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McCain Fights GOP Pessimism; Obama's Bittersweet Homecoming; Palin & Special Needs Kids

Aired October 24, 2008 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, John McCain fights a growing sense of pessimism within his own Republican Party. And Sarah Palin gives her first and very revealing policy speech. The Republicans trying to do what it takes only 11 days before the election.
Barack Obama's stand-ins. While he's visiting his very ill grandmother in Hawaii, his running mate and his mate, they're both leading the charge in the battleground states.

And the invisible man. President Bush as the Republican least likely to show up out there on the campaign trail.

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

Eleven days and counting in the presidential race, and John McCain is warning voters that Democrats will put the middle class through the wringer if they win the White House. McCain is trying to appeal to what he calls average Joes in Colorado today, with fresh warnings that his opponent will raise their taxes.

Let's go to Dana Bash. She's out there in Colorado watching this story for us.

Dana, he's doing a lot of new things in these final days trying to jump-start, even at this last moment, his campaign, which seems to be in trouble, although still 11 days to go.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, still 11 days to go. And McCain had somebody quite famous here in Denver with him today.

It was former Denver Broncos' quarterback John Elway, who was you well know, Wolf, was famous for his last-minute comebacks. He told the crowd with McCain today that he thinks McCain can pull one off. And just like many other battlegrounds, it certainly would be a last- minute turnaround for John McCain to come back here, because our latest average of polls shows that McCain is down by six points, and this is a state that a Democrat hasn't won in 16 years.


BASH (voice-over): Coming to Colorado may be more symbolic than politically practical. John McCain's attempt to defy the perception that red states like this are out of his reach.


BASH: But his campaign is clearly less optimistic. They reportedly slashed their Colorado TV ad spending this week in half.

Across the board, Republicans are increasingly pessimistic.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: He's got to change the national environment, change the national conversation. And to do that in two weeks when you haven't been able to do it in two years is going to be very tough.

BASH: Still, McCain aides insist to CNN their internal data shows traction in key swing states thanks to Joe the plumber and attacks on Obama's tax plan.

MCCAIN: You know, Senator Obama may say he's trying to soak the rich, but it's the middle class who are going to get through the wringer.

BASH: And McCain is now trying to lure voters by warning about Democrats in charge.

MCCAIN: The answer to a slowing economy is not higher taxes, but that's exactly what's going to happen when the Democrats have total control of Washington. We can't let that happen.

BASH: McCain is also trying to inject national security back into an election dominated by the economy. After months of unsuccessfully trying to convince voters that Obama's inexperience makes him risky, he's trying again, using Joe Biden's words with this foreboding ad.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to having an international crisis to test the mettle of this guy. I can guarantee you it's going to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It doesn't have to happen. Vote McCain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Believe it or not, I am still undecided.

BASH: But Independent Colorado voter Erin Wently (ph), who came to see McCain, tells us that argument doesn't sway her at all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're both risky if we're honest. They're both risky.


BASH: Now, McCain did not seal the deal with that particular voter. She told us that after hearing him, she still isn't sure, Wolf, which way she's going to go. But McCain advisers tell us just the fact that undecided voters are still coming to his rallies to check him out gives them hope that despite the long odds -- and they admit they are long odds -- there is still a chance at pulling this off -- Wolf. BLITZER: And they think they can still carry Pennsylvania, which seems to be critical right now for them. They think they have that shot there?

BASH: They hope they have that shot. I think that's probably the best way to put it.

They are apparently putting some more money into TV ads in that state, also in the state of Virginia. But Pennsylvania is a state that they really can't give up on. If you look at the map, they are certainly hoping they can do well, they're hoping that the voters in the western part of that state, particularly, who are not really sure if they can vote for Obama will go for him, but they don't know.

BLITZER: All right. Dana's out in Colorado.

Dana, thanks very much for that report.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, on a very sharp detour from campaigning. He's visiting his ailing 85-year-old grandmother in Hawaii. It's a testament to his deep feelings for the woman who helped raise him. It also may say something about the advantages he has over John McCain.

Our Suzanne Malveaux traveled with Senator Obama to Hawaii.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A bittersweet journey home. Barack Obama arrives in Honolulu to go straight to his grandmother's. Eighty-five-year-old Madelyn Dunham, who he calls the rock of the family, is gravely ill. On the night he clinched the Democratic nomination, he made sure the world knew how important she is.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you to my grandmother, who helped raise me and is sitting in Hawaii somewhere right now because she can't travel, but who poured everything she had into me, and who helped to make me the man I am today. Tonight is for her.

MALVEAUX: She helped raise Obama while his mother was away in Indonesia. Obama told me his grandparents instilled the values he needed to embrace his biracial identity.

B. OBAMA: They were fundamentally American values. And that I could feel comfortable in my own identity, in my own skin, embracing that side of my family while also embracing the fact of my race.

MALVEAUX: His grandmother has been too ill to travel on the campaign, but Obama's sister Maya told me she's been following it closely from home.

MAYA SOETORO, BARACK OBAMA'S SISTER: Our grandmother lives in the same apartment that she's been renting for nearly 40 years, 950 square feet. That is our family estate. When he becomes president, I hope they put a little, you know, historical plaque up there. MALVEAUX: But he's not president. So the campaign is blitzing the country today with high-profile supporters in key swing states.

MICHELLE OBAMA, BARACK OBAMA'S WIFE: But we could change this nation and maybe even the world.

MALVEAUX: Michelle: Ohio. The Bidens: Joe, Virginia; Jill, Florida. The Clintons: Hillary, Pennsylvania, Colorado; Bill, Kentucky.


MALVEAUX: And Wolf, Barack Obama is at his grandmother's house right now. He said in an interview yesterday that he does not know whether or not his grandmother is going to make it to Election Day. He certainly hopes and is praying for her.

I spoke with one of the family members who says that the apartment is filled with flowers and well wishes from people across the country. So obviously a very special, a difficult, emotional time for Barack Obama right now.

We do anticipate that he's going to leave the island 5:00 p.m. local time -- that's 11:00 Eastern today -- to go back on the campaign trail this weekend and to hit some of those critical states -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And any specifics? Are they releasing anything -- I know it's a very personal, private, very sad situation -- about the exact nature of her illness, the grandmother? I know she's 85-year- old and she's been sick for some time. But are they saying anything, what's going on right now?

MALVEAUX: Well, they're being kind of vague in some ways. We have learned through sources and through Obama sources that she has suffered -- his sister Maya says long suffered from severe osteoporosis, that she recently broke her hip, that she's taken a decline.

The local paper saying that it may be something else like cancer. The campaign is not confirming that, nor are family, friends confirming that, essentially saying that this is a private family matter. Obviously that is a question that many people are asking. But Barack Obama himself saying that at this time, she is gravely ill -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Well, we wish her speedy, speedy recovery, only the best.

Suzanne, thanks very much.

We're going to get back to Suzanne out in Hawaii.

The Obama camp is using its unprecedented political cash to sell the candidate like a major brand name. Check this out.

Obama has spent more on advertising than most major corporations. CNN's consultant on ad spending says Obama's big money ad spending over the past four months would translate into $750 million over a full year. The campaign media analysis group says only two big companies have a bigger yearly advertising budget. That would be AT&T, with $1.3 billion, and Verizon, with a $950 million annual ad budget.

Time for Jack Cafferty and "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: It is entirely possible that come the new year, we will find the White House and the Congress controlled by the Democrats. Virtually all the polls indicate it could be a big year for the Dems. Some forecasters are predicting Democrats could wind up with enough seats in the Senate to have that all-important 60- vote majority which would render Republicans virtually powerless in that house of Congress to stop legislation there.

Right now the Democrats barely have the upper hand in the Senate: 49 Dems, 49 Republicans, two Independents who caucus with the Democrats. In the House, Democrats hold a 235-199 majority with one vacancy. A 270-seat majority seems probably out of reach this time around, but the Democrats are expected to pick up some additional House seats.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks the Democrats will control 250 seats in the House when all the votes are counted. And Barack Obama of course, another Democrat who is the current favorite to be the next president of the United States.

So what does that mean for the rest of us? Well, it means that the Democrats would suddenly have the power to push about any agenda they wanted to from raising taxes on the wealthy; cutting them for the middle class; steering more federal benefits to low-income families, expanding health care coverage; or anything else that they might decide suits their fancy.

So here's the question: What's the risk of one party controlling both Congress and the White House?

Go to You can post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good question, Jack. Thank you.

Sarah Palin is trying to make government policy very personal.


GOV. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Under reforms that I will lead as vice president, the parents and caretakers of children with physical or mental disabilities will be able to send that boy or girl to the school of their choice.


BLITZER: Still, even when she's talking about a subject very close to her heart, Governor Palin is managing to draw criticism. And you might think President Bush was hiding out in some undisclosed location during this presidential election season. If you were trying to spot him out there on the campaign trail, good luck.

And why many evangelicals still can't or won't rally behind John McCain.

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


BLITZER: No candidate wants a distraction just days before an election, but Sarah Palin's campaign says she's been looking forward to this day to tell her story. Palin is giving a deposition in St. Louis in the investigation into the firing of Alaska's public safety commissioner. We'll have more on that story coming up in a little while.

But earlier, she spoke about a very personal cause.

Let's bringing in Brian Todd. He's working the story. What was her message, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the message draws from Sarah Palin's experience with her infant son Trig. He was born with Down syndrome. Sarah Palin says special needs children will be a key focus of hers if she gets to the White House. It was the central theme in what's seen as a very effective speech today.


TODD (voice-over): Her first major policy speech with a personal touch.

PALIN: As for our baby boy Trig, for Todd and for me he is only more precious because he is vulnerable. And in some ways, I think that we stand to learn more from him than he'll ever learn from us. And when we hold Trig and when we care for him, we don't feel scared anymore. We truly feel blessed.

TODD: Her own experience with a Down syndrome baby, a peg for Sarah Palin to lay out an ambitious plan for addressing special needs children. She promises a McCain/Palin administration would completely pay for disabled children to get better access to education. The law providing for that hasn't been fully funded since it passed more than 30 years ago. Analysts say this could be an important campaign score.

SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": It looks compassionate, caring for people who are less able to care for themselves. And in that way, I think the appeal for this is very broad.

TODD: But her remarks on financial trusts for the disabled draw campaign fire.

PALIN: Many families with special needs children or dependent adults, they're concerned about in this race, our opponent in this election who plans to raise taxes on precisely these kinds of financial arrangements.

TODD: The Obama team claims McCain has voted against some special education funding. McCain's side counters that Palin herself has always increased those funds as governor. But Sarah Palin's gone unplugged on the personal side, too, trying to diffuse the fuss over her $150,000 Republican-funded wardrobe.

"My favorite shop is a consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska, called Out of the Closet." And maintaining the point of attack on Barack Obama's affiliations with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and radical William Ayers, "What did those characters see in Barack Obama? Why would they have wanted to be associated with him?"

PAGE: Well, I think it probably helps the ticket with base Republican voters who are fired up about this. I don't think it's doing much good when it comes to Independent voters who are concerned first and foremost about the economy.


TODD: And analysts say Palin's got to bring in more Independents as time runs out in this campaign. That's why they believe the speech on special needs was crucial today, Wolf. They say Independents are key, women voters are key in these speeches. She has not scored as well with women voters as the Republicans had hoped.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thanks very much.

And we'll monitor obviously all of these developments.

Here's a little perspective on all of this. More than seven million children with disabilities of some kind received special education services around the country last year. That, according to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. And the number includes children from birth through high school.

The Obama campaign isn't taking any chances while Barack Obama is in Hawaii to be with his ailing grandmother. The Democratic White House hopeful is getting key support in battleground states, including Ohio.

Let's go to CNN's Jessica Yellin. She's out there.

Jessica, who's filling in for the senator?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: His top surrogates are, Wolf. Wife Michelle and his running mate, Joe Biden. The campaign says they want to take nothing for granted, so these two are keeping up the campaign's visibility while Obama takes a day off.


YELLIN (voice-over): With Obama gone, the fight for battleground states goes on.






YELLIN: After acknowledging her husband's absence...

M. OBAMA: He flew to Hawaii to see his grandmother who we call Toot. She's doing OK.

YELLIN: Michelle Obama gave the campaign's closing argument a personal touch.

M. OBAMA: What he gets fundamentally is that the American people are a decent people. American folks are like my parents, like his grandparents, like his mother. The vast majority of people aren't asking for much. But all they are looking for is a Washington that understands that instead of just talking a good game about family values, that we actually have policies that value families.


YELLIN: The latest CNN Poll of Polls shows Obama seven points up in Ohio, with 7 percent undecided.

The campaign's other top surrogate was in West Virginia.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know Halloween is coming. But John McCain as a candidate of change? Whoa, come on. John McCain and change, he needs a costume for that.

YELLIN: And he mocked the McCain/Palin mantra.

BIDEN: They get on and they start, yes, I'm a maverick. No, you're a maverick. We're mavericks. They're all mavericks.

YELLIN: In West Virginia, a state once thought out of Obama's reach, CNN's Poll of Polls shows Obama two points behind McCain with 8 percent undecided. The Obama campaign is aggressively warning against overconfidence.

M. OBAMA: This is a long, hard race. It will be close. Don't be fooled.

YELLIN: And urging supporters to get to the polls now.

BIDEN: And I want you to get out. You can vote early.


YELLIN: And Wolf, it's clear from my conversations with Obama's top aides that they're very concerned that supporters not take the positive polls for granted. They are very worried about overconfidence. And at every one of these rallies, both with Obama and his surrogates, urging voters to get out and vote early -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jessica Yellin, thanks very much for that story.

And we've just been told that Senator McCain is about to make a statement on the economy. This was not on his previous schedule. We're going to listen in and hear what he's saying. That's coming up in a few moments. Senator McCain making a new statement on the economy.

Also, riding Barack Obama's coattails. Democrats hope it will sweep them into filibuster-proof control of Congress, but will incumbents from both parties face a thumbs down from voters?

And a woman claimed she was viciously attacked just for having a McCain sticker on her car. Now there's a new twist to her shocking story. Guess what? You know. We'll tell you details after this.



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

Happening now, the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, he's back out there on the campaign trail. He boosted Democrat Bruce Lunsford at a rally today in Kentucky. Lunsford is locked in a very tight race against the Senate GOP incumbent, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell.

We'll go there.

And what not to wear on Election Day. Why certain clothing will keep you from casting your vote in Virginia.

Thousands of U.S. military members in the middle east are voting. Absentee ballots from soldiers overseas being processed in Kuwait.

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

The president, with a penchant for giving people nicknames, has a new one himself -- the invisible man. Journalists and other Bush watchers can't help but notice that the commander in chief's conspicuous absence is out there on the campaign trail, especially when compared to his busy schedule in past election years.

Let's go to our White House Correspondent Elaine Quijano. She's working this story for us.

The president actually cast his ballot today, but even that was rather low key. Wasn't it, Elaine?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know, low key, Wolf, compared to other times when President Bush and Mrs. Bush have traveled to Crawford, Texas, to cast their ballots at the Crawford Fire Station there. Not so this time.

This time, with a White House photographer present, President Bush sat at his desk in the Oval Office, filled out the absentee ballot, which is being mailed to Texas today. He, the first lady and Vice President Cheney all, of course, voted for Senator John McCain, the man that President Bush endorsed back in March and has quietly supported ever since.


QUIJANO (voice-over): This is a picture we've only seen once this election season, the president on the campaign trail with a man he's endorsed to be his successor on a tarmac after a Phoenix fund- raiser in May, with only seconds together before the cameras. With a 27 percent approval rating, a global financial crisis, and wars overseas, President Bush has stayed off the stump.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: John McCain right now is trying his best to distance himself from the Bush administration and certainly from the policies of the last eight years.

QUIJANO: The president has been relegated to raising money for Republicans, largely behind closed doors.

Of the four McCain fund-raisers the president has attended, none have been open to reporters. Last month, cameras did capture the two in the same room during a White House summit on the financial crisis. Both McCain and his opponent, Senator Barack Obama, were in seats away from each other and the president.


MCCAIN: The last eight years haven't worked very well, have they? I will make the next four better.


QUIJANO: In the closing weeks of campaign '08, one journalist has dubbed President Bush the invisible man on the trail, as McCain has tried to separate himself even more.

MCCAIN: Senator Obama, I'm not President Bush.

QUIJANO: Giving comediennes ample fodder.


WILL FERRELL, ACTOR: A vote for John McCain is a vote for George W. Bush.



QUIJANO: Meantime, Bush aides have tried to balance defending the president with staying out of the campaign.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: All I will say is that the president stands by his policies. He also stands by John McCain.

QUESTION: Does President Bush take it personally at all?

PERINO: No, he doesn't.


QUIJANO: Now, the president and first lady plan to be here, at the White House, on election night. And they, of course, hope to watch the man they voted for, John McCain, win -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to have more on that "Saturday Night Live" skit from last night later in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Elaine, thanks very much.

It was very funny.

Barack Obama appears to be having an opposite effect on his party than President Bush is having on Republicans. Many Democratic candidates are really eager to embrace their nominee, with hopes he will have long coattails they can ride.

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's working this story for us.

Will Senator Obama have those long coattails? What are you seeing? What are you hearing, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, you know, it isn't clear who has the coattails, Senator Obama or the Democratic Party.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): This looks like a "Throw the bums out" election. And the Republicans are the bums.

The evidence? Only 38 percent of voters believe most members of Congress from both parties deserve to be reelected. They're a bunch of bums. But not all bums are the same. Only 36 percent believe most Republicans members of Congress deserve to be reelected, while a substantially higher number, 50 percent, want to see most Democratic members reelected.

Asked how they intend to vote for Congress this year, voters give the Democrats a 12-point lead nationwide. That's bigger than Obama's lead in our poll of polls, which suggests a big Democratic tide that could sweep in Obama and bigger Democratic majorities in Congress, or, more precisely, a tide sweeping Republicans out to sea.

Democrats argue that big congressional majorities will help get things done. SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: We're going to bring change. It's going to be mainstream change. It's going to be thoughtful change, but it's certainly going to avoid the gridlock that every single thing you want to do is filibustered.

SCHNEIDER: But do voters really want to give one party that much power? Slightly more voters would rather see the White House and Congress controlled by different parties than by the same party.

Republicans are beginning to warn about giving the Democrats a blank check, as in this Republican ad in North Carolina warning voters about voting for the Democratic Senate candidate.


NARRATOR: No checks and balances, no debate, no independence.

That's the truth behind Kay Hagan. If she wins, they get a blank check.


SCHNEIDER: The Republican Senate Committee has sent out an e- mail signed by Senator Orrin Hatch. And it says -- quote -- "If we don't act now to defend our Senate firewall, conservatives will be powerless to stop Barack Obama's rule by fiat."

The assumption seems to be that Senator Obama is going to win the election -- Wolf.


BLITZER: A lot of people are beginning to assume that. But it isn't over yet.

All right, Bill, thank you.

Franklin Roosevelt had the longest coattails, by the way, of any president. When was elected in 1932, the Democrats run control of Congress by gaining a whopping -- get this -- 109 seats, 97 of them in the House, 12 in the Senate. Wow.

And coming in second, Harry Truman. When he won the 1948 presidential election, the Democrats picked up a total of 84 seats in Congress, 75 in the House and nine in the Senate. Rounding out the top three, Warren Harding. His presidential victory in 1920 helped Republicans seize control of Congress by picking up 74 seats, 63 in the House and 11 seats in the Senate.

In these late days of this campaign, John McCain still is trying to solidify his base. But here's a problem for him. Some evangelicals are just sitting this election out. Stand by for details.

And a passed-over vice presidential contender says, John McCain probably would have been better off if he had been chosen, better off in his state. We will tell you what Tom Ridge is saying about Pennsylvania. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

And live from New York, the presidential race is rarely more fun than Saturday night. But even CNN's magic wall is getting the "SNL" treatment. We will show you right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Now, the country can be moved up and down, like...



BLITZER: The election only 11 days away, and many U.S. military personnel are taking part, even though they're overseas. Thousands of troops deployed to the Middle East have already cast their ballots, many of which are being processed in Kuwait. A 56-year-old Army soldier who served for 24 years says she's never missed the opportunity to vote since she first reached voting age.

Good for them.

Early voting has started in more than 30 states, plus the District of Columbia. Many states' reports of high voter turnout and long lines.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is here, is looking at some I-Reports coming in.

What are they sending in, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, record turnout means those long lines. And take a look at the wall here, all our I- Reporters that have been sending in these photos from them.

Let's start from New Orleans, Louisiana. Early voting started there on Tuesday. Paul sends in these pictures from city hall, the line snaking through the halls. He said the -- the wait there was about two hours, but spirits were high for people who are excited to be voting in this election.

Moving on to Huntersville, North Carolina, this is Erica Uhlich, who is voting in a public library there. She said she got there 45 minutes before the place opened, didn't matter. There were still two dozen people ahead of her, but she said it was a very orderly process.

Going on to Gwinnett County, Lawrenceville, Georgia, where Shelly Hutchinson was voting. She said that she looked at this picture last week, said, no way I'm voting in those lines, came back again this week. Same story, about an hour and 20 minute wait there.

And some pictures here from Florida as well that we got in from Paul Grande in Cape Coral. Wolf, the lines there in Florida are so long that, in two counties, in Broward County and Miami-Dade, they're now posting them online, approximate wait times, so people can see that before they head down to the polls. We just checked that. Some of the longest lines are about four hours.

BLITZER: Wow. And those are pretty Democratic counties, Broward, Miami-Dade as well. That's potentially very good news for Barack Obama in the critically important state of Florida.

TATTON: Right.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

Evangelicals were a driving force behind President Bush's victory in back 2000 and 2004. And they certainly could mean the difference for John McCain in the battleground state of North Carolina.

Our chief national correspondent, John King, is here.

You were just down there in North Carolina, had to speak, had an opportunity to speak with some of these evangelicals. We know they love Sarah Palin, but what about John McCain?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is the question we wanted to answer, because, Wolf, we have heard so much in this election about young people coming out for Barack Obama, African- Americans coming out and excited to vote for Barack Obama.

So, we wanted to take a look at the constituency that was absolutely critical to twice helping George W. Bush to victory.


KING: (AUDIO GAP) and issues their pastors say are rooted in the book that matters most.

PASTOR LORAN LIVINGSTON, CHARLOTTE CENTRAL CHURCH OF GOD: We had Wachovia, gas prices, the financial situation. People ask questions. They're not desperate. They're not hopeless questions. They just say, where are we?

KING: Pastor Loran Livingston of Charlotte Central Church of God doesn't endorse specific candidates, yet he is firm with congregants who say they prefer one candidate on economic issues and another when it comes to opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

LIVINGSTON: Economics change, but how God feels about life and marriage never changes. So, I tell them, find a candidate whose philosophy lines up most with Scripture, pray a lot, and vote your heart.

KING: Far more often than not, here in North Carolina and nationally, the voice of evangelicals like John and Barbara Ayers is John McCain. JOHN AYERS, EVANGELICAL VOTER: We are Bible-believing evangelicals. We see the results in our lifetime of the erosion of our basic morals.

KING: A recent "Washington Post" poll showed McCain with a 72 percent to 23 percent lead over Barack Obama among white evangelicals nationally, strong, but not quite the level of support President Bush enjoyed.

Four years ago, evangelicals made up nearly a quarter of all voters. They broke 78 percent for Mr. Bush and 21 percent for Democrat John Kerry.

LIVINGSTON: To put it in a nutshell, I think, this time, conservative evangelicals are less enthusiastic about the choice than they have been in the past.

KING: That is precisely how the Ayers see it.

BARBARA AYERS, EVANGELICAL VOTER: John McCain for sure, and the reason is, is because I don't trust Obama at all. I really think he's going to bring socialism, if he gets half a chance.

J. AYERS: It's definitely a lesser-of-two-evil situation. Look at it this way. What has Obama ever done?

KING: High support and turnout from evangelicals is critical to GOP chances here and in a handful of other key battleground states, but it is one of the many questions in a restive political climate.

REP. SUE MYRICK (R), NORTH CAROLINA: All the norms are out the window. This isn't where you can predict some of the things that you have in the past. And I think that's true all across the country, not just in North Carolina.

KING: Choosing time for a critical voting bloc who may have a very different take on this campaign's buzzword.


KING: And, Wolf, you sense that ambivalence about John McCain among these evangelical voters, but you're absolutely right about Sarah Palin.

She is someone who, yes, we have seen a drag, a Palin effect, they call it, in the suburbs and among independents, where there is evidence she's hurting the Republican ticket. But if you go into these evangelical communities in North Carolina, in Virginia, in Indiana, in Missouri, the states where they are absolutely critical to the Republican ticket, there's no question, in that community, evangelicals, Sarah Palin does help.

BLITZER: But -- but the state of North Carolina right now very, very much in play.

KING: Very much in play. And that is why, again, African- American turnout will be up in North Carolina. Barack Obama does very well in the Research Triangle around big universities. John McCain cannot win there and these other very close states, unless, like President Bush, evangelicals not only support him in the high 70 percent range, but that they all turn out.

BLITZER: John's going to be back in the next hour. We have got some new information on what potentially could happen in Congress as well -- 15 electoral votes at stake in North Carolina.

John, thanks very much.

So, would John McCain be ahead right now if he had selected another running mate? A surprising statement coming in from one of Senator McCain's key supporters. We will assess the fallout in our "Strategy Session."

Plus: a right to vote revoked. This woman is an American. So, why is she being told she's not a U.S. citizen? The mixup that could impact thousands of potential voters out there -- we will explain what's going on, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Polls show John McCain trailing Barack Obama in Pennsylvania, but a former governor of that state, Tom Ridge, says things could have been different.

Let's assess in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our CNN political contributor the Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and our CNN political contributor the Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez.

He was quoted in "The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review."

Paul, I will start with you. He said: "I think the dynamics would be different in Pennsylvania. I think we would be foolish not to admit it publicly."

He later issued a clarification, saying this. He said: "I was asked a question. And I delivered an honest answer that was taken completely out of context. I wholeheartedly believe that John McCain made the right choice by selecting Sarah Palin to join him on the ticket. As a former two-time governor of Pennsylvania, I was simply making the point that, of course, the dynamics of the race in Pennsylvania would be different if the former governor of Pennsylvania were on the ticket."

If he had been on the ticket, Tom Ridge, do you think, Paul, that he would have a better chance of carrying that critically important, largely Democratic state, red -- blue state?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, yes, absolutely, Wolf.

I mean, I have done five campaigns in Pennsylvania, not counting the two presidential campaigns I worked on. I have done five statewide campaigns in that state. Tom Ridge -- I said this on our air, by the way, on THE SITUATION ROOM months ago, right? I said Ridge would be the best choice for Senator McCain.

BLITZER: Even though he supports abortion rights?

BEGALA: I think that's why he was vetoed by the party elders. And that's why I said -- I said John McCain didn't have the guts to pick him. And I was right. And I'm sorry I have to say that.

But the McCain campaign decided to take a really bold tactical gamble on Governor Palin. And it did not pay off. It has failed. There's no doubt that Tom Ridge would have helped a whole lot more. The polling now says the single most frequently cited reason to be against John McCain is because of Sarah Palin. She's the biggest drag on the ticket, even bigger than George W. Bush.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask Leslie the opposite...


BLITZER: Hold on, Leslie.

Let's look at the opposite side. If he would have selected Tom Ridge, how many Republican states, potentially, could he have lost?

LESLIE SANCHEZ, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely. That's the bigger question. Would it demoralize the social conservatives? They were adamant that they were not going to have a pro-choice candidate. You even saw Joe Lieberman's name being floated around. And it was a tremendous pushback that -- that Senator McCain received.

And it's hard to say, Paul, that he's bold, but he's not bold. I mean, he's not bold in not selecting Governor Ridge, but he selects Governor Palin, who was somebody who was very much out of the box.

You're exactly right. And if you saw the report in terms of what has happened, you had -- for a period of time -- let's not forget -- this ticket was ahead right after the convention, about a two- or three-week period. Then, you had the economic calamity and you did have a savagery of Palin. A lot of people -- the negatives are a lot higher now. A lot of people are very frustrated by that.

So, it is having an effect.


BEGALA: Leslie, the Palin thing is a self-inflicted wound. She is the one who could not even answer the question of what newspapers you read. I mean, my goodness, Stevie Wonder knows what newspapers he reads, and he doesn't -- he can't -- he's blind.

I mean, this is -- she's the woman who went out of $150,000 of Republican contributors' money, which could -- should have been spent on campaigns, on her clothes, her wardrobe, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue?

SANCHEZ: But, Paul...

BEGALA: These have all been self-inflicted wounds by the governor of Alaska, none of which would have been inflicted by Tom Ridge. He was a better choice.

SANCHEZ: Hey, let's not -- Paul...

BEGALA: He was also more qualified. God forbid, if something happened to the country, he actually could be the president of the United States. And no serious person thinks Sarah Palin could be.

SANCHEZ: Well, I wrote -- to all respect to that, I wrote a piece about that, as well, when we were talking even about Barack Obama selecting Governor Kaine from Virginia. It was going to be this be back and forth. It's an electoral thing.

You have got to look at two things. One, people are jockeying for positions.


SANCHEZ: If they see an Obama administration, people are putting their -- you know, their positioning out there, because you hear it's going to be a bipartisan effort. So, you have to look at this politically, in terms of what he's saying.

BLITZER: Well, let me...

SANCHEZ: But also -- but, Wolf, there's an important point.

There was a report came out that a 7-1 negative ratio of things that have been said about McCain and the Palin ticket compared to Barack Obama. So, don't act like -- we can't act like that doesn't have be an impact.

BLITZER: Leslie, would it have been different if he would have selected, let's say, Governor Charlie Crist in Florida or Governor Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota? That's what Tom Ridge says. In each of those states, had they been on the ticket, it would have helped John McCain in Florida and Minnesota, just as Tom Ridge being on the ticket in Pennsylvania presumably would have helped him in Pennsylvania.

SANCHEZ: Right. Well, no, I mean, sure, I mean, if you want to hang your hat on one individual state.

But, if we're looking at the fact that there's many battleground states, and if you're looking at probably four to eight states, you can't pick all of those governors.

BLITZER: There's no doubt that...

SANCHEZ: He had to make a strategic choice that mobilized the base. And that's what she did.

BLITZER: There's no doubt, Paul, that selecting Governor Palin solidified Alaska for him. SANCHEZ: Right.


BLITZER: There was...


BEGALA: Here's the problem.


BEGALA: Here's the problem.

This is the first presidential decision -- frankly, it will be the only presidential decision John McCain makes. I don't support George Bush in anything. But, when he made this choice, he didn't ask, who will help me carry Wyoming when he picked Dick Cheney. He thought, God forbid something happens to the president, who could take over?

Now, I don't even like Dick Cheney. I don't even pretend to like him. But George W. Bush chose him for the right reasons. He did not put politics first. He put country first, same way that Bill Clinton picked Al Gore. John McCain put politics first. And it undermined the central premise of his entire...


BLITZER: All right, very quickly, Leslie, you have got the last word.

SANCHEZ: You know, and don't act like Barack Obama didn't either in his choice of Biden. He knew didn't have the...

BEGALA: Barack Obama did not.


BEGALA: He's got Delaware in the bag.

SANCHEZ: He knew he didn't have the qualifications in national security. He knew he had to bolster that up. He would have -- and he admittedly said he would have looked at -- flirted with ideas of other candidates that were more palatable to his vision of change.


BLITZER: Leslie and Paul, we have got to leave it there.

We're standing by to hear from Senator McCain. He's about to make a statement. We will take that live.

Also, Sarah Palin, she is giving a deposition about the trooper probe -- probe in Alaska -- that story coming up as well. And you might be a fan of your candidate, but, in some states, you have to leave that Obama T-shirt or McCain hat at home -- the new clothing rules at the polls.

And what's the risk of one party controlling Congress and the White House? That's Jack's question. Your e-mail and a lot more coming up -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker": Barack Obama's campaign cash machine isn't apparently what it was back in September.

After his record-breaking $150 million haul in September, new campaign finance reports show, the Democrat raised about $36 million in the first half of this month. While Obama's fund-raising pace may be slowing a bit, John McCain is restrained by spending limits, since he accepted federal matching funds. Obama did not.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, the question this hour is, what's the risk -- and it's a very real possibility -- the risk that one party will control both Congress and the White House?

Linda writes from Bentley Spring, Maryland: "Well, there might be a risk, but, if Democrats can get over the bitterness of the last eight years, they could form a coalition with Republicans to make this truly a collaborative effort. I'm dreaming, I know, but perhaps a President Obama can bring his calm reason to bear, regardless."

Brian in Moscow, Idaho, writes: "It means there will be a clear mandate for the Democrats to fix the economy, much like Clinton did in the 90s. And, if they cannot deliver, there will be a massive backlash against Democratic leadership that could tank the careers of Pelosi, Reid, and Obama as well. They have four years and more responsibility than either party has ever had in recent history. We will see if they can deliver."

V. writes: "The administration, the current one, and their very wealthy buddies on Wall Street, in the oil business, and in the banking industry have brought America to her knees. The economy is issue one, far ahead of any other issue in this election. It will dictate who wins, no matter race, color, or anything else."

Bruce writes: "The risk, of course, is that some unpopular initiatives could become law. On the other hand, there would certainly be less gridlock in Congress and more could be accomplished."

Dave in Atlanta writes: "I am a registered Democrat. I would normally be concerned with this type of control. However, we have got to move in the opposite direction from where this circus in Washington has brought the country. Senator Obama is a well-educated man. I would stake what is left of my 401(k) that he can be no worse than what we have had over the last eight years." And Janis in Lafayette, Indiana: "What have we got to lose? It has taken a crisis, whether it was 9/11, the war in Iraq, or an economic collapse, to get our Congress to move faster than at a snail's pace. Maybe, with one party in control, we can get policy through without unnecessary debate and delay."

Don't hold your breath.

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog, Look for yours there. We post hundreds of them each hour -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

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

Happening now, growing fear among Republicans, not only of losing the White House, but also of a Democratic landslide in Congress, putting the power of the filibuster at risk.

Fueling the fear, one of the Democrats' biggest guns taking direct aim at the Senate's top Republican, who's struggling to hold his seat. We're going to tell you what Bill Clinton is doing. Stand by for that.

Plus, Sarah Palin and her husband giving their side of the story in a controversy that is dogging her campaign -- the Republican vice presidential candidate being deposed right now about the firing of an Alaska official.

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