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THE SITUATION ROOM

CNN Is A Partner In First Debates Of Primary Season In New Hampshire; New Evidence Americans Not Impressed By President's War Plan; On Capitol Hill Members Of President's War Team Face New Round Of Grilling By Lawmakers

Aired January 12, 2007 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, President Bush pushes ahead with his new Iraq strategy.

But are the American people unmoved?

We have some brand new poll numbers on the troop build-up and whether the public thinks it will work.

Also this hour, the growing Republican divide over the president's battle plan. Mr. Bush will try to bring some of his party's leaders together.

But will the split over Iraq only get worse as the 2008 campaign intensifies?

Plus, a major presidential primary season announcement this hour. It will be a first for the Democratic and the Republican contenders and for CNN. Stick around for the details and get ready to mark your calendars.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And let's begin with that important 2008 campaign announcement. We are partners in the very first presidential debates of the primary season in New Hampshire.

CNN, WMUR Television and the "New Hampshire Union Leader" will co-sponsor back to back debates among the Democratic and the Republican presidential campaigns on April 4th and April 5th of this year. It's an unprecedented early kick-off to a wide open race for the White House, the first debates in the leadoff presidential primary state.

Let's turn to our chief national correspondent, John King, for some perspective.

New Hampshire, I think it's fair to say, quite an important state -- John.

JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is, Wolf. It has been in the history of picking presidential nominees in recent times. It is fiercely defensive of its first in the nation presidential primary and if we host it and they come, it will be an early chance to see how the lines will be drawn in the 2008 presidential election.

Let's look at the Democrats, for example. If Barack Obama gets into this race, would Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton debate at that point? And would she make the case her aides now make privately that nice guy, but not ready to be president?

So you could see the early themes in the Democratic race unfold in such a debate.

On the Republican side, John McCain won New Hampshire back in 2000. He has to win it again in 2008.

Would the other candidates show up? Would Rudy Giuliani say yes, I'm in for good?

What would the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney say?

We would have a test of his debates that Mitt Romney has had in recent days about whether past more moderate positions are inconsistent with his current, more conservative position.

So it is a key state in the presidential process and an early debate could be a chance to draw the defining lines quite early.

BLITZER: And we're going to have more on this development.

Thanks very much, John, for that. April 4th, April 5th, the first presidential debates of this season up in New Hampshire. We'll be there.

Let's get to a major issue in the 2008 race. That would be Iraq. President Bush is at Camp David right now. He's prepared to host GOP Congressional leaders this weekend as he grapples with the backlash against his plan to send yet more troops to Iraq.

This hour, new evidence the American people are not impressed by the president's latest war plan. We have a brand new survey conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, officially our new polling partners here at CNN as of today.

Let's turn to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

He's always crunching the numbers -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, President Bush talked about a change of policy in Iraq, but did it change the public's view of Iraq?

No. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): President Bush has gone on the road to promote his policy of change in Iraq.

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq.

SCHNEIDER: Did the president succeed in changing people's minds?

Apparently not. According to a CNN poll by the Opinion Research Corporation, last month, the president's job approval rating was 36 percent. After the speech, 35 percent. No real change.

Before the speech, two thirds of Americans opposed the war in Iraq. After the speech, two thirds of Americans oppose the war in Iraq.

Before the speech, 27 percent of Americans believed a U.S. victory in Iraq was likely. After the speech, 27 percent believe a U.S. victory is likely.

It's like nothing happened. Something did happen, of course.

BUSH: I've committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.

SCHNEIDER: And the public doesn't like it. Sixty-six percent oppose sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq. Democrats are virtually united in their opposition, 88 percent.

And the president's base?

Two-thirds of Republicans support President Bush on Iraq. But Thursday, we started hearing criticism from Republicans.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: But I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.

SCHNEIDER: He speaks for the 30 percent of Republican voters who oppose the build-up.

Why did Mr. Bush fail to change many minds?

Because most people's minds are already made up about Iraq and the president's new strategy didn't sound all that new. And because its success depends less on what we do than on what they do.

BUSH: The government of Iraq must exhibit the will necessary to succeed.

SCHNEIDER: Most Americans don't have much confidence in the Iraqi government. Congressional Democrats want a vote on a resolution to stop President Bush from sending more troops.

Do Americans want their member of Congress to vote for such a resolution?

Yes, 62 percent.

Some Democrats want to go further.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: Now Congress must -- must use its main power, the power of the purse, to put an end to our involvement in this disastrous war.

SCHNEIDER: Do Americans want their member of Congress to vote to block spending for additional troops?

Yes, 60 percent.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Maybe the speech didn't work because only 43 percent of Americans watched it. But even among those who watched it, only 27 percent said it made them more likely to support the president's policies. Nearly half said it made no difference -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Bill, thank you very much.

Bill Schneider reporting tonight.

Once again, the poll we just reported is part of our new partnership. Today, CNN announcing the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. As we head into the presidential campaign season, CNN is teaming up with one of the nation's leading polling companies to bring you the most accurate, the most insightful public opinion polling anywhere, bar none.

Let's go to Capitol Hill now, where members of the president's war team faced a new round of grilling by lawmakers today. Criticism of the troop build-up was muted compared to the day before, but it still was the elephant in the room.

Let's turn to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was very different today, Wolf.

In part, it was likely the witness, the defense secretary in the job just three weeks, as opposed to yesterday, a secretary of state in the administration six years. In part it was the kinds of senators on the panel.

But one thing is for sure, yesterday the anger that we saw in the Senate hearing there, it made way and was replaced by tough but respectful questions and even some support.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): On day two of Senate hearings on the president's revised Iraq plan, his national security team finally found some defenders. SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), GEORGIA: Mr. Secretary, I want to start out by commending you for your decision relative to the troop increase.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: The president presented a plan the other night. I support it because I believe it can maximize our chances of success in Iraq.

BASH: Unlike a day earlier, when the secretary of state took a bipartisan pounding, the new defense secretary got a decidedly different reception from the Armed Services Committee. Angry questions from Republican skeptics gave way to some leading questions from Republican supporters.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Are we sending additional troops for a lost cause?

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Absolutely not, sir.

BASH: Politically, no one has as much riding on the president's plan succeeding as White House hopeful John McCain, who's long called for more troops in Iraq.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: By surging troops and bringing security to Baghdad and other areas, we can give the Iraqis and their partners the best possible chance to succeed.

BASH: McCain baited Pentagon witnesses about the Democrats' plan to start withdrawing troops from Iraq.

GATES: If we withdraw and the situation descends into chaos, which certainly is a...

MCCAIN: How likely is that?

GATES: ... which I think most people believe is a very real possibility, given the situation...

MCCAIN: And what do you believe?

GATES: ... over the past year.

MCCAIN: What do you believe?

BASH: There were skeptics.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Why would this surge, which is actually slightly smaller than previous surges that we have tried, be successful when those surges were not?

BASH: And tough questions from senators who say it's a mistake to send additional U.S. troops to Iraq when Iraqis need to show they can help themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they don't keep their commitment?

GATES: I think we have to reevaluate our strategy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But just saying we're going to reevaluate our strategy is the definition of an open-ended commitment.

GATES: Well...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just, again, I mean we reevaluate strategy all the time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Senator Ted Kennedy used his opportunity with the defense secretary to press his plan, his idea to have a Congressional resolution before any new troops or new money is sent to Iraq. The defense secretary responded by saying I take your point, I will certainly pass that to the president. But he also said I think he, the president, feels he has the authority he needs to continue in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thank you.

Dana Bash reporting from the Hill.

By the way, two senators were notably absent from that hearing today, Democrats Hillary Clinton of New York and Evan Bayh of Indiana.

They're actually on their way to Iraq right now along with Republican Congressman John Mica.

The three are expected to meet with top Iraqi officials and U.S. military commanders. They're also scheduled to stop over in Afghanistan.

The timing of the trip is notable, as Senator Clinton mulls a possible run for the White House, widely expected; and Senator Bayh heads to Iraq just weeks after he decided against a presidential bid. But his name still comes up very often as a possible vice presidential pick.

We'll cover this story for you.

Several other White House prospects have been to Iraq in recent weeks. Republican Senators John McCain and Sam Brownback, for example, and Democratic Senators John Kerry and Chris Dodd, as well as a Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter.

We're going to have more on the story coming up next hour.

We'll speak with Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Party, as well.

Over at the White House, officials are trying to put the best face on the opposition to the president's retooled Iraq strategy. And they're trying to set the record straight about a portion of the president's prime time address Wednesday night.

Let's turn to our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there was a U.S. military strike in northern Iraq against an Iranian facility. And that, perhaps, is causing just as much consternation as the president's new Iraq plan.

It was during his speech, the president gave, perhaps, his most aggressive warnings to date to Iran and Syria to stop meddling in Iraq's affairs. The president saying that he would seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weapons and training to U.S. enemies in Iraq.

Now, there have been many political observers, military observers, who took this to mean that this was, in fact, some sort of signal that perhaps a military operation was ready to go, was poised to strike either Iran or Syria.

What we're hearing from White House officials and Pentagon officials, they are pouring cold water on this, trying to dismiss that notion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I want to address kind of a rumor and urban legend that's going around. And it comes from language in the president's Wednesday night address to the nation that, in talking about Iran and Syria, that he was trying to prepare the way for war with either country and that there were war preparations underway. There are not.

GEN. PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: We can take care of the security for our troops by doing the business we need to do inside of Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: So, Wolf, they're trying to make that very clear here, that this is not a war that they think is going to escalate or cross borders. The White House also, of course, engaged in an all out charm offensive. The president trying to win over at least members from his own party to come and support this new Iraq plan.

The president is hosting the Republican Congressional leadership at Camp David over the weekend, along with the wives, to try to help mend fences, if you will. And White House aides are saying, look, the president is under no delusions here that he's going to win support right away. What they are counting on is simply buying time here to see if Iraqis come through.

They do believe that they'll get a sense of that at least within a couple of months, whether or not those Iraqi forces are able to perform -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Suzanne, thank you.

Suzanne Malveaux, Dana Bash, Bill Schneider, John King, they are all part of the best political team on television. And the battle over Iraq will come up this weekend, as well, when Senators Mitch McConnell, Carl Levin, John Kerry all join me on "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk. We're on for two hours starting 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

And remember, for all the latest political news at any time check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Let's check out The Cafferty File right now.

That means Jack is standing by in New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the fog, apparently, is beginning to lift. Apparently the plan for Iraq all along was to bring in a little democracy and take out a whole lot of oil.

There is a draft of a new oil and gas law circulating in the Iraqi parliament. "Time" magazine reports the law will give 10 year expiration and development rights to foreign oil companies. That would be us, among others. And once those deals are up, the companies could renegotiate to produce oil for another 20 years, in partnership with the Iraqi state-owned oil company.

Iraq sits on 115 billion barrels of oil reserves. That's one of the largest in the world. You'll remember, that was the oil that was supposed to finance this war and the Iraqi reconstruction effort.

Meanwhile, a director of a watchdog group in London says: "The United States has put a lot of effort into this." Indeed.

"The London Independent" is reporting tonight the American government was involved in drafting this legislation, which will allow Western oil companies to tap into Iraq's oil reserves. When senators grilled Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday, they wanted to know why practically no one has been allowed to see this law yet.

I wonder.

Here's the question -- should Iraq's oil industry be open to foreign oil companies?

E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack, for that.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, do Democrats in Congress have the right prescription to bring down high drug prices?

We're going to tell you what bill they passed today and what it means for you.

Plus, it's divided Democrats for years.

But is the war in Iraq now splitting the Republican Party, as well? And later, more on Hillary Clinton heading off to Baghdad.

What are the political consequences for the race for the White House?

I'll ask Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett. They're standing by live in today's Strategy Session.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

Counting the hours and keeping score -- we're tracking just what House Democrats have done and plan to do in their first 100 hour agenda.

Today they moved ahead with the fourth of six pieces of legislation they plan to act on.

Let's turn to our Brianna Keilar.

She's got details -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this bill easily cleared the House, passing 255-170. And here's what this bill is all about.

As it stands right now, prescription drug prices for seniors covered by Medicare Part D are determined by competition between drug companies. This would instead require the government to negotiate drug prices. Democrats and about two dozen Republicans say it would mean cheaper drug prices for seniors, but most Republicans say it would mean seniors won't have as many drugs to choose from.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN DINGELL (D), MICHIGAN: This legislation is bipartisan. It is an overdue step to improve Part D drug benefits for the millions who depend on that section. The bill is simple and straightforward.

REP. MICHAEL ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: Government isn't designed to be in the business of negotiating prices. They set prices. And it doesn't work very well.

Why would we take away all of the savings that all of these seniors are enjoying today?

And that's what you will do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: So it's through the House, but it's very likely it won't get through the Senate without some changes, because a key Democrat, Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is endorsing the idea of allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices but not forcing it to.

And on top of that, President Bush has promised to veto the bill in its current form. Also, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday that if this bill becomes law, seniors probably won't be paying any less for their meds than they are now, certainly not, Wolf, what supporters of this bill were hoping to hear.

BLITZER: All right, so this process will continue.

Thanks very much, Brianna, for that.

And here's what's left on the House Democrats' 100 hour agenda.

On Wednesday, January 17th, they hope to cut interest rates on student loans. The next day, they'll try to push through legislation to end subsidies for big oil and to invest in renewable energy.

Remember, stay with CNN as the clock keeps ticking on these first 100 legislative hours.

Coming up, much more on our major announcement on the road to the White House. We're going to go live to New Hampshire, where we'll co- host the first presidential debates of this season. That's coming up.

Plus, what caused this deadly plane crash today in California?

Details next.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Carol Costello for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

CNN has learned that Iraq's president will go where none of his predecessors has gone in 30 years. That would be to Syria.

Jalal Talabani will go to Damascus on Sunday to talk about Iraq with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is according to a source in Talabani's office.

In the meantime, new developments concerning the five Iranians who were detained by U.S.-led forces yesterday in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. Today, Iraq's foreign minister said the Iranians were working in a liaison office that was in the process of becoming a consulate. That's according to the Associated Press. Iraqi and Iranian officials first said the office was a diplomatic mission, which would mean those detained might have diplomatic immunity.

Back here in the United States, a terrifying flight ends in a frightful scene. We just got these pictures in. We're showing them to you for the first time. Officials picking through the wreckage after a business jet crashes then catches fire. This happened north of Van Nuys, California.

An official says the plane's pilot reported difficulties just after take off. One FAA official tells CNN affiliate KABC that the plane had some sort of emergency and was trying to get back to the airport. The two people on board were killed.

In Washington, senators approved a measure that many Americans think already should be law. Right now, if a member of Congress is convicted of, let's say, bribery, they will not lose their retirement benefits. But today, a Senate vote addressed that. Eighty-seven senators voted that law breaking lawmakers should lose their pensions paid by U.S. taxpayers. The measure was written by Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

The senator who is recovering from brain surgery is showing more signs of progress. South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson has been moved from intensive care to an inpatient rehabilitation unit. That's according to his office. The senator also said -- is also said to be saying a few words.

Good news there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very good news. We wish him a very, very speedy recovery. He's a very good man.

Thanks, Carol, for that.

Coming up, mark your calendars for the first debates in the race for the White House. Up next, we're going to go live to New Hampshire, where CNN will co-host presidential debates for both political parties.

Plus, we'll have much more on a brand new poll. Do our new numbers add up for serious trouble for the president?

I'll have Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett. They're standing by in today's Strategy Session.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Happening now, the Bush administration is selling, it appears the American public is not buying. Sixty-six percent of Americans oppose the plan to send more than 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq. That's according to a fresh poll conducted by CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation.

We've been hearing criticisms of the president's plan for some time. Today we hear a different tone, though, at Senate hearings. Republican Senator John McCain said he commends the president and that sending more U.S. troops to Iraq will give that country the best possible chance to succeed. And icy weather could paralyze the nation's mid-section. It affects areas like Minnesota, Las Vegas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. At least two deaths are blamed on the storm already.

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

We have more now on today's major 2008 presidential campaign announcement. CNN is a partner in the first debates of the primary season to be held in the leadoff primary state of New Hampshire. WMUR Television and "The New Hampshire Union Leader" are joining us in sponsoring face-offs among the Democratic candidates and the Republican contenders on April 4 and April 5 of this year. I will be moderating the debates.

Joining us now, Scott Spradling. He is one of political director of WMUR Television and also -- and he will also be one the debate questioners -- questioners. And Joe McQuaid, he is the publisher of "The New Hampshire Union Leader."

Guys, thanks very much, not only for coming in, for co-sponsoring this early presidential debate.

Joe, let me start with you.

They seem to be happening earlier and earlier. New Hampshire, we know, is the first primary in the nation.

What was your thinking? Why is it good to start off as early as it is, in April?

JOSEPH MCQUAID, PUBLISHER, "THE NEW HAMPSHIRE UNION LEADER": Well, you're right. Everything is getting earlier and earlier.

And it looks like the whole nomination process may be wrapped up a year from April. And we thought it was a good idea to let people in New Hampshire see the candidates and how they stack up.

I don't know that this precludes other candidates from getting into the mix, Wolf, but I do think this is going to be a very important, if not the most important, president election we have ever had.

BLITZER: It's wide open, Scott, as you well know. And I assume almost all of the candidates have, if not all of them, are -- are making frequent visits to New Hampshire already.

SCOTT SPRADLING, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, WMUR TELEVISION: Oh, you bet, Wolf.

We're still waiting for Hillary Clinton, but Barack Obama was here in -- in December, drawing some big crowds -- John Edwards, after his announcement, the same thing. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney is a regular. We're waiting for John McCain to return, but he has been a regular. And we are definitely seeing these faces.

We see this debate as an opportunity for maybe a first real reintroduction of sorts, a chance to ask some direct questions and get some direct answers. It's what the people of New Hampshire expect.

BLITZER: They have expected in the past, Joe -- and I have been there on many of these occasions -- people in New Hampshire , they really want to get to know these candidates on a personal level. And, certainly, a kickoff debate like this can help.

MCQUAID: Oh, I think that's so.

New Hampshire people are really attuned to this. They are very proud of their voting record in regard to the presidential primary. And they ask the toughest questions. I hope, as part of this, Wolf, that we get some audience participation.

BLITZER: Well, describe a little bit how we're planning on doing that, Joe, because we will have audience, a large audience, there. And they will be allowed to ask questions of these Democratic and Republican candidates.

MCQUAID: This happened so fast this week, that I'm not sure of those details.

I think it will be tough to keep out the very partisan audience of the various campaigns. But Channel 9 and Scott usually have a pretty good handle on it. We...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Well, let me bring Scott in on that, because, Scott, we have had extensive conversations on how we want the audience to participate.

SPRADLING: Well, we're still working on the details, Wolf. But suffice it to say, what we are hoping to be able to do is combine some of the questions directly from a media panel, such as myself, and "The Union Leader"'s John DiStaso, and bring in the audience for a chance, with a little bit of guidance from folks that are going to be running this debate, like yourself, to be able to get some questions directly from the people.

It's sort of the nature of New Hampshire politics up here. It brings that grassroots element that we have come to expect up here.

BLITZER: How excited are people in New Hampshire at this early stage? What, it's still a year to go.

SPRADLING: They're very excited, Wolf. There is no question.

When you see some of the crowds -- I mean, we're a small state, Wolf, but, when you see some of the crowds turning out for Barack Obama, like I said, and John Edwards, the anticipation for an arrival of Hillary Clinton, the fact that people still want to get as close as they can to John McCain, there is a huge air of expectation.

And, as you have been pointing out just on today's show, even, these are critically important times. Decisions about the future of our country, the future of Iraq, they are being made right now. What better time to have the first-in-the-nation debate than in the first- in-the-nation primary state?

BLITZER: Joe, give us a little perspective, because, as you and I know, you have been around doing these presidential primaries in New Hampshire for a long time, and your newspaper so important in -- in the state of New Hampshire.

How big is this contest, compared to years past, given the fact that it's the first wide-open race for the presidency in both parties?

MCQUAID: Well, I think it's very big. And I think it's very wide open. Wolf, I'm glad you mentioned that, because some of the pundits are already saying that, on the Republican side, it's only McCain, Romney, and possibly Giuliani.

I don't buy that at all. And, on the Democratic side, even though Obama has certainly excited people up here, I think that's more rock-star status than anything else.

There are a lot of candidate. I think the people in New Hampshire are going to want to hear what these candidates have to say about Iraq, in particular, and the Mideast, and terrorism in general. And that is why I think this debate will be a good starting point for that.

BLITZER: Joe McQuaid is the publisher of "The New Hampshire Union Leader." And Scott Spradling is the political director of WMUR- TV.

They are our co-part -- our partners in sponsoring these first presidential debates. We're proud to do it with both of you guys.

Thanks very much.

SPRADLING: Thank you.

MCQUAID: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Thank you.

April 4 and April 5, we will all be in New Hampshire getting ready for these two presidential debates.

Coming up: the great divide -- some Republicans head for the tall grass, while others stand by President Bush and his decision to send more troops into Iraq. Is the war going to split the GOP in two? Our John King is standing by.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

On Capitol Hill today, some defenders of the president's revised war strategy piped up. But the harsh criticism from some other influential fellow Republicans still may be ringing in Mr. Bush's ears.

Let's turn to our chief national correspondent, John King.

You're -- this is a remarkable situation unfolding.

KING: It sure is.

You noted a bit earlier in the program that President Bush is taking the rare step of inviting the Republican congressional leadership up to Camp David for tonight and tomorrow morning. Now, the White House says this is largely a social event. But you can bet they will talk a little bit of business, because, as we have learned in the past few days, now, more than ever, the president needs their help.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): Off to Camp David after a difficult week -- the already daunting challenge of an unpopular war complicated by dramatic defections in the Republican ranks.

VIN WEBER, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: It's a deeply concerning reaction, because we're running the risk of the United States basically being rudderless in the most important foreign policy question facing us in the next few months.

KING: The scenes on Capitol Hill were stunning, and a clear signal that survival trumps party loyalty, now that so many Republicans believe the president is not only wrong from a policy standpoint, but has lost control of the Iraq political debate -- on the Senate floor, a Republican the president personally recruited to run four years ago...

SEN. NORM COLEMAN (R), MINNESOTA: We will put more American soldiers in the crosshairs of sectarian violence, create more targets. I just don't believe this makes sense.

KING: ... and in the hearing rooms, where Republicans could once be counted on to defend the White House against Democratic attacks.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: The most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out. I will resist it.

KING: Sixty-six percent of Americans, in a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, oppose the president's plan to send up to 21,000 more troops to Iraq.

JEREMY ROSNER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: The public is pretty permissive of its leaders on national security policy. But, once you get over 60 percent opposition on something, you better watch out, because you have people jumping ship all over the place.

KING: In fact, at least a dozen Senate Republicans oppose sending more troops. Many in this group are among the 21 GOP senators facing reelection two years from now. And other congressional Republicans are still angry at what they perceive as past slights or White House missteps, including the president's decision to wait until after the November election to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

WEBER: I understand that anger. I understand that frustration. But the problem is translating that into a crippling attitude toward this president's ability to conduct foreign policy.

KING: It is worth noting, however, that most of the Republicans who say they oppose increasing troop levels will not go so far as to say they would support any Democratic effort to cut off or restrict war funding.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Also worth noting, Wolf, there's a bit of a difference between the debate among Republicans in Congress and a debate among the Republicans running for president.

Sam Brownback, one Republican contender, opposes the troop increase. But look at the three leading Republicans. John McCain, the senator, former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York City, all three of them, knowing full well that, if they are the next president, they will inherit what is going in Iraq, they support the president's plan to send more troops now.

BLITZER: And if Chuck Hagel decides to throw his hat into the presidential ring, which is by no means out of the question, he would position himself as the anti-war Republican candidate, as opposed to McCain and Romney and Giuliani, who have issued statements over the past few days supporting the president.

KING: In the primary, it's probably more of a risky position to be a Brownback or a Hagel. If you look at our new poll just out, still 66 percent of Republicans support the president's plan. That's way down from the support among Republicans the president used to get. But you do not have, among Republican voters, anyway mass defections just yet, certainly concerns.

But I don't think we are going to see an anti-Bush caucus emerge in the Republican Party out on the presidential campaign trail. The president still has pretty good support among Republicans.

KING: John King, thanks very much.

And, as our viewers know, John is part of the best political team on television.

Some congressional Democrats recruited an elder statesman today to press their case for disengaging U.S. forces from Iraq. That would be former U.S. Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. He likened the current conflict to the Vietnam War, which he fiercely opposed during his run for the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE MCGOVERN, FORMER DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: In history, even a -- a great tragedy, or a great blunder, may have a good side, in that this Vietnam situation is so outrageous, we will never again go down that road. And here we are, Mr. President Bush, going down that same road again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On our "Political Radar" this Friday, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is setting a time frame for revealing his 2008 presidential campaign plans. On CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING" earlier today, the Democrat said he will make an announcement, one way or another, by the end of this month.

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is preparing to step on to the turf of a potential rival, Senator Hillary Clinton -- "The New York Daily News" reporting that Edwards will deliver a sermon at a Harlem church on Sunday pegged to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Congressman Duncan Hunter today formally filed papers to form his presidential exploratory committee. The California Republican took the first step toward a White House bid more than two months ago, after he originally announced he was making preparations to run. Now he is exploring.

A Republican congressman from Texas took his first step today toward a longshot bid for the White House. A spokesman says, Congressman Ron Paul formed a presidential exploratory committee today as well. Paul was the Libertarian Party nominee for president back in 1988.

Remember, for all the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Up next: Did President Bush get a bump from Wednesday's national address? And what can he do about these Republican defections? I will ask Bill Bennett and Donna Brazile. They're standing by live for today's "Strategy Session."

And Lance Armstrong joins me next hour. He is taking his fight for cancer research funds to Capitol Hill. Will Congress listen?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

In our "Strategy Session" today: public opinion and opposition to key parts of the president's new plan for Iraq.

We have some fresh polls that we're trying to assess.

Joining us now to help us, our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and our CNN contributor Bill Bennett. He's the -- he's the fellow at the Claremont Institute and host of "Morning in America." That's a radio show.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Here are some of the numbers from our new poll, CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. Do you favor or oppose the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq? Thirty-two percent favor. Sixty- six percent oppose.

Another question: Do you have more confidence in the Iraq policies of the president or Democrats in Congress? The president gets 34 percent, Bill. The Democrats get 51 percent -- the American public clearly not with the president on this sensitive issue.

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Clearly not. The war is going badly. And I think the explanation of policy has been badly managed.

Nevertheless, the president remains the commander in chief. He has to lay out the alternatives. Others have to lay out the alternatives as well. I wish General Keane, Jack Keane, who has proposed this program and recommend it...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He's a retired U.S. Army general.

BENNETT: Right -- has explained it extensively on -- on a lot of TV and radio shows. I wish he had been there next to the president.

Again, the president has to put the alternatives to the Democrats and to the American people: Do you really want to see the chaos that will...

BLITZER: Well, are you...

BENNETT: Yes.

BLITZER: ... suggesting that, when he delivered his address to the nation the other night, he didn't do a good job making his case?

BENNETT: No, he didn't do a particularly good job. He did a standard job.

He needs better people. He needs better communicators. He needs more surrogates. This is a very, very important issue. The president didn't move public opinion at all. It's not a terrible deficit of character not to be able to speak and move people this way. But you need to have people out there who can.

There is a case to be made. John McCain can make the case. Joe Lieberman can make the case, for Pete's sakes, and are making it pretty well. For those of us who think this is a life-and-death situation, of the most critical importance, the case continues to be made. The other thing on -- as these Republicans -- I know you're going to get to it -- we're going to know. I mean, we're in the fourth quarter here. Everybody knows that. We are going to know in about four to six months whether this plan works. I would hope these Republicans could -- could keep shape long enough, that long, to give the president and his plan a chance.

BLITZER: Donna, we have been reporting the president is taking the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate to Camp David with him this weekend. He's got to keep this base, if he has any prospect of achieving some sort of political rally right now.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, in November, the American people spoke. And I think they spoke loud and clear. The Democrats are now in control of the Congress.

And the president needs Democrats. The other night, I don't think the president failed to communicate. What the president communicated, people heard before. It was deja vu, too little, too late, and too dependent on an Iraqi government that has been weak, that has not met any of the benchmarks set in 2006.

And now the president is asking the American people to put our faith in -- in Mr. Maliki, who most Americans don't believe is up to the job.

BLITZER: You believe he is up to the job?

BENNETT: Of course he's up to the job.

But the job of communicating now has to be shared with others, because Donna makes my point. This is a different plan. It's not the same thing. It's not just clear, hold, and build. It's clear and hold and stay. Our soldiers will stay in these areas. It's very different militarily.

Petraeus understands it, can explain it. Keane can. Kagan can. Lieberman can. McCain can. And that needs to be done. If people think it is just the same old, same old, then the president doesn't stand a chance.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: The senator from New York, the junior senator, Hillary Clinton, a potential presidential candidate, heading off to Iraq in -- right now with Evan Bayh, another Republican congressman.

I guess she's going to have a very difficult time, within certain Democratic constituencies, explaining her initial support for that resolution authorizing the war.

BRAZILE: You know, I thought she came out with a pretty strong statement the other night, where she criticized the president for mishandling this war. And she also came out very strongly and said that, we need a new mission, a new course of action. Mrs. Clinton has a huge constituency over there in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum. And she's going over to talk to the troops directly.

BLITZER: From Upstate New York -- that's an important part of New York state.

BENNETT: Yes. I'm glad she's going. And I don't criticize that at all.

BRAZILE: I agree.

BENNETT: I don't think it's a political stunt. I am glad Bayh is going. And I hope they will listen to the soldiers, talk to them.

You know, Ayman al-Zawahiri, number two in al Qaeda, has already declared victory in Iraq. Do we want to give the president another chance to -- you know, one more six-month period, with a new strategy, so that we can take that victory away from them?

BLITZER: Let's get into real politics right now, presidential politics, 2008 presidential politics.

We are going to be co-sponsoring, co-hosting this first Democratic and the first Republican presidential debate of the season on April 4, April 5, up in New Hampshire.

The clock keeps moving up earlier and earlier. Are you surprised?

BRAZILE: No, I'm not.

And this is a great opportunity for the people of New Hampshire to get a look at these candidates. Look, we have some hot rock stars at the moment, but we also have some good, credible candidates who have not had the type of attention and exposure that they need in order to become top-tier candidates. So, this will give them the opportunity on both the Republican and Democratic side to see what I believe are some seasoned presidential candidates.

BLITZER: How important -- and I'm going to ask the same question on the Republican side to Bill -- but how important, on the Democratic side, are the -- is the need for these Democratic presidential hopefuls to show up at an early debate like this?

BRAZILE: Look, I hope they are booking their ticket right now, because this is going to be a very important debate.

New Hampshire is the first primary in the country. These voters will decide, ultimately, what candidate best represent not just their values, but the values of the American people. So, I'm hoping that they prepare themselves to get ready and get up to New Hampshire.

BLITZER: What do you think, because it's a risky thing for some of these candidates...

BENNETT: Oh, they...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... to actually get into a debate with some really smart and articulate opponents?

BENNETT: It's moving up. They got to be there. They are having these private meetings. The public meetings should match the private meetings, it seems to me, in terms of commitments and positions.

You locution about these things keep moving up, it's like when the White House says, mistakes were made. Who is moving this up? Who is co-sponsoring this debate? Fine with me. But, I mean, I think...

BRAZILE: Fine with me.

BENNETT: ... the sooner we find out -- this is a -- this is the most interesting and exciting presidential campaign, and consequential, that we have seen in a very long time. Get them up there.

BLITZER: Because, usually, there is a president, a former president...

BENNETT: Yes.

BLITZER: ... or a vice president...

BRAZILE: Wide open.

BLITZER: ... or somebody who is going to be running, and then...

BENNETT: But how are you going to pick them by April? Who -- what is going to be the criteria?

BLITZER: Well...

BENNETT: That's going to be really interesting.

BRAZILE: Well, I would hope that someone who has filed with the FEC. That is an important criteria.

BENNETT: Sure. That's one criteria.

BLITZER: Real candidates who actually show up.

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

BENNETT: Absolutely.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: None of this exploratory stuff -- real candidates.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And we will give them some time to make...

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... to make their respective cases.

BRAZILE: And it's a good time of the year, April.

BLITZER: Early April in New Hampshire...

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... a lovely time of the year.

BENNETT: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Beautiful state, indeed.

Guys, thanks very much.

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: We are going to be co-sponsoring that with "The New Hampshire Union Leader," as well as WMUR-TV...

BENNETT: It's great for CNN.

BLITZER: ... up in Manchester.

BRAZILE: Great...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Great for CNN.

BLITZER: Excellent.

BENNETT: Good for you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, guys.

Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett, by the way, as all of our viewers know, they are all part of the best political team on television.

Up next: "The Cafferty File." Jack has your e-mail. Should Iraq's oil industry be open to foreign oil companies? Jack and "The Cafferty File" -- when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack. CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Should Iraq's oil industry be open to foreign oil companies? There is a bill in the Iraqi parliament to do just that.

Larry in Kansas City, Missouri, writes: "Iraq's oil industry should be opened to friendly foreign oil companies, only if the profits go to paying back the U.S. the expenses it has incurred."

Jerald in Richmond, Indiana: "Why shouldn't foreign companies run it? It's clear to me that Iraq doesn't have the technicians to do it. Almost all that has been built was done by foreign workers, like me. I put in seven years in that godforsaken country."

Ronnie in Duluth, Georgia: "Open the Iraqi oil fields to foreign -- read, USA -- exploitation? Why, of course. Otherwise, why would you have fought the war?"

Gene in Chevy Chase, Maryland: "Of course. Until we force the Iraqis to privatize their oil industry, President Bush can't really say, 'mission accomplished.'"

Jim in Grand Rapids, Michigan: "No. We didn't go there for the oil. We went there because of WMD. No, we went there to stop the spread of terrorism. No, actually, we went there to remove a dictator. No, that's not it. We went there to spread democracy. No, that's wrong, too. Why did we go there? The Bush administration told us all along that it was not for the oil. And we all know they would never mislead the public."

And Rick in Toronto writes: "Wasn't the latest reason given for the war supposed to be about creating a sustainable democratic government in Iraq, capable of making its own decisions? The question of opening up Iraq's oil industry is one for a sovereign Iraq to decide for itself" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack, for that.

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