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JOHN KING, USA

Same-Sex Marriages; Mosque/Islam Center

Aired August 16, 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: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone.

We begin with breaking news just in from a federal court in California, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of judges on that court, have decided to leave in place for now a ban on same-sex marriages taking place. For the very latest on this decision which has just been released we go to our Dan Simon standing by in San Francisco -- Dan.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John, this is a significant setback for same-sex couples here in California. They had hoped to start getting married again this Wednesday. Well, today just a few minutes ago the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals here in San Francisco has put that ruling, if you will, on hold. No same-sex marriages will take place on Wednesday.

As a matter of fact, we don't know when or if they might resume. What the court is saying is that a trial will take place this December. Of course, this was appealed, the district court ruled in favor of the same-sex marriage supporters against Proposition 8 supporters. Well now we know that starting this December the court, the Ninth Circuit Court is going to take this up. Got this ruling right here.

December is when it's going to happen. We should tell you about the makeup of this court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. This was a three-judge panel. We know that two of the judges were appointed by Bill Clinton, one by Ronald Reagan. So in terms of the ideology, we're told that it was a bit moderate, but again, a significant setback for same-sex marriage supporters. No marriages will take place this week -- John.

KING: Dan Simon, that's at least a four-month delay -- Dan Simon for us tracking this big decision out in San Francisco. We'll stay in touch as developments warrant -- thank you, Dan.

Again, the impact of that decision at least a four-month delay until the full trial that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for any same-sex marriages to resume in the state of the California. That case more than likely in the next year or so (INAUDIBLE) going to make it's way here in Washington and the Supreme Court.

Now let's move on to the story driving our national debate tonight and that is the growing political fallout over the president's decision to take sides in a fight over whether to build a mosque and Muslim community center near ground zero. First and foremost there's this question. Why after saying for weeks this is a local issue best left to the people of New York did the Obama White House decide to weigh in?

Another question: Why did the president appear to so strongly and specifically endorse the ground zero project and then less than 24 hours later appear to retreat, at least to some? Here's another question -- this one put to me by a handful of senior Democratic operatives today. Why on earth would the White House insert the president into a highly emotional debate in the middle of an already difficult election year without at least giving a heads-up to the Democratic congressional leadership?

Tonight signs of the national political fallout are pouring in. In Florida a Republican candidate for governor who has slipped in the polls of late as the primary draws closer saw an irresistible way to get some attention.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA GOV. CANDIDATE: Barack Obama says building a mosque at ground zero is about tolerance. He's wrong. It's about truth. The truth Muslim fanatics murdered thousands of innocent Americans on 9/11 just yards from the proposed mosque.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: What happened in Nevada Senate race though is more important, much more important. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, the third most powerful Democrat in the country, today disagreed with the president saying he respects religious freedom but believes the mosque should be built elsewhere. Reid advisers make no secret his decision was born of his tough re-election climate in Nevada?

So what does this debate tell us about the president, and how big of a role might the mosque debate play in an election anchored of course by your number one worry, the wobbly economy? Here to talk it through, editor-in-chief of the conservative RedState.com, Erick Erickson, veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins and with me here in studio Faiz Shakir (ph), vice president at the liberal Center for American Progress and Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher.

First and foremost to the Democrats in the room, I want to go through the time line of what happened here because if you went back just about two weeks ago, asked the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, will the president get involved. Mr. Gibbs seemed quite emphatic this is an issue for the people of New York.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think it is a decision that is appropriately debated at the local level.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And then the big announcement came Friday night at an (INAUDIBLE) dinner honoring of course the Muslim holy days of Ramadan. The president seemed very emphatic in this endorsement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ground zero is indeed hallowed ground, but let me be clear. As a citizen and as president, I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes -- that includes the right to build a place of worship in a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That seemed unambiguous and about the mosque plan at ground zero less than 24 hours later listen to the president answering a question from our Ed Henry.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country's about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Cornell Belcher to you first. He says he was not commenting on the wisdom of a specific project. If you listen to what he said at that dinner it sure sounded like he was commenting on the wisdom of a very specific project.

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: I mean I can make that case that what he's really doing is reaffirming sort of his -- and embracing the Constitution and embracing sort of our rights. And as the president that's what he's supposed to do, so I could make that argument that he's really sort of --

KING: The right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with lower laws and ordinance -- Faiz, do you have any doubt what he was talking about?

FAIZ SHAKIR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THINKPROGRESS.ORG: Well he turned a great moment of political clarity into one of political confusion and I think he could probably resolve that by just coming out and saying -- answering the simple question, do you believe that it is smart and wise for New York to go ahead and American Muslims to go ahead and build this mosque? And I think the answer is unequivocally yes. That's certainly the suggestion that was left to us on Friday. Now we're not so sure. He certainly stands behind the right, as many Republicans do of Muslims to build it, but is it wise? And I think he needs to just come out and say of course it's wise.

KING: Before I bring the Republicans into the conversation, is it an issue, because it is ground zero, and because of 9/11 and because of the national debate, is this one for the president, whatever his position or is this one leave it up to New York?

BELCHER: Well here's the thing, politically he should, like he said before, leave it up to the locals. It's a local issue and should be left a local issue, but here's the problem. The problem is in our friends, our colleagues on the right, want to make this an issue because it makes it a national issue. It makes this bigger.

So for the next week we're going to talk about mosques. For the next week as opposed to talking about health care and talking about jobs, you know we're going to talking about this mosque issue. And in the end this mosque doesn't better prepare this country to meet the challenges of a global economy. This mosque does not -- this mosque issue does nothing to take away our national debt. It is a classic switch issue here that the president shouldn't be engaged it, because quite frankly we shouldn't have this conversation. We should be talking about real issues confronting this country.

KING: Erick and Ed and Ed, to you first, you live in New York. You spend a lot of time in New York. Number one, Cornell has a point. I mean the people on the right have (INAUDIBLE) made a big issue of this. However, they wouldn't have as much to work with if the president hadn't given what seemed to be somewhat conflicting statements.

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: This would have been a debate between former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and present Mayor Michael Bloomberg right here locally. It would not have been a national issue if the president didn't stand up Friday night and make a statement. And the first sentence of the statement is perfectly legitimate that he respects the right of any religion to practice in this country. We all feel that way.

That's our Constitution. Then when you move to the mosque, which obviously was the second part of that sentence then you basically are opening up both the local issue and an issue that obviously has great sensitivity to a lot of New Yorkers who saw their sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and husbands and wives murdered just 10 years ago. And I think to a certain extent that's what's accelerated.

More important from a Democrat's perspective, and I don't give advice to Democrats, but the last thing they want to be evading this week or any week and the last thing that basically may weigh them down and change the dynamics even worse for them is to sit here and debate this things in places like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Nevada, elsewhere as opposed to be debating the economy and jobs and what have you. But the president made this a national issue. We didn't make it a national --

KING: And to Ed's point about the sensitivity here, there are a number of issues here. Number one is what are the local ordinances? Can you build a mosque there? That's up to the city of New York. Number two, who are the people involved? What are their reputations? What are their history?

That's a legitimate question. But then is a broader question about let's be careful to not to use too broad of a brush. Erick Erickson, as you come in, I want you to listen to the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich saying something about his criticism of the president and his criticism of the mosque plan. I want to ask you if you find it to be too sweeping (ph).

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: This happens all the time in America. Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: If I try to connect those dots, Erick, the Nazis, they were the murderers in World War II; the Japanese were the enemy who attacked Pearl Harbor. If you try to connect those dots, you are saying and Newt Gingrich seems to be saying that he paints all of Islam as responsible for 9/11.

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, I don't think that's what Newt Gingrich was saying at all, but I think his point is very valid. There are things in this country that the Constitution allows people to do but that they should not necessarily do. It would be the same thing as saying should the Ku Klux Klan be allowed to put a center across from where Martin Luther King was killed? No.

Should Fred Phelps be allowed to build a church where Matthew Shepherd was killed? No. There are some things in life where the Constitution may say you can do them, but because of the sensibilities of the local populous you probably shouldn't. And the president has dragged this into make it a national issue when 70 percent of Americans in CNN's own poll say they oppose it and I believe it's the Rasmussen poll that says 70 percent of Americans support the constitutional right to build the mosque. They just don't want that particular mosque built at that particular location.

BELCHER: Two things. One is with all due respect to my friend, Ed, Republicans were trying to make this an issue all week, all week and the president probably helped them because they do want to make this an issue. And again, this is why politics is broken and we can't solve any big problems. Two is the ideal that what you're fundamentally saying is prejudiced, because what you're fundamentally saying is that all these Muslims are in fact we're at war with Islam and Muslims as opposed to being at war with al Qaeda. We were at war with the Nazis. We were at war with the Japanese. We're not at war with the Muslim religion.

(CROSSTALK)

ERICKSON: I would have to say going back to this --

(CROSSTALK)

ERICKSON: I mean this is the bigger issue here saying that the people who opposed this mosque is somehow being prejudiced or bigoted or what have you, no, the fact is there are a lot of people who saw 2,000 Americans killed by jihadists at ground zero. They see the people who are building this mosque going around the world (INAUDIBLE) propaganda saying give us money because we're building at ground zero.

SHAKIR: Erick, hold on. Hold on. Erick, I am an American Muslim. I was raised an American muslin. Are you telling me that I cannot go and pray two blocks from ground zero because I'm somehow un- American --

ERICKSON: I'm not saying that at all.

SHAKIR: -- and you need to be sensitive to me? Why can't I pray because of a few cowardly and radical acts by a few terrorists who attacked a building, which I condemn? I condemn as loudly as I possibly can. That is not something that represents my religion. What is the problem with me going a couple of blocks from ground zero to practice my faith just as you could if you would like to go practice --

ERICKSON: There's no problem with you going to pray near ground zero. The problem is the people building this particular mosque have gone around the world -- it's very well documented -- saying we're going to build a mosque at ground zero. Give us some money to help fund it --

SHAKIR: This particular person --

ERICKSON: It leaves a very bad taste in a lot of people's --

SHAKIR: -- has been an ambassador for both the Bush administration and the Obama administration preaching that we need to build interfaith relationships. He's exactly the type of person you want to promote if you believe --

ERICKSON: I would disagree with that.

SHAKIR: -- that moderate Muslims need to be peeled off from a radical element. This is who we need to be promoting, Erick. You should be joining that cause.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Come on in, Ed --

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: One very important point. The Islamic faith, which I admire those who practice it and those who basically are peace-loving and I in no way, shape or form hold them accountable for 9/11. They talk about a sensitivity, a sensitivity to their neighbors, a sensitivity. This ground has fought for 10 years, the people who are the survivors have fought for 10 years to have the proper memorial, to make this whole region a very special place. What goes in there has been dictated often times by the families with a lot of political pushing back and forth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Rollins --

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: Let me just finish.

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: I understand that --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- respect that.

ROLLINS: I do respect that and I'm not challenging that part of it. I'm simply saying that at the end of the day this is a city of 321 square miles. There are already two mosques down by Wall Street. There are not a lot of Muslims sitting down waiting for a new mosque because they need a place to pray.

At the end of the day you're certainly entitled to put a mosque wherever the local community does. But it's wrong politically and you're going to pay a heavy price and you're going to basically debate it from one end of this country --

SHAKIR: It's only wrong --

ROLLINS: -- and probably -- and probably --

(CROSSTALK)

SHAKIR: -- you say it's wrong.

(CROSSTALK)

SHAKIR: There's actually nothing wrong about it.

ROLLINS: No, I'm not saying -- I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm saying it's not sensitive to the families who basically are very, very concerned and don't want this.

BELCHER: One quick point. It's wrong politically. With all due respect, thank God that in our country we don't put our rights up to popular vote, because I would be standing here in chains probably the property of someone. So thank God that it's not about politics --

SHAKIR: The Bill of Rights -- the Bill of Rights are there because they're there for the hardest cases, not the easiest cases. If it was easy, we all agree, but they're there -- they're protecting your rights when it's hardest, Ed, and that's why you need to --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When it's not popular.

KING: I'm going to call a quick time-out here. We're going to keep everybody -- it's obviously a feisty debate, an important debate. When we come back, how does this important debate spill over into this midterm campaign and what does it mean that the nation's third ranking Democrat today told the president you're wrong.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Whether they agree or disagree with the president's position on the mosque near ground zero in New York, many Democrats were furious that the president made a big announcement Friday night with little or no heads-up to them in the middle of a big midterm election campaign. Our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry was on the road with the president today, and we asked him before he had to get on a plane what was the president's mindset handling with this and is he prepared to talk more about it?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Now while White House aides say the president is going to hold his ground here and not give in, they also seem to be heeding the Democratic call to stop talking about it. Today a reporter shouted a question to the president, asked if he regretted getting involved in this, unlike Saturday, the president just kept walking and didn't comment, John.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's our Ed Henry -- he's traveling back to Washington. Now it's a pretty simple rule in politics. You guys know this. The president says something controversial in the middle of campaign year, every candidate is going to get asked about it at their next stop. And so there were questions being given to the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid.

He's in a tough reelection campaign out of Nevada. Senator Reid saying this today, "The First Amendment protects freedom of religion. Senator Reid respects that, but thinks that the mosque should be built somewhere else." He's the third ranking -- Faiz, you're shaking your head -- he's the third ranking Democrat in the United States and his team makes no secret of the fact that if he were up 20 points maybe they would have a different answer.

SHAKIR: I'm sympathetic to the Reid argument that he should have been given a heads-up, fine, but that doesn't excuse coming out with a terrible position. I mean certainly I think what he's doing is what my conservative friends are doing, which is ascribing the guilt of all Muslims onto everyone for 9/11, and that's not fair. I mean what he should be saying is that mosque deserves a place to be right there, and we should be promoting it's helping build interfaith understanding and it's helping to develop moderate Muslims, which is exactly what we wanted --

KING: Ed Rollins, how or does it -- the better question is does it matter in races out there in America when you look at they're, you know 20 competitive Senate races and 40 or 50 competitive House races, the economy by leaps and bounds is the number one issue on everybody's mind out there. Does this issue somehow force its way in and be part of the decision?

ROLLINS: Well first of all it's become part of the dialogue, and certainly most of these candidates are going to be asked the question as Harry Reid was today to take a position on it, which normally you never would be. And the third thing that's probably most important in midterm elections is the president's approval rating.

The president's approval rating is down to 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency and it's been dropping a point every day this week in the Gallup polls. If the president doesn't have good numbers, it affects the whole pool. And my sense is this is something that's going to define the president a little bit more, and obviously some people will say he showed great courage. Other people are going to say it tainted himself somewhat or it basically led him -- you sort of defining him.

My sense it's going to hurt him in the poll numbers and I think to a certain extent he's going to hurt his party. Long term and once again he raised it. I don't care how much I talked about it (INAUDIBLE) talked about it last week, he was the one who raised it to a level where we're all debating it today and he's the one that's basically bouncing all over the place and it's his party that's unhappy.

My party could care at this point in time. We're going to talk about the economy and jobs. At the end of the day -- at the end of the day, people are going to basically think differently of him for a lot of reasons and unfortunately American Muslims are going to be affected somewhat by this in I think a negative way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

ERICKSON: I would agree with Ed there, and I would also add that I think there's a bigger issue here. The polling is suggesting and I think this issue is indicative of it, that the Democrats have lost the ability to connect particularly with Independents this year in the elections. And this issue, no one is going to be talking about the mosque come September or October, but what they will be talking about is the Democrats' inability to connect with Independent voters and 70 percent of Independent voters oppose this because of what they view as the sacredness of ground zero and what it means to them. And you and I can debate and disagree with whether or not it means the same thing to us, but to a majority of Independents it means something, and the Democrats are on the wrong side of it.

KING: Let's show that poll number as I bring the Democrats in the room back into the conversation, 54 percent of Democrats oppose building a mosque near ground zero, 70 percent as Erick said of Independents oppose, 82 percent of Republicans. I want to ask the two Democrats the question. Number one if it's an important principal issue and the president wanted himself involved because he felt for constitutional reasons, civil rights reasons that he needed to speak out it's just a fact of life.

Everything the president does -- happens to be now 70-plus days away from a midterm election year and Erick and Ed are right his standing among Independent voters, white non-urban voters especially has gone way done. Does it matter? Don't you have to factor that in? BELCHER: Well it does matters, because this is why it matters because too many people on my side quite frankly still believe elections are about legislation and policy. My friends on the show right now understand very well that elections, especially national elections are more about culture than they are about policy. So when you get yourself backwards on cultural issues, it becomes real problematic.

If you go back to '04 and '02 when you looked at where Republicans were on sharing your values, massive gap between Democrats -- double-digit gap between Democrats and Republicans on sharing your values. You know going from there to 2006, we have basely shrunk that to a single-digit lead. And I make the case that if -- if Americans, if we are flat even on sharing values and keeping Americans secure, we can battle them on education and health care reform and those other issues. It becomes a different dynamic. If they regain a strong advantage on cultural and value issues, it is a bad, bad sign for Democrats. It is.

SHAKIR: I'd also add that the base is looking for courage here. They want people to stand up for their values. This is something that is going to fire up the progressive base, and they should be if people make the forceful case. Today Grover Norquist, who's a conservative activist, who our friends would know, he said that this is a 70-to-30 issue. That Democrats -- it's a day for the Democrats, the Republicans are the minority here, but it's only a 70/30 issue if you make the case. You have got to get out there and defend it. You have got to defend the Constitution --

(CROSSTALK)

ERICKSON: Grover's -- but Grover's never been right on issues like this.

KING: I'm going to ask everybody -- I'm going to ask everybody to stand by.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: We're going to save the tape --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right on taxes, though.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: We're going to save that --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: We're going to save -- I guess we call it (INAUDIBLE) now. We're going to save that one. We're going to ask everybody to stand by, because when we come back, we're going to ask our panel, we're going to go "Wall-to-Wall", not in my backyard, you've heard this, this is not a debate just happening near ground zero. There's a mosque debate across the United States.

We'll take a look at that. We'll get more thoughts from our great panel tonight. Today's most important person you don't know, well he has access to the president when we reporters simply don't and he knows sometimes the president is a little camera-shy.

And "Pete on the Street Tonight" he's involved in this debate, too. You know you've had this in your neighborhood. Do good fences means good neighbors? Pete is asking.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Our panel is still standing by, but let's take a minute and use our "Wall-to-Wall" segment tonight to take a look closer. What is the controversy about near ground zero? And what about those other debates about mosques all across America? You see the map right here. I'm going to fly in a little bit here right into ground zero as we come in.

Ground zero, of course, you see right in here, the land still undeveloped. This is where the World Trade Center Towers were (INAUDIBLE) other areas hit on 9/11. Hallowed ground is the term the president used. Let's fly in right now to the site of the proposed mosque and community center. It's right here. You can watch the yellow area, it's about two and a half city blocks, which you walkway from it.

This has no direct view of the ground zero site, about two and a half blocks away. What we want to do now is take you into the neighborhood like this. Now watch as we bring out this radius here. OK, we bring in this radius and show you. These are things within a quarter-mile. OK and if you look at the thing up here, there is, in fact, a strip club within a quarter-mile of ground zero, an adult video store within -- there's a synagogue there, a (INAUDIBLE) temple, and you see it right in here.

There's a community center here, and there's a couple of liquor stores all as close if not closer to ground zero than the proposed mosque and community center. Now let's look -- that's within a quarter-mile. Let's take you another circle out, within a half a mile of the site and you see the (INAUDIBLE) temple is up here. You have a couple of Catholic churches down here, there's another synagogue, again more liquor stores in the area.

And then let's come full out within a mile, and you see a complete circle around here and there are some Islam, Muslim worship centers. There's more Catholic churches, unfortunately more liquor stores or fortunately, depending on your perspective, an adult entertainment is the (INAUDIBLE) as well. That is the neighborhood you're looking at right in that neighborhood, and again, I'm going to take these off for a second, because I want you to see the difference.

Ground zero is here, the proposed site about two blocks away. That is the debate playing out about what fits in this community in New York City, but that's not the only debate. If you pull out and look, there are three projects in the New York area, in Brooklyn and in Staten Island also being debated, other mosque projects. There's a debate in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and out near Los Angeles, in Temecula, California as well.

And the debate has broken down largely along similar lines. Some saying this doesn't fit in the community. Others saying you know it's just a traffic issue. It has nothing to do with Islam, but it is a debate not only in New York and not only at ground zero, but across America and this is a tough one because it's gotten so emotional in some ways having these discussions should and perhaps could be healthy for communities, but is it in this context?

SHAKIR: Well it's not being healthy right now because the message we want to be sending to the American Islam community is the you're very much a part of our community, and we want to embrace you. But I mean news flash to people who are watching the map. There are a lot of Muslims in this country. There are actually a lot of people of different faiths and diversity in New York City.

We need to embrace that tolerance and embrace the values that have -- that we've cherished in this country forever. And I think you know as I look at the outbursts at various places around the country over this issue, I'm just reminded of the fact that, you know, there are a lot of people in a period of economic downturn who, I think, are looking to scapegoat and to blame other people and to say that you know people who look differently or are differently or might change our culture are the problems that -- are the reasons for the problems we're experiencing. I think it's important for us to educate people that they are not the scapegoat. They are not the problem, and tolerance and diversity actually is something that we value that helps our society grow and develop and prosper.

BELCHER: And let's understand that historically in this country fear has been an awfully powerful strategy used particularly throughout the south but all over this country to win elections. I hope we've turned the page on that and we're better than that.

KING: So let --

ERICKSON: I would think this is probably one reason that the ground zero mosque is probably not going to be built is because it's stirring sentiments across the country that are inappropriate for other areas. And I just suspect that at the end of the day someone's going to say, you know it's really not helpful for us to be having this discussion right now, because it's affecting the Muslim community inappropriately across the nation.

KING: And Ed, like it or not, the president made the decision to get involved Friday and then some thought he was equivocating on Saturday, but as the national debate continues, you've been close to a president at times when the country is having issues, President Reagan, in your case, what is the president's responsibility if this debate is getting a bit out of hand, if it is getting too pointed, too personal, maybe too prejudice? What should a president do?

ED ROLLINS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Obviously, he needs a calming force. It's the worst environment of all. This election season that is going to basically tip the balance dramatically for the next couple of years. I don't care about the other mosque. I don't care about what's going on. I think they should be built if the community wants to build them. My questions that I've answered are about the sensitivity to the 3,000 people whose families were killed in that particular place.

You know, I wish the liquor stores were closed. I wished the other things and Giuliani tried to do a lot of that. The danger here is the spotlight is now going to go on this mosque, and where are they getting the $20 million and who are the backers and what are the purposes? And my sense is it's going to be a very damaging debate to have if the Muslim community wants to have that debate, it's their prerogative.

If progressive Democrats get mobilized by all this, all the more power to them. But I can tell you one thing, Republicans and independents will get mobilize that this issue goes on another week or two, which it may very well do.

KING: I don't mean to interrupt, Ed. I just want to bring this into the conversation. Karl Rove, the former top Bush political adviser goes around the country helping to raise a lot of money for Republicans. He's at a Republican congressional fund raiser for short time ago, and he weighed in. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Incredibly insensitive, and I think we have every reason to question the motivations of those whoa are attempting to do this. Look, in a question of we are a country that prizes the first amendment, the free expression of religion. We're also country-based upon sensitivity and mutual respect.

KING: Can those two things come together. I guess, the point here, especially in this political environment.

CORNBELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: This is why so many Americans hate politics. This is why politics has been broken and doesn't work because, again, we're going to feed on this debate and this question for the next week or so, and they're going to use it in their campaigns. They're going to try to make this campaign about a mosque instead of it being about sort of how to educate your kids? How are you going to pay for college?

You know, how are you going to be ready for the jobs of the future? You know, how is America going to compete with China and India in the global economy? No, we're not going to have that debate. We're going to have debate about a mosque, which feeds no one. No one.

ERICKSON: I just got to say, and no disrespect there, Cornell, but I've been on that side of the argument as well for last 10 years or so in politics, and generally it's when the one side starts to say we're not going to have debate X, Y, Z. We're going to have this irrelevant debate, and said, generally, that's the side who saying that really doesn't want to have this debate because they know they're losing on that issue. And I think the polling is going to impact democrats in November.

BELCHER: I would love to --

ROLLINS: And before we point fingers, let's talk about once again Democrats raising Social Security, the president out there is saying Republicans are going to take away your Social Security. Republicans -- there's no Republican basically standing up and saying that, and we haven't for a long, long period of time. So, there's a lot of rhetoric in campaigns, and both sides can be irresponsible. But at the end of the day, we did not raise this issue.

KING: All right, gentlemen. Since I have a pause in the room, I'm actually going to call time out right there. We will continue to cover the mosque debate, but on this program, we will cover the economic debate. You can bet on it including whenever Social Security pops up. Cornell, Faiz, Erick and Ed, thanks for coming in.

When we come back, top political stories in this day and a lot of other big news in town including the Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Remember him, he's (INAUDIBLE) he says, pretty soon, but not immediately, he'll be moving on.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. Let's check in with Joe Johns for the political news you need to know right now. Hey, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, same-sex marriage is on hold in California. A U.S. appeals court panel ruled within the last hour that same sex couples cannot marry while the court considers the constitutionality of the state's gay marriage ban. A federal judge last month permitted the marriages to continue.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is sending a strong signal he'll retire in 2011. Gates says, quote, "this is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."

And Senator Carl Levin is the latest public figure to get hit in the face with a pie. The senate arms services chairman was pied by an anti-war protestor today in his home state of Michigan. A 22-year-old woman was arrested, and in case you're wondering, John, we're told it was an apple pie. The senator is OK. We're also told he says he prefers blueberry. Of course, this is kind of a retro-protest, you know, and I thought they always used banana cream or lemon meringue.

KING: That's in baseball. What's your favorite pie?

JOHNS: Yes. I think I'll go with the blueberry. I think Levin is about right on that.

KING: You want to connect two stories there. Anti-war protesters pieing Senator Levin and Secretary Gates leaving. He's the republican holdover from the Bush administration. The fact that President Obama got to pick a new defense secretary heading in towards re-election in the middle of the Afghanistan perhaps drawdown, interesting times. JOHNS: This is just not good.

KING: It's a tough choice. It's a very tough choice for the president to make. Secretary Gates has given him a little cover as they say in politics. Joe Johns, thanks so much.

Up next, another military term, a new assignment for Retired General Stanley McChrystal.

And what Bill Clinton and Star Jones have in common? Think about it. We will tell you when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Today's most important person you don't know maybe more rightly called the country's photo journalist in chief. Pete Souza is President Obama's official White House photographer, and he's also been your primary source for look at some of the president's most interesting moments. The latest example, the picture taken this weekend of the president swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.

Members of the press were kept out of sight, not allowed anywhere near it, and instead, the White House sent around one of the Souza's photos. He's been photographing the president since his days in the Senate, but Souza's first stint as a White House photographer pain back during the Reagan administration, but a lot has changed since then.

Now, his pictures are more than just historical record, often popping up in newspapers and on television. But Souza's also used to that. He's the service national photographer of the Chicago Tribune. Let's talk this over.

Cornell Belcher, the Democratic pollster is with us, Republican strategist, Ed Goeas, and our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin. I love Pete Souza. I think he is an extraordinary photographer, but this gets under my skin a bit, having covered the White House for 8-1/2 years, it is part of this moving line, and it's our fault as much if not more than their fault, meaning the politicians in that they keep limiting access.

The line was the president didn't want to be photographed with his shirt off. So, he had an (ph) official photo, not a news media photo. There's way to work these things out.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: One of the arguments is that we're so, this is what they say, abusive when we get the access. We put pictures of his naked chest on the cover of magazines that they have to do this to, quote, "control the media." I don't quite buy that line, but I definitely don't need to see the president shirtless again. So, I can't argue. Nothing against his chest. It's just not dignified.

BELCHER: I got nothing.

KING: You got nothing. No bigger issue? All right. We got no help. They want to keep us away. All right. Let's move on (INAUDIBLE) since we get no sympathy from the professionals. Meg Whitman has poured another $13 million of her own money into her campaign to become California's next governor. That brings, get out your calculator, her personal contributions to $104 million.

In basketball terms, $104 million is equal to six and a half times the annual salary of Lebron James. Abby on the staff today said it's also a lot of Kit-Kats. The California group supported rival Jerry Brown's campaign targeted Whitman's deep pockets in a new ad released today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For billionaire CEOs like Meg Whitman, money makes life's little problems disappear. Whitman was sued for age discrimination and paid big bucks to settle the case. In business, money works like magic, but when a governor faces trouble, the trick's on us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Does it matter these self-financed wealthy politicians? Do voters care?

ED GOEAS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: We've asked the question many times, and the answer always comes back no, it doesn't matter. They figure it's that much less they have to put into the campaign, and I think from that standpoint, a big positive. I think Meg Whitman is trying to single-handedly improve the economy of California. For that's she's going to be --

BELCHER: I know you wish you were probably working on that race, $104 million. Let me switch parties to work on that race.

GOEAS: I'm with the cheap cabinet.

BELCHER: What It does bring up, I mean, in the past, you're right, but it does bring up the idea that we also at the same time can paint them as trying to buy it, and it's easy. If someone spends $104 million for a seat, I can also paint that they're out of touch. They're not living in the same reality if you're living in if they're going to spend $104 million.

YELLIN: There is a campaign against her by another group calling her Queen Meg tried to be anointed, and they send a bride and groom with a scepter that they're royalty. But her response to that is no one is buying or paying for me. I can answer to my own principles.

KING: Another fabulous race is the Florida Senate race. A new poll showed Marco Rubio, the conservative leading but only if Congressman Kendrick Meek wins the Democratic nomination. In the Mason-Dixon Poll, voters were asked about a hypothetical freeway race between Rubio, Governor Charlie Crist, and Congressman Meek.

Rubio is five points ahead of Christ. Meek's running addition third. But if millionaire, Jeff Greene wins the Democratic nomination, the numbers shift showing Crist and Rubio in a statistical dead heat. Actually, a crunch (ph) to Democratic nomination, Meek is getting some help today from a man who has a little bit of experience winning down in the Sunshine State, Former President Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's the only person you can vote for who's actually ever gotten anything done in Washington. And he hadn't been there long enough to be too messed up by all the craziness about Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: President Clinton there, Greene getting some help with his own celebrity endorsement. A row (ph) ball call from the former "View" co-host, Star Jones.

YELLIN: It's a tough competition with Bill Clinton and Star Jones --

KING: You know, here's an interesting thing, everyone says Star Jones, what is she doing and involve there. Kendrick meek is obviously the African-American congressman from Miami. House members always have a problem when they run state wide especially the first time. But my take on that one is if Jeff Greene can get one African-American vote, he's taking from Kendrick Meek's base.

BELCHER: I think that's absolutely right. And I think -- I want to switch and talk about Republicans there. It's interesting, I get so tired about all these public polls, because you remember, two weeks ago we actually had a public poll that showed those numbers actually, you know, upside-down for Chris there. So, we get a lot back and forth, but it's going to be an awfully fluid race.

The truth of the matter is, you know, I think when you look at sort of how moderate Chris was run out by the tea party inquisition, if you look at the race right now, I got to tell you, if he were the Republican on the Republican ticket, he would have 50-plus right now on most polls.

GOEAS: I think the dynamics in the polling here is Rubio is at the same number no matter what, both these polls when you look at it. I think the question is almost reverse of New Jersey. I think Rubio is going to come in around 38, 39, 40 percent. If the Democrat nominee, whoever it is, gets more than 15 percent, then Rubio is the next senator. If they get less than 15 percent, it's a dead even race.

BELCHRT: And Greene, I forgot, who like McMahon can put a lot of money in that race.

YELLIN: But the big question that's fascinating is how do the Democrats play this. If it's Meek, if Meek wins this primary and Democrats know that Meek being in the race means Crist can win. They want Crist in the Senate because they can cut off - KING: But did they cut off Kendrick Meek's money?

YELLIN: Do they suffocate him? I mean, you know, financially, I should say.

KING: All right. Everybody, stay put. This one as we go to break, General Stanley McChrystal who resigned from the military this year after controversial comments, you remember that, published in "Rolling Stone" magazine will be teaching at Yale University. McChrystal has been appointed a senior fellow with the Jackson Institute for global affairs beginning this fall.

According to the university, the teaching, of course, will quote "examine how dramatic changes in globalization have increased the complexity of modern leadership. He's qualified for that. When we come back, the "Play-by-Play." Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

KING: Back to break down the tape with us on this Monday night, Republican Ed Goeas, Democrat Cornell Belcher, both of you know, of course, Tom DeLay. He was the top House Republican for a while. He was under investigation when he left Congress for his ties to the lobbyist, Jack Abramoff who went to prison. DeLay has found in recent days that he has been cleared. No charges will be pressed against him. He was Wolf Blitzer's guest in the "Situation Room". And Tom DeLay, a guy known in politics as the hammer, says politics today leaves him with a sour taste.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM DELAY, (R) FORMER HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: They now want to bury you, vilify you, bankrupt you, put you in prison and then dance on your grave.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BELCHER: It's too tough for "the hammer." It's kind of rough.

KING: Does he have a point?

GOEAS: Well, I think the point here was everyone wanted him to be guilty. I mean, some Republicans and Democrats alike going after him. If you look at what happened in the Abramoff case is that, virtually, they went all the way down to the bottom and a lot of people went to jail, a lot of people got in trouble.

They found nothing on him. He probably has a reason to feel the way he is feeling because he was such a subject of that -- that focus, and the fact they came up with nothing shows it probably was pretty fair.

BELCHER: And let's be clear, we use a culture of corruption very effectively, very effectively, very effectively to go after against our values question. If you're corrupt, you're unethical, you can't share -- you can't share the values of Middle America. We went after Republicans very effectively --

KING: Going at him personally.

BELCHER: That's why it's tough.

KING: We talked last week about an ad, President Obama appearing in an ad for Congressional race. Well, he's also a star in an ad out of Wisconsin. Scott Walker is running against the Milwaukee mayor. Scott Walker is the Republican, county executive. He is running for governor, and he takes issue with his opponent, but he also takes issue with the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Make no mistake.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're trying not to but you, President Obama, and Milwaukee mayor, Tom Barrett, are trying to spend $810 million to build a high-speed train line between Milwaukee and Madison.

OBAMA: Now, let me be clear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, let me be clear. I'd rather take that money and fix Wisconsin's crumbling roads and bridges.

OBAMA: Yes, we can.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Want less government and lower taxes? I'm Scott Wake and I know how to get the job done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Including the president gets you some attention, but it's an effective message?

BELCHER: I think it is ultimately this year because what Republicans want to do is nationalize it. They do want to make this about the anger and sort of the big federal government, all the problems, anger people have about federal government. You know, what -- what the mayor is going to have to do -- he was a solid mayor.

He's a solid member of Congress, what he is going to have to do is again, no, this isn't about the president, here I am, here's my record. It's going to be a choice between you and I, not a choice between the president and you. But Republicans actually want to nationalize this.

KING: Let me note for the record as you come in, this Republican candidate is not saying the stimulus was horrible. He's saying I want to take that $800 million and not spend it on high-speed rail. I want to spend it on roads and bridges.

GOEAS: He's (ph) on the right solution as the wrong solution. I have to give the copy out (ph) my firm. He's actually working with Scott. He's one of the best candidates in the country, but I think what you are going to see in all these gubernatorial campaigns is they're becoming the stopgap to the intrusion of the federal government.

And I think that message is selling very well, even more so than what you're seeing in the Congressional and Senate race, and I think you're going to see this type of spot and in state after state after state this fall.

KING: You will hear the guys in Washington, like me, sometimes focus on all these congressional races, these governor's races, but perhaps even more important, we'll keep watching them. Ed, Cornell, thanks for coming in tonight.

Ever had a neighbor do something that really, really annoyed you? "Pete on the Street." He's investigating.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Almost to the top of the hour and "Rick's List" primetime, let's check in with Rick for a preview. Hey there.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: You know who's in the news today? Fred Phelps. You know who -- Fred Phelps is the guy who would go to people's funerals -- well, not just people. He was going to funerals of marines and soldiers who died and sit there while their families were trying to bury their sons and daughters, and he'd scream obscenities.

It was as repulsive as anything we've seen around here in a long time. In fact, I interviewed the guy. A judge has just made a decision on Fred Phelps. This plays into the whole argument we're having around the country about religious freedom and that's what we're going to talk about tonight on "Rick's List."

KING: We talked a lot tonight about the controversy surrounding the plans to build an Islamic cultural center with a prayer room near ground zero. Tonight, our offbeat reporter, Pete Dominick, out on the street finding out what people would change about where they live -- Pete.

PETE DOMINICK, JOHN KING USA'S OFFBEAT REPORTER: That's right, John King. This whole weird community center, mosque thing in downtown New York made me wonder what else might some people not want in their neighborhood? I went out to ask. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All these scaffolding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My neighbors.

DOMINICK: Their neighbors?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would say duck tours.

DOMINICK: The duck tours?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They give kids a little quacking devices. DOMINICK: It's making a quacking noise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And they come around my neighborhood all day, seven days a week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dogs -- the people with the dogs and the dog poop, they can go. (EXPLETIVE DELETED)

DOMINICK: Yes. I understand that thing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dog poop.

DOMINICK: Dog poop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to get rid of the border fence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Life is a compromise. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People who don't stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd probably like to get rid of people like you coming around asking me questions all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. What I do is I burn illegal fires in my backyard.

DOMINICK: I guess we could always get rid of all the gum on the street. Look at that. How do you get rid of that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The constant construction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pigeons.

DOMINICK: Pigeons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pigeons.

DOMINICK: Pigeons. Everybody is saying pigeons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's trying to eat. He's trying to eat. Let the man eat. Let the man eat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rodents.

DOMINICK: Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rodents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The crack heads.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The crack heads?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Potholes.

DOMINICK: Like you live in a rural area, if it'd be nice if the camera crew just came in and stuck a microphone in your face?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just randomly while I'm sticking onions and sauerkraut in my mouth that would be great --

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DOMINICK: John King, my neighbors had a ladder on his deck leaning against his roof for like two years. I'd ask him to take that down if possible.

KING: He should listen to you. Pete, we'll see you tomorrow. Thank you for joining us tonight. We'll see you tomorrow, too. "Rick's List" primetime starts right now.