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Interview with Newt Gingrich; Diplomatic Crisis in China; New Terror Tactic; Can Romney Win over Social Conservatives?; Inside Romney's Veepstakes; Activists: Syrian Troops Storm University; President's Olive Branch to the Taliban; 80 Rapes in Three Years

Aired May 3, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: a diplomatic crisis proving to be a mission impossible for the White House. Now a Chinese dissident who sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy at Beijing is sending a direct message to President Obama. So is Mitt Romney.

Also, Newt Gingrich is in THE SITUATION ROOM with us this hour. What was the biggest mistake of his failed campaign? What about the harsh statements he made about Mitt Romney? We are going to talk about that and a lot more. Stand by.

And a new terror tactic from al Qaeda revealed: wildfires.

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

We begin with new developments in a growing diplomatic crisis dogging the Obama administration, the Chinese dissident who escaped house arrest, then sought refuge, but the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is now appealing directly to President Obama for help. Chen Guangcheng says he was basically pushed out of the embassy and abandoned, but the top American diplomat in China tells CNN a very different account of what happened.

CNN's Stan Grant is in Beijing. He has been following this story from the beginning, dramatic developments, huge interests at stake.

Stan, you had a chance to speak with the U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke about all of this. What is the very latest?


And he is Gary Locke, of course, the man with really the answers about what went wrong at the embassy. Chen Guangcheng is saying that he was encouraged to leave and encouraged to leave without knowing the full range of the threat that his family was posing.

I sat down with the ambassador to get his side of the story. This is what he had to say.


GRANT (voice-over): Ambassador Gary Locke is the man in the hot seat, to answer a crucial question: Did the United States fail Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng? GARY LOCKE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: We took extraordinary steps to retrieve him. We found out that he had escaped, was in Beijing, wanted to talk to us. We undertook almost like a "Mission: Impossible" retrieval to bring him into the embassy.

GRANT: Now, according to Chen himself, that mission impossible is looking more like mission failure. Chen, a blind activist who fled what he called brutal house arrest to take refuge in the U.S. Embassy more than a week ago, tells CNN he wishes he had never left the diplomatic compound.

In an interview yesterday, he accused embassy officials of encouraging him to go and then deserting him at a Beijing hospital.

"The embassy kept lobbying me to leave," he said. "They promised to be with me at the hospital, but, this afternoon, soon after we got here, they were all gone." Locke maintains that embassy officials have been back to the hospital several times to see Chen.

(on camera): When we spoke to Chen Guangcheng, he made it very clear he has changed his mind. He wishes he had never left the embassy. Do you now wish that you never allowed him to leave?

LOCKE: It was very, very clear all along he wanted to be reunified with his family, he wanted to stay in China to be a freedom fighter.

GRANT (voice-over): Well, that was then.

Chen is now appealing to U.S. President Obama to get his family out.

(on camera): He wants to go to the United States. He's even said to President Barack Obama in the interview that we had with him, please, President Barack Obama, do everything you can to get me out of this country.

Are you going to? Is the president going to?

LOCKE: Well, first of all, we need to talk with me him. It's apparent that he's had a change of heart. We have always...

GRANT: He was very explicit, Mr. Ambassador.

LOCKE: Well, I understand.

GRANT: He -- he wants to leave this country. He's in fear of his life.

LOCKE: Well...

GRANT: Are you going to be able to facilitate that?

LOCKE: We need to first have that conversation with him. We need to make sure exactly what his desires are. And then we will take that up and start discussing that. We need to explore all the options.

GRANT (voice-over): Ambassador Locke was by Chen's side every step of the way as he left the embassy. Time and again, he told me this was Chen's own decision.

LOCKE: Then we said, what is your choice? What do you want to do? Are you ready to leave? And we just stopped. And then about two minutes later, he jumped up beaming, excited, happy. He says, let's go.

GRANT: Chen Guangcheng remains in his hospital bed, his wife and children alongside him, but they fear being sent back to their village, where they were held for 18 months after Chen served four years in jail for a crime he said he did not commit.

Chen says guards there warned his wife they'd be waiting with weapons. His only choice, he says, is to leave China.


GRANT: Now the difficulty is how to get out of this country. Ambassador Locke said, to seek asylum first, Chen would have to be on U.S. soil. That would include the American Embassy, ironically, the very place that Chen walked away from.

Mission impossible indeed, Wolf.

BLITZER: How is this affecting Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing? Timothy Geithner, the treasury secretary, is with the secretary of state as well. It comes at a rather awkward moment, all of this.

GRANT: You know, they came here to talk trade, and that's a contentious issue enough, of course, with China, this rising economy threatening to overtake the United States in the next couple of decades.

They have their issues there, but this has been completely overshadowed by this. We hadn't heard much from Secretary Clinton. She did speak a little bit today, talking about the issue of human rights. We're expecting to hear more from her in the next 24 hours. There have even been suggestions that Chen wants to leave on the secretary of state's plane when she leaves Beijing on the weekend, Wolf.

BLITZER: That would be dramatic if it were to happen, if the Chinese would allow him to do that.

We will stay in close touch with you. Stan, thank you.

The White House is facing growing questions about this diplomatic crisis, but it's backing up the account of the U.S. ambassador, Gary Locke.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: At no point during his time in the embassy did Mr. Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S. And at every opportunity he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with this family, continue his education and work for reform in his country.

All of our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives.


BLITZER: The Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is mincing no words in assessing this current crisis. Listen to this.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's also apparent, according to these reports, if they're accurate, that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would ensure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family. If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom, and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration.


BLITZER: All right, we're going to see what happens.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials in Beijing, they say they are going to try to get in touch, stay in touch with Chen. We will see what happens, but the stakes clearly are enormous.

We're also getting some new information just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now about Facebook's highly anticipated initial public offering.

Our chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi, is standing by.

Ali, what are you hearing?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm working out some numbers, because there are some conflicting numbers out there.

But here's how it works, Wolf. The shares will start trading on May 18. Between now and May 18, Facebook is going out with Morgan Stanley. They are going to go to hedge funds and mutual funds and they are going to say, we are going to give you guys an opportunity to buy our shares. And they have set the target price at between $28 and $35.

That is the price at which these institutions will be able to buy the stock. That is not the price that the public is likely to be able to buy this stock. Now, what happens is, depending on how in demand these shares are, the night before it starts trading, the night of May 17, they will issue a price at which that stock begins trading, and that will be the price that Facebook trades at on the first day. This is generally an indication that it should be at the low end $28, at the high end, if everybody wants a piece of the action, $35. I will tell you what that does for the company. It gives Facebook a valuation. If it comes in at the high end of the range, if it comes up at $35 a stock, Facebook will come out at a valuation by our calculations of $75 billion, a $75 billion company.

Quite remarkable to see that kind of valuation for the first time, Wolf.

BLITZER: That sounds relatively reasonable, $28 to $35 a share, given some of the other...


BLITZER: Look at what Apple is doing, for example, right now, Google.

So the key question is should folks out there who are watching plan on buying this stock?

VELSHI: Well, remember that a lot of these very successful offerings -- and people will tell you about Zynga and Groupon and things like that.

But think about Google , which came out at $85, closed its first day $100, and a year later was at $280, and has kept on going. Here's the way to think about it, Wolf. Should you buy the stock? At the right price, sure. Are you likely to buy it anyway near this range? Probably not.

So, decide how much you're prepared to pay for Facebook. Understand that that's the range. You are likely going to have to pay more for it on the first day. Don't buy it at any price. Buy it at a price you think is fair -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good advice from Ali Velshi, as usually. Thank you.

Jack Cafferty is standing by right now. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: No secret, here, Wolf. Shaping up to be a tight race this November between President Obama and Mitt Romney, especially in the crucial swing states.

And new polls out show Romney closing in on the president in both Florida and Ohio.

The Quinnipiac poll shows Romney up by a point in Florida, 44-43, and the president up by two in Ohio, 44-42, both of these within the sampling error.

In Pennsylvania, President Obama has widened his lead over Romney to eight points, 47-39.

Keep in mind, no one has won the White House since 1960 without carrying at least two of these three states.

Pollsters say some of Romney's gains come in voter perception that he is as good as or better than President Obama when it comes to fixing the economy.

And it's no secret. For millions of Americans, the economy will be far and away issue one come November.

A recent Pew poll shows an overwhelming 86 percent of registered voters say the economy will be very important to their vote, while 84 percent cite jobs.

According to this poll, other top issues include the budget deficit, health care, education, Medicare, energy, and taxes.

At the bottom of this list come issues like immigration, abortion, birth control and gay marriage.

Wouldn't it be a nice, for a change, if the politicians took note and stayed away from the wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage this year, and instead talked about what really concerns most people?

Meanwhile, there are those two key Supreme Court decisions that are due out in June which could throw the national focus right back on health care and immigration.

Here's the question: What issue or issues will ultimately decide the presidential election?

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

BLITZER: I will give our viewers a clue. Unless there is a national security crisis, a war on terror or another war, it's the economy. And that is going to be the key issue. I think everybody appreciates that.

That's just my clue, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Well, I think you're probably right. You may be on to something there.

BLITZER: Maybe. Maybe.


BLITZER: Thank you.


BLITZER: Mitt Romney is out to win over social conservatives -- why he may be in, though, for a bumpy ride.

Also, he's just given up his bid for the White House. What's Newt Gingrich's biggest regret of the campaign? Guess what? He's here live this hour. I will ask him. And love letters from Barack Obama long before he was president, long before he was in public office -- two ex-girlfriends sharing their personal stories.

Stand by.


BLITZER: First, there was former Governor Tim Pawlenty, and then Governor Rick Perry, and now, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann -- the latest in the string of former campaign rivals to back Mitt Romney for president of the United States. Endorsements, though, can only help so much.

Let's discuss what's going on. Our national political correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us.

Jim, Romney certainly has his work cut out for him, doesn't he?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He sure does, Wolf. Looking at his schedule, it is no secret Mitt Romney is trying to rally social conservatives, but for now it's a work in progress -- something Republicans do while running for the nomination, not after it's locked up.



ACOSTA (voice-over): Mitt Romney was doing more than just sizing up a new running mate in Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and taking shots at the president's new one-word campaign slogan "forward".

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If the last three and a half years are his definition of forward, I'd hate to see what backward looks like.

ACOSTA: He's also out to win social conservatives, picking up the endorsement of his one-time rival Michele Bachmann.

BACHMANN: This is what victory looks like!

ACOSTA: Just four months ago, Bachmann predicted Romney couldn't win.

BACHMANN: He is the only governor in the history of the United States that has put into place socialized medicine in his state.

ACOSTA: This week, the presumptive GOP nominee has taken hits from evangelical leaders who were outraged over the hiring of Romney foreign policy adviser Richard Grenell, a supporter of same sex marriage who also happens to be gay. Grenell's resignation prompted one Christian conservative blogger to declare victory.

BRYAN FISCHER, AMERICAN FAMILY ASSOCIATION: I will flat-out guarantee you he is not going make this mistake again. There is no way in the world that Mitt Romney is going to put a homosexual activist in any position of importance in his campaign.

TONY PERKINS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: It did send a message. I don't think it was an in-your-face message. I think it could have been an oversight, but nonetheless, a troubling oversight.

ACOSTA: Tony Perkins, with the Family Research Council says the recent conservative backlash was partly because some evangelicals still don't trust Romney who changed his position on abortion or other issues.

PERKINS: He has basically checked all of the conservative boxes on the issues of life and marriage and family, but his past policy positions are still, you know, kind of cloud that.

ACOSTA: Romney is trying to mend fences fast, sending top aides to meet with Newt Gingrich and setting up a private session with Rick Santorum. The Romney campaign also confirms the GOP contender went behind closed doors with conservative bloggers, all part of an effort, an aide says, to improve relations with the Republican base.

ROMNEY: Do I believe the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade? Yes.

ACOSTA: Nobody is enjoying the run to the right more than Democrats, who have a new web video that seeks to sound the alarm for women voters?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some women across Virginia are outraged as Governor Bob McDonnell signs that controversial bill requiring women seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound.


ACOSTA: Social conservatives say Romney's next test comes in a little more than a week when he speaks at the Christian conservative Liberty University. But the Romney campaign is not concerned. It's confident the GOP is now motivated and unified to beat President Obama in the fall -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They're trying to get unified as quickly as they possibly can. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Certainly no surprise Romney has been spending some quality time in Virginia.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Virginia is one of those battleground states that Republicans think they can win back because it's historically Republican. Barack Obama won it last time around, but George W. Bush, as you know, Wolf, won it in 2000, 2004. Republican governor there right now.

The most recent polls show it's a dead heat with Romney up just a touch, but there are other swing states both sides are paying attention to. Take a look at our little map here which we'll be being looking at. The states in yellow are our swing states. We say there are about 15.

Wolf, we just mentioned the state of Virginia -- Indiana and North Carolina are two more states there that are traditionally Republican like Virginia that the Romney campaign is going to put back in the win column.

And then you see some of those others, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado -- those are some with Hispanic voters that are really the key to winning those battleground states. Romney's political action committee is already up with ads just up in nine battleground states and the president's reelect is already up in six of those battleground states.

So the money is starting to flow into those states.

For everybody who lives in a battleground state, get ready, because you're going to be seeing a lot of political ads.

BLITZER: Great moments for those TV stations, the owners.

BORGER: They make a lot of money.

BLITZER: You want to be an owner of the TV station in those battleground states because hundreds of millions are going to be coming into your state.

BORGER: You bet.

BLITZER: So, the key battleground states, of course, Florida and Ohio.

BORGER: Right, key, still key, always will be key, and as Jack Cafferty has just pointed out before, the polls in those states are very, very close. The Romney campaign believes that those two states are really must-wins for them because George Bush won them again in 2000 and 2004.

Here's the good news for the Romney campaign: there's a poll that asks the question in both Ohio and Florida of who would do a better job on the economy and look at that. Romney in Florida beats President Obama, 49-40. And in Ohio, a little bit closer, but again, Mitt Romney is up in the state of Ohio.

So, you can see why he's going back to that economic message, trying to get away from the cultural issues that bogged him down during the campaign, as much as conservatives want him to talk about that, the economy is what's going to get him a win.

BLITZER: Yes, it's the economy.

BORGER: I've heard that before, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Newt Gingrich may be out of the presidential race, but he's not done talking politics. I'll speak live with the former speaker. I'll ask him who he thinks Mitt Romney should think of his running mate. My interview with him coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer.

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

A college student is left in a cell without food and water -- get this -- for five days. The incredible things he did to survive. Stand by for that.

Congress is ready to go after a high-ranking Obama administration official over the scandal in which federal agents let Mexican drug cartels get illegal guns. New information coming in.

And fresh evidence that Osama bin Laden was plotting destruction until the very, very end. What we're learning from the documents seized from his compound. They have been declassified. They've just been released.

Stand by. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: It certainly was a roller coaster campaign for Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. At times, he was written off, only to bounce back with some very strong debate performances and two critical primary wins. But in the end, Gingrich like the others was outspent and outgunned by Mitt Romney. The former House speaker dropped out of the race only 24 hours ago and Newt Gingrich is here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us right now.

Mr. Speaker, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Looking back first, what was the biggest mistake you made?

GINGRICH: I think not starting out very early and laying out the kind of agenda I laid out yesterday and just sticking to it, and ignoring the day to day political infighting, the day to day news stories because, I think the more visionary I was, the better we were doing, including being the front-runner in December. And the more I got sucked into daily politics, the weaker we were.

BLITZER: Because I remember, when you started off with a major speech, and then you went to the Greek islands in the -- what was that all about?

GINGRICH: Yes. Well, we've been laying out for a year what we're going to do and how we're going to do it. But all of that stuff got blown way out of proportion because we made -- I made a mistake in bringing in traditional consultants.


BLITZER: What does that mean, traditional consultants?

GINGRICH: People who wanted to focus on raising money and running 30-second attack ads.

BLITZER: Which is what Mitt Romney has -- traditional consultants. That's worked out well for him.

GINGRICH: Well, it has. And I think -- I think Romney is running the campaign Romney can run. But that's not the kind of campaign I wanted to turn, wasn't the kind of campaign I could successfully run. I wanted a campaign for the reason I was running, was to try to develop a new generation of big solutions. And, frankly, it turned out to be much harder to bring that into the political conversation than I would have expected.

BLITZER: The way he did it, basically spending a ton of money, crushing you in Iowa and then certainly after you won in South Carolina and Florida. They outspent you and tried to destroy your reputation.

GINGRICH: Sure. They ran a traditional campaign with a lot of resources. I mean, give Mitt his due. He spent six years building a presidential campaign team, raising the money and building a financial network when they had to be ruthless, they were, which may be good training for doing with Barack Obama this fall, and the fact is that in the traditional boundaries of politics, he's going to be the nominee. And I think you've got to have some respect for the fact that he was able to put it together.

BLITZER: With hindsight -- he did it right, you did it wrong?

GINGRICH: Well, in hindsight, he was trying to do something different than I was. I thought it was possible to launch with a new media to put together the kind of campaign that was much, much more idea-oriented and it turned out I wasn't able to do it or it's not something you can do.

BLITZER: And you shouldn't be surprised because you've been in politics for a long time, the Obama-Biden campaign now using your words in a new commercial hammering away at Mitt Romney. I'll play a clip.



GINGRICH: The Romney machine can drive down turnout, it can run over opponents with negative ads, it doesn't seem capable of inspiring positive turnout. And the result is I think very, very worrisome if you're thinking about the fall campaign.

BLITZER: Is he still the most anti-immigrant candidate?

GINGRICH: I think of the four of us, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you calling Mitt Romney a liar?



BLITZER: Obama/Biden, the truth team, they call it. How do you like to see your words used in a campaign commercial like that to hammer away at Mitt Romney?

GINGRICH: You have a rough-and-tumble primary season, you're going to get words like that. I think when McCain tried to use Hillary Clinton's words against Obama, it didn't work all that well.

The fact is you have a president with the worst unemployment record of any president since the Great Depression. You have a president with the highest price of gasoline of any president in American history on average. You have a president who is running up huge deficits to crush the children and grandchildren with the level of debt we've never dreamed of before.

This president will say anything in order to make sure we don't pay attention --

BLITZER: Do you still believe Romney is a liar?

GINGRICH: I still believe that the Romney campaign said things that weren't true.

BLITZER: Forget about the Romney campaign. Is Mitt Romney -- is Mitt Romney a liar?

GINGRICH: The governor said things at times that weren't true.

BLITZER: So the answer is yes.

GINGRICH: I also believe that compared to Barack Obama I would trust Mitt Romney 100 times over.

BLITZER: That reference to him yesterday was sort of a lukewarm -- it wasn't really an endorsement that you made.

GINGRICH: I said I want to campaign for him. I said he will point dramatically better judges than the president and he'll do a better job creating jobs than the president. He'll do far more to balance the budget than the president.

I went down a pretty long list of why I think Mitt Romney is better than Barack Obama. This is a comparative business. Our choice isn't Mitt Romney or Ronald Reagan?

BLITZER: Would you consider what you said yesterday an endorsement?

GINGRICH: I thought I was endorsing -- the only distinction I think people draw is at some point in the next couple of weeks, Mitt and I are going to be together and there will be some kind of endorsement.

But I tried yesterday to send every signal I could that if you were a conservative and you do not to re-elect Barack Obama and you had one choice and that's Mitt Romney and we need to find a way to beat Barack Obama.

BLITZER: So from your perspective, you endorsed him yesterday even though there will be a more formal endorsement. Have you been speaking with him and do you have a date yet?

GINGRICH: We don't have a specific date when we'll do that, but I talked with the governor. I've met with his campaign manager. We're coordinating with his policy team. And they've been very generous in pointing out on the issue of American energy independence, I was way ahead of them. I developed a much more comprehensive plan and they were eager to work with us on those platforms.

BLITZER: Will we see Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich together out there on the campaign trail?

GINGRICH: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Will you go out there and campaign for him independently and go to areas where you are well liked?

GINGRICH: I will do everything I can to help defeat Barack Obama and to help elect a Republican House and a Republican Senate.

BLITZER: Now you've emerged from this experience $4 million in debt?


BLITZER: So how do you get that money? What are you going to do?

GINGRICH: I will do a lot of meetings with people begging for a little help.

BLITZER: Begging?

GINGRICH: Well, of course, when you are no longer in the race you go out and say here's what I did as a citizen. Here's what I'm doing. I'd love to have your support financially.

We've had a number of folks come through in the last few days saying they're proud that I ran and they're proud that we tried and at we're getting a fair amount of money coming in.

BLITZER: Who do you think should be on the short list for vice presidential running mate?

GINGRICH: Well, I think you always have to consider three things. Are they capable of being president? Are they philosophically compatible and will they help you win, in that order?

And that's the order you've got to think about it. I think he's got a pretty wide range. I think our bench is actually pretty deep now. I think if you look at Marco Rubio.

BLITZER: Is he ready to be president of the United States, do you think?

GINGRICH: I think he is. He was great speaker of the House in Florida. He's very knowledgeable, very serious.

BLITZER: And Bobby Jindal, the governor, do you think he's ready to be president of the United States?

GINGRICH: Absolutely. Remember, again --

BLITZER: He's been in government a long time and he's a smart guy, you know him.

GINGRICH: Joe Biden has ridden the train from Delaware to Washington for many, many years.

BLITZER: He's done a lot of other things too.

GINGRICH: I'm just saying. I think the comparison is do I think that Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio would be as good as Joe Biden.

BLITZER: Those are your two recommendations?

GINGRICH: No, I also look at Condi Rice who brings a lot of talent to the potential. I would look at Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico. You've got to have someone I think like the governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniel who has been really a remarkably successful governor.

BLITZER: You don't like Rob Portman, the senator --

GINGRICH: I like Rob Portman a lot. That's why I'm saying we have a really deep bench now in a way that you wouldn't have said six or eight or ten years ago. A whole new generation of people who are very competent.

BLITZER: I've got some video I'm going to show because we're out of time, but take a look at this video. You see a young Wolf Blitzer and you see a young speaker of the House in Manchester, New Hampshire.

That was the first interview I did with you after you were speaker. I had a show called "Inside Politics Weekend." I guess we both looked a lot younger in those days than we do right now.

GINGRICH: That's almost cruel.

BLITZER: The mid-90s. You remember those days?

GINGRICH: You have a very good archive system here at CNN.

BLITZER: Excellent archive system. Thanks so much for coming in.

GINGRICH: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: We'll have you back.

Government security forces allegedly storm a major university in Syria with deadly results. New information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

In our next hour, get this, wildfires as a terror tactic. Details of what an al Qaeda leader is urging followers to do right now even from beyond the grave.


BLITZER: Mary Snow is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now including Syrian troops. They are storming a university. Mary, what's going on?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the opposition says at least seven people are dead and 28 wounded. Syrian forces also arrested about 200 people and allegedly fired at a hospital where the wounded were taken.

It's now been three weeks since the truce was signed, but despite the presence of 24 unarmed military observers from the U.N., the violence in Syria continues.

Here in the U.S., seven of the 13 suspects in the hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion are in police custody. They're turning themselves in one by one after charges were announced yesterday.

Eleven of the 13 faced felony charges, but none will be charged with murder. Champion collapsed on a bus after an apparent hazing ritual.

And a hundred more former football players are joining a lawsuit against the NFL. The 1,500 players already claim the league hit the danger of concussions saying the NFL denied there was a connection with a brain injury and didn't do enough to protect them from head injuries. The NFL says it's not true -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thank you.

Coming up, I write in my blog that it seems President Obama's offering an olive branch to the Taliban when it comes. Will that come back to haunt him politically? We'll assess that and more in our "Strategy Session."

And we're going through the documents seized from Bin Laden's compound. It looks like he was plotting to kill right up until the very end.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: When President Obama made a surprise visit to the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Tuesday, he outlined his three conditions for negotiating some sort of deal with the Taliban. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: In coordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We've made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws.

Many members of the Taliban from foot soldiers to leaders have indicated an interest in reconciliation. The path to peace is now set before them. Those who refuse to walk it or face strong Afghan security forces backed by the United States and our allies.


BLITZER: Two hours after Air Force One took off to bring the president back to Washington, the Taliban launched a major terror attack right in the heart of the Afghan capital, killing and injuring dozens of civilians so much for renouncing violence.

I want to focus, though, on the third condition laid out by the president that the Taliban would have to abide by Afghan laws, which would be, for example, respecting the rights of Afghan women, including the right to get an education without having acid thrown in their faces.

Many Afghan experts I know tell me they don't necessarily believe the Taliban's extreme fundamentalist leadership right now or ever will genuinely accept this condition. Let's discuss what's going on, the politics of all of this in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, the Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Donna Brazile and CNN contributor Erick Erickson. He is the editor in chief of

Reaching out, sending an olive branch to the Taliban, first to you, Erick, is that a smart move in this political season by the president?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think on the way out the door if we're going do something he's got to do that, but let's not kid ourselves that they'll take it. They'll either take it and renounce it or they won't take it.

We're dealing with fundamentalist Islamist extremist. They don't view what they do is violence. They view it as some sort of religious mission of theirs.

They're not really people they can negotiate with and frankly, that's the problem everybody has in Washington, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. We have a tiger by its tail. BLITZER: Do you think it is going to come back to haunt the president, the statement and the olive branch that the president driver are delivered to the Taliban, Donna?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, Wolf, look, the military leaders on the ground believe that our strong actions must be backed up with equally strong, diplomatic actions.

We know that there are some Taliban leaders that have indicated an interest and in working with the Afghan government and trying to find a political solution.

So yes, we will continue to put our foot on their next, and the military will do that, but we also have to continue to reach out to those leaders who are interested in helping us provide stability for that country so that we can have lasting peace.

BLITZER: Erick, I think you saw my interview with Newt Gingrich and he said yes, he did endorse Mitt Romney for president of the United States. What did you think of that?

ERICKSON: It wasn't exactly an embracing endorsement. I'm still struck, you have Newt Gingrich endorsing Mitt Romney, but still doesn't really believe Mitt Romney.

You have Rick Santorum who is defying conservatives today by endorsing John Brunin in Nebraska for the senate there when most conservatives, a lot of conservatives, at least myself are going with the other guy.

And he still wants to endorse Mitt Romney. This really isn't coalescing Mitt Romney with a lot of people and you know, the Gingrich endorsement if that's an endorsement -- wow!

BLITZER: Because he did acknowledge you and I asked if he still believes, Donna, that Mitt Romney is a liar, which is what he said during his own presidential campaign. He basically said yes.

BRAZILE: Well, he was referring to, I guess, some of Governor Romney's shifting positions on immigration, abortion and a number of other issues where during a campaign it was a bruising primary season, Wolf.

I was there with those debates and Newt Gingrich was rather shocked at the level of dishonesty coming from Governor Romney, his answers that he'd given in the previous week. So, look, it takes time to heal.

We know that Democrats, we know about healing and we know about bringing people together. I don't believe that Newt Gingrich will ever fully come onboard or embrace Mitt Romney. He'll probably go out there and help some congressional candidates and in the end if it helps Mitt Romney so be it.

BLITZER: Who do you like as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney, Erick? ERICKSON: There are a number of great candidates. I do like Marco Rubio. I think Bob McDonald from Virginia would be a good pick particularly what's at stake there.

I'm a huge Bobby Jindal fan. There are a number of candidates out there. That's one good thing I think that Mitt Romney has working for him right now. There is a deep bench of potential vice presidential candidates all of whom who would be quite good for him.

BLITZER: Put on your strategist hat, Donna, forget about the politics for a second. If you were asked by Mitt Romney for some strategic advice, help him pick a vice presidential running mate? Who would you pick if you were Mitt Romney?

BRAZILE: Well, I think he's going to look for somebody who is not a Washington insider. He's going to look for somebody outside the beltway and somebody that merits his own experience in government and the business community. So I think Romney will pick someone equally as bland and boring as he is.

BLITZER: I guess, that's Donna Brazile. Donna, thank you very much.

ERICKSON: Donna wins the line of the day.

BLITZER: Erick Erickson, thanks to you as well. Bland and boring, neither one of you is bland and boring.

Love letters from a young Barack Obama. Two of his former girlfriends are now speaking out about their relationships two decades ago, sometimes three decades ago with the future president of the United States. Stand by.

An al Qaeda leader urges his followers to use wildfires as a weapon of terror.


BLITZER: Eighty rapes in three years, and it's now a federal case. With the Justice Department investigating how officials are handling a wave of sexual assaults.

CNN's Casey Wian is joining us now from Missoula, Montana with more on what's going on. What is going on, Casey?

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, local officials here in Missoula say they are angry that the federal government is now questioning their handling of sexual assault cases here. However, some women students in this college town say they are relieved.


WIAN (voice-over): The Justice Department's decision to investigate the way police, prosecutors and University of Montana officials have handled sexual assault cases in Missoula is a welcome development for some students. TORI OLSON, FRESHMAN: The federal investigation really makes me feel like something's going down now and something's happening and, like, somebody feels that they need to protect not only my safety, but the safety of others.

WIAN: The Justice Department is conducting a civil rights inquiry based on potential gender discrimination related to 11 sexual assault cases on campus in the past 18 months and at least 80 cases in the Missoula area over the past three years.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was actually really relieved, in a sense, because it is such a big problem, and I am pretty confident it hasn't been handled the way it should.

WIAN: Nava is friends with one University of Montana alleged rape victim.

CHANI NAVA, SOPHOMORE: I know she was very unhappy with the way it was handled. She had wanted to press charges and just didn't feel safe and ended up having to drop out of school.

WIAN: In an exclusive interview with CNN, the university's president says his office actually brought the issue to light in December, hired a former state judge to investigate and implemented several reforms to protect victims.

ROYCE ENGSTROM, PRESIDENT, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA: The goal of this university is one to prevent sexual assault from happening in the first place to care for victims of sexual assault and, three, to get rid of perpetrators of sexual assault.

And I think the Department of Justice will certainly find that we have a well-developed process in place that we are meeting our obligations in terms of addressing sexual assault.

WIAN: County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg is angry the feds have become involved.

FRED VAN VALKENBURG, MISSOULA COUNTY ATTORNEY: It was no basis for it whatsoever. It's unfair us to, to the Missoula Police Department and to the community of Missoula to imply that there's that kind of a problem here.

WIAN: He says his office has never refused to prosecute a rape case when there is suspect evidence of a crime. Local officials and the university have pledged full cooperation with the Justice Department.


WIAN: Now the Justice Department in its letter to the Missoula County District Attorney says it is reviewing allegations that the county attorney failed to prosecute sexual assaults against women because of their gender.

Now local officials here, Wolf, said they have tried to get answers from the Justice Department as to what specific incidents or cases may have triggered this investigation.

And the Justice Department has not responded to them. The Justice Department also not responding to our questions -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Casey Wian, thanks very much.

A college student locked in a holding cell for five days without food and water by U.S. federal agents. Now he's speaking out about the harrowing ordeal he barely survived.

What issues will decide the upcoming presidential election? Jack Cafferty is standing by with your e-mail.


BLITZER: Let's go right back to Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: At this election in November, the question is what issues will ultimately decide the presidential election? Polls tightening up in some of the key swing states as we speak.

Martha writes, "At this point, you can throw darts at a board. A month ago, there was no contest. It seemed Obama had it in the bag, now not so much. In my opinion, events between August and October will decide the election no matter what the candidates do or don't do. Stuff happens."

Rob in Ohio writes, "Money. Whoever has the biggest pile of it to saturate the media enough to sway the swing voting blocs." Augusto in Los Angeles, "I think the economy and unemployment are the number one issue. Housing, education, national safety from terrorism and health insurance are also all very important."

Oliver in El Paso, Texas, "There will be a lot of issues, but people will vote for the person they feel safer with. George W. Bush was re-elected because people felt safer with him protect the nation."

Jennifer in Tucson, Arizona, "Ultimately, it will be trust and dependability, which should bode well for President Obama."

Steve writes, "No issues. Ultimately the election will be decided the way it always is, by who most people in their gut are more comfortable with seeing on their TV for four years as our president."

And Tom in North Carolina writes, "It's the hair, stupid. Doesn't the guy with the best hair always win? Well, most of the time."

If you want to read more about this, some eyebrows and some not so, go to the blog, or to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page. It means, I suppose that you could be president, Wolf and I've got no shot.

BLITZER: Never say never. You're a very popular guy. A lot of folks like you, Jack. They do. Jack Cafferty with "The Cafferty File." He'll be back.