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New Jersey Up For Grabs; Obama Administration Insiders Speak Out

Aired November 3, 2009 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Election Day in America.

Millions of voters are choosing new state and local leaders. What message will they send about this country, the economy, the bitter political divide? We're standing by to bring you the first exit polls. They are coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama isn't on the ballot today, but many people see this Election Day as a test of his leadership and influence. Will candidates on the far right cut into his clout? We're watching that.

And, also, part two of my exclusive interview with three of the president's closest advisers. They take us back to the moment one year ago when their boss made history and made them cry.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics, and extraordinary reports from around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

One year after President Obama was elected to bring change to America, voters across much of the country are deciding if they want more change. Hundreds of state and local elections are under way right now in about 30 states.

The two most powerful jobs on the line, the governor's offices in New Jersey and Virginia, the Democrats at risk of losing those seats in states President Obama carried exactly a year ago. We begin our coverage of those governor's races.

Jessica Yellin is watching what's going on in Virginia, but let's go to New Jersey, where CNN's Mary Snow is on scene in Parsippany, New Jersey.

All right, set the scene for us, Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is the race where Democrats stand the best chance to win, and while they have played down any national implications if the Democratic incumbent governor loses here, President Obama has certainly invested political capital in this race, traveling to New Jersey to campaign with Governor Jon Corzine three times.

Corzine has spent more than $25 million of his own personal wealth to get reelected here. And in these past couple of days, his camp has been trying very heavily to court those Obama supporters who helped President Obama win election last yea, and some of the urban areas where President Obama campaigned on Sunday, Camden and Newark, will be key to watch.

On the Republican side, Christopher Christie, a former prosecutor, had been in the lead, but now this race is at a dead heat, and some of the key things to watch for later today will be some of the suburbs, which will be key for him, including one in northern New Jersey, Bergen County, because no Republican has ever won this state in a gubernatorial race without taking that county.

And also a key will be supporters for the independent third-party candidate, Chris Daggett. He had seen his popularity gaining in recent weeks. The big question now is, where will his supporters go in this race that is a tossup?

And, Wolf, state officials, election officials, are saying, so far today, turnout has been light. If history is any indication, in past gubernatorial races, the turnout has been about 49 percent -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, Chris Daggett, he had been in one poll earlier, a few weeks ago, up to 20 percent, but he's gone down significantly since then to single digits in some of these polls.

Is it the sense that he's taking votes away more from the Republican or from the Democrat?

SNOW: Well, when he was gaining in this race, that's when Chris Christie's poll numbers started coming down. So, that really helped Jon Corzine.

And what the Democrats were seeing is that if there was a heavy turnout for Chris Daggett, that would help Jon Corzine.

BLITZER: Mary Snow will be watching the results for us coming in. That's a fascinating race in New Jersey. There's no doubt about that. The polls in New Jersey close at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

History may be working against the Democrats in New Jersey right now. The party controlling the White House has lost every governor's race in New Jersey since 1989. We see the same trend in Virginia going even farther back. The party that holds the presidency has lost every governor's race in Virginia since 1977.

Let's go to Virginia right now. Our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is covering the governor's race there. She is joining us from Alexandria, just across the river from Washington, D.C.

Set the scene in Virginia for us, Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, here in Virginia, it's been a lovely day, which should encourage turnout.

But, at this precinct, it's been nothing more than a steady trickle all day. We have been interviewing voters as they come out. And we see a clear divide on the question of the Obama effect, with Democrats saying, no, this is a vote about local issues, and Republicans insisting the opposite. They say theirs is a vote against President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): Twice, President Obama campaigned for Creigh Deeds, the Democrat running to be Virginia's next governor.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Again and again, Creigh has been there for the people of Virginia.

YELLIN: Mr. Obama is featured heavily in the last ad for the Democrats' campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

OBAMA: That's what Creigh Deeds is committed to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: And the vaunted Obama get-out-the-vote operation is working hard to make a difference.

FLORENCE MENSAH, DEMOCRATIC VOTER: They have been campaigning a lot. They have been calling the houses. I mean, every time, they also call you on the phone and try to encourage people to come out to vote.

YELLIN: But polls suggest the Republican, Bob McDonnell, has a healthy lead. If he wins here, does it mean Virginians who voted for Obama a year ago are disappointed in his leadership? Republicans say absolutely.

STEVE CHACONAS, REPUBLICAN PRECINCT LEADER: I think this is one of several elections that will say something about the current administration. And, again, it's about taxing and spending.

JOHN HICKS, REPUBLICAN VOTER: The country is headed in the wrong direction. And I think the American people are now standing up, and we're going to change things.

YELLIN: Democrats say, not at all.

TOM FINA, DEMOCRATIC VOTER: I think this is a local election and that, if we win, it will be because of Mr. Deeds' qualities.

YELLIN: And independents, you guessed it, they are torn.

NAN REINER, INDEPENDENT VOTER: I think it's a mixture. I do believe that -- that voters in Virginia, as well as people throughout the country, are disappointed. I also think there are definitely local factors at work.

YELLIN: Surprise -- the candidates disagree on this point, too. BOB MCDONNELL (R), VIRGINIA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: I have also made a -- an issue out of what's going on at national level and why those things are not good for Virginia.

CREIGH DEEDS (D), VIRGINIA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: He's tried to nationalize the election because he doesn't want to talk about what's going on in Virginia. He doesn't have a record to speak of.

YELLIN: Trying to nationalize the election, Republican leaders sent this e-mail arguing, "The pressure is squarely on the Democrats," and, "Republican wins here and in New Jersey would be devastating to the Democrats."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now the White House, Wolf, has been openly critical of the Deeds campaign in the past, saying that they executed some bad strategy and did not listen to White House advisers.

A White House official tells me that the Deeds campaign did start listening, but it was probably too late in the game and the damage may have already been done. Now, we have spoken to election officials in the state, who tell us right now it looks like turnout here will be comparable to what it was in 2005, when Democrat Tim Kaine became governor.

If that holds steady, 45 percent turnout, it means that Creigh Deeds would need to really sweep in Northern Virginia, the part of the state that tends to favor Democrats. We will have to wait and see -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And that's where Jessica Yellin is right now. They are closing the polls, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, under three hours from now.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He has got more on what's going on in "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, there's an old adage that says all politics is local, which is true, except when it's not true. And today is the day when it's not true, at least not entirely. You following?

Ordinarily, a race for an obscure congressional seat in Upstate New York would go by unnoticed, even by half the people who live there, but not this time. Same for the governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia. Because of a growing disaffection with some of President Obama's policies, a lousy economy, two wars and the failure of the Democratic Congress to do very much of anything worthwhile, there is an abnormal amount of interest in how the people in those three races are likely to vote.

With congressional midterms coming a year from now, you can bet the spin doctors from both parties will be working late into the night tonight to interpret the results in New Jersey, Virginia, and New York in the best possible light for their party. Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey is in a nail-biter with a former Republican prosecutor whom Corzine suggested was fat. The fat guy might win. In Virginia, President Obama has made a significant political investment in the Democratic candidate for governor there, but all the polls leading up to today indicate the Republican is going to win.

And that obscure upstate congressional race in New York has become a contest between an ultra-conservative and a Democrat. The Republican in the race dropped out. She wasn't conservative enough.

So, here's the question. What will today's races in New York, New Jersey and Virginia tell us about the national political landscape? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

Wolf, you love this stuff, don't you?

BLITZER: I do. Yes, she dropped out of that race in New York State, and then said she would vote for the Democrat...

CAFFERTY: Endorsed the Democrat.

BLITZER: ... and not the conservative. This is great stuff.

CAFFERTY: Well, Upstate New York is different.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: You know I'm from Buffalo.

CAFFERTY: Yes, I know. That's what I mean.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: OK.

Jack Cafferty, thanks very much.

A reversal today from the Obama White House on its plans to provide flu shots for those terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

Also ahead, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is promising to clean up his act, now that his reelection is official. Should President Obama believe him? James Carville and Alex Castellanos are standing by for our "Strategy Session."

And the Obamas as you may never see them again -- we're going to talk to the film-makers about their rare access to the president during the campaign. I will ask them how the first family may have changed.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: One year ago, then Senator Barack Obama was elected president of the United States with almost 53 percent of the vote nationwide. Since then, he's remained relatively popular. Now, one year later, what do most of you think of him? Eye-opening results in our brand-new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll that shows the president enjoys a 54 percent approval rating, with 45 percent disapproval.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, who is looking at all these numbers for us.

The approval rating, does it help him and help Democrats go forward because 53 percent is still a pretty good number?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure.

You know, let's put it this way, Wolf. It doesn't hurt Democrats, but this is a personal approval rating for President Obama. And that doesn't necessarily translate into an approval rating for congressional Democrats.

And here's the real problem they have got right now. And that is that all the intensity and the enthusiasm is on the Republican side.

Our polls shows that Republicans are 5 percent more enthusiastic about their candidates than -- than Democrats. If you go back to the last election, the 2008 presidential, Democrats had a 19 percent lead on enthusiasm, so that's a big drop for them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I should say his approval number is 54 percent in our brand-new poll, Gloria. Stand by for a moment.

Also in our brand-new poll, there's this. When registered voters were asked their choice for Congress in next year's midterm election, a year from now, they favored Democrats over Republicans, 50 percent, to 44 percent for a Republican.

Let's fast-forward to Election Day 2010, one year from now. Candidates who will be on the ballot then have a huge stake in the voting going on right now.

Let's bring into this conversation our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash, who is watching what's going on up on the Hill.

But more than you're watching it, all the members of the House and a third of the Senate, Dana, they are fiercely interested in what's happening today.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh, there's no question about it, because, look, I mean, you showed that poll that shows the Democrats do have an advantage over Republicans.

But just as Gloria said, Republicans are pointing out that they, according to our new poll, do have more enthusiasm. And what Republicans here on Capitol Hill are hoping is that enthusiasm will continue in tonight's election, and that will propel them to wins here next year in Congress. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): "Vote 'em out." "You work for us."

The way House Republican leaders see it, signs like that are a good sign for their prospects in next year's congressional elections.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: There's a political rebellion going on in our country, and it's being led by average Americans who have really not been part of the political process who are scared to death that Washington is ruining the future for their kids and grandkids.

BASH: House Minority Leader John Boehner compares growing anxiety now to a mood that swept Republicans into power in 1994. Yet, the reality is that overturning House Democrats' huge 79-seat majority is a tall order, but Democrats are bracing for losses in 2010.

STEVE ELMENDORF, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: The Democrats are going to lose seats. I don't think Democrats are going to lose control.

BASH: Steve Elmendorf was a top political aide to the Democratic leader in 1994, when Republicans won back the House, after 40 years. He argues, Democrats can limit their losses by passing health care.

ELMENDORF: Well, in '93 and '94, our problem was that we failed. You know, we tried to do health care, and we didn't succeed, and people felt that -- that we had not -- that they had given us the baton and we had dropped it.

BASH: But Elmendorf does agree with experts across the spectrum that the biggest problem for Democrats is the economy, including deficit spending and joblessness.

A year before the 1994 GOP takeover, unemployment was 5.6 percent. Now it's nearly double that.

AMY WALTER, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "THE HOTLINE": The economy still is going to drive this next election. They do have to show that they are taking it seriously.

BASH: But the burden isn't just on Democrats. Republicans still carry a stigma from unpopular Bush years. And GOP strategists warn, voters won't give them another chance until they offer their own ideas.

DAVID WINSTON, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: There's an opportunity here for Republicans, but if they don't present an alternative, what's to vote for? And that's the challenge to the Republican leadership.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Another challenge to the Republican leadership is recruiting viable Republican candidates who can actually beat incumbent Democrats. Republicans are doing pretty well so far on that, but Republicans and independent analysts I talk to say if Republicans can show tonight that the devastating losses of the past are just that, the past, that Republicans can actually win, they feel that they are going to be able to do much better in the future in recruiting candidates to run in 2010.

BLITZER: Because, in '93, when the Republicans did well in the New Jersey and Virginia races, it helped them recruit good candidates for '94.

BASH: Sure did.

BLITZER: And then they took the majority. Good point.

Dana, stand by.

Gloria, stand by as well.

Issues you care about will be a huge factor in how you vote in next year's election. Take a look at this from our brand-new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. When asked how the president is doing on key issues, just 44 percent approve of his handling of Iraq. Only 42 percent approve of his handling of health care. Forty- two percent approve of his handling of Afghanistan.

The president gets only 39 percent approval on his handling of the deficit.

Gloria, he may have 54 percent personal approval, job approval, but on these sensitive issues, not so good.

BORGER: You know, and it's always been that way, Wolf. He's always been more personally popular than he has been when people rate him on the issues.

And when you look at that deficit number, only 39 percent approval -- the disapproval is 60 percent -- that is a huge problem for this White House. It's no surprise that, earlier this week, they suggested, gee, maybe we ought to have a commission to try and figure out how to handle the deficit.

And those other issues, Iraq, health care, Afghanistan, they are all on the front burner right now, so they have a lot of work cut out for them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Dana, if there's a clean sweep by the Republicans tonight in Virginia, New Jersey, and in Upstate New York, a lot of those moderate conservative Democrats, the so-called Blue Dogs that Nancy Pelosi will need to get health care reform passed, they may be saying to themselves, not so fast.

BASH: They may be saying to themselves, not so fast.

That is a very distinct possibility. But I think that the bigger concern from those Blue Dog Democrats is what Gloria just talked about, the deficit, the fact that the president's numbers on the deficit, but also other economic issues, numbers in our polls today on taxes and unemployment, they are also below 50 percent.

And that's why, if that trend continues, Wolf, in talking to experts I have talked to all day on what this all means, they say that it is possible that we could have a redux of actually 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president. It was his first term. He was very popular. His policies were not popular. Unemployment was very, very high. And, in congressional, his party lost 26 seats.

BLITZER: Dana, don't go away.

Gloria, don't go away.

We're going to be covering the election results throughout THE SITUATION ROOM.

The exit -- first exit polls should be coming in fairly soon. We will share those with you, and, then, obviously the election returns throughout the night.

Convicted for taking a life, now he wants his own life saved. The sniper John Allen Muhammad, he's supposed to be executed in one week. Wait until you hear all his lawyers, what they are doing to try to stop it.

And they are among President Obama's closest advisers. The senior adviser, David Axelrod, the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and the communications director, Anita Dunn, they are speaking exclusively to me. They look back at their boss' election in part two of our interview and ahead to their number-one priority for next year.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The first polls close in just a little bit more than two-and-a-half-hours from now in the state of Virginia, then at 8:00 p.m. Eastern in New Jersey, 9:00 p.m. Eastern in New York State, that upstate race very, very significant. We're watching all of this for you.

We're also standing by for the first exit polls. We will be getting those numbers here in THE SITUATION ROOM fairly soon. We're going to share what we know with you as soon as we know it. Stand by for that.

In the meantime, let's check in with Dan Lothian. He's monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Dan, what's going on?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a shocking report of the economic well-being of American children. Researchers say almost half of all U.S. kids and 90 percent of African-American children will be on food stamps at some point during their childhood. They warn the recession could push those numbers even higher, and the concerns aren't just economic. Researchers say children on food stamps are at greater risk for malnutrition and other ailments linked to poverty.

No swine flu shots for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, at least for the time being. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says there is no H1N1 vaccine at the detention facility now, and none is on the way.

Last week, a Pentagon official said prisoners would be offered the vaccine because people in the confinement areas are at greater risk in a pandemic. That outraged members of Congress, who said Americans waiting for the vaccine should be inoculated first.

Attorneys for sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad are hoping the Supreme Court will save their client's life. They are filing an appeal with the court today asking the justices to stop Muhammad's scheduled execution on November 10th.

Muhammad was convicted of shooting to death a Virginia man during a three-week killing spree that left 10 people dead in the Washington area. That was in 2002. His attorneys are also asking Virginia's governor for clemency, claiming Muhammad is mentally ill.

And, finally, there are not quite as many pythons on the loose in South Florida as there used to be. Experts snake hunters bagged 37 of the snakes during a trial hunting season started in July to eradicate the invasive species. Officials say the number of pythons in Florida has exploded in recent years, partly because some people freed their pet snakes into the wild.

Wolf, do you like snakes?

BLITZER: No, I don't.

(LAUGHTER)

LOTHIAN: I don't either.

BLITZER: I'm sure they have a useful purpose.

LOTHIAN: That's right.

BLITZER: I'm not crazy. They can stay away from me, Dan.

(LAUGHTER)

LOTHIAN: That's right.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Dan Lothian will be back.

President Obama says the Afghan election was messy. Can he believe President Hamid Karzai's claim that he's going to clean up that mess? James Carville and Alex Castellanos, they're standing by for our "Strategy Session" to weigh in.

And behind the scenes of the Obama campaign one year after the president's historic win. I will ask two filmmakers about their documentary. Do they see changes in Mr. Obama from then to now?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now: It's Election Day 2009. There are several dramatic races across the country, and some are considered real tests of President Obama's popularity. In the next hour, we will have exit polls from some of the closely watched contests. They are going through the numbers right now.

An exclusive interview from three members of President Obama's inner circle -- they reflect on their historic election victory one year ago and reveal what the president is focused on right now. We had part one of the interview yesterday, today, part two.

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

Let's get right to our "Strategy Session."

Joining us now, our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist, James Carville, and our CNN political contributor, the Republican strategist, Alex Castellanos.

Yesterday, the president of the United States, guys, said the situation in Afghanistan, the election results, were messy. He was hoping for a new chapter. Today, the elected president, Hamid Karzai, said this, he made this promise.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HAMID KARZAI, AFGHAN PRESIDENT: Afghanistan has its difficulties. Afghanistan is emerging from 30 years of war and stepping forward towards a more institutional legal order, while it's still struggling against terrorism and the menaces that affect us all. We are aware of the difficulties of our governance and the environment in which we live. We'll keep trying our best to address the questions that we have facing Afghanistan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right.

James, I know you had advised one of the unsuccessful candidates in the Afghan election over the summer, but what do you think? Can the U.S. really trust Hamid Karzai right now? He's promising that he's going to try to clean up the situation over there. Can he really deliver?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, if he does, it would be one of these miraculous turnarounds in life, because he certainly couldn't before. And to win this election, he made any number of deals with some pretty nefarious people.

You know, one hopes, you know, that -- when he came in, everybody thought he was like a good guy, he was the right guy for the job. He's certainly been a disappointment. This election, "messy" is about the kindest word I've heard applied to it.

But, you know, he's what we've got, so we're going to have to deal with it for the foreseeable future here. But if you're asking me if I'm very optimistic about his ability to really lead that country, the answer is no.

BLITZER: Are you optimistic about it, Alex? Because some people have suggested to me it's almost similar to what happened in Iran. There was a U.S. ally named the Shah. He wasn't perfect. He was corrupt.

There was a lot of problems there, but he was close to the U.S. He was removed, and you know what happened in Iran exactly at the end -- in the 1970s right now -- in the revolution there.

Is this a situation where Hamid Karzai may not be perfect, but he's at least aligned with the U.S., and the alternative, namely the Taliban, could be so much worse?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it certainly could be. You know, the old saying, better our crook than their crook.

But this, I think, just goes to show the monumental nature of the task here. We're not talking about just achieving military security and building a nation out of what used to be tribal nations. We're talking about building a democracy. And maybe President Obama can trust Karzai. He just can't trust him today, this week, this year.

It's going to take a long time to rebuild a nation here. And I guess what America has to ask itself, is this the kind of commitment that we really need to make to keep al Qaeda from having a base there when al Qaeda could really reform almost anywhere in the world there's a hotel room?

BLITZER: James, as far as the elections here are concerned tonight, if it's a clean sweep for the Republicans in Virginia, New Jersey and in upstate New York, how much of a wake-up call is that for President Obama?

CARVILLE: Well, I mean, it will certainly get everybody's attention. And, you know, look, the only race that I think Alex will agree with me on, the only race in doubt, is New Jersey. If Corzine pulls that out, Democrats, myself included, will say, look, we did OK. We lost one and we sort of won one.

If we lose New Jersey, the Republicans will justifiably say they had a great night. This is the first big night that they have had since 2004. I would remind people that McGreevey and Mark Warner won in 2001, and we didn't -- and the Republicans did quite well in the off-year elections of 2002. But I don't think there's any doubt that the Republican base is more energized than the Democratic base. I would be surprised if the election results tonight don't validate that.

And, you know, we've got to wait and see. I don't think we -- you know, right now we don't know anything more than anybody else. And we expect the Republican to win in Virginia and the conservative to win in upstate New York. And New Jersey is too close to call. So we'll just wait like everybody else.

BLITZER: Are you surprised, Alex, that the Republican -- the conservative base is more energized than the liberal Democratic base right now?

CASTELLANOS: Not surprised, but, again, it's not just the Republican base, it's the middle. The Republican base is -- you know, 40 percent of America calls itself conservative, but you need 50 percent to win an election. Why is the middle coming out and why are Independents looking like Republicans this election? And why are Democrats lethargic?

And I think the answer to this is that this is a national election in addition to a local election. President Obama has decided that instead of moving his party to the center, he's going to try to move America to the left. It's left a hole in the middle.

A lot of Americans are frustrated and angry that, you know, Washington is saying, look, we're not going to let you invest in your hopes and dreams, we're going to invest in the plans and policies of Washington politicians. There's a wave tonight. That's what we're looking for -- how big is it?

We're seeing the Republican party re-energized, rebuilt. There are two competitive parties in America again.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens tonight and then we'll see what happens a year from now.

Guys, don't go away, because we're going to assessing what's going on. Thank you.

We're standing by for the first exit poll information in the elections we're watching most closely today. Stand by for early hints about what voters are really thinking about as they go to the polls.

And they had remarkable access to the president before he even became a White House candidate. The makers of a new documentary share their insight into Barack Obama then and now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Rarely, if ever, will you get to see the Obamas like this, intimate moments among the family and an incredible behind-the- scenes look at the presidential campaign. Both are the focus of a brand new documentary.

CNN's Alina Cho has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the HBO documentary "By The People: The Election of Barack Obama," this young campaign caller demonstrates a time when few had heard of the man who now is president.

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "BY THE PEOPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's a candidate running for president of the United States Of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP, "BY THE PEOPLE")

CHO: The film follows the first family beginning a full year before then-Senator Obama announced his candidacy. When that happened, senior campaign strategist David Axelrod had his doubts about the film. That's when after Edward Norton, one of the film's producers, pleaded his case.

EDWARD NORTON, PRODUCER, "BY THE PEOPLE": The first time we actually interviewed Axelrod, he said, "How did this happen?" He said, "I don't want to be here. I don't think this is a good idea."

CHO (on camera): So, what did you say to him?

NORTON: Well, basically, I said to him, listen, you know, we will put everything that we're doing here in a box, in a vault, until this election is over. Nothing that we are doing will be exploited. And I think, slowly, we won him over.

CHO (voice-over): What you see here is extraordinary access. You hear Malia and Sasha's voices, Michelle Obama's struggle with whether her husband should run.

MICHELLE OBAMA, WIFE OF BARACK OBAMA: How is this going to work? What would be the schedule? How often would Barack be on the road?

CHO: And there are moments the filmmakers admit they never thought they'd get.

B. OBAMA: When I was practicing the speech for the first time, and I came to the end where I talked about King speaking in the Lincoln Memorial, and I choked up and had to stop.

CHO: Amy Rice and Alicia Sams directed and filmed much of the documentary on the trail with the man they called Barack. So, when Barack started to succeed...

ALICIA SAMS, DIRECTOR/PRODUCER, "BY THE PEOPLE: Full-time job all of a sudden. CHO: ... they started to get nervous.

AMY RICE, DIRECTOR/PRODUCER, "BY THE PEOPLE: I think my stomach immediately started to hurt because I felt like this is a huge opportunity. You know, I don't want to mess this up.

CHO: A documentary the filmmakers hope will be part of the historical record.

(on camera): If you knew then what you know now, would you have approached things differently?

NORTON: No. I mean, I think we only succeeded because we didn't know enough to do it wrong. And I think it's a real love letter to the democratic process.

CHO: "By the People: The Election of Barack Obama" debuts on HBO tonight at 9:00 p.m.

Alina Cho, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And let's bring in those two filmmakers right now. You just saw them in the piece from Alina Cho.

Amy Rice is joining us, and Alicia Sams.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in. Congratulating on doing this excellent documentary that will air later tonight.

Did you see a change, Amy, in the president, going back over the years from then to now?

RICE: I think we saw a change in the beginning as he kind of grew as a candidate in Iowa. You know, you see him in the film complaining about shaking hands, he's tired, he can't really get his stump speech right. We saw him progress as a candidate, a politician, but now he still seems as laid back and in his skin as he used to be.

BLITZER: Did you see changes?

SAMS: I saw the same change when he was hitting his stride. And there was another change around the time of the race speech when he started to seem more presidential. It's hard to say now, because we're not as up close and personal.

BLITZER: Have you had a chance to spend any time with him since he's been president of the United States, nine, 10 months?

SAMS: We had 15 minutes in the Oval Office to sort of shoot a closing for the film, but that's about it.

BLITZER: Do you know if he's seen this HBO documentary?

SAMS: He has seen the documentary. BLITZER: And what kind of feedback did you get?

SAMS: His commentary was that he liked it and -- but he wanted to have more of the two organizer stars, Ronnie Cho (ph) and Mike Lake (ph), and a little less of himself.

BLITZER: Well, he is the star of the show.

But the first lady is also the star of the show. She was reluctant. She expressed a lot of concern about his decision to go ahead and seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Didn't she?

RICE: She did, which I think is a very normal response. Her first priority, she said, you know, were the kids and making sure they maintained some sort of normalcy throughout the whole process, which somehow it seemed like they were able to do.

BLITZER: And she was open with you in explaining her concerns. Which included what?

SAMS: Security, what it would do to the children in particular, and just how, you know, finances, how they would sort of manage. I mean, that's a real dual career.

BLITZER: I was amazed at the access the two of you received, Amy. How did you get that access?

RICE: We started really early. I mean, that was the key.

I spoke with other documentary filmmakers in New York who tried to make political documentaries, and they said most politicians, campaigns don't want cameras around behind the scenes, so you need to start early and build a relationship. And our first day of shooting was May 11th of 2006, which was nine months...

BLITZER: 2006?

RICE: Yes, which was nine months before he announced.

BLITZER: Because David Axelrod, among others, we heard, they were pretty concerned about some potential embarrassments.

SAMS: Yes. I mean, as you can imagine. And it was a question of, you know, we had to gain their trust and prove that we weren't going to pop our footage onto YouTube at end of the day, and that we were really in it for the long haul and for the historical record, not for -- not to affect the election in any way.

BLITZER: Yes, because you gave them your word, correct me if I'm wrong, that none of this would air until after the election.

RICE: Right. Right. And because we wanted to shoot the ending.

BLITZER: When you say the ending, when he won that night?

RICE: Whatever happened, whether he won or lost, however far he went. We wanted to continue to shoot.

BLITZER: If he would have lost, it wouldn't have been as poignant a documentary, right?

RICE: We still would have had a great story, but it wouldn't have been probably as great as if he won.

BLITZER: Might not have even been made it as a documentary if he would lost, right? You thought about that?

SAMS: Yes, we did think about that. I mean, I think Iowa was an incredible story. And then if he had lost the general, maybe it would have been on a smaller screen.

BLITZER: Do you know if people -- you had counterparts doing the same thing in the McCain campaign? Because if he would have won, I'm sure there would have been some great documentaries as well. Do you know if there were that?

SAMS: I don't think there was anyone. I talked to some people that tried with the Hillary campaign and they didn't get in.

RICE: We were trying to get into the McCain camp, but they wouldn't let us in.

BLITZER: You tried.

RICE: We tried.

BLITZER: Well, you got the Obama camp. You got the winning camp.

Guys, thanks very much.

RICE: Thank you.

BLITZER: It's a powerful documentary, and I'm sure our viewers will enjoy it. It will bring back a lot of memories for a lot of folks.

Thanks very much.

RICE: Thank you.

SAMS: Thank you, Wolf, so much.

BLITZER: Tonight's election could be key. What exactly should you be looking for?

Our John King is standing by over at the Magic Wall to show you the big picture.

And a political pop quiz. What's wrong with this picture? Here's a hint. There are empty seats over one issue that does not sit well with some Republicans, so they mounted a boycott.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker," empty seats at today's Senate hearing on the proposed climate change bill. All but one Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, George Voinovich of Ohio, boycotted.

They argue the cost of the bill hasn't been fully examined. The committee's chair, the Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, says the panel will continue to meet.

Hollywood comes to the White House. "Sex and The City's" Sarah Jessica Parker and the Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker are just among some of the celebrities being sworn in today to the president's committee on the arts and the humanities. President Obama has enlisted 25 new members to help push his arts initiative.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out CNNPolitics.com.

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

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, Wolf, is: What will today's races in New York, New Jersey and Virginia tell us about the national political landscape?

Craig in New Jersey writes: "Absolutely nothing. National issues always affect down-ballot races, but in the end these are local races about local issues. I'm a New Jerseyian who strongly supports Barack Obama, and yet I'm not voting for the Democrat, Jon Corzine. I'm not alone. There are those like me in all these races, but, of course, the media will make too big a deal out of this just like they always do."

Eileen says: "I suspect today's election results will reflect what's going on locally in the economy. It will have little or nothing to say about the current national issues. The impact of elections nationally will occur after more of the Obama projects are completed. Votes eventually will demonstrate pass or fail on the stimulus, the war, health care, et cetera, but there's little to go on right now."

Vinnie writes from Dunellen, New Jersey: "The outcome of today's race is much like midterms, are individually predominantly of local concern. However, when, all together, the local elections do follow a pattern, then they absolutely show either a national acceptance or a disapproval of the way the country and the federal government is moving."

Mike says: "Basically nothing. Primarily something for you to ask a stupid, inane question about."

Thanks, Mike.

Dan in Virginia says: "As a resident of Virginia, I can tell you this vote means nothing in the grand scheme of things. The two guys running for governor of Virginia are awful and have run large smear campaigns with little focus on any issues. When they are not slinging mud, they are criticizing each other for slinging mud. The Democratic base has a hard time supporting Deeds because he has no ideas, and the Republican base has a hard time supporting McDonnell because he's a slime ball."

I would guess you could probably say that about a lot of elections around the country, one candidate or the other is either devoid of ideas or is in fact a slime ball, or is both.

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Election Day in America. It's a lovely thing.

Jack, thanks very much.

Voters are casting ballots across much of the nation right now, and we're standing by for the first exit polls from some of the most significant contests. We should get an early read of the mood in the country on this Election Day in America.

And the power of third-party candidates. The special House race in upstate New York raising the question, who's feeling the most threatened? Would it be Republicans or Democrats?

And one year after President Obama's victory, we're keeping score on the promises he's kept and the ones not yet been able to keep.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at The Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspapers tomorrow.

In Texas, a husband and wife head to the polls early in the morning to vote.

In Ohio, this man proudly displays his "I voted" sticker as he leaves the polls.

In Virginia, this voter takes her young daughter voting at Alexandria City Hall.

And in Arlington, Virginia, stickers are prepared for voters.

"Hot Shots" on this Election Day, pictures worth a thousand words.

CNN equals politics, and we'll be right here to bring you the results from key elections across the nation throughout the night. As always, we'll be looking at the big picture and important trends.

Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King. He's over at the Magic Wall.

What should we be looking for, first of all, tonight in New Jersey, John?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's go to New Jersey first, Wolf, since you asked. We'll pop up the state here on the Magic Wall.

One thing we're looking for is the intensity of the Democratic base and the Republican base, and also how Independents go. Independents went for Obama in the last election and they helped him spread a bigger margin. So, how will they go and how will African- Americans go?

In New Jersey, African-Americans were 12 percent of the electorate in 2008, and Barack Obama won big, 92 percent of those voters in 2008. How will Jon Corzine, the Democratic incumbent, do tonight, and will the voters, will African-Americans listen to the president's appeal to turn out?

Independents, 28 percent, more than a quarter of the electorate. Obama won 51 percent, a little more than half in the state of New Jersey.

So where will we look? Let me pull over the map.

Here's the largest county in the state, population-wise, Bergen County. It's a Democratic county. Let's see how big can Governor Corzine run up his margin here.

He had a huge margin here when he won election. He needs to do it again here. He also needs to do it right here in Essex County. That is the home of Newark, a significant African-American population here, a big Democratic county. Governor Corzine, if he is going to surprise people and win re-election, needs to do very well here.

Where do we look for the Republicans, Wolf? You see the red counties here that John McCain carried. Barack Obama carried the state quite well, but John McCain did very well down here, Ocean County, and along here. We want to see the big turnout there.

One other key places to watch, Essex County here, which is -- Camden County, I mean, just inside from Philadelphia. This is the county that President Obama had 70 percent in the last election.

Governor Corzine needs big numbers. Maybe not that big, but big numbers there in the suburbs just into New Jersey from Philadelphia. If the Republican is running strong here, very bad sign for the Democratic incumbent.

BLITZER: Let's move to Virginia right now. What should we be looking for in the Commonwealth of Virginia?

KING: Well, let's clear this up and move down to Virginia as well and move this off, pull the map up. We'll bring up the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Again, this was a state that Obama turned from a presidential standpoint from red to blue, but Democrats have been ascending in the state, Wolf, as you know. Five of the last seven gubernatorial elections, two U.S. senators, so Democrats have been on the rise here.

Again, the key to President Obama -- this is an ad from the president. We'll move that out.

But here -- the key to the president's victory, 20 percent of the electorate in 2008 was African-American. And again, more than nine in 10 of those voted for the president. He is appealing to them, if you listen to the radio or TV ads, to turn out for Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate.

And again, more than a quarter of the electorate in 2008 were Independents in Virginia. The president split them with Senator McCain. The key thing there tonight, watch how Independents go, because you know from the polls, Independents are worried about the spending in Washington, and we'll see how they vote tonight.

Where will we look? The population growth in Virginia is up here in the Washington suburbs. When Tim Kaine, the current governor, won election, he did huge up here in Arlington County, in Fairfax County. The Republican nominee, Bob McDonnell, is from Fairfax County. If he can make inroads up here in the Washington suburbs, that would be a big night there for the Republicans.

The other key place to watch in Virginia, down here. You have Norfolk, Newport News, the military communities. They tend to be conservative, but you also have Hampton Roads, where you have a significant African-American population, and you have Chesapeake, a Christian conservative population.

As you can see, some blue, some red down here in the presidential race. Why is that? Very competitive counties, a mix of Republicans and Democrats.

That's where we will see, Wolf, the intensity. Are the Republicans more intense, more committed to turn out and vote tonight? This is one of the places we will watch.

And also, out here in the countryside, Creigh Deeds is from the rural areas of Virginia. Can he get those Democratic votes or will they go Republican? Fascinating to watch out in this area as well, more conservative rural pockets of Virginia, as the results come in, in just a few hours.

BLITZER: And how will we know early on if the Republican base is really energized?

KING: Well, let's stay in Virginia for a minute. We'll know here down here, in the Chesapeake, the Christian coalition, the base down here. This is an area where you find Christian conservative voters.

We'll also know by how well they are doing in the suburbs. The Democrats have won their big margins in all of these states because of their growth in the suburbs.

If the narrow -- if the Republicans are narrowing the margins, they don't expect to carry the suburbs. But if they are narrowing the margins, that's one place.

And let's move back up to New Jersey.

You have here a moderate Republican candidate running as an Independent -- a moderate Republican running as an Independent. Will the Republicans vote, Independent moderate Republicans, or will they support their Republican candidate? Again, we will look for those places along down here, down in here, and right up in here, which is in the northern parts of New Jersey.

Big turnout is what we will look for here. Not just the margins, Wolf, but how many people are turning out, because for the Republican to win a close race, he not only needs to win these counties, but he needs a big turnout to give him a big margin. That's what we'll look for.

BLITZER: We'll watch together with you.