Return to Transcripts main page


GOP Lawmakers Confront Clinton On Libya Attack; Countdown to the First Debate; Joe Biden Gaffes; Delaware's New Child Abuse Law; Battle of Words

Aired October 2, 2012 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you're in the SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, top Republican lawmakers confront the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, over the attack that killed the United States ambassador and three other Americans in Libya. Ahead, the letter CNN has obtained charging that, quote, "repeated requests for more security in the region were denied."

Also, blindfolded and in distress, why many think the man in this video is an American journalist missing in Syria. U.S. officials, though, they say they aren't so sure.

And backlash against the tough new child abuse law some parents claim make spanking their child a crime.

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: On Capitol Hill right now, House Republican leaders want answers from the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, herself. CNN has obtained a letter sent to Secretary Clinton demanding to know why more wasn't done to protect American diplomats on the ground in the months leading up to the attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi and charging that requests for additional security were ignored.

CNN's foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, is joining us from the state department now with more information, more details. What's going on here, Jill?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, wolf, here's what we know. These Congressional Republicans are charging that there were numerous threats, security breaches, and attacks in Libya leading up to even before the attack that Killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans.

For example, they say that Ambassador Stevens used to jog almost daily, frequently with his security detail. But, that the -- according to their sources, they say, a pro-Gadhafi Facebook website posted a stacked photo of Stevens and also a threat against him. So, he stopped, temporarily stopped for about a week, and then he went back again. Here's what congressman Darrel Issa tells CNN.


REP. DARRELL ISSA, (R) OVERSIGHT & GOVT. REFORM CHAIRMAN: All indications are the ambassador was not reckless and he took the advice always of his security forces, including sometimes when they said that meetings needed to be canceled. So, I think that this is a failure of intelligence, a failure of security, and a failure of judgment, but not of the now-deceased ambassador.


DOUGHERTY: And, Wolf, there are other incidents, in fact, we've been reporting on them al along that they note. One was an assailant blowing a hole in the security perimeter at the north gate of the Benghazi mission. Two rocket propelled grenade rounds were fired at the Benghazi office of the Red Cross. And then, finally, the most serious probably was other than the killing was the convoy carrying the British ambassador was hit by a militant with a grenade.

So that letter, and it's coming from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says that multiple federal government officials told them that the U.S. mission in Libya made repeated requests for increased security in Benghazi but, quote, "were denied these resources by officials in Washington."

Now, we have to note, however, that state department officials have told CNN that security upgrades were performed, were made to the Benghazi mission, because of those incidents and others. So, we are expecting that Secretary Clinton will have a letter responding to the congressmen. It's going to be short, but essentially, it will pledge cooperation, we are told.

And also, her spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, was asked about this at the briefing. She said, at this point, they cannot go point by point and answer each one, because they are still collecting information in all those documents. But here's what she said at the briefing.


VICTORIA NULAND, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We want to get to the bottom of precisely what happened and learn any lessons that we need to learn from it. We're taking this very, very seriously.


DOUGHERTY: And the House Committee does plan on holding those hearings on October 10th. They've asked for state department officials not specifically Secretary Clinton, herself. That, by the way, Wolf, is the only hearing on this issue that will take place before the presidential election.

And, of course, the Democrats are saying that that timing is political. Congressman Issa denies that, and he says, at this point, the indications are that they will get cooperation from the state department. BLITZER: So, somebody from the state department will testify at that hearing? Is that what you're hearing, Jill?

DOUGHERTY: Yes. I'm not sure exactly who will, but they will be up there. They're collecting the documents practically as we speak.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jill Dougherty, reporting from the state department. Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with CNN's national security contributor, the former Bush homeland security advisor, Fran Townsend. Fran is a member of the CIA's external advisory committee. Back in August, she visited Libya with her employer, MacAndrews and Forbes.

Were you aware, Fran, of all of these itemized incidents leading up to 9/11, to the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, all the security threats that were -- that the committee today discussed? Were you aware that all these occurred?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Not all of them, Wolf, although some of them, Jill didn't mention, there were two references to carjackings in Tripoli. The letter from the two congressmen go through not only incidents at the Benghazi consulate but also in Tripoli.

And what they paint is a picture. And some of those I did know because I'd discussed with Ambassador Stevens when I visited, what it does is paint the picture of a deteriorating security situation. The other interesting thing, Wolf, I would note is for those people who followed al Qaeda over the last decade, you know that they often return to the site of failed attacks.

So, the World Trade Center in 1993, they came back in 2001. The USS Cole was a time they came back after missing the USS Sullivan a year before. And so, the fact that they list two attempts to attack the Benghazi consulate previously is another one of those facts that underscores in the counterterrorism community the likelihood that this really is an al Qaeda-related attack.

BLITZER: Were you familiar with this other explosive allegation that the U.S. mission in Libya asked for greater security, but officials in Washington denied that, rejected it? Is that something you'd heard before?

TOWNSEND: I had not heard that, Wolf. But here's the reason I suspect that the congressmen are asking for documents. Likely, if such a request was made, it would have been done in a cable in a document. And so, there will be a paper trail from the consulate in Benghazi to the embassy in Tripoli to the state department headquarters and answering it back.

Now, some of that we know. We do know that there was some minor increase in security presence at the Benghazi consulate. I think it's fair to say based on what we know now it was obviously not enough. And the question is going to be as you look into exactly what happened when, what did they know? Why didn't they provide more security? And did they act in a way that was reasonable based on what Washington's understanding of the threat was?

BLITZER: I spoke with the democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and she pointed out she insists that the Republicans in the House rejected increase security -- funding for increased security, in fact, trimmed the state department's request by some $300 million worldwide for state department diplomatic security.

Clearly, suggesting the Republicans have some explaining to do as well.

TOWNSEND: Well, Wolf, look, it's sort of inevitable in this current season that we're in that there's going to be finger pointing back and forth between the Republicans and democrats. I don't have any data at the time of, you know, constricting budgets that there probably weren't cuts taken.

And we're going to have to -- you know, part of an investigation is going to look at who took them, where, and why. But I will tell you, I can remember during the Bush administration the extraordinary cost of the compound, the embassy compound in Iraq and members of Congress very much questioned why it was so expensive to harden that embassy.

And so, I don't doubt that members of Congress asked questions. The real issue is going to be did they make the cuts in the right places? And did, as a result of those cuts, we leave diplomats vulnerable?

BLITZER: The president keeps saying that those who killed Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans will, they will -- justice will be served as far as they're concerned which suggests maybe the U.S. is going to go out and hunt for them.

We're now being told here at CNN that the Pentagon and CIA are asking for what's called target packages or information about those who may be responsible suggesting maybe they will be targeted to be captured or killed. Explain what this means.

TOWNSEND: You know, Wolf, I'd actually been surprised if this wasn't going on. So, it is, you know, in the wake of the East Africa embassy bombings. You'll remember President Clinton ordered (INAUDIBLE) strikes on training camps in Afghanistan and one in Sudan. And so, it is not uncommon after the immediate aftermath of an attack, there will be people devoted to understanding what exactly happened.

The intelligence community and law enforcement will be devoted to who is responsible, who should be held accountable for it. And the military, which is the face of what we consider our hard power will look to say, based on what we know, are there targets that are vulnerable to a strike? You know, a retribution strike?

And where are they and what do we know about them? They'll also, Wolf, in this process, identify the gaps. If there are particular intelligence gaps that they have, they'll identify those to the intelligence community, set new requirements and ask them to collect additional information.

BLITZER: Fran Townsend, thanks very much.

Let's turn to Syria right now. Disturbing grainy video that surfaced online purportedly showing an American freelance journalist who's been missing for weeks. In it, the former U.S. marine appears blindfolded and distressed surrounded by men armed with machine guns.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is joining us now with the latest. Chris, why do U.S. officials suggest this video may have been staged?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, our sources tell us there are several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that these so-called Syrian rebels appear to be wearing Afghan-style clothing, not the kind we normally see in Syria. Now, U.S. officials say they cannot say with 100 percent certainty, but they say it's somewhat likely that the American in this video is Austin Tykes (ph).

He's a former marine and had been working overseas as a journalist when he disappeared about six weeks ago. In fact, some of our sources say this video looked like someone looked at clips of jihadists and then sort of made up this video. They say, normally, you would think a group would want to take credit for capturing an American, but in here, there's no flag.

Also, it wasn't posted on typical jihadist forums, but Facebook and YouTube. They don't even make any demands in the video. Our sources say jihadists typically make videos like this in a controlled environment, like a studio, not the chaotic shots you see here. And experts and U.S. officials say, normally, when you see the Syrian rebels, they look very worn and disheveled.

It reflects the hardships of fighting hard over several months. The militants in this video look very clean, too clean, as some would say. The bottom line, U.S. officials still believe that Austin Tykes (ph) is being held by the Syrian government. So, that begs the obvious question of why. Why would Bashar al-Assad's regime f it did, make this video like this?

And one expert on Syria says it goes back to the very beginning when the Assad regime tried to paint the opposition as control by jihadists and foreign-backed terrorists.


ELIZABETH O'BAGY, INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR: The U.S. to date has been reluctant to buy into this narrative. And they have been very afraid of painting the entire opposition as an al Qaeda-inspired revolt against the Assad regime.

However, this type of video would give credence and a grain of truth to Assad's claims that there are very important extremists and jihadist elements now operating within the opposition which would make any further action on behalf of the U.S. as regards to involvement in Syria very difficult to make -- (END VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE: In other words, if the rebels -- if the Syrian rebels are dominated by groups that would kidnap and target Americans, public opinion might sway against them and make it much harder for the Americans to intervene in Syria -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon. Let's hope they find this journalist and get him out of there quickly.

He's the man credited with helping Mitt Romney shine during past debates. Up next, his debate coach from the Republican primaries telling our own Dana Bash what the former governor has to do tomorrow night.

And have investigators uncovered the remains of the notorious teamsters, Boss Jimmy Hoffa? The latest test results, they are now just in.


BLITZER: We're just a little bit more than 24 hours away from the first presidential debate, and now, it's crunch time. The pressure is on both candidates to perform. CNN's Dana Bash spoke with the man credited with helping Mitt Romney turn his debate performance around during the Republican primaries.

Dana's here in the SITUATION ROOM. So, what is this former governor's aide telling you that Mitt Romney needs to do tomorrow night?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, his name is Brett McDonald (ph), and he not only helped Mitt Romney really come back with his debate performances during the Republican primaries, but he also has historically helped John McCain, George W. Bush and others.

What he says that he thinks Romney should do is be, quote, "respectfully aggressive with the president" which is a tight rope. That's not easy to do. But he also underscored how important it is for Mitt Romney to give all dimensions -- for his aides to give him all dimensions of prep in these mock debates, because it is important to focus on policy and the psychological.


BRETT O'DONNELL, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It's very important. There's three things that you have to do to prepare a candidate. They have to know the policy material. They have to know the answers to the questions. The second thing is they have to know the strategy in how to execute it, but the third thing and probably the most important is they have to be mentally prepared.

It's just like preparing an athlete. If they're not mentally prepared for the worst of the worst, then something will take them by surprise. And so, those mock debates are extremely important. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: That is Brett O'Donnell (ph), not Brett McDonald. And he said that one thing about Romney in particular is that he really believes from his experience with him that he needs to focus on the policy, not the personal. That's where he does best. And when he gets personal, he veers off into areas that he doesn't want to be in.

BLITZER: A lot of talk about one-liners and zingers out there that they've been rehearsing and practicing, what does that say to you?

BASH: Well, I asked him about this, and he said that when you talk about zingers, he said he hopes that's not what they're doing because that is not Mitt Romney, because he's not inherently a funny guy. But one-liners he says that he did practice with Mitt Romney and hopes he's practicing now, those memorable lines that really will kind of go at the president and really destroy whatever policy argument he's making.

One example that he gave to me, wolf, was something that happened during the debate that you moderated during the Republican primaries in Jacksonville. And it was when you were trying to get Newt Gingrich to say to Mitt Romney's face what he was saying on the campaign trail, that he's not being transparent. Listen.


BLITZER: Serious accusation against Governor Romney like that --


BLITZER: You need to explain that.


GINGRICH: Do you want to try again? I mean --

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations at someone else that they weren't willing to defend here?

BASH: How critical was that moment?

O'DONNELL: It was a huge moment in the debates for Governor Romney.

BASH: Why?

O'DONNELL: Because in that one sentence, he was able to take an issue that others had been dogging him with and put it to rest. He was able to communicate clearly if you're going to make the charge, make it on the stage. And that really put Gingrich in his place.

You know, and that's happened throughout the primary debates when Pawlenty wouldn't repeat the Obamneycare charge. You know, if a account candidate is not willing to say the same thing on stage face- to-face that they'll say it in interview, we view them as weak. And that moment was a moment of strength for Governor Romney.


BASH: The other thing that he said which I think is true and I would bet you'd agree is that both Mitt Romney and President Obama tend to have the same strengths and the same weaknesses. The weakness, he says, that he's concerned about and was in the primaries was that he tends to get defensive, and he needs to really control that.

And I know from sources talking to Mitt Romney in these mock debates that's definitely one thing that they've been practicing big time.

BLITZER: That was certainly a key moment in the end of Newt Gingrich's efforts to become the Republican presidential nominee.

BASH: Sure was.

BLITZER: Mitt Romney really gave it to him at that point. We're going to have much more on this coming up in our next hour. Dana, thanks very much.

In our next hour, we're going to be speaking with representatives from both campaigns -- top advisors from both campaigns will be joining us, Robert Gibbs joining us from the Obama campaign, Kevin Madden from the Romney campaign. Lots to discuss with both of them. That's coming up here in the SITUATION ROOM.

Ikea is now issuing an apology after its catalog sparked outrage. What did the company do? Stand by.


BLITZER: A new turn in the search for the missing teamster boss, Jimmy Hoffa. We should say, it's an old turn. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring this and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. What's the latest?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. I don't think you're surprised by this, but test results are back from soil samples taken from a Michigan home where a tipster claimed Jimmy Hoffa might be buried. And authorities say they found no evidence of human remains.

The search was the latest in the on again/off again hunt for the union leader whose disappearance 35 years ago continues to capture the public's imagination.

And Australia's Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral since the mid-1980s. That is according to a new study that blames a species of starfish that can eat 12 square yards of coral in a year. Scientists say stopping the starfish infestation is the best way to save the world's largest reef, which could lose another 50 percent of its coral in the next decade.

And Swedish retailer, Ikea, says it is sorry for air brushing images of women out of its annual catalog for Saudi Arabia. In the company's ad, you see a family together. But in the Saudi Version, the female's image was removed. Sweden's trade minister says women there they still, quote, "have such a long way to go."

And you know, it is true, you know, that they can't drive, they can't travel alone. So, we see it all the time, Wolf.


BLITZER: -- in the Ikea ads.

SYLVESTER: That's right.

BLITZER: Lisa, thanks very much.

There are the moments that could make or break a presidential run. Up next, our special panel looks at some of the best political zingers, zingers, in debate history.


BLITZER: It's crunch time for President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. They're just a little more than 24 hours away from their first head-to-head debate. And all eyes will be watching for something they might share with debates from the past some memorable moments.


JOHN KERRY, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Saddam Hussein didn't attack us, Osama Bin Laden attacked us.

GEORGE W. BUSH, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not only what's your philosophy and what's your position on issues, but can you get things done? And I believe I can.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think it's fair to say you haven't had cancer, therefore, you don't know what it's like. I don't think it's fair to say, you know, whatever it is, if you haven't been hit by it personally, that everybody's affected by the debt.

BILL CLINTON, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's a good chance I'll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it.

JIMMY CARTER, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: These are the kind of elements of the national health insurance according to the American people. Governor Reagan again typically is against such a proposal.



BLITZER: Let's get straight to our chief political analyst Gloria Borger. She's getting some unsolicited advice from our panel about this very question -- Gloria.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Thanks, Wolf. The scary thing is I can remember most of those moments at those debates. Well let's get right to it. Governor Schweitzer, you have been in more than one debate and I want to ask you flat out, do debates really change the outcome of elections?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER (D), MONTANA: Usually not, especially when you have two seasoned debaters, professionals, mostly what's going to happen in this debate is people are going to have a chance to size up Mitt Romney for the first time. There's a lot of folks out there that haven't tuned in they are going to be able to look at this guy and say do I want him on my television set in my living room for the next four years?

BORGER: Well you've also debated, Tom Perriello, so what do you think?

TOM PERRIELLO (D), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Yes. Well first of all I remember the "Saturday Night Live" sketches more than some of the original clips you showed, but I think one of the things that's important is as much as the zingers sometimes make the news the next day, the thing that's more likely to impact voters is the sense of authenticity that comes across. They want to know what the makes the candidate tick. And that's often more the accumulative effect of the debate than one particular line.

ROSS DOUTHAT, COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I think in general the governor's right. Debates don't change elections. But if you go back and look at debates in 2004, 2000, some of the clips we just saw where there was movement in the polls. It's often three or four points and this election is unusually close, right? The polling average shows about a 3.5 lead -- 3.5 point lead for Barack Obama right now. So it could be that this would be the rare election where you actually --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Rare -- this is a rare election.

DOUTHAT: -- Where you have debates that matter.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: And what it does it is gives the opportunity in this case for Mitt Romney to really crystallize the contrast he has of President Obama. The debate moments, those moments are important because they codify the public's understanding of what's going on. So remember in 1984, President Reagan actually lost the first debate to Mondale because he had been over prepared. People thought oh maybe he's too old. He's not going to make it and the second debate he came back and he said I'm not going to use my candidate's -- my opponent's youth and inexperience against him. Everybody laughed. Even Mondale they thought oh this guy has got it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But this is a big thing for Romney, right? Romney needs maybe zingers at his own expense a little bit, right, because if Romney's reputation --

BORGER: Oh so he's going to toss one at himself? (CROSSTALK)

DOUTHAT: He needs to humanize himself, right, and being self deprecating for a guy who has got a reputation as sort of an obnoxious rich stiff is probably better than having some canned you know over- rehearsed line about President Obama.

PERRIELLO: Well that's not just about zingers. That can be about policy too. I always found when I was running that it was when I said something people disagreed with me on that they started to believe the other things that I was saying --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's always been a problem for Romney --


PERRIELLO: And I think there is that question about, you know, whether it's a matter of trying to lock up his base appealing to independents and I think he's sort of been stuck between the two you know showing a moment where he's willing to say something that some people will disagree with can also mean a lot more.

BORGER: But isn't the problem with Mitt Romney is that he's not really good at the improv (ph), which is what you're talking about. I mean he might have a zinger in his back pocket --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Neither one of them are good --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Neither one are good at the improv (ph).


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that's why --

BORGER: But he's better at the PowerPoint than the -- and that's not --

SCHWEITZER: Here's (INAUDIBLE) both of them. If I was in the room right now with Mitt or with Obama, I would say all right we're not going to talk anymore about policy. We're not going to go over the notes anymore.


SCHWEITZER: You know everything you already need to know. You need to be likable. You need to be able to close the case with the people that they can trust you.

DOUTHAT: But the way that Romney has to get people to trust him is by doing something on policy to reassure working class, lower middle class voters that he's not just on the side of the rich, right? He can't avoid substance completely. He has to say something that gets him over that hump. I mean that's where he's stuck --

SCHWEITZER: Issues -- issues divide, values unite. When you're asked a question, talk about your family. Talk about an experience --



PERRIELLO: Normally that's true; the problem is people have to believe that you believe those values. And I think Mitt Romney has not been able to close the deal on that credibility gap. And the only way he can do that is with personal experience or policy that reflects on that rather than just a good line.

HOOVER: (INAUDIBLE) it's independent voters. That we're talking about middle class voters and low income voters, they're important. Independent voters are important too. And independent voters are sick of the lack of bipartisanship in Washington. One of the things Mitt Romney hasn't done is gone back to his actual legislative experience of passing bipartisan historic reforms --


HOOVER: But now is the moment. Now is the opportunity for Mr. Fix- it, Mr. Romney who actually can bring bipartisan reform to Washington, he's actually been able to pass historic bipartisan legislative reforms that President Obama hasn't done in a bipartisan way.


HOOVER: He can get Washington --

SCHWEITZER: Unfortunately, what would come up from that is, well, you might have been able to do some of those things, but you couldn't even run for re-election because your approval ratings were in the low 40's. So there's the problem.


BORGER: Well I want to disagree --


BORGER: I want to disagree with the governor at my own peril, which is to say that I believe that Romney has to provide some meat on the bones here because the argument against him is that, OK, you've got this great budget plan, but how are you going to reform the tax code --

DOUTHAT: Right -- no and if you look at what they did in the convention, the theory of the convention was the governor's theory, right? It was prove that Mitt Romney isn't a robot, that he is a human being, that he loves his wife, he loves his kids and so on. And you know they were pretty successful at that. But beyond that then you have to say here's why he's not going to end Medicare as we know it, right? Here's why he's going to actually help the middle class and I think that's the sale he has to close if he can.

(CROSSTALK) SCHWEITZER: Well I want Barack Obama to win this election. So I hope Mitt Romney stands up there and gives us a lot of issues because the more things that he tells us he's for and against, the fewer people are going to vote for him. Those are the facts.


PERRIELLO: I'll tell you what though. I just got back from Ohio, Colorado, Nevada. People want to know what this means at the kitchen table. They want to know and they have come to believe that his tax plan raises taxes on the middle class. They believe the outsourcing issue. I happen to believe those things too, but we can have a policy debate about it until he convinces working middle class Americans that he's not pushing an agenda that's going to cost them a lot at the kitchen table, he's got -- I mean I agree with you that normally you wouldn't go there --



DOUTHAT: If voters think that the Republican candidate is going to raise their taxes, that candidate will lose.


DOUTHAT: You're absolutely right. He has to deal with that --

BORGER: Exactly and let me just ask this to Margaret because we haven't talked about President Obama a lot. I mean, isn't this harder on the incumbent generally?

HOOVER: Expectations are always low. I mean the incumbent, he hasn't been practicing. He's (INAUDIBLE) been president of the United States.

BORGER: Oh, right, I forgot.

HOOVER: (INAUDIBLE) I mean the incumbents always -- they always actually have a disadvantage. The incumbents actually have a disadvantage going into the first debate as we said in 1984 Ronald Reagan over-prepared and he actually did worse.

DOUTHAT: Now the Democratic surrogates who are talking down the president, you know they actually make a pretty convincing case.


BORGER: He has to defend himself too --

SCHWEITZER: He does have to defend himself.

BORGER: -- without being defensive --

SCHWEITZER: And by the way, once you've been president and you've had people running around you handing you everything you ever needed for the last three and a half years, it's difficult to stand in front of people and have somebody wag their finger at you and say now you answer this question.

DOUTHAT: You could see that with Bush in '04 that he seemed sort of a little almost petulant sometimes --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kerry was going after him. How dare you --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) say that to you as governor --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's also tricky because even though he becomes a candidate, he is still commander and chief and he has to speak in a certain way that is different than the leeway that a candidate has.

BORGER: OK. We're going to have to take a quick break right now. When we come back we're going to get my esteemed panelists unsolicited advice and maybe some from me. Stay with us.


BORGER: And we're back with unsolicited advice from our esteemed panel. Let me start with you, Margaret.

HOOVER: Full disclosure here as a GOPer, far be it for me to give advice to Vice President Biden.

BORGER: But you will.

HOOVER: But you know, you know for somebody who says the middle class has been buried for the last four years, yes, if they put him on a teleprompter and said don't go off the script, he might be better off. It wouldn't take up time in the news cycle and we would probably be able to have time to talk about specifics as we all would like to do instead of having this kind of thing gobble up the news cycle for a day.

BORGER: Particularly the day before the debate for Joe Biden to say that the middle class has been buried for the last four years --


BORGER: -- even though he says it started under Bush.

DOUTHAT: This is a test, right? Because Biden has had sort of a get out of free jail card on gaffes for the last four years. Everybody's like it's Joe Biden, God love him. He can say whatever he wants, so we'll see.

HOOVER: But now it matters.

DOUTHAT: Maybe now it matters --


BORGER: Let's get the Democrats at the table here.

PERRIELLO: Yes. You know, first of all, I'm not sure he gets a get out of jail free card. As someone who was standing next to him in Danville, Virginia, a few weeks ago, I can say there was plenty of coverage around those conversations. I think ultimately you know what the middle class is going to look at is, you know who do they believe is looking out for them. People are going to make their own judgment. I think voters are a lot smarter than they're often given credit for. They're going to look at combination of policy and values and I think whoever goes up and says, hey, this is what's going on, they'll close the deal. I think people are more than ready to move on from Obama. Mitt Romney was unable to give them that answer and that's why they're turning back.

BORGER: You're giving him a pass?

SCHWEITZER: I'll give him a pass.


BORGER: Why am I not surprised?


BORGER: OK and your unsolicited advice.

SCHWEITZER: My advice is for Woody Johnson (ph) who not only owns the New York Jets but is the co-chair of the Romney campaign. He said the other day that he would rather win the presidency than have a winning season. Well, he's already off to a good start. He lost 34-0 against the Niners and I've noticed that his candidate actually Mitt Romney has thrown more interceptions than Tony Romo --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. You need Tim Tebow --


SCHWEITZER: And so I'm saying bench Mitt and bring in Tim Tebow.


BORGER: All right -- Ross.

DOUTHAT: So I'm going to take us away from politics completely. I'll save my debate advice for tomorrow. My advice is for Jenny McCarthy, former playmate of he year, celebrity mom extraordinaire.


DOUTHAT: Many of you know Jenny McCarthy is famous for making the argument that vaccines cause autism, which is an argument most of the scientific community vigorously disputes. Now she's out with a new book about her background as a Catholic, she's in a nun's habit. The subtitle of the book is something like "up from Catholicism or my escape from Catholicism" and so on (ph). And I'm Catholic; we're used to sort of taking fire and so on, but my advice for her is to you know think a little harder. There's a combination here. You can do both at once. You can have a book called "Why Catholicism Causes Autism". It's a genius marketing move, so Jenny, if you're listening.

PERRIELLO: Well as long as we made the transition from playmates to nuns, which is something I never thought I would see --


PERRIELLO: -- my advice to both campaigns, a group of nuns in Ohio have invited both campaigns to come and join them --


PERRIELLO: -- in about a week --


PERRIELLO: -- to spend some time with those who actually are struggling on the margins of poverty where so many are including working and middle class folks, spend a real day with them. They've invited both campaigns. Nuns in Ohio seems to me like the kind of thing that would be smart for both campaigns to take seriously. And I think they've really raised the level of debate for those who have often been left out of the conversation.


SCHWEITZER: Well being Catholic myself I can tell you the bishops are most likely for Mitt Romney and the nuns they are for Barack Obama.

PERRIELLO: Well, you know I can tell you if that showdown comes down among American Catholics I think the Democrats will do pretty well. But you know I think what you've seen and the bishops actually come out the other day with a strong statement against the Ryan budget, against some of the cuts that have come out there saying, yes, charity is important but government has a role to play in those who are most vulnerable.

BORGER: I think Catholics are going to be really important in the state of Ohio --


BORGER: So we'll be looking at that --


BORGER: -- in that battleground state. OK, you want to hear my unsolicited advice, which is maybe you don't, which is to all of those Republican die-hards who are now saying there is some conspiracy among pollsters to make Mitt Romney look bad in the polls and depress the turnout for Republicans, I say come on. There's a conspiracy between say the Pew Research Center --


BORGER: -- and Democratic pollster Peter Hart (ph), Republican pollster Bill McInturff (ph) --


BORGER: I don't really --



BORGER: And you're a Republican consultant, right --


HOOVER: I am --

BORGER: And do you buy the --

HOOVER: The polling is pretty uniform --


DOUTHAT: But this is something that what Republicans are complaining about is sort of sample size, right, and saying oh this poll over samples Democrats --


BORGER: That's what we'll debate.

DOUTHAT: I don't actually think it is much of a debate --

BORGER: Well, you can --

DOUTHAT: But it's interesting it's a debate Democrats had in 2004 where Democrats kept saying oh they're over sampling Republicans for Bush. So I think I agree with you. I think Republicans should look back to 2004 when Democrats were saying some of the same things and recognize usually individual polls get it wrong, but if you average them, that average it's usually pretty close.

SCHWEITZER: I love -- I love it because the Republicans are already looking for all the excuses that they're going to lose the election.


PERRIELLO: One of the things that surprises me is the polls actually aren't that bad. Ross, as you said before that it's not like this thing is out of reach. This is still a very live election so --

BORGER: Right.

PERRIELLO: -- to go to that instead of saying OK you moved this thing three or four points and this is a very different race --


DOUTHAT: It's not a vote of confidence in Mitt Romney.

BORGER: And -- it isn't -- and there are a lot more polls to come. You can be sure in the debate tomorrow night -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Gloria. Thanks for some unsolicited advice from our panel. The pressure is now on for President Obama and Governor Romney as they prepare for their first debate. Their wives sit down with CNN. That's coming up in our 6:00 p.m. Eastern hour. You're going to hear the advice they have for their husbands.


BLITZER: New law in Delaware is sparking controversy over parents' rights, with some saying it makes it illegal for parents to spank their children. Lisa Sylvester is taking a closer look at this new law. Lisa, what are you finding out? It's dividing parents out there.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is Wolf. It's a new law that actually makes it easier for prosecutors to go after child abusers. And it changes the wording of the law from having to show "substantial pain" to "pain". Now conservative family groups are pushing back though, saying this is a case of the government telling people they can't spank their children. But the defenders of the law are clear. They say this does not take away any parental rights.



SYLVESTER (voice-over): Nicole Theis (ph) is a mother to a 10-year- old and 12-year-old. She's also the spokeswoman for the Delaware Family Policy Council that advocates for family values. Theis (ph) is upset about a tough new child abuse law signed by Delaware's governor last month and particularly this one phrase. It defines "physical injury" to a child as any impairment of physical condition or pain". The Delaware Family Policy Council calls it a ban on parental spanking.

NICOLE THEIS, DELAWARE FAMILY POLICY COUNCIL: Well, that is so subjective. I mean think about it, if I have a 2-year-old and my 2- year-old reaches up for something very hot that could hurt that 2- year-old, and I reach out and I swat that little 2-year-old's hand, causing them some pain and discomfort, so it will be remembered not to do that again, you know, according to the way this bill is written, that is a class "A" misdemeanor that I could be punishable for a whole year in prison.

SYLVESTER: But Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who is Vice President Joe Biden's son, says the old law needed to be changed, because it had been difficult to prosecute cases where a child was too young to speak or otherwise nonverbal.

BEAU BIDEN, DELAWARE ATTORNEY GENERAL: We had examples of cases where children were being burned or children were being -- their bones broken at the hands of a perpetrator or of an abuser. And we would struggle very -- we would have a difficult time under the old law prosecuting that at the highest felony level.

SYLVESTER: The law lowers the threshold for prosecution and creates different classes of child abuse offenses, where prosecutors still have to prove physical injury that results from a reckless or intentional act. But does that amount to an outright ban against corporal punishment by parents?

(on camera): Proponents of the law will point to another section of the Delaware code that says parents are justified in the use of force. That is to spank a child if it is reasonable and moderate.

REBECCA WALKER, DELAWARE STATE HOUSE: We didn't touch spanking. What we did is say that if you're going to spank them is one thing. If you're going to throw them against the wall and cause bleeding in their brain or disconnect their head from their spine because they're four months, that's going to be child abuse, even if you only meant to spank them.

SYLVESTER: It might seem intuitive, but Nicole Theis still believes the law as written is overbroad and could impact well-intentioned parents.

THEIS: You interpret a law by how it's written. So, you know, five years from now, 10 years from now, you know, you go by what is written and it says pain and no one knows how pain is going to be interpreted.


SYLVESTER: But this law had a clear majority of support. It passed overwhelming in the State House, 34-7. In the State Senate, it passed unanimously. And the attorney general's office says here's the bottom line, babies, young children, very young children, they should never be spanked, but for an older child, a couple of swats open handed to the bottom that is fine. But if a parent starts using belts or buckles or brooms, essentially something that leaves a mark and that is likely, Wolf, to be considered to be child abuse.

BLITZER: Yes, all right, thanks very much for that report, didn't even know that was an issue in Delaware right there.

Everyone is talking about what you'll see at tomorrow's first presidential debate, but what about what you'll hear? We're taking a closer look at some of the key words both candidates are likely to use.


BLITZER: Politics is all about words, and when it comes to debates, many times words are the best weapons the candidates have. Here's CNN's John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was the great political operative, William Shakespeare, who once asked, what's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Well, in political campaigns, everything's in a name or a word. And frankly, some smell awful.


BERMAN (voice-over): If you listen to the Republicans, President Obama doesn't merely support government, but --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big government.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Barack Obama's government- centered society --

BERMAN: And if you listen to the Democrats, Mitt Romney doesn't want Medicare reform. He wants --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A plan called voucher care.

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A voucher program in order to pay for tax cuts, voucherize (ph) Medicare.

BERMAN: These are no mere word games. These are word bombs and make no mistake, the campaigns have gone nuclear.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The words you use end up defining ideas. And that's what people take into their hearts when they go to the ballot box.

BERMAN: CNN contributor John Avlon is a former political speechwriter.

AVLON: It becomes a contest to see whose idea can get in the American heart and mind faster and first.

BERMAN: For instance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a president who believes in a European socialist model.

ROMNEY: We see a president who wants to make America into a European- style social welfare state.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I will continue fighting to defeat the president's agenda of socialism.

AVLON: All of a sudden you call something socialism, everyone's got a license to stop thinking critically about it because if there's one thing America ain't, it's socialist.

BERMAN: And language can be more subtle. ROMNEY: This campaign is about the middle class.

OBAMA: Without raising taxes on middle class families.

ROMNEY: You kill the middle class.

OBAMA: If we're going to build a secure economy that strengthens the middle class, then we're going to have to do more.

BERMAN: This campaign, there is an epic race to the middle or at least to say, middle class, which by some measurement makes up 49 percent of voters. Why?

AVLON: The middle class is something, as a phrase, that has huge talismanic importance to the vast majority of Americans who aren't even necessarily members of the middle class.

OBAMA: Double their exports.

BERMAN: The fight over phrases, the war over words, it is the battleground of politics. As Margaret Thatcher's character says in "The Iron Lady" --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Watch your words or they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. And watch your character for it becomes your destiny.


BERMAN: How important are words? Well, we keep hearing how the candidates are practicing zingers or phrases for these debates. They know very well that what they say will be repeated and repeated again for the next month -- Wolf.