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President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are Waging Battle in Battle Ground States; Extremism on the Rise in Libya; Multi-million Dollar Renovation leaves a Washington, DC, Landmark Infested with Algae

Aired September 29, 2012 - 18:00   ET



Waging battle in a battle ground state.

The presidential campaigns move to Virginia.

Extremists on the rise in Libya. Al-Qaeda is only part of the problem.

And a multimillion renovation leaves a Washington, D.C. landmark infested with algae.

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

Certainly a critical voting bloc. Military voters out there, both President Obama and Mitt Romney, they are aggressively courting them.

CNN's national political correspondent Jim Acosta is traveling with a governor Romney and he has more, certainly a lot going on right now - Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And Mitt Romney is out to make the case that the best defense is a better economy.


ACOSTA (voice-over): In battle ground Virginia, both President Obama and Mitt Romney pulled out the heavy artillery. Before a group of veterans, Romney slammed the president for the massive defense cuts that are part of the fiscal cliff coming at the end of the year.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is still a troubled and dangerous world and the idea of cutting our military commitment by a trillion over this decade is unthinkable and devastating. And when I become president of the United States, we will stop it. I will not cut our commitment to our military.

ACOSTA: The president once again blasted Romney's hidden camera comments on the 47 percent of Americans he dubbed victims of government dependence. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think we can get very far with heed lookers who write-off half the nation as a bunch of victims who never take responsibility for their own lives.

ROMNEY: 47 percent people of the people --

ACOSTA: The Obama campaign turned Romney's remarks into a devastating new ad playing the GOP nominee's words under the faces of families and veterans.

ROMNEY: And they will vote for this president no matter what. And so, my job is not worry about those people. I will never convince them. They should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

ACOSTA: Romney who has courted veterans two days in a row is out to link national security to the nation's sluggish recover. He is seizing on new economic data showing the commerce department revised down the country's GDP in the second quarter of the year, from 1.7 percent to 1.3.

ROMNEY: This is not just one quarter. This has been going on now for years. China is growing much faster than we, Russia is growing faster than we. Our economy needs to be reinvigorated.

ACOSTA: But, not all the numbers paint a gloomy pictures. The labor department announced it undercounted nearly 400,000 jobs in 2011. Meaning that 4.4 million jobs have been created since the president's inauguration, slightly more than the number of lost in that same period. But the president said there's still more work to do.

OBAMA: We are not where we need to be. Not yet. We have got a lot more folks who have to get back to work. We have got a lot more work to do to make the middle class secure again. But the question is, whose plan is better for you?

ACOSTA: An Obama win in Republican leaning Virginia could be deal Romney a crushing blow. The president won here four years ago becoming the first democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson.

But in the state, the military vote is not the only game in town. Football fans are everywhere so it's no surprise a reporter asked Romney about the deal to end the dispute between the NFL and its referees. A question Romney appeared to fumble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: What do you think about the NFL?

ROMNEY: I sure hope they do.


ACOSTA: And Romney finished his week by making a bold prediction at a fund raiser and at a separate event outside of Philadelphia. He went on to say he would win the state of Pennsylvania even though our latest poll shows him down by 10 points here, Wolf. BLITZER: That would be amazing if he now just to come back in Pennsylvania. How is he preparing for the first presidential debate that's coming up Wednesday night?

ACOSTA: Well, the campaign says he'll be spending most of this weekend behind closed doors doing debate prep. As we know Ohio Senator Rob Portman has been his sparring partner playing the role of President Obama. And we heard the Romney campaign starting to manage some expectations for the upcoming debate.

Earlier in the week, I had a chance to talk with senior Romney adviser Kevin Madden about all of this. He compared the president to CY Young, the baseball great - the baseball pitcher who is basically the standard for all pitchers across the major leagues. And you really don't set expectations any higher than your opponent than comparing your opponent to CY Young, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. We are going to have more on this part of the story later of this hour.

Thanks very much. Jim Acosta traveling with Mitt Romney.

President Obama meanwhile, is trying to gain support what has traditionally been Republican territory.

Our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is taking a closer look at this part of the story.

Brianna, what are you seeing?


Well, as you know, Election Day may be weeks away, but in Virginia, absentee voting, both male and (INAUDIBLE) person is already under way and that is why you saw President Obama and Mitt Romney treading on each other's turf this week.

President Obama heading to the conservative stronghold of Virginia Beach as he tries to keep Virginia out of reach for Romney.


KEILAR (voice-tape): In Virginia Beach, President Obama tailored his latest attack on Mitt Romney to the military voters here as he hit his opponent for his recent revealed comments that 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes see themselves as victims.

OBAMA: I travel a lot around this country and I don't immediate meet a lot of victims. I see a lot of veterans who have served this country with bravery and distinction and I see soldiers who defend our freedom every single day and I see those military families who are wondering whether their loved ones are going to come back home safe and sound. That's who I see.

KEILAR: Active duty military and combat zones do not pay federal income tax and veterans do not pay federal income tax on their veteran benefits. Hammering that theme, Virginia senator Jim Webb, a veteran and military father.

SEN. JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: But in receiving veterans' benefits, they are not takers. They are givers in the ultimate sense of the world.

OBAMA: Thank you.

KEILAR: You might not be able to tell by the supportive crowd of thousands here at the Farm Bureau Live Theater. But this part of the state is not an Obama stronghold. Virginia beach and nearby Norfolk with their concentration of military voters, lean conservative. President Obama is trying to cut into Romney's support here and a recent CNN poll of polls shows him ahead six points.

The Obama campaign launched this attack ad on Thursday airing in Virginia and a handful of other battleground states. And as early voting starts up in a number of states, the president framed his closing argument in a positive ad where 4 he talks directly to the camera.

OBAMA: It's time for a new economic patriotism, rooted in the believe that growing our economy begins with a strong, thriving middle class.


KEILAR: Now, that is a message that President Obama reiterated in Virginia as he pushes a newly framed set of proposals. Economic patriotism as he calls it, we will be hearing a lot more of that, that includes increased in manufacturing jobs, hiring more math and science teachers, reducing oil imports and also giving tax breaks to companies that invest in the U.S., Wolf.

BLITZER: And Brianna, like Romney, I assume the president is spending a lot of his time these days getting ready for that debate Wednesday night.

KEILAR: Certainly in the big push is the going to be as he heads to Nevada here in the next couple of days and will be preparing as you know his partner Senator John Kerry who will be filling the shoes of Mitt Romney, at least in these mock proposals.

But it is interesting, Wolf, the campaign doesn't want to talk a whole lot about the preparation. They don't really want a lot of process stories. And they really want to emphasize the fact that Mitt Romney has been spending time preparing as they try to set expectations very high for President Obama's opponent.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar at the White House for us. Thank you.

And we're counting down to the first presidential debate. Once again, this coming Wednesday, our complete coverage begins at 7 p.m. eastern right here on CNN.

Let's dig a little deeper right now with our senior political analyst Ron Brownstein, the editorial director of the "National Journal." Ron, thanks very much for coming in. If you're looking at all the demographics right now, where are the major differences between these two candidates?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what you're seeing to a surprising extent in the last several weeks is President Obama essentially reassembling the coalition that elected him in 2008.

BLITZER: Why is that surprising?

BROWNSTEIN: Well because I mean, in 2010, Democrats suffered big erosion in key parts of that coalition and also saw turnout decline. So, you know, what you have got are three essential elements, and what I call at the time the coalition of the ascendant. Young people, he won two-thirds of voters under 29 in '08. He's back to over 60 percent in most polling. Minorities, he won 80 percent of them in 2008. He's right around that number in most polling again. And college educated white voters, the white collar, white votes, especially win, He won a majority, 52 percent of college white women in '08. And again he's right around that number or even slightly above in national in 2008 polling.

Mitt Romney is depending primarily on blue color whites and older whites. He's doing fine with those voters, but he's not cracking into deeply enough the central coalition that elected Obama the last time and is enough to re-elect him if he can hold on to it.

BLITZER: What about working class women?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, this is something really interesting. You know, working class white women are not as Democratic constituency as is often assumed. The college educated white women, Democrats have won them in four to part five elections. But the working class white women populate conservative where economic is framed, usually they lean Republican. In 2008, nationally, Obama only won 41 percent of them.

But, what we are seeing, Wolf, if you look across the board in the battle ground states and I've been looking at polling done point of the act, by Maris, and by CNN, Obama is moving up with these working class white women in places like Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, even Florida he's moving up to around 15 percent of them. That is a very -- makes the math almost impossible for Mitt Romney in those states and they are responding largely to the economic empathy message, the Bain arguments, the 47 arguments, Medicare, taxes. That is where it seems to be doing damage to Romney with those working class women.

BLITZER: in you all state "National Journal" heartland monitor poll, you asked the question would you say you were better off than you were during the 2008 presidential election. Thirty-one percent thought they were better off, 34 percent worse off. Same, 34 percent. That same 34 percent, but how are they lining up?

BROWNSTEIN: This is really interesting. This is the question that Republicans want to center the election on the Ronald Reagan question. Are you better off than you were four years ago. And not surprisingly among the roughly one-third who say they are better off, President Obama is performing, you know, dominantly. Among voters say, they are worse off and Mitt Romney is winning 10-1.

But what is really striking to me is that remaining third, the 34 percent who say they are not better off and worse off and the same, President Obama is ahead substantially by almost 25 points, 57-34 I believe was the number.

BLITZER: Right. The question was finances has have not changed since 2008. Presidential election, 57 percent for Obama, 34 percent for Romney.

BROWNSTEIN: So that means that Romney is faring poorly on the choice dimension of this. These are voters that, you know, if this was a referendum, they are saying they are kind of ambivalent about Obama's performance over the last four years and what's it meant for their pocket book,

But among them, President Obama has a big lead. And if you kind of look at it, what it says is that right now Romney is only drawing voters who have a negatives verdict on Obama's first four years. He's not winning enough of the people who have a mixed on Obama. And essentially, what you have is an election. We talked about it before where you have a sliver of voters who are not 100 percent satisfied with Obama has produced over the first four year, but right now clearly see him as a better bet than the next four than Mitt Romney and that is the challenge for him in the debate.

BLITZER: We're still 40 days until the election but early voting is under way in some key battleground state in some of states around the country. What's the likely impact of this early voting even before the first debate?

BROWNSTEIN: Well look. Two things. First, it's a test of all of that money that President Obama's campaign has sunk into organization in ground. They have made unprecedented investments in trying to have this kind of reach out and touch people capacity.

And early voting, particularly for Democrats, as I mentioned, you look at some of the tea constituents are. Young people and minorities who are more irregular voters, having this extra time is important to be able to move them out.

The other thing, of course, is if the race changes in October and you bank votes in September, they don't get unbanked. And the fact that President Obama is now in a very strong position puts him in the polls, puts him into a position to benefit by these early voting by locking down those voters at this point.

BLITZER: The new issue of the "National Journal" defying gravity. Quite a little cover you have got over here.

BROWNSTEIN: From the great Steve Browner. You know, why - look, I mean --

BLITZER: The numbers say Obama should be losing, why isn't he? We are looking forward to reading it.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much for coming in, Ron Brownstein.

An Al Qaeda hot spot inside Libya. We're traveling to a town where extremists are in charge and on the rise.


BLITZER: There are growing concerns about the rise of extremist groups inside Libya weeks after the attack that took the lives of the United States ambassador and three other Americans.

CNN's senior international correspondent Arwa Damon got an extraordinary amount of access this week to an area that could be considered a breeding ground for extremism inside the country.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It may look like a sleepy beach front town. But Darnah (ph) has a reputation as a home to extremist militia, some of them with links to al-Qaeda. These militia had allegedly left their bases but continue to haunt the streets. We tried to get access to one of these bases. Saw a handful of gun men there and were told to leave.

A pickup truck just swerved in front of us forcing us to stop. Three men got out. I'm assuming about what it is that we're doing here and they seem quite agitated.

One of our escorts was warned, that quote, "since the extremists no longer controlled security, they couldn't ensure ours. They were advising us to leave town."

In the market most eyed us wearily. Residents say a general strike and demonstration forced the militias to abandon their bases.

But this man tells us it is far from clear they will fade away.

While we were filming here, a man came to speak to us, but he was too afraid to go on camera. He wanted us to know that the majority of people here are sick and tired of being in the spotlight because the minority, he says, is affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The Hussein Misouri, a local journalist says radical Islam has always had a place in Darnah (ph).

Men from here fought in Afghanistan and estimates are that more than 50 traveled to Iraq to become suicide bombers. The highest number from any town outside of Iraq.

The city and its surroundings were sympathetic to these groups because they had a common enemy which was Gadhafi, Misouri explains. They were all trying to bring down Gadhafi. From the onset of the revolution, it was the extremists that provided security. After liberation was announced, says, Misouri, there was increasing pressure on al-Qaeda in Yemen and other places. Coming to Libya was easy.

Among those setting up camp, (INAUDIBLE), once bin Laden's driver and held in Guantanamo Bay for five years, established the outside of Shadiah (ph) unit in Darnah (ph).

(INAUDIBLE) alleged to have been sent here by al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to security sources, these Islamist militia have a common goal weakening and then infiltrating Libya's security apparatus.

In Benghazi there have been more than a dozen assassinations of former military officers. Sources tell CNN that many of them were reportedly on a Islamist hit list to eliminate qualified individuals that could pose a threat.

Coronel Hamed Bel Kher of the Libyan army was recently kidnapped. He says, he doesn't know by whom or exactly why. He got a call from a man who spoke as if he knew him and said he had urgent information to pass on. Outside his home, in broad daylight, two masked man forced him into their car.

When I got into the car, they put a black hood on my head and began saying things like you're going to see, threatening me, he tells us.

Later he says he was forced to his knees and told to repent and renew his faith in Islam. He thought he was going to die when the phone rang. I could hear someone say, he's alive. We haven't killed him yet. You could hear his voice, he recalls. And then he was free.

The influence of these radical groups has emerged in the capital. Last month they destroyed Sufis shrines including this one, right in the heart of Tripoli. A move typical, a Salafis and tolerance of other branches of Islam.

As the shrine was being demolished, eyewitnesses say Libyan security forces facilitated the act by blocking of the street. The ministry of the interior says that is investigating this charges, while also acknowledging that it cannot go after these groups claiming it wants to avoid shedding Libyan blood.

And that is the problem. The government is not currently strong enough to face down these groups and they always thrive amid weakness.

Arwa Damon, CNN. Tripoli.


BLITZER: Amazing reporting from Arwa.

Meanwhile, Syrian rebels are scoring new victories on the battlefield thanks possibly from the help to some ex-pats living here in the United States. We'll have a full report here in the SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A stunning new death toll in Syria this week. One opposition group reporting that it's now topping 30,000 people since the fighting began more than a year ago. Rebels are gaining some ground thanks possibly, possibly from the help of some ex-pats living right here in the United States.

Our own Brian Todd has been investigating. He got some details. What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, this group based in the United States and Canada, is raising money to send directly to the Syrian rebels. That money is often used to buy weapons. Because the weapons are not being sent directly from this group, it is legal but this still raises concerns in Washington.


TODD (voice-over): Outgunned at the beginning, the rebels have gained strength taking the fight more directly to Bashar al-Assad's regime and scoring some battle field victories. Could some of those victories have started from this computer in Washington?

That's where you can actually identify where they conduct -- where they have a stronghold.

Brian Sayers heads the U.S. based arm of the Syrian support group, a nongovernmental group dedicated to helping the Syrian rebels.

Why did you want to do this?

BRIAN SAYERS, SYRIAN SUPPORT GROUP: Well, I, you know, I have a son and he's 18 months old. And I think that I saw too many images of what was going on there of two-year-olds that are, you know, white, pale and lifeless.

TODD: On his group's Web site you can donate to the Syrian rebels using a credit card or PayPal. The Web site explicitly states, your money can be used by the Free-Syrian army to buy weapons. He says they have raised a couple hundred thousand dollars so far, most of it from Syrian ex-pats. It's all legal. Sayers, a former NATO political officer got the treasury department to give the Syrian support group a license. So, it can raise money for the rebels without violating sanctions against Syria.

It's a way for the U.S. government to allow donated resources from America to get to the rebels without the government directly arming the rebels. Ironically, Brian Sayers works to get those resources there from an office down the hall, which is just three blocks from the White House just beyond those trees.

Sayers is clear, his group is not directly supplying the rebels with weapons. You can't do that legally. He says the money goes to rebel commanders on the ground, people who they've vetted thoroughly who buy the weapons. He says those commanders have to sign a proclamation of principles saying they will follow the Geneva conventions and democratic ideas.

CNN contributor Tom Fuentes says, it's still dangerous.

THOMAS FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You almost end up with an international fast and furious program, we will send those weapons there and they will end up in the right hands and we bail the track them later, now you won't. And that's what we have right now in Libya.

TODD: But how do you know that these people are not just signing your proclamation just to get the weapons and then using it for nefarious purposes?

SAYERS: We use third-party contacts on the ground. We use the relationships, the family members, the contacts that are born, all Syrian-American.

TODD: But, they're also providing intelligence. Sayers and his colleagues in Canada, (INAUDIBLE) communicate with rebel commanders directly, often after analyzing Google satellite maps of the battlefield.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The checkpoints.


TODD: That was Saka discussing how to get salaries and other resources to rebels demanding check points in Syria. This is often real time communication, aid, resources going directly to Syrian rebels on the ground from a private office in Washington and a basement in Toronto.

Contacted by CNN, the state department said it's not thrilled with the arrangement and officials there are saying quote, "further militarizing this conflict is not something that the vast majority of Syrians want and that could lead to greater loss of life there." Wolf, the state department not thrill at this at all.

BLITZER: So, what about the concerns raised by Tom Fuentes, that these arms, they could be floating around after the fighting stops and who knows whose hands they'll get into.

TODD: Well, Brian Sayers says that unlike what happened in Libya with everyone leaving right after that conflict, he says his group will not leave Syria. They are committed to staying there. Their license is for two years. They will have people on the ground, he says, to help gather and decommission weapons. We will have to really see if that happens in reality. These places are a very chaotic as you know, right after these war zones.

BLITZER: Certainly are. Brian, thanks very much.

It's been nearly a near since the end of the Iraq war for the United States. Thousands of American lives were lost. A trillion dollars maybe more. Was it all worth it? I'm going to ask the author of a brand new book entitled "the end game." Michael Gordon of "the New York Times" is standing by.


BLITZER: It's been almost a year since the end of the costly contentious U.S. war in Iraq. And the question remains, was it worth it?

In their new book entitled "the End Game," the co-authors Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainer write and I'm quoting, "after the loss of nearly 45 hundred American troops and many more Iraqi lives and the expenditure of more than $800 billion dollars, just what sort of Iraq was the United States military leaving behind?"

Michael Gordon is joining us now. He's the chief military correspondent for "the New York Times" and he is the co-author of the new book entitled "the end game, the inside story of the struggle for Iraq from George Bush to Barack Obama."

So, this is an amazing book. Was it worth it? That whole many years of the war in Iraq, the cost and blood and treasure.

MICHAEL GORDON, CO-AUTHOR, THE END GAME: Well, I think the question at this point is the war happened. The decision to invade was made, you know, in 2002, 2003. The question is, what sort of relationship should the United States have with Iraq now? How did the Obama administration handle the end of the war and where do we go from here?

BLITZER: Those are all important questions. But, if the whole war was built on a faulty prim is that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, they are still searching for those weapons of mass destruction haven't found any, right?

GORDON: No. No one is searching anymore. I think it's conceded that they didn't have weapons of mass destruction. But when --

BLITZER: I remember I was in Kuwait on the eve of the war. And I had a gas masks. I saw 200,000 American troops with gas masks. They were really fed basically a lie, if you will.

GORDON: No, I don't agree. I think that the intelligence was poor and badly done, but I do think --

BLITZER: When I say a lie, I mean the sources who were providing that intelligence, these false Iraqi sources, for example, who were claiming there was poisonous gas here, chemical weapons there, that was a lie.

GORDON: Well, I think that I was imbedded for that period and I remember General Conway was ahead of the marine forces and they actually intercepted the code word blood which they thought was the use of chemical weapons. For what it's worth, the American forces --

BLITZER: The American forces believed that they would face chemical weapons. I remember scud missiles coming in and them ready running for their gas that they believed it. I'm just saying that the sources turned out to be rather poor and as a result the U.S. went to war. GORDON: I agree.

BLITZER: Beyond that, the question remains now, look at what's happening in Iraq right now. You've got a government, a Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He is (INAUDIBLE) -- they think he's becoming almost, and I have heard this from some of them, Saddam-like in his dictatorial power. Is that going too far?

GORDON: Well, there's certainly a lot of tensions in Iraq now and there's growing concern that the Prime Minister Maliki is acting in an increasing authoritarian way. And Wolf, it is important to understand that when President Obama took office, his goal was to do far more than yearly extract American forces from Iraq. What he wanted to do and what he tried to do and what he intervene to Iraqi politics to attempt to do was to create a partnership government, a power sharing arrangement in Iraq that would temp down these sectarian -- .

BLITZER: But that's been a failure.

GORDON: He attempted to negotiate an agreement which would allow American forces to remain. So for example, Iraqi air space would not be a corridor for Iranian air flights to Syria.


GORDON: And he attempted to establish a footprint where American civilians would be in Iraq to do police training and maintain American influence. And that didn't really work out.

BLITZER: It didn't work out for a variety of reasons. But what I see now is a government in Baghdad increasingly aligned with a government in Tehran. A Shiah arc, if you will, going from Iran through Iraq to Syria, and then Hezbollah in Lebanon. It's almost a nightmare scenario for the U.S. But, tell me if you see that same nightmare scenario unfolding.

GORDON: I have a slightly different view. I think it's too much of a caricature to say that Prime Minister Maliki is a puppet.

BLITZER: I'm not saying he is a puppet. I said he was allying with Tehran

GORDON: He is sensitive to Iranian interests. American influence, unfortunately is not as substantial as it should be and as it might have been with some more stood American policies. And he is conducting a bit of an independent policy, particularly in Syria, where he appears to have concluded that the fall of Bashar Assad cuts against his own interests because he might be in circle by Sunni state. So, he is increasingly out of sorts with American policy in Syria which is an unfortunate outcome particularly after all that sacrifice.

BLITZER: The U.S. has limited influence in Iraq right now, a U.S. is huge embassy in Baghdad, a billion dollar embassy, whatever it cost to build there would limited a amount of influence.

GORDON: Well, the question we pose in the book is did it have to be that way.

BLITZER: And what's the answer?

GORDON: The answer is no. The answer is that it certainly there are a lot of nationalist pressures in Iraq and it would have been difficult to negotiate to keep maybe 5,000 troops or 3,000 troops. But, the way the administration handled it, is they came to it late, the president was not involved throughout the negotiations in the way he might have bee. And I think there was ambivalence on the part of the White House.

What you had in the American government was a division where the defense department and the state department very much wanted to retain some modest American forces in Iraq. But in the White House they were much more sensitive to political considerations and they were more ambivalent about it.

BLITZER: The Iraqis didn't want to give immunity to any U.S. troops remaining troops behind. And was the killer issue right there as a result of the negotiations for the status forces agreement so the negotiations collapsed.

GORDON: It became the killer issue. And the question which the historians will have to untangle is did it need to be a killer issue or mate have be finessed.

BLITZER: The question I'll end with them, we are leaving right there is the question I began with, was this worth with, this whole nearly ten-year adventure in Iraq?

But, you know what? This is an amazing book, "the End Game, the inside story of a struggle for Iraq from George W. Bush to Barack Obama."

Michael Gordon is the co-author with General Bernard Trainer.

Michael, we go back a long time. Thanks for writing it.

GORDON: Thank you.

BLITZER: President Obama and the challenger Mitt Romney are prepping for their first one-on-one debate next week. So what can voters expect? If you ask the candidates they'll tell you not all that much. Is that true? What is going on?

Stand by,


BLITZER: With the first presidential debate only days away, both sides certainly playing the game of lowering expectations.

President Obama's people point to all the debates Mitt Romney did during the primaries as well as his recent practice sessions.


JEN PSAKI, OBAMA CAMPAIGN TRAVELING PRESS SECRETARY: You know, I'll say Mitt Romney has a bit more practice than the president. He's done a lot of them recently. So, you know, we'll wait to see.

BLITZER: Are you nervous? I see you are nervous.

PSAKI: Well, he is a much better debater.

BLITZER: Who is the much better debater?

PSAKI: Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: He is better than the president.


BLITZER: That was Jen Psaki, the press sector the Obama campaign insisting that Romney is a much better debater.

A Thursday memo, however, shows Romney campaign senior adviser Beth Myers playing the same game and I'm quoting her now when she says "President Obama is a uniquely gifted speaker and is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history. This will be the eighth one h one presidential debate of his political career for Mitt Romney, it will be his first."

And listen to what Romney himself tells ABC news.


ROMNEY: I don't worry about the opportunity to be on the air and to face the president. He has his views. I have mine.


BLITZER: All right. So just how influential are these debates for the voters out there?

Joining us now two journalists from the Web site Lauren Ashburn is the site's founder and editor in-chief and a former managing editor of "USA Today," Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the Washington bureau chief for "Newsweek" magazine.

We shouldn't be surprised that both sides lowering expectations, right?

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN HOST, RELIABLE SOURCE: Give me a break. This is such a transparent game. Each side saying well, the other guy we can't decide whether he's Lincoln or Douglas. But they're also tapping into a game that the media play, where as soon as that thing is over in Denver, all the prognosticators employments are going to come on and say, that Romney either beat or failed to beat expectations. That's why we see lowering going on. LAUREN ASHBURN, EDITOR IN-CHIEF, DAILY-DOWNLOAD.COM: But, I don't think it's all that important. I will play the devil's advocate here. The media's analysis of these debates. I think people at home don't need the gas bags to tell them what to think. I think they can think what they think about the debates.

BLITZER: And they will watch closely and the gas bags will then reacts. Whatever happens on that debate.

KURTZ: I'm going to disagree with you disagreeing with me. Because after the first presidential debate in 2000, when Al Gore sighs and rolled his eyes against George W. Bush. Initially it was report as a straight debate what each candidate said. The media spent a week dissecting Gore's body language made in front of "Saturday Night Live." That changed perception of the debate that people had seen. So yes, people will see for themselves. But they also get a lot of help from people on our side of the camera as to what to think.

ASHBURN: For all the men out there, I'm going to bring in a sports analogy. I don't follow baseball and some people do. And I wait until the end to see who's playing in the World Series. The same with politics. A lot of people don't follow politics 24/7 like we do, believe it or not. And they are going to come in a lot later than the first debate. So their analysis of what's happening is going to come much closer to the actual November Election Day.

BLITZER: But you know, the little things like Al Gore's sighs which got a lot of attention or George H.W. Bush looking at his watch. You know, what was he doing? Is he getting bored? What was going on?

Listen to Newt Gingrich because he had some advice. He spoke out earlier in the week. Let me play the clip.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If he would be as direct, as assertive, as firm with Barack Obama as he was with me in Florida, he'll win the debate going away. And within three days of winning that debate the polls will change dramatically because he'll have begun to make the case that we cannot afford four more years of Barack Obama.


BLITZER: Newt Gingrich, as you remember how he has got some experience debating. Mitt Romney, I think decisively in few of those debates, beat him in those. So he knows what he's talking about.


ASHBURN: I know. He got creamed in the debates.

BLITZER: So, you don't think his advice is any good?

ASHBURN: He doesn't have a job right now. What is he doing commenting on this? KURTZ: Yes. But, here the thing. I mean, Gingrich trying to be the dutiful party soldier for Mitt Romney. The polls are not going to dramatically change after the first, second or third debate. We play a role here. We in the media build things up in do or die. And I'm certainly, Wolf, with 40 days to go roughly, these are crucial opportunities for Mitt Romney. But most of them, with a few exceptions, tend to be a muddle. Each side makes its points, we all analyze it. They are not the dramatic game changers that either side might hope for.

BLITZER: Well, I'll disagree with you because I think when it comes to that five or six or seven percent legitimately undecided voters out there in Ohio or Virginia or Florida, these debates I think will convince them to make up their mind one way or another.

I agree that for most Americans, they've made up their minds already. But for the undecided or the switchable, the debates will be critical.

KURTZ: Do you think they can move them in dramatic fashion?

BLITZER: I don't know dramatic. But in some of these states it is going to be very close --

KURTZ: You know, t only takes a point or two.


ASHBURN: Well, all you have to do is look at early voting. I mean, right now, voting is going on already.

BLITZER: These are people who have already made up their minds.


BLITZER: So, they are not going to change their minds. There's a five or six or seven percent group out there that they're addressing with these debates and I think they'll be very important.

ASHBURN: I disagree.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much for coming in. Howie is going to have "Reliable Sources" Sunday morning 11:00 a.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.


BLITZER: A major tourist attraction here in the nation's capital getting a $34 million makeover and now there's a new problem you just can't miss and some are calling it disgusting.


BLITZER: Anyone who's visited Washington, D.C., has probably seen the reflecting pool on the national mall. The government just spent millions repairing it, but guess what, already there's a big problem.

Our Lisa Sylvester's here. She is taking a closer look. It is a little weird out there.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It is. A little icky to say the least.

Well, that renovation is completed. They fixed some cracks and leaks in the foundation. But now, there is a new problem. And let's just say that this is a problem that you just can't miss.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): There's plenty to take pictures of in downtown Washington, D.C. The Lincoln Memorial, World War II Memorial, and then this, folks snapping photos of the reflecting pool.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's sludgy at this end.

SYLVESTER: And what's in it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's disgusting. It's not right.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Smells like wet dog, you know. When my dog came home from the stream, he always smelled like this. It's gross.

SYLVESTER: The reflecting pool reopened at the end of August to great fun fair after a $34 million renovation that lasted nearly two years. But less than a month later, the famous pool of water is full of algae. Algae are simple organisms that thrive in areas where there is heat and sunlight. You have plenty of that here.

The water may not look great, but it doesn't pose a health or safety hazard. It's really just the yuck factor.

CAROL JOHNSON, NATIONAL PARK'S SERVICE SPOKESWOMAN: If it's sunny, if it's really warm, tell rise to the top. So on some days depending on the weather, you will see algae at the top. And if it looks like -- they look like small islands of algae.

SYLVESTER: But, why has algae suddenly become a problem?

The reflecting pool fixed cracks and leaks but it also included installing a system to draw water from the nearby tidal bases into the pool instead of using city drinking water. Algae naturally grows in the tidal basin. Plus, the renovated pool hold less water. That shallow depth is a perfect condition for algae to grow. A bit of an embarrassment for the park service.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's really a shame that they hadn't planned this out better so you wouldn't have algae growing after all this time and money.

SYLVESTER: So, for the national parks service, it's cleanup time.

JOHNSON: The filtering system is taking out a lot of it. But there is, as I said, we were surprised by the magnitude of the algae. So we're going to have to actually manually remove some of the algae.

SYLVESTER: The park service won't use chemicals because the reflecting pool water can flow back into the tidal basin. A parks spokeswoman says they're adjusting the ozone levels to correct the problem. In the meantime, the reflecting pool is not reflecting --


SYLVESTER: Much of anything.


SYLVESTER: OK. So did the parks service anticipate this problem? Well, there is a filtering system, but they didn't expect the algae to grow like crazy. And the filtering system just hasn't been able to keep up.

The weather is starting to cool off, and that should buy park officials a little bit more time to try to troubleshoot it, to figure it out and try to change and tinker with some the ozone levels.

BLITZER: Let's hope it's fixed by cherry blossoms in time for the spring.

SYLVESTER: I hope so.

BLITZER: That would be good. Lisa, thank you.

BLITZER: So, when we come back, what one reporter did that got him a good on-the-job soaking.


BLITZER: Here is the look of this week's hotshots.

In Afghanistan, residents of the hillside neighborhood stand by a water collection.

In India, a rhinoceros walks through the forest searching for food.

In Uruguay, children gather around a sea turtle before it's released into the water.

And in Ukraine, a fighter jet flies below a passenger plane during a military exercise.

Hot shots, pictures coming in from around the world.

All a Miami TV reporter wanted was to ask a couple of questions.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Please don't water the reporter. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry to bother you, I'm Michael Putney with --

MOOS: WPLG's senior political reporter was trying to get a comment from a former candidate reportedly under investigation for campaign improprieties when the man's wife doused Michael Putney. The Miami TV veteran responded the way any red-blooded reporter did --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, yes, we were.

MOOS: Then went on to deliver his standup.

PUTNEY: We are all wet.

MOOS: Maybe the reporter should have approached the door wearing goggles because the writing was on the wall. No comment, the sign on the door read, directing questions to an attorney. Trespassers will be wet! You have been warned!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thankfully that was cool tap water. It was kind of refreshing.

MOOS: Sure beats the steaming, hot water a bikini barista threw at a flasher who kept driving through the java girls' drive-thru. Water landed --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On his face and chest. He said, ooh, yes.

MOOS: Politicians on a Romanian talk show seemed less titillated when water flew after they called each other a bidet. Convicted murderer Joran Van Der Sloot once threw wine on a crime reporter. Tom cruise got squirted by British TV pranksters using a fake mic.

TOM CRUISE, ACTOR: You're a jerk.

MOOS: Now, we in the press are fist, that's no reason to squirt with us bug spray -- bug spray! At least the guy leaving a Connecticut courtroom shook the cam --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got it, I got it.

MOOS: Before he let a WTIC camera man have it with hornet and wasp spray. But what really stings isn't getting doused with water --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stop that (bleep) camera right now!

MOOS: As the sexy TV crew was. It's getting whacked with the empty bottle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not appropriate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't give a (bleep).

MOOS: That's no way to recycle. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stop it!

MOOS: Jeanne moos --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, bye-bye.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Son of a (bleep) --

MOOS: CNN, New York.


BLITZER: Thank you, Jeanne.

And Remember, you can always follow what's going on here in the SITUATION ROOM on twitter. Just tweet me, @Wolfblitzer.

Thank you very much for joining me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in the SITUATION ROOM. The news continues next on CNN.