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Diplomats Attacked; Libya's New Norm; U.S. Student Appealing; Michael Jackson Trial

Aired September 29, 2011 - 19:00   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, CNN'S "STATE OF THE UNION": Thanks for joining us. I'm Candy Crowley. John King is off.

Tonight, Vice President Biden's latest message on the economy, the Bush administration may have broken it, but now the Obama administration owns it.

And even if you're making fun of Washington's gridlock, is there a point where political satire crosses the line? But first, the news you need to know right now.

In Damascus, Syria, today a pro government mob cornered U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and his embassy staff, trapping them for about two hours until Syrian security forces finally intervened. Nobody was hurt, but the U.S. response is undiplomatically blunt.


MARK TONER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Intimidation by pro- government mobs is just not civilized behavior.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is clearly a part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate and threaten diplomats attempting to bear witness to the brutality of the Assad regime.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We condemn this unwarranted attack in the strongest possible terms.


CROWLEY: CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty is at the State Department. Jill we heard some strong words, any action to follow?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: No action because really what they have to do is get the Syrian government to protect these diplomats. It is not just the U.S., Candy. It is -- the French have gone through some similar things. But so far these incidents seem to be escalating. Listen to what Secretary Clinton said specifically about protecting those diplomats.


H. CLINTON: This attempt to intimidate our diplomats through violence is wholly unjustified. We immediately raised this incident with the Syrian government and we are demanding that they take every possible step to protect our diplomats according to their obligations under international law.


DOUGHERTY: So that is the U.S. position, Candy is that this is basically ginned up by the Syrian government, having people coming out to attack or do something to the U.S. ambassador and others. Now, the Syrian government says that these are just people who are motivated by this interference, as they would put it, by the U.S. government into the Syrian affairs. So where it goes is not clear because the ambassador is making it very clear himself that he was going to go where he wants to go, with or without permission by the Syrian government.

CROWLEY: Jill Dougherty at the State Department. Thanks very much.

In Bahrain today, 20 doctors were sentenced to prison terms ranging from five to 15 years. Their crime, treating people injured by security forces during this year's crackdown on peaceful anti- government protests.

During a visit to Libya today, Senator John McCain said he would like to see Moammar Gadhafi captured alive and put on trial. McCain says the Libyan people have turned cynics into supporters and inspired the world.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I believe very strongly that the people of Libya today are inspiring the people in Tehran, in Damascus, and even in Beijing and Moscow.


CROWLEY: Libya's transitional leaders are trying to get the country running again, but as CNN's Phil Black shows us, Tripoli neither looks nor sounds normal.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is one of the most common and iconic images of Libya's revolution, smiling, trigger happy fighters firing into the air.


BLACK: Any chance they get. Libya's capital still echoes with bullets of joy. And no matter how often you hear it, you never quite get used to it.

(on camera): This is now Tripoli at night. Families, children, everywhere celebrating this country's new freedom, as well as guns and gunfire. This country has a gun culture that's going to be difficult to break.

(voice-over): (INAUDIBLE) isn't looking very comfortable. He was standing in the street when a falling bullet penetrated his shoulder. He's lucky it's not serious. It didn't hit bone. His doctor says he's been treating injuries like this and worse every day since anti-Gadhafi forces entered Tripoli. In the new Libya, happiness is encouraged. Expressing it with a gun isn't. But not everyone is listening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I talk to them to please stop that. You're killing people.


BLACK: Phil Black, CNN, Tripoli.


CROWLEY: And in Italy today, the defense wrapped up its arguments about why a U.S. student's murder conviction should be overturned. CNN's Paula Newton is covering the trial for us. Paula, what was the crux of the defense attorney's final argument?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Two points really. One is that there is a lack of evidence. And for this they turned to DNA evidence that they say was botched by an amateur police investigation. They also say that that evidence was what the prosecution used to really whip up a fantasy about why Amanda Knox would have murdered Meredith Kercher, but motive is also key here, Candy. You know they say that the prosecution changed its mind several times on proposing a motive and at the end of the day they still could not come up for a reason of why Amanda Knox would ever want to murder Meredith Kercher -- Candy.

CROWLEY: What's next, Paula?

NEWTON: You know this is going to be very interesting. Today was a very emotional day. The defense really using a lot of passion, passion I haven't seen in this courtroom before, Candy. I'm sure the Knox family was hoping this was the defense team they got during the original trial. Having said that, Amanda Knox herself on Monday can actually speak to the jury for about 15 minutes. It can be an impassioned plea. She will deliver it in Italian. But really she has to get over the hurdle that she herself has admitted, she looks at people and says why won't they believe me? I had nothing to do with this murder. She needs to come up with a new way to really pronounce her innocence and make sure they believe her.

CROWLEY: Incredible pressure on that young woman, Paula. Thanks so much tonight.

Here in the United States, the involuntary manslaughter trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson's doctor, also is attracting international attention. Today, jurors heard more about the screams and chaos just after Jackson was discovered unresponsive and according to the defense, already dead. CNN's Ted Rowlands is in Los Angeles for us tonight. Ted, why did the prosecutors call Jackson's chef to the stand?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, for two reasons, Candy. One to provide more of the color, the specifics of what was happening, the chaos that was happening inside that House, one of the things she did say was that she held the children while they were screaming during that time. But the significant reason that the prosecution wanted her, more than the other employees, she's the only one that really has a sense of time. She said because she had to prepare a meal at a specific time, she knew exactly what time it was. She was used by the prosecution as part of their overall argument of a timeline to really time stamp the exact time when Murray first signaled trouble in the house.

Now, before she took the stand, we heard from Alberto Alvarez. This was the director of logistics for Conrad Murray. And he was the first person to see Michael Jackson unresponsive in Jackson's room besides Murray. He provided gripping testimony including what he claimed was a scenario where he says Murray asked him to help put some vials of Propofol in a bag before he called 911.


ALBERTO ALVAREZ, WITNESS IN MICHAEL JACKSON TRIAL: I didn't question his authority at the time. I knew it was a medical emergency, so I proceeded to follow Mr. Conrad Murray's instructions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. What did you think you were -- they were being -- what did you think these items were being packed up for, if anything?

ALVAREZ: I thought we were packing, getting ready to go to the hospital.


ROWLANDS: Throughout this proceeding with Alvarez, the prosecution used Alvarez to really establish all of the details of what went on in the house because he was that first person and he really seemed to hit with this jury. They were riveted throughout the proceedings today -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Well that's part of what I wanted to ask you, Ted. How are the jurors reacting or can you tell and how about Jackson's family?

ROWLANDS: Well, absolutely. You mentioned the Jackson family; they're leaving court right now. There is Janet Jackson walking out with Randy Jackson as the fans cheer, justice for Michael. But the family has been riveted throughout this. There is Joe Jackson walking out as well. And so has the jury, which is fascinating because a lot of times in cases like this, jurors can drift from side to side and sometimes up and down, nodding off, not the case so far, at least. They have been riveted.

CROWLEY: As have we. Ted Rowlands thanks so much in Los Angeles tonight. We appreciate it. Using a parliamentary maneuver that takes much longer to explain than it does to watch, the House of Representatives today kept the government from shutting down by agreeing to the compromise worked out in the Senate.


REP. ANDY HARRIS (R), MARYLAND: Without objection, the Senate amendments are concurred in and a motion to reconsider is laid on the table.


CROWLEY: There you go. Crisis averted.

In presidential politics, Republican Newt Gingrich today unveiled a new 21st Century contract with America. The original 1994 version was 10 items and fit on two pages. The new contract is 23 pages and isn't done yet.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The scale of change I am suggesting is so enormous that I couldn't possibly as a single leader show you everything I'm going to do.


CROWLEY: Three hundred, ninety-one thousand Americans filed for new unemployment benefits last week. But that's the lowest number in nearly six months and maybe signals a slight improvement in the job market.

Speaking on a South Florida radio station Vice President Biden admitted the obvious. While the economy is hurting his ticket in the polls, they will soon have someone to run against.


JOSEPH BIDEN, (D-DE) VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right now understandably, totally legitimate this is a referendum on Obama and Biden, the nature of the state of the economy. It's soon going to be a choice. It's soon going to be a choice.


CROWLEY: Bank of America says beginning next year it will charge customers $5 a month to use their debit cards. That's in response to a new government rule that caps how much banks can charge merchants on debit card transactions, so now the customers will have to pay.

Next, more on today's top story, mob violence directed at the top U.S. diplomat in Syria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CROWLEY: The U.S. ambassador to Syria is safe tonight after being attacked by a pro government mob in Damascus. It happened while Ambassador Robert Ford and his staff were visiting a member of Syria's political opposition to the government of President Bashar Al-Assad.

Raghida Dergham is a columnist and senior diplomatic correspondent for the London based newspaper "Al Hayat" and P.J. Crowley is a former State Department spokesman. P.J. let me start with you. This is an ambassador unlike many -- any I have seen; this is outside the box, is it not?

P.J. CROWLEY, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: For the last three months in particular, he's done extraordinary public diplomacy on behalf of the United States. It is one thing for the president and the secretary to be here in Washington and say that we identify with the aspirations of the Syrian people. It is Robert Ford that brings that policy and those words to life.

He's been to Hama you know to visit with Syrian people and express the United States' concern about their welfare. He's challenged the Assad regime, using social media, including Twitter, and obviously today he's engaging in an important discussion with Syrian opposition about the Syria of the future that does not include Bashar Al-Assad.

C. CROWLEY: Raghida, do you have any fears about this strategy of having the U.S. ambassador over there, so clearly on the side of the opposition to the government?

RAGHIDA DERGHAM, SR. CORRESPONDENT, AL HAYAT NEWSPAPER: Yes, of course there is always fear of -- God willing it would never happen. But you know an attack like this could be harmful and could cause us to worry quite a bit as to what would happen to the ambassador. But as P.J. said, this is an extraordinary ambassador. I was not really for appointing an ambassador to Syria when he was appointed.

But he had proven to be an exceptional man, doing an exceptional job, and that is why the Syrians are trying to push him out. They were hoping that he will be pulled out, you know by -- either by non- confirmation or by the United States deciding that we cannot take this humiliation, but there is also now talk about them trying to expel, maybe wanting to expel the ambassador because they can't have his watchful eyes reporting and exposing what they're doing right there from Damascus and other cities.

C. CROWLEY: P.J., let me ask you, just briefly for our audience, the ambassador was a recess appointment by the president because he could not be confirmed by the Senate because there were Republicans who didn't want to send an ambassador to Syria for precisely the reason (INAUDIBLE) heard her initial objections, which is we shouldn't send anyone there.

Having said that he needs to come back at some point, before Christmas anyway, but let me ask you about the danger zone here for him. Does there come a point when we need to be worried about this? It seems to me this is a pretty dangerous assignment for him. P.J. CROWLEY: Right. I mean this is an unparalleled situation. We have got an ambassador in the middle of what is a conflict zone and he's standing right between you know the government and its intimidation and attacks daily on its people.

CROWLEY: What is in it for the Syrian government to go after the -- not just the U.S. ambassador as Jill Dougherty reported earlier, but the French ambassador. What is -- what are they trying to do?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well they're feeling pressure. I mean obviously you've got enormous sanctions by the United States, now the Europeans, the United States and others are putting pressure on China and Russia to join this as well. They're feeling the pressure. Robert Ford is getting under their skin. And clearly they don't quite know what to do. There are also things happening here.

The Syrian Embassy here has been accused by the State Department of collecting information on family members in the United States of Syrians and then intimidating those family members back home. So there is this dynamic here. I do expect at some point in time the Syrians are going to pull the plug on this and what we call PNG, expel the ambassador. But that also has geopolitical ramifications for Syria, so this is a very difficult dance that we're in.

C. CROWLEY: Go ahead, Raghida.

DERGHAM: They're panicking. You see they are really feeling the heat now because I think they understand that the United States, this administration is now quite serious in opposing the continued killing that is going on in Damascus and they had thought in the past that you know we'll fix it. The U.S. will change their mind. They will come around and everything will be fine. (INAUDIBLE) we've been there before, done that.

And now they're realizing that's not going to happen. So they're upping the ante. In the meantime, in the United Nations, in the next few days, you will see a confrontation with Russia and China if they don't come along on this resolution they're working. It will not have immediate sanctions, but it will condemn the Syrians and if the Russians insist on equating the opposition with the authorities, the Syria authorities in terms of this possibility of violence, I think there will be no meeting on this draft resolution. But even the Russians are going to have to come around because the situation is terrible and I think Damascus understands and fears that very much so.

C. CROWLEY: And do we see any signs that Russia will come around because that pressure is really needed at this point.

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, they have a traditional neuralcha (ph) -- both Russia and China about what they see as interference by the international community and the internal affairs of any government, including their own. Eventually I think Raghida is right. They're going to have to do something because they can't ignore it.

Even the Iranians, the great protector of the Assad regime, they're feeling the heat and they have said that the Assad regime has gone too far and needs to pull back. So eventually this will come around at some point, but it could take a while.

C. CROWLEY: Raghida, have they gone so far that they really can't come back? It is now the only option is out and when do you see this coming to some kind of head here for the government?

DERGHAM: All right. Well, the Syrian family, if you will, the Syrian regime represented in the Assad family, it seems that they are just digging in their heels. They're not interested in any equation or they would be out. They did not even get the lesson from what happened with Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. They feel that they can survive this. They feel somehow the world (ph) will change their mind. They will change the subject one way or another. Iran still continues to support them.

Russia and China still continue to encourage them in effect by not having them, you know, scrutinized as supposed to be and then you have countries like Brazil, which is changing its mind, India, South Africa, that have given them the idea that yes, they can be protected if they go on with killing people as they are and oppression they are exercising against the demonstrators. But I think in the final analysis, Syria is the linchpin for what will happen in the region.

And they now understand the strategically -- the new order, if you will, in the Middle East is being drawn and they understand that it is going to get them. They're not going to be there for too long. Maybe not tomorrow, as Ambassador Ford himself suggested, but maybe not in a week, but certainly possibly in six months and certainly definitely most possibly in one year. The United States has got to stay the course.

That is important. And the idea we give them we're changing our mind and we're hesitating or going wobbly will encourage them to really escalate against the U.S. and their own people.

C. CROWLEY: Last word to you P.J.

P.J. CROWLEY: What will be decisive here is the state of the security services. You're seeing an increasing drumbeat of defections if the Assad regime loses (INAUDIBLE) their military that -- then the game over.

DERGHAM: That's right.

C. CROWLEY: So we're closing in on it. I want to thank you both so much tonight Raghida Dergham, P.J. Crowley. We appreciate it.

DERGHAM: Thank you.

CROWLEY: Next, the man who called 911 tells a jury about the screams and chaos when Michael Jackson's children walked into the room where their father lay dying or already dead.


CROWLEY: Amid the swirl of chaos and screams in Michael Jackson's room the day he died, one man says Jackson's doctor made what seems like a very significant request. Listen to what he told the Los Angeles jury today.


ALVAREZ: He reached over and grabbed a handful of vials, and then he reached out to me and said, here, put these in a bag.


CROWLEY: Alberto Alvarez is an aide to Michael Jackson; he is talking about Dr. Conrad Murray who is on trial for involuntary manslaughter. "Inside Edition" chief correspondent Jim Moret is covering the trial. Also joining us is former L.A. County prosecutor Marcia Clark.

Jim, let me ask you, that just seems to me like completely damaging information that a man is dying in front of you, and the first thing you ask someone to do is could you pick up all these drug vials around him.

JIM MORET, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, "INSIDE EDITION": I mean, in legal terms what they're trying to show the jurors is something called consciousness of guilt, namely that the doctor knew he was in trouble and he basically wanted to get rid of any evidence that was going to hurt --


MORET: -- knew that he was really in trouble down the road and he was looking to save himself as opposed to saving his patient, who may have very well been dead on that bed right in front of him.

CROWLEY: And let me -- Marcia, before I come to you, I want to play a portion of the audio from the 911 call and then ask you a question coming out of it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, so the doctor saw what happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Doctor, did you see what happened (INAUDIBLE)?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm just asking questions (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, sir. He's (INAUDIBLE) but he's not responding to anything (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, OK. We're on our way.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CROWLEY: Marcia, it seems to me that a very good job has been done so far at creating a very sympathetic situation for Michael Jackson, who wasn't always the most sympathetic of figures, the urgency in this man's voice when he's saying, please, sir, you know, we're working on it, but you need to send someone. Is that part of what the prosecution is doing?

MARCIA CLARK, FORMER PROSECUTOR, L.A. COUNTY D.A.'S OFFICE: Well, the prosecution in general, Candy, always wants to show that the victim is a human being, flesh them out, make them 3-D and sympathetic as much as possible because the one thing that a prosecutor does not have in a homicide case is your victim sitting next to you in court. And it is too easy for the jury to forget that they're a human being.

So that's always important to personalize and humanize your victim. But in addition, in this particular case, no effort needs to be made. The situation was what it was. He died and it was a tragic thing that he died in this way. So the people who are testifying to what they saw in his last moments on earth naturally have a very compelling and heart breaking story to give. And that, of course, does help to personalize the victim.

CROWLEY: It totally does. I mean just the thought of these children screaming and seeing their father on the bed, it's sort of setting the scene. It seems to me they have done a great job. Let me ask you, Marcia. We also found out today that it doesn't appear that Dr. Murray knew proper CPR techniques. Is that a case for being -- if that is so, if it proves out, if the jury believes it, it is incompetence. Is it criminal in and of itself?

CLARK: It may or may not be criminal that he didn't know CPR. But you know it adds to the entire picture of incompetence, of negligence, if you will. And this time, in this case, you have so many different aspects of negligent behavior on his part. This is what makes the prosecution's case in my opinion so strong. Circumstantially speaking, you have him behaving -- you have him -- first of all you have Michael Jackson on Propofol, a drug that should not be administered in someone's bedroom without the appropriate equipment, although they probably could have afforded to bring it in, no oximeter (ph), not the proper monitoring.

It's this terrible job and then of course he leaves the room, which is ridiculous. And you have him giving Michael Jackson Propofol in the degree and amounts that you're giving it, but on top of that, you have all of these other circumstances. You have the CPR, where he's asking somebody, does anyone here know how to give CPR? And this is the first -- he says on the tape again this is the first time I've ever given mouth to mouth. Are you kidding? I've given mouth to mouth.

I mean terrible, he's left Michael Jackson on the bed when everyone knows or at least a doctor should know that someone has to be on a hard surface to administer CPR effectively. And then, of course, you have consciousness of guilt where he's gathering evidence before he's even calling 911. All of these are incredible wealth of circumstances to show negligent behavior in general. CROWLEY: Jim, I think Marcia makes it sort of -- this case that it seems to me they're moving forward at a really quick pace at this point. And it seems as though the case so far has been pretty powerful. I know we haven't heard from the defense. But this -- the whole couple of days is kind of blown me away at how powerful it's been.

Do you get the same sense?

JIM MORET, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, INSIDE EDITION: I absolutely do. You to remember this is still the prosecution's case. You would expect that it would be powerful evidence for them, rather than the defense. So, you don't want to really keep score on a day by day basis.

But you're right. We saw that photograph of Michael Jackson lying motionless on the bed, probably dead. You heard the audio of Michael Jackson sounding incoherent. You heard testimony of his children, his daughter on the floor in a ball crying. You hear today, daddy, daddy, you can see Paris painted in this picture through the testimony in shock, wondering if his dad is going to be OK.

And then as Marcia says very accurately, not only does this doctor perhaps not know CPR, but let's face it, he's giving anesthesia and he's not an anesthesiologist. He's a cardiologist.

So, you all have all of these questions. Why did Dr. Murray do certain things? And, frankly, why didn't he do other things?

It's creating a very persuasive argument that this man's behavior rose to the level of criminal behavior.

CROWLEY: And, Jim, I want to throw the last question to Marcia, before I leave you. I just want to ask you, if you're the defense lawyer, are you looking at this and recalibrating your defense, which appears to be actually Michael Jackson did it to himself?

MORET: Well, I mean, the defense made is very clear --

CLARK: Is this for me?

MORET: -- that they're blaming Michael Jackson.

CROWLEY: Marcia, let me get your -- if you're the defense attorney, Marcia, now, what is your best bet going forward?

CLARK: Well, they need to attack as they seem to be trying to do, every aspect of what seems to be negligent behavior on his part and try to take the case apart, because when you have a circumstantial case, it's the evidence in the aggregate, when you put it all together, that is so damming.

When you take each piece separately and attack it and undermine it separately, it feels much less compelling. And that's what they need to do. In addition, in saying that it was Michael's fault, that seems to be their attitude -- I mean, the tack they're taking, he administered the lethal dose, what they need to do is try to isolate that very last dose of Propofol as the cause of death, and thereby kind of distance Conrad Murray's behavior and even say, look, he may not have been the most perfect doctor, but what he did was not most substantial cause of death. The substantial cause is what Michael did. And that's the tack they need to take.

CROWLEY: Marcia Clark and Jim Moret, two of my favorite legal analysts -- thank you so much.

Still ahead, the Republican presidential candidates just added an early December debate to their schedule and it will be right here on CNN. We'll tell you more in a minute.


CROWLEY: Welcome back.

Here is the latest news you need to know right now:

This afternoon, Arizona's Republican Party and CNN announced that we're co-response a Republican presidential candidates' debate December 1st. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said she expects illegal immigration, the housing crisis and the ongoing power struggle between the states and federal government to -- will be high on the agenda.

A couple of governors who some Republicans would like to join the presidential race are together today. New Jersey's Chris Christie, and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal are getting together in Baton Rouge.

A study published in preventive medicine suggests risky teen behaviors like smoking, drinking and sex might be reduced if young people simply get more sleep. The study reveals more than two-thirds of U.S. teens get less than eight hours of sleep on school nights.

And China took another step toward building its own space station with today's launch of an unmanned space lab nicknamed "Heavenly Palace."

"ANDERSON COOPER 360" is coming up at the top of the hour.

So, Anderson, I think if teens got more sleep, they would have less sex. What kind of study is that? But there you go. Really?


CROWLEY: There is your intro. What have you got?



COOPER: Well, Candy, we're keeping them honest tonight on "360" at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

We're looking at a publishing powerhouse with an online portfolio that includes a Web site that allows users to post and comment on some sexually suggestive pictures actually of teenagers. The Web site is Visitors to the open forum can create subcategories and topics of interest, one which of is called Jail Bait, an online community for people with a common interest in teenage girls in suggestive poses.

We spoke with the general manager of Reddit. He told us, quote, "We're a free speech site. The cost of that is that there is stuff that's offensive on there."

Reddit is a division of Advanced Communications, which also publishes quality magazines like "Vanity Fair," "The New Yorker" and "GQ." Tonight, we're keeping them honest.

Also ahead, day three of the manslaughter trial of Michael Jackson's personal doctor, Conrad Murray. Today, testimony for the man who dialed 911. We're going to hear how he describes Murray cleaning up empty drug vials before asking him to call for help.

Also, Jackson's oldest children walked in on the scene, including daughter Paris' first glimpse of her father as he was dying.

A live report from Los Angeles. We'll also speak with Sanjay Gupta and criminal defense attorney, Mark Geragos.

Those stories and tonight's "Ridiculist" at the top of the hour, Candy.

CROWLEY: Twenty-one minutes from now. I'll be watching. Thanks, Anderson.

There is a lot happening on the presidential campaign trail. Next, is Joe Biden getting a little too honest about the 2012 race?


CROWLEY: Vice President Biden has a reputation for sometimes saying a little too much. You can make a case it just happened again when he told a Florida radio station that 2012 election will boil down to this.


JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right now, understandably, totally legitimate, this is a referendum on Obama and Biden, the nature of the state of the economy. It soon is going to be a choice. It is soon going to be a choice.


CROWLEY: With us tonight, Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who worked for the 2008 Obama campaign, and former U.S. congresswoman and Republican strategist, Susan Molinari, and in New York, CNN contributor, John Avlon, a senior political columnist for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast."

We get what Joe Biden is saying here. He's saying, yes, I know, we're doing badly in the polls because everyone is focused on the economy. But as soon as we can get a Republican candidate, we can make it about that Republican candidate.

But in the end, let me start with you, Cornell, is it possible for a president who has served one term, to not have his re-election bid be about him and his performance?

CORNELL BELCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, first, I'm going to push back a little bit on bad on the polls. Right now, everyone associated with Washington is doing badly in the poll. Compared to sort of the Congress, the president is actually not doing half bad in the polls in some of these battleground states. He's actually running ahead of the Republican or even with the Republican.

So, I think there has been a lot of piling on about how bad the president is doing in polling and all of Washington is doing bad in the polling.

You know, I'm from the South. And we have a saying that truth don't care who tell it, it just wants to be told. Truth of the matter is, most Americans do understand that, you know, we didn't -- they don't blame the president for getting this mess, they still blame the previous administration for it. However, he has inherited it and they're looking for him to fix it. And it's been putting in place this sort of action items and agenda sort of move it ahead.

The problem is, this is why they're so frustrated with Washington, is they don't see both sides working together to move it ahead.

CROWLEY: John, do you think that he can -- that the president and Joe Biden and those out being surrogates for them can successfully make this an election about whoever his opponent is, because as badly as Republicans are doing on Capitol Hill, the president is not going to run against Capitol Hill?

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That's right. I mean, look, ultimately, it will be a choice, because, ultimately, elections are compared to what propositions. But what they clearly don't want -- look, Obama -- Biden using the word referendum is not nearly as bad as Axelrod using the metaphor of the Titanic the other day.

But they run in to these headwinds where the economy is going to be major factor. Everybody knows that. Their hope right now is that they don't have to run against generic Republicans. They have to run against a specific Republican and all the folks in this field are particularly weak when stacked up head to head.

CROWLEY: And, Susan, let me play you something else the vice president said in this interview and get your reaction to it.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) BIDEN: What's relevant is we're in charge. And right now, we are the ones in charge and it's gotten better, but it hasn't gotten good enough. And in states like Florida, it's even more stagnant because of the real estate market.

And so, I don't blame them for being mad. We're in charge. So, they're angry.


CROWLEY: So, I'm thinking Romney or Perry might want to use that in an ad.

SUSAN MOLINARI (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN: So there, Cornell. I feel like I just have to have the vice president debate Cornell for me.

I think that's right. And, look, Vice President Biden, whether we -- you like him or hate him and I really have great affection for the vice president, he is oftentimes unscripted, but he isn't saying what the president hasn't said in the past, and I had it pulled down a quote in July where he said the race probably means I'm going to win or lose depending on the population's assessment of my stewardship.

Jay Carney, the presidential spokesperson, has said the same thing. And it is true that elections rise and fall, you run against the incumbent. And if you have someone who is doing OK, and has a background in creating jobs, that person is going to have the upper hand if the economy stays as stagnant as it is today, and as many people are prognosticating towards 2012 and the election.

BELCHER: Real quickly, let me jump in. Look, I don't think any of us will say the economy is not front and center. But however, in the end, if you tell me, you know, four weeks out from the election, whether it be Mitt Romney or Perry or, these days, Herman Cain, is your nominee, or Barack Obama, which of those two candidates that they trust more, to move the economy forward, as opposed to moving the economy backwards, I'm going to tell you who will be president of the United States.

MOLINARI: I want to come back here.

CROWLEY: You're next, John.


MOLINARI: I want to see if that really comes true. I'm going to wait for that right now.

BELCHER: All right.

CROWLEY: John, in some ways, you know, when you look at it, the -- I think the president's only strategy has to be pretty much, what Cornell just said, which is, OK, the economy is not as good as we thought it would be, not as good as you would like it to be, but this guy is crazy, right? AVLON: Well, I think they'll make a slightly nuanced argument which is probably going to be about unified control. Do you want to give Republicans unified control of Washington? Do you really trust them to run everything given the influence the Tea Party especially on the House?

And that will be -- the other saving grace will be the president's persistently high approval ratings even while his job approval rating is very low. Look, those are pretty slim reads to hang your hopes on. But if you're especially dealing with 9.1 percent unemployment or something of that variety, but there is a reservoir of goodwill for the president personally and I think he'll draw on that as well as fears about Republican unified control of Washington.

MOLINARI: I think one thing that -- I think were the election to be held today, you're going to find that enthusiasm gap again that I think played to the president last time, played to the Republicans during the last election and, right now, if it were held today, the enthusiasm gap goes to the Republicans.

CROWLEY: The good news is it's 13 months from now. So --

MOLINARI: Depending who our candidate is and if you can make him look crazy.

BELCHER: Well, I don't think Herman Cain is going to be a good candidate for you.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you about something that happened today. Jon Huntsman, who set up his campaign headquarters in Florida, says, well, now, I'm going to move it and I'm going to move it up to New Hampshire. It is a little thing.

But what does it tell you about the Huntsman campaign?

MOLINARI: It's not good. Not good.

Look, he's a lovely man and he's very smart and he's very able and he's very capable. But, obviously, he has not had that sort of charisma that has come across. He's too moderate for the Republican Party, has played on these stages. And he just has not caught fire.

And so, you know, you can move your headquarters from here to there, but I don't really think it's going to change what the New Hampshire outcome is going to be.

CROWLEY: Well, we could say that Huntsman is coming up in the polls in New Hampshire. And you got to have a strategy. I mean, you have to say, here is where I make my stand.

If Huntsman -- let's just push this out a little forward and say let's say Huntsman does win New Hampshire, does that put him in the game or is it just becoming too expensive a game at that point?

AVLON: Oh, it very much puts him in the game because I think if Romney doesn't win New Hampshire, I think that becomes devastating for his campaign, even if he's trying to build a national campaign.

Look, Susan and I can speak to the fact that Florida strategies can be risky. I think the fact that Huntsman is rising in New Hampshire, I think that's the right place for him to put his money, right place to remove his headquarters. By putting it in the I-4 corridor, that was really looking much farther out.

The fact he's doing so badly in this field I think it says however more about the current Republican Party than about John Huntsman.

MOLINARI: I agree with you. And John and I really wear the scars from the Giuliani campaign.


MOLINARI: -- skipping over New Hampshire and going to Florida.

CROWLEY: Go stand in Florida, that worked out well.

Cornell, Susan and John, stay with us.

Up next: screams and gunfire at the U.S. Capitol today? Well, no. It was a string of tweets from a popular fake news Web site and it sparked an interesting conversation among our staff. We'll ask this group, next.


CROWLEY: Twitter followers of the Onion on, a satirical web site received this and we want to emphasize false message at 10:33 this morning.

"Breaking: witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building."

The messages didn't stop there. About 10 minutes later, another update. "Breaking: Capitol building being evacuated. Twelve children held hostage by group of armed congressmen."

Hours later, a video showing kids as hostages on Capitol Hill.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nobody move or you're going to die.

UNIDENTIFIED KID: I want my mommy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, Boehner, this kid has a phone.



CROWLEY: All of which prompted questions over whether The Onion's Twitter account was hacked. They say it wasn't. A statement from the U.S. Capitol Hill police came reassuring the public that everything was same, none of that happened.

So, is this all in good fun or did The Onion go too far? We had quite the discussion because, you know, I'm like a -- you know, First Amendment girl, freedom of the press, freedom of speech. That's in fact what The Onion is saying.

What's your response?

MOLINARI: Well, I mean, obviously, The Onion has a right to do something like that, but I think sometimes, we have an obligation to rise above what we think is just our right and maybe they had an obligation to first of all not scare people who live in the town who are frequently afraid of the violence that could take place in the United States Capitol, whether it was the gunmen that came in and shot a police officer several years ago outside of Tom DeLay's office or we know it is a frequent target of terrorism.

And then when it turns out to be a joke with John Boehner holding little kids hostage, you know, I don't know that the people at the -- that one picture where you see John holding a gun to a kid's head, as a mother of a child there's nothing that I can say --

CROWLEY: And we're showing our viewers that picture. Clearly, it's PhotoShopped.

You know, John, let me ask you -- first, let me tell you The Onion's editor gave this show, "J.K., USA," a statement and it read, "If there's a lesson that can be learned from all of this, it is that the First Amendment in the wrong journalist's hands is a very dangerous thing. We will continue to report on this incident as well as the hundreds of more despicable acts Congress commits every day."

So, you know, they are defending their right to do this. And I certainly -- me, too. You know, I defend their right to do this.

But what happens is, tweets get re-tweeted and there are people who don't know what The Onion is and it's a satirical -- because you and I would look at it and go, OK, this isn't right, because it's the Onion.

AVLON Right.

CROWLEY: But nonetheless there is a danger here, reminding me a little bit of the whole thing about "War of the Worlds" when there was a radio -- you know, the invasion of aliens and people began to believe it.

So, is this a self-restraint thing and did they go too far?

AVLON: I'm a big fan of The Onion, but I do think this went too far for this reason. I mean, joking about, you know, hostages being taken in the Capitol and gunfire, it's a little like making a joke about a bomb in a TSA line. These are irony-free zones.

And especially that the way this was done with one breaking news, then the follow joke, and then the kind of grainy video that, you know, seemed to indicate a child was being shot by a member of Congress, maybe John Boehner -- I think folks would find it less funny it was Democrats doing that or even perhaps the president.

So, again, I think there's degrees of sensitivity. Of course, it's covered by First Amendment. But I think it went over the line. And, again, I love The Onion, but this went over the line.

CROWLEY: Cornell, when you know it's a joke, there's a part of that does make you laugh. Here's the point.

BELCHER: Like we chuckled.

CROWLEY: We did. That Congress is holding things hostage.


CROWLEY: I mean, that was the whole point of the satire and everything. But did it make you a little queasy?

BELCHER: Well, yes and no. I mean, at the same -- we can't be protected from everything and do they have the right to do it? Absolutely. I think, in the end, what's going to happen is we've just helped The Onion sort of big-time by broadcasting this.

CROWLEY: Absolutely.

BELCHER: And quite frankly, I've never been to the onion before, but guess where I'm going after the show?

CROWLEY: I was going to say, I think that's true.


MOLINARI: -- controversy.


BELCHER: They've done probably what they wanted to do because we are here on "JOHN KING" talking about it.

CROWLEY: And we also discussed that. I said, but you know what we're going to do. We're going to go on, we're going to discuss it. They get more people following them on Twitter.

So, you're kind of stuck here because we think it's a legitimate story, but nonetheless it's great promotion for The Onion.

And in the end, John, let me ask you this -- what real harm was done in the end?

AVLON: Probably not a lot of quantifiable harm. Obviously, the Secret Service and Capitol Hill police took it seriously, that's their job to take it seriously.

Again, I think if the joke was in the first tweet, probably all of this stuff would be cut in half, in terms of it would be obvious up front if this was a joke.

China once reported a story from The Onion as fact itself. So, sometimes things get lost.

MOLINARI: I think John had a great statement that he said there are just some places that are irony-free zones, particularly based on its history. I think that's very-well put.

CROWLEY: In the end, I think the Capitol police probably found it not all that funny because, again, they had to put out a statement, Cornell, and say, we're getting calls about a hostage attack on Capitol Hill. So you are involving --

BELCHER: I think a group that has no sense of humor. It's probably the Capitol police.

CROWLEY: Certainly about children being held hostage inside the Capitol. Right.

BELCHER: Anyone being held hostage. But in the end, you know, again we're talking about The Onion. We spent the last three or four minutes talking about The Onion and people are going to The Onion right now. So they probably won from this little stunt that they pulled.

CROWLEY: Yes. All in all, John, you agree with that?

AVLON: Yes. And, look, on balance, more people should read The Onion.

CROWLEY: We expect --

MOLINARI: You're not helping, John.

CROWLEY: We expect to get a personal thank you note from The Onion by tomorrow on my desk.

John, Cornell, Susan Molinari, thank you both so much for joining us.

That's all from us tonight. Remember starting Monday, "J.K., USA" moves up one hour, to 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

"ANDERSON COOPER 360" starts right now.