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Officials: 100 Missing in Mudslide; Govt. Investigates Mini Coopers

Aired September 28, 2010 - 17:00   ET


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

Happening now, President Obama tries to win over voters with a list of promises in his pocket. This hour, his score card of successes and defeats in the run-up to the mid-term election and the reason he's still trying to explain his Christian beliefs.

Also, the health of America's kids caught in a political food fight right now.

Will the first lady, Michelle Obama, win at the expense of some fellow Democrats and advocates for the poor?

And the evidence against U.S. soldiers accused of murder -- it's threatening to explode worldwide and the Pentagon may be scrambling right now to avoid an international embarrassment. We're following up on the shocking allegations that troops in Afghanistan killed for sport.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


But up first this hour, this just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Republicans going to some extraordinary new lengths to try to play the ethics card against Democrats. With exactly five weeks to go before the Congressional election, the GOP members of the House Ethics Committee are standing together and speaking out about the charges against Democrats Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters.

Let's go straight to our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, to find out what's going on -- Dana, what is going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What's going on is something that is really, really rare, Wolf, and that is that deliberations that are normally going on in secret and tend to go on in a bipartisan way in the Ethics Committee have spilled out into the open and, more specifically, differences on the House Ethics Committee have spilled out into the open. Republicans just released this statement. All five Republicans on the -- on the House Ethics Committee blasting the Democratic chairwoman Zoe Lofgren for what they say is stalling in deciding whether or not to set a trial for two Democratic Congress before the election. Those congressmen are Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters. Now, Congress is set to leave before the election by the end of the week. And these Republican members say, look, members of the committee have expressed a willingness to do whatever it takes, essentially, to have a trial even when Congress is in recess. But they say that Zoe Lofgren is just dragging her heels on it.

Now, Zoe Lofgren, I am told by an aid, is actually on a plane. She is returning from her home state of California. We won't hear from her for at least an hour. We do expect a statement after that.

But a Democratic aide I spoke to familiar with the deliberations insisted that this is just a partisan move by Republicans, insists that Lofgren has been delayed because she has been trying to work with Republicans behind-the-scenes to try to figure out the best date for a trial should be.

Now, I should tell you that Rangel and Waters, neither of their offices said that either -- congressman -- the congresswoman would have any comment. Both have said publicly, though, that they want to get on with it. They want the trials to happen soon, even before the election.

But, as you know, Wolf, for Democrats in general, the leadership, everybody who is on the ballot this year, the last thing that they want is to have a public trial with two very ho -- high profile Democratic figures on ethics charges and violations right before the -- the voters go to the polls.

BLITZER: And it's obviously a bigger national issue than it is for these two members of Congress. Neither one of them appears to have a serious problem getting reelected on November 2nd.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much for that.

Let's go to -- to the Pentagon now. The Pentagon has got some new marching orders, trying to control military spending. You might think Senators would embrace an attempt to spend the taxpayers' money more wisely. But today, tough questions are being raised about whether the troops will benefit or suffer.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is joining us now with more -- Barbara, some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are suggesting they need more information.

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely, Wolf. You know, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is one of the more popular cabinet members on Capitol Hill. And you would think that both Democrats and Republicans would embrace his plan to cut defense spending.

But on Capitol Hill today, it all erupted over a very sort of technical issue about closing down something called the Joint Forces Command. That's a part of the military that helps everybody to try and work together. They have headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. And Democratic Senator Jim Webb, worried about job cuts, let the Pentagon officials have it right between the eyes.

Have a listen.


SEN. JAMES WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: We did not have access. We didn't have an opportunity to provide input. In fact, on August the 9th, Secretary Lynn, you called me 15 minutes before this decision was publicly announced. That's not the way to conduct a review that has enormous implications to our defense and also to community interests. I believe in another sport, it's called stiff-arming.

WILLIAM LYNN, DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY: I appreciate that you do not feel that we have shared as much information as -- as you would like, although I think the core issue here is, I think, a disagreement over the recommendation. This -- this was not a -- a business case analysis, as some have described it. This was a -- a military decision.

WEBB: There are no decisions of this magnitude that are military decisions, not in the United States.


STARR: Very unusual to see this level of tension erupt between Pentagon officials. That was the number two man in the Pentagon, Bill Lynn, and Democrats, especially, on Capitol Hill.

Earlier today, some Congressional leaders were even over here at the Pentagon to discuss all of this. But this is a real indication, Wolf, of what a tough time Bob Gates may have in the final months of his administration at the Pentagon, of convincing both Democrats and Republicans that they must cut defense spending, even in this time of war -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The Virginia senator is obviously very sensitive to the enormous number of jobs that are going to be lost in Virginia if these recommendations go forward, is that right?

STARR: Oh, absolutely. It could number in the thousands. And this could be just one part of the job cuts that may be coming, both in the Pentagon bureaucracy and in defense contracting, if Secretary Gates gets in the way. And that's the real dilemma right now. That's the sensitive part for members of Congress. They want to be seen as cutting unneeded, unwanted defense spending. They don't want to do anything that's going to cause anybody else to lose their jobs -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Barbara, for that.

President Obama, meanwhile, is trying to drum up some excitement among Democratic voters. He's making stops today in New Mexico, Wisconsin and Iowa, which also happen to be crucial presidential election states.

With his own poll numbers, though, sliding, the president is looking for new ways to prove himself, even to some members of his own party.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian -- Dan, there's a sort of scorecard out there, what the president has achieved and what he hasn't achieved.


You know, Wolf, as you know, campaign promises are much easier to make than keep. But the president has apparently been keeping track of what he told voters out on the campaign trail. And he claims that he's ahead of the game.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): Small businesses got a helping hand from the White House Monday, as President Obama signed a jobs bill and crossed another accomplishment off of his to-do list.

OBAMA: It's going to speed relief to small businesses across this country right away.

LOTHIAN: The president's pockets are apparently pretty roomy, because that's where he tells "Rolling Stone" magazine he keeps, quote, "a checklist of the promises I made during the campaign," then, grading himself, Mr. Obama proclaimed, "halfway through the first term and we've probably accomplished 70 percent of the things that we said we were going to do."

With no access to his personal list, CNN focused on some key promises to determine whether they had been kept or broken. Immigration reform...

OBAMA: We have to solve it.

LOTHIAN: Candidate Obama was swept in to office, in part, with the support of Latino groups who were banking on his immigration reform pledge. Nothing yet. In an intimate outdoor discussion with New Mexico voters, Mr. Obama blamed Republicans.

OBAMA: I can't get any of them to cooperate and I don't have 60 Democrats in the Senate.

LOTHIAN: Other big promises still unfulfilled -- closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, pledging to repeal the don't ask/don't tell policy on gays in the military and a promise to allow the import of prescription drugs -- something seniors applaud.

But there are also promises kept.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're ready to play offense on universal health care.

LOTHIAN: President Obama told voters he would fight for health care reform. It lacks the public option he so strongly endorsed and it's still controversial, but the bill passed.

He promised to wind down the war in Iraq and remove combat troops.

And, finally, the president said he would make a speech to the Muslim world as part of the effort to polish the message abroad. He delivered those remarks in Cairo, Egypt.


LOTHIAN: Now, the president also promised to repair the economy, to create jobs. But his critics believe that he has fallen short. But the White House really saying here that the stimulus really helped to keep the economy from falling off of a cliff.

Now, one other point, Wolf. I should point out that the president, on the campaign trail, talked a lot about changing the way that Washington works. He talked about the spirit of bipartisanship.

But Washington still remains very much divided. The president recently has said that the reason for that is that Republicans are setting up roadblocks and obstructing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It seems to be even more divided right now.

All right, thanks, Dan, very much.

We learned just a little while ago that President Obama made a phone call to former president, Jimmy Carter, who's now checked into a hospital in Ohio and will stay there overnight. The White House says the former president sounded like -- and I'm quoting now -- "he sounded like he was doing great."

Carter was taken to the hospital after complaining of an upset stomach. He flew to Cleveland today to sign copies of his new book at a local bookstore. We're told he's resting comfortably, still under observation and plans to get back to the book tour tomorrow, with a stop here in Washington. We wish him only the best and a speedy recovery from whatever it was.

He recently, by the way, made some long trips, including to North Korea, to secure the release of a U.S. citizen who was held captive there.

President Obama is hit with a familiar but sensitive question about his religious beliefs.

Is he still trying to convince Americans he's a Christian, not a Muslim?

Stand by to hear his remarks.

And dozens, perhaps hundreds, trapped in a landslide that struck in the dark of night.

And you'll want to hear the story of why pop singer Gloria Estefan had to climb through a window at a football game.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is back with The Cafferty File -- Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: So it's getting closer and closer to that time. Sarah Palin could be President Obama's savior when it comes to the 2012 presidential race. A new poll suggests President Obama could lose -- unless he runs against Sarah Palin. The Politico/George Washington University Battleground Poll shows a majority of Americans are considering voting against President Obama. Forty-four percent of those surveyed say they will vote to replace Mr. Obama as president. Thirteen percent say they will consider voting for someone else. Only 38 percent say he deserves reelection.

That ain't enough to win.

Voters are down on the president for a lot of reasons, but especially his policies. By double digits, they disapprove of his new health care law. They trust Congressional Republicans to create jobs more than they trust Mr. Obama. This is despite the fact that a majority of voters like President Obama personally.

Mr. Obama's best hope of winning a second term just might be Alaska's dropout governor, Sarah Palin. If the election were held today, voters say they would back the president over Palin by 9 points.

Support for Palin is weak in the Midwest, the Northeast. And almost 60 percent of the voters say that her actions since quitting her job as governor have made them less likely to vote for her for president.

Women voters are especially negative about Palin. Fifty-four percent have an unfavorable view of her. No other Republicans tested in this poll had such high negatives among women.

It's not likely that the Republican Party would be dumb enough to nominate Palin after what she did to John McCain's run for the White House. But when it comes to politics, nothing ought to be surprising to us anymore.

If it happened, well, just imagine, if the woman who helped bring down John McCain's campaign would help to re-elect the Democratic sitting president. Go figure.

Here's the question -- if President Obama runs against Sarah Palin in 2012, who are you going to vote for? Go to and post the comment on my blog. That would be the mother of all ironies, wouldn't it?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it would be, but you know what? A cautionary note. I was speaking recently to someone who worked for Jimmy Carter back in 1980 when they were celebrating the Ronald Reagan, an actor from Hollywood, is going to get the Republican presidential nomination. They were high fiving each other, but guess who won that contest?

CAFFERTY: If Sarah Palin is the next president, Wolf, I will eat this building I'm talking to you from one brick at a time.

BLITZER: Don't say that, Jack, you never know. Politics --

CAFFERTY: The whole Time Warner Center.

BLITZER: Don't say that. That tape -- it's stuck there forever. We have that. Jack Cafferty, thank you.

President Obama today revisited questions about his faith that could haunt him in 2012 at an event in New Mexico. A woman asked Mr. Obama this direct question -- why are you a Christian? Here's what he said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I'm a Christian by choice. My family didn't -- frankly, they weren't folks who went to church every -- every week. My mother is one of the most spiritual women I knew, but she didn't raise me in the church.

So I came to my Christian faith later in life and it was because the -- the preceps of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead. Being my brothers and sisters' keeper, treating others as they would treat me and I think also understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings.

We're sinful, flawed, we make mistakes, and that we achieve salvation through the grace of God. But what we can do as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people and do our best to -- to help them find their own grace. And, so, that's -- that's what I strive to do.


BLITZER: A lot of people mistakenly believe the president is a Muslim. On a recent survey actually showed that only a third of Americans correctly identified Mr. Obama as a Christian. We're going to have more on this story later this hour.

Let's go to Connecticut right now where a tightening Senate battle could contribute to a major power shift in Washington in November. Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's working the story for us. Getting closer to the contest in Connecticut, is that right, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is, Wolf and this is a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans months ago. Democratic candidate Rich Blumenthal had a double digit lead over political newcomer Linda McMahon.

But a new poll out today suggests it's too close to call and anger at the government is one reason why.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SNOW (voice-over): She gained fame and fortune in the world of wrestling. Now Linda McMahon is threatening to deal a damaging blow to Democrats in the traditionally blue state. McMahon who's running as a Republican candidate in the Connecticut Senate race has chipped away at what once was a wide lead held by Democrat Richard Blumenthal, a popular attorney general seen by many as a shoe-in.

A new Quinnipiac poll shows them in a virtual dead heat with Blumenthal leading 49 percent to 46 percent. Quinnipiac's polling director says independents are making the difference.

DOUG SCHWARTZ, QUINNIPIAC UNIVERSITY: It's this anti-government feeling that Connecticut voters have a strong majority are dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working. A third say that they are angry and she is winning those voters that are angry at the federal government.

SNOW: McMahon is spending millions to portray herself as a Washington outsider. She said she could wind up spending $50 million on her campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How can he fight the special interest if they're paying for his campaign?

SNOW: Blumenthal has taken off the gloves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: More false attacks from Linda McMahon's $50 million campaign.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm sick of her ad.

SNOW: Blumenthal's camp circulated an internal poll showing their candidate with a 12-point edge. But judging by their campaign schedule, they're taking nothing for granted.

Former President Bill Clinton has campaigned with Blumenthal, and so has President Obama. While Democrats fight back, they highlight the McMahon's wrestling past, which has caused unease.

The latest Quinnipiac poll shows she's trailing among women, clearly her ads are aimed at softening her image.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If someone needed help she'd be there in a minute and not think anything of it.

SNOW: With five weeks to go, Nathan Gonzalez of the nonpartisan Rothenberg report still sees Democrats favored. He says Connecticut is a pivotal race, a must-win for Democrats and Republican if they want to win the majority.

NATHAN GONZALES, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: If Linda McMahon is elected to the Senate, then they'll be in the majority because there are other Republican candidates across the country that have less baggage that are more likely to win than she is.


SNOW: Wolf, this latest poll out today suggests that 9 percent of voters could change their mind in what could prove crucial in determining the outcome three debates that are coming up in October - Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll watch closely. Connecticut, thanks very much. Watching all of the Senate races between now and November 2nd.

We're monitoring some other top stories, including the death of a top al Qaeda leader in Pakistan. We're going to tell you who it is.

Plus, a potential new sign of hope in the ongoing Middle East peace struggle. We'll have some new information that's just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Deb, what's going on?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, some potential hope for ongoing Middle East peace talks that many feared could be over.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he'll be meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris next month.

Abbas says he's worried about negotiations following Israel's decision to end its 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. Palestinian officials previously said the move would end discussions between the two sides.

Democrats' hopes to bring a controversial job's outsourcing bill to the Senate floor had been dashed by Republicans. The bill which fell seven votes short of passing would have ended some tax breaks for companies expanding overseas.

GOP senators call it nothing more than a political ploy. Some Democratic sources admit it's an attempt to use outsourcing against Republicans ahead of the November midterm elections.

A dramatic scene involving pop star Gloria Estefan. You're watching her climb out of her suite window at Sunday's Miami Dolphins game. She got lock in the room and not even firefighters could get it open.

But Estefan was scheduled to introduce Enrique Iglesias at halftime. She took off her heels and crawled out of the window into the adjoining suite in order to get out. Good thing she's not afraid of heights there.

BLITZER: Yes, that's dangerous too. I wouldn't do that. All right, thanks very much, Deb.

President Obama could be only days away from losing his right hand man. Just ahead our top political correspondents tell us what they know about Rahm Emanuel's plans and who the president may tap as the next White House chief of staff.

And it rained mud while they slept. We're following the unfolding landslide disaster. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people may be trapped right now.


BLITZER: President Obama may be losing his chief of staff sooner than a lot of people thought. CNN's John King confirmed last night Rahm Emanuel was all, but certain to run as mayor of Chicago. An announcement is expected Friday.

That would leave Mr. Obama on the hunt for someone to effectively run the show over at the White House. Let's bring in the best political minds including our chief national correspondent John King.

He's the host of "JOHN KING, USA." Also, Gloria Borger, our senior political analyst and our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

Ed, if he leaves by Friday, that's pretty soon. Who replaces him?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, in the short term, you're likely to see Pete Rouse, somebody well-known behind-the- scenes player. Has the president's trust. He was the chief of staff in the Senate. He's the senior adviser in the White House.

The big question is long term, what do you do? Love him or hate him, Rahm Emanuel is unique and is a hard person to replace. He had the White House peace from the Clinton days. He had the congressional peace and he worked the media.

He knew how to get the message out. Not a lot of people can do that Triple Crown. Three big factors, bottom line, the election, what happens there.

A lot of Democrats from out of town saying, if the democrats do take a drumming and there's a Republican Congress, you need a shrewd sort of bipartisan figure. Erskine Bowles did that for Bill Clinton, as you know. The second big issue is the president's comfort level. Some Democrat from downtown were talking up Ed Rendell who's leaving as governor in Pennsylvania. Get a brawler in there. Really take the republicans on.

The problem there is that this is not someone in the Obama inner circle. Say does he have a comfort level. And the final factor is other shuffling going around. General Jim Jones likely to leave his national security advisor. Tom Donnelly in his number two might move up. If that would happen, Tom Donnelly is not going to be the chief of staff, even though he's talked about it. So, there's a lot that has to happen. And that's why in the short term, they're going to have Pete Rouse be the brains.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You could have, I'm told, as many as half a dozen major retirements after this election. And so, they're going to have

BLITZER: Retirements from what?

BORGER: Well, you're going to have retirements from the Senate. You're going to have to take --

HENRY: Forced retirements.

BORGER: Or forced retirements, but someone like Chris Dodd, Byron Dorgen leaving, and then, you know, and then again, if General Jones leave, does Tom Donnelly go over there instead of perhaps to the White House chief of staff job.

John king, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a tough calculation because there are many Democrats who think where this White House has made mistakes is when they're too insular. I was talking to a very prominent Democrat today with a lot of White House experiences. This guy is more insular than the Bush crowd and more insular than we were in the early Clinton days. So, a lot of people saying, go outside, pick somebody new.

Yet, this is a president who (INAUDIBLE) going to make this choice. The Republicans are going to gain seats. We can bet on that. How many will they get control? We don't know. But he's going to have to deal with a more conservative Congress as he gears up for re- election campaign. The chief of staff is going to have to be the gate, the bridge between both worlds, dealing with the Congress, getting ready for the real campaign. That's a very different skill set. You need a very talented, veteran political person.

BORGER: And or you could have a combo platter. You know, you could have somebody from the outside be the chief of staff and have a deputy chief of staff like Plouffe, for example, who is somebody -- who is very close to the --

BLITZER: David Plouffe is more of a political strategist.

BORGER: But ran this campaign very organized, very focused, bring him into the White House. But, again, everybody I talked to says comfort level, comfort level.

BLITZER: John, you remember because we were both there at the White House. The first two years of the Clinton administration, especially the first year when Mack McLarty was the White House chief of staff and then Leon Panetta was brought in from the office of management and budget to replace him. That caused quite a shift.

KING: It caused quite a shift because, at that point, they said, you know, Mack McLarty nice guy as the president's trust, doesn't know a hell a lot about Washington. Let's get somebody who can go to Capitol Hill and negotiate. So, that was part of the Leon Panetta and that worked, but more so after the midterm election campaign when the president had no choice but to deal with Newt Gingrich, to deal with the Republican senate, and they negotiated the balanced budget agreement.

They negotiated welfare reform. And many would say that President Clinton, it was a better presidency for him politically left him in great standing to run for re-election. The question is, why doesn't this president view the post election dynamics?

BLITZER: Bring in someone like who's done the job before like a Leon Panetta or a John Podesta or an Erskine --

BORGER: They don't ever want to do it again.

HENRY: When we talk to people close to him they stay away. I mean, this is a back-breaking job. We all talk about the hours we put in. It's nothing compared to what the chief of staff. The chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel is known for getting up at like 4:00 a.m., working out, getting to the White House by 5:30, 6:00 a.m. You're there until 8:00, 9:00, sometimes 10:00, and you work seven days a week, by the way.

You know, we've talked about these political stories, immigration reform, or health care reform. They're also dealing with potential terror attacks. They're getting calls at 2:00 a.m. about national security. This is a back-breaking job. People like Leon Panetta who've done it before don't want to come back, but he might be recruited.


HENRY: And I think the other thing that pay attention to is the fact that someone like Pete Rouse is behind the scenes. He's not somebody likely to go on the SITUATION ROOM or "John King USA" and really spread -- you know, push the message because he's not media guy, but there's some talk inside the White House why not split it up is I think you're indicating and have Pete Rouse stay on full time and be the chief of staff.

BORGER: With David Plouffe.

HENRY: And then Robert Gibbs is likely to leave press secretary and become a senior advisor, take David Axelrod's role early next year. He can go out and do the message. Pete Rouse can be the behind-the-scene.

BORGER: But it really depends on what the political environment is. I don't think this is a decision that the president is going to make until he sees what's the terrain is post-election. I mean, what if the White House surprised us and brought somebody in actually who was a moderate Republican who could reach out to Republicans in the --

KING: We're not bet on that going to a re-election campaign. Some people have mentioned Mark Warner, the former governor of Virginia, who's now in the Senate. He doesn't love the Senate that much because he's a governor. None of the governors --

BLITZER: He's a Democrat.

KING: He's a democrat. But trust me, I've talked to people close to Mark Warner who said. People close to John Podesta who say absolutely, no. The problem is what do you do, Wolf, when it's the president of the United States on the other end of the phone and he's calling, what do you do then?

BLITZER: The country needs you. It's hard to say no to the president of the United States, any president of the United States. Guys, thanks very much. Good discussion.

Stand by for a check of our top stories, including a terrifying landslide and a search for as many as 1,000 people who may be trapped right now.


BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick is monitoring some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. Deb, what else is going on?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, rescuers have recovered seven bodies and confirm that at least 100 people are missing following a massive mud slide in Southern Mexico. The collapse of the 650-foot wide hill sent barreling over hundreds of homes leaving many of them buried. Officials believe up to 1,000 people could be trapped. Heavy rain brought on by tropical storm Matthew has been pounding the region for the last two weeks. More rain is expected tomorrow.

And the late senator, Ted Stevens, has been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. The 86-year-old decorated World War II veteran was killed along with four others in an August plane crash. He was the longest serving Republican in U.S. Senate history.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating possible power steering failures in the popular Mini Cooper vehicle. Some drivers claim they lost power steering assistance or had trouble controlling the car. The problem could involve as many as 80,000, 2004 and 2005 models. BMW which owns Mini says it's aware of the investigation but has not yet received formal notification.

And the renowned Von Trap family is returning to television. The cast of the Oscar-winning movie, "The Sound of Music," will reunite for the fist time in 45 years on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" next month. Julie Andrews, Christopher Plumber, and others are expected to reveal the behind the scenes dirt from the making of the film and also discuss what they're doing now.

And Wolf, in the interest of full disclosure, I know pretty much all the words to pretty much all the songs.

BLITZER: You do a little bit of one of those songs for us right now.

FEYERICK: Yes, not on air. No. BLITZER: Sure?

FEYERICK: Positive.

BLITZER: OK. Later, we'll get that. Thanks very much.


BLITZER: So, what prompted a GOP icon Rush Limbaugh to start calling the president and I'm quoting him now, "Imam Obama."

Plus, a key Senate Republican is putting Democrats on notice. Why he could stand in the way of their agenda?



OBAMA: It was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead.


BLITZER: Unfortunately, we couldn't hear what the president was saying. I'd like to replay that clip as we get it ready. The president is speaking about his Christian belief earlier. And today, I want to bring in our "Strategy Session." Joining us are two CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and the Republican Strategist Mary Matalin.

Let me play that clip and I want to discuss what the president said and some of the perspective of what's going on right now. Listen to this.


OBAMA: I came to my Christian faith later in life. And it was because the -- the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to live.


BLITZER: All right. Mary, do you have any doubts about the president's sincerity in being a Christian?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: No, and he further said, which we didn't play, it was beautiful, that we get our salvation through God's grace. And part of Christianity is helping others find that grace and he talked about loving your neighbors as you love yourself. I'm paraphrasing, of course, but it was quite beautiful and quite striking, however, to what we had heard from previously during the campaign from his pulpit. So it's -- I wish he would -- many Americans wish he would talk more often and as eloquently about his faith.

BLITZER: I -- I raise the questions because Rush Limbaugh, among others, has been, I guess, you know, saying things about the president that the -- that the president clearly doesn't like. I want to play two clips for you, Donna, what Rush Limbaugh said on August 19 on his hugely popular radio program, and what he said today.


VOICE OF RUSH LIMBAUGH, THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW: If it was OK and even laudatory to call Bill Clinton America's first black president, why can't we call Imam Obama America's Muslim president?

George Soros is not pledging all this philanthropy. He's not trying to score points. He's trying to screw, and he's succeeding at it because he's bought the Democrat Party and Barack Hussein Imam Obama.


BLITZER: All right. Go ahead, Donna and react when you hear -- when you hear Rush Limbaugh calling the president not just Barack Hussein Obama, but Barack Hussein Imam Obama.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, first of all, I'm not going to react to Rush Limbaugh. I think the reason why Rush Limbaugh says those things is because he knows that the mainstream media and others will, you know, salivate and want to discuss it. But I want to talk about President Obama's faith because as president of the United States, he's given six public speeches on the role of faith and public life.

The first Easter prayer breakfast at the White House with Christian leaders to talk about his own love of Jesus. He's a committed Christian. He prays without ceasing. And I think of people to question his faith, question his religious values, it's just another personal attack on the president of the United States of America. So I'm appalled at those comments.

But you know what? In this polluted volatile political season, unfortunately, those kind of comments like Mr. Limbaugh and others will always attract media attention. And it's a sad statement about where we are today.

BLITZER: Are you as appalled as Donna is, Mary?

MATALIN: You know, from the very first week, I remember being on John King's show. From the very first week of the Obama administration, the Democrats have been trying to demonize Rush Limbaugh. And they succeeded in only driving people to his show where they find out that he's not hateful, he's not angry. He's a common sense conservative, and he's a wickedly brilliant satirist. And when they take this -- this humor-impaired grassy knoller approach to Rush Limbaugh, they -- they make themselves look bad.

He was calling it making those imam remarks in satire in response to Obama's support for what was then the Ground Zero mosque. And within three days of that, the mainstream press was blaming Rush Limbaugh for the doubling of Americans who are confused about the president's religion. That's not Rush Limbaugh's issue. Donna, if he gave six speeches, there's the six that people didn't hear. You cannot blame one radio show for the confusion of a third of America.

BRAZILE: Mary, look, the simple truth is in a Pew study recently, they blamed the media. They blamed the media for 60 percent of American people not knowing President Obama's faith. Look, I want to say something. I try not to demonize people because I want to know what people are saying, not what they're reacting to, but what they're saying. And the reason why I have tried not to react to everything that comes out of Rush Limbaugh's mouth or Sarah Palin's tweet, is because I believe it's irrelevant.

We need to create jobs, create opportunities for the American people, get our debt in order and to begin to figure out what we're going to do about the future. The more we talk about the so-called, you know, satirist is less time we talk about what we can do as Americans to create the kind of future our children deserve.

BLITZER: You want to respond to her?

MATALIN: You know what, Wolf, let me agree with Donna. Yes, I do because she's right and she's almost singular in her resistance to following the demonizing tactics. So, I want to exclude present company on that. And say, again, that she is right about what people are concerned about. When you're filling as much air time as much of the media have to and as much print as they have to, you get into a lot of extraneous conversations.

But whether or not anybody is going to cast their vote based on anything other than what Donna just said I think is remote. So, Donna, I agree with you and you are among the very few of your brethren that doesn't demonize.

BRAZILE: Because I live my faith, and I want to tell you something, Mary. There's a verse in the bible that I always live by. That's called John 8. He and I believe she without sin cast the first stone. I'm a sinner. That's why I stay at my church. But I hope that people will stop demonizing and maligning the president's religion because his faith is who he is.

It's a part of who he has become as a human being. And without that faith, I can tell you, President Obama would not be able to withstand the kind of criticism that comes after him each and every day.

BLITZER: Guys, we got to leave it there.

MATALIN: You know what, I agree with that.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

BLITZER: It's good. I love it when you two ladies agree on all these issues. It makes me feel good personally. And I know you're --

BRAZILE: Because Mary is a good person. She's a good person.

BLITZER: You're both excellent, excellent people. Thanks, guys, very, very much.

Jack Cafferty is asking, if President Obama runs against Sarah Palin in 2012, who will you vote for? Jack will be back in a moment.

Plus, new fuel for concerns -- the president of Afghanistan is unstable. I'll ask a diplomat and a psychiatrist about Hamid Karzai's mental state and emotional outburst.

And is the U.S. military unleashing one of its most effective weapons more often with deadly success? We're tracking new attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan.


BLITZER: Jack is back with the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, if President Obama runs against Sarah Palin in 2012, whom would you vote for?

Evelyn in Columbus, Ohio: no contest, Obama. I've never been a fan of those pay per view fights, but I'd pay big money to see Palin attempt to debate Obama.

Rose in Arizona: If my only two choices were Obama and Palin, I would vote for Palin. Not because that's what I really want, but my vote would be a vote against Obama. Right now, I think Palin is the lesser of the two evils. I'd vote for Mickey Mouse before I give Obama a second term.

Guy writes: Jack, that's like asking who would you like at quarterback, Drew Brees or Don Rickles? Obama has my vote now. If Palin wins the nomination, I might break the lever pulling it for Obama.

Paul writes: Voting for Sarah Palin would be like setting your hair on fire and putting it out with a hammer.

Ed in California: Yes, Jack, I'd vote for Caribou Barbie for president as long as she has Sabrina the teenaged witch as the VP. Are you serious? How self-destructive do you think Americans are? Don't answer that.

Susan in Florida writes: Palin and O'Donnell in 2012, ding bats unite.

Mike writes: Maybe instead of an election, we could settle the contest with a spelling bee.

Don say: it'll never happen. The presidential salary is not enough to attract Palin.

And Carmen in Alabama writes: An uneducated, delusional airhead or an eloquent successful statesman? Jack, you used to ask harder questions.

If you want to read more, we got a lot of mail. We always do when we ask about Ms. Palin, go to my blog, -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Smart and savvy responses you're getting, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Oh, yes, well, and funny. You know, people are just silly. Setting your hair on fire and putting it out with a hammer. Of course, it wouldn't take me as long as would you.

BLITZER: You still got a little bit. See you in a few moments, Jack. Thank you.

Warnings to the U.S. army may have been ignored in the case of alleged murder by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Stand by for more of the shocking findings of a new CNN investigation.


BLITZER: On Capitol Hill right now, top priority of First Lady Michelle Obama is at the center of a standoff, and it's not your typical political food fight. Let's go back to our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. There's an unusual twist in this dispute, Dana. What's going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You know, it isn't unusual, Wolf, for the White House's priorities to hit roadblocks here in Congress, but it is unusual that one of Michelle Obama's signature issues which is healthy school lunches for low-income children is hitting a snag, and the twist is that it's not Republicans who are bucking, it is liberal democrats.

What's going on is a group of about 100 Democrats signed a letter saying that they won't go for a child nutrition bill as it is written, and the kind of bill that they are being asked to vote for the senate bill, and the reason is because the first lady's initiative is paid for in part by taking over $2 billion from food stamp programs from the poor. Now, I spoke to Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern who is one of the members who signed that letter, and he said simply that he will not allow programs for the poor to be used as a quote "ATM."


REP. JIM MCGOVERN, (D) MASSACHUSETTS: Look, I want a robust child nutrition reauthorization bill. I want to support the first lady, but I don't want to, you know, rob Peter to pay Paul, You know, I don't want to feed some hungry people by taking away from other hungry people and that's the choice will be given.

It's kind of ironic that the offset for child nutrition is food stamps. You know, I mean, you're going to increase nutrition standards for children in school, but then you got to take it away from them at home. It just doesn't make any sense to me.


BLITZER: Dana, how hard is the first lady pushing for this?

BASH: I'm told she's actually working pretty hard. An aide to the first lady told me that she has been working the phones, calling the speaker, other Democratic leaders, other Democratic members of Congress. Her staff has been in meetings on this issue, but right now, Wolf, it is a stand off, and Democrats like Jim McGovern and others say, look, it's up to the White House right now to try to figure out another way to pay for the first lady's initiatives, which they say are commendable.

They absolutely agree with healthy initiatives, healthy food initiatives for children but not by paying for it with programs for the poor. So, right now, it's a standoff and really unclear whether or not this will get done in the hours left before the election when the Congress is left in session.

BLITZER: Not a whole lot of time left. Dana Bash on Capitol Hill, thank you.

You're in the SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, a disturbing twist to a chilling case. Did the U.S. army ignore warnings from inside an elite unit where soldiers are now accused of murdering Afghan civilians.

Also, the question that moved a man to tears as he pleaded with President Obama today. You're going to see how the president was able to use it to slam his political opponents.

And Mr. Obama's lengthy new interview in "Rolling Stone" magazine. He scolds fellow Democrats, had some harsh words for Fox News at the same time. We'll talk about it this hour with Arianna Huffington and Ben Stein.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.