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Gas Explosion & Deadly Inferno; President Obama Defends Right to Build NYC Islamic Center

Aired September 10, 2010 - 17:00   ET



Happening now, President Obama's strongest defense yet of the right to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero. This hour, his struggle to prevent anti-Muslim anger from exploding tomorrow, nine years after the September 11 attacks.

Also, the president is putting Republicans on notice. He is going to keep holding them accountable -- blaming them for the nation's economic mess right up to election day. We're going to have a reality check on his news conference and the lines of attack.

And a night of red hot terror leaves a California town in ruins and in mourning. The site of a deadly gas explosion now is being called a crime scene.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

On this September 10th, President Obama held his first formal news conference in months, knowing full well that he would be asked about September 11. Well, right now, anti-Islamic anger may be more intense than at any time since the terror attacks exactly nine years ago tomorrow.

Now, among the reasons why -- that plan to build an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero and a Florida pastor's threat to burn Korans. Today, the president was asked about both of these controversies.

And here's what he said about the Islamic center.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights. One of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely. And what that means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MALVEAUX: Now, as of this moment, we are told the Islamic center project is still on. And a short while ago, we got new confirmation that the Reverend Jer -- Terry Jones is not going to go ahead with his Koran burning protest -- at least not tomorrow. We're going to have more on that ahead.

But right now,

I want to bring in our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry -- Ed, the president today, obviously he was prepared to talk about the mosque and the Koran.


MALVEAUX: But he wanted to talk about something else -- 53 days, obviously, before the mid-term elections.

HENRY: Well, he wanted this to be about the economy. And they still feel, inside the White House, that this was a successful week. He had the big speech in Milwaukee on Monday, Cleveland on Wednesday, now this news conference, largely dominated about the economy. He was able to talk about the details of some of his new proposals.

But you're right, that's a lot of ground that's been covered before.

So the ground on the mosque that you just played, this was really his most full-throated defense for that -- that community center near Ground Zero. You'll remember, a few weeks ago, he had -- it sounded like he was coming out for it, then he walked it back a little. Now he's very clearly saying, look, they have a Constitutional right to do it and -- and let them move forward, if they want to.

On the Koran burning, he also was prepared on that and very clearly said, look, likewise I understand there are Constitutional rights here, but I also wear the hat of commander-in-chief. And you are just going to put troops in harm's way if this goes forward.

So they're breathing a sigh of relief at the White House, obviously, that it looks like it's not going to go forward.

MALVEAUX: And, Ed, we know that the president -- even during his campaign, he was all about bringing people together, whether it was bipartisanship or whether it was about trying to get the country to come together, reset the button in Middle East relations.

How did he respond or react today, in light of what's happening with the holiday?

HENRY: Well, he clearly was trying. And what was interesting is that, on the economy, since he had covered a lot of this ground, maybe he didn't sound quite as passionate. But on all of these questions -- and he got several of them -- about, you know, sort of why it appears that Islam is under attack, why there's such suspicion in the United States about Muslims right now, nine years after 9/11. And he was trying to say, look, there's economic anxiety. That's going to make people frustrated and maybe not as trusting. And he also said that, surprisingly, this is something I really admired, he said, about President Bush. After 9/11, he brought people together and made clear we're not at war with Islam.

Here's how he put it.


OBAMA: Our enemies are Al Qaeda and their allies, who are trying to kill us, but have been -- have killed more Muslims than just about anybody on Earth. You know, we have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other. And I will do everything that I can, as long as I'm president of the United States, to remind the American people that we are one nation under God. And we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation.


HENRY: As you know, he's tried to have this outreach to the Muslim world. He's obviously frustrated that some of that has -- hasn't worked out because of some of that suspicion out there. But, also, interesting that after that, he said, look, we're all one nation under God. And he quickly added, "I use my Christian faith to get me through as president" -- no doubt a reference to the fact -- and he's conscious of the fact there are some of these polls suggesting that some Americans think he's Muslim. He very clearly slipped that in there amid this conversation about Islam -- I'm a Christian.

MALVEAUX: And it was also, I thought, the most clear -- clear message from the president this go round, when he said before, "I said this clearly," I thought this was very definitive and very clear, where he stood on the mosque.

HENRY: No doubt about it. I mean, look, when he first spoke at the White House a few weeks back, he talked about the Constitutional right to build it. And a lot of people read that as an endorsement.

When I asked him the next day in Florida, he appeared to walk that back a little bit because of the controversy. Today, there was sort of no hedging. He just said if you can build a church there, you can build a synagogue there, you can build a mosque there.

That sounds like an endorsement.

MALVEAUX: All right.

Thank you, Ed.

Appreciate it.

HENRY: Thanks, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Now on to California and the investigation into a gas explosion and massive fire. Residents of a decimated neighborhood say they smelled fumes for weeks. Now, at least four people are dead and their community really, it looks like hell on Earth.

Our CNN's Ted Rowlands is in San Bruno, California -- Ted, give us a sense of what is taking place there.

Obviously, you take a look at the pictures, the developments that happened overnight, it is just so tragic when you see this.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the pictures really are astounding, Suzanne. And you wonder how anybody in that immediate area could have survived it. But right now, the death toll is four. We just talked to the fire chief and he says that, at this point, nobody else has been reported missing. Now it doesn't mean that they won't find more potential victims here and they are still looking. They've gone through about 75 percent of the area.

But the remaining 25 percent of the area is simply too hot to continue to search. They're wait for that to cool down and then they will go in and complete their search.

Once that's done, the investigation begins in earnest. At this point, PG&E, the gas company out here, has not had an opportunity to actually go into that exact area where this pipe split to analyze it. They are working with the NTSB, that is leading this investigation. And they are also already answering to some folks in the neighborhood who have come forward and said that they smelled gas in the weeks prior to this explosion.

Here is one example of that.


TOM GUTIERREZ, SAN BRUNO, CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: I don't know how anybody cannot repair a smell like that and -- and not find that smell, especially going to neighborhoods. And there's other -- other neighborhoods that have smelled the same smell really strong.

QUESTION: And for how long have you smelled this?

GUTIERREZ: For a good three weeks.

QUESTION: And what did they tell you to do?

GUTIERREZ: When -- when they -- when they had came out, they had said to shut the door and go inside the house. That was it.


ROWLANDS: And we've met several other people who have now come forward, Suzanne, with similar stories, saying that they did smell something in the days and weeks leading up to this explosion. Whether or not those two are connected, of course, remains to be seen and will require an investigation.

Again, four fatalities at this point, 52 injuries, many of those severe burn injuries. A lot of people hospitalized here tonight. And a lot of families, of course, have had their worlds turned upside down.

MALVEAUX: And, Ted, tell us about the possibility of the missing.

Given the severity of the fire and the explosion, do they expect that they're going to see -- discover additional remains?

ROWLANDS: Well, the fire chief says that they are -- they're acting in a search and rescue mode at this point, not rescue, a search mode. And they're -- because of the reality of it, I mean, if you look at that inferno and you look at the epicenter of where this -- this happened, the odds of anybody surviving that or having much left are very slow -- low. So they are using cadaver dogs to help them in that search.

But they're keeping their fingers crossed that it's possible that there could just be a total of four fatalities, which would be amazing when you look at those -- those pictures.

MALVEAUX: And unbelievable.

Thank you, Ted.

Appreciate it.

Well, President Obama kicked off the Democrats' fall campaign this week by going after Republicans over and over and over again.

How long is he going to blame the GOP and George Bush for the state of the economy?

And the hopes of those American hikers held in Iran now are dashed. We're going to tell you why the plans to free one of them have been canceled.


MALVEAUX: With a contentious mid-term election right around the corner, President Obama is not holding back on the Republicans. He is arguing, once again, that they are the ones standing in the way of real change in America.


OBAMA: Between now and November, what I'm going to remind the American people of is that the policies that we have put in place have moved us in the right direction and the policies that the Republicans are offering right now are the exact policies that got us into this mess.


MALVEAUX: The president spent a lot of time today talking specifically about wanting Congress to extend tax cuts for the middle class, not the wealthy.

We're going to bring in our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana, you've been talking to sources on the Hill.

What do you make of whether anything can happen before election day?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: On this issue, it is really unclear in talking to Democratic sources who are trying to figure out the answer to that question themselves. It's mostly because of division, Suzanne, among Democrats. We do understand that the president's idea to -- and that what he campaigned on, to do away with taxes for people who are families making $250,000 or more and instead keep those tax cuts for those making less -- middle class Americans, so to speak, that that is something that is agreed upon by both the House speaker and the Senate majority leader.

They believe and they hope that, politically, that that's a good strategy to deal with what they are very worried about and that is the lack of enthusiasm among the Democratic base. They think going back and saying, look, we are doing away with something that we think was unfair from the Bush era, and that is those tax cuts for the wealthy, they think that will help get the Democratic base riled up.

But the problem is that not everybody in the Democratic Caucus agrees with that. In the Senate, there are three Democratic senators, one Independent, who say they believe the tax cuts should be extended for all Americans, including the wealthiest Americans.

And in the House, we spoke to a Democratic leadership aide today who said that there are a number of moderate Democrats who also believe that it would be politically terrible for them to go back home and say that they only voted to extend tax cuts for the middle class when they know their opponents are going to say, oh, they said that they voted or that they're not voting to extend those for small businesses, for example.

There are lots of ideas on the table. It is going to be topic number one, Suzanne, when both the House and Senate come back next week. In private meetings on both sides of the Capitol, they are going to be discussing this and trying to figure out how to deal with it and how to proceed -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Dana, it seems pretty clear that the president is dealing not only with the opposition from Republicans, but also within his own party.

Thank you very much, Dana.

Appreciate it.

BASH: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Joining us now, our CNN senior political analysts David Gergen and Gloria Borger.

When the president is blaming the Republicans on the economy, the state of the economy, President Bush, when does that stop? I mean, is there a statute of limitations? Exactly. When does it end and he says you know what, I'm now responsible for moving forward at this point?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I think it's getting close. I think when you talk to folks at the White House they'll say to me, look, he's not blaming him anymore. He's kind of reminding people how deep we were in this ditch and how it's going to take a long time to get out of it.

So what he's essentially doing is asking people to be patient and remember that it was ten years building this economic disaster we've been in so it is going to take a bit of time to get out, and remind people that the Republicans, as the president would say, would want to do more of the same old, same old that got us into the problem we're in right now.

MALVEAUX: David, what do you think? I mean, do you think that after the midterm elections there is the possibility that voters will then, and potentially the Democrats, will lose control of the House? They'll say, OK, now it's your problem. It's your mess, we're not blaming the Republicans anymore.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression -- what? For 20 years? Thirty years? More than a generation. And I think the Obama White House is going to continue to point the finger of blame at President Bush and his team right up until the end of the first term or at least until the economy regains its vigor. That is going to be their chief argument.

I don't think it's doing much to rally the Democrats yet but what I do think is working some is putting heat on Congress about what they're going to do between now and the end of the year.

He is just on the verge of a modest victory. Modest to be sure, but he put the heat on the Congress, the Republicans over this small business bill to aid small business. And yesterday he got Senator Voinovich, a republican from Ohio, to break ranks with the Republicans. That should give him 60 votes to pass that bill.

So I think he may have the next week or two, Dana would know the timing more, he may well have a victory on that one.

BORGER: But you know, I think the problem for this White House is that he is trying to prove a negative, which is, life would have been worse if you continued with the Bush economic policies. It is still not good, I still feel your pain, we have a long way to go, but it would have been worse. And that is a very hard thing to explain to the American people.

MALVEAUX: As hard as that is, Gloria, I want you to take a look at this poll, because maybe this poll indicates that his strategy is the right strategy that it is working. Because if you look at the unfavorables here, George Bush is still at the top of the list with 53 percent of an unfavorable opinion. Sarah Palin follows, Nancy Pelosi, then Obama at 45 and Joe Biden.

BORGER: Right. MALVEAUX: Does it not show that perhaps he is making that demarcation? Perhaps people, their memories are long, they aren't going to forget so quickly?

BORGER: Bush himself is unfavorable and in talking to Democrats when they do their own polling for their Congressional committees, Bush economic policies are unfavorable, but republican economic policies are not necessarily unfavorable, which is why you keep raising the name of George W. Bush.

MALVEAUX: David, does this surprise you when you take -- go ahead and then I want to ask you a follow up.

GERGEN: No, no. I don't think that the Bush numbers surprise me. If anything I think it's what is surprising is how close the Obama disapproval is to the Bush disapproval. There isn't much of a gap there and there was a huge gap, of course, just a year or so ago.

I do think, and I'd be interested in what Gloria has to say about it, there was a wrinkle the president introduced today about tax cuts that was new, it's a procedural wrinkle. And that is to break the tax cuts and then vote on what everybody agrees on, he says, for continued tax cuts for people under $250,000, have that vote and then wait on the vote for the more affluent and break that apart.

That is an interesting trend. I don't think they can get it done procedurally, but if they could get it done, the president could get a victory there as well.

MALVEAUX: Could be a compromise, Gloria?

GERGEN: I'm not sure. Gloria, do you think it --?

BORGER: Well, it could be. I think it was more of a political statement than anything else, David.

And one other thing he did today which was kind of interesting, he sort of said OK, the wealthy will also benefit from this tax cut for the middle class, which is what Democrats have been pushing him to talk about, saying, on your first $200,000 of income, you're going to get a tax break, too.

MALVEAUX: And he hasn't mentioned that before.

BORGER: He has not.

MALVEAUX: He has a new emphasis which is important. Unfortunately -- David, real quick.

GERGEN: It is going to be dwarfed by their tax increases.

BORGER: Of course, but why not mention it, right?


MALVEAUX: All right. Gloria, David, thank you very much, appreciate it.

Well, there is a glimmer of hope, if you can believe this, for the 33 miners trapped hundreds of feet underground in Chile. Could rescuers be one step closer to freeing them?

Plus, everybody is going to mourn this, your morning caffeine fix may soon cost you more. Those details up ahead.


MALVEAUX: Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring some of the other top stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Hey, Fred. Good to see you.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good to see you as well, Suzanne. Hello, everyone.

A federal court in California has ruled that the military's controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which bars gays from openly serving, is unconstitutional. The government is now expected to ask for a temporary injunction preventing the ruling from immediately going into effect. President Obama is already pushing for repeal of the policy, a bill that would overturn it following a Pentagon review is before Congress.

And new hope for 33 miners trapped hundreds of feet underground in Chile. A large oil platform expected to help rescuers drill faster is now on site. Two additional procedures are also underway. Officials caution that the miners, who have been trapped since the beginning of August, may not be reached until December.

And, Suzanne, I know how much you like your java. Well, apparently your morning caffeine fix could cost you a little more. Bad weather in South America is threatening coffee crops sparking higher prices in the U.S. Bagged coffees from companies like Folgers and Maxwell House have already gone up significantly, but coffee shops could be spared. Their prices are determined individually. So maybe if you go to your favorite shop, you'll be all right.

MALVEAUX: Fred, how are we going to deal with this? How are we going to survive? I mean, this is terrible.

WHITFIELD: I don't know. We're all going to be a little more frazzled than usual.


MALVEAUX: We don't want that.

WHITFIELD: Except me. I am actually tea drinker. So, I pity you coffee drinkers.

MALVEAUX: Got to have my fix. Sorry, got to have it.

Thanks, Fred. WHITFIELD: All right.

MALVEAUX: Well, as the nation marks nine years since the September 11th attacks, something is driving a wedge between the families that lost loved ones that day. We're going to explain.

And why some Christians in Iraq are saying they are afraid for their lives on this 9/11.


MALVEAUX: Here in THE SITUATION ROOM happening now, a California neighborhood erupts in flames after a deadly gas line explosion. Could the same thing happen where you live? Our Brian Todd is investigating.

Plus, leaky pipes and power outages at the White House? We will take you behind the scenes of a renovation project that is costing you hundreds of millions of dollars.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The American people are just hours away from marking the day that this country and the world changed forever. Nine years after the terror attacks that killed almost 3,000 people, many victims' relatives will join together tomorrow to grieve as well as remember. But their ties are being tested by a plan to build an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero.

Here's our senior correspondent Allan Chernoff.


ROSALEEN TALLON, SISTER OF 9/11 VICTIM: It's not a small mosque. It is not far from the site. It is right on top of where they were murdered.

ROBERT NELSON, BROTHER OF 9/11 VICTIM: But in my mind this is actually a good thing. I mean, we cannot fight all billion Muslims in the world.

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Robert Nelson and Rosaleen Tallon share a deep pain here at the World Trade Center site where both lost a brother in the attack nine years ago. Yet they split sharply over the planned Islamic community center that would include a mosque two blocks from here.

Robert lost his brother David who worked in Tower One, yet he argues Muslims should be able to build a community center here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have we forgotten what happened at 9/11?

CHERNOFF: He fears opponents of the plan, including many 9/11 families, are threatening the civil rights of Muslims.

NELSON: They are being hounded out. They're being shouted down. And that's just not what America should stand for.

TALLON: Imagine -- but imagine -- I would shout from the top of any tower to protect my city. I want to make sure that $100 million isn't coming from Saudi Arabia or coming from the very hands that funded the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

CHERNOFF: Rosaline Tallon lost her brother Sean (ph), a firefighter who was based across the street in this firehouse. She says she knows Sean would want her to speak out to defend the area that, in effect, became his gravesite. And she emphatically states she is doing so without any bias against Muslims.

TALLON: It is not against the Muslim people but it is a sensitivity that putting a mosque here, where perhaps there may be some people sympathetic to what the terrorists did that day. That is not acceptable to me.

CHERNOFF: When you hear them say this is a community center open to everybody that doesn't do it for you.

TALLON: At the end of the day it's an Islamic, cultural center with a mosque. It's a big center and it'll bring lots and lots of Muslim people gathered here so close to ground zero.

CHERNOFF: Americans who have shared unimaginable pain who have cried on others' shoulders are now in some cases at odds over the nation's latest controversy, an Islamic center near the site of their tragic loss.

Allan Chernoff, CNN, New York.


MALVEAUX: The Obama administration will be represented at all three sites of the 9/11 attacks tomorrow. The president will be at the pentagon, vice president Biden at ground zero, and Michelle Obama the first lady will be joined by former first lady Laura Bush in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

A Florida pastor's on again off again threat to burn Korans is apparently off again. As we reported there is new confirmation that the 9/11 protest has been canceled but what if he or somebody else decides to burn Muslim holy books tomorrow or any other day? It is a prospect that is striking fear in the hearts of some Christians in Iraq. Here's CNN's Arwa Damon.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, Christians we spoke to at a church in Baghdad said they were shocked, angered, and terrified. They said that one man in Florida had no right to endanger their lives and the lives of so many others.


CANON ANDREW WHITE, ST. GEORGE'S CHURCH: All these people's lives are in danger anyway. But now they're in serious danger. DAMON: On Friday in Baghdad, inside St. George's church the choir rehearsed. At the mosque next door Muslims prayed but the sense of serenity is once more in serious jeopardy.

WHITE: The message to this pastor in Florida is, think about those of us who have been killed by your action. Think about what you're doing. What you are doing may seem nice in America, but here in Baghdad, it means death. I had the military colonel and the Iraqi colonel come the night before last and say, they have threatened to blow you up. And your church because of what's happened in Florida.

DAMON: Canon Andrew White has been in Iraq since 1998 a time when Islam and Christianity peacefully co-existed. But the Christian community was not spared the sectarian warfare that gripped the nation. Over the years St. George's was hit half a dozen times.

WHITE: We used to have a million Christians in Iraq. We now only have about 200,000. And every week more and more are leaving.

DAMON: He considers the children here his own, depending on them for support due to his multiple sclerosis. For their part, they depend on him just as much for guidance. White believes that extremist actions wherever they are carried out do not reflect the majority.

WHITE: The majority of Muslims are not against us and just yesterday a statement was released saying, take time. Think about what you're doing. Do not affect the Christians or the churches here in Iraq. He spoke words of peace more than that Christian in Florida has spoken words of peace.

DAMON: Talk of peace amidst a threat of violence. Already in the Shia slum of Sadr City some people are vowing if this Koran burning takes place there will not be a single Christian left alive in all of Iraq. 17-year-old Serena and 20-year-old Dawood have these words for a pastor thousands of miles away.

DAWOOD JAJO, IRAQI CHRISTIAN: I wish just to go to America for five minutes to talk to him. I say, I will give all the fault to him. Everything will happen.

DAMON: As Canon White watches his children he says he can't help but wonder if it's the last time he will ever see them sing.


DAMON: Canon White told us he used to think about the future but these days only focuses on the now. He says he has given up on thinking of what will happen for years today instead focusing on today and maybe tomorrow. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Thank you Arwa.

Well, Republicans are borrowing a page from the Democrats 2008 playbook in hopes of reclaiming control of Congress on Election Day. We'll show you how their strategies are playing out on television. And just when it seemed as though there was a breakthrough for those jailed U.S. hikers in Iran, there is now heart break instead.


MALVEAUX: A dramatic new setback for one of the three American hikers jailed in Iran. Our Mary Snow is monitoring the details and joins us with the very latest of this story. It looks like it really is quite a sad turn.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is but there are conflicting reports. Just hours before Sarah Shourd was scheduled to be released from an Iranian prison the Iranian labor news agency reported she will not be released tomorrow as previously announced. Asked why a prosecutor was quoted as saying the judicial process is incomplete. Now, the office of the Iranian president is using the word "postponed." 32-year-old Sarah Shourd has been held along with Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal for more than a year. They were detained in July of 2009 after they went into Iraq hiking. The three Americans allegedly crossed an unmarked border. Their families say if they did that it was an accident. Iran has accused them of spying. Now, earlier in the day before this had been announced about this postponement cancellation a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry was quoted by a different news agency saying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was involved in the decision to release Shourd citing it as a compassionate gesture to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But again, that came in earlier in the day before news that tomorrow's release of Sarah Shourd would not be happening as it had been scheduled for tomorrow morning. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: And I know, Mary, there have been some concerns about her health. Do we know anything about how she's doing?

SNOW: Yeah. You know, there were a lot of questions about why she was being released. What we do know about her health is her mother had expressed concerns about her health and getting her daughter the medical attention that she needs. A spokeswoman for the families says that when the mothers of the Americans were allowed to visit their children in Tehran back in may, that Sarah told her mother that she had found a lump in her breast and there is a lot of concern about whether she is getting any kind of medical attention.

MALVEAUX: We hope they're all released very soon. Thank you very much for the latest update, Mary.

SNOW: Sure.

MALVEAUX: As a contentious mid-term Election Day draws closer Republicans are borrowing a page from the Democrats' 2006 playbook. And what possessed two prison inmates to break out of jail then try to break back in? We're going to give you those details up ahead.


MALVEAUX: We heard President Obama predict today that Democrats will do just fine in November if the election is about policies that move the nation forward. Both parties' campaign ads are more about personalities than policies and it's getting uglier as the vote gets closer. I want to bring in our Congressional correspondent Brianna Keilar. You've been looking at some of these really interesting ads. What do they emphasize?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are seeing a pattern and if you take a look at how much money is being spent here, this is how much has been spent on ads for Congressional races this year so far. $73 million. And this is really just the beginning. The ad season is just now heating up. If you want to know what the Democratic and Republican political strategies are for these mid-term elections, all you have to do is turn on your TV.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is Congressional candidate John Runyon's house. Nice isn't it? Cost millions.

KEILAR: When it comes to political ads in this election cycle Democrats are getting personal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Runyon doesn't call it a house. He tried to call it a farm. He bought one donkey to get a $20,000 tax break by saying he lives on a farm.

KEILAR: Desperate and dishonest is what Republican John Runyon's campaign calls this ad by his opponent, John Adler but many Democrats are following the same strategy, says Evan Tracey, a campaign ad analyst.

EVAN TRACEY, CAMPAIGN MEDIA ANALYSIS GROUP: They're going basically looking for those skeletons, looking for things that will disqualify an opponent that they can then highlight in their ads so at least you can sort of win by bringing down your opponent.

KEILAR: Or by trying to paint them as extreme. Like incumbent Florida Democrat Susan Cosmos who is using her opponent's own words against her.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sandy Adams has strange ideas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you think of any amendments to the U.S. constitution that you think should be repealed?

SANDY ADAMS: 16 and 17. We need to go back to the way our forefathers planned on having senators.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Adams would take away our right to vote and let Tallahassee politicians pick our senators.

KEILAR: As Democrats zero in on something negative about their opponents Republicans are going a different route with their ads hoping to nationalize the elections by blaming Democrats for the bad economy and accusing them of being in lock step with leaders in Washington. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Joe Donnelly claims he is independent but has voted with Nancy Pelosi 88 percent of the time. For the Obama/Pelosi health care plan, the Wall Street bail out, even the $800 billion stimulus that failed.

KEILAR: You could put many Democrats in tough races in the exact same spot that he's in in this ad.

TRACEY: Right. That's the strategy right now. The president has low poll numbers, low popularity. He is the head of the Democratic Party right now. So the Republicans are going to attach him to every race they can this fall.

KEILAR: In West Virginia's rural first district, this Republican ad never even mentions the Democratic opponent.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Had enough of record job loss, enough of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi? Enough of the attacks on West Virginia jobs? If you've had enough, David McKinley for Congress.


KEILAR: Of course this is a total role reversal from 2006 and 2008 because then it was a referendum on President Bush and the war in Iraq. Now it's a referendum on President Obama, Democratic leaders, and the economy. You are seeing Democrats are doing and Republicans are doing what the opposite party did just a few years ago.

MALVEAUX: It was fascinating when you brought up the point that he never even mentioned his opponent in that ad. It was just Obama and Pelosi. The president today talked about policies that move us forward. Is anybody talking about that, the Democrats?

KEILAR: This is what's interesting. This is what Evan Tracey pointed out. The health care bill, for instance, has been so difficult for Democrats to sell and most of them are not talking about it. They're not talking about it in ads for sure. And so what you see, he said, is the only time you see Democrats talking about be it their votes on the health care bill, the stimulus, what have you, it is as if they voted against it. The only time you see Democrats using President Obama in or Democratic leaders ion their ads is to say, I went against him. Fascinating. Right?

MALVEAUX: Wow. That says a lot.

KEILAR: It does.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you. We'll see how it all unfolds.

Democrats are dreading the possibility that they're going to lose their majority in Congress but could that force the president to do his job maybe a little better? Stand by for our strategy session.

And frightening. First-hand accounts of the gas explosion and inferno in California.


MALVEAUX: Increasing talk that Republicans could take over the house this November, joining us in today's strategy session, two CNN political contributors Roland Martin and John Avlon. John is also senior political columnist from Guys, a lot of talk about the possibility of Republicans taking control of the house. We know that when Clinton lost the Democratic majority, he had to work harder to get things done and there was a system of checks and balances and some argue that perhaps President Obama would be a more effective president if Republicans were controlling the Congress. Roland, you are laughing?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yeah, I am laughing, because I think that President Bill Clinton could talk about all of the special prosecutors and investigators and subpoenas that reined on his head from Republicans being in control. You have Republicans right now saying that they are going to launch a series of investigations against this administration. So I get the conventional wisdom, but I think that it can make your life a heck of a lot more difficult.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, that is certainly true, but Suzanne, as you were saying that the precedent that we have with Clinton and Gingrich, really in retrospect, even though it was harsh and it seems like a golden age of constructive cooperation, and we actually moved to a surplus and it sounds absurd, but it is true. That is what independent voters are looking for. They like the divided government, because they do believe it will force them to work together. The problem is that this environment may be so harshly poisonously polarized that you get instead is gridlock, what you get is obstructionism, that maybe the system right now is so dysfunctional that the system of checks and balances won't work.

MALVEAUX: Roland, you seem to think he will be overwhelmed by bogus investigations, and is there any policy or any piece of legislation that you could find the Republicans and this president working together on if the Republicans took over?

MARTIN: Well, first of all, show me right now. I mean, right now, you have an example right now that the president had the news conference today, and he said to the Republicans, hey, I want to push through middle-class tax cuts. Join me right now, and I will sign it this month, do you actually think there is going to be any movement on that? You have a jobs bill, as it relates right now to small businesses where the Democrats are saying, let's help the small businesses get lines of credit. The Republicans have made it clear, no, problems with that as well. So I don't necessarily see where you are going to find that level of common ground.

MALVEAUX: Let's -- go ahead, John.

AVLON: Well, not only that, but the proposal that the president made this week about R&D tax credit and national infrastructure investment bank, and those are Republican proposals, but he is being stonewalled. And how do you sum that up?

MARTIN: Deficit commission. MALVEAUX: Well, how do the Democrats come up with a unified strategy, and the president this week was in Ohio and he named John Boehner eight times in the speech, and obviously going after who he believes could be the next speaker, and you had the vice president on the other hand praising the former President Bush when it came to Iraq, and then we saw the Pennsylvania Governor Democrat Ed Rendell saying that the Republicans were crazy and fruit loops is what he called them. These guys don't seem to have a unified strategy. Do they need a strategy to go into the midterm elections in a strong way?

MARTIN: Well, you can call them fruit loops, but the president laid out the strategy in that you have to defend what you have done. What Democrats have to do to stop being scared and go on the offensive and lay out how bad of a situation this country was in when this president came in and the tough decisions they had to make. If I'm a Democrat and running, I will say, while these guys were sitting on the sidelines kicking their feet up, and criticizing us, we had to get to work to dig ourselves out of this hole. And so if you want those guys who sat around and did nothing, fine, put them in charge, but at least we tried the do something to deal with this economy, but you have to go into offensive and not the defensive and say woe is us, and we might just lose our seats

AVLON: Well, strategically Roland is right, and play offense and not defense, and play from a position of strength and not weakness. But we have seen President Obama make a clearer case than we have seen from the white house and the administration, because the Republicans are benefiting from what has been a no-bama strategy and strategy of opposition and they have not put forward a positive plan, and somehow the idea that the American people are voting for John Boehner for speaker or John McConnell as leader, it does not bear out, because this is look, a referendum of two divisions of governing and who do you want to drive the process of governing the country and not running in opposition to the establishment.

MALVEAUX: John Avlon and Roland Martin, thank you both.

And we have a story to tell you, which is not a breakout, be awe break-in.


MALVEAUX: Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring some of the other top stories coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What are you working on, Fred?

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello Suzanne. Well, Republican hopeful Sharron Angle is in hot water. The Nevada top political journalist is slamming the tea party favorite for backing out of a debate with her opponent senate majority leader Harry Reid next month. The journalist says that within hours of Reid accepting the invitation to appear, Angle's campaign called to say it was backing out.

The new CEO of General Motors won't be hurting for money, even though the federal government's bailout watchdog had to sign off on the pay. We are learning that Daniel Akerson scored a $9 billion compensation including $1.7 cash each year and GM is still under the government's thumb when it comes to executive pay after it was rebuilt from the 2009 bankruptcy.

In Missouri a prison break in reverse. Investigators say that two men were caught trying to sneak back into jail after breaking out through a ceiling panel. They allegedly went on a joyride and searching for drugs and on the lam for at least four hours. It is believed they tried to break back into the jail to avoid a mandatory five-year sentence for escaping. Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: (inaudible) story.

WHITFIELD: They had second thoughts. It might cost them.


MALVEAUX: Thank you, Fred. Appreciate it.