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JOHN KING, USA

Justice Stevens Retiring; Bart Stupak Not Running for Reelection

Aired April 9, 2010 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, HOST: Thank you, Suzanne. What a fascinating consequential day. It is far from the most thing that happened, but President Obama, flashing a bit of a smile, picked a fight with Sarah Palin and she was only too happy smiling, too, to fire back. In a bit, you make the call.

There were two big retirements, one a legendary figure on the Supreme Court, the other a rural Michigan congressman you probably had never heard of until the final days of the health care debate. Two retirements for me raised this question, will the middle, the center of our politics raise its voice this election year or be drowned out by the left and right extremes?

We'll spend a lot of time on that question tonight and in the weeks ahead. One other thing, and this is important, important to me, and I hope important to you, the president read a letter from one of the miners who died in West Virginia, urging his girlfriend to take care of their baby if something happened to him. We spent a lot of time here this week of the safety problems a upper big branch mine.

That letter is more powerful testimony than any statistic. We can show you. If you listen to the president today and other politicians in the past 24 hours or so, it is clear they realize now that the laws and the agencies designed to protect workers in one of our most dangerous industries failed here. The odds of a miracle in West Virginia are dwindling. Our obligation to follow the accountability trail is just beginning.

We're awaiting word tonight on latest attempt to locate the four miners still unaccounted for in Raleigh County, West Virginia. Four days now since that horrific explosion. Rescue teams are trying to reach a second refuge chamber to see if the four were able to take cover. Those teams reached one of the specifically equipped chambers earlier but found it empty. And then were forced to pull back because of smoke and toxic gases. Twenty five miners are confirmed dead. Funerals for four of them were held today.

At the White House, President Obama said recent improvements in mine safety laws clearly did not go far enough.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: More needs to be done. And that's why I've asked my secretary of labor, as well as the head of mine, safety and health administration, to give me a preliminary report next week on what went wrong and why it went wrong so badly, so that we can take the steps necessary to prevent such accidents in the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: President Obama was on Air Force One over the Atlantic when word wait a minute came from the White House that Justice John Paul Stevens made it official, he will step down from the Supreme Court at the end of the current term. Mr. Obama has been in office a little over 14 months and will now make his second appointment to the nation's highest court, in this case, replacing one of its leading liberal voices.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Well, we cannot replace Justice Stevens' experience or wisdom. I will seek someone in the coming weeks with similar qualities, an independent mind a record of excellence, and integrity, a fierce dedication to the rule of law, and a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A number of administration sources tell CNN the president already has a list of prospects. Our White House correspondent Dan Lothian has more on the high stakes process -- Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And it is indeed a high stakes process the president then getting a second chance to put his stamp on the Supreme Court, as you pointed out. White House aides telling me that they do have this list with about 10 names, they have been quietly but actively working on this process, the president also expected to be actively involved.

Aides tell me that they aren't going to give any names at this point. And as to whether or not the president will begin the critical process quickly of interviewing some of these potential nominees, I'm told that it will not happen soon, and it will not happen this weekend - John.

KING: Dan Lothian at the White House. Thank you, Dan.

Last night, we took you to Michigan's upper peninsula to show you the Tea Party Express in its effort to defeat Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak this November. Well, today the congressman made sure that wouldn't happen.

The antiabortion Democrat who was critical to getting the new health car law passed announced he will not seek re-election. Stupak said it had had nothing to do with the Tea Party protests and predicted he would have won re-election. He told our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash, it was time, after 18i years to seek a new challenge. He said the harsh tone of the current political environment made his decision easier. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. BART STUPAK (D) MICHIGAN: It's unnerving but, you know, I've been a police officer for many years. I've been through some tough calls. We've gone through this before but not to the degree of the viciousness of this time. I wish everyone would just step back, knock off the name calling and things like this and do what's best for country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Dana's in Michigan tonight with more on the congressman's calculations and the fallout - Dana.

DANA BASH, SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, there was an emotional moment at Stupak's press conference when his wife brought up what she called vulgar, cruel, and threatening calls they got in the wake of Stupak's high-profile and controversial vote for the health care bill. But she made a point of saying 95 percent of those calls came from outside this Michigan district.

It illustrates what a national figure and national target Stupak had become, but you know, his role in the health care drama is just one reason his retirement today is significant. Another is the Democrats majority in the House and threat this November of it shrinking and the fact that Bart Stupak represented this conservative rural district. It is ripe for Republicans to take over against a lesser known Democratic candidate.

And that is why we were told by Democratic source that President Obama called Bart Stupak a couple of nights ago, Stupak confirmed that, and urged him to stay in office of at least run for re-election and it didn't work. Stupak said that he wants to do something that I know will sound good to you. He said he wants to sit on his porch, drink a beer, watch the boats go by in Lake Michigan.

KING: Amen to that. Dana Bash, the high stakes race there, thank you.

And it isn't just Congressman Stupak who's been getting threats. The federal law enforcement official tells CNN there's been a spike in threats since the health care reform debate started. Since October, 50 threats, 50 reported against members of Congress to the FBI.

It's both the midterm election pep rally and a partial preview of the next presidential campaign. Parade of big named Republicans in New Orleans for an event called the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

Today's headliner the former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin who delivered a scathing critique of President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH PALIN (R) FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: So, yes, we can, kowtow to enemies, criticize allies, vacillate, vow, dither, yes, we can, but somebody needs to tell the president just because we can does not mean that we should!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN chief political correspondent and State of the Union anchor Candy Crowley is in New Orleans for the big GOP event -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN'S STATE OF THE UNION: John, very interesting here. It goes without saying, perhaps, these days in the Republican party, but Sarah Palin got the best reviews and certainly the best audience reaction that we've seen of any of the speakers so far. Part of those sharp elbows.

She can deliver those lines in a way that brought this audience to its feet. Somewhat leading you to believe perhaps in the straw poll they're having tomorrow she might do very well. What is interesting about this, you mentioned at the top, that this was about 2010. We heard less about 2010 than what seemed like a presence of 2012.

So much of this was about anti-President Obama language. You heard just part of it in that little clip you played. But we heard it from Newt Gingrich yesterday who called the president most radical president in history. We heard from Liz Cheney, who was here yesterday and calls the administration's response to Hamid Karzai childish and dangerous. It's been a lot of sharp rhetoric. There is a lot of hope here at this point that in 2010 and 2012 that Republicans can take advantage of things.

KING: Candy Crowley at the big Republican event, Candy, thanks.

Wall Street had something to cheer about today. Minutes before the closing bell the Dow Industrials broke through the 11,000 mark. They didn't stay there, but they closed just three points shy. The Dow hasn't been that high since September 2008.

Encouraging numbers there. Let's take a walk over to the magic wall to see what's ahead on the program. When we come back, we'll continue to focus on the president's big Supreme Court choice, including looking at this question here, who's right? When Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich offered different opinions of whether the Republicans should be the party of yes and the party of no, what's the Republican challenge in the court fight?

That's our pulse tonight. We'll also go wall-to-wall, where's the middle? As the president prepares to make his second pick to the high court, we'll look at how our country is so divided at the moment.

In our clash, we'll call this one extreme makeover. With both the left and the right tugging at their party in the midterm election year, how far can we be pulled to the extreme? In play by play, the president of the United States versus Sarah Palin, he said/she said over going nuclear.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) Most Americans describe themselves as moderate but this year our politics are driven by the extremes in both the left and the right. How will that climate affect the search for new Supreme Court justice? Neera Tanden is here to go one-on-one. She's worked in the executive and legislative branches of government in the Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. She's now the Chief Operating Officer of the influential think thank of the Center for American Progress. Welcome.

NEERA TANDEN, COO, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Great to be here.

KING: I want you to listen to something the president said today. The president gets a big pick like this, his second in 14 months, which is pretty remarkable for any president, we look for clues. Who is he going to pick? Here's what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There will also be someone who, like Justice Stevens, knows that in democracy powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens, much like they did with Justice Sotomayor. I hope they move quickly in the coming weeks to debate, and then confirm my nominee, so the new justice is seated in time for the fall term.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The pick first, then the climate. In terms of the pick, there are some on the left, which you represent, who are disappointed they wants the public option, more in health care, they think the president shouldn't have sent more troops to Afghanistan. Does he owe the left somebody to go in and fight or pick somebody more safe in this political year?

TANDEN: We should remember that the president is a constitutional law professor. This is one of his most solemn obligations as president as his imprint on the court. He will look at this as one of the things that's most important he does as president. I think people can focus on the politics and I'm sure there are some in the White House who will. At the end of the day, this is a very important decision and I think he will treat it seriously. There will be less regard for politics in this decision than in many others.

KING: Less than in many others is a fair statement. But in this environment, you've worked for him. You know the people outside who he will seek for advice. Some will say Mr. President, their base is fires up, our is a little bit down. We need to gin it up. He wouldn't pick somebody unqualified because of that, but might you pick somebody maybe a little bit more left than Judge Sotomayor was a consensus pick in a closer to the middle in this environment?

TANDEN: Well, I think again, he will look for the long term. Look at Sotomayor. She really did engage and important constituencies, women, Latinos, an inspirational pick. The president should look at that as a real important aspect of the nomination. But at the end of the day, you want someone who will -- history will look at as an important justice and making an important contribution and somebody who can move the law in the ways that he wants the law to move. I think that's the most important criteria. You can be moderate and still ensure that you're engaging and getting your engagement process.

KING: Justice Stevens was someone appointed by a moderate Republican, General Ford who became a liberal voice and who became a good navigator of the court's politics using his leadership and seniority to bring people his way shaping profound things.

Now that you're losing his stature on the court, and you look and the pictures reminded me, the Republican presidents have appointed relatively young men for a reason, Scalia's on the court, Thomas, Alito, Justice Roberts, the Chief Justice on the court. If you're President Obama now, I assume, a, you want to go young, but b you need somebody to go into the jousting, do you not?

TANDEN: Right, and I think that's why his experience as a constitutional law professor is important. He wants someone who can sway the court. He can move the Kennedy's.

KING: Who that is person?

TANDEN: Lots of people. Elena Kagan, who I worked with in the Clinton administration has an incredible intellect.

KING: Not a judge. Is that important to go outside?

TANDEN: It's a skill to have someone who isn't a judge, who has lived a policy making experience, who has lived amongst real people and understand what that means to people. So at the end of the day, I think the most important attribute really is to ensure that you can sway the court over the long term and move it in a progressive direction because this court is an extreme core over the history.

KING: He's a Harvard law guy. You're a Yale law graduate. You spent a lot of time working for Hillary Clinton. How about Hillary Clinton for the Supreme Court?

TANDEN: I'm not going to make news on Hillary joining the Supreme Court. I think she's very happy as a secretary of state. And she's much more a person who is engaged in the political process than the day-to-day. Being a Supreme Court nominee and being on Supreme Court removes you from politics and influencing policy day-to-day. They should look at someone who is more interested in that.

KING: What about the climate? Looking eight statements from Mitch McConnell, he says it's careful the president will -- the Republicans will make a sustained and vigorous case for judicial restraint.

Orrin Hatch tells the president, another leading Republican from Utah don't pick an activist. Jeff Sessions thinks last time they proved and even got Justice Sotomayor in his opinion to say forget the empathy standard that candidate Obama talked about during the campaign. What is the political climate in your view, doing in the middle of a very, very contentious midterm election year.

TANDEN: First, I would say that it's -- I welcome the fact that Republicans are talking about activism. This court has become the most activist in terms of undoing precedence. Sotomayor has proven you can have a healthy respect for precedent and be a strong, moderate justice and that's something the president will look for. Talking about activism, the conservative picks on this court that are the activists. I hope that's what we're using for nominees because Justice Sotomayor passed and I'm sure the president's nominees will pass as well.

KING: Take us away from the president's decision again to this political environment. You work for a Democratic think tank that gets involved in the fights and sometimes raises money in the fights back and forth. Are we going to have that over the course of the summer, left saying we need you to do this and people send us money, right saying Mr. President you better not do this, send us money? Will this get caught up in a less pretty, shall we say, political fight?

TANDEN: I think we are face midst terms. What was disconcerting about the Sotomayor confirmation process you had an extremely moderate judge, extremely moderate nominee who received fewer votes than Justice Roberts. You know, ten fewer votes, meaning he's much more conservative pick. And so that happened a year ago.

There's a great worry that no matter how moderate the president's nominee is you won't be able to get Republicans. And I think the real concern here is whether Republicans are interested in governing or interested in rallying their base or really responding to that base and will fight any nominee, no matter how moderate that is.

Look at Justice Sotomayor, she's proven, she's very moderate. She has been allotted by Fox News and others at this point. A year ago, people were attacking here. She's been seen as a moderate nominee since. I hope people look at that and see we can get Republican votes for a moderate.

KING: Fascinating spring, sure to become an interesting summer. Neera Tanden, thanks for coming in tonight. We appreciate it.

Down in New Orleans, Republicans are jostling to see who's right and who's farther right. The pulse of America when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: As Republicans gather for a big pep rally in New Orleans, we take the Pulse of America. Tonight especially, the pulse of the part that leans right. With us tonight, CNN contributor, Eric Erickson who's editor in chief of the conservativeblogredstate.com.

Eric, you just heard a liberal perspective of the president's challenge in picking a new Supreme Court justice and a characterization of Justice Sotomayor as a moderate and essentially a dare to the Republicans to try to be aggressive in whoever the president picks next.

What's your test? We don't know the name, let's not dwell on who it might be. But you saw how the Republicans handled Sotomayor and the aggressive questioning but in the end she was confirmed. The same game plan good for you, or do conservatives and Republicans need to do more?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, I would like them to do more and be more aggressive. It depends on who he picks. Remember the Republicans fell all over themselves to vote at the end of the day for Brier and Ginsburg when Clinton was president. Some of them voted for Sotomayor.

I think they're going to ask tough questions. If he gets someone like Kagan, they're going to have a hard time. She may be on the left but she's a highly qualified judge. The Democrats have an interesting battle because Justice Kennedy now, if he disagrees with the chief justice on something, will be the senior justice in the opposition.

So it's going to be him who picks -- who doles out the dissent. They're going to have to play with that as well and enter that into the calculus because he's not as liberal as other justices, and may not one to your opinions towards some of the liberal justices.

KING: So in the sense if the president's picking his politics or the future politics on the court, he needs to pick somebody who can be friends with Justice Kennedy pretty quick.

ERICKSON: I think so.

KING: Let's talk about another big question. The Republicans having a big event, Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. It is a bit of an early cattle call for the 2012 campaign.

ERICKSON: Right.

KING: We've had a lot of agreement but also a little bit of disagreement in tonight. I want you to listen one of the big questions should the Republicans be the party of no or some say the party of yes? Listen to a divide between the former speaker Newt Gingrich and the former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH PALIN (R) FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: There is no shame in being the party of no if they're proposing the other side proposing an idea that violates our values, violates our conscience, violates our constitution.

NEWT GINGRICH (R) FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: I think we should decide we're going to be the party of yes. There are many things that we can say yes to.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

KING: They actually agree on a lot of issues but there's a clear difference in their tone. How does that play out?

ERICKSON: You can tell who has been in Washington and who hasn't. All the people in Washington for a time say they have to be the party of yes. The same with Newt Gingrich here. Although at the end of the day the statement Gingrich and Palin were making were roughly the same thing, say no to the direction of the country we're headed in and yes to freedom and liberty and where the Republicans want to go. Nate Silver the left wing commentator today, says that the generic Gallup poll looking like Republicans can pick up 50 seats. I say being party of no is working pretty well for them.

KING: A strong poll in New Orleans, when people post things, if you had to write who's the favorite for 2012 among conservatives who would it be.

ERICKSON: Oh, God, there isn't one. Sarah Palin, I think she whips up a frenzy among people I like her. Mitt Romney does some. The sense I honestly get, there are a lot of people who want none of the above. They want a fresh face. I, myself, have been intrigued by the idea of someone like Mitch Daniels from Indiana. And there are a lot of people who want someone else. Some speculating Marco Rubio in Florida, should win. The Daniels speculation right now none of the above is winning.

KING: None of the above is winning. We'll remember that. We'll watch as it goes forward. Thanks for joining us on a Friday night.

Now that we've looked at the right, let's see if we can find the middle. Wall-to-wall for a closer look at retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and the forces that will shape the fight over his successor.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: In "Wall-to-Wall" tonight, a look the influential justice who is leaving the Supreme Court after 34 years. And as the polarized the election year political environment, that is certain to shape the confirmation process once President Obama settles on a replacement.

Let's take a look at Justice John Paul Stevens. He's the oldest current justice, he will turn 90 on April 20. Still a lively guy, though. For 34 years he has been on the high court nominated by President Ford just after Watergate back in 1975. He is a Protestant.

Let's take a look at his legacy on the court. He is someone who has been liberal in leanings even though pointed by a moderate Republican president, in fact he has voted to upheld Roe V. Wade, the big abortion rights decision. He has voted in cases that limit the death penalty. He supports affirmative action and most recently he has also given more rights to terrorism detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detainee prison down in Cuba.

Now, we're going to head over to the Magic Wall for some clues to this year's volatile political environment, because it in this political environment that President Obama will name a successor and then seek his confirmation by the Senate. And it is political environment, right now. We have seen the left and the right dominating our politics.

Let's take Michigan, for example. Bart Stupak, a Democratic congressman resigned today, still trying to make the case in that tough district that his health care vote was the right vote, because the Tea Party says no, some on the left have also criticized him. Bart Stupak saying, you know, 38,000 people in northern Michigan will get health insurance and nearly 200,000 will see their costs lowered. That is a view from Michigan of the contested political environment.

Let's go out to Utah, Bob Bennett a Republican senator; he's been in office for years. He's being challenged from the right, in part, conservatives say, because they don't like these votes. Here's one, the School Safety Act of 1999. It passed by 73-25, 31 Republicans vote for this bill, yet conservative says Senator Bennett should not have.

Let's look at another vote. The Ashcroft Amendment, this was a bill that would punish parents if they let their children get hands on a semiautomatic weapon passed by 95-2, two Republicans voting no, Senator Bennett voting yes. But again in this polarizing political environment some conservatives say Senator Bennett cast the wrong vote on that one.

Here's two examples, Michigan and Utah. How about North Carolina? A labor union is now saying it wants to form a third party in North Carolina because it thinks Democrats aren't looking out for workers so much. Let's take a look at how people break down in North Carolina.

According to the Gallup Poll you have about 47 percent Democrats, 38 percent Republicans. So you'd think by looking at that this is a Democratic state. But look at this. Let's stretch these numbers out a little bit. Asked North Carolinians to describe themselves, nearly 40 percent, 38 percent say they're moderates, 40 percent do say they're conservatives, only 18.4 percent say they're liberal. So, we have a country right now that has a lot of tugging by the right, a lot of tugging by left in this environment the president has to name a new Supreme Court pick and try to get him through the United States Senate. It is a fascinating time for the presidency of the United States, a fascinating challenge. We'll continue to talk about it as the program goes on looking not only at the challenge for president in making a new Supreme Court pick, but where is the mid until American politics. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: This is the part of the show where we introduce you to the most important person you don't know. Well, today that's you, because we're determined to bring you into our conversation. We read our FaceBook postings, Tweets, e-mails, anything sent into our blog. Also, every Monday we ask a question, give you the whole week to post an answer on our Web site. On Friday you get to make your case.

This week's question: When, if ever, should the government stop extending unemployment benefits?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EGBERTO WILLIES, KINGWOOD, TX: The premise that Americans prefer sitting on the couch, collecting unemployment rather than being gainfully employed is wrong and it's nothing but a justification for those who object to government providing a humane safety net because of their laissez-faire political philosophy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A statement from a viewer, there. Brining into the conversation our political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, and in Marquette, Michigan, our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. The unemployment benefits distribute was not resolved before Congress went on recess. They say they will deal with it ASAP when they come back, but it is one of the many issues, No. 1, caught up in the current political climate. And No. 2, when they did come back the Democrats between focus on jobs, jobs, jobs, and now we have a Supreme Court nomination battle, always contentious, tossed in the middle of it.

Dana, you're on the road, to you first. In the sense of the climate you're in a place today where you got a pretty good example of someone who didn't quite like the climate and decided to go home, Bart Stupak.

DANA BASH, CNN SR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He was done. I mean he made that clear in every which way he possibly could. He was tired and he didn't and he's relatively young, considering many of people that we cover in Congress. And he said, look, I've had enough. And you know, the question is why do we care? Well, for several reasons and first and foremost he obviously was the guy who was -- gave President Obama the votes for his top priority in a very tough way, Bart Stupak is anti-abortion, got some language in there he wants. But, I think politically, bigger picture the thing that's interesting is that this district where he -- that he represents, is very conservative and he is a conservative Democrat. And by him leaving, it perhaps, if you talk to people here as I have, leaves the door open for yet one more Republican victory in November.

KING: And between now and November, when they do come back, they're going to have to deal with these economic issues but also deal now with the Supreme Court, a very contentious issue.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is tough. And a possible distraction if the president picks somebody that Republicans decide to oppose vehemently. You know, usually it's not a filibuster that the White House faces from the other side, it's a contentious fight that they are forced to withdraw a nominee the doomsday, the worst case scenario.

And Republicans do not seem poised to put up a huge fight because they found that they were very successful with Sotomayor just by making their case, they won political points, but confirmed her in the end. The one challenge for the president is if he picks somebody who they perceive as an ultraliberal, he'll have a huge fight on his hands, it'll take the message away from employment, jobs, that is not what they want going into the midterm elections.

KING: Well, Dana, to that point, the president probably doesn't want to fight, but to some Democrats in Congress would they prefer the fight, if their base is demoralized right now, gin it up with a good court fight?

BASH: It's a very tough thing, because if you gin up the base, that could help, obviously especially in a year when Democrats are not enthused and Republicans do seem to be. By the same token, specifically in the Senate obviously, that we're talking about here with the Senate confirmation, there are a number of Democrats especially the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid who are coming from relatively conservative areas, conservative states, and the last thing that they want is to be able to -- or to have to defend a rather liberal nominee to their conservative voters. So that is something that I'm hearing, I'm sure Jessica is, too, that may be quietly communicated to the White House that some Democrats are saying, you know what? Let's just try to make this an easy one for that reason alone.

KING: And before we go, to the degree that the president's replacing someone, you look at what they did on the court and Justice Stevens was a negotiator, was a tactician on the court.

YELLIN: That's why the people who are most knowledgeable about the court say he was effective at moving everybody ever so slightly to the left because of his strategic mind and that they don't have that kind of person on the left of the court. So, there are some who hope the president would pick somebody, not just talking about the ideology, but personality wise is like Stevens in that sense.

KING: Fascinating to watch. Jessica Yellin, Dana Bash, thank you very much.

And next in the "Clash," we'll look at weather. We've been talking a little about it here, whether the extremes of both parties are drowning out Middle America.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Here for the "Clash" a pair of strategists who understand public opinion and the fascinating dynamic at work as the country heads into this midterm election year. Democratic strategist, Cornell Belcher, he's the president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies. And Republican strategist Neil Newhouse, cofounder of Public Opinion Strategies, and we should note the lead pollster for new senator, Scott Brown.

You're still loving that victory, right?

NEIL NEWHOUSE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No complaints.

KING: No complaints. So, we are in the early hours of a big decision for the president of the United States, Justice Stevens decides to retire after 34 years. The president of the United States finds out on the way back over the Atlantic even before Air Force One steps down, we get one taste of the potential tone of the political debate. This is Glenn Beck on his radio show.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

GLENN BECK, TALK SHOW HOST: If he's smart, he will find a gay, handicapped, black woman who's an immigrant. That's what -- because that way he could just say, when -- she could be the devil, she could say, "I hate America, I want to destroy America," and that way they'll only be able to say, "well, why do you hate gay, immigrant, black, handicapped women? Why do you hate that?"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: You know, I'm going to help Neil out here. Because frankly, you can't -- sometimes crazy is just crazy and you can't hide crazy under the cloak of an ideological blanket. That's not conservative, it's liberal, that's just crazy. It's just talk from a crazy man. That's and sometimes you just have to call it out for what it is, that's crazy.

KING: Well, a lot on the right listen to him.

NEWHOUSE: They do. But, you know what? I -- the debate over the next Supreme Court justice isn't going to center over those issues. I mean, it's going to be on other stuff. I think that's taking it probably to an extreme issue, extreme position and...

BELCHER: Probably?

(LAUGHTER)

NEWHOUSE: Well, you know, you've got to understand, the Republican primary voters, Republicans are pretty riled up right now and they're against anything that Obama proposes or does,,.

BELCHER: Risks in that aren't there?

NEWHOUSE: Pardon me?

BELCHER: Risks in that.

NEWHOUSE: Yeah, but in a midterm election, run up to this election, I think the risks a lot, you know, are less -- there are fewer risks now than there will be two years from now.

KING: Well, let's put this in the mix. Hang on one second. Let's put this into the mix. We're talking about potential risks or at least the mood among Republicans, right now. The former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, who became speaker after 1994 Republican revolution, says if we can win this fall, we'll do this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: When we win control of the House and Senate this fall, stage one of the end...

(APPLAUSE) Stage one of the end of obamaism will be a new Republican congress in January that simply refuses to fund any of the radical efforts.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: To some, Neil that sounds dangerously close to we'll shut the government down. We did that once.

NEWHOUSE: I don't know what's surprising about this. Republicans, 90 percent of Republicans disapprove of the job Obama's doing. And Newt is simply preaching to the choir here, telling them what they want to hear. I mean there's no surprise, Republicans oppose what Obama's trying to do.

KING: They -- creates climate that makes it pretty hard to govern between now and November.

NEWHOUSE: I know. But the key line there, I think got the most applause was, "when we take the House." That might be a little bit of a reach right now, it is certainly possible. But you know, he's trying to put it out there as a goal for Republicans to hit.

BELCHER: Here's the danger in that, and it goes back to what the Glenn Beck thing says, and it is that when you look at middle America and you look at that sort of craziness and you hear that anger and that fear that's coming out, that cannot represent the Republican Party for middle America, because if it does middle America is not going to vote for them when they need those independent voters to break their way for them to take back the House...

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Quick time-out. Quick time-out. Quick time-out, because you'll get more time to talk about this when we come back for "Play- by-Play." We'll break down some great tape into "Play-by-Play" and guess what, I think we'll have some of this same conversation, but one of the things we'll talk about is the president picking a fight with Sarah Palin and she fired back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: Here comes the "Play-by-Play."

KING: Back for the "Play-by-Play," Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher and Republican strategist Neil Newhouse. I want to have a little fascinating back and forth, here. Sarah Palin, the other day, criticized the nuclear posture view put out by the Obama administration saying that it weakens us in the world. Well, the president was asked by George Stephanopoulos of ABC this morning, what do you think of that criticism?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA (D), UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: I really have no response to that. The last I checked, Sarah Palin's not much of an expert on nuclear issues.

If the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff are comfortable with it, I'm probably going to take my advice from them and not from Sarah Palin.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A little bit of a smile there from the president. Now he knew she was speaking today at this big Republican conference in New Orleans, and guess what. She fired back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH PALIN (R), FORM AK GOVERNOR: Now, the president, with all the vast nuclear experience that he acquired as a community organizer, and as a part-time senator, and as a full-time candidate, all that experience still no accomplishment to date with North Korea and Iran.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So Cornell, as the Democrat in the mix here, the president started to say I really don't have any comment to George, and then said well actually I do and he went on to take a little swipe at Sarah Palin. What's in his interest? What's the interest in doing that?

BELCHER: Well, look, she's the Republican front-runner. I mean, she is increasingly becoming the face of the party, so she is the Republican front-runner and you know, he gives as good as he gets there. And he is right. I mean, I'm going to look to my joint chiefs of staff on this, not Sarah Palin. It was a good line.

(LAUGHTER)

NEWHOUSE: I'm not sure she is a front-runner, yet. But you know what? I think what he did was smart. He's setting her up. You know, he wants to promote her. He wants to engage back and forth because you know what? The more he does that, the more it helps her, and you saw the reaction she got from that Republican audience.

KING: Do you want to promote her? Do you want her at the face of the Republican party, right now?

BELCHER: Notice I'm going to keep calling her the front-runner.

(LAUGHTER)

NEWHOUSE: It was smart play for both of them. Smart play for both of them.

KING: That's a smart play for both of them. We'll score it that way. Let's close Friday night with a little bit of fun. You know, Michael Steele is in a little hot water. Somebody on his staff when to a... NEWHOUSE: Who?

KING: Michael Steele. The Republican National Committee chairman. One of his staffers goes to a risque nightclub out in California and the RNC ends up paying for it through the expense process and everything. So, they're all down in New Orleans this weekend and Governor Bobby Jindal knows, of course, Bourbon Street is up the street, he knows what's going on and he decides to have a little bit of fun.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV BOBBY JINDAL (R), NEW ORLEANS: Enjoy our great food, our great music, our great culture. Spend a little bit of extra money in our great hotels and our restaurants, we'd appreciate it. you have a word of warning to RNC staffers. You may want to stay away from Bourbon Street, just a word of advice.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BELCHER: His delivery's not great as a comedian.

NEWHOUSE: My son's in school at Tulane, down there. So, he could tell him where to go.

KING: As, humor sometimes deflates tough moments in politics. Does this help make it go away?

BELCHER: It's too bad that guy is not the front-runner and Sarah Palin is.

(LAUGHTER)

NEWHOUSE: No, I mean, I think the Steele issue, the money issue, that's an inside the beltway. I don't think people really care about it. the Republicans are going to be able to raise the money. It may not be RNC directly, but it will be affiliated committees. Our candidates will have enough money.

KING: So it's OK to have fun on Bourbon Street?

NEWHOUSE: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: OK, so Republicans can have fun on Bourbon Street, too. (INAUDIBLE) Thanks for coming in on Friday night. When we come back, we're going to check in on "Pete on the Street." You know, he's our offbeat guy. He's been looking into what members of Congress do during their recess.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Let's head out to New York, check in with Campbell Brown for what is coming up at the top of the hour.

Hi, Campbell.

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Hey there, John. Plenty of chest-thumping, I guess you could call it, going on at that Republican conference down in New Orleans. But, one line getting a lot of attention, of course, as you know, when Newt Gingrich called President Obama "the most radical president in American history." Tonight we're going to see if there's any truth to that. We'll have a little bit of a debate.

We're also digging deeper into that shocking story of a 7-year- old Russian boy whose adoptive American family sent him back to Moscow. They say he is mentally disturbed and violent. But is returning the child the answer here? We've got a lot more on that as well coming up at the top of the hour -- John.

KING: We'll see you in a few minutes. Thanks, Campbell.

Members of Congress getting ready to come back here to Washington after a two-week recess. But first, one very lucky congressman got a recess visit from our offbeat reporter Pete Dominick.

What did you learn, Pete?

PETE DOMINICK, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: John, I'm just so curious that what they do not only when they're on recession, but even when they're at work in their offices. I want to see them in their district. So, we headed over to Virginia's eighth district and talked to the very colorful Congressman Jim Moran.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DOMINICK: This office looks a little naked. And what I notice right away is there's no computer in here.

REP JIM MORAN (D), VIRGINIA: I'm kind of old school anyways.

DOMINICK: The other thing I notice, there's a jar and I would wish for there to be candy for a constituent.

MORAN: Brian? Brian, get in here. We need something in this jar immediately.

DOMINICK: Brian, can we get some candy?

If the office was burning, what would be the one thing you'd grab off the wall?

MORAN: There's a really poignant picture of the night I was elected. My daughter was crying because not everyone had voted for me.

DOMINICK: I'm going to wear the congressman's glasses.

MORAN: Now, we can pull over there and park right there. DOMINICK: He's filling up the meter.

MORAN: I was mayor here for a number of years.

DOMINICK: What is a cooler job, Mayor of Alexandria, or congressman of your district? I mean, what's cooler? Mayor sounds cooler.

MORAN: Mayor was cooler. I was single then, too.

DOMINICK: Favorite meal?

MORAN: My wife's risotto.

DOMINICK: Favorite television show of all time?

MORAN: We sit and watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

DOMINICK: What size shoed you wear, sir?

MORAN: Fourteen.

DOMINICK: That's a big foot, 14. I wear a size eight. Do you ever get starstruck?

MORAN: Well, I actually was fixed up with Morgan Fairchild when I was mayor.

DOMINICK: Get out of here.

MORAN: Yeah. Which was a lot of fun.

DOMINICK: Really?

MORAN: But unfortunately, the local paper took a picture of me and she was well endowed and it looked as though I was focused on the wrong thing in the newspaper.

DOMINICK: It looked like you were acting like man.

Congressman, it was a pleasure. I hope you had a good time.

MORAN: Yeah.

DOMINICK: I really did get to know you. Hopefully America got to know you a little bit too.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Yeah, pretty interesting guy, John. It was fun going to his district, seeing his office, and talking to him right there in Arlington.

KING: Do you know where you were standing there in that last picture?

DOMINICK: No idea.

KING: That's King Street. King Street in old town. King Street and there is a great Irish pub right around the corner where the congressman, when he was mayor, he used to find it every now and then.

(LAUGHTER)

DOMINICK: Yeah, we knew it was King Street, John. That's absolutely why we chose to shoot there. He didn't take me to the pub, though. Maybe next time.

KING: I think he maybe didn't want to take you when he went. I think he had enough of you.

DOMINICK: That could have been the case, as well. But I hope we get to do that with more congressmen too, and congresswomen. That was a fun thing and I want to learn more about them.

KING: And what's the one biggest thing you learned?

DOMINICK: That the congressman doesn't keep a computer at his desk. I thought that was so strange. I mean, we showed that, but I don't know. How do you not have a computer everywhere you go when you're a congressman? But he has people doing stuff for him, he says he's got one of those...

KING: Telepathic powers he has there, Pete. Thanks. Have a great weekend. That's all for us. Thanks for watching. CAMPBELL BROWN starts right now.