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Super Tuesday Results; Republican Race Continues; Iran Hiding Nuclear Program?; Leading House Liberal Loses Re-Election Bid; Is Gingrich Helping Romney?; U.S. Military Options For Syria; Valedictorian Gets Deportation Reprieve

Aired March 7, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Mitt Romney is winning on points, but he can't yet seem to land a knockout blow, how the front-runner hopes to grind out a final victory and how his rivals hope to stop him.

As a top senator calls for action to stop the slaughter in Syria, the Pentagon for the first time now spelling out of the some, some of America's military options.

And Iran may be trying to clean up evidence of nuclear activities at a critical site before international inspectors can get there.

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

Mitt Romney certainly had some big wins on Super Tuesday. The GOP front-runner won six states and padded his lead in delegates, but Ohio was very, very close. Rick Santorum captured three states, while Newt Gingrich also had a win. Romney still has not put his rivals out of business.

As Republicans grow concerned about the impact of a long, drawn- out and bitter race, the candidates are calling on one another to quit.

Here's CNN's national political correspondent, Jim Acosta.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, with team Santorum telling Newt Gingrich to drop out and team Romney telling everybody to drop out, it's starting to feel like deja vu all over again.

(voice-over): Falling short of expectations on Super Tuesday and facing what could now be a mad scramble for delegates to win the nomination, Mitt Romney is urging the GOP to stay calm.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, when we have a nominee, we will come together, because Barack Obama has organized the conservative community. Let's put it that way.

ACOSTA: Holding a commanding lead in delegate count, the Romney campaign is making the case the math is on their side. In this campaign memo entitled "Our Opponents' Last Stand," Romney's political director argues the calendar ahead offers them dwindling opportunities to close the gap, and the only person's odds of winning they're increasing are President Obama's.

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR OBAMA CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST: He continues to grind out a kind of tactical victory, and you know, tactical victories in kind of a death march here.

ACOSTA: In a conference call with reporters, President Obama's reelection team sounded openly giddy about reaping the benefits of a long GOP delegate war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Independents have bailed on Romney just in time for the general election.

ACOSTA: After winning three states and finishing a close second in Ohio, Rick Santorum's campaign says it has earned a one on one battle with Romney, which explains why a pro-Santorum super PAC argued in this statement that it is time for Newt Gingrich to exit the Republican nominating process.

After telling CNN he's now bowing out last Sunday, Newt Gingrich now says he must win next Tuesday's Alabama and Mississippi primaries to keep going. But the former speaker remains cheerful.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And we're staying in this race because I believe it's going to be possible for a moderate to win a general election.

ACOSTA: It all sounds like a flashback to Obama vs. Clinton 2008, with Romney now playing the role of nominal front-runner.

AXELROD: If the strategy ultimately becomes we can't win the delegate count, we really can't win the nomination on the legit, so we will apply the kitchen sink strategy and tear down Senator Obama and see if we can destroy him in order to advance our own candidacy, that is damaging.

ACOSTA: The thought of Romney as Obama was too much for team Santorum to resist.

HOGAN GIDLEY, SANTORUM COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: It's another issue where Mitt Romney lines up just perfectly with Obama. First, it was all the issues. Now it's campaign strategy. Got to love it.

ACOSTA (on camera): The Romney campaign joked it would take an act of God for another candidate to win the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, but the road ahead for Romney is tough, with several of the GOP's upcoming contests heading straight for the Bible Belt -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thank you.

What have we learned from the Super Tuesday results? Let's discuss with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

He won the most states, got the most delegates, but he still has certain problems with certain segments of the Republican base.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: When you talk to folks in the Romney campaign last night, they were feeling really great about their win in Ohio, even though it was just by 1 percent, but the win also continued to raise a lot of nagging questions about Mitt Romney's appeal, particularly to conservative working-class voters.

Let's take a look at some of the results from the state of Ohio. Take a look at the income, $50,000 to $100,000, blue-collar Republican voters. Look at the margin, 11 points between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. That's a problem for Mitt Romney. Also, let's take a look at very conservative voters in the state of Ohio.

And here you have an even larger 18-point margin. The problem for Mitt Romney is that the Republican Party has changed. It's not even the party he ran on in 2008. It's a more populist party, it's got a more insurgent population, and the establishment Republican candidate is not the person they were really looking for this time around.

BLITZER: Romney was on CNBC earlier this morning. Listen to this little clip. I want to discuss it with you.


ROMNEY: I'm prepared to fight all the way to become the nominee, and, you know, I was pleased with our success last night. Obviously, we have a very strong lead in delegates, a very strong lead in terms of the number of people who have actually voted for our campaign.


BLITZER: He's right on both of those fronts, but right now it's all about delegates.

BORGER: It's all about delegates.

It is a little bit like the Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton race in 2008, because whoever wins will probably crawl across the finish line. Take a look at our current delegate numbers that we at CNN compile. You see you need 1,144, Wolf, as you well know.

Romney is about a third of the way there. The campaign makes the case there's not going to be another Super Tuesday when you can win a couple hundred delegates because delegates are awarded proportionally. But the other half of that is that there's no incentive really for Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich to get out of the race right now, so long as they have that super PAC funding.

They don't have to raise the money in their campaigns. They can continue running advertising in these states, continue to give Romney heartburn, rack up some delegates, and just continue to make life very difficult for him.

In the end, the super PACs of course may end up helping Barack Obama, what an irony, because these people will be really arguing with each other for the next few months.

BLITZER: Are you among those who believes it's in Romney's best interests to continue to have both Santorum and Gingrich in the race instead of one of them dropping out?

BORGER: Yes. Whoever thought Mitt Romney would need Newt Gingrich, that they would...

BLITZER: Because it divides up that conservative base.

BORGER: Exactly. You have the conservatives, the Tea Partiers, and so long as Mitt Romney can keep those people divided, he can continue and can divide and conquer.

But if one of those people drops out, particularly if Newt Gingrich were to leave the race, then Rick Santorum may be able to make the case, you know what? I am an alternative, I can get elected, I can get elected in the Midwest.

And so that could really cause Mitt Romney some problems. As long as both of them are in, he's happy.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Gloria, for that.

We're going to continue these conversations.

Meanwhile, President Obama made what amounted to a campaign trip of his own today. In North Carolina, he toured a truck plant and talked about a hot button issue in this election year, the high price of gasoline and what to do about it.

Let's go live to our White House correspondent Dan Lothian in Charlotte.

Dan, why did the White House choose to talk about fuel-efficiency standards today? .

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, one big reason is because of the current negative energy climate. As you pointed out, you have high gas prices, there's the volatile oil market, and so the president is really pushing green energy, came to this Daimler plant to showcase trucks, a line of trucks that they have here that run on natural gas.

At the same time the president was blaming the high gas prices on a cycle that happens just about every year, on problems in Iran, on some speculation on Wall Street as well, and while this was billed as an official event, the president did take a shot at his critics who are promising, as he called it, quick fixes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They get out on the campaign trail, and you and I both know there are no quick fixes to this problem, but listening to them, you would think there were.

The next time you hear some politician trotting out some three- point plan for $2 gas, you let them know we know better. Tell them we're tired of hearing phony election-year promises.


LOTHIAN: The president also rolled out a new proposal, a program, a $1 billion program for cities that makes a commitment to purchase these energy-efficient vehicles.

The money that would come from the government would help them set up infrastructure such as charging stations for electric vehicles, at the same time the president trying to find a way to entice consumers back into the market to buy these alternative fuel vehicles, pushing to expand the tax credit currently given for electric vehicles, which is $7,500. He wants to see that up to $10,000 as a rebate you would get right off the sticker price at the car lot or at the truck lot.

Of course, much of this would need congressional approval. And there are a lot of Republicans already saying the president's energy policy has not lived up to the speeches.

BLITZER: Dan, it's no accident, no coincidence that he's visiting North Carolina. He seems to be going there a lot. Tell our viewers why politically it's so important for the president, especially on this day after Super Tuesday, to show up in North Carolina.

LOTHIAN: That's right, Wolf. And not just the president. We have seen the vice president, the first lady campaigning here in the state of North Carolina.

It's a key battleground state. The president narrowly won here in 2008 just by 14,000 votes. It's no accident that the Democratic Convention will be held here in September. But there's a big problem for the president, because unemployment here in the state of North Carolina well above the national average at 10.4 percent.

And so that's why you see the president making that connection between investment and green energy and job creation.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian traveling with the president in North Carolina today, thank you.

Jack Cafferty is watching President Obama as well. And it all has him wondering about a second term. Jack wants to know what you're thinking. He's standing by with "The Cafferty File."

Also, fellow Democrats and former friends forced into battle by redistricting. Now a leading House liberal finds himself potentially out of a job. And is Iran cleaning up evidence of its nuclear activities? New information just coming in, satellite images raising some very disturbing questions. Stand by for that as well.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, there's no such thing as a sure thing in politics, but it seems increasingly likely now that President Obama's on his way to winning a second term.

The biggest factor working in the president's favor, the Republicans. In an NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll taken before Super Tuesday, only one in 10 adults said that the Republican primary has given them a more favorable impression of the Republican Party.

When asked to describe the GOP nominating process, people used words like unenthusiastic, lesser of two evils, painful, uninspiring, depressed.

This might be part of the reason why President Obama's approval rating has been rising, hitting 50 percent in our latest poll. The president also tops Mitt Romney now in hypothetical matchups.

The remarkably accurate online predictor Intrade puts Obama's chances of reelected now at 60 percent.

It is not just the Republican carnival that's helping the president. The economy is slowly starting to improve. That is huge. And despite yesterday's sell-off, the stock market has been headed up. Experts say stock prices are rising. And the growing expectation is the president will win reelection.

A lot of Republicans already see the writing on the wall, apparently. Big Republican donors and strategists are turning their attention to congressional races. They apparently think they have a better chance of winning House and Senate races than unseating the incumbent Democratic president. And it's looking more and more like they might be right. Of course, we got a ways to go.

Anyway here's the question: is a second term becoming inevitable for President Obama?

Go to, post a comment on my blog. Go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

The Ohio primary not only gave Mitt Romney a narrow win over Rick Santorum. It also marked the sudden end of one well-known, and it set the stage for an unlikely contest in November.

CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is joining us with details.

All right. Dana, tell our viewers what else happened in Ohio yesterday.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this was the first congressional race of this election cycle, Wolf, where two incumbents were forced to face off. Because of the 2010 census, congressional lines are being redrawn, and in some cases districts are completely being eliminated. And that is the case in Ohio, in this particular area.

And this, of course, was high profile because Dennis Kucinich himself is a proud, loud liberal. He ran for president twice. He's been seen by me and others around these hallways with people like Sean Penn. And he is very, very outspoken about his views.

But at the end of this year, that's going to come to an end.


BASH (voice-over): One of Congress's leading liberal voices defeated by a fellow Democrat.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), OHIO: Many of you in this room have known me for years, and you know that I've lost campaigns before. So, there's always a tomorrow. You know? You know, don't cry any tears for me.

BASH: Thanks to redistricting lines redrawn by Ohio Republicans, Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich was pitted against veteran Democratic Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, the dean of the Ohio delegation.

REP. MARCY KAPTUR (D), OHIO: I was the individual in the delegation that had the portrait painted of he and his wife that hangs in his office when they were married.

BASH: The friendship devolved into a nasty campaign fight fast -- still bitter on election night.

KUCINICH: I would like to be able to congratulate Congresswoman Kaptur. But I do have to say that she ran a campaign in the Cleveland media market that was utterly lacking in integrity, with false statements, half-truths, misrepresentations.

BASH: When it became clear Kucinich could lose his seat, he went to Washington state to explore running there. For that, Kaptur attacked Kucinich, the former mayor of Cleveland, in the harshest of terms for Cleveland voters, comparing him to once favored son basketball player LeBron James who bolted from Miami.

NARRATOR: LeBron James.

LEBRON JAMES, NBA PLAYER: I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.

NARRATOR: Looks like next in line to abandon us is Dennis Kucinich.

BASH: Kucinich played on what he is known for nationally, staunch opposition to war.

KUCINICH: Our responsibilities for the costs of the war which approaches $250 billion, our responsibility for the civilian casualties and the human cost of the war.

BASH: Kucinich accused Kaptur wasting taxpayer dollars on unpopular wars. But Kaptur ran campaigns you don't see much in the Tea Party world, as an old-fashioned politician who brings home the bacon.

KAPTUR: We got rid of a lift bridge at an interstate and it became the bridge to everywhere.

BASH (on camera): Because these days, saying that you serve on a committee, saying that you are in Washington doing hard work, tends to be a negative, because people are so mad at Washington. Why did it turn into a positive for you?

KAPTUR: I think because we can show something for it.

BASH (voice-over): Now, Kaptur faces another national figure of sorts, Joe the Plumber.

SAMUEL WURZELBACHER (R), OHIO CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Bottom line, I won't run a character assassination-type campaign.

BASH (on camera): Did you ever think you would be running against somebody named Joe the Plumber?

KAPTUR: Well, you know, he's not a plumber and his name isn't Joe.


BASH: She's right. His name is Sam Wurzelbacher and he, of course, became famous during the 2008 presidential campaign when he was just a voter who talked to Barack Obama about his taxes. John McCain seized on that as a symbol for what he thought would happen to Americans' taxes. This is certainly a fascinating campaign to look at.

But, Wolf, it is just the first of many we are likely to see over the next coming months of incumbent versus incumbent because of redistricting all over the country -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana Bash, thanks very much.

Lots more political stuff coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, other news we're following, including a massive solar flare, one of the largest in years. Details of how it could impact earth and all of us tomorrow.

Also, new developments of the biggest mystery in physics. What scientists have learned about the so-called "God particle".

Plus, the moon's possible role in the sinking of the Titanic. There's a surprising new theory about history's most notorious disaster at sea.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including some incredible new video of the sun.

Lisa, what do you have?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is pretty impressive, Wolf. Watch as a massive solar flare erupts and ripples on the sun. It's easily the biggest one of the year and second biggest since 2007. The huge flare ejected solar plasma and charged particles that are expected to reach the earth tomorrow. And for about 24 hours, it could interfere with satellites and orbit, plus GPS systems and power grids.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is endorsing President Obama for reelection, albeit subtly. In an interview on French TV, Sarkozy said President Obama won't take on Middle East peace before he's reelected, but added that he hopes he will be and called him a great president. In 2008, Sarkozy implied he wanted then-Senator Obama to win as well.

Scientists are closer to explaining the so-called "God Particle." It's the biggest mystery in physics -- a particle that would explain where matter comes from and how the university works. U.S. physicists report data that might -- might -- prove the particle exists. European scientists report similar findings, but the search continues.

And could the moon have helped sink the Titanic? Researchers in Texas think it's possible, before the wreck, the moon was at its closest to the earth in 1,400 years which may have caused a tide so high that more icebergs than usual were floating in the north Atlantic. The captain ignored warnings and sailed full speed into one of them. The 1912 sinks claimed 1,500 lives -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's amazing -- that's amazing information. Thanks very much for that, Lisa.

Signs that Iraq may be trying to eliminate possible evidence of its nuclear activities in a key nuclear site -- new information coming in right now.

And is Mitt Romney actually more popular than he seems to be? We're taking a closer look at the actual vote totals, what that might mean.

Plus, one radio talk show host looks at another. Bill Bennett gives us his take on the latest Rush Limbaugh scandal. That's coming up in our strategy session.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer.

Here are some of the stories we're working on for the next hour:

Critical United Nations visit inside Syria. We'll talk about it with Dennis Ross, the president's former top Middle East adviser at the National Security Council.

Also, Peyton Manning cut loose by the Colts. Why he's more than just a quarterback and why this is more than just a blockbuster sports story.

Plus, Sarah Palin in a rare interview with CNN, what she's saying about the next presidential context in 2016.

Stand by. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: All that coming up. Let's get to our "Strategy Session." Joining us our CNN political contributors, Donna Brazile and national radio talk show host, Bill Bennett. Guys, thanks very much.

Bill, let me start with you. You had a chance to speak with Newt Gingrich on your radio show earlier today. Let me play a little clip because as you know, a lot of Republicans think it's over for him. He had this to say.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The question immediately after Nevada. He was running fourth for a month, and people, including me, people were saying he should drop out. He ignored all those. He's now had a terrific month. Now we have to wait and see how the race goes on.


BLITZER: Bill, he came in, he won in his home state of Georgia, but came in third or fourth in the other nine states that took place yesterday. Does he have a realistic chance of getting the Republican nomination?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I don't think he does, and I do think he's looking seriously at it. I know every word he's said has suggested he'll keep going. I still have my doubts.

If he doesn't do well in Alabama, Mississippi, the Kansas caucus, he may step down and I think it would be in the interests of the party and I think it would be in his interests, too.

BLITZER: Who would get those Newt Gingrich voters, Bill, if you assume he will not necessarily win in Alabama and Mississippi next Tuesday. BENNETT: Well, if you interpret it as very conservative voters, the Santorum campaign would say we'll get almost all of them. If you say, well, people like Newt rather than Santorum, because Santorum is more of an establishment figure.

Newt is the guy who turns over the tables and wrecks the furniture. You might think it might go elsewhere. But I think it's a good guess to believe a lot of Newt's support would go to Santorum.

It's very interesting look at the Michigan results, Wolf, and Ohio results without Newt. Would Santorum have been stronger? That's the mischief in all of these.

BLITZER: Donna, as you know, you're a great political strategist, a lot of the Romney folks want both Gingrich and Santorum in the race, because they sort of divide up that vote, if you will. If Newt Gingrich were to drop out, how much bad news would that be potentially for Mitt Romney?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, first of all, it could consolidate Senator Santorum's support. It would give him not only much needed momentum to win some of those close contests. I don't know it if will fix some of the organizational problems we have seen in the Santorum campaign when he's unable to fill his delegate slate.

Of course, the former speaker has also had that problem, but it would coalesce the conservative vote. Erick Erickson, who's sort of educated me on the conservative vote across the country, believes it would give Rick Santorum an edge in some of these upcoming southern primaries, and even some of caucuses out west.

BLITZER: Take a look at these numbers, Bill, because so far, since Iowa, all of the Super Tuesday contests, more than 8 million people have voted in these Republican contests, and take a look.

Yesterday, Romney got 38 percent, 27 percent for Santorum, 23 percent for Gingrich, 11 percent for Paul, but if you add up all the numbers, 8,250,860 people have voted so far.

The numbers are very similar. Romney comes up with 39 percent, 3,236,000 or so. Santorum 25 percent, Gingrich 22 percent, 11 percent for Ron Paul. How significant is the fact that Romney is getting a significant pluralality of the Republican vote in these primaries and caucuses.

BENNETT: How significant is it depends on about what in terms of winning the nomination? Still looks good for Romney. If it's significance in terms of, you know, lapping the pack, he's not doing that. He's not pulling away.

There's still some reluctance among a lot of people, but he looks on target to win so we'll see. This is why something like a Gingrich withdrawal would really throw this whole thing into a fight. We would have to see about that.

BLITZER: He's way ahead in the delegate vote, which is a lot more important than the popular vote, Donna, right now. Put these numbers up on the screen, right now as of this minute, we estimate Romney has 429 delegates, Santorum 169, Gingrich 111, and Ron Paul only 67 delegates.

Ron Paul still has not won one state yet. Those numbers are pretty impressive. If you're looking to the magic number, Donna, of 1,144 delegates needed to capture the Republican nomination, it looks like Romney is in much better shape than the others.

BRAZILE: He really is. That's why it's important over the next couple weeks, as you look at these upcoming primaries and caucuses, that the Santorum campaign, Gingrich campaign retool themselves to ensure they can capture some of those delegates in the upcoming states.

But, look, Mitt Romney is the front-runner. He understands that he can, you know, rack up more delegates, but he'll rack up delegates without coalescing and bringing the party together.

I think the strategy going forward right now for the Romney campaign is to try to keep both Gingrich and Santorum, you know, with less than 20 percent of the delegates left over, and he could still get 1,144, the magic number by sometime mid to late April.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Bill, before I let you go. Give me your take on the whole Rush Limbaugh uproar that has developed over the past few days.

BENNETT: Well, what Rush said was terrible, regrettable and got us off subject. There was a very important question of the first amendment. I hope we can get back to it. To Rush's credit, he apologized twice, which is a lot more than Bill Maher and people on the left.

They say worst things than Rush said and they're still treated, you know, to nice sessions on CNN and other things. We need to have a single standard on this.

BLITZER: Should he have called that Georgetown University law student and formally personally apologized to her instead of doing it on his radio show?

BENNETT: I think -- you mean Rush or the president?

BLITZER: No, Rush.

BENNETT: I don't know. I mean, I think it was fine. It was done at a distance. The apology is at a distance. My question is whether the president will give back a million dollars that Bill Maher gave him. I don't know how he's going to explain that to Sasha and Malia when that guy uses language that would make Rush blush.

BRAZILE: I don't think so.

BLITZER: He did use vile language in talking about Sarah Palin as you know, Donna. BRAZILE: First of all, Wolf, I am not as a woman going to sit here and say that, you know, two wrongs make a right. You know, it's unacceptable as a woman to have the kind of misogyny and sexist language.

It doesn't matter where it comes from the left, the right, the conservative, the Democrats. It's wrong. We heard Hillary Clinton was called some of the worst things.

And Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh has a history. Bill, we're not trying to figure out who has the greatest list of --

BENNETT: No, Donna, I'm just looking for consistency. Rush apologized twice, and I think that was the right thing to do. We'd like to see the same thing. It wasn't more on -- it was Chris Matthews on Hillary.

BRAZILE: It was 46 times he called her personal attacks. But I agree with you, this has been a distraction, he's apologized now publicly to Ms. Fluke. Let's see if we have better decency and standards when it comes to women.

BENNETT: I'm for that. One standard, civility across the board.

BRAZILE: All across the board.

BLITZER: Thank you, Bill Bennett, Donna Brazile. Appreciate it. A high school valedictorian facing deportation.


DANIELA PELAEZ, VALEDICTORIAN: I've lived here since I was 4 years old and I consider myself American, and just want to live the American dream like everybody else.


BLITZER: There are new developments to the case that's attracting national attention.

Also, the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Senator McCain, they go head to head over U.S. military involvement in Syria. Should it take place? We have gee tails of a rather tense Senate hearing.


BLITZER: A dramatic encounter on Capitol Hill today as a top senator called for U.S. action to stop the slaughter in Syria. The Pentagon brass revealed just what steps it might be taking, at least possibly.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has details of various contingency options. What are you learning, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it all starts with the Syrian opposition, doesn't it? What we learned today is the U.S. believes the opposition is growing deeper and wider across the country. Now the question is what to do about it all?


STARR (voice-over): As Syria continues to unravel, the president says he wants to exhaust diplomatic efforts, but for the first time, signs that President Obama has started discussing options with his military.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS, CHAIRMAN: The president of the United States, through the national security staff, has asked us to begin the commander's estimate, the estimate of the situation.

STARR: CNN was first to report military planning was underway. On Wednesday, the nation's top officer told a Senate committee those options include humanitarian relief, a no-fly zone, intervention at sea and air strikes.

DEMPSEY: I want to be clear, we can do anything, the question is not can we do it, should we do it?

STARR: Senator John McCain continued to insist the U.S. should.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Can you tell us how much longer the killing would have to continue? How many additional civilian lives would have to be lost? How many more have to die, 10,000 more, 20,000 more?

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Before I recommend that we put our sons and daughters in uniform in harm's way, I've got to make very sure that we know what the mission is. I've got to make very sure if we know whether we can achieve that mission.

STARR: Panetta said U.S. ground troops are not being considered. U.S. concerns, however, a fractured opposition with nearly 100 groups. Air strikes could take hundreds of aircraft and weeks of bombing to destroy Syria's air defenses.

DEMPSEY: They have approximately five times more air -- sophisticated air defense systems than existed in Libya, cover one fifth of the terrain.

STARR: Panetta said it wouldn't make sense for the U.S. to act unilaterally, but he set off a firestorm when he said the U.S. would want international permission, but might not seek congressional approval for military action.

PANETTA: Our goal would be to seek international permission, and we would come to the Congress and inform you.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: I'm almost breathless about that, because what I heard you say is we're going to seek international approval, and then we'll come and tell the Congress what we might do. And we might seek congressional approval.


STARR: Now, we just finished talking to Senator Sessions privately a few minutes ago. He remains very concerned, Wolf. His feeling is that time may be running out in Syria, but not for Assad. He thinks time may be running out for the U.S. and the allies to intervene.

That Assad actually in recent days and weeks has been gaining momentum on the ground in Syria, and that the administration could be desperately wrong, it may not be inevitable that Assad cease regime will fall. So this is all shaping up to be quite a dire situation for many different reasons -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it seems to be going from bad to worse in Syria. All right, thanks very much, Barbara.

Meanwhile, the head of the United Nations Nuclear Watchdog Agency today said Iran is not telling everything about its nuclear program. As CNN was first to show you, there are signs Iran may be trying to, quote, "clean up evidence of nuclear activities at a critical site before international inspectors can get there."

Let's go live to our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance. He's in Vienna, Austria right now. Matthew, you have new information about this reported cleanup. What are you learning?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the latest information on that, Wolf, is that, you know, the U.N. inspectors that tried to get into that site, it's called Parchen. It's close to the Iranian capital.

It's a military facility where it's suspected that weapons research on the trigger mechanisms for atomic bombs, to be specific, may have been carried out there. They tried to get access to it. They were denied access repeatedly in January and February.

What's been reported since then by the IAEA and confirmed by other western diplomats we've been speaking to here as well, is that they're monitoring that site through satellite images. On those images, Iranian vehicles can be seen in the site, earth moving equipment, things like that.

And the interpretation being given to us by diplomats here at the IAEA is that the site is being cleared up before inspectors are allowed in to take a look around. So that's what the implication is, according to the diplomats who have seen these satellite images that are Iran is cleaning it up before it allows inspectors to see what's been going on there.

BLITZER: Important developments. Matthew, is there anything significant that's expected to happen at this upcoming IAEA meeting, and you're in Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered, which potentially could slow down Iran's nuclear program?

CHANCE: Potentially there's a big day tomorrow. It's supposed to be the last day of these meetings tomorrow here at the IAEA nuclear headquarters in Vienna. I learned from a western diplomat this evening that the five permanent members of the Security Council.

So including the United States, China, France, Britain, have agreed along with Germany a joint statement -- Russia as well, of course -- a joint statement to basically underline their serious concerns about Iran's ongoing nuclear program and call on the IAEA to report again on what progress, if any, is made when they go there next time.

It doesn't sound like much, but it shows as negotiations get under way against with the Iranians and the P-5 plus one as they're being called, the Security Council members are presenting a united front.

Remember, Russia and China have often provided diplomatic cover for Iran and its nuclear activities. On this occasion, it seems they're on the same page as the western countries when it comes to Iran kind of coming into compliance over its nuclear program -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll, of course, stay in close touch with you, Matthew. Thanks very much.

And as the full extent of the slaughter in Syria becomes known, I'll speak with the former top Middle East envoy, the adviser on the Middle East to President Obama. Dennis Rossi just recently left the National Security Council. He'll update us on what's going on.

New developments in the case of a high school valedictorian who was facing deportation to a country she left as a 4-year-old.


BLITZER: There are new developments in the case of a high school valedictorian who is facing deportation to a country she left as a 4- year-old. CNN's Lisa Sylvester is following the story for us. Lisa, what's the very latest?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, Daniela Pelaez is making her first trip to Washington, D.C. and her day included high level meetings with U.S. senators and congressional representative.

The valedictorian's case has made national headlines after an immigration judge said that she had to leave the country by March 28th, missing her graduation. But now things have turned around for her.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): Daniela Pelaez is valedictorian of her North Miami High School. But instead of getting her diploma, she was on the verge of getting a deportation order.

She's in the United States illegally, but a last-minute reprieve from Immigration and Customs Enforcement will now allow her and her sister, Diana to stay for the time being.

DANIELA PELAEZ, GRANTED TEMPORARY STAY: Very fabulous moves, my attorney, was able to get a two-year deferred action and waived our deportation for two more years.

SYLVESTER (on camera): Why do you want to stay in the United States?

PELAEZ: Well, I've lived here since I was 4 years old. I consider myself American. I just want to live the American dream like everyone else.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): Her high school rallied by her side, 2,500 students and teachers holding a protest last week. Members of Congress including Senator Bill Nelson appealed to immigration authorities to give Pelaez a chance to stay.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Until we can pass the DREAM Act.

SYLVESTER: Pelaez is in Washington, D.C., the new face on the fight for the DREAM Act that would put undocumented students on a path to citizenship.

But Pelaez's own future is far from settled. Yes, she can stay for two more years, but what happens after that. She has applied to several Ivy League colleges and hopes to go on to medical school.

NERA SHEFER, ATTORNEY: We need to fix the problem. We need to somehow get a green card for them and for thousands of young people like them that would like to stay here and give back to the community.

SYLVESTER: Pelaez's case highlights the limbo of kids like her brought to the United States illegally. They're caught between the birth country that they don't know and the United States where they're not allowed to stay.

PELAEZ: I just want to get that message across that kids just like me with grades just as good as mine, with families serving in the military like my brother, et cetera, and, you know, just to show them we're good citizens just like anybody else.


SYLVESTER: Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a statement said it exercises prosecutorial discretion on a case by case basis. The agency says it's now focusing its efforts on deporting criminal aliens.

The next two years will buy Daniela and her sister just a little bit more time. Their attorney will appeal the immigration judge's ruling and then apply for green cards -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Hold on a second, Liza, because the Vice President Joe Biden just spoke out about this story. Listen to what he told Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN Espanol just a few moments ago. Listen to this.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: This is the best illustration of why the policy -- this is so mindless. This kid came I'm told when she was 4 years old. Why in God's name would you want to take this kid with this talent, this capacity and deport her? I mean, it is against or national interest. I think the American people are well beyond where they were 20 years ago.


BLITZER: Does she know yet where she's going to go to college? I assume a lot of universities would love to get her.

SYLVESTER: She has been accepted to the University of Florida, but April 1st is the critical day. That is when she's expected to get those letters from the colleges as I'm sure many kids out there right now, many students out there are waiting to get the acceptance letters. So, I know that she has applied to a number of Ivy League colleges, so we'll see -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see indeed. You'll stay on top of this story, Lisa. Thank you.

A critical United Nations visit inside Syria. We're going to talk about it with Dennis Ross, the president's former top Middle East adviser on the National Security Council. Stand by.


BLITZER: Jack's back with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour, is a second term becoming inevitable for President Obama?

Martha in Pennsylvania, "Kind of sort of looks that way. Obama would have to perpetuate some massive screw up to lose to the ken doll, Mitt, the plastic Jesus, Rick and the rooming nom, Newt or Kermit the Frog, Ron."

Ed in Texas writes, "President Obama came into office in the midst of two wars, automobile industry facing collapse and the country on the edge of a second great depression. We are out of Iraq, Osama Bin Laden is dead, General Motors is selling more cars than anyone else in the world and our economy is getting better. He deserves some credit."

Randy writes, "Yes, right, remember how inevitable Hillary was? Never underestimate the military industrial complex penchant for putting on a show during election season. Take a wild guess as to why Jeb Bush hasn't endorsed anyone and the candidates frontmen want a brokered convention."

Brian in San Diego writes, "Nothing is inevitable except, debt, taxes and political stupidity. Obama's second tern is certainly becoming more likely. The longer the Republican primary circus continues. But it's not inevitable by any means.

There are plenty of things both within Obama's control and outside it that could still hurt his re-election bid."

Barbara in Henderson, Nevada writes, "We can only hope as long as the Republicans keep talking, it looks better every day."

Urgely in Wisconsin writes, "If the economy hiccups badly this summer and fall, Obama will not be re-elected." And Curtis writes, "Jack, a week in politics can be a lifetime. This election is still eight months away, don't you have anything better to do."

Actually, no, this is kind of it. If you want to read more about this, go to my blog, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.