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Obama Answers Critics; Pennsylvania Dem Running Against Party Policies; GOP Makes Gains Among Independents; Dozens of Aftershocks in New Zealand

Aired September 6, 2010 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Rick.

Happening now, a fiery President Obama now using -- using tough, new rhetoric to describe opposition he's facing here in Washington and around the country, saying, and I'm quoting the president right now, "they talk about me like a dog."

Plus the midterm campaign season plowing full speed ahead, just as new polling reveals even more potential trouble for Democrats come November. We're tracking the most heated races in the country with the best political team on television. We'll go live to the CNN Election Express.

And a top U.S. military official in Afghanistan issues a stern new warning. Why he says the safety of American troops, young men and women, on the ground in Afghanistan, right now, could be at risk if Americans start burning the Koran.

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

We're only a few weeks away from an election that could change the political balance of power in the country. With only 57 days left in the race, a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll now gives Republicans a seven-point lead over Democrats in the battle for Congress. Fifty-two percent of voters support a Republican candidate, while 45 percent of voters back a Democrat.

We're covering this story from a number of angles. Dan Lothian is over at the White House. Brianna Keilar is monitoring the situation on Capitol Hill. Jessica Yellin will join us live from the CNN Election Express in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

But President Obama right now on fire. The president came out swinging at critics today while defending his efforts to stimulate the economy. And he did not hold back.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want it to thrive. I want it to be stronger than it was before. And over the last two years that's meant taking on some powerful interests. Some powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time. And they're not always happy with me. They talk about me like a dog. That's not in my prepared remarks. It's just -- but it's true.


BLITZER: Let's get some more on this dramatic speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Joining us is our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.

We haven't seen the president fired up like this in a while, Dan. He really came out, and he started hitting.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He did. He was very fired up. It felt very much like a campaign rally.

When it comes to fixing the economy, the president says that he doesn't believe in the words, "No, we can't." And then he rolled out that chant from 2008, "Yes, we can."

But some critics see the timing of this big push as suspect, and they say that the president should have started doing these proposals a long time ago.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as in most cities across the country, people worry about the economy: glimmers of hope dashed by sobering economic news. From local politicians to the president, there's pressure to deliver.

ELSTON HORTMAN, MILWAUKEE RESIDENT: I think they need to say they're going to create jobs, how they're going to do it, and when they're going to do it.

LOTHIAN: Two months before the critical midterm elections, President Obama returned to Wisconsin to offer up solutions, while admitting he doesn't have a silver bullet.

OBAMA: It would take more time than any of us want to dig ourselves out of this hole, created by this economic crisis.

LOTHIAN: The president is pushing Congress for $50 billion to invest in infrastructure, roads, rails, airport runways. And later in the week when he heads to Cleveland, Ohio, $100 billion for research and development tax credits. The goal? Prod companies to ultimately hire more people.

But top Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are skeptical the president's two proposals can pass Congress. And Mr. Obama used new language to paint a blunt picture of the resistance he's facing in Washington.

OBAMA: They're not always happy with me. They talk about me like a dog.

LOTHIAN: Republican Senator John McCain was more respectful than that but still criticized the president for flailing around and accused him of pushing economic proposals on the eve of the mid-term elections to bail out Democrats.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I always liked to see death-bed conversions, but the fact is if we'd have done this kind of thing nearly a couple years ago, we'd be in a lot better shape.


LOTHIAN: Of course, the White House completely rejects that, saying that the president was pushing for infrastructure investments within his first month in office and that, within the first hundred days in office, he got the stimulus plan of more than $800 billion, which this administration believes stabilized the economy, stopped that bleeding, and kept the economy from going off a cliff -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's curious, Dan. The senior senator from Wisconsin, Herb Kohl, who's not up for re-election, was with the president in Milwaukee today. The junior senator, Russ Feingold, who is up for re- election, facing a tough fight this year, decided he was going to do a Labor Day event in his hometown instead of showing up in Milwaukee where the president is. What are White House officials saying about that?

LOTHIAN: Well, first, should point out Mr. Feingold said that, while other people have tried to distance themselves from the president, that he is not one of those people. He's supporting this big push by the president.

What's interesting, though, is that the White House, when they sent out their press release for the day, thought it was important at the bottom -- and I don't know if you can see at the bottom here. I put it in yellow. They made a note that Senator Feingold would not be able to be there while the president was there, because he was attending an event that he attends every year. So if they thought it was important to put this information out there, because they figured there'd be a lot of questions.

BLITZER: And there certainly were, I'm sure, in the Wisconsin press especially. All right. Thanks very much, Dan Lothian.

Let's get to Capitol Hill right now where President Obama's new economic proposals are already generating controversy. Our congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar, doing a little reality fact check for us.

What are the prospects that what the president wants, what he announced today, this infrastructure plan, what he's likely to announce on Wednesday in Cleveland, will be passed and enacted into law?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, virtually no chance. And that's what we're hearing not only from top Republican leadership aides but top Democratic leadership aides. And we were hearing this today even before the president formally announced his first of these two proposals.

Both sides blaming each other for this. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said today in a written statement, "After failing to deliver on their economic promises for more than 18 months, the administration wants to do it again, this time with higher taxes to pay for even more new spending."

And his reference to taxes there, that has to do with closing tax loopholes for oil and gas companies, which is how the president wants to pay in part for these measures. And Republicans say that this is a cost that will be passed on to consumers.

Democrats for their part are saying, no. This is just Republicans being obstinate, trying to deprive us of any legislative victory just weeks before the hotly-contested midterm elections.

And Jim Manley, who is the spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told CNN this is just another excuse to say no. He said, "We believe additional efforts are needed. Republicans do not, and doing nothing is not an option" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I guess that one issue is whether it's even feasible right now, Brianna, for the -- for Congress, between now and the November 2nd midterm elections, to really debate and discuss and resolve these matters.

KEILAR: Because Congress returns from recess next week, and they're likely only going to be in session for less than a month before they leave Washington again for the midterm elections.

The Senate, where the legislative process has been almost at a standstill for, you know, recent months, has a number of bills that it still needs to move, including measures to fund the government, set defense policy. And then Democrats also plan to tackle that controversial issue of whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of the year.

So Republicans are insisting the Democrats are not serious about pushing these economic measures because it just, you know -- they don't have the time when you look at the current congressional schedule.

But Democrats are saying, "Look, we have to keep pushing economic initiatives despite the obstacles here, both political and logistical, that we're facing."

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar working the story on Capitol Hill. Thank you.

So just how hard is it for Democrats right now who want to get re-elected? Our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is with the CNN Election Express in Pennsylvania right now, a key battleground state.

One Democratic lawmaker is actually running against his own party in some of his own commercials, Jessica. What does this say about what's going on for Democrats right now?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it says that many Democrats feel that their own party doesn't have a coherent message; they don't have a strong message; and that they're not helpful in these races.

Case in point is Jason Altmire in Pennsylvania's 4th District. He is a second-term member of the House of Representatives. A Democrat who, as you say, is running against his own party in a district that John McCain won handily in the last election.

He obviously has to appeal to voters who are split between Democratic and Republican leanings. And he is doing it with an ad -- I'm going to play it for you right now -- but let me just say he makes a -- point after point that he has broken with his party on every major issue. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You saw it when he voted against health care.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jason opposed the Wall Street bailout.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like that Jason Altmire is not afraid to stand up to the president.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He fights for folks here.


YELLIN: It's a message he also echoes when he talks to us. And on the trail, his message is I'm a Democrat, but not like them, Wolf.

BLITZER: Some people are raising the question -- I guess it's a logical question -- why should he stay as a Democrat if he's running against so many of these Democratic Party issues?

YELLIN: Right. Well, I asked him that question, and he said he feels that this year there have been some missteps and that the party has got -- sort of lost its way on some issues. My words, not his. He used the word "missteps."

And his key point was health-care reform. That is the pride, sort of and joy, of his -- that is the thing he's most proud of bragging about, that he voted no on health-care reform. And he says it pays dividends every day. I interviewed him and asked him about it. Listen to what he said.


REP. JASON ALTMIRE (D), PENNSYLVANIA: For me, I think health care is a factor because I voted against the bill. Not a day goes by where somebody doesn't come up to me at a community festival or a restaurant or just out of the high-school football game and say, "Thank you for standing up. Thank you for listening to your constituents and voting against that bill." So for me I think that's a positive.

YELLIN: And, Wolf, he says his own polling shows him with a healthy lead, so he seems to be doing well running as a Democrat who is not with the party on major issues.

BLITZER: There's a whole lot of other Democrats that call themselves blue dog Democrats who probably feel very much like Jason Altmire in other parts of the country, especially in the south.

Jessica, thanks very much.

Jessica is with the CNN Election Express in Pittsburgh.

A Florida church's plan to burn the Koran this Saturday sparks anger in Afghanistan and beyond. A top U.S. general says the congregation's September 11 protest could endanger American troops in Afghanistan and around the world.

And this year's 9/11 anniversary comes up as Ramadan ends. Will Muslims tone down their celebration this year, celebration of the end of Ramadan? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan says a Florida church's plan to burn the Koran this Saturday, September 11, could endanger the lives of U.S. military personnel and damage the overall U.S.-led war effort.

General David Petraeus telling "The Wall Street Journal" it's the kind of action the Taliban will exploit and could ramp up the danger for young American men and women serving throughout the Islamic world. His fears were echoed today by the men overseeing NATO's training mission in Afghanistan.


LT. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, U.S. ARMY: We're over here to defend the rights of the American citizens, and we're not debating the First Amendment rights that people have.

But what I will tell you is that their very actions will, in fact, jeopardize the safety of the young men and women who are serving in uniform over here and also undermine the very mission that we're trying to accomplish.


BLITZER: We'll have the full story of my interview with Lieutenant General Caldwell in its entirety. That is coming up in the next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM. But there is potential for real serious trouble.

Meanwhile, there is a new proposal potentially in the works which could mean more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Let's bring in our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, what are you hearing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you thought the war in Iraq was ending. Well, now welcome to the war in Afghanistan.

Sorry we're having technical problems. Let me take that ear piece out.

What is happening is that now there is a requirement for 2,000 additional troops in Afghanistan. About 750 of them would be trainers and the balance would be IED troops, troops that can go after the roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices.

What is happening is all of this is now being debated behind closed doors at NATO and they're trying to see if the Europeans will come up with some of those troops. If not, they may well turn to the United States because it is U.S. troops that have that kind of technical expertise. So it may mean that more U.S. troops will be spending coming holiday Christmas season in the war in Afghanistan, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'll wait until you can hear me, Barbara.

STARR: I'm good now.

BLITZER: I assume you can. When I interviewed General Caldwell, we'll have the interview in the next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

He basically confirmed they need more troops. The 100,000 U.S. troop level isn't necessarily going to be enough. They need to train more, they need more experts in IEDs. Exactly what you're reporting right now. I guess the question is how much higher does General Petraeus really want to go? 100,000? They've already basically doubled or tripled the number of U.S. troops who were serving when President Obama took office. Do they have contingency plans for under 50,000 U.S. Troops, 200,000 troops? What do they need?

STARR: You know, Wolf, it is hard to say at this point. I think on a practical level General Petraeus most likely is not interested in going much higher. Because when you start accelerating the number of troops, you need them then to have support troops. You need aviation to help them move around. You need somebody to cook the meals, to provide security, and basically that is going to create such a large footprint in Afghanistan it may lead to only more hostility against that foreign presence, which is U.S. Troops.

So they're really trying to keep it to a minimum. This increase is very focused, very strategic. Train more Afghan forces and get a handle on the IEDs that are still the number one threat for both the coalition forces there and for Afghan civilians. It is at a crisis stage with the IEDs. They have to really get a handle on that threat, Wolf.

BLITZER: It'll be interesting as you point out if these 2,000 requested troops are all from the United States or if any of the NATO allies step up to the plate, and decide to send more. We know there is fierce opposition in a lot of those European capitals as to what is going on in Afghanistan right now.

Barbara Starr is reporting. Thank you.

This Saturday is September 11, the anniversary of Al Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It also marks the end of Ramadan, a time in the Islamic world for feasting and celebration marking the end of the fast. Mary Snow is joining us from New York with more.

This is a clash of two significant events, Mary. As you know, the end of Ramadan, the ninth anniversary of 9/11. So, it's a sensitive time for Muslims to be celebrating the end of Ramadan, but that's what Muslims do.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. But this year will be different because there is a fear that any celebrations will be misconstrued. So in some cases events have been canceled or moved so they won't coincide with the anniversary of September 11. And there's worry.


SNOW (voice over): Afternoon prayers at the Islamic Center of Long Island. As Ramadan draws to a close, later this week, these worshipers are being advised to tone down what is usually a celebratory occasion.

SAJID SHAH, PRES., ISLAMIC CENTER OF LONG ISLAND: After 30 days of fasting this is the day for our celebration.

SNOW (on camera): How will it be different this year?

SHAH: This year will be a little different. We are not celebrating the way we normally do.

SHOW: Because?

SHAH: Because of 9/11.

SNOW (voice over): The end of Ramadan, or Ede, depending on the moon Thursday night falls on either Friday or Saturday, which is September 11. But many Muslims have decided to mark it on Friday. Imam Al-Amin Abdul Latif is the head of the Islamic Leadership Council in New York, an umbrella group of Muslim organizations.

IMAM AL-AMIN ABDUL LATIF, MAJILLIS ASH-SHURA: I guess people may think, look at Ede as being in appropriate, you know, against, you know, against people who may be celebrating.

SNOW: One Muslim group, for example, celebrates Ede at Six Flags park. This year organizers have been careful not to schedule their events for September 11. It comes against the backdrop over anger about the proposed Islamic center near ground zero, and protests at other mosques around the country. Muslims are trying to send out their own message, like this public service announcement created for grassroots efforts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want to take over this country.

SNOW: One Muslim leader who works with an interfaith youth group in Chicago says he feels the attitude toward Muslims this year is unlike any other.

EBOO PATEL, INTERFAITH YOUTH CORE: Frankly, I have not felt this fearful. A mother came up to me at my Muslim house of worship earlier this week and said to me, Eboo, when will my eight- and 10-year-old sons stop being bullied on the playground because of their names, Ahmed and Akbar? And what I said to her is very soon. Very soon. Because the forces of inclusion in America have always defeated the forces of intolerance, and they will defeat the forces of intolerance again.

SNOW: This 9/11 this mosque in Westbury, New York will dedicate a peace garden with other clergy. But it has also asked local police for protection following a suspicious incident of broken windows at the mosque. Imam Latif says his group has also decided not to hold a counter-protest Saturday supporting the Islamic center near ground zero, after the families of 9/11 requested they not hold the rally.

LATIF: We are encouraging our people to be calm, to be patient, but to be firm, and be strong, and to reach out, you know?


SNOW: And mosques like the Islamic Center of Long Island are opening their doors to hold open houses, and a coalition of Muslim groups has announced a national day of service for September 11, Wolf.

BLITZER: What a sensitive series of issues coming together at the same time, Mary. Thanks very much. Mary Snow in New York.

Growing fears about the fate of an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning. Why there are now reports she has undergone 99 lashings.

Plus could your next flight be missing a copilot? One airline could be considering precisely that.


BLITZER: Good news. Kate Bolduan is here monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on, Kate?


The son of an Iranian woman sentenced to death for stoning for adultery says he is extremely worried about her. There are conflicting reports right now but his attorney says he was told that she received 99 lashes for another offense. A misidentified photo of a woman, a bare headed woman, a woman without a head scarf, surfaced in a London newspaper. The son fears she will be put to death after Ramadan ends this weekend.

Tony Blair, well, he has canceled a book signing in London. The former British prime minister's office released a statement in which Blair said he doesn't want the public to be inconvenienced. The decision came after police Saturday arrested demonstrators at a bookstore in Dublin, where Blair was promoting his new book. They were protesting Blair's role in the Afghan and Iraqi wars.

The CEO of Dublin-based RyanAir is ruffling travelers' feathers once again with a suggestion that, get this, a copilot is unnecessary on every flight. Michael O'Leary told Bloomberg "Business Week" that a flight attendant could be trained to take over from the pilot in the event of an emergency. In the past he has suggested things like paying for toilets and standing room only tickets on commercial flights.

Remember your change, Wolf, if you're going to be flying on RyanAir.

BLITZER: I think that guy wants some publicity because, God forbid, a pilot has a heart attack and dies. You want another pilot in there not a flight attendant landing the plane.

BOLDUAN: The flight attendant has enough to worry about that is my opinion.

BLITZER: I agree completely. Thanks very much, Kate.

A tough congressional race that takes shape in suburban Philadelphia. Will a shift in issues put the Democratic incumbent seat in jeopardy? Plus, unavoidable mechanical failure or criminal negligence? BP's failed blowout preventer becomes exhibit a in a federal investigation of events leading up to the Gulf oil disaster.



Happening now, speculation growing that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is preparing to transfer power to his third son. More of the same? Or is the country in for some change? Stand by.

Craigslist under fire for promoting online prostitution. Now critics applauding a move by the site to censor its adult ads.

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

It's a neck and neck Congressional race in suburban Philadelphia where voters' concerns have changed since the last time these candidates faced off four years ago. What was outrage over the war in Iraq has now morphed into frustration with the ailing economy.

Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is with the CNN Election Express in Pittsburgh right now, but you spend some time in suburban Philadelphia watching this race and it's fascinating what it says, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It absolutely is. It was Bucks County that we went to. It is in Eastern Pennsylvania, the eighth Congressional district.

And we went there because it's one of those places here in Pennsylvania that Barack Obama helped change from majority Republican to majority Democrat in registration. And yet now just two years later, Wolf, the incumbent Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy isn't sure he will find enough votes to keep his seat.


BASH (on camera): Why is this a tough race?


Well, it's a -- it's a tough environment. I mean, people are hurting out there. I mean, people are looking for work. Our economy -- you know, the Bush administration and Mike Fitzpatrick ran into a ditch and we're trying to make sure we try and grow jobs.

BASH: This race is a rematch from 2006. Then Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war veteran, won in a very anti-war environment. Now, the Republican thinks that the problems here in this district mean he can make a comeback.


BASH: Why do you think this time around you can beat Patrick Murphy?

FITZPATRICK: Well, the economy is -- is much different. First of all, the people are talking about all economic issues. When I stop in a business or knock on somebody's door they want to talk about the national debt, the annual budget deficit, taxes, out of control government spending and a lack of jobs.

BASH: We came here to this busy corner in idyllic Newtown, Pennsylvania to get a sense of the voters' mood. And we ran into George Ripitsky, who turned out to be Exhibit A of the Democrats' worries this election year.

GEORGE RIPITSKY, PENNSYLVANIA VOTER: I voted for President Obama or Democrat. This time, I will not do it again.

I need a change. He sounded good. All the Democrats did. They don't sound good anymore because they're not doing the job they promised they would do.

BASH: He took us down the street to his flooring shop where business is very slow.

RIPITSKY: Everybody is cutting, cutting and cutting. So in turn they're not digging in their pocket to buy a luxury item like a floor.

BASH: And in return you have to cut.

RIPITSKY: And in turn we have to cut our employees. I don't have the work, and we suffer. And we -- we eat hot dogs instead of steak now.

BASH: Literally?

RIPITSKY: Literally. We got a new president. We thought maybe something would happen and it just got worse.

BASH: And because of that, in November, it doesn't sound like you're going to vote for the Democratic congressman.


BASH: Boy, that sound -- that's the ultimate protest vote, huh?


MURPHY: People are pissed off at Washington and, you know what, so am I. That's why I'm home every weekend. That's why I'm doing the things I'm doing.

BASH: But they think you are Washington.

MURPHY: Well, I -- I would say that, you know, I still -- I'm here every day.

Have a good Labor Day.

I could tell you that, you know, the folks in this district, they see that I've helped bring back over 3,000 jobs.

Hey, guys.

BASH: The two candidates differ on a slew of issues that affect people's lives in this suburban Philadelphia district. Take health care reform. Murphy voted for it. Fitzpatrick?

FITZPATRICK: I would repeal it and immediately replace it.

BASH: But this is the Republican candidate's refrain.

FITZPATRICK: Congressman Murphy has not been Independent. He has been a rubber stamp for the bad national policies of Nancy Pelosi.

BASH: Do you feel that you are a kindred spirit with Nancy Pelosi?

MURPHY: Listen. I tell people it's not who you vote with. It's who you fight for. And I fight for the middle class families in my district.

And, listen, sometimes the Democrats are wrong. I'm frustrated with Democrats, too, down in Washington. But when they're wrong I vote against them. When they're right, I vote with them. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, Democratic sources familiar with this race tell us that six months ago it really wasn't a concern for Democrats nationally and now it is, Wolf. We're told the internal polls really do show it neck and neck as far as the Democrats are concerned and that's why this grudge match could be a leading indicator as to whether there really is a big Republican wave on Election Day, Wolf.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. Those suburban Philadelphia districts are bellwethers for not only for the state but for elsewhere as well.

Dana reporting for us from the CNN Election Express.

Let's go in-depth now with our senior political analyst David Gergen. You and I remember another suburban Philadelphia district in '94, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, the incumbent Democratic congresswoman. She voted for Bill Clinton's tax increases, his economic plan. She lost her bid for re-election. We could see a lot of similar activity going on this time, David.


And -- and what's striking, Wolf, is how many Democrats are moving away from national themes. They're trying to localize these races not nationalize them. You know, ordinarily, if you're the incumbent party, you want to go to the country now and say, look at the three things we've done for you. Politico is reporting now that not a single Democrat in the House who voted for the national health care reform plan is running any advertisements on health care. Isn't that striking?

BLITZER: It's very striking since it's the signature achievement if you listen to the White House. They don't talk a lot about it, but it certainly one of their signature achievements over the past year and a half.

And one of the major decisions will involve money and the national Democratic leadership is going to have to decide where to send money in and where to send money out. In other words, which Democratic lawmakers who are in trouble will live and who will die? These are not easy decisions, David.

GERGEN: They're not easy decisions. They're going to be a decision in the House will be made largely by the Democratic National Congressional Campaign Committee that's run by Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

And in this case, Wolf, what they're -- what they're trying to do by all accounts is they'll take a certain number of people, the next two weeks they'll decide basically, here are the ones we think we can't save. They'll pull their money out of those campaigns and redirect it to campaigns where they think it's very close.

For example, there's a now -- there's a rising star in the Democratic Party by the name of Tom Perriello, who's running from Southeastern Virginia. He's in a fairly conservative district. He had the courage to go and vote for health care reform, for financial reform, for the bailout, and now is getting killed on that. He's about -- he's like 15 or 20 points behind. That's a district where they may pull the money even though he is a rising star and put it in that -- in that district where Dana Bash is that was didn't seem close before but now is close. They want to save that seat and they've got a real fighting chance there.

BLITZER: These are going to be really tough, wrenching decisions for the Democratic Party.

GERGEN: Very hard decisions. Because when you go (ph) with Tom Perriello, you know, he had the future written all over him. He is -- and he'll come back in politics I hope somewhere, but that's the kind of person you want to see stay in politics.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Well, we'll see what happens.

All right. David, thank you.

GERGEN: Yes. Thank you.

BLITZER: A fast-moving wildfire now endangering areas in and around Colorado's Fourmile Canyon. We'll have an update.

And one official calls it -- and I'm quoting now, "chilling in its callousness". The details of the killing of a pizza delivery man.


BLITZER: Kate is back. She's now monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What else is going on, Kate?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're talking about another tropical storm, Tropical Storm Hermine is gaining strength after forming in the Gulf of Mexico in -- off of Mexico and Texas where hurricane watches are already in effect. The National Hurricane Center says it's packing 60-mile-an-hour winds and could reach hurricane strength before making landfall in Mexico late today or early tomorrow. It could dump up to 12 inches of rain in Texas. Wow.

And a fast moving wildfire fueled by winds gusting to 45 miles an hour has prompted the shutdown of some roads and evacuation of a large area in and around Colorado's Fourmile Canyon. A spokesman for the Boulder County Sheriff's Department says the exact number of evacuees and the size of the fire is still a bit unclear. He did say they are investigating reports of structures lost in the highly populated region.

And listen to this horrible story. Three men are in custody in Boston for killing a pizza delivery man, an act the district attorney calls "chilling in its callousness". That's a quote from him. A CNN affiliate cites police as saying two teenagers and a 20-year-old broke into a vacant home then called for pizza. They allegedly stabbed the delivery man to death and stole his car, money and the pizza.

And CNN has learned that a high school social studies teacher in South Carolina plans to launch a write-in campaign for U.S. Senate this week. Greg Snow whose Facebook page you see right here says the goal is to offer Independents, Republicans and Democrats what he calls, a quote, "chance to make a symbolic vote".

Republican Jim DeMint is currently being challenged by a surprise Democratic primary winner and political neophyte Alvin Greene. You know, he's new to the political scene, Wolf, when we have to show his Facebook page. It's the only picture we have of him.

BLITZER: Yes. Jim DeMint seems to be in pretty -

BOLDUAN: Pretty solid shape. Yes.

BLITZER: -- solid shape. I don't think he has to worry about a whole low, at least right now. Thanks very much.

A new CNN poll shows republicans making serious inroads against -- among independent voters. Can the Democrats survive if the independent vote shifts? We're taking a closer look at the numbers. That's in our "Strategy Session".

And in New Zealand, how smoking helped save a cab driver's life.


BLITZER: Let's get right to our "Strategy Session". Joining us, our CNN contributor, the Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile, and David Frum a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and contributor to as well.


BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much.

Let's talk about some poll numbers. Our brand new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll seems to be a contradiction here. We asked the question about the current economic conditions in the country. Right now, only 18 percent think the economy is in good shape, 81 percent think the economy is in poor shape.

But then, we followed up, who's more responsible for the current economic problems? Fifty-three percent said Bush and the Republicans, 33 percent said Obama and the Democrats, 10 percent both equally.

David, so if more people blame Bush and the Republicans, why are the Democrats on the verge potentially of a political blood bath right now?

FRUM: It's the wooden spoon principle. The kids are running around the kitchen squawking, causing trouble. You have one spoon. One of them is beyond your reach, so you hit the other one. But -- President Obama is within reach. But also he had -- he had the responsibility. People understand this problem created -- was created under the Republicans, but he offered a promise as to how he would fix it and that promise has not come true. The things he said would work have not worked.

BLITZER: And then we followed up with another question about independents, who are so critical they will hold the balance of power as you know, Donna. Back in August, choice for Congress among independents -- not Democrats, not Republicans -- 46 percent in August, a month ago, said they prefer the Republicans, 38 percent said they prefer the Democrat.

But now, only a few weeks later 62 percent of the independents say they prefer the Republicans, 30 percent prefer the Democrats. Those independents are critical, and the Democrats are losing.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Wolf, this is still early. For now, the independents and others are looking at two generic -- a generic scenario. Do you want a "D" or do you want an "R"? They fired the "R" -- the Republican candidates in 2006 and 2008, but they have to decide come this fall if they want candidate X, candidate Y. If they have to decide they want a candidate that will continue to put forward policies that will try to get us out of this ditch or they want a candidate that will repeat the mistakes of the past.

I think as we get closer to the election -- not today, but when we get closer to the election, when it's a contest between David and Donna, people will decide based on the candidates not just the party label.

BLITZER: Let me just throw a little monkey wrench into that, David, and maybe you disagree with me, but usually, Donna, you've been covering, watching, assessing politics a long time. By Labor Day, before an election in early November, folks have basically made up their minds.

BRAZILE: Well, that's not always the case, Wolf. Three weeks out, I normally hit the panic button. Right now, the race is still being settled. It's like a cake that hasn't gelled yet.

FRUM: People who read those polls need to understand this. I think they all do. These are not -- the category independent is not a fixed category. Sometimes it gets bigger, sometimes it gets smaller.

In recent years it got a lot of bigger -- it got a lit bigger. A lot of disaffected Republicans moved into that envelope, and those people are now returning home massively. And they may still be in many ways irritated with their old -- old party, but they certainly prefer Republican answers to Democratic answers. And that's when we felt in 2010, especially as all of those unemployed young people have dropped off the voter registration rolls are not voting.

BLITZER: Because if the president, he was on fire today in Milwaukee. He was trying to energize his base. If he starts doing that a little bit more often between now and November 2nd, what I hear you saying is he might get some of those independents, young independents back?

BRAZILE: Wolf, first of all, you just hit the real crux of this election for Democrats -- enthusiasm. We have a large enthusiasm gap.

The Republicans are highly motivated. They're motivated because they want -- they want candidates who will try to block Obama's agenda. Democrats will become motivated. Wolf, we're -- we're like the people who come to the party. We sit around, we look, we get a drink, and then we move.

Right now, the Democrats are just sitting around. They will move and they will vote.

FRUM: But the president powerfully demoted them today. But the initial (INAUDIBLE) --

BLITZER: Demoted who?

FRUM: His potential voters. This --

BLITZER: The independents, you mean, or the base?

FRUM: This base. To announce that his answer to the failure of previous stimulus to achieve the effect in the proper time is to spend $50 billion over six years, that is a run up to his re-election. It is not going to do much for Congressional Democrats who need some kind of a relief now.

He decided against things that would make a short term difference, against the investment tax credit and -- and against the payroll tax, all of that.

BLITZER: What did you think of the president's deviating from his advanced script, his text, and saying his critics -- now, he didn't define him, precisely, but Republicans, we assume, talk about him like a dog.

BRAZILE: Well, that's true. I mean, they have called him everything but you know what.

Look, I don't believe in name calling. I don't think that helps the situation. But the truth is is that this president has to get out there this fall. He has to become an asset to those candidates where he's still popular across the country, get the base motivated and try to win this election.

FRUM: That was -- that was a sign of weakness and a complaint. A candidate should never do that. He should go to the Bill Clinton school of politics, as Donna would probably tell him, because you never, ever complain. Once you show that you are upset about how they are treating you, suddenly voters get the idea I thought you were working for me. I thought I was the center of this story, not your feelings, not your ego.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more on this comment that he make as it's generating a lot of interest there when the president of the United States says his critics are treating about him like a dog.

There's a lot of interpretation of what he's talking about. We'll have much more on this coming up.

BRAZILE: They called him a lot of things that are not Godly, I could tell you that much.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Thanks very much.

FRUM: Thank you.

BLITZER: A top U.S. military official in Afghanistan, now warning the troops, American troops, young men and women could be at risk if Americans start burning the Koran this weekend. You're going to want to hear my interview with Lieutenant General William Caldwell.

Plus, it could hold the answers to what caused that massive BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The infamous blowout preventer is now in government custody.


BLITZER: It's a milestone in what's the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. That infamous blowout preventer has now been raised to the surface, and it could answer some critical questions about the spill.

Brian Todd is monitoring the story for us. What do we know, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, when Admiral Thad Allen told BP to go ahead and bring up the blowout preventer, he instructed them to preserve what he called its evidentiary and forensic value. It's now in the custody of the FBI Evidence Recovery Team the Deepwater Horizon Criminal Investigation Team.

Investigators are expected to take it apart, looking for clues on why the blowout preventer failed and who's to blame. Was it bad maintenance, alterations, human error or just mechanical failure? And will they find evidence of negligence on behalf of either the manufacturer, Cameron, the operators at Transocean, or the owners, BP? It could become Exhibit A in any criminal prosecution.

Now, here, this animation is a working blowout preventer. It has valves to control the flow, like this one that you see coming from bottom to top, and for emergencies a sheer ram is what they call it, to chop right through -- through the pipe, like this one is doing here in the animation, or at least it's about to. You'll see it.

Why didn't these steal jaws just snap shut? They'll check the control panels, the hydraulics and whether it got jammed, or was it just very bad luck? Every so often there's a joint in the pipe where it's a lot thicker. Maybe the sheer ram just hit it and didn't kind of cut through it, as it -- as it's showing right there.

They're hoping this blowout preventer has the answer, because it may be the last clue they get. The drilling rig itself is lying on the sea floor. You see it here in sonar pictures of it. It's considered way too heavy to raise to the surface, Wolf.

BLITZER: Where do things, Brian, stand now as far as shutting off the well? Is it dead for sure?

TODD: They already cemented the well from on top, and now they replaced the failed blowout preventer with a working blowout preventer. They're still going to cement the well at the bottom with a relief well, but Admiral Allen announced over the weekend this well is no longer a threat to the gulf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, Thanks very much.

Dozens of aftershocks after that powerful earthquake on the other side of the world. New Zealanders getting a firsthand look at what it's like when the earth opens up.

Plus, why high-tech hookers may have to find a new way to make their connections.


BLITZER: Now, on the other side of the world, orders to boil water, homes and buildings damaged and an upheaval, people's sense of safety still on edge somewhat. In New Zealand's second largest city, Christchurch, people are grappling with the aftermath of that powerful magnitude 7.1 earthquake.

Nine Network's Amelia Adams brings us up to date.


AMELIA ADAMS, NINE NETWORK CORRESPONDENT: Here in Christchurch, the emergency is far from over. There have been more than 60 aftershocks since the initial quake which ripped through the center, tearing down buildings, demolishing entire streets. And we've heard so many amazing stories of survival.

The driver of this taxi had just gotten out of his vehicle to smoke a cigarette when the quake hit and the building above collapsed onto the bonnet of his car.

Three days on, we're still feeling those aftershocks and seeing panes of glass, debris, pieces of furniture, bricks falling out of buildings. It is incredibly dangerous, and police have closed off most of the city. And this morning the New Zealand Defense Force arrived into the city to help out as the central business district is expected to remain closed for several days, if not weeks.

Now, authorities are also focusing on getting clean water to residents. The main water supply has been contaminated by burst sewage pipes. So 300,000 liters of fresh water has had to be trucked in. The New Zealand government has pledged $5 million to the earthquake fund, but the total repair bill for all of this damage is expected to come to at least $2 billion.

This is Amelia Adams in Christchurch, New Zealand.



Happening now, a Florida church's plan to burn Muslim holy books will put the lives of U.S. troops in jeopardy. That blunt warning from top U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan. I'll speak with Lieutenant General William Caldwell of the United States Army.