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President Obama's Spending Record; Romney's Promises Realistic?; Fire on Nuclear Submarine; Obama: Tight with Your Tax Dollars?

Aired May 24, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Mitt Romney makes bold new promises about what he'd do on day one of his presidency. But is his long to-do list realistic? We have a reality check.

We're also checking a claim that has quickly gone viral. Does President Barack Obama really have the lowest spending level of any president in more than half-a-century? Republicans sure don't think so. Well, we're crunching the numbers for you.

And a woman lies in a hospital brutally beaten. Police suspect her husband, a prominent scientist. But he says he was out of town at the time and she doesn't remember a thing. We're digging deeper.

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

Mitt Romney's latest campaign ads are full of pledges about what he'd do on day one of his presidency, but our reality check shows he'd have to wake up extra, extra early on January 20 to start on that to-do list. It's a long list.

Our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us.

Here's the question, Jim. Can Mitt Romney really do all he says he would do on day one?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that certainly is the question, Wolf. According to his new ads, Mitt Romney is going to be a busy man on his first full day in the White House and he may need the full 24 hours to get through all of his day one promises.


NARRATOR: What would a Romney presidency be like?

ACOSTA (voice-over): In his latest TV ad, Mitt Romney lays out an ambitious agenda for his first day in office.

NARRATOR: President Romney stands up to China on trade and demands they play by the rules.

ACOSTA: It's actually Romney's second day one ad. Add up all of the promises in both ads, and a President Romney would not only confront China on trade, but seek deficit cuts and some business regulations, approve the Keystone pipeline, push for tax cuts and... NARRATOR: President Romney issues an order to begin replacing Obamacare with commonsense health care reform.

ACOSTA: That's such a big to-do list, one presidential historian says the Romney White House might want to start loading up on caffeine.

LARRY SABATO, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA CENTER FOR POLITICS: I don't think coffee would be enough, probably a full carton of NoDoz. I can't imagine that they actually believe that he could accomplish all of this within the first 24 hours in office. He could begin the process of doing this, but that is all.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, Mr. President.


ACOSTA: Traditionally on day one, presidents are busy, but with the inauguration, the parades, the parties. In his first full day on the job, the most significant thing President Obama did was order pay freezes for White House staff.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations.


ACOSTA: President Bush on his first full day signed an executive order banning tax dollars from going to international family planning groups that promote abortion.

One former aide to President Nixon told CNN that White House staff couldn't find the presidential pens. It can be like the first day at school. These days, it seems both the Romney and Obama campaigns are trying out different messages. On education, Romney made the case to a Philadelphia charter school that smaller class sizes don't equal better performance.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have 351 cities and towns. I said let's compare the average classroom size from each school district with the performance of our students because we test our kids and we will see if there was a relationship. And there was not.

ACOSTA: He got an earful on that from teachers in the room.

STEVE MORRIS, TEACHER: I can't think of any teacher in the whole time I have been teaching, over 10 years, 13 years, who would say that they would -- more students would benefit them.

ACOSTA: Before the president made his trip to Iowa, his new Web video hits Romney for what he said in the state last year.

ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend.

ACOSTA: And he's modifying those attacks on Romney's business career by connecting it to Bush.

OBAMA: Why is he running around with the same bad ideas that brought our economy to collapse this last time out?


ACOSTA: Romney said there's a reason why the president is attacking his career.

ROMNEY: There's no question but that he's attacking capitalism.


ACOSTA: Now, speaking of trying out new things, get this. Mitt Romney says, if you donate money to his campaign, you will be entered into a contest to win a dinner with him and Donald Trump.

Take a look at this. The winner gets a ride from the airport in the Trump vehicle, a night in the Trump International Hotel and Tower, a tour of the boardroom on the "Celebrity Apprentice" set and dinner of course with Romney and the Donald.

Wolf, take that, George Clooney.

BLITZER: Well, it sounds -- yes, sounds like he's going to the president's playbook, because the president has a similar raffle. You could go to dinner with George Clooney and the president, that huge fund-raiser they had out in Hollywood a few weeks ago.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: So it looks like they're trying to use some of the same gimmicks.

ACOSTA: They're pulling out the heavy artillery, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, Donald Trump, George Clooney. What do you think?

ACOSTA: That's right. It's hard to pick. Maybe Gloria could tell us who she'd pick, who she would have dinner with.


BLITZER: Well, let's bring in Gloria. She's here right now, our chief political analyst.

BLITZER: Donald Trump, George Clooney.


BLITZER: I think I know your answer.

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: Let's move on.



BLITZER: Let's talk about these promises. Day one, Mitt Romney, he has got a long list of things he's going to do.

BORGER: Right. He's not going to sleep much.


BLITZER: Some people say that's sort of dangerous, risky to make all those promises if he's elected.

BORGER: This is just a P.R. device. And let's not take it literally.

What he's saying is these are the things I want to do because he wants to make very clear to the American people how he differs from Barack Obama. But should he decide to actually issue executive orders on day one, which he probably would, he should look back to what happened to president-elect Obama.

Remember, president-elect Obama, first thing -- one of the first things he did was restrict access of lobbyists to the White House, close that revolving door. Well, eventually, he had to make some exceptions for people he wanted to put into his administration. Also, as you know very well know, Wolf, the closing of Guantanamo Bay by executive order, seems to me Congress had a different idea and that still has not occurred.

So this can boomerang for you. And some people are still saying to the president, you promised that on day one. What happened?

BLITZER: Yes. It didn't exactly work out, some of those commitments.

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: It could happen again if -- and it's a huge if -- if Romney is elected.


BORGER: That's right, but Congress always, whether it's a Democrat or Republican, Congress believes it actually has something to say in these matters.

BLITZER: It's an equal branch of government, I believe.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: That's what we have all learned.

All right, look at these new polls that just came out today, the NBC News/Marist polls in battleground states, three of the most important, if not the most important right now.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Ohio has President Obama at 48 percent, Romney 42 percent. Let's go to Virginia. Look at this, Obama 48 percent, 44 percent. Florida, key battleground state obviously, right now in this poll, 48 percent for Obama, 44 percent for Romney.

In all of these polls, 3 percent sampling error. Is it too early, though...

BORGER: It is.

BLITZER: And I think the answer is yes -- for the president and his supporters to start celebrating?

BORGER: You know, asked and answered.

For example, there was another recent poll taken at about almost the same time in the really important state of Florida. Take a look at this, Quinnipiac University, and you see the registered voters here, there is a six-point difference in favor of Mitt Romney. So the pollsters can argue about their samples and which poll is more accurate and which is more heavily weighted towards Democrats or Republicans.

But here's one thing to keep in mind about these three states we're talking about today, that, actually, Mitt Romney needs to win them all if he's going to have a clear path to 270 electoral votes. So that's Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.

President Obama, on the other hand, has lots of different ways to get to 270 because he's got more support in the West that he's going to try and draw on, like in the state of Colorado, maybe even in the state of Arizona, certainly New Mexico.

So he probably has to win one of these three states, but Mitt Romney really needs to have a trifecta here if he's going to have a path.

BLITZER: Yes. I think, in my own sense, based on history, based on what I suspect is going on, the president will have the most difficult times in Florida and in Virginia.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Ohio, I think he has a little bit better chance because he helped salvage the auto industry, and there are so many auto-related jobs in Ohio that might work well for him.


BORGER: And Virginia is also obviously another very tough battleground which the president won last time around. He wants to keep it in his corner. The Republicans believe they have got a lot of hope there. And, by the way, they believe they have a lot of hope in the state of Florida. What if, for example, Jeb Bush were on the ticket with Mitt Romney? That might help him out.

BLITZER: Yes. I think it -- I'm sure it would help him not only in Florida, but it would help him with Hispanics in other states as well.

BORGER: That's right. That's right.

BLITZER: Gloria, thanks very much.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Right about now, Wolf, Democrats are probably wishing they hadn't picked North Carolina as the site for this summer's convention.

When President Obama selected Charlotte, North Carolina, more than a year ago, it seemed like a smart way to double down on the state that propelled him to victory in 2008.

North Carolina hadn't gone to the Democrats since Jimmy Carter.

But things have gone downhill and quickly in the Tar Heel State, and the list of problems seems pretty long.

For example, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage at about the same time that President Obama was saying he thinks it's a good idea.

Now gay rights activists want the convention moved out of North Carolina -- practically impossible to do at this point.

Unemployment in the Tar Heel State, 9.4 percent, far above the national average.

Plus, who dreamed this up? President Obama is going to give his convention speech in Bank of America Stadium. Perfect -- not.

Then there are the unions, one of the Democrats' key voting blocs. They're angry at North Carolina, aren't in the mood to help raise money.

That's because there are no unionized hotels in Charlotte. And North Carolina has the smallest proportion of union members and union membership in the country.

To top it all off, there are two sex scandals engulfing prominent North Carolina Democrats: the trial of former Senator John Edwards and the ongoing investigation of the state party chair, David Parker.

The Obama political operation used to be better than this.

Here's the question: Was it a mistake for Democrats to pick North Carolina for their convention?

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

BLITZER: It looked like a pretty good idea at the time, right after he won North Carolina, but 3.5 years later, maybe not.

CAFFERTY: Things have changed a lot.


All right, Jack, thank you.


BLITZER: A close call on a nuclear submarine. Fire breaks out less than a hundred feet from the reactor while the vessel is docked just a few dozen miles from a major city.

And does President Obama really have the lowest spending record of any president in more than half-a-century? We're checking a claim that's quickly gone viral.

Plus, he works at a conservative think tank, but he's blaming Republicans for the dysfunction here in Washington.


BLITZER: A fire rages for a dozen hours aboard a nuclear-powered submarine, sending thick smoke over the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine. Seven people were injured in the blaze.

Our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is joining us with the details.

Chris, how dangerous could this have been?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, if it had gone into a different part of the ship, this could have been dangerous indeed because this particular sub is powered by a nuclear reactor.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): The submarine's crew couldn't stop it alone. Neither could the shipyard fire department. So the fire kept burning, less than a few hundred feet from a nuclear reactor onboard and more than 60 miles from Boston. The USS Miami was docked for repairs with no torpedoes or weapons onboard.

REAR ADM. RICK BRECKENRIDGE, U.S. NAVY, SUBMARINE GROUP COMMANDER: There's still nuclear fuel on board in the reactor. But the reactor is in a complete shutdown condition.

LAWRENCE: Subs like this are divided into two watertight compartments. The fire started in the forward area where most of the crew lives and that part had to be evacuated. The after compartment houses the nuclear reactor and propulsion team.

BRECKENRIDGE: They did not need to evacuate the ship. They were able to maintain their watch stations in the propulsion plan.

LAWRENCE: Imagine working in a three-story building that's only 30 feet wide. No windows, 80 percent of it crammed full of machinery. Now, imagine fighting a fire in those conditions.

BRECKENRIDGE: The temperature is very high, caustic fumes and smoke- filled compartment. Heroes respond to those kind of situations to save the ship.

LAWRENCE: There was a skeleton crew onboard. Experts say if the fire ignited out at see, the full crew could have put it out faster. If the fire started out in the nuclear reactor area, the real danger would have come from radiation exposure, not an explosion.

JOHN PIKE, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: These submarine reactors have very high enrichment levels, nearly bomb grade, but not too bomb grade. So close doesn't count each even though they have highly enriched cores, much higher than, say Iran is enriching and they're not quite to bomb level and so you're not going to get a detonation.


LAWRENCE: So under normal conditions, a crew member onboard a sub is exposed to radiation like we are just walking outside in the sun, but all of the crew members do have these radiation detectors on them that periodically are checked just to make sure they aren't receiving too much radiation. I spoke to a former sub commander who says he's never heard of a fire burning that long 12 hours out at sea like this one did in port.

He told me flat-out, Wolf, the crew wouldn't last that long.

BLITZER: Very scary. Do we know how this fire started?

LAWRENCE: Still under investigation. They had to vent out the ship basically in order to let the teams get in there to investigate that.

BLITZER: I'm sure there will be a full investigation in this one. Lessons learned hopefully. Thanks very much, Chris Lawrence.

An unlikely ally coming to the aide of cargo ships attacked by pirates. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Lisa, what happened?


Well, Iranian sailors chased off armed pirates who had attacked an American freighter in the Gulf of Oman. According to Iranian state media, the pirates scattered when Iranian vessels responded to a distress signal and approach the American ship. The State Department is confirming that report.

Elton John has canceled concerts after being hospitalized in Los Angeles after a respiratory infection. John felt ill while performing a concert in Las Vegas last weekend. His publicist says he is out of the hospital with orders to rest for at least a week.

And there were mixed results on Wall Street today. The Dow rose 10 points, or a bout a tenth of a percent. But the S&P 500 declined about the same amount, while the tech-heavy NASDAQ slipped a half a percentage point. Experts say investors are concerned about Europe's debt crisis as well as new statistics from the U.S. on hiring and durable goods orders.

And more news about Facebook and, no, it's not about the company's troubles on Wall Street. Facebook, it's a new camera for the new iPhone and iPad. It's being unveiled today. It allows users to easily edit and share photos they've taken on their phone. Facebook announced it was paying $1 billion for the photo-sharing Instagram earlier this year. And today is the first big tech rollout from the company since going public.

And this, a photo of former President Bill Clinton posing with a pair of porn stars is raising some eyebrows. reports that the photo was taken at a casino in Monaco where Clinton was attending a fund-raising event for his foundation. One of the actresses posted a photo on her Twitter page. And it's not clear if Mr. Clinton knew the woman or if he was aware of their profession.

That is going to cause a little bit of a buzz on the Internet, I imagine, Wolf. People take pictures. What can you do?


BLITZER: Stuff happens.

All right. Thanks very much.

So, is President Obama actually tight with taxpayer money? We're checking a new claim that he's got the lowest spending record in more than half a century.

And is the GOP to blame for the dysfunction in Washington? It's a shocking claim coming from a scholar and conservative think tank in Washington. Standby for the interview.

Plus, a Castro comes to the United States and reportedly comes out in favor of President Obama's re-election.

That and a lot more coming up in our strategy session.


BLITZER: Republicans are blasting President Obama as a big spender. But does he really have the lowest -- the lowest spending record of any president in more than half a century?

Our Mary Snow has been digging into the claim that's now gone viral.

Mary, what have you learned?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you just mentioned, this claim is that the president has overseen the lowest growth in federal spending in 60 years. The White House quickly embraced it, but critics say the math isn't as cut and dry as it's made out to be.


SNOW (voice-over): On the campaign trail, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney often targets the president's spending.

The president is now firing back with this.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My opponent won't admit it, but, you know, it's been starting to appear in places, you know, real liberal outlets like "The Wall Street Journal," since I've been president, federal spending has risen at the lowest pace in nearly 60 years.

SNOW: What's behind the president's comments is an editorial for CBS Market Watch which has an affiliation with "The Wall Street Journal." Its title, "The Obama spending binge never happened."

Obama supporters seized on it and it went viral, taking aim at Romney's spending claims. PolitiFact fact-checked the spending claim circulating on social media, it compared presidents and found spending under Obama grew 1.4 percent annually when it looked at raw dollars. It gave a mostly true rating to the claim that under Obama, there was the slowest federal spending in six decades, putting him second to President Eisenhower.

LOU JACOBSON, POLITIFACT: There are other factors you can look which are not as flattering to the president. Debt has gone up quite significantly over the same period of time, and then federal spending at the percentage of the gross domestic product is higher now than it has been under most of the recent presidents.

SNOW: But critics call the numbers fuzzy math. Brian Darling of the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation says it ties too much spending in 2009 to President Bush and he says it gives a false impression of spending levels under President Obama.

BRIAN DARLING, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Well, the bottom line is if you take 2009 years and attribute it to Bush rather than President Obama who is responsible for the spending -- most of the spending in 2009, it does make it look like he's restrained spending.


SNOW: Now, to be clear, the original analysis did account for $140 billion in spending in 2009, transferring from President Bush's spending to President Obama's spending. But the critics are saying, look, basically, that doesn't go far enough -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The debate will continue. Thanks very much.

They're a pair of veteran scholars from a liberal think tank and one from a conservative think tank, and they've sent out shock waves when they said the Republicans are mostly to blame for the gridlock and the dysfunction in Washington.


BLITZER: And Norm Ornstein is joining us now from New York. He's the co-author with Tom Mann of a brand new book entitled, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks". It's a powerful new book, I highly recommend it.

But, Norm, let's talk about what you say because I was pretty surprised to hear your bottom line. Let me read a couple of lines that you and Tom wrote in "The Washington Post" recently.

"We've been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believe it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise and unmoved by conventional understanding of facts and evidence and science and dismissive of the legitimacy of the political opposition."

I read that, Norm, and I said, wow, that's pretty strong stuff from you. Give us a sentence or two why you say that?

NORM ORNSTEIN, CO-AUTHOR, IT'S EVEN WORSE THAN IT LOOKS": You know, it wasn't an easy thing for us to say, Wolf, because we've tried to be impeccable. We call them as we see them, but we believe the problems of the country such as they are and after 32 years of being immersed in politics from Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, that what we now have is imbalance. We have parliamentary parties, but we have one party that's gone towards the edge of the process enough that it's more concerned with blocking anything done by the Democrats and the incumbent than in trying to find compromise and work toward solutions.

And no better example of this than what Richard Mourdock, the man who knocked off Dick Lugar, no moderate, a real conservative, but a problem solver, in Indiana just last week.

BLITZER: He obviously says he doesn't want to compromise. He wants to hold firm.


BLITZER: But you basically blame a lot of the problems right now in two individuals, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

ORNSTEIN: Yes, and I think there's a lot of blame to go around. Let me add that it's not like there are any angels here. Neither party is blameless, but it's an 80/20 mix now, and some of it goes back to what Newt did to break the stranglehold the Democrats had on the House of Representatives which lasted for 40 years. It took him 16 years but it was -- we've got to destroy this institution in order to save it. And along the way, it engendered a lot of the tribal politics that we have now.

Marry that to the pledge -- the Grover Norquist pledge that 95 percent or more of Republicans in the House and Senate signed -- you can't solve our debt problem as Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici, the "Gang of Six" in the Senate, every group that's looked at this that's tried to span the ideological spectrum has said, must include some revenues. If you say, my way or the highway, not a dime in revenues.

BLITZER: Listen to what Republican Congressman Allen West of Florida said last month. This obviously a favorite of the Tea Party. Listen to this.


REP. ALLEN WEST (R), FLA.: I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party.


BLITZER: Yes. In case our viewers didn't hear that, "I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party." Now he's not backing away from that at all, but that was pretty shocking, A, but what was even more shocking to you -- and you point this out.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: Yes, and it basically is, you get statements like that and you know there are people who say outrageous things in many cases but not a single member of the Republican leadership or establishment from the Speaker of the House to the Republican candidate for president condemned what was Joe McCarthy reincarnated here.

It was an outrageous thing to say. It's still a smear to call somebody a member of the Communist Party and that -- you didn't have anyone standing up here, tells us that even those people who would like to presumably solve problems or move to the center right, which is where the Republican Party had been, are just not going to step up when you get extreme things said.

And of course, the fact that West isn't backing down at all also tells us that there's no sense of shame anymore in making outrageous statements, you double down. And that's no way to reach some kind of common ground or collaborate on policies and to solve problems that are not going to be done unless you find that common ground.

BLITZER: Well, it's been the reaction, I curious, over at the American Enterprise Institute, you've been affiliated with them for a long time. It's a conservative think tank here in Washington. What are your colleagues saying to you?

ORNSTEIN: Well, you know, some of my colleagues are not happy and some have written rejoinders but mostly, everybody has been very supportive, whether they agree or disagree, they're happy that Tom and I have done a book that is grabbing a lot of attention and selling a lot of copies.

And so I've always been left alone to do and think and say whatever I want, whether people like it or not. And you know, look, let's face it, Wolf, a part of this is Tom, who's at Brookings, and I built a lot of capital over more than 40 years of studying this, being straight shooters and now we spent capital doing something and saying something that's pretty controversial and we'll draw some lines that a lot of people aren't going to like because we felt it was time and necessary to do it.

The book is entitled, It's Even Worse Than It Looks." The author, co- author, I should say, Norm Ornstein; the other author, Tom Mann. Norm, thanks very much.

Thank you, Wolf. It's always a pleasure.

The chairman of the Democratic National Committee is criticizing, yes, criticizing the Obama administration for allowing the daughter of the Cuban leader Raul Castro to attend a conference in San Francisco. And wait until you hear what Mariela Castro now says about President Obama. Stand by. We're going to talk about that. U.S.-Cuba relations in our "Strategy Session."



There's stuff happening in U.S.-Cuban relations that I want to discuss in today's "Strategy Session." Joining us right now, the democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Donna Brazile and the Republican strategist and CNN political contributor Alex Castellanos.

And the reason I want to discuss it with both of you, U.S.-Cuba relations, you were there about a year ago. You met with Alan gross, the American prisoner who's held. They spent about two hours with him.

Alex, you're a Cuban-American. You've studied this issue for a long time, so you both have interests.

Now the Obama administration granted a visa to a whole bunch of Cubans, Cuban Communists, to go to a conference for gay rights in San Francisco, including the daughter of the president, Raul Castro, Mariela Castro. Listen to what Senator Marco Rubio told CNN Espanol's Juan Carlos Lopez earlier today.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLA.: It was a mistake because she's not just a citizen of Cuba or a visitor from Cuba. She's an agent of the Castro government. She is a propaganda agent of, an enemy of the United States and an anti-American regime, coming to the United States to spread her propaganda here. And that's the first.

And the second is she's an agent of a government that is a state sponsor of terrorism. So for these reasons, I've joined in a bipartisan protest to the granting of that visa.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Was it was a mistake to grant her a visa, Donna, to come to the United States?

DONNA BRAZILE, CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS FOUNDATION: No, this is her second trip to the United States. She was here about 10 years ago. No, I don't believe it was a mistake. Look, I believe in freedom of expression, I believe a part of our principles as Americans, that we allow people to travel freely.

She's been here before. I met with her along with many other American officials to talk about her work on HIV/AIDS and prevention, sex education. She's an interesting person. She doesn't work for the government. Her father is the president of the country. I think there's nothing wrong with the exchange --


BLITZER: She was granted a visa during the Bush administration when the president was George W. Bush, the vice president was Dick Cheney, the secretary of state was Colin Powell. So Donna's correct. This isn't the first time that the daughter of Raul Castro was invited -- given a visa to come to the United States.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, Republican STRATEGIST: And that should have been the last time. Everybody in Cuba works for the government, by the way. That's all there is. No, you don't -- you legitimize something. You take tyranny and you make it appear normal.

Her job is to come over here and appear that -- like she's one of us, that she shares the same interests and concerns and we can't take that at face value, of course, because they are a very different country, where they imprison people.


BLITZER: (Inaudible). Donna, you're disagreeing not only with Alex Castellanos, who is a good Republican, with -- not only with Reince Priebus, who is the chairman of the Republican Party, but you're also disagreeing with Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the congresswoman from Florida, who is also the chair of the DNC, the Democratic National Committee and Senator Bill Nelson, the Democratic senator who is running for re-election from Florida. They agree this was a bad idea.

BRAZILE: I don't think they'll expel me from the Democratic Party because I hold opposing views.

BLITZER: Pretty unusual, though, for the chair of the DNC to be critical of the president's -- the Obama administration's decision.

BRAZILE: You know --

CASTELLANOS: (Inaudible).

BRAZILE: Debbie is from Florida and I --

BLITZER: So she did it for political (inaudible)? BRAZILE: I had my deal (inaudible) Gonzalez and the situation when with I was Al Gore's campaign manager. I understand Florida politics. I understand Cuban politics. We've had 50 years of this embargo -- 50 years. And you know what? We have to get rid of this Cold War mentality. Cuba is changing.

Look, I did not go there to appease. I met with the cardinal. I met with dissidents. I met with Cuban officials and I met with Alan gross. So I wasn't going there as a propaganda machine. I was going there to find out what's going on 90 miles from our border.

BLITZER: All right, go ahead, Alex.

CASTELLANOS: Look, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has the courage to do the right thing when it's politically popular in her home state. Sure it's politics, but it is the right thing to do. And as far as the embargo in Cuba, there are two sides of that issue.

There are a lot of folks, Wolf, who think that the most powerful weapon we have is freedom and free trade, and that's a good argument, until you get to the point, well, then, do you then sell stoves to Hitler? Do you do trade with a tyrant who is going to use the benefits of that economic trade to oppress his people?

BLITZER: Will playing nice with the daughter of Raul Castro, Mariela Castro, and others help free Alan Gross, the American citizen? It's two and a half years he's been stuck in Cuba right now for bringing some computers, some laptops, banned equipment to help this tiny Jewish community in Havana right now. Is this going to help? You've spent some time with him. He's been in jail now for two and a half years.

BRAZILE: Alan Gross should be freed. Alan Gross should be let go on humanitarian grounds. I think he's served much longer. We have freed other USAID workers from other parts of the world. He should be freed as well.

You know, it's interesting. The same equipment that he was accused of bringing into Cuba to spy, I pretty much had it in my purse. I had my laptop, I had my iPad, you know, I had my camcorder.

CASTELLANOS: You're lucky you're here.

BRAZILE: Well, because, you know, come on. But it's clear to me that this is an atrocity. Alan has suffered a great deal. He's lost over 100 pounds. I met with his wife, Judy. I met with his lawyers, Peter (ph). But let's go back to this Castro thing. The country is changing. I hope to go back there one day. The country is changing. The Cuban government is --

BLITZER: I think that my own sense is if they released Alan gross that would help your position right now because it could lead to an improved relationship the U.S. and Cuba.

And listen to what Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raul Castro, the niece of Fidel Castro was quoted in "The Miami Herald" today, saying at this conference in San Francisco where she is right now, she's quoted as saying, "I would vote for President Obama.

I think he's sincere and speaks from the heart," to which the Romney campaign put out a statement, "President Obama should disavow the endorsement of the daughter of the Cuban dictator, Raul Castro. It is galling that an envoy from a Communist regime would come to our country and lecture the American people on who to vote for while the regime refuses to hold free and fair elections and systematically violates the human rights of its people."

CASTELLANOS: You know, some Republicans are going to go nuts with something like this and say, see, I told you Obama was that far to the left. Of course, it has nothing to do with that. But it does tell you something about weakness.

There is so little respect for this president that people feel they can push him around. That's one reason the Cubans are hanging on to Alan Gross. They're using him as a bargaining chip to try to get the Cuban Five out. People try to infiltrate our military bases. They respect strength. They don't see it here.

BLITZER: We're going to continue. We got to leave it there, but we're going to continue this conversation --


BRAZILE: (Inaudible) change taking place.

BLITZER: We're going to watch what's going on and stay on top of it. I got that letter not that long ago from the Cuban interest section here in Washington at the embassy in Switzerland, and they make their case why Alan Gross deserves to be in jail, but there's -- they outline some options maybe for changing (inaudible).


CASTELLANOS: If you put in Spanish, you'd be El Lobo.

BLITZER: El Lobo. OK, guys, thanks very much.

We're going to update you on the mysterious case of a prominent marine biologist who remains a suspect in the brutal beating of his wife, even though she swears he was not involved. Stand by.


BLITZER: Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are trading jabs about the debt crisis. CNN's Erin Burnett is joining us.

Erin, I know you've been closely following this battle over the debt and what's called sequestration, these across-the-board cuts that would hurt both Democratic and Republican interests.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, told "Politico" this -- and let me put it up on the screen -- "I am not going to back off the sequestration, that's the law we passed. We did it because it wouldn't make things easy for us. It made it so we would have to do something."

Erin, what is going on here?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: All right. Well, you could look at this two ways. One, it's a line in the sand that is sure to really upset Republicans, Wolf. As you know, they are trying to say, look, this $1.2 trillion in cuts, we want to prevent some of the defense cuts and instead take more money from social services. That's what they've been pushing to do.

But I have to say Harry Reid, hero of the day for saying, no. The whole point of these cuts is they would be nasty for everybody. If we can't do a grand bargain, let's go through with them exactly as they're scheduled.

So it's a line in the sand sure to upset Republicans but it seems like the right thing to do, and it sort of goes along with what John Boehner told me last week, which was sure to upset Democrats, but it's also the right thing to do. Here's that.


JOHN BOEHNER, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: It took me eight months to get people interested in actually talking about fixing the problem. So --


BURNETT: (Inaudible).

BOEHNER: Let's start now. Why are we going to wait until after the election?


BURNETT: He's talking, of course, about the debt ceiling, Wolf, and saying, hey, you know what? I'm not going wait. I'm not going to wait. We got sequestration, we got unemployment benefits going away, Bush tax cuts going away, all of this going away after the election. You really think a lame duck session is going to do the great bargain America needs? No.

So he is also right. Tonight we'll talk about this, Wolf, and actually talk about the fact that the debt problem of which we are also acutely aware could be so much worse that anyone of us actually realize, to the tune of more than four times worse and $66 trillion. I'm going to explain why tonight on "OUT FRONT."

BLITZER: 7:00 pm Eastern, I'll be watching. You're getting me nervous just hearing what you're saying, Erin, but I'm interested. You've got my curiosity, thanks very much.

BURNETT: All right.

BLITZER: A prominent scientist suspected in the brutal beating of his wife, but he says he was out of town at the time, and she doesn't remember a thing. Stand by.


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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The question this hour, Wolf, is was it a mistake for the Democrats to pick North Carolina for their convention? It seemed like a good idea at the time, but a lot of stuff has changed down there, including that constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage.

Bobby writes, "Hard to say but with politics almost anything can change the dynamics of the game at any time. I don't know if it was a mistake, but I seriously doubt it was an accident."

Paul writes from North Carolina, "Jack, you should know better. There are a lot of intelligent, progressive people in my adopted home state, but a Tea Party-infested legislature elected in 2010 slipped the gay marriage amendment onto the ballot to appease their hardcore religious right base. Having the convention here is the right thing to do, because it confronts the wing nuts on their home turf. And when the thoughtful, sensible voters come out in November, the result will look a lot like it did in 2008.'' Kimmy writes from Salisbury, North Carolina, "As you can see, I live in North Carolina and I don't want any political convention in my area. Personally, I think any party, Democrat or Republican, should choose a state where they are loved. We don't love Democrats."

Augusto in Los Angeles, "Hi, Jack. I enjoy reading your blog. You don't pull any verbal punches. I think it's a huge mistake for the Democratic Convention. This time around it could cost Obama the presidency."

Bill in New Mexico writes, "The convention mistake is not as bad as choosing to run Obama again for a second term."

Rick in Virginia writes, "Only the strong are willing go into the lion's den."

And Ron writes, "Jack, they could have held it on the moon. It wouldn't matter. We all know the results already. Personally, I hear Cartagena is a good party town."

If you want to read more about this, go to the blog or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page. That is going to be an interesting convention.

BLITZER: I will be with there.

CAFFERTY: You going to be there?

BLITZER: Of course I will. Tampa, too. All right, Jack. Thank you.

A mysterious assault here in Washington, D.C. So why did authorities bar a man from his wife's hospital room? Stand by.


BLITZER: A Washington woman brutally beaten within an inch of her life. Her husband a marine biologist, renowned in his field, now a prime suspect. More than a month after it happened, it's an investigation with more questions than answers. Lisa Sylvester has been investigating.

What are you finding out?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is absolutely terrifying. Imagine being in your own home, being savagely beaten and having no memory of it. That's the case for one Washington woman. And police are looking into whether her husband was involved. But he tells CNN he would have never done this to his wife.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): The victim: Svetlana Guggenheim, a beautiful Russian translator who lies in a Washington hospital recovering from a brutal beating. The suspect: her husband of 18 years. David Guggenheim is a prominent marine biologist who has been featured on "60 Minutes."

Detectives executed a search warrant and confiscated his phone, computer hard drives, Internet router and other items at his home late Tuesday. But in this interview with CNN, he insists he had nothing to do with her assault.


SYLVESTER: Did you have anything to do with it? Could you have harmed your wife in any way?

DAVID GUGGENHEIM, MARINE BIOLOGIST: No, never. And there is no history of that. I would never hit her or anyone else. And we have a very peaceful marriage.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): David says he and his wife were on separate business trips. Svetlana returned home on April 4th. She sent him this text message, thanking him for keeping the house clean.

Her adult daughter spoke to her on the phone the next day, April 5th. David said he called his wife on April 5th, but there was no answer. He showed us the frantic text messages he sent her over the next two days.

SYLVESTER: Worried, he cut his trip short and came back here to their Washington, D.C., apartment and what he found shocked him. It was his wife, lying on the floor wearing only a blouse, her head and face badly beaten.

GUGGENHEIM: There was a lot of dried blood on the floor, dried blood in her hair. She had an awful black eye, her left eye. She was shaking and semiconscious.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): Svetlana was rushed to the hospital. David remained by her side while she was in intensive care with no memory of what happened. He stayed with her until April 19th. That's when police officers told him he was barred from the hospital. For a month he had no access to her and was prevented from getting updates from doctors. David was under a cloud of suspicion.

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin explains why.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: If this was an assault, the lack of evidence of false entry certainly suggests that it was someone she knew and a husband, frankly, is always going to be a lead suspect.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): And the metro police department said there was a note in Svetlana's hospital file, in which she allegedly told a nurse her husband was involved with her beating. According to court records, quote, "It is Ms. Guggenheim's explicit wishes that plaintiff not be permitted to have contact with her."

But David Guggenheim says that note has inconsistencies, including two different dates.

GUGGENHEIM: I was with her on the 19th. She was in no condition to give any sort of statement on the 19th or before the 19th. I'm very suspicious of this memo.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): He thinks someone fabricated that memo. The metro police department and the district attorney's office declined to talk to CNN, citing the ongoing investigation.

Svetlana Guggenheim has since sworn in an affidavit her husband was not responsible and has no memory ever telling anyone that her husband was involved.

David has provided CNN with receipts from his trip to Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey during the timeframe when his wife was attacked. Train receipts, one from a Wal-Mart and a Starbucks. He remains a suspect, but is now allowed to see her in the hospital.

GUGGENHEIM: Being able to see her now is -- I mean, it's -- I can't even express to you how emotional it is to be able to see her and care for her.

SYLVESTER: David Guggenheim has not been charged, but he hasn't been cleared, either. Their apartment has surveillance videos which the police now have, but they are not releasing these tapes, Wolf?

BLITZER: How is she doing?

SYLVESTER: She's actually recovering. I mean, she's doing fairly well. They still don't know if she has any vision in her left eye. I mean, she had some significant head injuries. She had surgery, but they were able to reduce and there was some brain swelling, some brain bleeding, they were able to address that.

So she is well. She is talking. Still not walking yet. So she has had a long road to recovery. She's been in the hospital six weeks already, Wolf, so. BLITZER: Yes. Let's hope for the best.

All right, stay on top of it for us.

Thank you, Lisa.