Is this going to fly? What's going to be the impact from this?

BORGER: Well, you know, it took the Obama campaign about one nanosecond, Wolf -- you know that -- to pounce on this, because this is the opening they're looking for. He's saying, look, you know, I'm a guy who paid off my college loans a few years ago, and this is a guy who can't keep track of how many houses he owns. Well, I'm going to wake up every morning thinking about you, which by the way is an old Hillary Clinton line, and now Barack Obama is using it.

So of course, he's going to try and use this to portray McCain as the real elitist in this race. And Obama is saying, no, no, no, my tax cuts are going to be for you in the middle class. That's going to be really the key argument you're going to be seeing as we head into this election

BLITZER: When you hear Obama tell the newspaper "USA Today," as he did just a little while ago today, he said he has made up his mind now who his vice presidential candidate is going to be but he's not going to tell us yet -- well, we'll know soon enough. But then he says this, and I'll quote it to you. He says, "I want somebody who is independent, somebody who can push against my preconceived notions and challenge me, so we have got a robust debate in the White House."

Who is he describing?

BORGER: Well, there are a number of people he could be describing. I think he's being vague on it.

But, you know, it may signal that he's willing to take someone who voted differently from the way he voted on the war in Iraq. Joe Biden, for example, and others have said their votes were a mistake.

So, you know, he's kind of saying, you know, I want somebody who is not going to be a "yes" man, because that's not the kind of administration I'm going to have. And that, by the way, is very appealing to Independent voters, and those are the voters that both of these candidates have to go after in this election. But I do think he's made up his mind. I think he could tell that person as early as this evening, Wolf, and maybe we'll know tomorrow. But again, who knows.

BLITZER: As soon as that person knows I think a lot of us will know pretty quickly thereafter.

BORGER: We hope so.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks. Stand by.

We're going to be coming back to Gloria.

The McCain campaign hits back at Barack Obama. It's accusing him of having ties to "unrepentant terrorists." Now the controversy is drawing in a prestigious university and Chicago's mayor.

We'll tell you what we know.

Plus, countdown to Denver. We're going to give you a first look behind the scenes at the Democratic National Convention.

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



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

Happening now, oil's stranglehold in the Republican of Georgia. With just about a day before a deadline for Russian troops to pull back, soldiers are maintaining key positions, allowing them to control the flow of oil.

We'll check in with our own Michael Ware. He's on the ground in Georgia. We'll get the latest.

Also, a vicious ambush. New details are emerging on that 10-hour firefight that killed 10 French soldiers in Afghanistan. Our own Brian Todd, he's piecing together what happened and why.

And carnage in Pakistan. Twin suicide bombings kill 100 people at a military compound. The Taliban are claiming responsibility. We'll have a live update.

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

The political world right now buzzing with speculation about who the presidential candidates will choose as their running mates. John McCain's decision is expected immediately on the heels of next week's Democratic National Convention. Barack Obama is said to be on the verge of revealing his choice. In fact, he says he's made up his mind.

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's looking at the pros and cons of several of these candidates, including the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden. A lot of buzz about Biden.

What are you hearing? And tell us what Biden would bring to a ticket.

SCHNEIDER: An experienced Washington insider, something Obama is not.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): What does Joe Biden bring to the ticket? The ability to speak knowledgeably about issues like these.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: What's going on in Pakistan at this very moment as I speak to you, what's going on in the subcontinent overall, the Korean peninsula, China, Hugo Chavez rewriting the constitution to make himself leader for life, and the de-democratization of Latin America, ladies and gentlemen, there's a great deal at stake.

SCHNEIDER: Biden is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's been in the Senate for 36 years. He knows Washington. He knows the world, two areas where Barack Obama's credentials are a little weak.

And he's from Delaware. Delaware? Just three electoral votes, pretty reliably Democratic. How does Biden help Obama politically? Biden is a Catholic. And Catholics are swing voters. He has roots in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is a swing state, one that Obama lost to Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Joe Biden can immediately put to rest any fears people might have about Barack Obama's lack of foreign policy experience. Also, he can really appeal to these working-class white voters in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and even Michigan.

SCHNEIDER: Biden talks a great deal, sometimes saying things he shouldn't say.

BIDEN: I mean, you have got the first sort of mainstream African-American...


BIDEN: ... who is articulate and bright -- and -- and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, it's -- that's a storybook, man.

PRESTON: Joe Biden can be long-winded. And, in the past, he has had to go back and apologize for some of the statements that he's made.

SCHNEIDER: Can Biden control his tendency to say too much? He's certainly trying.

MODERATOR: An editorial in the Los Angeles Times said, "In addition to his uncontrolled verbosity, Biden is a gaffe machine."

Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?





SCHNEIDER: Biden has held two of the most important jobs in Washington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That could be reassuring to voters who worry about Obama's inexperience -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He's got a lot of experience, and he's a very, very smart guy.

All right, thanks for that, Bill.

Barack Obama's campaign says he will reveal his running mate through a text message. But, as we wait for the announcement, some pranksters are having a field day with hoax messages.

Let's go to Abbi Tatton. She's working this story for us.

Abbi, what do we know?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, with all these Obama supporters waiting patiently by their cells, it seems that some people have been having a little bit of fun.

CNN has got about six reports so far today of people who say, "I got the Obama text message. I know who the V.P. is." Only, it turned out to be a hoax. Here's a typical one that was forwarded to CNN.

It reads: "From Barack Obama, dear friend, I wanted to let you be the first to know that I have selected Virginia Governor Tim Kaine as my V.P." That one is a fake, just like the one that said Kathleen Sebelius, like the one that said Al Gore.

It's actually pretty easy to send one of these out and make it look like it's coming from somebody else. And blogs in the last couple of days have been posting how-to instructions on how to prank your friends.

We spoke to the Obama campaign, and an Obama spokesperson saying that she had actually received one of these hoax messages saying that the V.P. pick would be Suri Cruise. Clearly, that's not going to happen. They have no other comment, apart from that.

And, as for the real text message, we're all just waiting with our cell phones at the ready -- Wolf. BLITZER: And, once we get it, we will have to double- and triple-check to make sure it's the real thing; it's not a hoax. So, this could take a little time.

All right, Abbi, thank you.

The late-night comics usually don't hold back when it comes to getting a laugh at a politician's expense. But are they making an exception in Barack Obama's case?

Let's go to CNN's entertainment correspondent Kareen Wynter for more on that -- Kareen.


Late-night TV has always considered it open season on candidates, but, this time around, one presidential hopeful is proving a tougher target.


WYNTER (voice-over): Leno.


JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": All these young people. This is like the opposite of a John McCain rally. I can't believe it.



WYNTER: Letterman.


DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": If you want some of the John McCain stuff, you can go to -- it's being sold at the -- oh, at the Very Old Navy.


WYNTER: The late-night kings have seemingly endless punchlines about Republican presidential candidate John McCain, but the laugh lines haven't rolled so easily about his Democratic challenger, Barack Obama.

BILL CARTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": They really are still searching for that thing about Obama that is instantly funny.

WYNTER: And identifiable to the public, says Bill Carter of "The New York Times," who interviewed the late-night comics and their writers for a recent article.

Carter says, comics like David Letterman are struggling to poke fun at Obama.


LETTERMAN: Italy is designing clothing based on how Barack Obama dresses. And I said, well, yes, that will connect him with the angry working-class voters.



CARTER: They have tried a few things like that, like that he's -- that he's got sort of high-brow tastes or that he doesn't eat fried food, and things like that. That isn't really a good line, because it doesn't really have a lot of angles.

WYNTER: Comedian Jimmy Kimmel recently told "The New York Times" Obama isn't the ideal target for late-night humor, because he's -- quote -- "so polished." He doesn't seem to have any flaws, but don't expect Kimmel to spare Obama in his monologue.


JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE": Presidential candidate Barack Obama was in Germany today. A huge crowd turned out to hear him speak, more than 200,000 people cheering him enthusiastically.

Yes, I guess it's the first time they have seen a black person since Milli Vanilli left the country.



WYNTER: Carter thinks comics are also walking a fine line because of Obama's race.

CARTER: If you're a white host with white writers, you don't make race jokes, because it's going to look -- it probably is going to look bad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ain't no more on my credit report.

WYNTER: But black comedians like D.L. Hughley aren't afraid to let the jokes fly.

D.L. HUGHLEY, COMEDIAN: He look like Urkel and the dude from "Mad Magazine" had a baby.

The reason we don't hear a lot of Obama jokes is primarily there are a lot of -- I think it's white liberal guilt. I do.


HUGHLEY: I think that people feel in some part guilty and some part that they want Obama to win so bad, that they just refuse to do anything that might put him in a light.

WYNTER: Hughley says comedians should have a laugh -- or two -- at Obama's expense.

HUGHLEY: As much as they may embarrass, they also humanize you.


WYNTER: And if Obama makes it to the White House, it will be interesting to see how long this hands-off approach actually lasts -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Kareen, thanks very much. Kareen is in L.A.

Democrats and a lot of journalists are converging on Denver right now, but not everyone gets to see this. We are going to take you behind the scenes of the Democratic Convention, only days before the party gets started.

Plus, battleground state squeakers -- there's more evidence right now the McCain-Obama matchup is virtually deadlocked, not only nationally, but in several key battleground states. Stand by for our "Strategy Session."

And an airline pilot on the no-fly list, he's fighting to clear his name and save his job.

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


BLITZER: And we're just getting this in to THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Bush has just declared a state of emergency in the state of Florida because of massive flooding in the wake of Tropical Storm Fay. It's leaving more than two feet of rain -- yes, two feet of rain -- heavy flooding, and even tornadoes.

The Florida governor, Charlie Crist, is calling Fay -- and I'm quoting now -- catastrophic.

Let's go to CNN's Sean Callebs. He's in Saint Augustine, Florida, watching this situation unfold.

It looks like quite a mess where you are, Sean.

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this has been one very odd tropical storm, Wolf. This will make the third time that it has slapped the Florida coast, this time coming against the northeastern part.

Right now, the reason it's not pouring here, we're over what is left of the eye. It is right over our area, where we're getting hits by winds that are probably close to 40, 50, 60 miles an hour. The rain, which was coming down extremely hard this morning for several hours, has let up somewhat, really no huge surprise that the president has weighed in on -- and called this a state of emergency now, because, if you think about what Florida has had to endure, just to the south of us, we know Cape Canaveral has had 20 inches of rain, Melbourne, Florida, 26 inches of rain, to the point where they had to use airboats to go in and rescue people who were stranded by the rising waters.

Just look at the surf out there. You can see it is being kicked up pretty well right now. If we pan down this way, you can see what this wind is doing to the sea oats here on this beach. It's almost completely abandoned this hour, which is somewhat of a change from what we have seen today, Wolf.

The sad thing is, because this has been the kind of storm that is windy one minute, pouring one minute, a lot of people have been out looking at the conditions, just trying to walk around in this. And, of course, that is what emergency officials are telling people not to do. And, so, a huge concern here.

And, also, we know that the storm is moving so slowly. It's just churning off the coast here in the Atlantic. It is going to move in. It's going to saturate this area, Wolf. Then it's going to move in to Tallahassee and Gainesville and soak the northeastern and central part of this state -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we will stay on top of it with you. Be careful over there.

Sean Callebs is in Saint Augustine Beach. That's not far from Jacksonville, the northern part of Florida.

Let's go to Iraq right now. The secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, made a surprise visit to Baghdad today. She's pushing forward with talks on the future of U.S. troops in Iraq. And she says the two countries are close -- close -- to finalizing what she calls a -- quote -- "very good agreement. "

CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad -- Arwa.


ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Secretary Rice was here today to check up on the status of the agreement that is intended to replace the U.N. mandate that expires at the end of this year.

The negotiations have actually taken much longer than either side would have hoped for -- the top Iraqi negotiator telling us that they are pushing for a specific timetable that would see U.S. troops out of Iraqi cities in less than a year -- the Americans wanting a much more flexible timeline.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We have always said that the roles, missions and size of the American forces here, the coalition forces, was based on the conditions on the ground and what -- what is needed. We have agreed that some goals, some aspirational timetables for how that might unfold are well worth having in -- in such an agreement. WYNTER: The big fear is that a premature drawdown could see the current gains reversed. And, as everyone knows well, the relative calm here is fragile, and could prove unsustainable -- Wolf.


BLITZER: All right, Arwa, thanks.

Arwa is in Baghdad.

New information about that deadly plane crash -- did the pilot have a warning that something might not be right? We will go live to the scene in Madrid. That's coming up.

And the price of oil jumped today because of the Russia crisis. Our own Michael Ware, he's going to take us to that pipeline in the Republic of Georgia that's part of the problem right now.

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


BLITZER: John McCain may be closing in on the poll gap, as far as Barack Obama is concerned, but when it comes to campaign cash, Obama is far ahead, with more than $65 million on hand. That's compared to the McCain campaign's $21.4 million.

Joining us now to talk a little bit about that and what's going on in our "Strategy Session," our CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

The money thing, is that really all that important, not that important, on a scale of one to 10?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, it's about a seven, I guess I would say.

Ultimately, what matters most is not the advertising. Both campaigns have really good advertising teams. But it's the free press, right? Most people will -- will get most of their information on these two presidential candidates from what they see on CNN and whoever else happens to be covering it. It's all about the free press. Money helps, but...


BLITZER: And when you -- in Republican primaries, your candidate, Mitt Romney, he spent a lot more money than John McCain did. Didn't necessarily work out.

KEVIN MADDEN, FORMER ROMNEY CAMPAIGN NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY: That's right. If there's one thing that John McCain is not afraid of, it is a money advantage for the other campaign. He's going to go out there and he's going to deal straight with the American public -- or -- with the American public.

He's going to talk to them about the issues that he cares about, and he's going to make this a campaign on attributes. It's his experience and his judgment against Barack Obama's. And, at the end of the day, all the money in the world isn't going to get Barack Obama any judgment or experience.

BLITZER: Just a little while ago, Senator Obama spoke with the newspaper "USA Today," and he had this exchange. They have just posted it. Listen to this.


KATHY KIELY, "USA TODAY": Well, even though you haven't announced it, have you, in your own mind, made a decision yet?


KIELY: You have? OK.

And when are you going to tell the lucky individual?

OBAMA: That's all I'm going to comment on.


BLITZER: All right. All right, he says what we have suspected. He says publicly now what we have suspected for days, that he's made up for mind.

Who do you think it is?

BEGALA: I think it's Joe Biden.

BLITZER: Really?

BEGALA: Now, that's just speculation.

BLITZER: Because, you know, Paul Begala is about as well plugged in, in the Democratic Party as anyone.

BEGALA: Oh, yes. Oh, believe me. Believe me.

No, I just think all of the, you know, all of the weather vanes are sort of pointing toward Biden. I think that the -- the Putin invasion of Georgia moved Biden's stock up. Biden is a real expert on foreign policy and national security.

What's not to like? He's an Irish Catholic guy, grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He will have great appeal with those Hillary Clinton voters who are still a little queasy about switching over to Barack. I think that's where the smartest money is right now, is with Biden.

BLITZER: And he did really well in the debates. I moderated four of those Democratic presidential debates. And he was pretty much at the top of his game, even though it never translated into actual votes for him in Iowa, New Hampshire, or other places.

MADDEN: Well, look, I'm plugged in with guys like -- like Begala, so I think it's Biden, too.


MADDEN: Because I listen to guys like him.

But, look, you're right. He is a very good debater. He's somebody who has an edge. But, most importantly, I do think he has that kind of blue-collar quality that really helps him identify with a lot of these voters. So, you couple that with the fact he's really going to go after John McCain hard on national security issues, foreign policy issues. He's really smart.


MADDEN: And Republicans have to get ready for that. He's a really smart guy.

BLITZER: I was told by a pretty well-plugged-in Democrat yesterday he thought it was -- not you or anybody else -- but somebody else who said he thought it was Biden as well. But we will see. You know, you never know. In this kind of situation, there could be a surprise, right?

BEGALA: There could be.

BLITZER: Let's look at these battleground polls that are coming out today, three I want to touch on.

In Florida right now, McCain, 47, Obama 46, unsure, 7 percent, very, very tight in that state. In New Hampshire, Obama 46, McCain 45, unsure, 9 percent, very tight right there. In Minnesota, Obama does better, 48 percent for Obama, McCain 38 percent, Ralph Nader, Bob Barr virtually -- 3 percent, 1 percent, unsure, 10 percent.

How worried should Senator Obama be right now that he's not doing better in Florida, specifically, and in New Hampshire, two states that he's going to need?

BEGALA: Well, Florida is a tough state. You know, Al Gore, I still believe, carried it. Bill Clinton carried it in '96, but not in '92. It's a swing state, and it's trending a little bit away.

You know, George W. Bush beat John Kerry there by 5 percent. Obama has had problems there, because he didn't have a primary, really, and Hillary Clinton sort of won. And, you know, there's a -- there's a -- he has -- he doesn't have the same appeal there. So, I think actually that's very encouraging news in Florida for Senator Obama... (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: That it's neck and neck right now?

BEGALA: Absolutely. That's good news for him.


MADDEN: Well, Paul is too optimistic.

I think, when you look at some of these polls a month, two months ago, Barack Obama was up. He had very big leads in places like Florida. He had very big leads in places like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

What you're seeing now is that these races are starting to narrow. That's because John McCain has successfully made this campaign an argument about, who do you want to be your president now? Oftentimes, campaigns -- and it would be to Barack Obama's advantage -- that they're about the future.

But, right now, the questions -- the core question that voters are asking is, who is ready to be president right now? And John McCain is winning that debate. And that's why you're seeing these polls close.

BLITZER: The genetic, who do you support, a Democrat or a Republican, it's overwhelmingly Democrat right now, but it's neck and neck between Barack Obama and John McCain.

BEGALA: Right. That's what's giving a lot of Democrats a bit of palpitations right now, is that there's never been a more favorable partisan terrain, maybe going back to maybe '32, when Franklin Roosevelt swept into office. In my lifetime, in yours, we have never seen a better...


BLITZER: Will Biden help? Will Biden, if he gets it, will he help turn that around?

BEGALA: He will help some. But these V.P.s, there was never a clearer choice on vice president than Dan Quayle for the Republicans, Lloyd Bentsen for the Democrats. And you know what? Republicans won anyway. So, you can't load that onto Joe Biden.

MADDEN: Still...

BEGALA: Barack Obama is going to have to win this race. He will win it by taking on John McCain, attacking him. He has started to do that in the last 48 hours.

MADDEN: Paul and other Democrat will concede that Barack Obama is still having problems with Hillary Clinton voters. The McCain campaign is getting ready to reach out to those voters, to talk to them about health care, talk to them about the economy, make sure that they know that Barack Obama, again, not ready to be president, and he's very far outside the mainstream of where they are on the big issues.

BLITZER: All right, guys, we will leave it there, but to be continued.

BEGALA: Thanks.

BLITZER: And we're only four days away from the Democratic National Convention. You are about to get one of the first looks inside the site of this event. Stand by for that.

Plus, one of the deadliest attacks ever in Afghanistan -- there's brand-new information we're getting right now about that ambush that killed 10 soldiers.

And later, hope that a major 9/11 conspiracy theory may finally be laid to rest. What really happened to Building 7 at the World Trade Center?

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


BLITZER: Look for a battle of the bands on the sidelines of the Democratic and Republican Conventions. The group Rage Against the Machine will co-host a musical festival in Denver next week. Democratic Convention goers also will be treated to concerts by Melissa Etheridge, Cyndi Lauper, and Willie Nelson.

And the following week, in the Twin Cities...


BEACH BOYS, MUSICIANS (singing): I wish they all could be California, I wish they all could be California, I wish they all could be...


BLITZER: ... Republicans will be able to with the oldies, including the Beach Boys and Styx, country stars Gretchen Wilson, John Rich and others also will be featured.

Can't wait for that.

Also on our "Political Ticker" today, the party is about to get started in Denver. If you don't have an all-access pass to the Democratic Convention, we can get you a quick look around right now, because that's -- that's because our own Joe Johns is there. He's watching what's going on.

You're with the CNN Election Express parked right outside.

Give us a little tour. What's going on, Joe? JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Democrats, of course, are trying to put on an extravaganza here, and they're trying to keep a lot of it under wraps.

So, we took it upon ourselves to at least give you an idea of how the convention here in Denver is going to get to the folks back home.


JOHNS: So, how many of these is this for you?

DAVID BOHRMAN, CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Oh. Well, I have been doing conventions since 1980 in various roles.

JOHNS (voice-over): David Bohrman is CNN's Washington bureau chief and the executive producer of convention coverage.

BOHRMAN: This is my first look here at what they're doing.

JOHNS: We can only show you so much of this room, no pictures of the podium yet. It's off-limits to photography until the Democrats give the green light.

But, inside the Pepsi Arena, the CNN set is located, not in the skyboxes, like the other guys, but right down on the floor, which is a big deal, because, frankly, a national political convention is not just news and history. It's also a visual experience, the lights and sounds, the colors and pictures.

BOHRMAN: We're actually in the middle of the delegate floor. The delegates go all the way up to the -- this full bowl on this side of the hall, but the CNN delegation is right here.

JOHNS (on camera): Right.

BOHRMAN: And we have got a great location to feel the presence and feel the electricity in the hall.

JOHNS: And, if you think this is a lot of work, there's more. For the first time since 1960, the Democrats will be convening at two distinct locations, here at the Pepsi Center. And, then, it all moves to Invesco Field, just a few hundred yards away.

(voice-over): The last time Democrats did a two-step like this was during the convention that nominated John F. Kennedy. A young Nancy Pelosi was in the audience. She, of course, is now speaker of the House.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Well, in 1960, when I went to the convention with my parents in Los Angeles, John F. Kennedy spoke at the L.A. Coliseum. And, so, I saw that change then.

JOHNS (on camera): Right.

PELOSI: This seems very natural to me. JOHNS (voice-over): A scene change this time from the Pepsi Center to Invesco Field may seem natural to some, but not so easy for the folks bringing the speech into your living room.

It's about technology and logistics and the art of television.

BOHRMAN: They put all this effort into here for three nights. And much of the technology that is in this room and all of the people that are in this room, a few hours later, are going to be doing television from the other stadium.


JOHNS: As I said, one of the things the Democrats are keeping under wraps is the podium. I did see it. And I have to tell you, it's very high-tech. The Democrats are planning on rolling it out tomorrow morning -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we will be there. Tomorrow night, we will be getting there.

Thanks very much for that, Joe. Stand by.

Joe is going to be joining us shortly as well.

And stay right here to get the jump on all the convention action. Our special coverage of the Democrats' party in Denver begins this weekend with special reports at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on Saturday night, Sunday night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern as well. I will be anchoring our coverage from there.

I will also be in Denver for the complete coverage all next week, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, and, in prime time, right here on CNN. You're going to want to see what's going on in Denver, and later in St. Paul.

And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.