Return to Transcripts main page


Romney Nears V.P. Decision; Donald Trump at Republican National Convention?; Attacks Continue Despite Show of Force; Ad Shows Congressman Punching Woman; Do Nasty Ads Work With Viewers?; New Polls: President Obama Leads Romney; Donald Trump At The RNC; New U.S. Sanctions On Syria; "Insiders" Keeping Al Assad In Power; Soldier Sentenced To Life For Bomb Plot

Aired August 10, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Mitt Romney gears up for a crucial bus tour and the most important decision of his campaign. We're reading the tea leaves, looking for hints, hints about who he will choose as his running mate.

Also, if you think presidential campaign commercials are getting over the line, wait until you see this one. It shows a Republican congressman supposedly punching women.

And Donald Trump's a seasoned pro when it comes to business, television, certainly getting publicity. But what will be his so- called major role at the Republican National Convention?

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

We begin with Mitt Romney's preparations for what may be the most crucial week of his presidential campaign. With several new polls out, including our own, showing him losing ground to President Obama, Romney begins a bus tour on Saturday through four swing states he absolutely needs to win. But he's still traveling without a running mate.

CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is here in THE SITUATION ROOM taking a closer look.

These are going to be huge days the next week.


Look, the day is young traveling without a running mate as we speak. But you never know what's going to happen. Regardless, Mitt Romney is going to have several V.P.-buzz generating news with him this weekend and over the next few days. But the Romney campaign clearly knows it first has to do some refining about the man on the top of the ticket, Romney himself.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (singing): Oh beautiful, for spacious skies. BASH (voice-over): If you turned on your television last month, there's a good chance you saw this brutal attack ad against Mitt Romney. It ran 12,402 times in the last half of July, not including local cable. It's the crown jewel of the Obama campaign's summer strategy to define Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch wealthy businessman with something to hide, since he won't release most of his tax returns.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn't.

BASH: All that, plus some self-inflicted wounds, like questioning Great Britain's readiness for the Olympics, add up to a rough month for Romney. And it appears to be taking a toll in a crucial area for voters, likability.

A new CNN/ORC poll shows Romney's unfavorable rating climbed six points over the last month with registered voters and skyrocketed 12 points among those critical independent voters. And President Obama opened up a seven-point lead over Romney. One month ago, it was just three points, a statistical dead heat.

Privately, frustrated senior Republicans continue to complain to CNN that the Romney camp can't find its footing in an economic environment that should be devastating for the president. Now team Romney is trying to get back on offense, launching a bus tour entirely on the president's turf, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, all states the president won in 2008, up for grabs now.

ROMNEY: It is good to be with you guys.

BASH: The Romney camp is trying to course-correct, not just with where the candidate goes, but what he says.

It's a two-pronged approach. Streamline his economic message and reclaim the idea of Romney the businessman as a positive, not a negative.

ROMNEY: I know what it's like to hire people and to wonder whether you're going to be able to make ends meet down the road.

BASH: And try to shred the president's calling card, his credibility and character, like with this brand-new ad slamming the president for a pro-Obama super PAC commercial which blamed Romney for a woman's death. It was an ad CNN found to be inaccurate.

NARRATOR: What does it say about a president's character when his campaign tries to use the tragedy of a woman's death for political gain? Doesn't America deserve better than a president who will say or do anything to stay in power?


BASH: And, of course, the Romney campaign really hopes to change the narrative by unveiling the V.P. pick and with the GOP convention in Tampa at the end of the month. A senior Romney official said today they expect to get a significant bounce from both. But if Romney does get a bounce, Wolf, it will defy history big time. This is an interesting statistic. I thought it was.

Over the past two election cycles, the nominees for neither party got more than a two-point bump from the conventions. It just hasn't happened in recent history.

BLITZER: Not in recent history.

I had been told earlier that he really wanted, Romney, to release his vice presidential pick before this bus tour so the two could go out on the bus tour. It doesn't look like that is necessarily going to happen. But given all these poll numbers, not just our poll, but other polls showing that Obama's building up a national lead among registered voters out there, is the pressure growing on Mitt Romney to pick someone necessarily outside the box, a little less safe, maybe Paul Ryan of Wisconsin?

BASH: You know, I think the pressure is growing on him to -- certainly, the answer is yes from conservatives. You saw "The Wall Street Journal" and other conservative grassroots organizations saying they very much want someone like Paul Ryan. But, again, looking back at history, you have to go back pretty far to show the vice presidential pick really will make that much of a difference in the long term whether or not the ticket will win or lose.

BLITZER: The top of the ticket is the most important. But we will be fascinated by the number two as well.

BASH: Of course.

BLITZER: Thanks, Dana. Good report.

A Romney insider today accused President Obama of diminishing his office by allowing his reelection team to get away with -- and I'm quoting him now -- "unbelievable distortions." But don't expect Eric Fehrnstrom's complaints about what he calls tactics to get a sympathetic reaction over at White House.

Let's go there. Our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is standing by. What are you seeing, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's the thing we heard over and over today from Jay Carney today, Wolf. He said the White House does not speak for third parties.

So the White House and the campaign trying to keep their hands clean while they see this super PAC backing President Obama putting this ad out. But this is really just one of a number of ads coming from both sides. We're seeing tons of negative ads. We're seeing negative ads about negative ads.

And while it might be enough you would think for some people to want to turn off their TVs, it's also enough to get some people to head to the polls. And that's why this is going to continue until Election Day.


KEILAR (voice-over): Negative ads like this one just released by the Obama campaign are all over the airwaves.

NARRATOR: Did Romney pay 10 percent in taxes? Five percent? Zero?

KEILAR: This one put out by the Romney campaign falsely claims President Obama gutted work requirements for welfare.

NARRATOR: Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.

KEILAR: And an ad by a pro-Obama super PAC includes a claim that CNN found to be inaccurate, that Mitt Romney's responsible for the death of a steelworker's wife.

JOE SOPTIC, WIFE DIED OF CANCER: When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care. A short time after that, my wife became ill.

KEILAR: That ad hasn't even been on TV yet, but it's gotten plenty of news coverage. It seems like the ad war is reaching a fever pitch, but campaign ad expert Ken Goldstein says it's actually been this way for a while.

KEN GOLDSTEIN, PRESIDENT, CAMPAIGN MEDIA ANALYSIS GROUP: I don't know if things are getting uglier, because they have been ugly for quite some time. And actually we're seeing more rotations of positive ads this past couple days than we have seen previously. There were weeks in late July and early August when there wasn't a single positive ad airing.

KEILAR: Most of the negative ads are running in just eight battleground states, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.

The onslaught of advertising will continue, becoming even more intense. But is it working? Goldstein says, of course, or else these campaigns and super PACs wouldn't be running the ads.

GOLDSTEIN: In fact, the evidence is, if anything, negative advertisements tend to engage the electorate or inform the electorate. Sure, we can always point to that...


KEILAR: And, Wolf, an election, of course, always comes down to undecided voters making a decision about who they're going to pick. But the pool of undecided voters this cycle is quite small, smaller than it was in 2008.

And that's why you actually heard Ken Goldstein there in part of that sound bite that was cut off talking about how this is important for motivating the base. It's crucial for President Obama and Governor Romney to motivate their base. And that's who these ads are targeting.

BLITZER: Good point. Thanks very much, Brianna Keilar, working her sources over at the White House.

And it's not just the presidential race. Coming up in about 20 minutes here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the outrageous ad depicting a United States congressman of punching two different women. We will have a full report on that.

Meanwhile, hundreds of mourners attended a memorial service today for the victims of Sunday's deadly shooting rampage at a Wisconsin Sikh temple. Many wept openly as they passed by the caskets containing the bodies of the five men and one woman who were gunned down.

CNN's Ted Rowlands is in Oak Creek.


TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was an emotional day here in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Thousands of people came to this small town to pay their respects for the six victims that were lost in Sunday's tragic temple shooting.

Inside the gymnasium behind me here, all six of the victims were out in open caskets. People took their time to walk by and pay their respects. Attorney General Eric Holder was here. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was here and members of the victims' families. And they all spoke at the ceremony.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's not enough words in the dictionary that could explain how thankful and grateful I am for everyone for offering their unconditional love and support to our family and our community. Believe it or not, even the acknowledgment of our deceased and of our injured just makes our pain a little less.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R), WISCONSIN: Today, we mourn with you, we pray with you, and we support you. No matter where you worship, no matter what your background, as Americans, we are one.

And when you attack one of us, you attack all of us. We are united today not only by a shared sense of loss, but also by a common belief in the healing power of faith and in the universal principles that are glorified in our nation's churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and other houses of worship.

ROWLANDS: There were a number of emotional, poignant moments during the ceremony and during the visitation. One of the most was when a group of law enforcement officers came and met with victim family members. A few of them broke down in tears. It was one of just several very emotional moments today.

Following the ceremony at the high school, the families had a private ceremony at the temple -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Ted Rowlands reporting for us, a sad day indeed. Thank you.

After days of fighting, Egypt's going after extremists by trying to seal off their not-so-secret tunnels. We're going there.

Also, we're on the scene of a big troop buildup in what's become the most dangerous part of Egypt. We have a full report.

And the mystery of the missing athletes -- why six men and a woman may have vanished from the Olympics.


BLITZER: There's new proof today that Egypt's crackdown on extremists in Sinai has gone a long way, but still has a very long way to go.

Despite an Egyptian troop buildup and a week of fighting, CNN has learned masked gunmen on motorbikes fired on Egyptian police stations earlier in the day. No one was hurt. The attack came in Northern Sinai, a region near Gaza and Israel that's become more and more dangerous.

CNN's Ian Lee is on the scene for us in northern Sinai.

Ian, what are you seeing?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, one thing I can tell you, over the past couple days, you and I have had conversations about the military buildup we've been seeing. Well, today, we saw for the first time M60 tanks. And we're talking to one of the military commanders. He says this is the first time Egyptian tanks have been on Sinai soil in decades.

So, this is definitely an escalation, a stronger presence of the military heavy weaponry. This is the scene that we're seeing in Sinai now.


LEE (voice-over): Reinforcements have arrived in northern Sinai. Armored personnel carriers or APCs and troops roll into the city of el Arish.

(on camera): This is the second mechanized infantry and they're tasked with two goals. First, to reinforce the strategic cities of el Arish, Sheikh Zouaid, and border city with Gaza, Rafah. Their second mission is to root out and crush any militant positions.

(voice-over): It's this area they'll be going, the border with the Gaza Strip in Israel. It's arguably the most dangerous part of Egypt. It's also home to tunnels delivering goods, weapons and people to and from Gaza.

The Egyptian military is trying to block the hundreds of tunnels that dot this landscape just off militants coming from Gaza. But they can't do it alone.

Ibrahim Menai is one of the area's tribal leaders and tunnel owner.

"We warned them not to neglect Sinai. It's vulnerable through the tunnels. It's normal to witness such an attack and we're not surprised. There's no security and Bedouin offer to cooperate and set up checkpoints, but the government refused."

The attack he's referring to happened last Sunday when militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. The militants then tried to attack Israel with a stolen APC, but an airstrike stopped them.

Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, and army vowed revenge. And through coordination with Israel, Egyptian troops started crossing Sinai, the first time since the 1973 war with Israel to impose security.

In the capital of north Sinai, el Arish, residents celebrated as the army rolled in. To many, their arrival couldn't come soon enough.

"The army should have come earlier," he says. "We don't feel secure since the revolution. We want 100 percent security."

"They arrived late," says this resident. "I watched the tanks coming in today, and I was very happy. All we care about is security for our children."


LEE: And, Wolf, one other thing, President Mohamed Morsi actually came Arish and Rafah today. He went to the spot where the 16 soldiers were killed. He broke the Ramadan fast with the troops. He also went with Field Marshal Tantawi. He's head of the Egyptian military. This is another strong sign, strong show that these two forces, the president and the military, are determined to crush these militants -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And who are these militants? Because as I've asked you over the past few days, there's some suggestion they may be al Qaeda related, if you will, or at least al Qaeda-inspired. Who are they?

LEE: What we're hearing this is called Jaljala Islamic army. And it's a group of a few hundred people. And they cross in Gaza. And they're on the Egyptian side, the border.

And they're extreme conservatives. They have an extreme ideology. People here say they could be affiliated with al Qaeda, most say that they're just inspired by al Qaeda. They want to continue this global jihad. And this is one of their first steps -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ian Lee is in northern Sinai for us -- thank you, Ian.

Friday is a day of prayer in the Muslim world and a big day for Muslims in Tennessee as well. A mosque finally opens after two years of court battles, vandalism and even bomb threats.

Plus, Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. You're going to find out what he might be doing in Tampa.


BLITZER: A Tennessee mosque opened its doors today after two years of bomb threats, protests and vandalism.

Lisa Sylvester's monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's the latest, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the newly built Islamic center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, held its first prayers services today. Opponents have waged a two-year legal battle to stop its construction. The building site was vandalized and suffered an arson attempt. The center also got a bomb threat just before last year's 9/11 anniversary. The mosque's leaders say they hope to build bridges with the area's community.

And the closing bell has rung on Wall Street. The stock market wrapped up the week in positive territory. The Dow rose more than 42 points. The S&P 500 and NASDAQ also closed higher.

A Florida man is in court today for alleged parole and traffic violations. But police are more concerned about what they found at his home, a stash of fake military and law enforcement IDs. They also found badges, uniforms and hospital access badges and scrubs. The suspect told police he lives in, quote, "a fantasy world," but authorities are not entirely convinced and intend to dig deeper to make sure nothing sinister is going on.

And Miami's real estate market got a big boost. An anonymous buyer is shelling out $47 million for a palatial mansion overlooking Biscayne Bay. The 30, 000-square-foot home has 10 bedrooms or 10 bathrooms, a 3D movie theater and a state of the art gym. It's $47 million price tag is a record for Miami. But that record, it may fall soon.

The South Beach mansion owned by the late designer Gianni Versace also up for sale for $125 million. Some people, they certainly know how to roll. That is definitely living large, Wolf.

BLITZER: A hundred twenty-five million dollars, wow.


SYLVESTER: Yes, 3D movie -- yes, 3D movie theater, all the bathrooms. So, I bet they're going to have some nice parties there, Wolf.

BLITZER: As they say, location, location, location.

SYLVESTER: That's right.

BLITZER: That's what they're looking for. Thanks so much.

Up next, the nasty campaign ads reaching a whole new level with a congressman shown punching two women. Has all of this gone too far? Alex Castellanos and James Carville -- they're standing by for our strategy session.

Plus, while we wait for Mitt Romney to pick his running mate, you're getting a chance to vote for your favorite possible candidate. We'll explain.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

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

A sinkhole widened as deep as a football field is now forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people. And the cause: a huge mystery.

Also, a dangerous new outbreak of swine flu cases. During our 6:00 p.m. Eastern Hour, we're going to tell you what to watch out for.

And a disabled Iraq war veteran says a hotel employee mocked him when he asked for help to get down the stairs. Now, the hotel chain is responding.

Standby. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We all see the nasty attacks in the presidential race. But you haven't seen this commercial attacking Republican Congressman Allen West of Florida. He's certainly used to dishing out the controversy, but take a look at this.


NARRATOR: He's himself a fighter. Maybe so.

West has socked it to seniors, voting to end Medicare as we know it.

He's whacked women with his votes for huge cuts in women's health care funding.

And he's mauled middle class families by supporting a budget plan that would have cut taxes on the rich while eliminating --


BLITZER: West calls that ad reprehensible and classless.

CNN's Lisa Sylvester is joining us now. She's taking a closer look at who's behind this ad.

What's going on here, Lisa?

SYLVESTER: Wolf, I would say it's safe to say the mud has been flying in this congressional race.

Now, keep in mind, we are talking about Florida. There are a lot of seniors there. Medicare is a big issue. And that provides some of the context to this ad.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): Call it the season of controversial ads. In the final sprint to November there have been a number of doozies.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welfare to work goes back to meaning plain old welfare.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's when they found the cancer and by then it was stage four.

SYLVESTER: The latest one comes from a Florida congressional race, Democratic Patrick Murphy challenging incumbent Allen West for his congressional seat. Take a look.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: West has socked it to seniors voting to end Medicare as we know it.

SYLVESTER: Representative Patrick Murphy's campaign staff said they had nothing to do with the ad. That campaign commercial was paid for by the "American Sunrise Super PAC," which is funded by Murphy's father, who has a very successful construction business.

We contacted "American Sunrise" for a comment, but didn't get a response. Congressman Allen West, who is a black Republican, brought up race during an interview with Fox.

ALLEN WEST (R), MEMBER, HOUSE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Think about this. Think if the Republican Party or if some conservative "PAC" ran a picture of a black Democrat politician or congressman punching white women and white seniors, I'm sure that MSNBC, NBC and "Huffington Post" and everyone would be going --

SYLVESTER: Campaign ad analyst, Ken Goldstein, says candidates and their supporters know that the more shocking an ad, the more media buzz it creates even if a campaign doesn't actually buy any air time.

KEN GOLDSTEIN, PRESIDENT, CMAG-KANTAR MEDIA: There's always been incentive for campaigns to maybe push the line a little bit. And it's August. And this sort of ad is just a bit of an appetizer. So if you think things are pushing the line now, wait until we see the ads that start to drop in these congressional districts in the last two weeks of October rather than the first two weeks of August. (END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: OK, so it's probably expected Democrats and Republicans are not going to be particularly chummy. But Allen West himself has really ruffled the feathers of some Democrats.

He has called the DNC Chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and I'm quoting here, "a vial, unprofessional and despicable." He has also said President Obama and Senator Reid and Congresswoman Pelosi need to, quote, "get the hell out of the United States."

So you saw him with the gloves on in that ad, but I think when it comes to this congressional race for both Republicans and Democrats, well, the gloves have actually come off -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, certainly a brutal, brutal ad. All right, Lisa, thanks very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper. Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," the CNN contributor, the Republican strategist Alex Castellanos and also joining us on the phone today, Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, James Carville.

Let me ask you, James, you've been involved in a lot of campaigns. You know about these ads. Is this one against Allen West going over the line?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR (via telephone): Well, obviously this has caused a great deal of controversy. I'm going to refer to my friend Alex who actually produces television spots. But I thought the point of a television spot was to be effective as opposed to be controversial.

And I think there were ways for this spot to be very effective without being controversial. And, you know, as you have a proliferation of "Super PACs" and the money in politics, these "Super PACs" and these ads want to get noticed.

I think sometimes they get noticed for not being effective, but being controversial. The campaign couldn't necessarily happy with the controversy if you will.

BLITZER: Yes, what do you think, Alex, as James says you've produced a lot of these TV commercials?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Done a lot of negative ads over the years. We don't call them that. Of course, we call them hard hitting issues ads over our opponent record's claim.

This actually is a hard hitting ad. I don't think it's over the line that much. It's meant as a metaphor. He's not actually socking a real senior, it's cartoonish. But James is I think absolutely right. You don't want people looking at the messenger and talking about it on the news.

You want to talk about the message and it did distract. I don't think it was over the line, but I don't think it was as effective as probably the campaign wanted it to be.

BLITZER: When he says, Allen West, if a black Democrat was depicted in a cartoon ad slugging a white elderly woman, there would be a lot of outrage out there. Does he have a point?

CASTELLANOS: You know, I think you can take color out of this thing and race. No, I don't think he does. I think in this kind of a situation they're not saying that a black man attacked a white woman here.

They're saying that a congressman cut Medicare. And I don't think there's a wrong with saying that and doing it frankly in an interesting and even little bit of a fun way.

BLITZER: Do these nasty ads, James, do they actually work or are they counterproductive?

CARVILLE: Well, sure they can work. If you listen to the audio and the spot, makes to be a pretty effective spot ad. I think Alex is right and we're talking about the Congressman West, we're talking about this ad on CNN, if you will.

But what you want is in that instance I think you want to be careful that the message gets through and a fair message that the spot had and I think potentially pretty effective ad, a pretty effective message in that district.

I think if he would have -- they would have showed him punching white women too, I don't think race had much to do with this, no.

CASTELLANOS: And you know, part of the ritual here is you get attacked and then you fake in dignity that you've been attacked unfairly. That's kind of our political dance these days that we do, but your job as a candidate to set the record straight.

One of the things people are looking for is strength in your candidate. How do you respond to tough situations like this? For example, if Mitt Romney's attacked by this ad accusing him of killing a woman with cancer, does he look into the camera and respond forcefully himself?

Or does he let it slide? I think Romney may have missed an opportunity there. At least Allen West got up and said I don't like it, this was wrong.

BLITZER: All right, guys, hold on for a moment because we have more to discuss. We're going to continue our "Strategy Session" in just a moment.

We have a lot more to discuss including some big name Republicans like Donald Trump. Does he have a role at the Republican convention in Tampa? Should he have a role? Stay with us.


BLITZER: So who would you pick as Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate? Go to right now and you can vote your choice. We'll have the results in just a few minutes. Our "Strategy Session" will back in one minute.


BLITZER: We're back with our "Strategy Session." New polls are putting President Obama in the lead over Mitt Romney nationally. So will this impact Romney's pick for vice presidential running mate?

We're back with our CNN contributors, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos and on the phone, James Carville, our Democratic strategist.

Look at these poll numbers, Alex. Let me start with you. The CNN/ORC poll that came out yesterday registered voters' choice for president, Obama ahead by 7, 52 percent, 45 percent for Romney.

The Fox News poll, Obama ahead by 9, 49 percent Obama, 40 percent Romney. The Reuters poll, up by 7, Obama 49 percent, Romney 42 percent, registered voters. What's going on here?

CASTELLANOS: Well, couple things. One is we're looking at registered voters here. When you look at likely voters underneath that, you see there's more intensity on the Republican side. So the race does get a little closer.

But Obama remains a couple points ahead as he does I think in most polls. Nothing fundamentally has changed here except one thing. Mitt Romney's negative does seem to be going up. Some of the Obama attacks seem to be having an effect on it after this long, long summer we've been through.

But the race is still about bigger things. The economy hasn't changed. It's still going down the toilet. We're losing jobs. The race is still basically very close.

BLITZER: When you say the difference between registered and likely voters, registered voters are people who have already registered. Likely voters are registered voters plus those who might still register.

CASTELLANOS: No. Likely voters are those voters who are on the rolls, but when you ask them are you really sure they're going to vote in they tell you, yes, 100 percent, 9 or 10 out of a 10-point scale.

So they're the ones you can count on showing up. A lot of Obama's voters last time were young voters, for example, black voters who traditionally turn out in lower rates.

They may not come out this time as much. But we see a lot of intensity this time on the Republican side because they think the country's going down the tubes.

BLITZER: James, you buy that?

CARVILLE: I buy some of it. Look, I can say this, Alex can't. Romney has run a God awful campaign. It's just been terrible. They have not been able to execute on simple things like a trip to Britain. They've been terrible in responding.

They've been terrible on their tax plan. Even Robert Samuels started savaging the tax plan. They sent out the guy who wrote the most discredited economic book in our lifetime and they got to have -- you know, they're still within striking range.

Alex is exactly right about that. But it's that campaign and that candidate doesn't have a quick change of attitude, they're going to lose.

BLITZER: Let me ask Alex --

CARVILLE: And they'll lose by more than a little bit too.

BLITZER: If the numbers stay like they are right now according to these polls. But does this put pressure, Alex, on Mitt Romney to go bold with his vice presidential pick?

CASTELLANOS: I don't think so. You can't ask -- there are some things the Romney campaign needs to do. They need to say where the country's going. Obama's basically saying the president is better than the past. Don't go back.

Romney, it's up to Romney to say we're not going back. We're going forward. Here's how I'd lead. Here's how I'd grow the economy. He has the convention to do that. He has debates to do that.

But you can't ask the guy in the backseat, the VP, to do that job. That's asking a lot. It's the guy in the front seat, the presidential candidate to do that.

One thing about James' point is if you're looking for awful campaigns, I'm not sure the president hasn't run the worst campaign we've seen even though they ran such a brilliant campaign last time.

For example, he's alienated the high money people, the big donors and Wall Street, but now he's alienated small business.

BLITZER: But he's ahead in the polls.

CASTELLANOS: But he's alienated small business I think with a turning point in the campaign with his you didn't build that comment. When you need small business and big business, there's not a lot of job makers left.

BLITZER: But you know what? With 8.3 percent unemployment, he's doing pretty well. You got to admit it's the economy as all of us know. If you were Romney, James, and I'm serious about this.


BLITZER: Who would you pick as your vice presidential running mate? CARVILLE: You know, first of all I think Romney and alex knows a very cautious man. I think he's probably methodical about this maybe even to fault.

But I think that Romney's kind of made a decision because now a lot of the right wants him to pick Paul Ryan. If I were Romney, you know, I might try Jindal. He's a Louisiana guy.

BLITZER: Bobby Jindal's the governor of Louisiana.

CARVILLE: Add something to the mix.

BLITZER: James is from Louisiana himself. If you were Romney, Alex, who would you pick?

CASTELLANOS: I would agree with James. I think Jindal would be one of the guys --

BLITZER: Really.

CASTELLANOS: -- very top of the list. Conservatives love him. He's smart, conservatives appeal to him as well. Portman and Pawlenty are good safe choices. I wouldn't pick Paul Ryan because Mitt Romney doesn't want this campaign to be about entitlement reform.

And Paul Ryan would make this campaign about that instead of jobs and growth in the economy. Paul Ryan should run for president on his own, but he doesn't need to be anybody else's VP.

BLITZER: Paul Ryan's plan would change Medicare for people who are under 55 right now. I'm not sure that Mitt Romney necessarily wants to be burdened with that.

CASTELLANOS: You don't want to start your campaign fall sprint on defense talking about something that isn't the main issue in the country, which is jobs and growth.

BLITZER: James, what should the role of Donald Trump be at the Republican convention?

CARVILLE: Major. Major. I think they should devote a whole night to him.

CASTELLANOS: Being generous here.

CARVILLE: I'm going to go ahead and do something I've never done. I'm going to speak from one of my fellow contributors. I want Donald Trump at that convention. Alex does not want Donald Trump anywhere near that convention hall.

BLITZER: Let's ask him.

CASTELLANOS: You know, Donald Trump making occasional fun of Donald Trump because he's such a colorful figure. But I think the Obama campaign misunderstanding his role in this campaign. He's not a rich business guy, even though he is. He's a guy who speaks truth to power. He's a populous guy. That's something no one really takes that seriously anymore

But he's a guy who speaks truth about the need to change Washington and the economy. He's not a liability at all. And I think you're going to see him around the rest of the campaign.

BLITZER: Go ahead, James.

CARVILLE: I think he ought to talk about his birthism. He's still on it. Let him get up and discuss his investigation he had and everything in Hawaii. Nothing would make me happier.

BLITZER: James Carville, thanks very much for coming in. Even on the telephone I think our viewers know what you look like, but that's all right. Alex Castellanos, thanks to you as well.

An inflammatory claim from the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He says his country has picked up a U.S., quote, "mercenary" who's working to destabilize his government. We're going to tell you what we know.

Plus, Syria's ultimate insiders who are helping President Bashar Al-Assad stay in power.


BLITZER: The U.S. today imposed new economic sanctions on Syria and groups supporting the regime of the President Bashar Al-Assad. The British also announced nearly $8 million in new aid to Syria's rebels.

Activists say at least 160 people died across Syria today including 75 in the key city of Aleppo, that's the largest city in Syria. But as the fighting rages, is the Bashar Al-Assad regime any closer to actually falling?

Our foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty has been looking into this story -- Jill.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, diplomats tell CNN the regime is digging in fighting for its survival, but it's still largely intact.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Syrian prime minister defects and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claims it's another sign the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad will fall.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm not going to put a timeline on it. I can't possibly predict it, but I know it's going to happen as does the most observers around the world.

DOUGHERTY: The prime minister is head of the government, but the government doesn't rule the country. (on camera): The real power in Syria, those officials and regional experts say, lies in the grip of the regime. A core of fewer than 20 true insiders related to the president by blood and ruthless power.

Men like Maher Al-Assad, the president's youngest brother. Rumor has that he's the country's second most powerful man. He's also the head of the elite Republican guard and the fourth armored division.

Then there's Namir Al-Assad, the cousin, operating in the shadows of one of the top leaders of the Shabiha, the mercenary force used to suppress the opposition.

Then, the money behind the regime, Syria's richest man, Rami Maklof, the president's first cousin. He allegedly funds the regime's violent battle with protesters and rebels.

Another insider, the head of national security, Ali Mamuok. The U.S. levelled sanctions against him for human rights abuses and violence against civilians.

Almost all members of Assad's inner circle are Alawites, a minority Muslim group, less than 15 percent of the population. Three quarters of Syrians are Sunni Muslims as are most of the defectors including the prime minister. The inner circle isn't cracking yet.

HUSSEIN IBISH, MIDDLE EAST EXPERT: This regime operates as an organized crime syndicate to a very large extent. And so it is impossible to reform because what you would have to do to reform is begin dismantling a mafia operation, a set of rackets, a set of interrelated criminal enterprises, frankly.

DOUGHERTY: Syria expert Hussein Ibish says Assad's inner circle has only one message for their fellow Syrians, it's us or this.

IBISH: Stick with us or you'll be massacred in your beds. And the message aimed to the rest of the country, stick with us or you will be swept away in a tide of bloodshed that will go on for years and will make Lebanon and possibly Iraq look like a picnic.


DOUGHERTY: Here at the State Department officials are intensively working on day-after scenarios. What could happen once this conflict reaches the end point? But they caution even if president Assad steps down, it's not necessarily the end of the regime -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty, good report. Thank you.

Meanwhile, there's an important new warning today about terrorism. The Obama administration says a major terror group, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, is plotting attacks in Europe.

And they may be, in the words of U.S. officials, imminent. We'll have full details coming up in our next hour.

Also, what may have happened to some Olympic athletes who simply vanished.


BLITZER: A United States soldier will spend the rest of his life in prison for planning to bomb a restaurant filled with his colleagues. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What's going on, Lisa?

SYLVESTER: Wolf, a federal judge in Texas imposed two life sentences on Army Private Jason Abdo. He was convicted back in May of plotting to bomb a restaurant in Texas when it would be filled with other soldiers and their families.

The 22-year-old said that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan violated his Muslim believes. He had refused orders to serve in Afghanistan going AWOL.

And seven missing Cameroon Olympic athletes may want to defect. That's what at least what one member of Cameroon's National Olympic Committee believes.

The six men and one woman left the Olympic Village in London last week. Nothing has been heard from them since. Athletes competing at the games have visas letting them stay in the U.K. until November 8th.

And swimmer, Ryan Lochte, well, he made a big splash at the London games winning gold, silver and bronze medals. Now, the 28- year-old may be about to make a big splash on reality TV soon too.

His agent says Lochte has been offered several reality show ideas. Lochte has said he's not counting out appearing on "Dancing with the Stars." And he is said that he wants to move to L.A. to create his own fashion line. So we'll have to keep an eye on what happens there.

And just a few minutes ago we asked you to go to our Facebook CNN politics page and vote for your favorite pick for Romney's vice president. So let's take a look at the results.

So far, and your top choice is Senator Marco Rubio, Florida with 27 percent. Other gets 41 percent and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie comes in third -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa, thanks very much.