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2012 Candidates at War; Political Fight Over Afghanistan; Much of Vermont 'Wiped off the Map'; Colonel Gadhafi Still At Large; President Obama's Half-Uncle Arrested for Drunk Driving; Does Mitt Romney Need Rick Perry?; Syria's Deadly Weapons Stockpile

Aired August 30, 2011 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much.

Happening right now, the 2012 candidates at war. Two of President Obama's leading Republican rivals slam his next policies as America prepares to mark a decade of deadly and costly military battles.

Plus, trapped by rising water -- hundreds of people in the Northeast are desperate to escape the flooding and the damage unleashed by Hurricane Irene. We're tracking the rescues and the danger right now.

And we'll put the arrest of the president's uncle on a DUI charge in perspective this hour -- his relationship with his -- with the first family, his legal problems and whether they matter to most Americans.

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

Up first this hour, a preview of the very tough political debate over national security that will unfold between President Obama and his Republican challenger, whoever that might be. The commander-in- chief defending his record today while two leading GOP candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, have been blasting him.

It's no coincidence that war and foreign policy are getting more attention on the campaign trail, with the 10 year milestone of the 9/11 attacks only a few days away.

Let's bring in CNN's Jim Acosta.

He's watching all of this unfold.

And we know the economy will be issue number one. But national security will be a key debating point for the Democratic and Republican candidates.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It's flared up recently with Libya. It also flared up with the killing of Osama bin Laden. So it's still important, Wolf.

But, like you said, with so much attention on the economy lately, foreign policy has taken a bit of a back seat on the campaign trail. But not today.


ACOSTA (voice-over): It was something of a debate that had three different moments. President Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry all sounding off on foreign policy, all revealing some of their battle plans for 2012.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We can't lead the world by hoping that our enemies will hate us less.

ACOSTA: In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Romney stuck mainly to his attack the president playbook, accusing Mr. Obama of being an American apologist who slashes defense spending.

ROMNEY: Have we ever had a president who was so eager to address the world with an apology on his lips and doubt in his heart?

ACOSTA: No longer the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, Romney delivered a jab on the weak economy that seemed aimed at Perry, his newest rival.

ROMNEY: Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don't know how to get us out.

ACOSTA: Taking his own campaign-style speech to the American Legion, President Obama appeared to tick off his greatest hits -- winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while helping to bring down Moammar Gadhafi and taking out Osama bin Laden. But the president was careful about who should get the credit.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, our troops achieved our greatest victory yet in the fight against those who attacked us on 9/11, delivering justice to Osama bin Laden.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: He basically says, come on, you're saying I'm not a tough guy, you're saying I'm just too weak in the knees to be decisive or to stand up for our country, that's absurd. And as Exhibit A, I give you bin Laden's head on a platter.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: It's not our interests to go it alone.

ACOSTA: In his own speech to the VFW, Rick Perry sounded as if his foreign policy might steer clear.




ACOSTA: -- of the policies another Texan brought to the White House.

PERRY: I do not believe that America should fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism.

ACOSTA: But when Perry suggested he would bypass the United Nations, if needed, to defend American interests, he borrowed from Bush.

PERRY: We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multilateral debating societies.


BUSH: The United Nations must make the resolve, must be resolved to deal with this person, must resolve itself to be something more than the League of Nations, must resolve itself to be more than just a debating society.


O'HANLON: My guess is that Perry is aware of where the American electorate is. And the American electorate is tired of war.


ACOSTA: But foreign policy successes don't always translate into election victories. Just ask President George H.W. Bush, who kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait only to lose reelection to Bill Clinton, in a large part because of the economy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: When -- then when our contributor, James Carville, working for Bill Clinton's campaign, coined the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid."

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: That guided the Clinton campaign, which defeated the incumbent president back in 1992.

ACOSTA: Right.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Stay with CNN to see the Republican presidential candidates face- off in less than two weeks. I'll be the moderator when CNN hosts the debate, along with the Tea Party Express and several Tea Party groups in Tampa, Florida. That's Monday, September 12th. The CNN/Tea Party Express debate, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

President Obama and Mitt Romney zeroed in on the war in Afghanistan during their dueling national security speeches today.

Listen to this excerpt.


OBAMA: And I've started to draw down our forces in Afghanistan. We'll bring home 33,000 troops by next summer and bring home more troops in the coming years. (APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: As our mission transitions from combat to support, Afghans will take responsibility for their own security. And the longest war in America history will come to a responsible end.



ROMNEY: In Afghanistan, the president has chosen to disregard the counsel of the generals on the ground. I don't know of a single military adviser to President Obama who recommended the withdrawal plan that he's chosen. And that puts the success at our soldiers and our mission at greater risk.


BLITZER: Let's bring in CNN's Nick Paton Walsh.

He's joining us now live from Kabul in Afghanistan -- Nick, while the politicians are debating here, a lot -- a lot more American troops are dying in Afghanistan.

What's the latest?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this month of August has been the worst month of this nearly 10 year war for American troops. Sixty-six dead, the majority of those caused by that one terrible helicopter crash earlier on this month.

And, really, I think numbers like this don't show that there's been a sudden change or explosion of violence on the ground, but they really do undermine the Obama administration's idea that things here are improving. Really, if it's possible to hand security over to the Afghans, then why are more American troops dying here than ever before -- worse even than the height of violence last summer?

So certainly numbers like this are going to push the ugly truth of what's happening here under the spotlight in that heated election campaign next year -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You've been there for a few years, Nick.

Is violence really trending upward right now?

WALSH: You know, there's very disparate figures here. NATO will wheel out some quite complicated numbers and suggests there are slight improvements. I mean take this, for example. They recently said that in 12 of the last 16 weeks, there was less violence than in exactly the same period last year. Follow that, if you can.

But on the other side, we have the United Nations, who've said that the first six months of this year were the worst on record, over 1,400 Afghans dying. I think, also, there is a slight concern amongst some people. The insurgency hasn't been as extraordinarily violent as people have seen it in the past. The targets certainly here in Kabul have been chosen, symbolically, perhaps -- a hotel, the British consulate -- to show that the insurgency is capable of attacking precisely and being effective.

And I think there are some people worried that maybe there could be worse violence in store ahead, as perhaps the Taliban try and show that they have more fight in them, as the Americans begin to withdraw and that vital reelection campaign begins -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's not lose sight of the fact, also, the United States still spending more than $2 billion a week, more than $100 billion a year in Afghanistan.

Nick Paton Walsh in Kabul.

Thanks very much.

Back here in the United States, search and rescue teams working frantically right now in New Jersey, as floodwaters unleashed after Hurricane Irene keep rising. The Passaic River is expected to crest today at a dangerously high level. About 1,700 New Jersey residents have been evacuated.

Hundreds of people remain trapped by record flooding in Vermont.

Big sections of the Northeast are underwater because of Irene. The death toll from the storm is climbing, with at least 41 people killed in 11 states.

Obama administration officials got an aerial tour today of the damage in Vermont, Virginia and North Carolina. Nearly three million customers across the region still do not have electricity. Analysts expect the total cost of Irene to be much, much higher -- a lot higher than a billion dollars.

More than 200 roads and bridges are damaged in Vermont. Many of them were completely wiped off the map.

CNN's Amber Lyon is covering the flooding for us in Grafton, Vermont.

She's joining us now live -- what's happening, Amber, where you are?

AMBER LYON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, roads out here are just in pieces. This road is -- look at it. It -- it's a disaster. And a car cannot get over it.

So I spoke with the man who's operating that excavator. His name is Richard Fillion (ph). He says he is on an emergency mission to rebuild this road.

And why this is so important is that there's a town of 800 people, Grafton, Vermont, right on the other side. And they are currently isolated. It's essentially become an island because this road and the only other road leading in or out of town are both destroyed.

We spoke with fire crews in the area. They also say that there was a little bit of a worry if they were able to -- if there is some type of an emergency, with one of the residents on how to get that person out, because it's very difficult for an ambulance to access this area.

Also, Richard Fillion (ph) tells me that he's actively trying to build this road because National Guard troops have supplies ready for the residents. We're talking medical supplies, food, water, baby formula. And he hopes that he has that road built by tomorrow night. Those National Guard trucks will be able to get in and deliver those supplies.

Twenty towns across Vermont are having similar situations, where they've become isolated. Thirteen of them in such bad shape, the National Guard says they're going to have to helicopter in supplies to the residents, to make sure that everyone is adequately supplied and everyone is doing OK.

And, Wolf, the death toll here in Vermont is now at three people. But the governor of Vermont says he expects, as more of these roads open up and we're able to access more of these small mountain communities, that that death toll is going to rise, because there are still people in Vermont who are unaccounted for -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do the people, Amber, you're speaking to in Vermont think the government is doing everything it possibly can do to help them?

LYON: It's kind of mixed feelings down here. We -- we found a -- a kind sentiment among the people. They -- they are really helping people each other. If one person has water left over, they're sharing with their neighbors, sharing food and -- and just really, I think, more of a state of awe and shock out here than -- than a state of anger. .

That being said, we did speak with a man this morning who is living in one of these isolated communities who told me, quote: "We're alone. We -- we feel like we're alone. We -- we only have our neighbors to lean on because," he says, that he has not seen any type of aid in his community.

And there -- there are supplies available. The National Guard does have supplies ready to go. Now it's just a matter of how, with situations like these, do you get it to these stranded residents -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, let's hope for the best.

Amber, thanks very much.

And to our viewers, an important note. You can help make a difference. You can help those devastated by Hurricane Irene. Find out how. Just visit our Impact Your World page. That's at

The next hurricane is forming in the Atlantic Ocean right now. Tropical Storm Katia is expected to become a hurricane in the coming hours. Right now, it's located off Africa, but it's moving west/northwest. It could affect the Caribbean, but it's too soon to know if it will hit the United States. Katia replaces Katrina in the rotating list of hurricane names. The Hurricane Center is using the same list as in 2005, when Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

Chad Myers will be joining us from the CNN Hurricane Center in the next hour for the latest on Katia's power path and whether the United States could get slammed again.

Also, Libyan rebels have come out with an estimated death toll from the civil war. It's a huge number.

Can the opposition, though, be believed?

Stand by. We'll go live to Libya for a reality check.


BLITZER: There are dramatic events happening in Libya right now. The manhunt intensifying for Moammar Gadhafi. Rebels have set a Saturday deadline for any remaining loyalists are told to surrender or face serious military consequences.

Our senior correspondent Nic Robertson is in Tripoli, CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is in Misrata.

Fred, let me start with you. You were in Sirte today, Gadhafi's hometown. What did you see there, because there is some speculation that Gadhafi could be hiding out there?


That certainly is what some of the rebels on the front line seem to believe, that Gadhafi and maybe some other members of his family might be there in Sirte. We were at the last -- basically at the front line of the rebels before Sirte. It's still about 100 kilometers away from the town itself. But the rebels are doing this essentially -- they set up a checkpoint there, sort of defensive positions, and from there they will then launch missions forward towards the Sirte area.

However, what they are doing right now is pulling back their forces to a defensive position and they are waiting for that four-day deadline to pass. And then say they are awaiting their orders from the National Transitional Council, the rebel government, and then they will move forward, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic, what are you hearing about Gadhafi's whereabouts?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The National Transitional Council deputy prime minister told me that he knew were Gadhafi was. Some people believe that he's hiding out in the south. He said he wouldn't tell me. I said, is he hiding out with tribes that are loyal to him? He just flat out wouldn't tell me.

The National Transitional Council has said a number of things that has proven to be not quite correct in the past. So it's not clear quite why he wants to tell me where they know where he is, but he said they were confident they would capture him and bring him to trial. I think there is a reason to believe that Gadhafi is not surrounded in Sirte, that he's more likely and south of the country where if they want to they can flee as his wife and other family members did just the day before, just yesterday, in fact, flee across the border to Algeria, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me go back to Fred. Fred, are you getting the sense from your rebels, and you are speaking with them and with them right now, how long they believe this intensive fighting will last? .

PLEITGEN: Well, if you speak to the guys in front line, Wolf, they will tell you they believe this could last, at least a siege of Sirte and the other cities that are still in the hands of Gadhafi loyalists, and that actually could last up to a week maybe, even a little bit longer. Of course, you have this four-day window and on the Muslim calendar, and then the fighting will certainly continue again. They believe it could take maybe a week, 10 days.

Certainly the guys that I saw on the front line, they say at this point they do have a pretty high battle fatigue. They say they're sick of being on the front line. They hope that Sirte will fall through negotiations and not through the battle. They say quite frankly at this point so many people have maimed on the front line there are ready for negotiations to take and for some sort of a political process to get going. They don't want to keep fighting at this point in time.

BLITZER: And Nic, we heard from rebel leaders today. They say, they are claiming at least 50,000 Libyans have been killed over the past few months in all of this fighting. That number seems very high, but what do you sense over there?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, I think that the way that we're interpreting the figures right now, between 50,000 and 60,000 people sort of disappeared during this revolution, and they say that they believe they were all arrested by Gadhafi. They say that they've released 11,000 people, which leaves 40,000 to 50,000 unaccounted for. I think at this stage the perception is that perhaps not all dead. Many of them may still be alive. So that seems to be the basis for those figures.

Just on the negotiations, I've been receiving messages, e-mail conversations with one of Moammar Gadhafi's sons. He said over the past few days that he's ready to negotiate for Gadhafi with the rebels to bring about a ceasefire, but he told me that the rebels would not negotiate with him. He also said that he was willing to come to Tripoli to negotiate with the National Transitional Council if they could arrange safe passage. And I talked to the deputy prime minister about that particular issue, and he said that Gadhafi's family, Gadhafi himself, his sons, are welcome to come to Tripoli. They can have safe passage here. But he said when they get here, they will be put on trial and international conditions. So they are saying absolutely no conditions with Gadhafi or his family, only with tribal elders. So a very clear message for Gadhafi right now. It is either hand yourself in or you're going to be fighting right to the bitter end. Wolf?

BLITZER: And the same goes for Saif al Islam, Gadhafi's son. He remains at large, right?

ROBERTSON: Yes, that's right. All still at large, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, Fred Pleitgen, thank you very much.

President Obama's half-uncle arrested on charges of driving under the influence. Could this bring some new unwanted attention to the White House? Stand by.

Plus, as the battle for Syria escalates, new concerns here in the United States about the safety of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Why that stockpile could be at risk. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer. Here are some of the stories that we're working on for our next hour.

The first African-American president of the United States ramping up efforts to hold on to a key part of his base -- African-Americans. Also, it could be his make or break moment. It could be next week. Will President Obama actually deliver when it comes to issue number one, the economy, jobs, jobs, jobs?

And she says she was raped and forced to execute. A member of Gadhafi's female militia country unit is now speaking out. You're in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

President Obama's half-uncle arrested on drunk driving charges. Some people are asking if he got or asked for any special treatment. Others suggest he is getting undo and unfair attention for strictly political reasons. Brian Todd has been digging into all the details of the arrest and the repercussions. What are you finding out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the president's half uncle is now entangled in two legal cases. Political analysts say it's this immigration case is the one that may prove irritating to the president then his drunk driving arrest.


TODD: He almost collided with this unmarked police car according to the police report, had red and glassy eyes when he was pulled over next to this restaurant, could barely keep himself from falling, kept interrupting the officer, and repeatedly failed sobriety tests. When asked if he wants to make a call someone to arrange bail, the report says, he said "I think I will call the White House."

A White House official says to his knowledge no calls were received from President Obama half-uncle Onyango Obama after his arrest for drunk driving last week in Massachusetts. He's pleaded not guilty to the charges, but the story doesn't end there. According to a federal law enforcement source, Onyango Obama was not legally in the United States and had been previously ordered to be removed from the country. The source tells CNN his case is now going through the immigration process. Onyango Obama's boss at a local liquor store has nothing but good things to stay about him.

PANMAL PATEL, LIQUOR STORE OWNER: When we hired him, we went through all the paperwork. He's on our payroll, has all the information, valid driver's license, everything.

TODD: According to the Massachusetts registry of motor vehicles, Onyango Obama has had a valid driver's license for at least 19 years and had a valid Social Security card when he applied for it. A spokesman for his immigration attorney tells CNN he doesn't know how Onyango Obama got a Social Security number if he wasn't legally in the country. The White House says no other comment on the arrest of the president's half-uncle.

Onyango Obama is the brother of another relative of President Obama's, Zeituni Onyango, the president's half-aunt who won the right to say in the U.S. last year after being denied asylum in 2004. CNN analyst David Gergen says this may revive and irritating issue for the president.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it will have a little ripple in the community of people like the birthers, and it's going to once again bring up this issue of some people think that Obama is not like us. He's not one of us. He's not quite America enough.


TODD: CNN has done many stories investigating that so called birth issue and we've never found any evidence that the president is not a natural born American.

But the president has a complicated and very fascinating family tree. I'll try to run it by you here. His grandfather was married three times. His third wife, a woman named Sarah Onyango, is the one who gave birth to the half-uncle who is in question in this case. That is the president's half-uncle.

Now, it's his sister, Zeituni Obama, who as we mentioned in the piece, involved in that legal case she was denied asylum in 2004 and then was granted the right to stay in the country legally last year. That's half-aunt, half-uncle on the father's side from the grandfather's third wife.

Now, remember, this family tree is only on Mr. Obama's father's side of the family. That's what makes this so fascinating. So his grandfather's second wife is the one who gave birth to Mr. Obama's father, Barack Hussein Obama Senior. And then he had -- was the father who was married to Ann Dunham who gave birth to President Obama. So we wanted to show you kind of the different people on the family tree just on the father's side of the family.

You've got the grandfather having different wives, and Mr. Obama's family also had three different wives and a partner. So a lot of people to keep track of just on Mr. Obama's father's side of the family -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd with a good explanation of that side of the president's family.

Let's get some legal analysis from our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

What do you make of the legal part of this story, this individual, the half-uncle, arrested for drunk driving under intoxication?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the key question here is, is he in the United States legally? Apparently, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is now called the ICE, has filed what's called a detainer, which is like a warrant that says, don't do anything with this gentleman before checking with us, because we think he's in the country illegally.

Now, apparently, he's been in the country 19 years, has a driver's license, Social Security number. So, obviously, there may be conflicting evidence about whether he's in the country legally. If he's here illegally and he's been arrested, under the law he should be deported now. Obviously, there's often a question about whether someone here's legally or not, but a drunk driving case is usually not enough to get someone who is legally in the country deported.

BLITZER: Well, how will they work this? I mean, what do they do legally now? I assume he's out on bail, or whatever. He's maybe not even out on bail, right?

TOOBIN: Well, no, he's not released on bail, as I understand it, because once there's an immigration detainer on you, the local officials don't release you on bail without first coordinating with the immigration authorities, because if it's proved that he's here illegally, they will just throw him right out.

BLITZER: They'll throw him out of the country even though he's been here for 18 years?

TOOBIN: Well, illegal is illegal. That obviously will be something -- if he can get a lawyer, and I assume he can, the lawyer will contest his immigration status.

But if it's established that he's here illegally, he will probably be given the choice to leave voluntarily. But if he doesn't take up that choice, he will be thrown out. But the key question here is his status, his immigration status. The drunk driving case is obviously serious, that that alone wouldn't be enough to get you thrown out of the country.

BLITZER: What if they discover that he got the Social Security under false pretenses?

TOOBIN: Well, again, it would again explain -- you would have to know what his status was when he got the Social Security number illegally. If that was part of being in the country illegally, then they would throw him out. But if he were here legally, if he was appropriately in the United States and somehow got a Social Security number under improper circumstances, that could complicate matters.

These immigration cases are often very complicated. They can last a long time. But this one is going to be pretty high profile, and you can be sure that the authorities are going to want to play this one very strictly by the rules.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much.

Jeffrey is our senior legal analyst.

We heard Mitt Romney deliver a jab at fellow Republican Rick Perry. But does Romney actually need Perry in this presidential race? James Carville and Alex Castellanos, they're standing by live for our "Strategy Session."

And the cause of a deadly pipeline explosion now revealed.


BLITZER: Arrests now in that deadly fire at a Mexican casino.

Kate Bolduan is monitoring that, some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on, Kate?

BOLDUAN: Got some new information. We want to tell our viewers about this.

Mexican officials have arrested five suspects in connection to last week's fire that killed 52 people. They say the alleged arsonists were targeting the casino, not civilians. The suspects are all members of a drug cartel. Officials say they set the fire because the casino's owners hadn't given in to an extortion demand.

Also what we're watching, federal officials are blaming Pacific Gas & Electric for a 2010 California pipeline explosion. I'm sure you remember this dramatic video.

They say the pipeline owner missed "a lot of opportunities" to detect a faulty well. The natural gas pipeline explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes just south of San Francisco. PG&E earlier said it had taken multiple steps to make sure the pipeline was safe. And the Transportation Department is dropping a deadline that would have made street signs easier to read. The federal mandate would have required larger letters and better nighttime reflection on all street signs by 2018. The Obama administration says replacing signs only when they are worn out would save state and local governments millions of dollars.

And finally a little fun for you. HLN's Nancy Grace better lace up her dancing shoes. The legal commentator will be one of the 12 celebrities on ABC's upcoming season of "Dancing With the Stars." Grace says she's up for the challenge.


NANCY GRACE, HOST, "NANCY GRACE": I feel I can try. Look, I know I'm not the youngest, the thinnest, the prettiest, or the best dancer, but I've got a lot of heart. And that's got to count for something, right?


BLITZER: Kate Bolduan should be on "Dancing With the Stars."

BOLDUAN: No, no, no. Wolf Blitzer I think is missing from this list.

BLITZER: Kate, you are an excellent dancer.

BOLDUAN: Well, I think we need to remind our viewers of your dancing skills, sir.


BLITZER: This is not happening.

BOLDUAN: Oh, you know it's happening. When I come on THE SITUATION ROOM, you know we have to make you blush.

BLITZER: I was actually on the Ellen show and doing a little dancing.

BOLDUAN: I'm watching it right now. I remember. I knew I loved you before, but I loved you even more after this.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Enough of that. Let's move on. Serious, hard news we're talking about.

Hard news.

BLITZER: I want to see some video of Kate Bolduan "Dancing With the Stars."

It could be a make-or-break moment for the president of the United States next week. Just ahead, will his highly anticipated jobs plan deliver when it comes to issue number one? And is GOP Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney making a dramatic shift on his strategy when it comes to the campaign trail? We'll talk about that in our "Strategy Session."


BLITZER: New signs that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may be ready to take off the boxing gloves when it comes to a key opponent in the race for the White House. We're talking about the Texas governor, Rick Perry.

Listen to this.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm a conservative businessman. I've spent most of my life outside politics, dealing with real problems and the real economy. Career politicians got us into this these mess and they simply don't know how to get us out.


BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about this in our "Strategy Session" with two CNN political contributors, Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican consultant Alex Castellanos.

Guys, thanks very much.

James, it sounds like a little swipe at a career politician named Rick Perry, the governor of Texas.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. It was. It wasn't much of an attack, and I'm sure they'll point out that he won in 1994 when he ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, a career politician, too.

So they are going to have to come after Perry at some point. I think this is like you watch a boxing match. It's just like throwing a lame left. It's not going to do much damage, my sense of it. I'm curious to see what Alex has to say about it.

BLITZER: Is it fair to call him a career politician, Rick Perry, Alex?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think Perry -- I think since he was about 34 years old, I think he's been in politics. So he's been in there a pretty long time. So if it's not his career, he must have a night job.

BLITZER: But you believe, and correct me if I'm wrong, Alex, that Mitt Romney actually needs Rick Perry in this Republican contest.

CASTELLANOS: I actually do, Wolf. You know, right now confidence in -- consumer confidence has fallen off a cliff since the debt ceiling debate. Confidence in Washington is a big part of that. We've lost a lot of confidence in our political system and our leaders. It's like things are spinning out of control -- our economy, our government -- and nobody in Washington can do anything about it.

This election, we don't want hope and change. We want strong leadership.

And there's a question. You know, Perry certainly displays that. He knows what he thinks. There's a question about that for Mitt Romney.

Voters don't really know yet, even though he went through the last campaign, who he is, what he believes in. And he needs a victory.

He needs to beat someone to become someone. So he's got 10 debates with Rick Perry over the next three months, I think. And we're going to have to see them post up there. But he needs to win against Rick Perry, not just to get votes, but to become a strong leader.

BLITZER: Are these two guys going to really go after each other, James? What do you think?

CARVILLE: Of course. They have to. I mean, there's no question about it.

And I think Alex makes an excellent point there. He's not going to look strong beating Michele Bachmann. I don't think the field could have stayed that way, but if he does beat Perry, Perry looks like a strong guy, nice looking, big Texan kind of thing. And to some extent, he's got to beat him.

And I think these debates are going to be critical. I'm surprised that Tim Pawlenty, he just got clocked with one bad debate. I've never seen anything like that.

I mean, I think the lesson this year on the Republican side is you've got to come to play. You can get hurt early here.

CASTELLANOS: Well, I think James' point about Tim Pawlenty is important. This year we can have divisions on the Republican Party. A lot will be forgiven. But the one thing you cannot display is weakness.

And when Pawlenty didn't go after Romney, that's what I think voters sensed. Strong leadership, that's what candidates -- the candidates and the Republicans are looking for this year.

BLITZER: One blunder like that cost Tim Pawlenty any chance for this Republican nomination.

Guys, stand by. We have much more to discuss.

Our "Strategy Session" will continue after a short break, including a discussion on Hurricane Irene re-igniting the debate over whether big government is really needed.


BLITZER: We're back with James and Alex.

James, let me read to you Dana Milbank from his column today on the aftermath of FEMA.

"Tea Partiers who denounce big government seem to have an abstract notion that government spending means welfare programs and bloated bureaucracies. Almost certainly, they aren't thinking about hurricane tracking and pre-positioning of FEMA supplies. But if they succeed in paring the government, some of these Tea Partiers, particularly those on the coast or on the tornadic plains, may be surprised to discover that they have turned a Hurricane Irene government back into a Katrina government."

Do you think he has a point?

CARVILLE: Well, I think, honestly, I think it matters if you have an Arabian horse show guy and you're not going to do that well. This guy Fugate, I think is his name, is a professional disaster relief man, as was James Lee Witt.

And, you know, it matters how government performs and who is running the show and how it responds. And I think those guys at the National Hurricane Center are pretty good. I know I have a lot of confidence in them.

Did they get everything precisely right? No. Are they top-rate scientists. Yes. They're pretty good, and I think it matters.

BLITZER: Alex, do you think that Milbank has a good point?

CASTELLANOS: Well, I think he's right about one thing. There are a lot of Republicans out there who say reduce the size of government, but don't mess with my Medicare or Social Security. So, certainly a lot of Republicans bought into that, too.

But I think Dana is confused about the point that James just made, which I thought was excellent, which is there is a difference between bigger and better government. As far as I know, the U.S. government, when Katrina hit, was still about the second largest employer in the world. I think only the Chinese army was bigger.

You know, we were still spending trillions of dollars -- a trillion-dollar budget. We still had, I think, trillions in debt. So the government was plenty big when Katrina hit, it just wasn't doing a very good job.

And I think in this day and age, when things are moving so fast and have to be so efficient, you wonder if big, old, dumb, industrial age government doesn't need to be reinvented for a new day.

BLITZER: I have been hearing about reinventing government for as long as I have been a reporter. CASTELLANOS: It's hard to do.


CASTELLANOS: But, you know, you' got a feeling today, though, Wolf, that you could replace a lot of what's going on in this town with about three good Web sites.

BLITZER: But Alex makes a good point. I think it's a fair point. A lot of people who criticize big government, they say, we hate big government, but don't touch Social Security, don't touch Medicare, don't touch the military. Well, if you don't touch those three areas, James, that's a big part of the big government.

CARVILLE: Well, it is. And basically, the government is an insurance company that has a military. I mean, if you look at what it really spends.

I thought it was interesting. Senator John Thune, in South Dakota, which is as red as any state gets, said the leading thing that he heard in town hall meetings is, don't touch my Social Security and Medicare. And, I mean, it's a little bit of what Russell Long, Senator Long, used to say. You don't tax me, tax the guy behind the tree.

You could say the same thing about cuts. And I think that's a very valid point.

But again, in this disaster relief, it doesn't make any sense for Alex's hometown, Miami, or mine, New Orleans, to be prepared for a Category 5 hurricane, or Los Angeles to be prepared for an 8.5 Richter Scale event. But it does make sense that the federal government has the resources to help people when something like this happens. I think it's essential (ph).

BLITZER: Which is probably why we shouldn't spend trillions of dollars on stimuluses (ph) that don't work. We might need to save that money for a rainy day.

BLITZER: All right, guys.

CARVILLE: The CBO today said it's 3.3 million jobs. So you all give it to them, not me.

BLITZER: Created or saved? Is that right, James?

CARVILLE: Saved. I don't know. Whatever the word is.

BLITZER: All right. James Carville, Castellanos -- guys, thanks very much.

A city under water. Hurricane Irene causes the worst flooding in more than 100 years in one New Jersey town. We're going there live.

And chaos in Syria right now as the country sits on thousands of tons of chemical weapons. How worried is the United States? Stand by.


BLITZER: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is taking scathing swipes at President Obama over what he says has been a delayed response to the bitter warfare across the Middle East and North Africa.

Here's what he says about Syria's embattled strongman, Bashar al- Assad.


ROMNEY: Instead of calling Mr. Assad a reformer, this administration should have called him what he is -- a killer.


BLITZER: Meantime, the intensifying battle for Syria is raising new U.S. concerns about the country's potentially dangerous stockpile of chemical weapon.

Our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence has been working this part of the story for us.

What are you learning, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. Well, just an aside, I mean, last month, Governor Romney asked, who is going to own Libya if we get rid of the government there? So, some of these comments are just a natural part of being on the campaign trail.

The difference in Syria is the presence of chemical weapons. And U.S. officials have a real fear about what will happen in the middle of all that chaos and protests there.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Dictators have fallen like dominoes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But the uprising in Syria is different, because its president controls one of the large supplies of chemical weapons in the world.

JOE CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: We haven't faced a collapse of a government that had this kind of deadly weapons of mass destruction. Syria is going to be a real problem.

LAWRENCE: Joe Cirincione is a member of Hillary Clinton's International Security Advisory Board. He's written extensively on weapons of mass destruction.

CIRINCIONE: This is stuff that can kill tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people, and there is a demand for that on the international black market. LAWRENCE: The Syrian government and protesters have had violent conflicts in Damascus, Hama, in Latakia, all sites of suspected chemical weapons production plants. Last week there was a concern about Libya's weapons, and all it has is 10 tons of old mustard gas and no weapons to actually deliver it.

Experts believe Syria has thousands of tons of chemical weapons, including sarin and VX.

CIRINCIONE: Even a couple of drops of this agent can kill a person. And they have lots of rockets and artillery shells and other weapons delivery systems ready to go.

LAWRENCE: Sarin was used in the terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway in 1985. Thirteen people were killed, about 1,000 others got sick.

A U.S. official says Syria sees its chemical weapons as a deterrent to Israel's nuclear capability. Syria has never used these weapons and has not given them to allies and radical groups Hamas and Hezbollah. So, even though President Obama issued a statement saying, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside," the reality is the chemical weapons have been safe with him in power.

CIRINCIONE: It's the chaos of the current situation that presents the threat, not really a fear that Assad himself would actually use or even threaten to use these chemical weapons, even under the most dire circumstances.