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Ike Targets Texas; Obama Campaign Goes on the Attack; Ike Strands Freighter in Gulf of Mexico; Interview With Michael Chertoff; McCain Defends 'Lies' Claims; Palin in the Spotlight

Aired September 12, 2008 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: We're following the breaking news, a colossal force of nature threatening Texas right now. Hurricane Ike could unleash devastation within only a few hours. And many residents are warned, leave or possibly face certain death.
Ike is swallowing up entire areas, even pushing up gas prices. We have the latest on where it is and how many people are praying for the best, but preparing for the worst.

And, in the presidential race, Barack Obama's campaign suggests a more intense campaign is about to begin. He and John McCain trade sharp new jabs, this as McCain appears on a popular TV show defending what one questioner called McCain campaign lies.

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

A storm roughly the size of the state of Texas is now threatening the state of Texas. We're following breaking news of Hurricane Ike, whose warnings stretch over a 400-mile stretch of coastline. Forecasters say its area of damage could rival that of Hurricane Katrina's.

It's crashing huge waves, and huge storm surges and widespread flooding are major fears. Ike is right now a Category 2 storm with winds near 105 miles an hour. But forecasters say it could become a Category 3. It's about 160 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas, right now, where it could strike later tonight, within a matter of only a few hours.

Residents are warned they possibly face -- and these are -- these are direct quoted words -- "certain death" So, thousands of people have already left.

Meanwhile, Ike is tossing around a massive freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty-two people are aboard that freighter, and rescue officials say, right now, it's impossible to get them to safety.

Only moments ago, CNN contacted that ship and asked about the rescue effort.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Did the helicopter land on the ship?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not on the ship. It's not on the ship. (END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have more on that rescue effort that apparently is stalled right now.

But let's get the latest on Hurricane Ike, where it is right now, where it's potentially heading.

Let's go to our severe weather expert, Chad Myers. He's at the CNN hurricane headquarters.

All right, give us the latest information we have. I know we're getting a new forecast later this hour.


And it appears, Wolf, it appears on the radar that maybe the northern eyewall, the northern eyewall may miss the Houston Ship Channel and may hit the east side of the ship channel, taking the eye right over the channel itself, but that may lower the threat of a 25- foot storm surge into Galveston Bay.

That said, we're not really -- haven't been talking about what's happening here in Beaumont and Port Arthur and Lake Charles. You guys here are going to get a significant 15-foot storm surge here that almost could rival what you got in Rita, but just not quite. This storm has been trying to intensify during the day. It has had a hard time.

It tried for a little while. It just isn't -- it didn't make it. It's not going to make it to a Category 3, I really don't think. But look at these winds, 74 to 95 miles per hour right through and north of Houston. So, that is going to do damage to high-rise buildings in Houston, for sure.

I think we are going to lose a lot of the glass out of those buildings and it could be a real mess in downtown Houston, even though everybody's focused on Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula there. I will tell you, High Island is going to be completely under water. So will lot of Galveston be completely under water.

And I sure hope these people are really out of there, Wolf, because I'm afraid people didn't leave because they thought it was going to miss them, like Rita missed them. This isn't going to be a miss. This is -- this is on the way.

BLITZER: I want to you stand by a moment, Chad, because Gary Tuchman is on the scene for us. I want to bring him into this conversation right now.

Gary, tell our viewers exactly where are you and what's going on, because it looks pretty horrible, and it's only going to get worse.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's so unusual, Wolf, because it really hasn't started raining yet. Here -- but here, on Seawall Boulevard -- and it's called Seawall, because, literally, over here is a 17-foot seawall that protects the city of Galveston, population 57,000, from the roiling waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

But you can see for the last several hours this seawall has ceased to work. The water has been coming over. These stairs right here, yesterday, we were doing live reports from these stairs. There are 10 stairs that go onto the beach. And this beach went about 75 yards past those stairs.

The beach is gone. And now the street is almost gone, too, because much of it is flooded. Much of Galveston is flooded. This is a precarious place in the best of summers, because people who live here know that there's a possibility they will get hit by a hurricane, because it's right in the hurricane belt.

But it's been 25 years, Wolf, 1983, the last time. Hurricane Alicia killed 21 people in this area, caused billions of dollars of damage, and there hasn't been a major hurricane to hit Galveston since then.

But what is really important to know is, the worst natural disaster in American history happened right here, 108 years ago this week, September 8, 1900. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people were killed. That was a fifth of the population of Galveston when a hurricane came here.

And now everyone is being ordered off this hurricane. We wanted to just give a look, a real close look at just -- as close as we dare. We're not going to get too close. But I want to show you what happens when these waves come up. Just listen for one second as the waves come up over the wall.

So, that gives you an idea. And what's really important to stress, Wolf, is it hasn't started raining yet. The hurricane hasn't arrived. And that's why authorities have issued this very dire warning, the National Weather Service. We have never heard a warning like this. Their basic quote is -- well, we're going run from the water here -- their basic quote...


TUCHMAN: The basic quote is, anyone who lives in a one-family house and a one- or two-story home near the coast, if they don't leave, faces certain death.

Now, in journalism, we never to use the word certainly. I would never use that word myself. The fact is, even if it's not true, we have never heard a more dire warning from the National Weather Service. I have been all over Galveston today. And I can tell you that most of the streets are abandoned. Most people seem to have evacuated -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And -- and a lot of people watching, Gary, they think that -- they look an the pictures. It looks like a beach, the waves simply coming up on the beach. They don't realize. You're up top of what -- how high is that seawall that's supposed to protect Galveston?

TUCHMAN: I'm going to give you another look at it. This seawall is 17 feet high. In other words, this water is usually 17 feet below this street. It's 10 miles long, 17 feet high, built in part because of that terrible hurricane back in 1900.

It has protected the city for the most part, but they're very vulnerable here. It's a fact that, even in the best of conditions, the beaches of Galveston have the worst erosion problem of any beaches in the United States. And that's when there's no hurricane. This will be an environmental catastrophe. There's no question about that.

Whether it's a human catastrophe remains to be seen, but all the conditions are here to make it so for people who don't get out.

BLITZER: All right, Gary, stand by. I want to keep that picture up.

Jeanne Meserve is the phone -- or she's outside of Galveston.

Jeanne, tell us what you saw, where are you right now, also.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're on the highway. I'm with a FEMA team that went down to try and do an assessment of Galveston before the storm hit.

We got over the causeway and saw all kinds of flooding. The -- the roads are already covered. And water is into the first floor of the houses. And this, of course, is 10 hours before the storm has even made landfall.

So, we're sort of looking at the inward side of Galveston, as opposed to Gary is seeing on the seaward side. And it looks very bad, indeed, already. There is some light rain. The winds were picking up pretty stiffly. But the water is clearly what was going to be the big issue back here.

This is one of the worst -- worst scenario sorts of hurricanes that the federal government has thought about in past years. Of course, they were always concerned about New Orleans and its -- and its vulnerability. But Galveston Island was another area which was regarded as a very high threat, very big problem, and here it is coming into a reality right now.

We have some satellite imagery that was prepared by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for the federal government. This is DOG support agency that develops imagery. And, if you look at this, it gives sort of a -- an idea of what's going to happen over time. It shows you what would happen at a three-foot storm surge, then a five, then a 10, and, finally, it shows you a 15-foot storm surge. And, as you can see, a good part of Galveston is under water.

And they are talking about a storm surge potentially greater than that, potentially 20 feet or even higher. So, as Gary has said, it's hard to overestimate the severity of what that island is facing. And I will tell you, on the highway, we are still seeing cars going south. I don't know who they are or what they're doing, but they are headed in the wrong direction today -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that's -- that's a big mistake.

Jeanne, a lot of us remember your very moving reports before, during, and after Katrina hit New Orleans, the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Is there a similar mood right now? Because we're really worried what Ike is about to do.

MESERVE: Well, you know, I think that's different is that so many people are clearly out of harm's way.

There has been such a massive evacuation, and with -- with the lessons of Katrina incorporated. South Korea, I think that it's a little less ominous in that respect. But in terms of the physical damage, you are looking at a huge expanse of land here and infrastructure.

One of the -- one of the estimates that the U.S. government is now using is that 5.2 million people in the state of Texas could lose power. That, by its -- on its own, separate and apart from the surge, is really a catastrophe. If you will remember the news just a week ago, after Hurricane Gustav, it was only a million households without power in Louisiana, and that was absolutely critical, so, big, big, big problems ahead here for the state of Texas, almost certainly.

BLITZER: Yes, we see those waves, that surge, beginning to pound, really pound the seawall just out where are you right now in Galveston.

Jeanne, stand by.

I want to bring in our -- our analyst, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Russel Honore, who led the military operation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina.

You see the stuff that's going on, General Honore. What do you think?


This storm is going to come in with shock and awe. It's going to turn the lights out, it's going to close the roads, and it's going to cut the phone lines. So, I'm hoping everyone who made the decision to stay have a plan to work with their neighbors, and neighbors will check on neighbors, and those who were in trailer homes or in homes that they know cannot stand a 90- to 100-mile-an-hour wind, the door is closing.

It's going to get dark. And this whole situation is going to turn into a night of horror here in the next four or five hours, as the eye of the storm comes ashore.

BLITZER: And it looks like that 17-foot seawall, that's certainly not going to be high enough to save at least much of Galveston. But correct me if I'm wrong. HONORE: Yes, I think the seawall has done its job. It gave the people time enough to get out. You know, seawalls and levees, they are really designed to kind of give you some early warning, let people get out, protect your property.

But you can't depend on a seawall or a levee to save your life. They're good at helping you save property.

BLITZER: Hold on a second, General.

Gary Tuchman is at that seawall right now.

And, Gary, I want to bring you into this conversation. It looks like, with every 15, 20 minutes, the waves simply -- simply are getting so much more intense.

TUCHMAN: Yes. The words are exactly accurate. This seawall is an early warning system.

And they have had the early warning here in Galveston island for like the last eight hours, because this water has been coming over for the last eight hours. But it's getting progressively worse and worse. And this street we're standing on, Seawall Boulevard, where we're standing, we can stand.

But in front of me to the south, behind me to the north, it's already flooded. And many side streets are flooded also. So, people can still leave. So, if they're thinking about it, now is definitely the time to go. It hasn't started raining yet. The visibility is actually very good, but it's very windy, tropical-storm-force winds.

And you can see that much of the city is starting to get flooded. It's a very vulnerable city. Fifty-seven people live here, and it's perched precariously between the Gulf of Mexico and the Galveston Bay. And it's a sliver in the water. And this is what can happen.

BLITZER: I assume, Gary, that most, if not all, of those 57,000 or so residents of Galveston getting a warning from authorities that they face -- and I'm quoting now -- "certain death," I assume they have gotten out of there.

Do we have any idea how many people are left, besides you and our crew and some other intrepid journalists?

TUCHMAN: I will tell you, the authorities like to assign percentages. I think it's impossible to do.

What I do during hurricanes -- it sounds kind of unusual, but it's a great way to survey a neighborhood -- I get on my rollerblades when the weather is still nice and I skate among the neighborhoods. And I did that for about two hours today. And almost every street I skated up and down, the people were done.

I saw about two people still in their homes on dozens of blocks that I went up and down. So, I think it's a very successful evacuation. They haven't had a major hurricane hit them since 1983. The fact is, though, they're very hurricane-savvy. The media always talks about hurricanes here. The Houston television stations are on around the clock, the local stations with information.

The radio stations are giving information. And the power in most places isn't out yet. So, if the people decided to stay, it's not because they don't know about these very serious warnings.

BLITZER: All right, Gary, stand by. I want everybody to stand by, because we're not going to go very far away from the breaking news, this Hurricane Ike. What a monster it is. And it's only just beginning, as you can see right now.

There's also another big story we're not going to go very far away from. That would be the presidential campaign. It's ratcheting up right now, after yesterday's 9/11 truce, Barack Obama going on the counterattack against John McCain on this day -- how his new ad is trying to seize the offensive from his Republican rival. Stick -- stay with us for that.

McCain isn't sitting back either. He's taking direct aim at Barack Obama. We're going to tell you what he says needs to be done to change the tenor of this campaign.

And the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, he is going to being us live, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, with the latest on Hurricane Ike preparations, what he wants people in the storm's path to do and to know right now.

Lots of news two, important stories we're following, right now -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: You're looking at these live pictures from Galveston, Texas. That's a 17-foot seawall that -- the water. You can clearly see those waves, that surge, going above that seawall already. And it's only going to get more intense, it's only going to get worse over the next few hours.

Ike could certainly be headed for the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants as well.

Let's go to our meteorologist Reynolds Wolf. He's joining us now from Clute, Texas.

That's, what, about 40 miles away from Galveston, Reynolds.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You're absolutely correct, Wolf.

In fact, right across the street, we have got the -- let's see -- the BASF plant. A little farther down, we have got the Dow Chemical plant, two places that we are hoping avoid the brunt of the winds from this immense storm system.

But also in very close proximity, Wolf, we have got Gulf Oil, we have got Shell Oil. Even the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserves are right in this area.

Now, we left just about -- I would say about an hour ago, when, it actually, it went closer to the coast near Surfside. Here's a look at the video what we found.


WOLF: This is Quintana Beach, Texas.

Take a look at that. As far as you can see, it's water everywhere. Off in the distance, you see the whitecaps. That is one angry ocean, all compliments of Hurricane Ike.

You come back to me for a moment, you take a look at this. I'm standing on a road, a road that actually leads to the Gulf of Mexico. But, today, the Gulf is coming this way. You don't have as far as to go. It's an amazing sight to see. Something else that's amazing is, you look on either side of this road, have you got these drainage ditches. So, in case of any heavy water event, rain event, everything flows out to the Gulf.

But, in this situation, you look at all this debris, everything is flowing inland. In fact, if you happen to look at those stabilizing wires right now to that power line, you will notice there is a -- a big log that's been pushed up, all the flotsam going right up against that, all falling inland.

That is the beginning of the widespread flooding we might see through this part of Texas. It's going to be just a tremendous mess. If you take a look over, these houses are evacuated. The owners are gone, but the water showed up, and continues to make its way inland, a lot of these houses, thankfully, on stilts. Those will come in handy as the water continues to rise.

That's the story from Quintana Beach.



Wolf, you're now seeing a shot from the top of one of the balconies here at the hotel, looking across at some of the chemical plants that could be in the path of this huge storm system that will certainly affect a going to deal of Texas over the next 12 to 24 to 36 hours.

Something else to show you very quickly. We are actually along parts of Hotel Road. You can see the hotels stretching off in the distance. All of them at this time are closed, this one still open, but only to CNN employees.

The management handed us the keys. We are going to watch the place as the storm comes on through. Let's send it back to you.

BLITZER: All right, we are going to check in with you regularly. Stand by, Reynolds Wolf, for that. In the -- we're going to -- we're going to get back to the hurricane in a few moments, but I want to check what's going on in the presidential race right now and the ongoing investigations surrounding John McCain's running mate.

Lawmakers in Alaska made a surprising move today. Central to this investigation is whether or not the governor, Sarah Palin, abused her power when she tried to fire her former brother-in-law. That's the allegation. Palin is battling claims that she fired her public safety commissioner because he wouldn't fire the brother-in-law involved in a messy divorce with the governor's sister.

Let's go straight to CNN's Jessica Yellin. She's all over this story in Anchorage, Alaska, for us right now.

All right, what is the latest? What happened today? Because it looks like the stakes in this investigation involving this state trooper, this former brother-in-law of the governor, the stakes were raised.


The man running the investigation surprised a packed hearing room when he asked a state panel to give him permission to subpoena the governor's husband, Todd Palin. And the state panel made up of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers approved that right. He will be able to subpoena the governor's husband.

Now, there is no evidence that Todd Palin was behind the firing or did anything improper. But this man says that he believes that Todd Palin had been an outspoken critic, and so he is interested -- an outspoken critic of this public safety commissioner.

And a member of the governor's staff had been tape-recorded having a conversation in which he said that both the governor and her husband were essentially displeased with this public safety commissioner who was ultimately fired.

Now, I should be clear, the governor is not under threat of any subpoena whatsoever. She has said she did nothing wrong and that the firing was appropriate. And this investigation predated her nomination as the vice presidential candidate on this ticket.

The issue at stake here is that Palin had said that she would let her staff cooperate with all these interviews, and has -- and her staff has now said they're not going to cooperate with the interviews, as the investigator has requested them. And so it's come to this step where he's asking for this subpoena power -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And she's saying she's not going to cooperate now because it's been, in her words, or at least in her lawyer's words, politicized, even though you point out that there are both Republicans and Democrats involved in this investigation?

YELLIN: That's right, Wolf. And I just spoke with the state lieutenant governor, who has described this as a political circus and an abuse of power by the legislators. But the Democrats say, that's absurd. They're just trying to get to the bottom of what really happened.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin is in Anchorage, Alaska, for us watching this story.

Barack Obama's campaign is promising some fast and ferocious responses to any political attacks from John McCain's campaign, and even promises more zingers of its own.

Let's go to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley. She's watching this story for us.

All right, what's going on? Because, yesterday, they had a truce, and, today, that truce is clearly over.


Right now, here is the message from the Obama campaign. They're going to step it up.


CROWLEY (voice-over): The grace of unity on 9/11 was gone by daybreak on 9/12. A memo to supporters from the Obama campaign blasted John McCain for gutter politics, charging him with smears, lies, and cynical attempts to distract from the issues.

This was followed by word of a couple new ads, one designed to show McCain as out of touch.


NARRATOR: He admits he still doesn't foe how to use a computer, can't send an e-mail, still doesn't understand the economy.


CROWLEY: Obama took up the theme on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, quoting John McCain, who said, it's easy in Washington to become divorced from everyday problems.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Maybe, from where he and George Bush sit, maybe things do look fundamentally sound. Maybe they don't see what's taking place. Maybe they're that out of touch. But I do see what's going on. And so do you.

CROWLEY: Still, at the same forum, Obama, praising the work of mayors, also questioned his day job.

OBAMA: The mayors have some of the toughest jobs in the country, because that's where the rubber hits the road. You know, we yak in the Senate. CROWLEY: The Obama campaign is calling this the first day of the rest of the campaign, and is promising to respond with speed and ferocity to any assault, yet another pledge to calm fretful Democrats worried that Obama is not tough enough for hardball.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, for those of us that have given you our support and, more importantly, our money, when and how are you going to start fighting back against attack ads and the smear campaign?


OBAMA: I have to tell you, our ads have been pretty tough.


OBAMA: I know there are a lot of Democrats and some independents and some Republicans who really want change who start getting nervous, because they have seen this movie before every four years.


CROWLEY: So, here you have the McCain campaign newly energized, newly aggressive, and the Obama campaign now fighting back.

It looks like it's going to be pretty tough, Wolf. How tough? The McCain -- the Obama campaign put out a press release today talking about a McCain ad that just went up. One of the quotes from it, "It looks as though John McCain would rather lose his integrity than lose an election" -- pretty rough, Wolf.

BLITZER: Tough stuff, 53 days to go.

Candy, thank you.

We're going to stay on top of the race for the White House.

Also, Hurricane Ike, it's closing in on the Texas Gulf Coast and Galveston right now -- authorities telling coastal residents, get out or you will die. Houston, the nation's fourth largest city, bracing for the storm. We're going to tell you if residents there are being told to leave or to stay put.

And just when you thought you had a reprieve from those sky-high gas prices, will Ike send them through the roof again?

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


BLITZER: We're staying on top of the breaking news. Hurricane (AUDIO GAP) that surge beginning to make strong impacts on that seawall. We will see what happens there.

Also, the race for the White House, a new get-tough strategy on the part of Barack Obama. He's going to be speaking live coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM, as well. Stand by for that. In the meantime, let's check in with Carol. She's monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Carol, what's going on?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, despite Ike, oil prices today dipped below $100 for the first time in five months. Hurricane Ike is taking aim at an area of Texas where one-quarter of all U.S. refineries are located. But traders appear to be shrugging that off, as well as OPEC's call for reduced supplies. Analysts say there is more concern about demand and a slowing global economy.

Relations between the United States and Venezuela hit an all-time low. Washington today expelled the Venezuelan ambassador. This comes after President Hugo Chavez announced Washington's "Yankee ambassador had 72 hours to leave Caracas." Mr. Chavez accuses the United States of supporting a plot to oust him and says he's showing solidarity with Bolivia, which accuses the U.S. of backing violent protests there -- the U.S. today also accusing Venezuelan officials of aiding Colombian rebels.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is said to be against any use of taxpayer money to bail out investment bank Lehman Brothers. Top executives are trying to put together a sale of the 158-year-old company. It has lost almost $7 billion in the past two quarters, largely on mortgage investments. Shares have nosedived from $67 a year ago to under $4 -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, thanks very much.

Let's get the latest now on Hurricane Ike. The massive Category 2 storm is still about 160 miles or so from land, but we're already seeing fierce winds and knee-deep flooding in parts of the Texas Gulf Coast and coastal Louisiana, by the way, as well. And what makes Ike especially dangerous is how big it is. Its hurricane-force winds extend 120 miles, and its tropical-storm-force winds extend even further, 275 miles.

Waves 15 feet high have been crashing over the seawall in the Texas beach town of Galveston, as you've been seeing those live pictures. Almost everyone there has fled. The National Weather Service warned them to get out or face, in their words, and I'm quoting now, "certain death."

Ike is expected to make landfall near Galveston late tonight or early in the morning. Maybe after midnight.


BLITZER: Hurricane Ike has stranded a massive freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty-two crew members are aboard the 584-foot vessel. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Look, did the helicopter land on the ship? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not on the ship. It's not on the ship.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are the winds strong sir, around the ship? The winds, do you have a lot of wind?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. It gusts and now it's a little clear. OK, I am very busy now. Please have a moment, please. I am very busy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is everybody OK on the ship?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, everybody's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And are you anchored?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are under buoy. We are under buoy. And now we finish 10 miles. Drifting by the water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, sir. One more question. Do you have any power now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Yes, we have electricity.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh wonderful, wonderful. And you have so far seen one American helicopter trying to help you?



BLITZER: The Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force tried to rescue the crew, but weather conditions are simply too bad right now.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's looking into this story.

What is the military doing to try to save these people and that freighter?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I've just spoken to Colonel...

BLITZER: Barbara, I'm going to interrupt for a moment because we've got a little technical problem with your audio. Stand by for a moment. We're going to get back to you. We're going to fix that glitch, and then you'll tell us what the military is doing to save that freighter and those 22 individuals on board.

FEMA is gearing up to send in food, supplies and emergency teams into areas hard-hit by Hurricane Ike. The homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, he's standing by to join us live. He'll tell us what Washington is trying to do to make sure this won't be another Katrina.

And John McCain gets a series of tough questions on his daytime TV appearances today. Mary Snow all over that story.

We're following two important stories, the race for the White House and Hurricane Ike, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: It's only about 135 miles or so from Galveston right now, the eye of this storm, Hurricane Ike. President Bush urging residents, don't take any chances with this monster. Listen to the president.


GEORGE. W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I urge my fellow Texans to listen carefully to what the authorities are saying in Galveston County or parts of Harris County, or up and down the coast. We'll be monitoring this situation very carefully. The federal government will not only help with the -- you know, with the pre-storm strategy, but once this storm passes, we'll be working with state and local authorities to help people recover as quickly as possible.

Thank you all for what you're doing. God bless your work.


BLITZER: So what's being done to prepare for this massive hurricane? The homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, is joining us now from FEMA headquarters here in Washington.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.

I've never heard a warning to individuals, get out or face certain death. That's the warning that the National Weather Service gave to people in Galveston right now. Give us your worst fears. What's going on?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT SECRETARY: Well, the concern, of course, is that the storm surge, which is basically the wall of water being generated by this enormous storm, is going to inundate large parts of the Texas coast. And by the way, Wolf, that's not just a question of Galveston, Houston, but if you go further north and east, it's going to have an impact on Beaumont, it's going to have an impact on Port Arthur, and it's going to have an impact in the very western parts of Louisiana.

So this is a monster storm in terms of the flooding potential.

BLITZER: And the size of it, the hundreds of miles where there's not only a hurricane, but obviously tropical storm winds, as well. Do you believe that the people have heeded the warnings and have gotten out in time?

CHERTOFF: Well, I certainly hope so. We worked, of course, with the state of Texas and the state of Louisiana to move out people who had medical problems, who needed to have an airlift. We had a big airlift actually in Beaumont, Texas, that concluded this morning.

As far as people who are evacuating themselves, I know there was a flow of traffic. It got congested at times. My concern is that there are apparently some people who did not heed the warning. And at this point, those people are going to have to find a place to shelter with food and water, medical supplies and a radio, and they're going to have to wait until they can be rescued.

BLITZER: Houston is a city of about two million people. It's the fourth largest city in the United States. Do you believe enough people left Houston? Because I know there was a limited evacuation.

CHERTOFF: Well, I think they were careful in the county to make sure that they evacuated low-lying areas without repeating the problem that occurred in Rita, where everybody left, and it was essentially a crowd heading for the exit at the same time. So they tried to be measured here. And assuming people complied with the instructions of the local authorities, I think this was a reasonable approach to take.

BLITZER: Well, good luck to all the men and women at the Department of Homeland Security and all the other agencies, including the military, who are going to be involved in dealing with this disaster. Thanks very much for coming in.

CHERTOFF: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Chertoff is the secretary of Homeland Security.

John McCain courts women votes on a TV show popular to women, but he faced some pretty tough questions on "The View."

And the presidential race tightens. So does the battle for control of the House and Senate. Wait until you see new poll numbers. Republicans right now have something to cheer about.

And we're following of course the breaking news caused by Hurricane Ike. We're not going to be leaving this story for very long. It's expected to strike Texas within the next several hours.

We'll get the latest from the director of the National Hurricane Center, Bill Read. He and others are standing by live.

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


BLITZER: These are pictures of what's going on in Galveston, Texas, right now, that 17-foot high seawall. The water getting above the seawall with those waves from the surge. And guess what? In the next few hours, it's only going to get worse.

We'll get back to Galveston and see what's going on in a moment, but I want to get back to the presidential race right now.

John McCain acknowledging today politics is a tough business, but he asserts no way will he back down. He even went on a popular TV show and defended what one questioner called McCain campaign lies.

Let's go to Mary Snow. She's watching this story for us.

Mary, the exchanges, they involved a popular show with a lot of women on that show.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, certainly, Wolf. That's the target audience.

Senator McCain was joined by his wife Cindy on the show. But for the bulk of it, he was solo and he was grilled on a number of topics.


SNOW (voice-over): The setting may have been casual, but the questions were tough as Republican presidential hopeful Senator John McCain sat down with the five female hosts of ABC's "The View." He was pressed on his credentials as a maverick and Sarah Palin's record of reform.

BARBARA WALTERS, "THE VIEW" What is she going to reform specifically, Senator?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, first of all, earmark spending, which she vetoed a half a billion dollars worth in the state of Alaska.

WALTERS: She also took some earmarks though.

MCCAIN: No, not as governor she didn't. She vetoed -- well, look, the fact is that she was a reform governor.

SNOW: As Alaska's governor, Palin has cut earmarks Alaska asked for, but she didn't turn her back on them completely. In this fiscal year, Alaska is asking for almost $200 million worth.

McCain was also grilled on his campaign's recent ads targeting Barack Obama. One focus is on the "lipstick" controversy. The other claims Obama advocated teaching sex ed in kindergarten.

JOY BEHAR, "THE VIEW": We know that those twos ads are untrue, they're lies. And yet you at the end of it say, "I approved this message." Do you really approve them?

MCCAIN: Actually, they're not lies. And if you've seen some of the ads that are running against me...

SNOW: When wife Cindy McCain joined him on stage, she pushed back.

WALTERS: How many houses does he have -- do you both have?

CINDY MCCAIN, JOHN MCCAIN'S WIFE: You know something, that's not part of this campaign.

SNOW: After "The View" came a taping for "The Rachael Ray Show." The two female-oriented shows come as McCain is making some inroads among white women after choosing Palin as his running mate.

ALAN SILVERLEIB, CNN, SR. POLITICAL RESEARCHER: John McCain has gained four points among white women. He now leads Obama among white women 56 to 41 percent. SNOW: But among all women, polls show McCain still lags Obama. Some political observers say shows like "The View" could help McCain soften his image.

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA CENTER FOR POLITICS: A lot of McCain's problem with women is his hawkish image, and the hawkishness is reinforced by his policy positions on issues like Iraq.


SNOW: And while speaking to the largely female audience of "The View," McCain sang Senator Hillary Clinton's praises, citing that he's worked with her in the past and vows to work with her in the future -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That presumably was designed to appeal to some of those still disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters out there, maybe get them over to this campaign.

All right, Mary. Thanks very much for that.

In our "Strategy Session," Donna Brazile and Tony Blankley, they're standing by. We'll discuss Governor Sarah Palin's first television interview. What did we learn about John McCain's running mate that we didn't know already?

And Hurricane Ike has yet to make landfall here in the United States, but it's already having an impact on gas prices. Abbi Tatton's standing by with your iReports as well.

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



CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: When McCain asked you to take the number two spot on the ticket, for a moment did you think, no?

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I did not. I thought yes right off the bat.


BLITZER: All right. Let's discuss Sarah Palin's first nationally televised interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC News.

Donna Brazile is here, our Democratic strategist. Tony Blankley is here, our Republican strategist, if you will.

What did you think? How did she do?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I thought that on some answers she was ready. In fact, she was so rehearsed, that she repeated it. And on other issues like, of course, her party's position on national security, she didn't seem so well prepared. But look, the bar's set low. She did the first interview. And now that it's over, I think people are really going to come back and question whether or not she agrees more with Senator Obama on Pakistan versus Senator McCain.

BLITZER: OK. That was one nuanced question.

What did you think? How did she do?

TONY BLANKLEY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think it was not a game- changer, which is good news for the Republicans.

BLITZER: She could have made a really...

BLANKLEY: Yes, she didn't make any mistakes. I don't think she showed foreign policy to be her metier.

On the other hand, neither was Obama. After the Russian invasion of Georgia, he said, let's go to the U.N., and then realized Russians can veto it.

So neither of them are strong on foreign policy, obviously. But she got by. She showed poise. And I think all the Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when it was over.

BLITZER: I love it when we hear the word "metier" here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Tony, thanks for that.

Look at these poll numbers. I'm going to put them up on the screen, Gallup Poll numbers that are just out.

Generic: "Do you support Republicans in Congress or Democrats in Congress?" In August, these were the numbers. Look at this, Democrats had a 51 to 40 percent advantage, 11 points. But right now, in this same poll, same question, it's down to 48-45, only a 3 percent advantage.

How worried should the Democrats be, Donna?

BRAZILE: Well, there are several polls, and polls will fluctuate. But look, Democrats have some strategic advantages.

Over 25 Republican retirements. Democrats have really strong candidates running in those open seats. The political landscape continues to favor Democrats, especially in the Northeast Corridor. So I don't think they should be worried.

BLITZER: Because it looks like not only McCain got a bounce of his convention, and the Sarah Palin running mate announcement, but it looks like Republicans may have gotten a bounce out of it as well.

BLANKLEY: Well, look, if those numbers should persist -- and they may not -- those are stunningly good news numbers for the Republicans, because traditionally -- and I know something about this because I spent a lot of time with Newt on them.

BLITZER: He happened to be the press secretary, Newt Gingrich.

BLANKLEY: Under -- if the Democrats have less than a 5-point generic advantage, it's usually a pretty good night for Republicans. Over 9 or 10 and it can be catastrophic. To have it down to 3 really means that Republicans are up as a practical matter, because of the statistical quirks of where black concentrations -- you know a lot of black votes are lost because they vote -- they're in overwhelming numbers in their districts because of the Voting Rights Act.

So this is, particularly in the Senate -- the Senate, you know, if Republicans get by only losing two or three seats in the Senate, it's a fabulous night, because some of us think the possibility of seven to 11 is possible.


BRAZILE: I still believe the Democrats will pick up anywhere between seven and 10 seats in the House, and maybe four, maybe five in the Senate.

BLITZER: We'll see. We still have 53 days to go.

BRAZILE: A long time.

BLANKLEY: But who's counting, right?

BLITZER: I'm counting.

All right, guys. Thanks very much.

The economy is certainly issue #1. It's your number one worry. But how do you rank your mortgage and job as economic concerns? We have some answers in our brand new poll.

And a storm roughly the size of Texas threatening Texas. Forecasters fear Hurricane Ike's area of damage could rival that of Hurricane Katrina's. It could strike Galveston within a matter of only a few hours. The director of the National Hurricane Center, Bill Read, he's standing by to join us live. He's got a new update.

And Barack Obama's running mate likens himself to an everyday man. Does his bank account reflect that? He and his wife have just put out a decade of their financial records.

Stay with us. Lots of news happening, two huge stories, the surge, that's the surge right now in Galveston, as well as what's going on in the race for the White House.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Checking our Political Ticker right now, as Hurricane Ike barrels towards the Texas Gulf Coast, the price at the pump is issue #1 for a lot of voters. According to our brand new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 35 percent of those surveyed say gas prices are their biggest concern, 28 percent are worried about the availability of good jobs, and high taxes and mortgages weigh heavily with 18 percent of the voters.

Still, the number of people who say high gas prices are causing them financial hardship fell to 63 percent. That's down from 75 percent in July. Maybe because the price has gone down just a little bit.

Let's go to Abbi Tatton right now for another angle of the breaking news. She has some first-hand iReports that are coming in involving these long gasoline lines.