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Just "Borrow Money...From Your Parents"; Female Voters; Hurricane and the GOP Convention; Syrian Civil War; Airlines and Less Space; Michael J. Fox Returns to TV; Korean Rapper's Unique Music

Aired August 21, 2012 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: You're in the SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, on a back to school visit to a crucial battleground state, President Obama slams Mitt Romney as out of touch on education and says Republicans would put college out of reach for millions.

With Republicans already rocked by a congressman's incendiary comments on rape, controversy is brewing at the scene of next week's convention where platform writers back a constitutional ban on abortion. We'll take you to Tampa.

And smaller seats, less leg room for airlines. It's all about the bottom line, and that means travelers are feeling the pinch.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: It's back to school season and President Obama today used that theme to hammer Republicans on education and again paint Mitt Romney as simply an out-of-touch rich guy. CNNs Athena Jones is traveling with President Obama today. She's joining us from Columbus, Ohio. What happened today, Athena?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf: Well, the president brought the fight right here to this battleground state of Ohio today. This is a state that can expect to see a lot of him over the next 11 weeks. Speaking here on this college campus, he blasted his Republican opponents for plans he said would cut education funding and hurt the middle class.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is good to be back in Columbus.


JONES (voice-over): In the critical state of Ohio Tuesday, the focus was on education.

OBAMA: I'm only standing before you because of the chance that my education gave me.

JONES: President Obama slammed his GOP rivals accusing them of wanting to slash spending on education by nearly 20 percent and put college out of reach for millions. His take on Mitt Romney's advice for college students sparking jeers.

OBAMA: Governor Romney said if you want to be successful, if you want to go to college or start a business, you can just -- and I'm quoting here "borrow money if you have to from your parents."


JONES: That message echoed in a new DNC video.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was just curious if elected, what you would do with regards to college tuition, whether making it easier for me and my classmates.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The best thing I can do for you is tell you to shop around.

JONES: And in a radio ad hitting the air waves here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Larger class sizes, fewer teachers in the classroom, less money for technology to help our kids learn, and Ryan's budget could cut Pell grants for up to 356,000 Ohio students.

JONES: But the Romney campaign says education is a top priority. In a statement put out before the speech said "Under President Obama, the costs of college have skyrocketed, making it more difficult for students to attend college. And his economic policies have made it harder for graduates to get jobs."

Access to a college education is the kind of kitchen table issue the White House believes could be a winner for them in the fall. On this two-day swing, the president visits two colleges and a high school. Young voters went overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008. It's a feat his campaign wants to repeat. Something he made clear on the stump.

OBAMA: Young people, especially I'm going to need your help.


JONES: And off.

OBAMA: You guys going to vote? Make sure you do.


JONES (on-camera): Now, Wolf, the president is headed next to Nevada where he'll speak at two more schools. And he was also to schedule to sit down today with B.E.T. and "Time" magazine for interviews -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what he says in those interviews. Thanks very, very much, Athena Jones traveling with the president in Ohio.

In a departure from the usual campaign issues, both presidential candidates are now also opening up about their faith with some extraordinary new revelations and an unlikely source. Our own Brianna Keilar will have a report on that in a moment, but let's bring in our senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein, the editorial director of the "National Journal" who's here in the SITUATION ROOM for us.

We know the economy is issue number one. There's no doubt about that. How much does religion, though, play on the minds of potential voters out there?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Quite a bit. Religion has become -- religious practice rather than religious denomination has become an important dividing line in American politics. What we know, Wolf, is that in good times or in bad, whether the candidates are stressing social issues or not, culture shapes voting preference as much if not more than class in modern American politics.

If you look at my -- separate minority voters for a minute who vote overwhelmingly Democratic regardless. If you look at White voters, the single best predictor many strategists would argue of how people vote is how often they attend church. The more often they attend church, the more likely they are to vote Republican.

Last three elections, two-thirds of Whites who attend church regularly voted Republican, about three fifths of Whites who don't have voted Democratic. So, this is a powerful factor more around practice than the old structure which was believed with Catholics being more Democratic more than protestants being more Republican.

BLITZER: So, how does the Republican Congressman Todd Akin's comments about, quote, "legitimate rape" play into all of this?

BROWNSTEIN: Look, I think what you have for President Obama, one of the pillars of strength for him in this very difficult year has been the fact that he's holding support among college educated White women, white collar white women who tend to be the most socially liberal part of that White electorate. He won 52 percent of them in 2008.

He's polling about that level or even higher in key states today. And one of the reasons for that, probably the key reason for that, is the dispute and the debate over social issues like contraception earlier in the year.

Mitt Romney has been very firm in condemning Congressman Akin's remarks, but I think the likelihood is that if he stays in the race, this does seep in and kind of reinforce that cultural gap between the Republican ticket and some of those more upscale women who become a pillar of the Democratic coalition.

BLITZER: I want you to listen to what Vice President Joe Biden said today on Medicare. Also what Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate, said today as well. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What's bold about gutting Medicare and education and research and development in order to pay for that tax cut?


BIDEN: And most of all, ladies and gentlemen, what's new? What is new about their plan? It's not only not new, it's not fair, it's not right, and the people who pay the price for their new plan are the middle class and the working poor.

REP. PAUL RYAN, (R-WI) VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nearly one out of six hospitals and nursing homes are going to go out of business or just stop taking Medicare patients because you know why? President Obama treated Medicare like a piggy bank to fund Obamacare and his campaign calls that an achievement. Do you think that's an achievement?


BLITZER: Ryan's in Pennsylvania. Biden is in Minnesota. But who's the target audience when they're speaking about Medicare?

BROWNSTEIN: You know, I could be wrong about this, but I don't think seniors in the end are going to be the decisive audience for this argument about the Ryan budget and Medicare. The White seniors, in particular, have become increasingly problematic for Democrats. In 2010, it ran hard against the Ryan budget and still 63 percent of White seniors voted Republican in House races .

I think the audience is different. I think it's more working class women. We talked about the upscale women moving largely on social issues toward Obama. Those working class White women are much more contesting constituency (ph). They lean Republican usually. They've been drifting back toward Obama this summer largely around the Bain attacks.

And those are women in the sandwich generation worry about paying for both their kids and their parents. And they are hostile to big government. They don't like a lot of transfer programs. But by and large, they're very skeptical about changing Medicare, and that could be the place where Ryan ultimately has to defend this or see dangerous losses for the Romney ticket.

BLITZER: So, the women vote for both of these candidates, but for Romney, it could be decisive.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, Romney is doing very well among men, White men especially, as every Republican nominee has done really over the last 30 years. Ryan, I think, helps with men, the kind of man with a plan image, I think, is an attractive to both blue collar and white collar men.

The challenge is the women. The upscale women, as I said, mostly on social issues are hanging with the president very strongly. The more malleable, the more movable constituencies are these more economically stress working class women. Romney was doing very well with them earlier in the year.

Both sides say the key movement in the race this summer has been some of those women moving back toward Obama. And the Ryan budget gives Obama another opening with them that he would not have had. That's where I think ultimately they're going to have to defend it most aggressively.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, as usual, thanks very, very much.

BROWNSTEIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's turn now to the role of religion in this campaign in the words of the candidates, themselves. This is an important issue that Ron was just talking about. But our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, she's here in the SITUATION ROOM. She's been taking a closer look, a joint -- two interviews with a religious publication today. Shed some light for us, Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It was sort of a written interview. These were questions that they submitted the answers to in writing, both President Obama and Mitt Romney. And this is really an issue, religion, that has so many potential pitfalls politically for both of these candidates.

And the thing is they both agreed to talk to this publication about religion, a publication you probably never heard of.


KEILAR (voice-over): "Cathedral Age," the magazine put out by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. with a circulation of just 25,000 nabbed quite the get. President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney talking about their religious beliefs.

(on-camera) You're not a very big publication.

REV. FRANCIS WADE, WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL: No, we're not. But we are a trusted institution. And I think that's the difference.

KEILAR (voice-over): The National Cathedral has served a public role in politics, the site of inauguration prayer services and many state funerals. President Bush visited the church after 9/11. Its magazine published the candidates' written answers to eight questions, including one about the sincerity of their Christian faith. President Obama said "You know, there's not much I can do about it. I have a job to do as president and that does not involve convincing folks that my faith in Jesus is legitimate and real."

Polls show many voters still believe Obama is Muslim. And many Americans also know little about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith or question if it's really Christianity. Romney addressed that, emphasizing his belief in Jesus Christ. He told "Cathedral Age," "Every religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These should not be bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance."

Romney who's church did not allow people of color to be priests until 1978 talked about his family's acceptance of all races. He said "I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. My father was committed to Martin Luther King Jr.'s cause of equality and I saw my parents provide compassion and care to others."

The president seemed to take the opportunity to remind readers he is, indeed, a Christian, saying, "First and foremost, my Christian faith gives me a perspective and security that I don't think I would have, otherwise. That I am loved. That at the end of the day, God is in control." Cautiously chosen words on the politically touchy subject of religion.

WADE: It has a volatility in this campaign. They have been very wary about approaching it, so they're being careful.


KEILAR (on-camera): Now, both President Obama and Governor Romney were also asked about their favorite bible verses. And the ones they chose are pretty much in the mainstream, but it's fascinating Wolf, because I asked our belief blog editors to take a look at them, and they kind of hue very closely to their campaign message.

So, if you take a look at what Mitt Romney chose, he chose Matthew 25, 35, and 36. It says, "For I was in hunger and you gave me meat. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in, naked, and you clothed me." So, this is read sort of as it's the Faithfull's role to take care of the poor and the needy, maybe not necessarily government.

And that's sort of part of his campaign message. And then, when you look at what President Obama chose, he chose Isaiah 40:31 which goes, "But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint."

And this is kind of optimistic and forward looking, and that's very much a theme that he talks about on the campaign trail.

BLITZER: In this magazine, "Cathedral Age," I read those interviews. You can't help but see both of these men as religious.

KEILAR: Yes, definitely. And they talk a lot about how it really informs not just their personal lives but also their professional lives and really how it's something that they, I think, connect to a lot of voters on.

BLITZER: Certainly does. Last weekend, they both were in church last Sunday.

KEILAR: That's right. Both of them.

BLITZER: And Romney allowed -- Romney campaign allowed a pool (ph) camera to go into the Mormon Church and watch that service. There were reports out of that. The president went to church with his family as well. So, good report.

KEILAR: Great. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: You'll be with me in the 6:00 p.m. eastern hour as well.

KEILAR: See you then.

BLITZER: Thanks, Brianna Keilar.

Mitt Romney and fellow Republicans are keeping Representative Todd Akin at arm's length, but will running mate, Paul Ryan's, ties to the embattled congressman draw him into controversy?

And she's been outspoken about human rights in the past, but as her own country is torn apart by repression and civil war, Syria's first lady is now keeping silent.

And could a hurricane slam into Tampa during the Republican convention next week? Right now, that's only a nightmare. But a big storm is brewing and convention officials, they are making plans.


BLITZER: As a brutal civil war grinds on, more than a 180 people were reported killed across Syria today. Several of them and what the opposition says was heavy shelling of a Damascus suburb. A Japanese reporter has been killed during a gun battle in Aleppo. She's one of at least 20 journalists said to have died during the conflict.

Meantime, the Syrian government is reportedly insisting today that the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad is not, repeat, not, an acceptable condition for dialogue with the opposition. Outspoken about human rights in recent years, Syria's first lady isn't speaking at all these days. CNNs Ivan Watson has details from Istanbul.


IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Asma al-Assad stood smiling by her man as the Syrian president cast his ballot last February in a constitutional referendum held amid a backdrop of escalating violence. She remains silent about the mounting death toll even though it wasn't long ago that the first lady of Syria declared herself a vocal defender of human rights.

ASMA AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN FIRST LADY: This is a conflict that has been going on for too long. And, we have a choice. We can either sit by and we can sit and watch our TV screens and watch the atrocities and see some really horrific images or we can get up and do something about it.

WATSON: Asma al-Assad issued that call to action in a 2009 interview with CNN during the three-week Israeli bombardment of Gaza that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead. A vigorous Israeli response to months of Palestinian rocket attacks.

AL-ASSAD: Nobody is immune from what's happening. We've heard of women, children being killed. Medics, journalists, it seems like it affects everyone.

WATSON: The trouble is, for most of the last year and a half, Syrian security forces have been documented committing horrific abuses against Syrian citizens. This month, CNN recorded Syrian war planes repeatedly bombing Aleppo, Syria's largest city. CNN witnessed a hospital targeted twice by war planes on the same day.

And last week, the organization human rights watch documented the aftermath of more Syrian government air strikes against the rebel-held town of Azaz. At least 40 people were killed.


WATSON: In the Syrian country side, government artillery routinely pounds towns and villages like (INAUDIBLE) which we visited last month. "We feel defeated by the shelling," this resident told us. "These are young children. What have they done to deserve this?"

AL-ASSAD: Where is human dignity? Where are the human rights that we all talk about?

WATSON: These were questions Asma al-Assad asked in 2009 when she joined the wife of the prime minister of Turkey and painting on behalf of civilians in Gaza. But they are not questions Asma al-Assad asks today after more than 17,000 Syrians have been killed throughout the uprising.

Much to the surprise of Emine Erdogan who once considered herself one of Asma al-Assad's friends. "I personally thought Asma would never accept these events," Erdogan told a Turkish newspaper this month. "I can't believe she's remained silent about all this happening."

Three years ago, Asma al-Assad talked about the responsibilities of being a first lady.

AL-ASSAD: What do you do in the position that you hold regardless of how senior you are or how influential you are, what is it that you are going to be doing? Now, as a mother and as a human being, as I said, we need to make sure that these atrocities stop.

WATSON: Inspiring words that today ring deafeningly hollow.

Ivan Watson, CNN, Istanbul.


BLITZER: The other news we're following, including the West Nile virus has claimed another victim in Dallas. Now, a growing number of Texas towns are signing up for a controversial weapon in their fight against mosquitoes.

And the 50 richest lawmakers are named. Is your representative at the top of the list?


BLITZER: The West Nile virus has claimed another victim in hard- hit Texas. 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, Dallas County officials announced today that an eleventh person has died from the mosquito born virus. There have been more than 250 human cases of West Nile in Dallas County alone. A growing number of Texas cities are signing up now to have insecticide sprayed from flames (ph).

Nationwide, this year's outbreak is one of the worst since the virus was detected back in 1999.

And the India is asking Pakistan to investigate online threats and mass text messages that sparked panic across the country. Thousands fled cities across India last week after getting messages that threaten ethnic violence. An Indian government official is blaming elements based in Pakistan. India has blocked mass messaging and hundreds of web pages for hosting harmful content.

And Diana Nyad has ended her latest attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. She had been in the water for more than 41 hours and was about half way through. She was stung by jellyfish overnight and faced major storm this morning. It was actually her fourth try at the 103-mile swim, but she is still the world record holder for the longest swim, 102.5 miles.

And an annual list of the 50 richest lawmakers is out today, and some of your representatives, well, they are doing quite well. The analysis by "The Hill," a political news site shows Republican representative, Michael McCaul of Texas, topping the list at more than $290 million. Democratic senator, John Kerry, of Massachusetts, he comes in second.

Thirty-one of the 50th wealthiest members are Republican. So, they are doing quite well. Look at that $290 million or so and $198 million is John Kerry. So, they're certainly bringing in a lot of dough.

BLITZER: I wonder if they're going to put out a list of the 50 poorest representatives in Washington. I'd be interested in that one as well.

SYLVESTER: Yes. You know, there are some members of Congress, you know, that they're doing this that certainly didn't come to Washington to make a whole lot of money. They're doing this because they have a sense of public service. So, that would be an interesting list to see, Wolf.

BLITZER: We know they make, what, about $200,000 a year --

SYLVESTER: Yes, that's right.

BLITZER: -- whatever salary they make. So, they're not too poor to begin with.


BLITZER: At least, they've got a pretty good salary. Thank you, Lisa. Thank you very much.

The Romney campaign has distanced itself from Senate hopeful, Todd Akin, but is Paul Ryan, his colleague in the House, too close to the Republican at the center of this firestorm?

And could Tampa be hit by a hurricane during the convention next week? That's just a nightmare scenario right now. But guess what, contingency plans are in the works.


BLITZER: The firestorm over Representative Todd Akin's comments about rape and abortion have put the battle for women's votes' front and center. Take a look at the latest polling among women. It shows the president with a sizable lead. Now factor in Mitt Romney's decision to add Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. Does it help him, or does it hurt him? Here's CNN's Tom Foreman.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As soon as Paul Ryan was picked, Democrats hit hard on women's rights. A laundry list of complaints about the Wisconsin congressman popped up on the president's re-election website. And this White House attack ad went white hot (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE, POLITICAL AD: In Congress Ryan voted to ban all federal funding for Planned Parenthood and allow employers to deny women access to cancer screenings and birth control. And both Romney and Ryan back proposals to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.

FOREMAN: The ad exaggerates some of those claims. While Romney's position on abortion rights has been a moving target, he has supported them in the case of rape or incest. Ryan's record shows support for abortion only when the mother is in danger. And he's also pushed legislation to restrict taking cells from human embryos for stem cell research to define each fetus as a person, the so-called personhood amendment.

He's argued that unborn children are being treated as subhuman, like slaves once were and he infuriated some women's rights groups when he helped sponsor anti abortion legislation that used the term forcible rape, as if there could be any other kind. The wording was later changed. Complicating that matter further, another sponsor of that legislation was none other than the man now at the center of controversy, Todd Akin. Still, Republicans clearly do not see Ryan as a liability.

JANET CREIGHTON, STARK COUNTY, OHIO COMMISSIONER: We need the women to step to the plate to put the Romney/Ryan team over the top. Are you with me?


FOREMAN (on camera): Indeed they're selling him as a small town family man unafraid to take on tough issues like the deficit, entitlement programs and joblessness. And they point out polls show the economy remains the biggest concern for men and women alike.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I go to Washington four days a week, which I call the silly place. You know it's two different kind of worlds and if we don't tackle these big problems they're going to tackle us.

FOREMAN (voice-over): And Republicans say there is this. While Ryan may have some trouble with women, so does the president who is currently winning the female vote, but by a much smaller margin than he did in 2009.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.


BLITZER: The Republican National Committee has contingency plans if, if a storm slams into Tampa next week. Let's turn to our severe weather expert, Chad Myers. He's watching what's going on. What's the prospect of that happening? What's going on, Chad?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, there's certainly no way I can rule it out now that we have Isaac in the water. Understand where we are here. Here's Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, all the other islands, the Leeward and Windward (ph) Islands, so the storm is still well off to the east, but it has a lot of warm water to take in. And the warmer the water is, the stronger the storms can get.

Here's the official forecast. And let me tell you about the forecast how it could turn to the right and miss the U.S. altogether. How it could stay to the left and miss the U.S. altogether. And then we look at the middle to see what the most likely scenario where most of the computer models are talking about. So to say that the storm is going to hit Tampa next week is kind of a good analogy.

It's like trying to tell you that the president will or won't win by exit polling or polls that are a week away. These are literally -- these models are like polls. The polls can be wrong. The polls go left and the polls go right. What the forecast is, is if we pull it in the middle, a bad storm for Port-au-Prince (ph), those people are still living in tents, another storm that kind of slams into Guantanamo Bay and then over Cuba.

Now that all sounds like a bad thing for those places there, but that's a good thing for the U.S. and I think good/bad, good/bad, but when you have a storm that's over land or gulping in dry air near land, it won't get bigger. It will stay small. If it happens to stay away from all those islands, get into the Gulf of Mexico and do a big turn like it could, now that would take a week at least for that to happen, that would be a much more potentially dangerous storm for Tampa that way.

Of course it could go to Brownsville. It could miss altogether. This is all said and done. We're talking about five to seven days away. The computers go all the way from Bermuda all the way down here well south -- that's about -- that's the Grand Cayman Islands right there, so as you get farther and farther away, the computers begin to obviously differ in their agreement where this is going to go -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know people in Tampa are worried about it as they should be and there's contingency plans for the Republican Convention. But why would this be of such specific concern for the convention, Tampa? Tell us about that.

MYERS: Well, what you have in Tampa is you have a basin that can fill up with water. And you talk about McDill (ph) Air Force base, you talk about the convention center where the port ships come in, the cruise ships, like the Carnival cruise ships, where they dock. That would all be filled up with water and then at 10 to 15 feet thousands of buildings would be inundated. So it's almost like you know the people of Tampa can get away, but you don't want to put 50,000 more people in the way that have to eventually get away.

It's the whole -- you don't want to put more people in harm's way than you have to. That's why this is going to be touch and go through the weekend. And the contingency plans have always been there because they knew it's hurricane season. It's Tampa. What do we do if this happens? They're there and they will continue to watch it as we will.

BLITZER: I'll be heading there myself this weekend to get ready for the convention. We'll see what happens. We'll stay obviously in close touch with you, Chad. Thank you so much.

The violence raging in Syria is spreading. We're going to Lebanon where children playing with b-b (ph) guns turned into violent clashes. Stand by.

And he was a fixture on television for years, but took a step out of the spotlight to fight Parkinson's disease. Now Michael J. Fox is back.


BLITZER: While the civil war rages in Syria, tensions between rival communities are spilling over next door. CNN's Arwa Damon gives us a closer look from Tripoli in Lebanon.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is just one of the ways the Syrian uprising is manifesting itself in Lebanon along a Sunni Alawite (ph) sectarian front line in the northern city of Tripoli with the Lebanese Army trying to pound both sides into submission. Some residents choose to move to safer ground. Others hang around nervously in doorways now living on the lower floors.


DAMON: We spent our (INAUDIBLE) under gunfire. We had to eat in the stairway, this woman says, referring to the holiday at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Many admit they don't often know how the fighting starts or how it ends. But what they do know is that events in Syria are aggravating long-standing tensions between these communities.

(on camera): There have been numerous holes smashed into the walls between buildings here just like this one. But this is not a recent development. These neighborhoods have been preparing themselves for battle for years now.


DAMON (voice-over): Some shops are open, not for business but for safe passage. We're in the Sunni (INAUDIBLE) neighborhood separated from the Alawite (ph) area in the hills (INAUDIBLE). Dividing the two is the appropriately named Syria Street.

(on camera): This is as close to the front line as we can get. People are having to dart across this one road because right around the corner is Syria Street and that is where these clashes are being concentrated.

(voice-over): It's not the first time these two sides have clashed. Each time sparked by different events. In this case both agreed that it was children playing with b-b guns, a scenario that somehow escalated into this. Both blame each other. And this time residents fear it's going to last.

This woman says a shell just slammed into their bedroom right on the front line. And they're going to hunker down with relatives nearby. No one was hurt, but it was clearly time to go.

(on camera): These makeshift very crude routes are also how families are evacuating.

(voice-over): The (INAUDIBLE) gunmen say they are hardly firing back. The other side claims they are showing restraint as well.


DAMON: With gunfire echoing through the narrow streets, it's hard to determine where it's coming from.

(on camera): They're telling us to be careful of the opening right there as we move up towards one of the fighting positions.

(voice-over): The Sunni gunmen says the Alawites (ph) are well armed funded by the Syrian regime. On this side of the battleground it's clear where loyalties lie. The Syrian opposition flag is painted on a store front. A poster on the wall of four people from the area killed in clashes since the Syrian uprising began. Amidst fears that yet another generation will grow up to the sounds and brutal lessons of war. Arwa Damon, CNN, Tripoli, Lebanon.


BLITZER: Bottoms and the bottom line as airlines look to cut costs, you can look for less leg room. And minutes away right now from a deadline the embattled U.S. Congressman Todd Akin. He's still defying calls from top Republicans for him to withdraw from his Senate race.


BLITZER: Comfortable probably is the word that comes to mind when you think about coach seats on a plane. But do some new seats mean more space for you or just money for the airline? Our Sandra Endo has been taking a closer look into this. Sandra, what are you finding?

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it will likely get even tighter on airplanes, Wolf. This is a space each seat gets on an airplane right now and I'm not tall. And so if you minus the length of my thigh plus the cushion, there's very little room left before hitting the seat in front.


ENDO (voice-over): Airlines and travelers are feeling the squeeze.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's getting a little tight for everyone, so --

ENDO: But in different ways. For passengers --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're getting more and more compact with the space. Definitely more people on make us all in there feel like as they say cattle car.

ENDO: For airlines it's their bottom line. Many carriers are starting to use new thinner seats to pack more people onto planes.

MARY KIRBY, EDITOR, AIRLINE PASSENGER EXPERIENCE MAGAZINE: Passengers are not willing to pay the true cost of airfare and airlines have no other option but to squeeze more passengers into their aircraft into economy class. That's what they're using these slim seats for. They're able to add an additional row of seats in economy.

ENDO: More rows equal more dollars. The average seat pitch, which is the distance between one point on a seat to the same point in front is around 30 to 32 inches on most major airlines. Southwest is shrinking their seat pitch an inch. But they say a new slimmer seat design actually gives passengers more space. Spirit has been using lighter weight seats they say are pre-reclined and can't be adjusted since 2010. But comfort is key especially for longer flights. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to Las Vegas, so, yes, it's a long flight and absolutely uncomfortable. Gets cramped. My legs start burning.

ENDO (on camera): For people sick of airports or air travel, the train is always another option. Here on an Amtrak train the seat pitch is about 40 inches.

In a car there are many factors, but with the front seat pulled back the seat pitch is about 32 inches. And things aren't that glamorous or spacious here in the White House briefing room. The seat pitch here is 34 inches.

(voice-over): On planes there's also that other dreaded factor, the randomness of the seating process.

(on camera): And is that your worst fear, someone big sitting next to you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I have to admit, I don't like it because it's hard to stay off of one another, you know? And nobody wants somebody they don't know all over them, so you know it's tough.


ENDO: Way to get extra space when you fly, you'll have to pay for it. Many airlines have special rows of premium seating with extra leg room -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sandy Endo, thanks very much for that report.

Other news, the actor Michael J. Fox is returning to TV to start a new comedy series with a rather personal twist. The "Family Ties" alum, who has been publicly battling Parkinson's disease, will play a character with the disease. CNN entertainment correspondent Kareen Wynter is joining us now with more. What's going on here, Kareen?

KAREEN WYNTER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf, well big news for Michael J. Fox. Fox he's maintained a career, we all know this, in television with guest roles over the past decade, but now Wolf, well he's ready to take on an even heavier workload.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I knew it would come in handy.

WYNTER (voice-over): Michael J. Fox has been getting the laughs on television since his scene stealing role as Alex P. Keaton (ph) on the 1980's hit "Family Ties".



WYNTER: He went on to star on the big screen in the "Back to the Future" series and other films before returning to TV in 1996 on "Spin City".


WYNTER: What viewers didn't know was away from the cameras Fox had been battling Parkinson's since 1991, a disease which impacts the central nervous system and motor skills. As his symptoms increased, Fox announced plans to scale back his acting in 2000 and started a foundation which works to advance a Parkinson's cure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The war against Parkinson's is a winnable war.

WYNTER: While Fox has become a vocal research advocate, he's also continued acting with smaller roles on shows like "The Good Wife".


WYNTER: But now Fox is taking on perhaps his biggest role yet, announcing plans to star in a new NBC sitcom that will be based on his experiences as a father living with Parkinson's.

MAGGIE FURLONG, WEST COAST EDITOR, HUFFPOST TV: NBC is saying not only do we think you can lead this show, not only do we think people will want to see this show about Parkinson's, we know people will tune in for you and we know that so much so that we will give you a full season, sight unseen.

WYNTER: Maggie Furlong is a TV expert for "The Huffington Post". She says Fox's new show will undoubtedly entertain along with educate viewers about life with Parkinson's.

FURLONG: It's not going to look anything like a traditional sitcom. I really feel like they're trying to push the envelope and I feel like the Parkinson's story line is just going to sort of ease into that really naturally which will be nice for viewers to not be hit over the head with a message. It's just going to be part of the story.

WYNTER: As for how Fox will handle his disease with an increased workload, in a recent interview with CNN, Fox said it's gotten easier to manage his symptoms over the year.

MICHAEL J. FOX, ACTOR: I'm really fulfilled and 20 years on I'm doing a lot better than I ever thought I would be doing.

WYNTER: Fox will start filming his new show this year for fall 2013 premiere. In the meantime, his fans can look forward to new laughs with a familiar face.


WYNTER: And, Wolf, Fox said in a statement that, you know, he's up for the challenge. He's ready for all the work that lies ahead and just excited to be back with NBC and we're excited to see this talented star back in action. I'm sure his fans were just thrilled -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I really admire him. He's really done important work for Parkinson's research, and good for him. I'll be anxious to see the new show.


BLITZER: Thanks very much, Kareen, for that report.

We're learning more about the deadly train derailment outside Baltimore. In our next hour, we'll have more on the two young victims, where they were, what they were doing, in the moments before the accident.

And we'll also head to Minnesota. That's where the Vice President Joe Biden is about to take to the microphone. What will he say? Stand by.


BLITZER: A South Korean rapper is a global Internet sensation because of his unique moves. His latest video has now gone viral, collecting, get this, more than 44 million views on YouTube. Here's CNN's Paula Hancocks.



PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Un-cool just became cool.


HANCOCKS: This (INAUDIBLE) dance by Korean rapper, Psy is the reason why.



HANCOCKS: There's a saying in Korea, said Psy. Let's ride a horse means let's have a drink and have some fun. Hence the dance.


HANCOCKS: Psy, short for psycho, is a slight departure from South Korea's usual ultra groomed musical (INAUDIBLE).



HANCOCKS: "I think foreigners think I'm funny," he says, "the way Korean people think Austin Powers and Mr. Bean (ph) are funny." There's no language barrier. HANCOCKS (on camera): Psy's hit song (INAUDIBLE) refers to this affluent neighborhood. It's considered to be the Beverly Hills of Seoul and it is filled with expensive brands and trendy people.

(voice-over): Usually associated with a more moody chiseled look, Psy has turned the idea of Gangnam (ph) on its head.


HANCOCKS: "I'm crazy about music" he says, "crazy about the stage, crazy about performing and crazy about my fans." And he has plenty, 30,000 fans turned up to see him last weekend in all his geeky glory and they seem to be enjoying themselves.

For a decade long career it took just one unorthodox song to spiral Psy into stardom.



HANCOCKS: What better way to burn calories? Some Seoul gyms are using Psy to work out.


HANCOCKS: "I'm a very bad dancer", this woman says "but this dance is easy. Also it makes me work out and sweat a lot and I'm smiling all the way through."


HANCOCKS: And in case you thought this dance was Psy's only skill, he adds --


HANCOCKS: "Just so you know, I can dance to Beyonce's song "Single Ladies" just like Beyonce".


HANCOCKS: (INAUDIBLE) impersonation of Lady Gaga and her hit "Poker Face" uncanny.

Paula Hancocks, CNN, Seoul.


BLITZER: Happening now, an embattled Republican defies his own party leaders. Congressman Todd Akin says he won't quit the race for Senate.

Also we go to Israel and the seat of another congressman's now notorious nude dip in a sacred sea.

Plus a massive train derailment, the bizarre deaths of two teenage girls. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.