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THE SITUATION ROOM

Bush Responds to Iranian Threat in Iraq; Ari Fleischer Takes the Stand; Barbaro Euthanized

Aired January 29, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: 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 responds to the Iranian threat in Iraq.

Is the Tehran government gunning for more influence in the nation next door and taunting the U.S. in the process?

Also this hour, the president's former press secretary on the stand in the CIA leak trial. Ari Fleischer offers a fascinating new glimpse behind closed doors over at the White House.

And fresh from her big debut weekend in Iowa, look what Hillary Clinton is doing for an encore.

Why is she teaming up with John McCain right now? And what does it say about their possible presidential showdown in 2008?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up first this hour, the final heartbreak in the saga of the Kentucky Derby-winning horse whose promise of greatness ended last year in a bone-crushing break down during the Preakness.

Happening right now, there's a news conference underway on the death of Barbaro. The 4-year-old colt was euthanized earlier today.

Let's go to the news conference and listen in.

DR. DEAN W. RICHARDSON, CHIEF OF SURGERY, NEW BOLTON CENTER: That was just not going to work out in the long run. So, you know, like I said, I did not prepare, really, a written statement. I wasn't sure exactly what I'd get through. It was very difficult to, you know, to even get to this point. Fortunately, I had a fairly long and complicated surgery to do right afterward this morning, so that kept my mind off it for a while. But it's not going to be something that's easy to forget.

So I don't know if you want -- should I take questions now or do you want to have Gretchen and Roy speak? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe the Johnson (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

RICHARDSON: They might not...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Gretchen and Roy, do you (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

GRETCHEN JACKSON: There's really not much I can add because I think most of you have been with us since we were racing down to the path of the Derby and you supported us. And I think have been relatively kind in your questions, as we went through this nine months -- going on nine months of medical treatment.

I'd like now for all of us to say a prayer for Barbaro and for all those that have loved him so much. Certainly, grief is the price we all pay for love. And I'm sure there are a lot of grieving people and certainly a lot have contacted me and I'm so very appreciative of all that.

But I hope that we can turn our love into an energy that supports horses throughout the world and not just in our own country and not just the thoroughbred that we all loved so dearly, but all horses.

And each of us might find a certain path that interests us the most, but whatever it is, I just pray that you follow that path and support -- support the horse.

One fan of Barbaro said a great statement to me this afternoon. And I don't trust my mind, so I wrote it down. And she said that she thought Barbaro's thoughts were, "Please finish these unfinished tasks of mine. And therefore I will comfort you." And that meant a lot to me.

ROY JACKSON: The only thing I'd like to add is all of you weren't here on a daily basis to see the devotion and -- of Dean and of the whole staff up there. You know, they've been remarkable. And Gretchen and I thank them very much.

Also, Peter and Bret (ph) and Michael, while they were here, were here on almost a daily basis and we thank them for caring for Barbaro after this accident. And we thank all of you for your understanding through this whole thing. It's a difficult day, but we just hope a lot of the positives that have gone in these eight months will continue.

We hope that, you know, a lot has been learned by this case that will help other horses in the future.

BLITZER: All right, that was Roy Jackson.

Earlier, his wife Gretchen Jackson, the owners of Barbaro. And we also heard from Dr. Dean Richardson, the chief of surgery who made that difficult decision, to euthanize Barbaro earlier.

Brianna Keilar is in the newsroom.

She's been following this story for us. A very, very sad story, an eight month battle, this Kentucky Derby winner went through, but when all was said and done, it was apparently too much even for Barbaro.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Dr. Richardson said this was a very difficult decision and, of course, Barbaro was that race horse that really captured the hearts of many people all over the world, not just fans of horse racing. He, of course, won the Kentucky Derby by practically a mile, it seemed like, and then he was the favorite going into the Preakness.

That is where Barbaro suffered a fracture to his right leg, his back right leg, Wolf.

After that, it's really been an up-and-down battle for Barbaro, not just the right back leg, but also the left leg. He suffered something called laminitis, which is a wearing away, as I understand it, of the connective tissue between the hoof and the bone, a very painful condition.

And we just heard in that press conference from Dr. Richardson that actually Barbaro had been suffering laminitis in both the front feet.

This is, horse trainers tell me, a very, very painful condition. So, obviously, this goes toward talking about how they said he was very uncomfortable in the last couple of days and they had to make that difficult decision to put him down.

BLITZER: And they concluded that it was just going to be simply too painful for Barbaro to continue. And, in the end, that was the decision.

Hold on for a moment, Brianna.

I want to show our viewers the actual video of what happened at the Preakness to this champion horse.

Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM PREAKNESS RACE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barbaro is being pulled up by Edgar Prado. He is out of the race and out of the Triple Crown. He appears to have injured his right rear leg. His right hind leg as they have been substantially injured.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That was the moment, a sad moment. A lot of people realized almost right away that in the end, it was not going to be good for Barbaro. I remember seeing it myself at the time.

The outpouring over these eight months -- and I know you've been watching this closely, Brianna -- has been extraordinary for this horse. KEILAR: That's right. If you looked at the Web site for U. Penn's New Bolton Center, where Barbaro was being treated -- this is a premier horse treatment facility in the world, actually -- they had a Web site where they were putting up regular updates of Barbaro's condition and there was also a chance for people to post e-mails to Barbaro with well wishes. And these were coming in from all over -- states all over the U.S.; all over the world.

Obviously, this horse just really captured the heart of people everywhere -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And you're saying -- you're absolutely right, Brianna.

All right, we'll stay on top of this story and give our viewers some more updates as we get them.

Brianna Keilar watching it for us.

Let's move on to other important news we're watching right now. In fact, right now in Iraq, the last throes of an intense battle that could have resulted in a bloodbath and a catastrophic new holy war, not only in Iraq, but potentially throughout the region.

An Iraqi police official now telling CNN insurgents involved in the fighting in and around Najaf yesterday were members of a Muslim Messianic cult. They reportedly planned to kill Iraq's more revered Shiite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.

U.S. forces took the lead in the battle which now, we're told, is mostly over. Two hundred insurgents were killed, along with two U.S. and six Iraqi soldiers.

Also today, the Bush White House is confronting Iran's apparent plans to try to expand its economic and military ties and its influence inside Iraq.

Let's go to the White House.

Our correspondent, Ed Henry, is watching the story for us -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president has been blunt about telling Tehran to butt out of Iraq. But clearly Iran does not seem to be listening. That country's ambassador to Baghdad today telling the "New York Times" that Iran is eager to expand both its economic and military reach in Iraq.

This follows, of course, President Bush charging that they really don't have good intentions in Iraq, that Iran is really making the situation worse, from a security standpoint. That's why the president has been seeking to step up the capture and killing of Iranians who are fighting in Iraq, providing some of the most deadly improvised explosive devices to militias in Iraq that are killing and harming U.S. soldiers there.

All of this kicking up Democratic charges that the president is really itching to invade Iran, have another war. The president insisted today in an interview with National Public Radio, he has no plans to invade Iran, but he also had some tough talk for Iran at the same time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now, it's important to note that in a recent interview with Sinclair Broadcasting, the president was a little sharper in his language, saying that if Iran kept this up, the U.S. would "take care of business" there. He was not as sharp like that in his language today. But what the president's really trying to do is a delicate balancing act here -- be tough with Iran but not kick up charges that he really wants to have another war -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ed is going to have a fuller report coming up in our next hour.

Ed is at the White House.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty.

He's in New York for The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a couple of weeks ago, we alerted you to the fact that several federal prosecutors are suddenly being fired around the country by the Bush administration. Well, it turns out that there's more to the story.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been filling these positions with members of President Bush's inner circle. Imagine that.

Nine recent appointees held high level positions in the White House or in the Justice Department, and most of them were hand-picked by Gonzales. This was done through a little known provision in the Patriot Act that allows the attorney general to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for an indefinite period of time.

Translation -- there's no deadline for confirmation hearings.

Critics worry Gonzales is trying to skip out on Senate confirmation for these nominees and that the administration is trying to consolidate the power of the executive branch.

Would they do that?

One former federal prosecutor tells McClatchy newspapers that being named a U.S. attorney "has become a prize for doing the bidding of the White House or the administration." The Justice Department says this has nothing to do with politics. They call such allegations "reckless and plainly wrong," saying they nominate "experienced attorneys who we believe can do the job."

The question is this -- do you think politics has anything to do with the Bush administration's appointment of federal prosecutors?

We decided to start the week with an easy question.

E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So they're going to get tougher as the week goes on, is that what you're saying, Jack?

CAFFERTY: Well, we hope so.

BLITZER: Good.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: See you in a few minutes.

Jack will be back with your e-mail.

And coming up, President Bush's poll numbers approaching rock bottom right now. Bill Schneider is standing by with the latest.

Also, Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain share the same stage. We're going to tell you why the two presidential rivals, at least on this day, are teaming up.

Plus, Clinton's first foray on the campaign trail in Iowa.

So how did she do?

We're going to ask our Candy Crowley. She covered Senator Clinton this weekend out on the campaign trail in Iowa.

And later, Mike Huckabee jumps in. The former Arkansas governor, an ordained minister, presidential hopeful now, joins us later in the hour.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

There is a lot weighing on President Bush right now in there and pulling down his center of gravity.

Our Bill Schneider has been looking at the latest poll numbers and those numbers keep going down and down and down -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, they do.

How low can he go?

That's a question people are beginning to ask about President Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The latest batch of polls is in and the news is not good for President Bush. Five polls taken in mid-January show the president's job approval rating at very low levels. The CBS News figure, 28 percent, is the lowest figure ever for this president. Our poll of polls gives us an average of 32 percent approval, 63 percent disapproval, nearly two to one negative.

So what, you might ask? Bush can't run again.

A job rating is a measure of the president's clout. This president has a lot of things he wants to get done in his last two years besides Iraq. Health care, for instance.

BUSH: We proposed a bold initiative.

SCHNEIDER: Congress is not likely to follow a deeply unpopular president. The public sees this president as a lame duck. Seventy- one percent do not think he will have the support he needs to get things done.

Members of the president's own party are distancing themselves, particularly on his troop build-up in Iraq.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R-VA), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I'm very concerned about the American G.I. being thrust in the middle of the violence that is -- that really has root causes that go back 1,000 years.

SCHNEIDER: Only four presidents since World War II have seen their job ratings drop below 30 percent.

Harry Truman chose not to run for reelection in 1952.

Richard Nixon was forced to resign.

Jimmy Carter was fired after one term.

So was Bush's father, in 1992.

When you're this low, the voters consider your presidency over.

Is that the way they feel about President Bush?

Apparently. Fifty-eight percent in the "Newsweek" poll said they personally wish George W. Bush's presidency were over.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: Sixty-four percent told the "Newsweek" poll that since the Iraq War began, they to not think Congress has been assertive enough in challenging the administration's conduct of the war. Voters elected a Democratic Congress last year to do just that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thank you.

Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain, by the way, eventually may have to find themselves in an all out war for the White House. But on this day, the likely presidential contenders are setting aside their political differences, including their disagreement over Iraq.

The New York Democrat and the Arizona Republican helped to open a $50 million rehab center for U.S. troops in San Antonio, Texas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The service men and women for whom this center was built, and their families, I know it's not possible for even the most grateful nation to compensate you in kind for the measure of devotion you have, at great personal sacrifice, given our country.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: We are blessed to have so many who have given so much. But in return, we are obligated to ensure in every way we can that they and their families are given the support they have so richly earned and deserved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King.

You've covered both McCain and Clinton for a long time.

Do they actually get along? What kind of relationship do they have?

JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They do get along quite well, actually. I've talked to people in both camps throughout the day. They're both on the Senate Armed Services Committee. When Mrs. Clinton came to the Senate, she knew the country and we in the political media would be searching her very closely and she watches the senators who come prepared to the hearings, whether they be Democrats or Republicans.

She considers Senator McCain to be one of those, one of the hardest working senators.

They've traveled overseas three times together on Congressional delegations, once in Iraq. They appeared with each other on the "Meet The Press" program on a Sunday. And by all accounts, they get along quite well.

We'll see how long that lasts.

There's only been one dustup between them, Wolf, and that was a few months back. You might remember, Maureen Dowd in the "New York Times" wrote a column where an anonymous adviser to Hillary Clinton compared John McCain defending the Bush White House to John McCain during his Vietnam POW days reading Vietnamese propaganda tapes.

It was viewed as a tasteless comment by that adviser. Mrs. Clinton called and apologized after that.

But by all accounts, the two of them get along quite well.

BLITZER: Refresh my memory. I think I'm right. McCain did vote to convict President Bush for the impeachment charge that went through from the House of Representatives.

KING: President Clinton. Yes.

BLITZER: I mean -- excuse me, President Clinton. I mean President Clinton.

KING: Well, they disagree on just about everything, whether you're talking about the Clinton administration, when former President Clinton was in office, or whether it's the Iraq War now, whether it's about the tax policy now or health care policy now. Philosophically, ideologically, these are two people who are very far apart.

But they have the tradition, as you've seen, when Bob Dole was running for president -- senators like to get along with each other under the dome. Senators as presidential candidates, we'll see.

BLITZER: It's moving very quickly, this process right now, this presidential race.

Is there still room for a dark horse?

KING: Well, that's the big debate right now. A lot of people say it's the perfect climate for an Independent candidate, that there is still distaste, that the elections were a repudiation of the Republicans, not an embrace of the Democrats.

Some were watching Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska last week. He has not reached out to Republican operatives of any of the key states, but he says he's still thinking about running for president.

It would be very late for him to get in as a Republican.

Some say would he run as an Independent?

Very hard. We went through this with Ross Perot. The ballot access laws are very hard. But many think that's a new way.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has talked quietly to people about running as an Independent and says probably not.

Is it too late to get in?

No, it's not too late. Many think, despite the front runner status of McCain or Mrs. Clinton, that they might bottom out a little bit or flame out a little bit.

And remember what Howard Dean did last time. What makes it so different?

The old rules say yes, with it moving so fast, it's too late. But with the Internet, the ability to raise money so fast, who knows if the old rules apply?

BLITZER: And it's going to be an exciting time for all of us.

KING: It sure is.

BLITZER: John, thanks very much.

Bill Schneider, John King, earlier, Ed Henry, they are all part of the best political team on television. And remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at cnn.com/ticker.

Before her stop today in Texas, Senator Clinton spent the weekend in Iowa.

Did the presidential hopeful wow the crowds out on the campaign trail?

We're going to have a report. Candy Crowley was there.

And much more on that furious battle in Iraq. A report from CNN's Arwa Damon in Baghdad comes your way right at the top of the hour.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is keeping an eye on the video feeds coming in from around the world and the wires, checking in with our producers.

Let's check in with Carol for a quick look at some other important stories making news -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

The owners of nuclear power plants should not worry about a terrorist crashing a plane into their plants. Instead, they should worry about stopping any nuclear leaks and preventing public exposure to radioactive material in the event of an attack. That's what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is saying.

Today, the agency approved a new defense plan, much of which is secret. The agency says the job of actually stopping an attack is the responsibility of the U.S. military and federal agencies.

In California, he'll have a long time to think about the crimes for which he is accused. One hundred fifty years in prison -- that is the sentence for Dean Arthur Schwartzmiller. Prosecutors say he's one of this country's most prolific child molesters.

Schwartzmiller was convicted of busing two 12-year-old boys. He has also been convicted of sexual assaults in several state over three decades. Prosecutors say an estimated 100 accusers in the United States, Mexico and Brazil claim they were victimized by Schwartzmiller since 1969. Schwartzmiller has said he's innocent.

And finally, Microsoft will unveil its new operating system for consumers tomorrow all around the world. Microsoft says Vista is a huge improvement over its previous computing platforms. It will retail between $100 to $400, so, Wolf, you can get it tomorrow.

BLITZER: Does that mean we have to learn all about computers all over again?

COSTELLO: Of course.

BLITZER: Every few years we've got to study this stuff.

Thanks, Carol, for that.

Up next, did Hillary Clinton make the grade this weekend in Iowa?

And what about Rudy Giuliani?

Did he make the grade in New Hampshire?

James Carville and J.C. Watts, they're standing by live for today's Strategy Session.

Plus, he hopes to follow Bill Clinton's footsteps from Little Rock to the White House. Former Arkansas Governor and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee joins us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.

Happening now: President Bush says the U.S. will act firmly if Iran escalates military action in Iraq -- that in an interview with NPR, this as Iran's ambassador to Baghdad tells "The New York Times," Iran is ready to help Iraq's security and economy, reportedly saying Iran will open a national bank in Iraq.

In the CIA leak trial right here in Washington, the former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer testified about a conversation he says he had with Lewis Scooter Libby when Libby was the vice presidential chief of staff. Fleischer says, Libby told him about a CIA operative three days before the day Libby insists that, what he told investigators, he received that information from Tim Russert of NBC News.

And this: The first Roman Catholic priest elected as a voting member of Congress is dead. The Reverend Robert Drinan died yesterday here in Washington, at the age of 86. Drinan served Massachusetts in the 1970s and stepped down in 1980, after John Paul II barred priests from holding public office. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Senator Hillary Clinton is looking even more like a presidential today, after a weekend warm-up in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa. There were telling some political moments during her swing through the Hawkeye State.

Let's turn to our Candy Crowley. She went to Iowa for the weekend to cover the senator -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is what I know from spending this weekend in Iowa with Senator Clinton. She has celebrity status. It serves her well, drawing in the crowds and pumping up the volume.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY (voice-over): It was a weekend Hillary-fest in Iowa.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: Whoa. Thank you!

CROWLEY: Election-eve-sized coverage and standing-room-only crowds -- but it's clear the senator from New York travels with baggage: her vote in favor of the first Iraq resolution.

She hopes to draw the sting with ever harsher assessments of the White House. How, she was asked, having voted for the war, does she propose to end it.

CLINTON: The president has said this is going to be left to his successor. And I think it's the height of irresponsibility. And I really resent it. This was his decision to go to war. He went with an ill-conceived plan and an incompetently executed strategy. And we should expect him to extricate our country from this before he leaves office.

(APPLAUSE)

CROWLEY: From the theaters, to the banners, to the lighting, this is a campaign in full swing, where celebrity status brings in the crowds, and little is left to chance, all of which makes one odd moment all the odder.

The question was about her ability to stand up to dictators.

CLINTON: And, in the gentleman's words, we face a lot of evil men. You know, people like Osama bin Laden comes to mind. And what in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CROWLEY: Why were they laughing? And what did she have in mind? She bristled at the suggestion it was her husband. CLINTON: You know, you guys keep telling me, lighten up, be funny. You know, I get a little funny, and now I'm being psychoanalyzed.

I feel very strongly...

CROWLEY: Whatever. Mostly, this was a flawless maiden voyage for the senator from New York.

CLINTON: Thank you all very much.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: It needs to be noted that big crowds don't necessarily translate into votes. Howard Dean drew big, raucous crowds on the eve of the 2004 Iowa caucuses, and he placed third.

Also, recent polls in Iowa show Senator Clinton running behind former vice presidential candidate John Edwards -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, was she trying to be funny, or was it a slip, Candy?

(LAUGHTER)

CROWLEY: You know, Wolf, you need to ask her that the next time you see her.

Look, she -- she said she was thinking of Osama bin Laden at the time, that -- and you heard her say, look, this was just a joke. I was just telling a joke. So, you know, we obviously take her at her word that this was a joke she was telling.

BLITZER: She got a nice laugh...

CROWLEY: Yes.

BLITZER: ... if, in fact, that is what she wanted.

Candy, thanks very much.

Senator Clinton, by the way, is not the only presidential hopeful on our "Political Radar" today.

The Republican Mike Huckabee filed papers today to form a presidential exploratory committee. The former governor of Arkansas, an ordained Baptist minister, joins me live, by the way, later this hour, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Republican Mitt Romney is in the crucial early primary state of South Carolina. The former Massachusetts governor spoke this weekend at a conservative summit here in Washington, defending how he's evolved on several social issues. That followed a Friday swing through the must-visit state of Iowa. New Hampshire Republicans have gotten an up-close look at Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor was there this weekend, his first visit since he opened his presidential exploratory committee last November.

Democrat Barack Obama wants to know if the federal government is doing its share to help New Orleans rebuild. The senator from Illinois is in New Orleans today for a hearing on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

New Mexico Governor and presidential hopeful Bill Richardson is looking for support out West. This weekend, he attended a Democratic Party dinner in Nevada. It's a crucial state, since its Democratic caucus is now moving up between the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire -- also at that dinner, by the way, the retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark. The former NATO commander is thinking about making another run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

And Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich is playing up his anti-war credentials. He was the only presidential hopeful to speak at anti-Iraq war protests here in Washington and San Francisco this past weekend.

CNN, by the way, is a partner in covering the very first presidential debates of the campaign season on April 4 and April 5 of this year, both Democratic and Republican debates in New Hampshire. We will be there for that. Hope you will as well.

Coming up: Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani made a splash on the campaign trail this weekend, a possible preview of fall 2008?

James Carville and J.C. Watts, they are standing by for today's "Strategy Session."

And the former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee thinks he has the right ingredients to become president, but where does he stand on some of the key issues, like Iraq? It looks like he's about to run for president. He has created an exploratory committee. He's standing by to join us live, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. That's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: He was Arkansas's governor after Bill Clinton. And now Mike Huckabee is hoping to follow in the former president's footsteps again.

The conservative Republican today took a first step toward what he acknowledges is an underdog bid for the White House. Huckabee recently teamed up with former President Clinton to promote an issue close to both their hearts, fighting childhood obesity.

Huckabee may best be known, at least nationally, for shedding a whopping -- get this -- 110 pounds, after being diagnosed with diabetes.

And joining us now, the former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

You are now officially exploring a presidential campaign.

Governor, thanks very much for coming in.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: Thank you, Wolf. Pleasure to be with you again.

BLITZER: All right.

Let's talk about Iraq. That is the dominant issue right now facing the country. You're standing by the president when it comes to his strategy on Iraq; is that right?

HUCKABEE: Well, he has got to be given a chance to succeed with the -- the plan that he has and that General Petraeus is telling the Congress will work.

And they just unanimously confirmed General Petraeus. So, he's the commander in chief. I can't tell you it's going to work, because I don't know. But I do know that it's time to stand behind our troops, and see if the president's plan of increasing the patrols in Baghdad will at least work for bringing some stability.

BLITZER: A lot of his critics, including several Republicans, Chuck Hagel, among others, John Warner, they're saying, given the track record over the past three-and-a-half years, they don't have a whole lot of confidence this new strategy is necessarily going to work.

What gives you confidence that this new strategy might work?

HUCKABEE: Because it comes from a trusted general, General Petraeus, who is there, and whose method of operations when he was with the 101st Airborne, I think, was a successful operation. Let's hope it's going to be this time.

BLITZER: Is there something you would like to see the administration, the U.S., do in Iraq right now that it's not doing, some of the recommendations from the Iraq Study Group, for example? Entering into high-level talks with Iran and Syria comes to mind.

Is there anything you want the president to do that he's not doing?

HUCKABEE: I do think it would be a wonderful thing to bring in these other partners of the -- of the region, and including the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, make them share some of the responsibility, both military and financially.

But the second thing that needs to be done is a careful review of how we are overextending our National Guard forces, who signed up to be citizen soldiers, who I'm afraid are going to go back to repeated deployments. This is going to stretch them, their families, their employers, and their communities.

And that is a real concern, coming from the perspective of a governor who saw 80 percent of his Guard forces deployed over to Iraq.

BLITZER: How worried are you that aligning yourself with the president right now could hurt you in the Republican primaries?

HUCKABEE: Well, I don't think it's going to hurt, because I'm not aligning myself with the president, as much as I am with the troops and the fact that the president has to be able to carry out his strategy.

I'm being very clear that I'm aligning myself with his right, as a commander in chief, to take the advice he is getting from the military, and to act upon it. And, unless someone comes up -- for example, the Democrats -- with a specific different idea that people can buy into, then, that's really the only option we have got.

BLITZER: Another conservative running for the Republican nomination is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. He raised the issue of taxes the other day.

Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR: By the way, I saw Grover Norquist here. I'm -- I'm proud to be -- I think I'm the first person who is thinking about an '08 race who signed his taxpayer-protection pledge not to raise taxes. And that...

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: That's easy. I have -- I have been living that.

And, by the way, we do need to take -- make those -- those Bush tax cuts permanent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Your critics, as you know, in Arkansas and elsewhere say you raised taxes when you were governor of Arkansas.

Are you ready to sign that same commitment, that you won't increase taxes, if elected president?

HUCKABEE: Well, I certainly don't think we need to raise taxes. I lowered 90 of them in Arkansas. They talk about a few I raised, but the fact is, they were voted on by the people.

Here is what I would pledge. The most important oath you take is not one to an organization. It's to the people of America to uphold the Constitution. And I'm a little hesitant to say that I'm going to make a pledge to an interest group, when the real pledge needs to be to the people of this nation, that you will do whatever it takes to make them safe, secure, and provide for the common defense.

BLITZER: What is the single biggest issue that you bring to the table to distinguish yourself, or differentiate yourself, from your Republican counterparts?

HUCKABEE: I think I bring the sense of a person who didn't grow up with privilege, but grew up where it is tough coming up. And I think I relate to the average American, who knows what it's like to live barely making it to the next rent check.

But I also think that I bring an optimism and a view of -- a sense of just real vision for what this country can become, if we remind ourselves of our national soul, and the fact we have always been a resilient, capable people, who, in the face of greatest challenges, rebound and come back to -- to do great things.

BLITZER: You have -- you inspired a lot of people, Governor, about -- with your story of how you lost more than 100 pounds. You were forced into it, when the doctor told you were coming down with diabetes.

Have you managed to keep all that weight off?

HUCKABEE: I have. And part of it is that people ask me about it. I know the accountability is strong. I don't want to write a sequel to the book, "How I Started Digging My Grave Again With My Knife and Fork."

BLITZER: Well, we are looking at a picture of what you looked like at the West Wing of the White House when you were 110 pounds heavier. And the difference is -- is stark.

Good work, Governor, on that weight loss. Good luck on the campaign trail.

HUCKABEE: Thank you very much, Wolf. I'm sure I will see you out there.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, the man from Hope, not Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee.

Like Bill Clinton, he is from Hope, Arkansas, as well -- another Arkansan in this presidential contest.

Up next: our "Strategy Session." J.C. Watts and James Carville, they are standing by to discuss all of this.

And ahead in our next hour: The people of Miami -- get this -- they are planning a fiesta for when Cuba's Fidel Castro dies. Will Cuban Americans take it to the streets? Will they work only in the Orange Bowl? We will have a live report.

And the Clinton swap -- Hillary Clinton could be the first female president, and her husband would then be the first first gentleman. Is America ready for the role reversal?

That's straight ahead in our next hour, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: In today's "Strategy Session": They're both New Yorkers , and they both have presidential aspirations. That would be Senator Hillary Clinton and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. This weekend, they traveled to two states very important to their presidential ambitions.

Joining us now are two CNN political analysts. James Carville is a Democratic strategist. J.C. Watts is a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

Here is what Hillary Clinton said in Iowa this weekend. Let's play a little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: If we had known then what we know now, there never would have been a vote, and I never would have voted for it. So, I feel very comfortable in saying clearly that, you know, we never would have gone into this war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You know, she's coming -- coming under some criticism, as you know, James, for not simply saying, "You know what? I made a mistake. I shouldn't have voted for that resolution" -- which other Democratic candidates, some of them, are saying.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Senator Clinton, she said, we don't do-overs. Obviously, if I would have done it over, I would have done it differently.

I don't know if she used the word mistake in...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: What is so hard what about saying -- I mean, everybody makes mistakes.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Again, because -- she said, if we knew now what we did, I wouldn't have done it. We don't get do-overs.

And, you know, voters are going to have to judge. But, knowing her, she said what she said on it. And she said she would -- knowing what she knows now, she wouldn't have done it. And she is going to move on and talk about it.

And -- and I think the fact that someone -- we have got to get everybody in the Congress together to try to figure a way out of this, not just people who voted against the war. It's a -- it's a -- we're in a difficult position. And I think she is probably going to be bring a lot to the table. But...

BLITZER: Is it...

CARVILLE: ... fair -- fair -- fair observation.

BLITZER: Is that a good strategy she has right now?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I -- Wolf, she -- she voted based on the information that was presented to her at the time, just like President Bush did, just like John Edwards did, just like every other senator that -- that voted for it.

Now, today, based on what's happened over the last two-and-a-half years, some would say, oh, we want to take that vote back. I -- I think it's -- I think it's a mistake. Just stand up to the vote, accept what happens.

And I think it comes down to this. Are we going to tolerate the terrorists killing Americans at home or abroad, and learn to live with them, or are we trying to defeat them? And that's what that vote, in my opinion, was all about.

CARVILLE: I -- I think -- I think that, A, she was a senator from New York who had just been hit. They kept hyping without -- and I think they probably were pretty well aware of it, that there was no connection, or a very tenuous connection, between 9 -- there was no connection between 9/11 and -- and -- and what happened in -- Saddam Hussein.

But, yet, they kept pushing that. And my guess is -- I don't know this for a fact -- that -- that she was -- you know, her state was -- was the state that got hit. And the information that they were providing was -- turned out to be false, and turned out to be pretty shoddy that they went out there with.

BLITZER: The information on weapons of mass destruction.

CARVILLE: Destruction...

BLITZER: Specifically...

CARVILLE: ... and -- and connections to 9/11.

BLITZER: But...

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: But everybody saw the same intelligence, saw the same data, the same information.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: No, they did not. They did -- J.C., I don't want to get into an argument here.

WATTS: Well, they did.

CARVILLE: It is not -- it is a matter of fact that they didn't -- they were not told that Curveball was unreliable. They were not told that the information from the Egyptians was a result of torture. They were not told of all kinds of things.

But, I mean, this is not the -- the -- the point, that -- that they did not know everything the administration knows. And that is just a fact.

WATTS: Well, they -- they had -- they had plenty of information, Wolf, to make a valid decision, to make a substantive choice or decision, whether or not to vote for it or not vote for it.

So, now, some would say, oh, we want to take our vote back, based on what has happened over the last two-and-a-half years.

And, again, there's no do-over, so, let's accept it for what it is, and move on.

BLITZER: Is Bill Clinton going to be an asset or a liability to his wife?

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Let me -- let me play this clip. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: I will certainly look for ways to employ the -- the skills and talents of former presidents, most especially my husband's.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Do you think he's going to be an asset or a liability in the Democratic primaries, and then in the election?

CARVILLE: Wolf, you would expect me to say this. But I believe this.

I can't imagine that anybody would be in a political campaign and have Bill Clinton with them in -- in the United States, or any political campaign anywhere in the world, where he would not be an asset. I mean, he -- A, he's...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Al Gore didn't think he was such an asset back in 2000.

CARVILLE: Al Gore could have done better if he had -- he had utilized...

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: That's -- that -- that -- that's a pretty good example.

But it doesn't -- obviously, I think -- and he is a lot more popular today than he was in 2000, also. And I -- I -- I just couldn't imagine, as a -- as a strategist, as a -- as a fund-raiser, as somebody who knows people all over the country, as someone who knows these issues back and -- backwards and forwards, I can't imagine anyone would think that he wouldn't be more of an asset than a liability.

BLITZER: Is -- quickly, I want to pick your brain on Rudy Giuliani.

He spent at least part of the weekend in New Hampshire. He has now aligned himself with the president on Iraq and his new war strategy.

Is that smart for -- for him to do so?

WATTS: Well, I -- I don't think it's a bad thing in a Republican primary. I don't -- I don't think that hurts him.

And I do, by the way, believe Bill Clinton is an asset...

(LAUGHTER)

CARVILLE: Yes.

WATTS: ... for anybody who wants to use him. Al Gore isn't president because he -- he didn't use him.

But I -- I do believe that it -- it's not a bad thing, in a Republican primary, to align yourself with the president, because like I said, Wolf, what it comes down to is this. Do -- do we say we're going to tolerate the terrorists and live with them? Or are we going to defeat them?

And I think that's what this effort is about. It's about defeating the terrorists. And I think Rudy Giuliani would agree with that.

BLITZER: We have got to leave it, guys...

CARVILLE: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: ... right there. But we will continue this conversation.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: We have got a lot of time.

(LAUGHTER)

CARVILLE: You bet.

BLITZER: And still to come: "The Cafferty File." Do you think politics has anything to do with the Bush administration's appointment of interim federal prosecutors? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail.

And religious battle in Iraq -- find out how a messianic cult tried to spark a regional holy war. We will have a full report coming up. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go to New York and Jack for "The Cafferty File."

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

The question this hour is: Do you think politics has anything to do with the Bush administration's sudden appointment of interim federal prosecutors?

Marie (ph) writes in Bloomington, Indiana: "Gosh, does politics ever have anything to do with Bush administration appointments? Think Arabian horses and the 'You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie,' his appointment as director of FEMA. A hard one. The answer is yes."

Stephen in Arlington, Texas: "Obvious, isn't it? Mr. Bush is scrambling to get prosecutors appointed to the bench that will refuse to prosecute him and his cronies. The list of high crimes committed by this administration grows by the day. Impeach, impeach, impeach."

David in Pismo Beach, California: "Our attorney general is a disgrace to the office. And, unfortunately, this behavior was clearly planned from the time they snuck all these little-known provisions into the Patriot Act. What a disgusting joke this administration has been and continues to be."

John in Jacksonville, Florida: "Jack, politics has everything to do with these appointments. It ensures the Bush administration's corruption remains just a whisper in the wind after he leaves office. Gonzales is there to make sure the Bush administration's dirty little pinata doesn't get burst. There would be subpoenas flying all over Washington."

And Vince in Los Angeles, writes: "To quote J.J. from 'Good Times,' is Bozo a clown? Can James Brown get down?" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

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: a messianic cult backed by insurgent gangs, a desperate plot of kill Iraq's most revered Shiite leader. It's nearly 1:00 a.m. in Iraq, where the smoke clears after a bloody battle that may have averted all-out disaster in the region.

Could Saudi Arabia use its oil weapon by keeping prices low? It's nearly 1:00 a.m. in Riyadh -- why the kingdom may want to cut the cash flow in Iran, and help that might -- and how that might help America. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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