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Awaiting President Obama in Iowa; A Whole New GOP Presidential Race; Interview With Tom Vilsack

Aired August 15, 2011 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Brooke, thanks very much.

Happening now, President Obama is expected here in Iowa any minute now to talk about the vote, what's going on, the economy, jobs. He's slamming Republicans along the way. We're standing by for his remarks here in this state, ground zero for the presidential campaign, at least for now.

Also, Republicans here in Iowa have helped reshape the race for the White House. This hour, the Republican candidates' strategies after Michele Bachmann's straw poll win, Rick Perry's big entrance and Tim Pawlenty's surprise exit.

And Indiana picking up the pieces right now from that deadly stage collapse at the state fair. New details on the investigation and why the show went on despite some powerful warnings of a powerful storm.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Decorah, Iowa.


And we want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world to Iowa. The state has pretty much been the center of a lot of political activity for Republicans over the past few days. President Obama is keeping it in the spotlight on this day. He's here getting ready to come into Iowa from Minnesota. He's coming to Decorah, the second stop in his three day, three state bus tour of the Midwest.

On his agenda, a lot of talking to voters about jobs, the economy and the debt crisis facing the United States.

Also on his agenda, a one-on-one interview with me tomorrow. We'll have much more on that. That's coming up.

We're standing by, though, for the president's town hall meeting here in the next hour. We'll have live coverage.

Right now, though, I'm joined by our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

She's been traveling with the president. You started the day in Minnesota. He had a town hall meeting there, Brianna.

And I watched it. He's getting a little bit more feisty in retorting, in going back, lashing back at the Republicans.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. He really stepped up the rhetoric. He was really just lambasting the paralyzing political climate in Washington and really blaming Republicans, that specifically looking back to the bruising debt ceiling battle. And, of course, as he's -- as he's facing a lot of criticisms from Republicans on jobs, we didn't hear any new proposals. He continued to outline ideas that we've been hearing him outline for some time -- infrastructure spending, extending unemployment benefits, extending the payroll tax cut. And what he said, Wolf, was that there isn't a shortage of ideas, but that Congress isn't acting, specifically looking at Republicans.

Here's some of what he said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But we just went through this debacle with the debt ceiling, an entirely self-inflicted wound. It wasn't something that was necessary. We had put forward a plan that would have stabilize our debt and our deficits for years to come. But because we've got a politics in which some folks in Congress -- not the folks who are here, but some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than America win.


KEILAR: And he's really, you can tell, trying to tap into some frustration. He said, I know you're frustrated. I'm frustrated, too. He was taking specifically about people who are frustrated about the debt ceiling debate. And, of course, people are frustrated about hearing just a lot of bad economic news, a seeming indication of that.

Specifically though, and this struck me, he really singled out almost the entire Republican presidential -- all of the candidates in the debate the other night. He specifically was talking about that one answer where he said all of these candidates were asked, would you go along with $1 in tax increases for $10 in spending cuts?

And they said no. And he said that wasn't common sense. So kind of criticizing all of them. Of course, Rick Perry wasn't in that debate.

BLITZER: Yes. And it's only just starting now.

From the White House perspective, this is seen as -- it's not a campaign trip. They're saying this is the president going out and speaking to the American people about issue number one, jobs.

KEILAR: Yes. They say it's not a campaign event. But you're here. It certainly feels a lot like a campaign event. It has this very hard political edge to it. But I think the other element to it is that the president is also trying to to capture some of the optimism.

When you look at the places he's going, Wolf, these five spots in Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, while national unemployment was at 9.1 percent, all of these counties are between, I think about 4.8 and the high 6s.

So one of the things the White House is trying to do is say there are things that are working in these places that aren't working in other places and trying to underline some of the positives. And this might allow them a better backup. And, of course, it does also help politically, because these are states that went for President Obama, especially Iowa being very significant.

BLITZER: And we're standing by for his arrival here in Decorah, right behind us. The president is going to have his town hall meeting. We'll have live coverage. You'll be here. Our analysts will be here.

Stand by. We're going to have much more on this part of the story coming up.

Also here in Iowa today, the Texas governor, Rick Perry. He's the newest member of the Republican presidential field. The Republican race isn't what it used to be after Perry's formal campaign announcement over the weekend and the results of the Iowa Straw Poll.

CNN's Jim Acosta is following the Republicans now seen as the top tier candidates.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. What a difference a weekend makes. Rick Perry jumps in, Tim Pawlenty jumps out. And all of a sudden, the real race for the GOP nomination is starting to come into focus.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Rick Perry is feeling the love in Iowa, whether it's high-fiving the kids at the state fair, affectionately patting the cheeks of CNN political reporter, Shannon Travis, or blowing a kiss to the man who's really in his sights, Mitt Romney.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: Give him my love.

ACOSTA: It was a response to Romney's feather soft jab at Perry earlier in the day, when the former Massachusetts governor and CEO suggested there's a difference between running a government and running a business.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think understanding how the economy works by having worked in the real economy is finally essential in the White House. And I hope people recognize that.

ACOSTA: Perry lobbed one back.

PERRY: What I would say is go take a look at his record when he was governor and look at my record when I'm governor. And then you've got some apples to apples.

ACOSTA: After Michele Bachmann's victory at the Iowa Straw Poll, "The Des Moines Register," like much of the political world, has boiled the race down to three frontrunners -- a top tier in the making. It's a fight Romney doesn't want.

The strategy up until now has been all about Obama. Take the president's listening tour in the Midwest. The Romney campaign e- blasted out this image, mocking the trip as a magical misery tour.

ROMNEY: Frankly, I think the American people would rather see him in Washington working on getting this economy going again. He seems to be more intent on trying to save his job.

ACOSTA: But Perry's fast start changes everything. In less than 48 hours, he announced his campaign, rolled out a bus...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Conservative to the core.


ACOSTA: -- and a new Web video.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: America's jobs governor, Rick Perry learned the values of hard work and faith in God as the son of tenant farmers in Paint Creek, Texas.

ACOSTA: His willingness to open up his Iowa campaign in the town where Bachmann was born, specifically to go after her Tea Party base of support, is a sign the 2012 deck has been reshuffled.

PERRY: You Tea Party types, you all are -- you all are angry. We're not angry. We're indignant.

ACOSTA: All bets are off.

MICHELLE BACHMANN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Tea Party has been the best antidote to the out of control spending that we have seen. Rather than dissing the Tea Party, we should be praising the Tea Party.

ACOSTA: Leaving little time for one more wild card to make her move.


ACOSTA: But there are many months to go until the voting begins in Iowa next February. Perry will now be vetted like never before -- a process Bachmann and Romney knows all too well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

Jim Acosta reporting for us.

Let's bring in Jack Cafferty right now. He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, THE CAFFERTY FILE: One other note. Ron Paul finished second in the Iowa Straw Poll -- a very strong second to Michelle Bachmann.

Now that Texas governor, Rick Perry, is officially a candidate for president, we thought it might be a good idea to spin through some of his greatest hits here in The Cafferty File.

In a column for the Daily Beast, our buddy, CNN political contributor and fellow Texan, Paul Begala, says that Perry, who, quote, "Threw his hair in the ring this weekend," will say or do absolutely anything to win. That includes calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme and saying that both it and Medicare are unconstitutional.

Perry has also flirted with secession and reportedly presided over the execution of one of his constituents who was probably innocent.

In questioning Perry's intellectual capacity for the job, Paul Begala points to his very mediocre grades at Texas A&M or, as Begala calls it, "this cute remedial school we have in Texas." That's a quote.

One of the things Perry likes to talk about is how Texas leads the nation in jobs creation. But Paul Krugman, in a "New York Times" piece, calls the so-called economic miracle a myth.

It turns out Texas' unemployment rate is higher than the states like Massachusetts and New York. And one in four Texans has no health insurance. That's the highest rate in the nation.

Krugman writes that the idea of a Texas miracle comes from the economic effects of population growth. Since the population has been growing faster in Texas than it has in the rest of the country, job growth is also higher there than in other states. And since the rapid growth in the Texas workforce keeps wages low, well, lots of companies want to move their production there.

Almost 10 percent of Texas workers earn minimum wage or less. In fact, there's a joke down there about Texas job creation that goes, "Sure, Rick Perry has created thousands of jobs. I'm working three of them." .

Here's the question -- are you buying what Rick Perry is selling?

Go to and post a comment on my blog or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page.

BLITZER: A good Facebook page, indeed.

All right, Jack.

Thanks very much. We're standing by for the president of the United States. He's going to be arriving here fairly soon in Decorah, Iowa.

We're going to listen in on his town hall meeting. This is over here at the Seed Save Exchange. There's a nice barn right there.

The president will be there taking questions from folks who have gather here. And he'll be making an opening statement. You'll want to hear it and see it. We'll have live coverage coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Don't forget, I'll be interviewing the president one-on-one tomorrow here in Iowa. We'll air the interview in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. Eastern.

Much more on the world of politics coming up. But there's important news we're following right now, including a horrible tragedy in Indiana. Officials there say they're not looking for scapegoats right now, but they are looking for answers after that deadly stage collapse at the state fair. Witnesses say they're baffled that a disaster like this could happen. We're investigating. We'll have the very latest for you.

And who's behind some major new deadly attacks in Iraq?

Stay with us.



BLITZER: We're here in Northeastern Iowa right now, Decorah, Iowa, to be precise, at the Seed Saver Exchange. You're looking at live pictures. The President of the United States will be here fairly soon. He'll be answering folks' questions, people's questions here in Decorah. He's getting ready for a Town Hall, his second of the day. We'll have live coverage here in Iowa.

Other news, though, that we're following right now including some chilling information coming out of Egypt. The world got another look today at the ousted Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. He was wheeled into a courtroom cage once again but this time it may be the last time we see him. The judge has barred television cameras from the rest of Mubarak's corruption trial. CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom is joining us now, live from Cairo. Mohammed, tell us what happened and -- and the reaction to the judge's decision to bar cameras.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Well, Wolf, it was the second hearing in the Mubarak trial. Again, a lot of shock today, the fact that the former President was in that courtroom being treated as a common criminal here in Egypt. There is a criminal defendant in that iron and mesh cage in the courtroom along with his two sons, Gamal and Alaa. A lot of procedural issue covered in the courtroom today but what really shocked people was the decision made by the judge, as you mentioned, to bar cameras from the rest of the trial. The trial has been adjourned until September 5th. This has really caused a lot of outrage, especially among activists here in Egypt. They're saying, where is the transparency that the military counsel that is currently leading the interim government here promised to the citizens of Egypt. They are concerned that because cameras won't be allowed for the rest of the trial, people won't be allowed to follow what's going on.

Now, on the other hand, there are other activists that are saying that this is a good thing, they are saying that because they believe this is a show trial, that this is a big circus, a distraction, the fact that cameras won't be allowed in there will still allow the journalists that are in there to cover the trial but the people of Egypt can go ahead and focus on what needs to be done to rebuild Egypt post revolution where they can focus on the human rights abuses, they can focus on putting pressure on the government to make sure that citizens' requests are being met, and that Egypt can be rebuilt once more. Wolf?

BLITZER: Mohammed, based on what you've seen so far, does this look like it -- it's going to be a speedy trial or it's going to take a while.

JAMJOOM: Wolf, based on what we've seen, it looks like it's going to take quite a while. The Egyptian judicial system on a good day moves at a glacial pace. They've never had to deal with a trial of this nature. This is historic. It's unprecedented. It's considered the trial of the century here. To try to corral all of these people into this courtroom for, not only the trial of Former President Hosni Mubarak, but the Former Interior Minister and other former members of the regime.

That's something that's a very big undertaking. So far, in two hearings for Former President Hosni Mubarak, it's taken a long time, there've been a lot of lawyers present, a lot of procedural questions that still haven't been answered. Today, you had defense attorneys asking the judge to try to get 1600 witnesses. If that were to be granted, that request, that would mean that this trial could drag on for years so, right now, it's really not looking like it could be a speedy process, even on the best of days. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right Mohammed, we'll stay in close touch with you. Mohammed Jamjoom reporting live from Cairo. Elsewhere in the Middle East right now the worst violence to hit Iraq in months. Lisa Sylvester's monitoring that. Some of the other top stories in The Situation Room right now. Lisa, what do you have?

LISA SYLVESTER, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Hi Wolf, well, Iraqi officials say at least 75 people are dead and more than 250 wounded following a string of attacks across the country. The reported 20 bombings marked the middle of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and comes just weeks after Iraqi officials agreed to ask U.S. troops to stay beyond the January 1st deadline for withdrawal. There's no claim of responsibility for those attacks.

The LA Times reports that officials of San Francisco's BART transit system are warning of more possible cyber attacks after a massive online security breach. The hacking group known as Anonymous has claimed responsibility for yesterday's hit which obtained the personal information of 2400 customers. The FBI is investigating and the Homeland Security Department is being brought in for assistance.

Casey Anthony will appeal a Florida court's order that she serve one year of supervised probation on a prior check fraud conviction. Anthony, who was acquitted of murder charges in the 2008 death of her daughter Caylee, was previously charged with stealing a friend's checkbook and writing checks for more than $600. Her attorneys are arguing that she served that time while she was in custody.

And, legendary rock band KISS is the latest to join a growing list of star-studded performers paying tribute to the late pop star Michael Jackson in October. The concert, which will be held in Wales features music greats like Christina Aguilera, Smokey Robinson, and Cee Lo Green. Members of the Jackson family are also expected to perform and that concert date is October 8th. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks very much Lisa. We'll check back with you. Other news we're following. Remember those who lost their lives at a horrifying concert stage collapse. Just ahead, the family of one of those killed is now speaking out. And, thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from powerful lobbying groups in Washington. Could it have a stake in how the Congressional super committee solves the U.S. debt crisis. Stay with us. We're here in Decorah, Iowa, I should say, where we're getting ready for a Town Hall with the President of the United States. He'll be here at the Seed Saver Exchange answering Iowans' questions. That's coming up soon. We'll have live coverage right here in The Situation Room.


BLITZER: Back in Washington, a dozen lawmakers will have their work cut out for them when they start trying to find ways to cut the federal deficit dramatically. We've been taking a closer look at members of the new so-called super committee and where their political cash is coming from. Let's bring back Lisa Sylvester. She's following the money, which she does very, very well. All right, Lisa, where's all this money coming from for these politicians?

SYLVESTER: Well, first off, you know, Wolf, this committee of 12, they're going to have to pick winners and losers and the full House and the Senate will not be able to offer any amendments or make any kind of changes to whatever compromise they ultimately come up with. So, it all comes down to this committee and some of the members of the committee have deep ties to special interests.


The Congressional super committee of 12 has been tasked with slicing $1.5 trillion from the deficit. Aside from feeling the pressure from their home state constituents, they are also under pressure from special interest groups. AT&T and other wireless carriers, for example, want the federal government to auction off valuable radio spectrum, arguing it would be a great revenue generator for the federal government but it would also be hugely profitable to the communications companies desperate for more airways for the next generation of portable devices.

Three of the twelve members have received generous campaign contributions from AT&T over the years. More than $77,000 to Representative James Clyburn, more than $99,000 to Representative Fred Upton, and more than $53,000 to Representative Jeb Hensarling. Bill Ellison is with the public watchdog group The Sunlight Foundation.

BILL ELLISON, SUNLIGHT FOUNDATION: When you kind of look around, there's a lot of different players that have contributed to these members of Congress that have a real stake in the outcome of these negotiations.

SYLVESTER: The anti-tax group Club For Growth is the number one campaign contributor to two members of the super committee, Senator Pat Toomey, who used to head the organization, has received more than $850,000. Club For Growth has given Senator Jon Kyl more than $155,000. Wall Street has contributed more than any other industry to the campaigns of the twelve Congressional members. Multinational corporations like Boeing, Microsoft, and Ford Motor Company have also figured prominently.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: AT&T, General Electric, major multinational corporations have a lot at stake in this decision because if there are tax breaks that are pulled back or if there are tax increases that could mean a big dent in potential profits. Whirlpool receives a reported $300 million in tax credits from the federal government for increasing production of high- efficiency appliances. The credit, which is set to expire in December accounts for about a third of Whirlpool's earnings this year. Whirlpool was co-founded by Representative Fred Upton's grandfather, also one of the twelve on the super committee.

Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen's top two campaign contributors are high powered D.C. legal and lobbying firms, Arent Fox and Arnold & Porter.

SYLVESTER: Are they beholden to these special interests?

ELLISON: I think what's clear, though, is that all of these donors have a certain level of access to the members of Congress, especially the big donors. Members know who their biggest donors are and they're going to be listening to these people.


SYLVESTER: You know, then there's the revolving door. This is something quite common that we see in Washington, D.C. Senator Max Baucus and Senator John Kerry, both have about a dozen former staffers who are registered lobbyists, according to The Sunlight Foundation. Of course, that's going to make it easier for them to pick up the phone and to talk to their former colleagues but, if you look at the campaign contribution list, you know who is not well represented among the twelve on the committee? It's the defense companies, Wolf, and they certainly have a lot at stake here.

BLITZER: They certainly do because if there's no agreement, for one thing, they're going to get a huge cut in defense spending if these twelve members of the super committee can't come up with a plan that goes through the Congress, both Houses, and signed into law by the President, there's going to be significant Defense Department cuts. Lisa, thanks very much.

President Obama may be feeling a bit uneasy right now after seeing a new round of poll numbers. Is he running scared? Our strategy session. That's coming up. And, after the death of Osama bin Laden, there's a new reason for the United States to be suspicious about Pakistan. Details coming up.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're here in Decorah, Iowa, where any minute now the president of the United States is expected to arrive for this, his second stop on a three-day bus trip. When his town hall meeting happens, we'll bring it to you live.

Stand by for that.

Also, in our next hour coming up, the message that President Obama is seizing while on the road here in the Midwest, why the millionaire Warren Buffett now says it's time to "stop coddling the super rich."

And two top Republican presidential contenders outlining controversial visions for United States troops on the front lines. Are they simply out of touch with the U.S. military? What's going on?

Stay with us. Lots coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just days after jumping into the Republican race for the White House, the competition is heating up between Texas Governor Rick Perry and a key opponent, the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney. Our political reporter, Shannon Travis, caught up with the Perry campaign trail earlier in the day. Listen to this exchange.


SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Romney took a swipe at you today saying that he has private sector experience and that makes him better qualified to create jobs.


TRAVIS: What do you think about that though, sir, that he has private sector --

PERRY: I think oranges and apples. Running a state is different from running a business.

TRAVIS: But he will make that a centerpiece of his campaign.

PERRY: What I would say is, go take a look at his record when he was governor and look at my record when I'm governor, and then you've got some apples to apples. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala. He's a senior strategist for the Democratic fundraising groups Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. Also joining us, Republican strategists Leslie Sanchez. She's a founder and CEO of Impacto Group.

Guys, thanks very much.

Paul, first to you. It looks like there's no love lost already between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

What do you make of this?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I have to say, just the optics, Rick Perry did not look too terrible rattled. As we say back home in Texas, this ain't his first rodeo. But as you start to compare the jobs records between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, you're really comparing terrible to awful.

Mitt Romney was 47th out of 50 states when he was governor of Massachusetts. Rick Perry took over, unemployment was 4.2 percent in Texas. It's 8.2 percent now. And the huge percentage of the jobs that have been created in his state of Texas have been minimum wage jobs with no benefits. His state leads America in the percentage of people uninsured, the percentage of children uninsured.

So you've got two really terrible jobs records there between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, and I hope they fight it out between terrible and awful.

BLITZER: Let me bring Leslie in, in a moment, but in the past couple years, hasn't Texas created more jobs than almost -- as many jobs as half the jobs of the whole country?

BEGALA: There has been a huge increase in the price of oil, which always drives employment in Texas. It's bad for the rest of America, but very good for my beloved home state. And it's had a huge increase in population, which is also a very good thing for Texas.

But when economists take a look at it, they say these aren't jobs you can raise a family on. They're not family values jobs. They're paying minimum wage and no benefits, and that's not the kind of future that we need.

In fact, Texas' education has really been defunded and denigrated under Rick Perry, and that's going to be the future of jobs, not low- wage, no benefit jobs that you can't raise a family on. So I think at least that's my view as a Democrat.

Democrats I think have a very strong case to make. I would caution Rick Perry against running on the so-called Texas miracle. The Massachusetts miracle didn't work for Mike Dukakis when Massachusetts and he was governor in my party. And I don't think the Texas miracle can stand up to any kind of serious scrutiny for Rick Perry.

BLITZER: All right, Leslie. Is that good advice for Rick Perry from Paul Begala?

LESLIE SANCHEZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Not quite. That's a minority voice, and where Democrats are a minority in a very red state.

I mean, the reality is that this is a shining example. I would like to look at the glass more half full, Paul, than the opposite.

It is leading in a way because, I think, Governor Perry did a few different things. He looked at the situation back in 2010 when he was putting his campaign together, talked to his team internally, and they said look, we're going to build an infrastructure, put dollars there, recruit businesses, because we know we have less regulation. More businesses are inclined to bring their jobs here, have increased revenues.

And for as much as you say about these types of wages and these jobs, I think there's some discrepancy there, Paul, because if somebody hasn't had a job in two years, we're teetering in an economy, looking at possibly a second dip, people want jobs. And I think whether they have to work one or two, they want the opportunity to be able to feed their families.

With respect to education, reform has been really a hallmark of the national education system. Not all things are great, but especially when you look at minority students and minorities in the state, there is opportunity. That's what people are going to be looking for. Do you have the credibility on a national level?

BLITZER: All right.

SANCHEZ: Go ahead, Wolf. Sorry.

BLITZER: Let me move to President Obama, because he's got some serious problems right now.

In the latest Gallup poll, that tracking poll, he's down around 40 percent, some say 39 percent, 41 percent over a weeklong period. Not very good numbers, his lowest so far since he was elected, Paul.

But maybe more significant, look at this. Among Democrats in our own CNN/ORC poll, Democrats' choice for nomination right now, 70 percent of the Democrats want Barack Obama to be their choice for the nomination, 28 percent another Democrat. But back in August -- back in June, excuse me, 81 percent said it should be Barack Obama.

He's gone down 11 points. How worrisome should that number be for Democrats?

BEGALA: Well, this is the summer of his discontent. I think Democrats ought to take this very seriously. I'm quite sure the Obama campaign does. I'm not allowed to talk to them, because as you mentioned, I advise one of those PACs that is supporting President Obama, so we have to be independent. I can't tell you I've talked to them, but I know those men and women reasonably well from years past.

And the only way to run is to run scared. And when your approval rating is 41 percent, you better run scared.

Now, calm down. That's about where Bill Clinton was. That's about where Ronald Reagan was at this stage of their presidencies.

So I wouldn't panic, but they better take this seriously. And what they need to do is take the fight to the Republicans.

Put the president's job-creating plan out there and then contrast it with the Republican plan which would, Rick Perry says, do away with Social Security and Medicare. He thinks they're unconstitutional. So I would put the Perry record, the Romney record, the Bachmann record up there, contrast it with the president's vision for creating jobs, and then you've got a campaign that's a choice, not a referendum.

BLITZER: All right.

Leslie, the great advantage the president has is he is the president, and there's the advantage of being an incumbent. And I suspect he's going to have a lot more money to run on than the Republican nominee, whoever that might be. There's still a long time to go, so he can get his campaign organized.

SANCHEZ: You know, it's really contingent on the economy. I think all of us, fundamentally, Republicans, Democrats, agree on that.

And it's interesting. When you're talking about vision and being able to make those choices, as Paul was alluding to, people are going to look at the facts.

When they look at the type of economic albatross the president is faced with, who is going to be more credible on the idea of delivering and moving America forward? You're talking about two-thirds of the country right now believing that we're heading in the wrong direction.

He's going to Iowa State. He won by what, nine points three years ago? And you have 61 percent of Independent voters say they do not support the direction the president is moving in.

He has some serious problems. There's an advantage for Republicans. In the terms of credibility on creating jobs, it's going to come down to, who has the best leadership, who has the best opportunity to strengthen America?

BLITZER: Leslie and Paul, guys, thanks very much.

Behind me you can see these live pictures. We'll show you what's going on here in Decorah, Iowa.

The president is getting to roll into this state. He's coming in from Minnesota, not very far away.

We'll have live coverage of his town hall right here at the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. Stand by for that.

We're also getting ready to hear from the family of a victim in that stage collapse in Indiana. He died making sure the show went on.

Stay with us for that.


BLITZER: Indiana State Fair reopened for business today with a memorial service for the five people who lost their lives in that horrifying concert stage collapse over the weekend. At least 40 others were injured.

CNN National Correspondent Susan Candiotti is in Indianapolis right now at the scene of this tragedy.

Our hearts go out to all those folks, Susan. What happened? What do we know about this?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we don't know much more, but there are a lot of questions that are coming up, Wolf. Certainly cotton candy is selling and the Ferris wheel is spinning. But there is an air of sadness here tonight.

You see that tangled pile of steel over my shoulder. That used to be the sound stage. And there are questions about whether this tragedy could have been avoided.


CANDIOTTI (voice-over): As relatives of those killed and injured struggle with their grief, they're also struggling to make sense of what they call the senseless.

RANDY BYRD, BROTHER KILLED IN STAGE COLLAPSE: The only question I would have at this point was why?

CANDIOTTI: Families are questioning why someone did not pull the plug on the concert before a wind gust of up to 70 miles an hour snapped the stage like a toothpick, with the rigging collapsing into the crowd.

BYRD: There was a great deal of a lack of communication going on until, at the spur of the moment, it came in so quickly that nobody really was able to act and get the orders put out that need to be put out.

CANDIOTTI: Fifty-one-year-old Nathan Byrd, father of two, worked the rigging. He didn't make it.

(on camera): Nathan Byrd had been around grandstands and stages like this one for 25 years. They called him "Save the Show Nate." On Saturday night, he died when the rigging collapsed on top of him. His family says his death could have been avoided.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nathan was the kind of guy that would push people out of the way of danger and take it on himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was fearless. He loved his job and he was a soldier.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Byrd was one of five people killed when the scaffolding collapsed, and spectators rushed back to the stage to help. Indiana's governor has said the accident was caused by a freak of nature. Officials were aware of an approaching storm and said they were getting ready to evacuate the concert crowd when the killer wind struck.

Among other questions, was the concert stage and its rigging inspected? Fair organizers say they're not sure. The Indiana State Police, leading the investigation, says it doesn't yet know who built what on the stage.

Indiana's Department of Homeland Security, which inspects carnival rides, tells CNN it knows of no state agency responsible for the safety of stage construction, rigging, or scaffolding at entertainment venues. Mid America Sound, which was involved in the stage's construction, issued a statement calling the event devastating. "We have started our own investigation, using expert engineers from Chicago, as we try to understand as best we can what happened Saturday night."

For the Byrd family, answers cannot come soon enough.

(on camera): Is there anger? Is there confusion?

LORETTA BYRD, SON KILLED IN STAGE COLLAPSE: Not a lot of anger, but just hurt. I feel hurt because of everything that happened for Nathan and all the people that were hurt.


CANDIOTTI: For now, investigators are making no public statements, and there's no telling how long their work will take and how long it will take to get answers, answers that families so desperately want -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Susan Candiotti with a heartbreaking story.

Susan, thanks very much.

The president of the United States has now crossed the border from Minnesota into Iowa. He's about 15 miles away from where we are right now, here in Decorah. You're looking at live pictures.

We're awaiting the president. He's going to be holding a town hall meeting here, talking about jobs, jobs, jobs.

We'll have live coverage. That's coming up. Stay with us. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

We're in Decorah, Iowa, where we're waiting for the president of the United States. He's due to hold a town hall meeting right behind me in the next hour. He just crossed the border into Iowa from Minnesota.

Let's talk about what's going on though in this state. If anyone knows politics here, it would be the former governor, the current agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack. He's joining me live here in Decorah.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us. I don't know if I like calling you Mr. Secretary or Governor.

What do you prefer?

TOM VILSACK, AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: It doesn't make any difference.

BLITZER: All right. You spent eight years as governor of Iowa, so you know this state.


BLITZER: Let me pick your brain a little bit politically and do a little analysis of what the Republicans are up to. Were you surprised in this straw poll that Michele Bachmann came out on top?

VILSACK: Not really. Michele Bachmann has got an Iowa connection, and she does a very good job of building up support.

But, you know, frankly, that straw poll has passed. And I think really what folks are really focusing on are the jobs.

I think you mentioned in your lead-in it is about the jobs. And the president is coming here today to talk about jobs in rural America. And I really appreciate the fact that he's putting the spotlight on a part of country that often gets ignored when we talk about the economy.

Sixteen percent of America's population, but 44 percent of America's military, Wolf. This is the heart and soul of America. And it's important for us to put the focus on jobs in rural America.

BLITZER: How is unemployment here in rural America?

VILSACK: Well, the Iowa unemployment is good. It's about 6 percent. But historically, rural America has had an higher unemployment rate, also higher poverty rates.

That's why it's important and necessary for the president's efforts, which are historic in terms of the investments in rural America, to continue. We're going to have a series of announcements over the course of the next couple of days as part of this forum and as part of this tour to focus on getting more small business development in rural America and get more jobs.

BLITZER: You've spent some quality time with the president over the past couple of days. So how is he doing? When he looks at these poll numbers, 39 percent job approval, 40 percent job approval, that's pretty low given where he was not that long ago.

VILSACK: You know, the president's focus really, Wolf, is not on poll numbers or on the next election. It's on getting jobs today.

He had a great event earlier in Minnesota. I think he's going to have a wonderful event here.

He's looking forward to the forum. He's going to be able to listen tomorrow to a number of key rural leaders about their concerns, steps that we have to take beyond the 10,000 small businesses that have been helped in this administration, beyond the broadband expansion that's taken place, beyond the renewable energy projects which are part of the fabric of America. You're going to see a lot more of that.

BLITZER: He carried your state, Iowa, decisively in 2008, but right now he could be in trouble in this state, carrying it -- if he doesn't carry Iowa, Minnesota, states like that, Ohio, for that matter, he could be in trouble.

VILSACK: I can't speak for the president on this, Wolf, but can I tell you that I'm confident that his people understand and appreciate the contribution and the investment that we've made in rural America. Thirty-five thousand farmers, with assistance from my department, over 400,000 people who got home loans through the USDA, when we start talking about those numbers of people who have been helped, I think it's going to make a big difference.

BLITZER: So, so far, at least in the first town hall that we heard today, he repeated some of his initiatives. Some of them modest, some of them not so modest, that he said before.

I didn't hear a new bold initiative to create jobs. Is there something -- you're a member of the cabinet -- that's in the works we can expect to hear from the president fairly soon?

VILSACK: Over the course of the next several days you're going to hear a number of proposals that the president is going to lay out that will increase job opportunities and send a clear message that there is a focus on rural America. This is obviously the place where most of our food and most of our feed is produced, but it's also going to be a place where a good deal of our fuel is produced. And you're going to hear more about that.

How can we build a biofuel industry that weans ourselves off of dependence on foreign oil? You're going to hear a lot about that.

BLITZER: But is it going to require a whole lot of spending? Because you know the Republicans in the House of Representatives, they've got a big majority there. They're not going to vote for a whole lot of new spending.

VILSACK: This isn't about new spending. We have to spend less, but we have to invest wisely. And I think you're going to find that the initiatives we're talking about are not necessarily about new spending, but by directing that spending and focusing it and leveraging it with additional resources.


BLITZER: Is this an initiative he can do through an executive order, just signing it, or will he need congressional approval?

VILSACK: He started the initiative by an executive order that created the Rural Council. It's a cabinet level council, first in the history of our country, and he's challenged his cabinet members to work together.

How can you cooperate, integrate and coordinate your programs more effectively to provide service? I think you're going to see a lot of examples of that in the next couple of days and throughout the course of the next several weeks.

BLITZER: Who would be the strongest opponent, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann?

VILSACK: I'll let the Republicans decide that.

BLITZER: Diplomatic answer from the former governor of Iowa.

You've got a beautiful state. We love coming here to Iowa every four years. You come here a lot more often than that.

VILSACK: We're proud of it.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much, Governor. Mr. Secretary, thanks very much.

VILSACK: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: New comments by Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann may -- repeat, may -- be raising some red flags over at the Pentagon, and she's not the only Republican presidential candidate saying some rather controversial things about the military and the president. Stand by.

And concerns that the brazen kidnapping of an American citizen in Pakistan was an inside job. We have new information coming in.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Are you buying what Texas Governor Rick Perry is selling?

Doug in Miller Place, New York, "We have over 300 million people in this country. Are you telling me the best candidates we have to offer are Obama, Romney, Bachmann and now this guy Perry? It's a sad, sad state of affairs."

"My brother lives in Texas. He tells me that Perry's intelligence makes Bush look like a Nobel laureate."

David in Missouri writes, "Absolutely, Jack. It's not that I don't like Obama. It's that I don't want to live in a socialist country crushed by a government that knows what's better for me whether I like it or not. So I'll vote for Rick Perry so that I can be free."

John in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes, "Of course not, but many will buy Perry's look and high energy. Substance need not apply."

Karen writes on Facebook, "Oh, yes. Let's vote him in because Texas has only 8.2 percent unemployment and 10 percent of all jobs are minimum wage. That sounds like the solution America needs to the economic crisis. Read my lips: no new Texans."

D. writes, "Judging by how much this man is hated by every facet of the left wing, including most of the comments here, I say, yes, I'm buying what he's selling. Nothing I love more than seeing loony lefties go crazy over what anybody on the right says or does or thinks. I say to Rick Perry, do not back down."

Mia writes, "Buying? I wouldn't take it if he was giving it away."

Carl says, "No thanks, Jack. I'll pass. Don't want to over- fertilize my lawn."

And Oscar writes, "Perry is an incompetent narcissist from a backwards state. I predict he'll be our next president."

If you want to read more on this, you can go to my blog,, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.