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Awaiting Gingrich in Iowa; Top Senate Democrats Rush to White House; President Obama Speaks to Troops at Fort Bragg; TIME's 'Person of the Year

Aired December 14, 2011 - 17:00   ET



Happening now, the Republican frontrunner, Newt Gingrich, facing reporters live in Iowa this hour. You'll see it. You'll hear it live this hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM. His promise to stay positive may be a thing of the past now that Mitt Romney is calling him, quote, "zany."

Plus, President Obama thanks the troops for their service in Iraq and welcomes them home. Critics say he's downplaying the big problems us forces are leaving behind. And a frightening link between deadly Mideast extremists and a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. A new federal indictment exposing an alleged trail of cocaine and laundered money in America's backyard.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


The Republican presidential candidates are out in force in Iowa today. Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, all there, less than three weeks before the leadoff contest of the 2012 campaign. We're standing by to hear from Newt Gingrich. He's scheduled to take reporters' questions this hour. And he may have plenty to say about the barrage of attacks flying his way, especially from the Mitt Romney campaign.

CNN's Jim Acosta is joining us now in Iowa City with the latest -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, remember that plea from Newt Gingrich just a day ago for all of the candidates in the GOP field to wage a positive campaign?

Well, never mind.


ACOSTA (voice-over): It's a moment of truth for Newt Gingrich, on the cover of "Newsweek"...

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Half of us demand action from our leaders.

ACOSTA: -- and taking cover from Mitt Romney, who's fired off this Web ad featuring the former speaker and Nancy Pelosi, in their now infamous flee to combat climate change.

A pro-Romney PAC put it this way in its own ad.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Barack Obama's plan is working -- destroy Mitt Romney, run against Newt Gingrich.


ACOSTA: Little more than a day after Gingrich called on his fellow GOP contenders to steer clear of negative attacks, Romney blasted away to the "New York Times".


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Zany is not what we need in a president. Zany is great in a campaign. It's great on -- on talk radio. It's great in -- in the -- in the print. It beats -- it makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader.


ACOSTA: Other Republicans are piling on, with conservative activist Andrew Breitbart posting a montage of clips online, showing Gingrich praising Franklin Roosevelt, a turnoff for Tea Partiers.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: FDR is a greatest practitioner of self-government, certainly in the 20th century, and maybe in American history.

ACOSTA: The clips could be just a antidote Romney needs after an old sound bite surfaced from 2002, when the then candidate for governor of Massachusetts cast himself as a centrist.


ROMNEY: But I'm someone who is moderate and my -- my views are progressive.


ACOSTA: Romney is making his own appeal to Tea Partiers, touting an endorsement from failed Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell. But she seemed to botch a question from CNN on whether Romney is a consistent conservative. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (R), FORMER DELAWARE SENATE CANDIDATE: You know, that's one of the things I like about him, because he's been consistent since he changed his mind.


ACOSTA: That might not be good enough in Iowa, where conservatives have doubts about both Romney and Gingrich and Rick Perry just launched a Faith, Jobs And Freedom bus tour that will crisscross the state with a slew of stops.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So many people vote for a flashing smile and charisma rather than substance.

ACOSTA: And don't count out Ron Paul, who sports the busiest campaign headquarters in Iowa and drives libertarians wild with this criticism of the government's call to ban cell phones in cars.

REP. RON PAUL (R), TEXAS: Now, the federal government shouldn't be involved. I mean this whole thing, you know.

And how much do they have, this cell phone?

I think -- I think it's ridiculous, or the danger involved.

ACOSTA: At least Gingrich has his old House subordinate and current speaker, John Boehner, to count on -- or does he?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: It would be hard to describe Newt as not conservative. I'm not sure he's as conservative as people think he is. But Newt is a conservative.


ACOSTA: And at any moment, the former House speaker will be answering questions from reporters. We'll try to ask him about that "zany" comment. He will also be at a movie premier tonight hosted by Mike Huckabee in Des Moines. You'll recall, Wolf, Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses four years ago. It's not necessarily an indicator of whether or not a candidate can actually go on and win the GOP nomination -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim, a little excitement earlier in the day at one of Newt Gingrich's events.

ACOSTA: That's right. Just about an hour ago, the former speaker was talking about a brain science project that he would like to bring, if he's elected president, to Washington. And during his remarks, actually, as he was starting to give his remarks, about a dozen or so Occupy Wall Street protesters interrupted him and started shouting over the former speaker. You can see some of that video now.

And the speaker basically waited a few moments and gave those demonstrators a chance to vent their frustrations, vent what they had to say. It got tense at one moment, where a Gingrich supporters who was in the crowd, clearly there to see the former speaker talk to that audience, snatched a piece of paper from one of those Occupy Wall Street protesters. Those demonstrators were eventually escorted out of the room -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim.

Thanks very much.

Jim Acosta reporting.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All right. There's been a major development up on Capitol Hill.

Our Congressional correspondent, Kate Bolduan, is standing by.

What -- what is happening right now on the payroll tax cut?


Well, this comes after, late this afternoon, Senate Democratic leaders went to the White House to meet with President Obama. After that meeting, following that meeting, I'm told by a Democratic source, that Senate Democrats are working -- will be putting together a new offer to extend the payroll tax cut that this whole fight that we've been covering so closely is all about. And, significantly, I'm told by this Democratic source, that they will be dropping the millionaires' surtax as a way to pay for this package.

This would be a significant concession by Senate Democrats, as it's something that Democrats and the White House have been insisting on for months, the inclusion of this millionaires' surtax to help pay for this tax exten -- tax cut extension for many middle class families.

But, Wolf, this comes after a full day, I'll tell you, of what really seemed like both sides were kind of staring each other down, what seemed very much like a stalemate, with no clear path of where they were going to come together to extend the payroll tax cut, as well as how to avoid a looming government shutdown, which would be coming -- coming much closer -- which would happen on Friday.

Just listen here to the exchanges this morning between the top Democrat and the top Republican in the Senate.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I can't understand Republicans' obstructionism. It's become the Republican fallback plan, waste precious time caring to Tea Party extremists when you could be working with Democrats to compromise.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: One point scoring bill after another designed to fail, designed to divide us, designed to get no result, to give the president a talking point out on the campaign trail.


BOLDUAN: There's clearly strategy on both sides on how they'll be moving forward.

But it has been quite unclear to this point and downright confusing, I'll tell you, Wolf, on where the end game is and how they will be able to avoid this tax cut from expiring, as well as avoid the looming government shutdown.

The developments that we just brought you, though, Wolf, the -- this could be -- this -- this could be seen -- this -- this -- Democrats will say this should be seen as a compromise offer. Of course, the details of this new package are -- are not yet -- are not yet out, are not yet available. But significant, I should reiterate for our viewers, that Senate Democrats not only will be putting together a new offer to extend the payroll tax cut, but also significant that they will be dropping, according to a Democratic source, the millionaires' surtax that, to this point, they've been insisting on, which would have been a major obstacle and a major point of contetion -- contention with their Republican counterparts in both the Senate and the House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kate, stand by for a moment.

Gloria Borger is here, our chief political analyst, as well.

So if the Democrats have blinked now on this surcharge on the millionaires...


BLITZER: -- get a little bit of extra money from millionaires in order to pay for the extension of the payroll tax cut, is it -- does it look like...

BORGER: I think that...

BLITZER: -- there's a deal?

BORGER: I think that...

BLITZER: Because the Republicans still want this oil pipeline to go from Canada through Texas...

BORGER: Well, that's the question.

BLITZER: -- and the Democrats and the president say that's a nonstarter. BORGER: Well, the Democrats and the president have said it's irrelevant and they would veto that and they are not going to pass that. I think the millionaires' surtax was a huge stumbling block.

The question that I have is, if you drop the millionaires' tax, how do you end up paying for the extension of the payroll tax cut?

You're going to have to find the revenue somewhere else and...

BLITZER: Unless they don't pay for it.

BORGER: Well, unless they don't pay for it. But I don't think there are going to be lots of Republicans who say we have to pay for it. There are some Republicans who believe, of course, that a tax cut will pay for itself. But I think that's going to be a real issue here, because the Democrats are unwilling to really dip heavily into things like Medicare benefits. So they're going to have to find a way to finagle how they pay for it.

BLITZER: And that clock is ticking until this weekend. They wanted to go on vacation starting Friday. Saturday, the government is supposed to be open, but we'll see what happens -- Gloria, on the Mitt Romney attacks now on Newt Gingrich, it looks to me like it's taking a whole new turn.

BORGER: It is taking a whole new turn. It -- first of all, last week, we heard Mitt Romney talking about Newt Gingrich, the career politician, talked about him as somebody who had changed his mind on the Paul Ryan budget plan. And this week, it's taking a turn to being much more pointed, much more personal.

Let's take a listen to a little bit more of that "New York Times" interview he did today and we'll talk about it.


ROMNEY: A leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together. A leader needs to be someone of sobriety and -- and stability and -- and patience and temperance.


BORGER: Sobriety, stability, patience, temperance, I mean those are very key words. The campaign is now going to the heart of the narrative that people who don't like Newt Gingrich have been talking about, which is his lack of discipline, his temperament. And so since it's an existing narrative that's out there among a lot of Republicans, Romney has decided to take this turn and play into it, because don't forget, when you vote for a commander-in-chief, what do you want?

Somebody with an even temperament and an awful lot of discipline.

BLITZER: Not someone who's zany.

BORGER: Zany, right. BLITZER: Zany is not what you want.

BORGER: Zany would not be the word.


BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: And you remember what Newt Gingrich said the other day. He said he wanted a cease-fire. But and -- he wasn't going to initiate any attacks against Romney.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: But if attacked, he would respond. So momentarily, he's going to have his chance at this news conference in Iowa City.

We'll stand by.

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: We'll take it live to see if he responds to Mitt Romney's latest attack.

Is this new strategy that we're getting from the Romney campaign earmarked toward Iowa or beyond?

BORGER: Well, I -- they -- I think it's earmarked beyond. When you talk to people in the Romney campaign now, they downplay expectations in Iowa. They are saying we do not expect to win Iowa. You've been talking today about how well Ron Paul is -- is doing in Iowa. So they say this is for the long slog.

So they believe that even if this does not have the appeal to Iowa caucus-goers, that in the long-term, they are reminding voters of Newt Gingrich's long political history and starting, they hope, erode his support.

And by the way, there are some polls which already show that Newt's support may be on a downward trajectory. It's early but maybe so.

BLITZER: We're watching it closely.

BORGER: We don't know.

BLITZER: And we'll stand by for his news conference and we'll see what he has to say.

BORGER: Absolutely.

BLITZER: And our own Jim Acosta is getting ready to ask him some questions. That -- what they call that media availability.


BLITZER: All right, thank you.

BORGER: I bet he responds.

BLITZER: Thanks, Gloria.

Don't go too far away. We may have to digest what we hear.

Rick Perry is making a last ditch effort to get more mileage in Iowa. We're going to tell you how a movie night with some of his opponents figures into his strategy.

And you're going to find out if the president of Afghanistan is willing to take sides in a dispute between the United States and Iran over a missing drone.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is joining us with the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: It's the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from Republicans, but not Democrats. Congressman Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat, is blasting President Obama as being more like a quote "professor" who is arrogant and alienating. The five-term congressman from California who's retiring at the end of this term writes in the "Hill" that it's become obvious, the president might prefer to be a university professor.

Cardoza says the Obama administration suffers from something he calls idea disease. They roll out new programs weekly, sometimes daily, without any priorities and often with little follow-up. Cardoza also writes that President Obama has an "I'm right, you're wrong" attitude. He says this arrogant demeanor has alienated many potential allies.

He also says, the Democratic congressman, suggests that the president avoids personal contact with both members of Congress and with people outside the beltway. Not the first time we've heard that criticism. Although, President Obama gives speeches, Cardoza writes, to big crowds, he avoids individual contact, which sounds like the polar opposite of Bill Clinton who fed off contact with quote, "regular people."

This arm's length attitude extends to top Obama officials. Cardoza describes a senior Housing official who crafted policies for the foreclosure crisis but never bothered to personally meet with the homeowner who then foreclosed on. Despite this disparaging picture of the president, Cardoza says he would still take, quote, "Professor Obama" over the goat rodeo clowns the Republican field offers.

But he worries the voters might give the president a failing grade in November if he doesn't improve his performance.

Here's the question then. How damaging is it when a Democratic congressman criticizes President Obama, calls him a professor, says he's arrogant and alienating? Go to and post a comment on my blog or go to the post on the SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pretty embarrassing. Pretty tough talk there. Thanks very much, Jack.

Rick Perry is trying to put his Iowa campaign into a higher gear right now by launching an ambitious bus tour across the state. His campaign has planned more than 40 stops between now and the January 3rd caucuses. The last stop, a rally in Perry, Iowa. Yes, that's the name of the town. Perry, Iowa.

Our chief national correspondent, John King, is joining us from Ames, Iowa right now. He's anchoring "John King USA" all week from Iowa. You know, he's sort of under the radar screen, but he's got a lot of money, and he's being very assertive in that what we call retail politic all in the coming days, John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He's trying to closer, Wolf, by doing it the old fashioned way. You show the map of all those stops there, ending ironically in Perry, Iowa. Look, right now, he's struggling in Iowa, but you were just talking to Gloria about all the criticism now for Mitt Romney and others of Newt Gingrich.

The question is who benefits. And Governor Romney, even though he's at the spearhead of those attacks on Gingrich, he might not personally benefit, because remember, a lot of conservatives don't trust Romney, either. So, the Perry campaign thinks it has 20 days. And if he does this the old-fashioned way, he has a history of closing very well. He's making an appeal for Tea Party votes, evangelical Christian votes.

And there is a slight uptick, not only in the Perry polling, Wolf, but in the Perry bus here when you talk to conservative activists who know the state very well. Do they see him surging all the way to the top of the field? They're not ready to go that far yet, but they do think 20 days is a long time since he is respecting the process here, doing it the old-fashioned way, that he has a chance.

There's a big debate Thursday night. We'll watch Governor Perry, but there's a lot of people here think this has been such a volatile race. There will be at least one or two more wrinkles before Iowa votes in 20 days. So, don't count out Governor Perry just yet.

BLITZER: And as far as Governor Perry is concerned, a fascinating development, I think, at least. I interviewed him last week.

I asked him about that back surgery he had in July and whether the pain medication, the drugs he may have been taking afterwards affected his sort of erratic behavior, some of the mistakes he made in the early debates, and he dismissed that as not happening, though yesterday, in a separate interview, he now says he wishes he would have had that back surgery in January because he was fatigued and he did blame that back surgery on some of the earlier mistakes in the debate. It's not often you hear a switch like that within a matter of a few days, John.

KING: No, it's not and you can sense there, they were defensive at he beginning when people started to talk about this, and they wanted to prove maybe this is a bit of Texas macho or maybe they didn't want to talk about, you know, being sideline, or perhaps, not affected by any medications he may have taken, but the first answer was no, stop, move on, the back surgery didn't do it.

Now, they are acknowledging it. If you look at some of the pictures from the early debates, you can see that he was clearly stiff. When he turned to one side, he looked a bit uncomfortable. Whatever the reasons, he had many stumbles early on, and he has now on his third or fourth or fifth chance, if you will, just third or fourth or fifth life, but again, he does have strong conservative positions.

There is a sense here in Iowa that the conservatives are still looking around. That Gingrich has, at least, plateaued. Has the Newt momentum stopped completely? Talking to activists here, they think it, at least, has stopped for now. Twenty days is a long time, and if he has plateaued? Who benefits from that?

Governor Romney will be up here more. We'll see if that happens. You have Santorum and Bachmann trying to make a play for the evangelical vote, but right now, they're behind Rick Perry. I can tell you this, Wolf, Ron Paul will be a factor in Iowa. There's a lot of intensity for Ron Paul on the Iowa state university campuses.

Young voters are something else. But, you know, Iowa gets corky at the end. It gets funny at the end. Governor Perry does have a resume that suits this state. Let's watch.

BLITZER: All right. John, stand by, because Newt Gingrich is in Iowa where you are. He started answering questions. He's got a question about flip-flopping. Let's listen in.


NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That affects people's lives. It actually offers you hope for balance -- a major step towards the balance in a budget. If you can postpone Alzheimer's (ph) by five years, not sure, just postpone it by five years, you save $68 trillions between now and 2050.

Now, if Mr. Paul has an idea for how he would save that kind of money, doing something that involves science and technology, it's terrific. And I think we ought to have a campaign of positive ideas. Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you address the content of what the protesters --

GINGRICH: I actually just asked him.


GINGRICH: Go ahead. I just asked him. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, Mr. Speaker, earlier today, your chief rival, Mitt Romney, said to the "New York Times," quote, "Zany is not what we need in a president." He appeared to be talking about you, calling you Zany. This comes as just a little more than a day after your plea for a positive campaign. What is your response to the former Massachusetts governor?

GINGRICH: My response is I think a brain science initiative is a health of human being. I'll let him decide who's zany --


GINGRICH: I understand what all the consultants are doing. That's fine. They should run their campaign the way they want to. I'm going to run my campaign the way I want to, and my campaign is going to focus on positive ideas and positive solutions, and I'm frankly, taking the gavel to the American people care about actually solving our country's problems, not just watching politicians beat each other up. Now, you want to say something?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you solve some of the concerns express today, especially for student here, you know, (INAUDIBLE) about, crushing student debt, high unemployment. What would you do for the --


GINGRICH: If they had wanted to go to and learn, they would have found an entire program for economic growth. They would have found that, in fact, I worked with Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. We created as many as a million and 300,000 jobs in one month in September of 1983.

We brought unemployment down from 10.8 percent to under six percent under Reagan. When I was speaker, we had the first tax cut in 16 years and the largest capital gains tax cut in history and we brought unemployment down to 4.2 percent. So, I would have been delighted if they had asked questions about how to create jobs. I'd be glad to talk to them about how to create jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But the question of debt, how to deal with the student debt, which is much higher than it was in the era --

GINGRICH: I think -- first of all, we need to spin the student loan program away from the federal government, will be totally mismanaged and end up in fraud. We should go back to being private sector. Second, students ought to frankly try to get through college as quickly as they can with the least amount of borrowing they can.

Third, I think there ought to be every state should be investigating why college cost is going up so much. There's one estimate you're going to have, one clerk for every professor by 2014. I mean, this has been an explosional (ph) cost. College and public universities have risen faster than private in the last five years.

So, I think this whole issue of why is higher education so expensive is a very good question for young people to ask, and I think they should be looking seriously at how many things are done that aren't necessary.

I go everywhere in country and I advocate to people go to Southern Missouri and look at the college of the Ozarks (ph), which is a work study college, which is fifth most difficult college to get into in the country right after Columbia, which you can only apply to if you need student aid, and they have no student aid. You work 15 hours a week during the year and plus two 40-hour weeks that pays tuition and books.

You work in the summer 40 hours a week that pays room and board. Ninety-two percent of the students graduate owing nothing. The eight percent of graduate owing debt owe an average of $5,000 because they bought a car their senior year. I think there's a model worth looking at.

And every state ought to have a college like that, so students can get through without owing debt. And then, every state ought to use that college as cost structures a benchmark to look at the cost of the rest of their institutions. Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your opponents on the airwaves (INAUDIBLE) three of your rivals here are doing (INAUDIBLE) aren't you endangering what is a great opportunity here in Iowa in the following weeks?

GINGRICH: Well, I think we'll be here in Iowa again next week. We're here now and tomorrow and Friday morning. We'll be back again early next week and we'll be here starting the 27th and we'll have our very own bus to match their buses, and it will be a lot of fun. And I'm looking forward to it.


GINGRICH: We have one add up now. We'll have more ads up. Look, I have never suggested that I have the kind of money that some of my competitors have been able to raise, and we're not going to have as many ads as they have, and that's a fact. But we get a fair amount of earned media, and if you look at the most recent poll this morning, I seem to be doing OK.


GINGRICH: Here in Iowa and nationally and both places. Now, I think Iowa's going to be a challenge, because you have everybody firing away simultaneously in a relatively small market.

And so, I think it's going to require two weeks of my going around telling the truth, letting people look at the negative ad, look at the truth and decide do they really want to give their vote to somebody who's not telling the truth and people have to decide by January 3rd whether nor not -- let me give you an example. I have a 90 percent American conservative (ph) voting record for 20 years.

I'm the only person in your lifetime to help balance the budget for four straight years. I passed the only major entitlement reform, welfare, 203 people went back to work or went to school. For somebody to suggest that's not a conservative voting record, I mean, at some point, it becomes a joke.

And so, the question is after we're done with the first wave of negativity, do people start shrugging it off and saying it tells you more about the person who would run the ad, and it tells about Newt Gingrich. We'll see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Speaker, what do you think that says about them? I mean, you said, well, they're running these ads. I mean, what do you think it says?

GINGRICH: I'll let you decide that. I'm happy to tell you about my approach and my commitment to being positive and my commitment focusing on new solutions and new ideas. That's what I'm doing. I'll let you go to them and ask them, where are their new idea ads. Where are their new solution ads? But that's between you and them. I'm not running new campaigns.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This morning, you said Romney and his consultants were able to abate you in the wrong direction. What should Americans be afraid that you can be abated in the new direction?

GINGRICH: Well, I think that's part of a campaign, abated me for they.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last question, you mentioned the polls, "The Wall Street Journal" poll this morning. it also showed that you have a pretty sizable gap with independent voters. Do you have any concern that you are leading primary voters, sort of over an electoral when it come to a general election?

GINGRICH: No, I think where Reagan was against Carter. Reagan does not catch up with Carter until September of 1980. I think phase one is you have to win the Republican nomination. I'd kind of like about where we are now. We would like to have a few more votes, but you know, I think when you look at, take for example, the brain science (INAUDIBLE).

I think when you go out to independents and moderate Democrats and you say here's somebody who actually cares about Alzheimer's, actually cares about autism, actually cares about Parkinson's, actually cares about mental health, actually cares about traumatic brain injury. That strikes me as a lot of Americans of every background who are going to say, gee, that's interesting.

What's it like to have a potential president who actually cares about the way people live and cares about something which affects their lives so deeply. I think by the time we have the discussion and by the time President Obama and I finish our seven, three-hour debates, that we'll be doing just fine. Thank you all very much. Yes, I actually am.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: All right, the former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. The Republican presidential front-runner, we should say. I think he's sort of living in a dream world when he says there will be seven, three-hour debates if he gets the Republican nomination with President Obama.

There are three debates scheduled, but not anything along those lines. We're going to digest what we just heard from Newt Gingrich. He's, obviously, not responding in kind to the Mitt Romney campaign and to Mitt Romney personally, who's beginning a barrage of criticism of Newt Gingrich, including suggesting he's been zany, zany his word, Mitt Romney.

Also, that the country needs a consistent, solid president of the United States, someone who doesn't have all of those, the baggage that Romney suggests that the former speaker, Newt Gingrich has. Gloria Borger is standing by. We'll get to her shortly. There's a lot we want to talk about, but there's another candidate running for president of the United States right now.

That's President Obama. He says he's proud to finally say two words to U.S. forces who are serving, who have served in Iraq. Welcome home. Went to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina today for another ceremony marking the end of America's eight-year war in Iraq. CNN is covering the exit from Iraq in depth. Let's go to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian. Dan, the president was pretty well received at Ft. Bragg.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He was. And, you know, a senior aide here at the White House said that the trip to Fort Bragg today was really a turn-the-page moment for the country. The president, during his remarks, delivered a mix of triumphs and challenges. He saluted the troops and the family members as well, and also made the case that Iraq, while not perfect, is stable. But that optimistic view as the final troops come home is not shared by everyone.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): President Obama may not have supported the war in Iraq, but speaking to some of the troops who fought in it, he embraced the outcome.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has led to this moment of success.

LOTHIAN: But there are questions about how successful this moment of success really is. Not long after the president delivered his remarks at Fort Bragg, Senator John McCain launched a verbal attack on what he called a failure of leadership.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It is clear that this decision of a complete pullout of United States troops from Iraq was dictated by politics and not our national security interest. I believe that history will judge this president's leadership with the scorn and disdain that it deserves.

LOTHIAN: But keeping U.S. troops in Iraq past the end of the year for training or other purposes hit a major roadblock when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who, along with President Obama this week, touted a new strategic relationship, refused to grant American soldiers immunity from prosecution. Senator McCain said the president should have pushed harder to keep U.S. troops there longer.

Iraq's deputy prime minister and others are worried about Iran's growing influence.

SALEH ALL-MUTLAQ, IRAQI DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Iran wants Iraq to be the base to expand.

LOTHIAN: And there are security concerns.

(on camera): Is the administration being overly optimistic that in fact Iraq will be prepared to handle its security once U.S. troops pull out by the end of the year?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No, because we have worked on this very closely. We believe that the Iraqis are ready to deal with their own security.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): A controversial war from beginning to end.

CWO JOSEPH GRANO, U.S. ARMY: I don't think it will ever be an ideal situation, at least not in the near future.

LOTHIAN: Army Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Grano served three tours of duty in Iraq.

GRANO: It is their future, and I think that they will step up in our absence and take control of their country and do what they need to do.


LOTHIAN: Now, during his last deployment to Iraq, he said that he had noticed on the ground things were getting better, security was better there. And White House spokesman Jay Carney telling me there will always with be a certain level of violence on the ground in Iraq, but that they're moving towards greater security and stability even though the direction may not always be in a straight line -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope he's right. All right. Thanks very much for that.

Dan Lothian at the White House.

The profits from tons of illegal cocaine sold in this country are allegedly going to Middle Eastern extremists designated as terrorists by the United States government. New information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

That and a lot more coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's bring back Gloria Borger, our chief political analyst.

We just saw it live. He had been attacked personally by Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich did not take the bait.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: No, he didn't take the bait. In fact, he continued to talk about his science initiative and said it's up to him -- meaning Romney -- to determine if that is zany. And he made the case that he's also a conservative who has a 90 percent rating with conservatives and that it's up to the voters to decide whether the people who call him not a conservative are in fact telling the truth.

So I think you can see that Newt Gingrich is staying on message, staying smooth, continuing to take the high road, which he thinks in the long term, will have more of an appeal to those caucus-goers in Iowa and beyond.

BLITZER: It's probably a very smart strategy, although you and I have covered Newt Gingrich for a long time, and I'm sure it goes against every ounce of his personal desire. Because if he's slapped, he wants to slap right back.

BORGER: Right. And he reserves the right to do that, but I think he clearly doesn't want to do it in a nasty way.

I think what you see from the other campaigns, particularly the Romney campaign, the Perry campaign, is that they all seem to be waiting for him to get to that moment where he becomes the Newt Gingrich they actually want to really run against, and he's not taking the bait on that.

BLITZER: Not yet. We'll see what happens.

Gloria, thanks very much.

There's other important news we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM, including this. A Lebanese national with ties to Hezbollah is now under indictment in the United States, accused of heading up a massive international drug smuggling ring.

Brian Todd has been covering the story for us with enormous ramifications.

What are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, for the first time, U.S. officials have put out a name and a face to establish a firm connection between Hezbollah, one of the world's most notorious terrorist groups, and a major drug cartel that operates along America's border.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): A murderous cartel that sends tons of cocaine to the U.S. each year. A Middle East terrorist group that's killed more Americans than any other except al Qaeda. Now U.S. officials establish a connection between them -- this man.

A new indictment alleges Ayman Joumma has coordinated the smuggling of at least 90 tons of cocaine to the U.S. and laundered hundreds of millions of dollars for drug gangs in Latin America, often working with the Zetas, the Mexican cartel fighting a bloody drug war along the U.S. border.

U.S. officials say Joumma laundered as much as $200 million a month. A key beneficiary of his operations? The Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah.

(on camera): He's not a member of Hezbollah. Did he funnel money directly to them?

BRIAN DODD, DEA COUNTER-NARCOTERRORISM OPERATIONS: I can't go into that part. I mean, I can say that he couldn't have survived without Hezbollah and he was a source of revenue for Hezbollah.

TODD (voice-over): DEA Special Agent Brian Dodd coordinated the investigation.

(on camera): As disturbing as the connection is between the drug cartels and Hezbollah, U.S. law enforcement officials tell us Ayman Joumma is still out there working those connections.

(voice-over): Federal officials tell CNN they believe Joumma is somewhere in the Middle East and his operations continue. The feds say the money was funneled through front companies and a major bank in Lebanon, the Lebanese Canadian Bank. U.S. officials say that bank is a source of funds for Hezbollah.

The chairman of the bank tells CNN the bank has cooperated with American authorities, but is not aware of any transactions by Joumma in several years. CNN was not able to reach Hezbollah officials for comment, but in "The New York Times," the group's chief political strategist dismissed the American claims of a drug connection as politically motivated propaganda.

Hezbollah is part of the government in Lebanon, but also has a history of bloody terror attacks against American interests dating back to the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in1983. Now, analysts say, Hezbollah may be using criminal proceeds to pay for its militant operations.

JONATHAN SCHANZER, FOUNDATION FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: Amassing weapons, threatening Israel, providing assistance to the insurgency in Iraq, providing assistance to other terrorist organizations around the world.


TODD: And analysts say Hezbollah will likely continue to rely more on money from criminal enterprises because its traditional sources of money are starting to dry up. That is money from the governments of Iran and Syria, which are under increasing financial pressure from Western sanctions -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you've been speaking to law enforcement authorities all day. Do they say that these Hezbollah terrorists are communicating directly with the Zetas, the Mexican drug cartel?

TODD: They say they don't have firm indications of that yet, but they say that this one guy, Ayman Joumma, is so effective as what he does, that it's almost as if they do communicate. The money that he launders goes to Hezbollah. He is the linchpin. He is still out there, and they say he is -- they are hinting to us that he is part of a much larger network.

But this one guy, very effective, still out there.

BLITZER: Wow. All right, Brian. Thanks very, very much.

A year of unrest and political change from the Middle East to Wall Street recognized by "TIME" magazine.


BLITZER: And joining us now, Rick Stengel, the managing editor of "TIME" magazine.

Congratulations, Rick. "The Protester," TIME's "Person of the Year." You've got some amazing articles, but really amazing pictures in the new issue as well.

Tell us about "The Protester," why "The Protester" is your "Person of the Year."

RICK STENGEL, MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME": Wolf, the protester from the Arab Spring in the Middle East, to Europe and Madrid and Athens, to Occupy Wall Street, in America, and now to Russia, these are young men and women, middle class men and women, people of education who have just had enough, who have been frustrated. In the Middle East, they've tossed away dictators in three countries. They are upsetting the entire political agenda, and they're bringing a new spirit of democracy and a sense of fairness all around the world.

BLITZER: And they're really changing the world. Not only North Africa and the Middle East we've seen some dramatic changes, but is it fair to say that some of the changes have spilled over here in the United States, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party movement. Which I think preceded the Arab Spring if you go back.

STENGEL: Right. No, it's a kind of what social network people call a contagion now.

The protest movement spread originally from the Middle East. It spread to Europe and in America. Occupy Wall Street was both influenced by the Arab Spring, and also it was influenced by the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party movement did precede that. In some ways, the Tea Party movement was a reflection of those folks who came out for Barack Obama.

So, it's something that is in the air that people feel fed up with the status quo, they feel fed up with governments, whether it's an autocracy, like it was in the Middle East, or a democracy here in the U.S.

BLITZER: Now, you had some serious challengers to "The Protester" for your "Person of the Year." Let's go through some of the runners up.

Admiral William McRaven, you call him "The Admiral." He's in charge of Special Operations Forces and was in charge of the Navy SEALs who killed Bin Laden.

STENGEL: Right. He is now a seminal figure in the U.S. military. He was in charge of SEAL Team 6. He was reporting in to the president that fateful day. But so much of the American military, as you know, now is led by Special Operations, and he really is the guru of that.

BLITZER: Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident, a lot of our viewers in the United States may not be familiar. But give us the background.

STENGEL: Well, he's one of the great artists of our time, but he's also a freedom fighter. And he's been imprisoned and punished by the Chinese government. And he also, for our issue, did a piece of art representing "The Protester" and he did a self-portrait of himself. And in some ways, he complements the whole idea of "The Protester" this year.

BLITZER: I've got to tell you I was a little surprised Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Budget Committee, you call him "The Prophet." He made the short list as well.

STENGEL: Yes. I really think Paul Ryan, in so many ways, has influenced the debate this year not only in the Republican Party, but in American politics in general.

He came out with an early plan for deficit reduction. In some ways, he took that issue off the table from the president. And I think so much of the template that he has set up is the discussion we've been having all year long and will have all next year.

BLITZER: Now, before I mention the next runner up, remind our viewer what the definition of the "Person of the Year," the criteria to qualify for "Person of the Year" is.

STENGEL: The person who has most influenced the news during the past year for better or for worse.

BLITZER: All right. Kate Middleton is a runner up. Help us appreciate that.

STENGEL: Well, Kate Middleton was the darling of almost the entire world, and she's not only a style setter, but I would argue that she's given a new dignity to royalty and kind of a new representation of royalty. And, of course, she herself is not royal. She is a commoner. So she captivated everybody's fancy this year.

BLITZER: It's a great issue.

"The Protester," TIME's "Person of the Year."

Rick Stengel, thanks very much for joining us.

STENGEL: Thank you, Wolf.

International outrage, especially our reporting here from CNN, may have saved one woman's life in Afghanistan. A woman who was put in jail after she was raped is now finally free. We're going live to Kabul for the latest.


BLITZER: It's a story that prompted outrage around the world, a young woman raped, then thrown into prison for adultery. We've been following this story from Afghanistan for weeks, as only CNN can do.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh first brought us this horrific story, and now there are major new developments.

Nick is joining us from Kabul.

And Nick, this woman is finally free, in part thanks to your reporting. Tell us the latest.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is really thanks to a decree from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who intervened particularly on her case.

Senior officials arriving at the jail where she's been for years now with her daughter, taking her last night to a woman's shelter in Kabul, an undisclosed location, where she is now certainly free and much happier, although a little bewildered. But still unclear about many questions about her future.

We spoke to her a few hours ago.


WALSH (voice-over): Jailed for adultery because the man who raped her was married, mother to the child of her attacker whom she's been pressured to marry, Gulnaz' plight highlighted globally the injustices suffered by many Afghan women. But late Tuesday night, after a pardon from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, she was released to a women's shelter in Kabul.

And these are the first pictures of her, a free woman, with her daughter, whose name Muskan (ph) means smile. A little confused about where they are, but delighted their lives have changed.

GULNAZ, RAPE VICTIM (through translator): I am very happy that President Karzai understood my pain and heard my voice after I did the TV interview, and he pardoned me.

WALSH (on camera): Her case has also brought controversy. Some conservatives in society questioning whether or not she was raped. And there is pressure for her to marry her attacker from traditionalists, who think that will help absolve her family from the dishonor of her assault.

We asked her, free to talk now, if she was raped.

GULNAZ (through translator): Yes, he did. Yes.

WALSH (voice-over): And if she had complete choice, would she marry her rapist?

GULNAZ (through translator): No, if I don't have to. I would not even care about him. I hate him. The only thing I want is to go home from here to my brothers and live with them. That's all I want.

WALSH: But rape still carries stigma. Even her brothers have found it hard to accept her daughter.

GULNAZ (through translator): When my brothers used to visit me, they would ask me not to bring the child to them because they did not like her. But I always told them she was my daughter and had nothing to do with the man. I love her like I did at the start.

I want her to be well-educated, and I don't want her to be illiterate. I want her to be a doctor or anything that she can become.

WALSH: Her pardon, a bold step by President Karzai, setting a precedent for the dozens of others on similar charges, her lawyer said.

KIM MOTLEY, GULNAZ' ATTORNEY: I think this is huge. I think this is definitely setting precedent for Afghan women that are in a situation such as Gulnaz's. I think the government has definitely recognized that what happened not only outside the justice system was incorrect, but that what happened within the justice system was incorrect.

WALSH: The future's unclear. Her brothers may not be that welcoming. She may still face pressure to marry, but she's free, in a woman's shelter who can help her understand the risks and hurdles ahead, and able give Muskan (ph) many more choices for their future.


WALSH: Now, there are questions, of course, outstanding. Will her family take her back? Is there still going to be pressure for her to marry her attacker? But one thing we should be clear about this presidential decree, there had been reporting it was conditional on her marrying her attacker. We've seen the decree signed by President Karzai, and there is no such condition, she does not have to marry. She was free to go at her own accord simply because President Karzai thought she shouldn't spend any more time in jail -- Wolf. BLITZER: Let's hope she remains free. And I want to thank President Karzai. We appealed to him to let this woman go, and he did the right thing, fortunately, for her and for Afghanistan, for all of the women of Afghanistan, indeed. It sends a powerful message. Let's hope she stays free.

Nick, thanks for all your reporting as well.

Let's go to Jack right now. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: I need somebody to explain the logic of those people to me some time. She was raped and then put in jail. It makes -- none of it makes any sense.

The question this hour: How damaging is it when a Democratic congressman criticizes President Obama? A Democratic congressman saying he's a professor who is arrogant and alienating.

Brad in Oregon writes, "As someone who leans Democratic, I think that President Obama could use some constructive criticism. I see nothing wrong with what the congressman said."

Paul in North Carolina, "Not very damaging at all. I'd much prefer a professorial president to some dope from Texas -- take your pick -- who can't utter a complete intelligent sentence. Obama may well lose in 2012, but it wont' be the result of anything Dennis Cardoza says or does."

Mark in Oklahoma City, "I don't think Obama really wants to be re-elected. I think he secretly wants to be defeated so he can be given a professorship at a major liberal university, and then travel the world charging $100,000 per speech. He would be much better off and so would America."

Bill writes, "You said the five-term congressman from California who is retiring at the end of this term. Now, if this congressman was up for re-election and said something like this, you might be on to something. But he'll not be around when the music stops, so he's not going to need a chair. His comments at this point are about as worthless as the paper they were written on."

Larry in Ohio, "Why would this surprise anyone? Citizens who are honest have known since day one that President Obama is in an aloof elitist."

And Ed in Texas, "It could be an interesting race if Newt Gingrich is the GOP nominee since he's also a professor who is arrogant and alienating."

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

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

An eerie sight over Moscow leaves tens of thousands of protesters at a loss for words. Jeanne Moos will unravel the mystery.


BLITZER: A pulsating, hovering object was simply bewitching to a massive crowd in Moscow. What was it?

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Up in the sky, is it a UFO? Is it a surveillance drone?

Over the heads of tens of thousand of Russian protesters it flew. And this video flew on to sites like UFOSightingsDaily, where they pondered this possible alien probe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could the craft capturing this video be one of these probes?

MOOS: You really think?

Many protesters figured it was their own government keeping them under surveillance with a drone.

(on camera): But it wasn't aliens looking down on the crowd, and it wasn't the Russian government spying on demonstrators.

(voice-over): It was this --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a radio-controlled hexacopter.

MOOS: A hexacopter -- "hex" meaning six rotors -- with a wide- angle camera attached. And look at the beautiful pictures it took of the biggest protests Moscow has seen in decades.

And when they edited together the panoramic views, they got this. They call themselves AirPano, a group of eight or so Russians who do this for fun.

The two-man team operates the hexacopter, a pilot and a camera operator. These days, you never know where your drone is going to land. And no, the hexacopter did not end up in Iran.

(on camera): Still, the hexacopter pilot wasn't take anything chances. No point in crash-landing on the crowd.

(voice-over): The hexacopter stayed over the river. And twice, someone in the crowd aimed fireworks rockets at it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To shoot the device with this stuff.

MOOS: No damage done.

You can buy something like this. A Canadian company sells the Draganflyer X8. Camera and chopper sell for between $10,000 and $50,000.

CNN is using something similar for a nature special with Phillipe Cousteau.

PHILIPPE COUSTEAU, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: A quadrocopter, just the name is cool.

MOOS: They've been used at other recent protests. For instance, in Warsaw. To get a view of the action, Occupy Wall Street even has an Occucopter.

The Russians bought parts to bill their own hexacopter. They've been shooting beautiful places all over the world.

By the way --

(on camera): Do you believe in UFOs?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I do believe. We have one.

MOOS (voice-over): And if you're ever tempted to fly a remote- controlled chopper, try not to chop up your son.



MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: And don't forget to check out my blog post at I write about President Obama. If he's so anti-big business, as some of his critics suggest, why is Wall Street doing as well as it's doing? Check out the blog post.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The news continues next on CNN.