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THE SITUATION ROOM
Forced Landing in Iran; Fighting ISIS; Plane Crashes Near Jamaica; Key Senate Race a Dead Heat in Arkansas
Aired September 5, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: forced landing. A plane carrying about 100 military contractors ordered to land in Iran.
Private plane mystery. Fighter jets scramble after the pilot fails to respond. Hours later, the plane crashes near Jamaica. Now a search is under way.
Haunting words. Joan Rivers speaks about her death, revealing rarely seen emotions. We have new details of her funeral and some remarkable new tributes.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news stories right now, including a plane carrying military contractors, some 100 Americans among them ordered to land in Iran. Also, the mystery of a small plane that flew hundreds of miles off course, crashing near Jamaica with no response from the pilot even after U.S. fighter jets were scrambled.
And President Obama making his toughest remarks yet about ISIS, as he and NATO leaders appear to make progress in dealing with a terror threat as well as the crisis in Ukraine.
We're using CNN's global resources to cover those stories and a lot more this hour with our reporters and guests around the world.
Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, begins our coverage this hour with more on the plane with all those Americans on board forced to land in Iran.
What are you learning, Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at this hour about 100 Americans still on the ground in southern Iran in Bandar Abbas. They were on a charter flight out of Dubai.
But the plane was coming out of Afghanistan. But the Obama administration said these were military contractors on a Dubai charter flying back to Dubai out of the war zone in Afghanistan. They were transiting Iranian airspace. They got a radio call from Tehran central air traffic control, if you will, telling them that their flight plan was out of date and they needed to return to Afghanistan.
Apparently, the pilot radioed he did not have enough fuel to make it all the way back to Afghanistan. They really were just a short distance from landing in Dubai. And the Iranians at that point said, land or be intercepted. So this charter plane has now landed. It's been in Bandar Abbas for the last several hours. About 100 Americans on board, another 40 passengers from other nationalities.
The Obama administration is being very low-key about all of this, they want to get it resolved, they want to get the plane out of there and they want the Americans out of there. So far, all they will tell us is these are military contractors. They will not say what their jobs are. There's in indication at this point that any U.S. troops were coming out of the war zone. Typically, U.S. troops and those with very sensitive jobs would not be on a charter plane that would transit Iranian airspace -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Why would any Americans be allowed to transit Iranian airspace, especially coming out of Afghanistan? It sounds unusual to me and potentially pretty risky, given the horrible state of the relationship between the United States and Iran.
STARR: Well, I have to tell you I have done it, our CNN crews have done it. Many of us have done it.
When you take a charter flight out of Afghanistan, almost all of them go back through Dubai. Many of them -- most of them are not U.S.-flagged carriers. These are the flights you take. U.S. military aircraft certainly do not go through Iranian airspace. But the charters that run back and forth between Afghanistan and Dubai do.
I will tell you, I'm sure many people have had the same experience, you're on one of these charter flights, the pilot will announce you have entered Iranian airspace and he will announce when you have left Iranian airspace as you begin to cross the Gulf and approach landing in Dubai, and if you are American most of the time you might take an easier breath once you're out of Iran -- Wolf.
BLITZER: I suspect there's going to be a revisit shall we say of that policy. But let's see what happens. Let's hope those Americans and that plane is allowed to take off shortly. If you get word, let us know. We will stay on top of this story. Barbara, thank you.
BLITZER: Now to the ISIS threat. It prompted urgent talks at the NATO summit in Wales, where President Obama and his counterparts have been struggling to deal with that, as well as the crisis in Ukraine.
Our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta has been traveling with the president and he is joining us from Cardiff, Wales, right now.
What is the latest over there, Jim? JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was a
different President Obama at this final day of the NATO summit. His message on ISIS was his toughest to date and he predicted he will have a broad coalition backing him up and taking on the terror threat.
ACOSTA (voice-over): For President Obama, this time, there were no mixed messages.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to achieve our goal. We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, the same way that we have gone after al Qaeda.
ACOSTA: At a news conference at the end of a crucial NATO summit, the president insisted he now has a plan for taking out ISIS. Gone was any reference of simply reducing the ISIS threat...
OBAMA: To the point where it is a manageable problem.
ACOSTA: ... as he had put it just days earlier. Instead:
OBAMA: You can't contain an organization that is running roughshod through that much territory, causing that much havoc, displacing that many people, killing that many innocents, enslaving that many women. The goal has to be to dismantle them.
ACOSTA: The Obama administration is now counting 10 countries as part of an international anti-ISIS coalition. Arab partners, the president is confident, will follow. As Secretary of State John Kerry told one NATO session, "Contrary to what you sort of heard in the politics of our country, the president is totally committed. There is a strategy that is clear."
On Russian aggression in Ukraine, NATO flexed some alliance muscle.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL: All for one, one for all.
ACOSTA: NATO formally unveiled a new rapid response unit designed to meet Russian threats to Eastern Europe, pledged nonlethal military aid and training for Ukraine's defense forces and started plans to assist Georgia and Moldova, right on Russia's doorstep.
DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Russia is ripping the rule book with its annexation of Crimea and its troops on sovereign oil in Ukraine.
ACOSTA: Russia's Foreign Ministry tweeted the statements threaten the peace process in Ukraine. But that didn't stop a cease- fire deal the Ukrainian president announced at the summit.
PETRO POROSHENKO, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Now it is very important that it -- this cease-fire last long and during the cease-fire, we continue the political dialogue. QUESTION: Can you trust Vladimir Putin?
ACOSTA: President Obama was hardly convinced Moscow would allow the cease-fire to hold.
OBAMA: Obviously, we are hopeful, but based on past experience also skeptical. So it has to be tested.
ACOSTA: And Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials will be heading to the Middle East in the coming days to start lining up Arab partners for this coalition. But Secretary Kerry and the president both reiterated earlier today there will be no U.S. combat boots on the ground as part of this effort -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We will see what they can achieve on this mission, the two secretaries, secretary of state and the secretary of defense.
Jim Acosta, thanks very much.
Let's get some more now.
Joining us, General Anthony Zinni. He is the former commander of the U.S. military's Central Command. He's now on the board of governors at the Middle East Institute here in Washington and he's also the author of a very important and very timely brand-new book entitled "Before the First Shots Are Fired: How America Can Win or Lose Off the Battlefield."
General, thanks very much for joining us and thanks also for writing this important book which I recommend to all of our viewers.
Let's talk a little bit. First of all, is it wise for the U.S. military to be chartering planes, flying Americans from Afghanistan to Dubai that go through Iranian airspace?
GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.), FORMER CENTCOM COMMANDER: Well, as Barbara said, the military planes do not. I have gone into on military...
BLITZER: But military charters, these private Dubai planes to bring Americans working for the United States government, civilians, contractors, from Afghanistan to Dubai, from which they can fly back home. Is that smart to fly through Iranian airspace?
ZINNI: Well, they're treated as commercial flights from our point of view.
I think we have to find out why this -- where the diplomatic -- were the air clearances all in order, what's the motivation for this and what happened before we jump to me conclusions.
If this is Iran just getting in our way and in our path, I think go to your point, you will see the charter planes then take a more southerly route or northerly route.
BLITZER: Yes, because I think a lot of Americans leaving -- working for the United States leaving Afghanistan, if they're told, you know what, get ready, we're flying through Iranian airspace, be a little nervous, that's not a very pleasant thought.
ZINNI: Yes. And these are not only American contractors. There are others out there obviously too.
BLITZER: Right. And they're civilians. And you don't know. Maybe the Iranians started questioning these people, what's your job, what do you do? This potentially -- let's hope it's not -- potentially could be a serious problem.
BLITZER: When the president of the United States, General, says that the United States now wants to not only dismantle, but destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria, how do you do that?
ZINNI: Well, obviously, you have to destroy their conventional capability first. That's what got them into Iraq and allowed them to fight so effectively against the Iraqis and even the Kurds, who were underarmed.
We have got to turn that around. First, you start to destroy their conventional capabilities. All those trucks and tanks and MRAPs that we have seen out there, they can be targeted pretty easily. That's the first step.
Then I think you have to go after their command and control. Earlier, I heard you mention do we assassinate or don't we assassinate? I would look at this differently. A commander is part of a command and control system. There are people involved in the process and in the structure of a command and control system.
If this is our enemy and they're targeting Americans, and they're engaging our allies in the region, they're fair game.
BLITZER: So, al-Baghdadi, the commander of ISIS, who may be in Syria right now, would it be smart to kill him?
BLITZER: Send a drone over Syria or an F-15 or an F-16 or whatever, and launch a strike and try to kill this guy?
ZINNI: Remember Admiral Yamamoto, World War II? We went deep and we caught him because of intelligence in the plane. He was part of the command and control system. That's the way you view it in time of conflict with an enemy. BLITZER: Can you really though destroy -- let's be realistic --
destroy ISIS, which is not only a terrorist organization? They have a pretty conventional military capability as well.
A lot of generals and colonels and majors that worked for Saddam Hussein, they're now working for ISIS. They have about half of Iraq and half of Syria under their control with a lot of U.S. firepower that they stole from the Iraqi military. Can you destroy them, destroy them without ground troops?
ZINNI: I think it's going to be difficult to do that.
I think you can certainly degrade their capabilities. You can degrade their leadership. The ground troops, as I see this thing coming about now, are not going to be American. I think we're looking at some sort of combination of Iraqis, Kurds, maybe others, questionable about how effective they may be.
With U.S. support, air support, logistics, advisers, that certainly enhances their capability. But they could be gone tomorrow out of Iraq with two brigades of American forces. I don't understand this hangup on the use of ground forces.
Remember when the Kurds were brutalized by Saddam, thrown into the hills of Turkey? Immediately, President H.W. Bush, we put in the U.S. troops and we had a 13-country alliance with us. We pushed back Iraq's forces and brought them home. When the job was done, we put the no-fly, no-drive zones in, and we withdrew our troops.
BLITZER: But it's one thing to destroy -- put in troops in Iraq, shall we say. It's another thing to go into Syria. Right?
ZINNI: I think if you push them out of Iraq and you target Syria, you work with the more moderate opposition groups in there, perhaps giving them capability and supporting them if they're willing to take on ISIS, there's a way to handle it differently in Syria.
But you have to get them out of Iraq. They're going to get into Baghdad, not that they can take it, but they can cause chaos in Baghdad, bombings, assassinations, threatening our embassy.
BLITZER: That's why the U.S. sent 350 more military personnel to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
ZINNI: That's right. We have 1,100 troops in there now that we know about. I'm sure there are more. They're all wearing boots.
BLITZER: I suspect those diplomats, those private contractors, those U.S. military personnel, there's still plenty of them in the Iraqi capital and they are pretty vulnerable right now.
BLITZER: This important book that you have written, "Before the First Shots Are Fired," what is the most important message that you want to give policy-makers and others who are interested from this book?
ZINNI: The most important message in there is, in the beginning of the book, it talks about where our president gets advice, the trusted counsel he builds around him, how he looks at the intelligence and the analysis and how he makes the case for war. That's the most important piece.
If you get that all wrong, it's extremely difficult for our troops to win on the battlefield.
BLITZER: It would be a good idea for the president of the United States to read this book, and for him to call you into the White House and say, General Zinni, give me some thoughts and let's talk about what's going on. You would be willing to help the commander in chief if he asked you, right?
ZINNI: Certainly, but I doubt I will be asked.
BLITZER: I'm not so sure. He would be smart to ask you, General.
ZINNI: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much for coming in.
ZINNI: Thank you.
BLITZER: Breaking news, radio silence as a small plane bound for Florida veers hundreds of miles off course before crashing near Jamaica. We're joining learning a wreckage field has now been spotted.
Plus, new tributes and new details of the funeral being planned for Joan Rivers. Listen to her explain to fellow comedians why she would never retire.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOAN RIVERS, ENTERTAINER: I cannot leave comedy in the hands of these untalented people. No, comedy -- comedy -- and I say this with humility -- comedy needs me. Comedy needs me.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
RIVERS: Yes. Yes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news.
Jamaican officials have just reported they have spotted wreckage that may be part of that private plane that crashed earlier this afternoon hundreds of miles off course. U.S. fighter jets trailed the plane at one point because the pilot was not responding to radio calls.
CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh is working the story for us.
What's the latest, Rene?
RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a plane flying with a pilot apparently unconscious.
And, as you mentioned, Jamaican authorities told CNN just a short time ago that they have spotted what they believe is aircraft wreckage. The U.S. Coast Guard says it believes three people were on board and tonight radio transmissions reveal the pilot was in trouble just about an hour-and-a-half after takeoff.
MARSH (voice-over): A search mission under way right now for this small plane after it crashed 14 miles off the coast of Jamaica. It took off from Rochester, New York, around 8:45 this morning, bound for Naples, Florida, on board, Larry Glazer and his wife, Jane
Over North Carolina, the pilot told air traffic control there was a problem, but did not declare an emergency. He was cleared to descend to 25,000 feet, but asked to go lower.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need to descend down to about 180. We have an indication that is not correct on the plane.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Standby. Maintain level 250.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two-five-zero and we need to get lower.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Working on that.
MARSH: About an hour and 15 minutes after takeoff, the pilot stopped responding to radio calls. U.S. military F-15s tracked it along the East Coast of Florida. One fighter pilot looked through the window.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can see his chest rising and falling. Right before I left was the first time we could see that he was actually breathing.
MARSH: The pilot was slumped over and the windows frosted. Both are signs the pressure may have escaped, leaving the pilot without enough oxygen to stay conscious.
The aircraft flew over the Bahamas and south to Cuba, where a Cuban fighter jet took over the pursuit.
MARIE HARF, SPOKESWOMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: We have been in touch with the two countries over whose -- in whose flight space it went through, the Bahamas and Cuba. I don't have more details on those conversations, but obviously this is an issue of security and safety. And so we were in touch as well. MARSH: Four-and-a-half-hours after takeoff, the plane crashed
near Port Antonio, Jamaica.
MARSH: Well, incidents of this type, they're rare, but they're not unheard of. In fact, the FAA lost contact with another plane just last weekend, another unresponsive pilot. The plane eventually crashed, unfortunately, in the Atlantic Ocean. So it has happened before.
BLITZER: It certainly has, but it's very, very rare, we should say. Thanks, Rene, Rene Marsh reporting for us.
Let's get some more now. A spokesman for the Jamaican Defense Force is standing by. We will speak with Major Basil Jarrett in just a moment.
But, first, I want to bring in our aviation analyst, Miles O'Brien.
Miles, based on what we know, based on the eyewitness account of this F-15 fighter pilot who flew close by, what's your analysis?
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It's highly likely, Wolf, that there was some sort of decompression event on this aircraft.
And what happened between that pilot and that controller was an unfortunate exchange. On the one hand, the pilot had a problem or an indication of a problem. He didn't know for sure if it was a bad indicator or he was actually dealing with some true emergency, did not say mayday, did not say emergency, which, of course, changes everything.
All of a sudden, you own the airspace all around you. They will move planes out of your way. Meantime, the controller, who was busy and dealing with other traffic, sort of said stand by and gave him a couple of thousand feet lower, and did not seem to recognize the gravity of the situation.
So you have a situation where the communication wasn't clear on both ends, and unfortunate within a few minutes at that altitude, if you don't get an oxygen mask on, if you don't get enough air in your system, you lose what is called useful consciousness. We should point out, in the case of hypoxia, Wolf, your decision-making is compromised.
And so we don't know if the pilot, how far along this situation was, if the pilot wasn't thinking clearly perhaps.
BLITZER: Because -- you're a trained pilot. In a plane like this, a small private plane like this, they do have oxygen masks, right?
O'BRIEN: Absolutely. This is a pressurized aircraft. It's a high-performance turboprop airplane. Cruises along in the mid-300s. It's a very high-performance craft designed to go up to about 31,000 feet.
And it has a pressurization system and backup oxygen for the crew and for the passengers as well.
BLITZER: If you're a trained pilot, wouldn't you immediately feel, and Larry Glazer, the pilot here and his wife, Jane, they were both pilots -- wouldn't you feel something was wrong and immediately go for those oxygen masks?
O'BRIEN: Well, it's interesting.
With hypoxia, you don't really feel it coming on if it's gradual. Now, if there's a sudden decompression, you will hear a noise, your ears will pop. There will be all kinds of things that will give you a warning.
It appears he was getting some kind of indication and that's why when he reported to controllers, in that situation, when you get an indication like this, it's best to err on the side of caution, and get down, declare an emergency, get down to an altitude where if there is a problem with the pressurization, you can breathe.
BLITZER: So, what kind of advice do you give in a situation like this? Because this is the second time in recent days that we have seen something like this happen. It happened over the weekend in the Washington, D.C., area.
O'BRIEN: You know, I think single pilots at high altitude need to be so vigilant about this because of the insidious nature of hypoxia.
And when in doubt, confess that this is a problem to controllers quickly. And if you're not getting the kind of response you want from a controller, declare an emergency, say mayday. On the other side of this is a controller who heard on three occasions a pilot saying, I have a problem, I want to get down lower, and frankly didn't seem to be dialed in to what the consequences of that was.
If somebody is at 28,000 feet in a plane like that and says I need to get down lower, a controller should say, can you tell me a little more about this problem? And that would be a good response, frankly.
BLITZER: This TBM-700, this light business utility aircraft, as it's described, is this a good plane? What do you know about it?
O'BRIEN: It has a great safety record. It's built in France by SOCATA. It's high-performance, all kind of redundant safety systems in it.
The pilot himself was the head of the U.S. TBM Owners Association, had more than 5,000 hours in the type of aircraft. This was a brand-new version of it. This airplane was just delivered to him in the spring, in April, amid much fanfare at an air show down in Florida. And so this was a new particular aircraft to him. But the type
of aircraft was something he was extremely familiar with. So, we're looking at a situation here with a seasoned pilot in a very good plane with a lot of safety systems built in, and an indication of a problem and what happened after that is something that we will be talking about for a while.
BLITZER: So, we assume it's hypoxia. What can cause hypoxia in a cabin like that?
O'BRIEN: Well, you know, you can have a slow leak, and that's the scary one.
Frankly, the sudden decompression, it gets your attention and you're going to get down quickly one way or another, but assuming it's not so catastrophic that the airplane can't fly. But in these slow leaks, as it were, where you may not be otherwise aware of it, that's when the trouble begins, because the hypoxia comes on in an insidious manner, and you get this kind of euphoric feeling.
Wolf, I was in a chamber at NASA once, and they took me up to, you know, virtually, to 30,000 feet, had me take off the oxygen mask and had me start doing math. And I was giggling. I was euphoric, and I couldn't figure out what two plus two was.
So, that's why it's very important for pilots to really be vigilant on this one, and, for that matter, controllers need to pay attention when a pilot of an aircraft at 28,000 feet says, I need to get down lower, I have an indication of a problem.
BLITZER: Yes, that would be wise indeed.
Miles O'Brien, thanks very much.
Jamaican Defense Forces are about to start a news conference on the search for the plane. We're going to have that for you in just a moment.
Stay with us.
BLITZER: We're standing by at a news conference expected momentarily down in Jamaica. The chief of the defense staff of the Jamaica defense force, major general Anthony Anderson about to make a statement, an update on what's going on.
We believe they've spotted the wreckage of that plane that went down off the coast of Jamaica, small U.S. plane carrying two Americans, they were en route from Rochester, New York, to Naples, Florida, Larry and Jane Glazer. But that plane, something happened, hypoxia, they lost oxygen in the cabin.
Plane continued going, flew over Cuba, followed by a Cuban jetliner when it was flying and lost contact with the U.S. Two U.S. F-15s and then later two F-16s were chasing it, but then eventually it crashed right off the coast of Jamaica in the water. They're now looking for this aircraft.
We'll have live coverage of that news conference once it starts. Stand by for that. We'll get the very latest. We know U.S. Coast Guard officials are on the scene, as well. They're looking for the wreckage.
Other news we're following: we're tracking a critical Senate race ahead of midterm elections in November. The latest polling seems to be another bad sign for Democrats.
In our exclusive CNN/ORC poll, the Arkansas Democratic senator, the incumbent, Mark Pryor, trails his challenger, Republican Congressman Tom Cotton, by two points among the likely voters.
Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is back from Arkansas. Joe, what did you find over there?
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that two- point difference makes a dead heat. Anybody's race in Arkansas. And with control of the Senate up for grabs this November, it's shaping up as the kind of campaign the state has never seen before.
The stakes of a critical election may not be as high as life and death, but that certainly has not stopped incumbent Mark Pryor and Republican challenger Tom Cotton from going there.
No one in the state has contracted Ebola, but the Arkansas Senate candidates are fighting about who voted to support pandemic prevention.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I voted for the repairs (ph); he opposed it.
JOHNS: Cotton says he did vote no, but later voted yes.
REP. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS SENATE CANDIDATE: Mark Pryor cannot be trusted about what he says about his record when he's calling me pro-Ebola.
JOHNS: Pryor is 51, a cancer survivor, now in his second Senate term. Cotton is 37, a freshman and a lawyer, a veteran who earned the Army's Bronze Star in Afghanistan. It's a bitter battle over their voting records. Frankly, less about the plague and more about the president. Cotton linking the man in the White House, unpopular here, to Arkansas's only remaining Democrat in Congress, $16 million in spending so far. The airwaves saturated with ads.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What Pryor doesn't say is that law was Obamacare.
JOHNS: In a five-minute speech Cotton uttered the name "Obama" 11 times.
COTTON: And on issue after issue, Mary Pryor is a loyal supporter of Barack Obama.
M. PRYOR: That's the biggest sack of hogwash I ever heard in my life.
JOHNS: The senator and allies hope Cotton's voting record is his Achilles heel, pinning his votes as against the interests of Arkansas taxpayers on things like a popular children's hospital here, money for veterans, even against the Farm Bill in a state that depends on agriculture.
COTTON: It should be called a Food Stamp Bill, because it's 80 percent Food Stamp spending.
JOHNS (on camera): These are two candidates who could not be more different. Pryor is political royalty in Arkansas, which opens him up to the charge that he's a creature of Washington. His father was also a United States senator.
(voice-over): Pryor's dad, David, was also Arkansas's governor. He remembers Mark as a kid who didn't like it when things got ugly. A little ironic for what's happening in this case for reelection.
DAVID PRYOR, FATHER OF MARK M. PRYOR: Once, we found a snake in our backyard and he refused to kill it. He just said, "No, I don't think we should kill that snake."
JOHNS: Cotton is an upstart newcomer, Harvard-educated, a new face in Congress with plenty of energy, but will it make up for what he lacks in experience?
He's also a lawyer. In the Arm y he served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, growing up a high school and college J.V. basketball player. We talked to one of his old coaches.
TRENT TIPTON, COTTON'S FORMER BASKETBALL COACH: He was a good athlete. Very focused, you know, education-wise.
JOHNS: The ads in Arkansas started running a year ago in a red state at a time when Republicans are running strong nationwide. It's still a dead heat, one of the most closely watched races and has potential to be a real election-night cliffhanger.
BLITZER: John, thanks very much for that report.
Let's dig a little bit deeper right now. Joining us, CNN political contributor, Ryan Lizza. He's a Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker."
A lot of folks are looking at these close races, where there are Democratic incumbents and they're wondering what role the president of the United States might play.
Let me throw out some numbers to you. Nationwide in the brand- new Gallup tracking poll, President Obama's approval numbers -- there you see it, 38 percent approve, 54 percent disapprove.
But if you go to Arkansas in our exclusive new CNN/ORC poll, you see his approval number, the president at only 33 percent. You go to Kentucky, you focus in on that yesterday. You see the president's approval number in Kentucky, only 29 percent.
How much of a problem would the president be for these Democratic incumbents in a state like Arkansas or Kentucky, for that matter?
LIZZA: Yes, Wolf. I think those numbers that you just showed pretty much explain Joe Johns' excellent report on why one candidate is talking about Obama, Obama, Obama, and the Democrat is not mentioning the president at all.
That tracking poll, that national Gallup poll, Wolf, that is a big landmark number today. Because if you go back and you look at those last 20 to 30 years of midterms, you look at the worst midterms: Reagan in '82, President Bill Clinton in '94, Barack Obama -- George W. Bush in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2010, 38 is lower than any of those numbers. It matches George W. Bush in 2006. Those were all wipeout years for the incumbent president.
So he is truly in the danger zone right now with presidential approval. And presidential approval, that national number, that's the number to watch as we come down the home stretch. That really does correlate well with how many seats the party in power generally loses.
BLITZER: So that would explain why Alison Grimes, the Democratic challenger for Mitch McConnell's Senate seat in Kentucky, or Senator Pryor in Arkansas may not necessarily want the president to come into those states and start campaigning for them.
LIZZA: I think it's tricky, because they want the president, who's still popular with his liberal base, for the financial base. So they want him to raise money. And he's still popular with base voters that don't always vote in Democratic -- in midterm elections, the voters that didn't vote in 2010 but did turn out for Obama in 2012.
And so it's this tricky play that these Democrats have to make. They want his money, and they want him to help turn out the base. But with a lot of other voters, he's very, very unpopular.
The other weird thing here, though, is the big prize, of course, in these midterms is the Senate. And some of these races over the last month, the Democratic position has slightly strengthened where this week a lot of the political conversation was Republicans anxious and worrying that maybe they weren't going to take back the Senate. So a couple of dynamics there to play
BLITZER: Let's talk about Chris Christie for a moment. He's in Mexico. He's thinking of running for the Republican presidential nomination, and he was asked about immigration. Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I have no role in the immigration debate, expect for how it may affect the individual citizens of New Jersey, which I'll deal with as governor. But I won't have anything to say on immigration, unless and until
I become a candidate for the president of the United States. If that happens, then I will articulate a full position on it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He's get criticized pretty severely for refusing to even tell us what his positions were on illegal immigration, immigration. What do you make of that comment that he made?
LIZZA: Well, I think politically it looks like a mistake. If you are -- if you want to be known as someone who aspires to be president, and Chris Christie and his advisers are constantly promoting him as a potential presidential candidate, you do make a foreign policy trip like this to Mexico, you know what the press is going to ask you. You know what the most -- probably the most important bilateral issue is between Mexico and the United States. This issue of immigration.
He has dealt with it at a state level in ways that do play into the national debate. And I would contrast it with Rand Paul, who was in Guatemala recently, Wolf, and he met with the president of Guatemala and talked quite a bit about immigration and immigration policy and made some pretty sharp comments about Obama.
And I think that's -- if you're an aspiring candidate, you want to be talked about as a candidate, or seen as a potential candidate, you're going abroad, you've got to deal with the foreign policy issues that are -- that are relevant to the country.
BLITZER: Especially if you're visiting Mexico and you're asked about immigration, you've got to respond. You can't just say, "Well, I have no position. I'm not going to articulate a position on immigration, unless I become a candidate for the president of the United States.
I believe illegal immigration is also an issue in the state of New Jersey.
All right. Thanks very much for that, Ryan Lizza, giving us a good analysis.
We're watching what's going on in Jamaica. Jamaican defense forces about to start a news conference on the search for the American plane. We'll have more of the breaking news when we come back.
BLITZER: She wasn't done. Those are the words of the comedian Sarah Silverman talking about the iconic Joan Rivers, a master of reinvention.
Rivers built a career of almost six decades through very hard work and a relentless sense of humor. Watch as she reflects on that life in this 2012 clip from her reality show "Joan and Melissa."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOAN RIVERS, COMEDIAN: All right. If anything happens, Melissa, I'm no chicken. I've had a great life. Had an amazing life. If I died this morning, nobody would say so young.
You're a terrific person. Cooper is fine. You're all fine. I've had an amazing life. If it ended right now -- amazing life.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Fans around the world are celebrating Joan Rivers with the most memorable moments from her career.
CNN's Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's got some of those tributes to share with our viewers -- Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, undeniably, the entertain industry is reacting not just to life the Joan Rivers lived, but what the life meant to so many others.
FOREMAN (voice-over): In the quiet reign of '50s and '60s comics, almost all men, almost always polite, Joan Rivers was so thunder cloud.
JOAN RIVERS, COMEDIAN: When we first started dating, Edgar run around and opened the car for me. And then, we got engaged and, you know, we each opened our own door. And now, that we're married, Edgar -- he makes me run around and open his door.
FOREMAN: She said in the early days, she wasn't even allowed to do standup with Johnny Carson but forced to sit alongside. Her early appearances seemed tame. Yet, River was part of the revolutionary flood of Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, George Carlin, of a new type of comedy that was more personal, more cutting, and she was a woman.
RIVERS: A girl, a girl, you're 30 years old. You're not married, you're an old maid. A man, he's the 90 years old, he's not married, he's a catch. So, a whole different --
FOREMAN: This is why in New York, Los Angeles and everywhere in between the tributes continue to pour in.
AL PACINO, ACTOR: I knew her and I loved her. I don't know what to say. It's too shocking. It just happened.
FOREMAN: On the late night circuit, where Rivers rose to fame --
DAVID LETTERMAN, COMEDIAN: Talk about guts. She would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable, just you would have to swallow pretty hard and twice, but it was hilarious.
JIMMY FALLON, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": I mean she would come out and say what you were thinking, but you wouldn't say it. You would stop -- but she wouldn't stop. She would say it.
She came out and she came over to me and she started crying. She gave a kiss. It was really emotional and really nice.
FOREMAN: No one is saying more than the women who know she paved the way for generations.
SARAH SILVERMAN, COMEDIAN: I know that if she were she would want us to be here and be funny and she would probably want me to say nice tie, who made it, Calvin Clown? I like that shirt, does it come in men's? Oh my God, jimmy, I love your hair. You have to tell me where you bought it.
That's for you, Joan.
FOREMAN: Online endless notes. Kristen Chenoweth, "You made us laugh and happy". Bette Midler, "One of the bravest and funniest of all." Laverne Cox, "You brought me a lifetime of laughter."
Rivers often acted as if her lifetime was no big deal, even in her final performance, joking about death.
RIVERS: I could go right now. I could go right now. Do you understand how lucky you would be? Do you understand you would have something to talk about for the rest of your life?
FOREMAN: But she knew she had done. She wrote in 2012 for the "Hollywood Reporter", what pleasure you feel when you've kept people happy. There's nothing like it in the world.
FOREMAN: Here is the thing, whether you like Joan Rivers or not. The way you hear comedy today has absolutely been changed by her life. In that sense, Wolf, she gets the last laugh.
BLITZER: We're thankful to her for all of those laughs for many, many years.
Tom, thanks very much.
To our viewers, you can see a lot more of the legacy of Joan Rivers in a CNN special later tonight. "CNN Spotlight", it airs 10:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.
We have some breaking news: a plane carrying plane carrying about 100 Americans that was ordered to land in Iran now is on its way to its original destination.
Let's go straight to our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott.
What have you learned, Elise?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we understand that flight took off just moments ago. Fly Dubai, the company that the flight was contracted from, basically settled things with the Iranian government. As you know, that flight had an outdated flight plan and had run out of fuel and that's when it was not able to go back to Afghanistan, that flight landed in Iran, because the Iranians said go back to Afghanistan or it was forcing it to land.
So, we understand that Dubai and the authorities there settled things with the government, refueled the plane and it's in the air right now, Wolf.
BLITZER: Good news to report. I was worried about the 100 Americans and the others. I'm glad that the plane was allowed by the Iranians to take off and resume its flight to Dubai.
Elise, thanks very much.
We'll have more news right after this.
BLITZER: Football season is back. Last night, the reigning Super Bowl champ, the Seattle Seahawks, beat the Green Bay Packers, 36-16. Green Bay lost even after avoiding Seattle star defensive player Richard Sherman, famous for the trash-talking rant that went viral last season.
CNN's Rachel Nichols is the host of "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS". Nichols interviewed Sherman. She's joining us now.
Give us a preview because we are looking forward to the interview later tonight.
RACHEL NICHOLS, UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS: Yes. Well, you may remember, Wolf, that after -- let's just call it -- his exuberance, that exuberant post-game interview after the NFC championship game, Sherman was hit with a bunch of racial slurs on social media. It ignited a national conversation on racial stereotypes and how we see young black athletes and how see young black men in general.
So, when he and I sat down for this interview, I asked him about the events in Ferguson, Missouri about the conversation ignited there. And he told me it would be no surprised that he was watching that very closely. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NICHOLS: You're from Compton. You grew up among a lot of gang violence. How do you think that complicates the relationship between the police and the community? And what can get better?
RICHARD SHERMAN, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: I think it's always change and feel relationship, especially in the inner cities. The police are trying to do their job and people are trying to live. People that aren't doing anything, they're just minding their own business and driving around and trying to make a living are sometimes being mixed up with criminals. That's never what you want. (END VIDEO CLIP)
NICHOLS: Won't surprise you, Wolf, that Sherman did not shy away from any social issue, any topic of conversation in our interview. "TIME" magazine just named him one of the most influential people in the world, 100 most influential people. It's going to be a lot of fun tonight.
BLITZER: What else tonight do you got tonight?
NICHOLS: We got Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. I asked him what they really think of each other. We also asked Tiger if he's ever going to win another major. You're going to want to hear his answer to that.
We also interview Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski, who is over in Spain with Team USA, and I know you're watching that closely, Wolf, the FIBA World Cup. You got another crew of NBA players.
But there's been so much controversy over whether those guys should be playing in international competition. We saw Indiana Pacers star Paul George get hurt. He's now out for the year for his team. Should they be in Spain playing? I asked Coach K about it.
BLITZER: We'll be watching, as we do all the time. Glad the show is back later tonight. You can see the interview, obviously, with Richard Sherman later tonight.
"RACHEL NICHOLS UNGUARDED" 10:30 p.m. Eastern here only on CNN.
Finally, a personal word about a loss to the CNN family and indeed to all of journalism. The former CNN national correspondent Bruce Morton died yesterday. He was 83. Bruce worked for CBS as well, covering everything from the Vietnam War to Watergate. He especially loved politics. He was in Iowa in 1976 when a little Southerner made it a mandatory first stop for would-be presidents.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRUCE MORTON, FORMER CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is a good state for a man who can spend time on organization, that may help, for instance, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: I worked with Bruce every week when I anchored CNN's "Late Edition", the last word in Sunday talk.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MORTON: It's easy to look around America and think that it works pretty well. We are all somewhat free (AUDIO GAP) decades after illegal segregation ended. So, we only have some freedom, some optimism, some hope. Some reason to think we can rise in the world.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: He wrote so beautifully. It was a perfect way to end
"Late Edition" every single Sunday. I loved hearing his essays and what he had to report. Something I said when Bruce retired back in 2006, still holds true to this day. His voice, I said, was unique, it was smart, it was wry with a perspective you could only get by covering politics for five decades.
As one of our colleagues said, if there were a journalist hall of fame, Bruce Morton certainly would be in it.
Bruce Morton passed away at 83. Our deepest, deepest condolences to his family.
Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Go ahead and tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNSitroom.
Please be sure to join us again Monday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern. You can always DVR the show if you can't catch us live.
Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.