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THE SITUATION ROOM

Messianic Cult Fights U.S., Iraqi Forces in Najaf; Senators McCain, Clinton Present at Opening of Troop Rehab Center

Aired January 29, 2007 - 19:00   ET

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


KITTY PILGRIM, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Kitty Pilgrim in New York. Now there are some audio problems in Washington with THE SITUATION ROOM. We hope to rejoin Wolf as soon as possible. In the meantime, the smoke is clearing near the Iraqi city of Najaf for a messianic diehard cult backed by insurgents fought a bloody battle with Iraqi and American forces. Hundreds are said to be dead. But how many could have died if the shocking plot had been carried out?
Let's turn to CNN's Arwa Damon in Baghdad.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A senior Iraqi police official telling CNN that U.S. forces had taken the lead in that intense battle happening just north of the holy Shia city of Najaf. The fighting began early dawn on Sunday after Iraqi police received a number of tips that gunmen were massing just north of the city with the intent of storming Najaf, killing pilgrims, clerics, including grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric in Iraq, as well as amongst the Shia population throughout the entire world.

The fighting killed, according to initial estimates by Iraqi authorities, at least 300 armed gunmen. They're basing that estimate on the intensity of the bombardment and the fighting. Meanwhile, some details emerging as to who these gunmen may be. We're hearing from a number of sources within the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi authorities that they are members of a Shia messianic cult that is trying to increase the chaos here to accelerate the appearance of the Mehdi, whom they believe is their savior.

We're also hearing reports though of Sunni extremist groups being involved in the fighting, including fighters from Falluja and Ramadi, as well as foreign fighters, criminals and thugs. U.S. and Iraqi forces are conducting intense sweeps and searches throughout that entire area and remain on the lookout for other plots targeting the Shia pilgrims, clerics, and religious shrines. Had this plot succeeded, should any plot succeed against these targets, it would most certainly catapult the already violent sectarian attacks to an entirely unimaginable new level.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Baghdad.

PILGRIM: Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain are at odds over Iraq. A possible taste of things to come if they become their party's presidential nominees. Well today the senators set aside their differences to help open a rehab center for U.S. troops, creating a striking political picture, but tensions resurfaced when they sat down for interviews with CNN's Anderson Cooper. And Anderson joins us now from San Antonio, Texas.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Kitty, thanks very much. It was a remarkable day here in San Antonio, as you said. Both senators were here for the grand opening of the Center for the Intrepid, a state of the art rehabilitation facility. Fifty million dollars was spent on this. All of it from private donations, large and small, from corporations as well as individuals.

It is a state of the art facility for soldiers, service members who have been badly burned and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're going to be treating severe burns here as well as multiple amputations, rehabilitating service members as much as they can. They also opened up two new Fisher Houses here for the family members of service members who are getting treated here.

Both senators were here, and as you say, Kitty, they put aside their differences during the ceremony. When I sat down with them, Iraq was very much on their minds. I talked so Senator Clinton about what she thought of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Vice President Cheney said last week to Wolf Blitzer he trusts al-Maliki. Do you?

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: No, but I also don't trust Vice President Cheney, so I really think it's fair to say his assessments have been wrong consistently. He's been unwilling to deal in a straightforward, factual based way with a lot of what's been going on. He continues to make assertions that have no foundation in fact, in reality. I don't think the American people are listening to him any longer.

COOPER: Senator Durbin called him delusional.

CLINTON: Well I'm not going to, you know, put labels on it. But I'm going to say his efforts to continue to put the best face on what they have so terribly mismanaged in Iraq no longer has any credibility attached to it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: And I'll have more of my interview with Senator Clinton, as well as Senator John McCain tonight at 10:00 on "360" -- Kitty.

PILGRIM: You got a very good glimpse of the facilities. What are they like?

COOPER: Truly remarkable facilities. I mean today was just an incredibly moving day. You had many service members here, many of them severely wounded, burn victims as well as amputees, multiple amputations in some cases, here with their families, celebrating the opening of this facility. Inside, there's a wave pool. There is 300- degree virtual-reality simulators so amputees can learn how to walk again, get a sense of their balance, get oriented again. There's also rock-climbing walls. This really is a facility unlike any other in the United States. And as I said, Kitty, it was put together all with private donations from corporations and individuals.

PILGRIM: Anderson, we look forward to your show tonight. Thanks very much. Anderson Cooper.

Tonight, a rare glimpse inside the often secretive Bush White House from a former member of the president's inner circle. Ex White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified under oath today in the CIA leak trial.

Now Brian Todd is outside the court house in Washington.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kitty, a pivotal moment today for prosecutors. Ari Fleischer, their star witness, offering a key window into the spin machine of the Bush White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A machine that prosecutors contend went into overtime in the summer of 2003. Countering claims by this war critic, former ambassador, Joe Wilson, that the White House twisted intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. The star witness today, the one-time public face of the White House.

Former press secretary Ari Fleischer testified about a private conversation he shared with Vice President Cheney's point man, Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Fleischer says Libby told him Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. He told the court he believes Libby even divulged her name, Valerie Plame Wilson, and that Libby said the information was quote, "hush-hush."

Fleischer says that meeting occurred in July 7, 2003; three days before Libby claims he learned Plame's classified identity from Tim Russert of NBC News. It can be illegal to knowingly out a CIA operative, but Libby is on trial for lying to federal investigators. Libby claims he forgot key details of his conversations about Plame.

DAVID SCHERTLER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: The prosecution is trying to show the jury that even in the life -- the day of the life of Lewis Libby, this issue was so important to the vice president that it isn't something that he would forget.

TODD: But on cross-examination, the defense punches holes in Fleischer's memory, asking can you say with absolute certainty that Libby said Plame's name. Fleischer's answer, with absolute certainty, no. Fleischer got immunity from prosecution because he thought he would be in trouble for telling reporters that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA before it was reported publicly. Fleischer contends he did not give Plame's name to the reporters and didn't realize until much later that her identity was classified.

(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: Other key prosecution witnesses who have given behind the scenes portrayals of the White House war counsel, former Cheney press aide, Cathie Martin. She wrapped up her testimony today. As well as two former CIA officers and a former State Department official. David Addington, Dick Cheney's current chief of staff, testified this afternoon. He'll testify again tomorrow morning. And for the first time tomorrow we expect to see a member of the media testify in this trial, former "New York Times" reporter Judith Miller -- Kitty.

PILGRIM: Thanks very much. Brian Todd.

Well coming up, death dance. A big party is being planned at the Orange Bowl, complete with T-shirts and bands. And it's to celebrate Fidel Castro's death. Is it good idea or bad taste? Mary Snow will take a look.

Plus, the man behind the woman, Bill Clinton. Could he become the first man to be the first gentleman. Carol Costello will have that.

And loss of confidence, President Bush hits historic lows in the polls. And our Bill Schneider crunches the numbers. We'll be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I really want to thank you for this comprehensive approach to reducing our dependency on oil. It's a really smart idea.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. President Bush put Iran on notice today that the United States won't tolerate actions that endanger American troops in Iraq. The administration has long said that Iranian arms training and advisers are aiding Iraqi gunmen. Now the United States says that it's caught Iran red handed. Have they?

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, strong words from the commander-in-chief and the hint of an ultimatum.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

STARR (voice-over): In an interview with National Public Radio, some of President Bush's strongest comments to date about Iran's role in the fighting in Iraq. Iran's ambassador to Baghdad denies the involvement and told "The New York Times" that Iran will open a bank in Baghdad to offer economic aid. But the CIA and top military leaders have been laying out a dossier of evidence against Iran. Earlier this month, CIA Director General Michael Hayden said Iran is shipping weapons into Iraq that are killing U.S. troops.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, CIA DIRECTOR: EFPs are coming from Iran. They're being used against our forces. They're capable of defeating some of our heaviest armor. And incident for incident cause significantly more casualties than any other improvised explosive devices do and they are provided to Shia militia.

STARR: Hayden is talking about explosively formed projectiles, sophisticated manufactured explosives capability of penetrating even a tank. There is more. The U.S. recently detained suspected Iranian operatives and found weapons, some with Iranian markings as well as maps and shipping documents.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Growing financial ties between Iran and Iraq is very worrisome to top U.S. military commanders who say Iran is already financing the training and equipping of insurgents inside Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much. We're going to have more on this story coming up.

Meantime, let's check in with Jack Cafferty in New York for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The race is on. And if you have already had a belly full of contenders for the White House in 2008, well just wait another year. That's when the Iowa caucuses happen. Just 600 days to go now until Election Day. The pollsters are out in full force. We're hearing all about potential match-ups. Clinton versus Obama. Giuliani versus McCain. Who is strongest on national defense?

Where do they stand on illegal immigration? Blah, blah, blah, blah. But how about this? A new "TIME" magazine poll asked people which presidential candidate they would most like to have over to their homes for dinner. Twenty-six percent of those surveyed said Senator Hillary Clinton. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain were tied in second place with 15 percent each.

And of course after seeing all of those folks on TV day in and day out, well I don't know, by 2008, we might not want to sit down to dinner with any of them. Here's the question anyway 600 days in front of the election.

Which presidential candidate would you like to have over to your home for dinner? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack thank you very much. We'll get back to you shortly. When they first heard the news about Fidel Castro's health, Cuban Americans turned out to celebrate, a lot of them did. It was too soon, as it turned out. Now as speculation grows about the Cuban leader's condition, controversy is growing over plans by some officials in Miami to throw a party.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's watching the story for us -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a city spokesman says Miami has had contingency plans for Castro's death for a while, but a new idea for a celebration at the Orange Bowl is raising some objections.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(CHEERING)

SNOW (voice-over): This was the scene in Miami last summer when Fidel Castro became ill and turned over power to his brother Raul. With this image of the 80-year-old Cuban dictator, city officials are planning an official celebration in Miami's Orange Bowl following Castro's death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In most places it would seem a little unusual to have a party, somewhat dancing on someone's grave. Miami is unlike any other place.

SNOW: The city commissioner who came up with the idea to organize events in the Orange Bowl told "The Miami Herald" that Castro represents everything bad that has happened to the people of Cuba for 48 years. There is something to celebrate regardless of what happens next. We get rid of the guy. But some Cuban American leaders are concerned about a replay of the dancing in the streets seen this past summer when many thought Castro had died.

RAMON SAUL SANCHEZ, DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT: We don't have anything to party for when we have thousands of people in prison in the island. We have millions of families divided. We have the hope of being free still unfulfilled.

SNOW: The Orange Bowl has significance for Cuban Americans. It was there in the 1960's President Kennedy addressed tens of thousands of exiles and promised a free Cuba, and in the 1980's the Orange Bowl became a haven for thousands of Cuban refugees during the Mariel boatlift.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now we did repeatedly try to contact the city commissioner who proposed the Orange Bowl celebration, but we were unable to reach him and his office wouldn't provide us with further details on things like cost and exactly what the celebration would entail -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary watching the story for us in Miami. Mary thank you very much for that. Carol Costello's monitoring developments in New York. What's crossing the wires right now, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Hello to all of you.

Who is responsible for protecting the country's nuclear power plants from air attacks? Not the plant operators. That's according to the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. It's rejecting a proposal for a barrier that would protect them from 9/11-style attacks. The agency says the military and other government organizations provide active protection and that plant operators should focus on limiting radioactive releases and public exposure.

A cease-fire between rival Palestinian factions is scheduled to take place right about now. It's aimed at ending four-days of clashes between Hamas and Fatah supporters that's left at least 29 people dead. The deal calls for both sides to pull armed militias off the streets of the West Bank and Gaza to stop -- and to stop inflammatory rhetoric.

Sad news to tell you about Barbaro, the horse who won the Kentucky Derby only to break his right hind leg at the Preakness eight month ago, he was put down, euthanized this morning with his veterinarian saying complications had left the horse in pain and unable to rest comfortably.

The California Highway Patrol is recommending that singer and actress Brandy be charged in connection with a deadly accident. She was behind the wheel of a Land Rover when it struck another car last month killing a woman. Brandy, whose full name is Brandy Norwood, was not driving under the influence according to police. The CHP is turning the case over to prosecutors. The star could now face a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge. Maximum penalty, a year in jail and $1,000 fine.

That's a look at the headlines right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. We're going to get back to Carol soon.

Just ahead, more on that dramatic battle in Najaf with a heavily armed dooms day cult. I'll talk about it and more with "The New York Times" Pulitzer Prize winning reporter John Burns. He's the Baghdad bureau chief.

Plus, if his wife runs for president, what would be former President Bill Clinton's role? We're going to show you how it might all play out.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Could Saudi Arabia use its oil weapon by actually keeping prices relatively low? That may be a way to strike back at its regional rival, Iran, accused by both the Saudis and the United States of fomenting trouble in Iraq.

Our State Department correspondent Zain Verjee joining us with the story -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Iran is a problem for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, but they may have a plan that could squeeze that foe.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE (voice-over): When oil prices shoot up, so does Iran's confidence and its ability to make trouble in the Middle East.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Everybody knows that they derive the great bulk of their international outcome from oil.

VERJEE: In recent months, senior U.S. officials have talked to Saudis about how to stop Iran's growing threat in the region. Have they turned to oil as a weapon? Publicly, U.S. and Saudi officials say oil is not being used as a weapon to hurt Iran's economy and squeeze the regime. Privately, they acknowledge it's all about Iran.

ANN KORIN, INST. FOR ANALYSIS OF GLOBAL SECURITY: Iran set its budget on very high oil prices. So Iran is a lot more vulnerable to oil price falling and Saudi Arabia is using that, using the oil weapon basically to try and reign in Iran.

VERJEE: After sky high prices, a barrel of oil is now at a two- year low point, and Saudi Arabia's oil minister wants to keep it that way. Last week, he blocked a move by OPEC to increase oil prices because, he says, Saudi Arabia wants to keep prices moderate. A senior U.S. official tells CNN the kingdom has told Washington it wants to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, prevent further Iranian meddling in Iraq, and limit Iran's influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The U.S. says while it applauds the Saudi strategy, it's not driving it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE: Wolf, it's not clear if this plan is going to work. Analysts we spoke to said that Saudi Arabia has a lot less influence now than it did in the past. And that the market is so volatile now with producers of oil like Nigeria, like Venezuela encountering problems as well as the threat of terrorism, so the market is a lot more volatile and Saudi Arabia's influence is limited -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain Verjee at the State Department, thank you.

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 against U.S. troops or innocent Iraqis in Iraq. That came in an interview with NPR. And Mr. Bush was careful to say he has no preset plans to invade Iran.

In Israel, shattered glass and body parts soaked in blood, all on a sidewalk in the Red Sea resort of Elat (ph) after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bakery. Three Israelis are dead. A surveillance video shows the effect of the blast on a nearby store.

And did Israel misuse American-made cluster bombs last summer during its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon? Today, the U.S. State Department says its preliminary findings suggest it's possible. An early report has been sent to members of Congress. The State Department says it will consult with Congress to determine if further investigations are needed.

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

A bloody battle as Iraqi forces, with a lot of U.S. help, defeat diehards from a messianic cult. By holding the line, did Iraq's new military head off a regional holy war?

Let's turn to our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the U.S. likes to portray the enemy in Iraq as a combination of disaffected Baathists and foreign terrorists, but Iraqi officials say this time the militants included both Sunni and Shia extremists, as well as various splinter groups.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): Najaf was the biggest battle yet for Iraq's much maligned military more than a day of fierce fighting with fanatical insurgents described by Iraqis as cult-like religious extremists. When the haze of battle cleared, the U.S. had lost two soldiers in a helicopter crash, but at least 100, perhaps more than 200 insurgents were dead. While the Iraqi forces had taken the lead in Najaf, in the end, it took U.S. fire power and air support to finish the battle. The U.S. military issued a statement quoting former top spokesman and now division commander, Brigadier General Vince Brooks as saying, "This is an example of a promise kept. Everything worked just as it should have."

The U.S. argues this is the model for the future; Iraqi troops out front with the U.S. backing them up only when needed.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: It is certainly very positive when you see the Iraqis on the point. That is what they want. That is certainly what we're looking for, as well.

MCINTYRE: The U.S. believes the Iraqi offensive thwarted a diabolical plot in which hundreds of gunmen would disguise themselves as pilgrims and murder clerics on the holiest day of the year, including, perhaps, the assassination of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, something experts say could have only made things far worse.

KENNETH POLLACK, SABAN CTR. FOR MIDDLE EAST POLICY: It was Ayatollah Sistani consistently saying to the Shia, "Do not fight the Americans. Do not fight the reconstruction. This is what we want. This is how we're going to have a better future" that has been critical in whatever success we've had in Iraq so far. Without Ayatollah Sistani, things might have fallen apart even sooner than they already are.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (on camera): What this latest battle seems to show is that what Iraq is facing has moved beyond a clear-cut insurgency to what some military experts increasingly agree is an all-out civil war -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie.

Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon.

Iraqi and U.S. forces in that pitched battle with the so-called diehard End of Days cult. So what would have happened if their shocking plot had actually succeeded?

Joining us now, the "New York Times" Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent in Baghdad, John Burns. John's joining us from New York.

John, if they would have managed, this doomsday cult, to kill the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, walk us through what might have happened to U.S. troops.

JOHN BURNS, "NEW YORK TIMES" CORRESPONDENT: Incalculable, Wolf. Remember, a year ago the attack on the Shiite shrine in Samarra set off an absolute miasma of violence such as we hadn't seen before, four-fold increase over the following months in the total cumulative violence in Iraq. So if you can imagine killing the most important, revered figure in Shiite Islam, what that might have done, it would certainly have, I would have thought, ended any willingness on the part of the Shiite militias to restrain their role in this war, which is, of course, crucial to the American road home.

BLITZER: So I'm sure he's a target. Who protects the Ayatollah?

BURNS: He's protected largely by his own people. And, of course, the Iraqi army has taken control of Najaf from U.S. forces. And it has been in recent months a success story. It's been one of the safer places. It's one of the places where I, as a bureau chief, feel -- have felt relatively at ease about having our correspondents go. We'll have to rethink that on the basis of what happened yesterday.

But what happened yesterday appears to be so exceptional, this messianic group all mixed up with Sunni insurgents, with al Qaeda, with criminals. I'm not sure that's something that's going to be easily replicated.

BLITZER: The other disturbing trend in the last week; three U.S. helicopters, two military, one civilian, went down, apparently, all of them shot down. This is a very, very worrisome new trend.

BURNS: Is certainly is, Wolf. This is a helicopter war. Without helicopters, the United States would be absolutely crippled. Now, it's nowhere close to that. To speak of where we operate in Baghdad, the "New York Times", we have over flights -- low-level overflights by American helicopters 50, 60, 70, 80 times a day. And it's been something of a mystery to me why the Iraqi insurgents have not been more successful. American -- in shooting them down. American commanders have said that they're just not that good and that shooting down a helicopter is not nearly as easy as it seems to a layman like you and I.

But if they are learning, if they're getting better at it, that would be a major watershed in this war, a very, very serious development.

BLITZER: John, listen to what President Bush told NPR earlier today on the sensitive subject of Iranian influence in Iraq.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

GEORGE W. 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)

BLITZER: This follows reports of a kill order; that U.S. troops are authorized to kill Iranian agents in Iraq if they're up to no good. What do you make of this latest development?

BURNS: Well, the first thing that comes to my mind, Wolf, is how permeable the Iraq/Iran border is. I went up there a few months ago with General Casey on a tour to a particularly sensitive part of the border where they know there's a good deal of infiltration by Iranian agents, money and weapons entering. And the Iraqi military presence, the Iraqi border police presence was absolutely vestigial. I could see that General Casey was quite disturbed by that.

So, the first thing is, it's going to be extremely difficult to stop this infiltration. And given the fact that they find a ready home with Shiite militias and Shiite extremists in Iraq, I would think very difficult to track them down. If they're sitting in a consulate building in Mosul, as they were in one of the most recent American raids, then they're relatively easy to find. The others are going to be extremely difficult to find.

And what are the American options here? The cross-border options, of course, raise all kinds of horrendous possibilities. So I'm not sure how easy it's going to be for the United States to deal with this problem.

BLITZER: It's a very, very worrisome situation.

John Burns, thanks very much.

BURNS: It's a pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: And the White House Press Secretary Tony Snow couldn't resist a jab today at a high-profile anti-war protester. That would be the actress Jane Fonda. She joined thousands of anti-war demonstrators in Washington this past weekend, three decades after she earned the nickname Hanoi Jane for protesting the Vietnam War.

Listen to what Tony Snow said in the White House briefing room earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: What does the president think of the march on Washington?

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think he (ph) thought a lot about it. You know, I mean, it's nice to see Jane Fonda in front of a camera again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Snow, added, by the way, that it's perfectly appropriate for Americans to protest the war if they so chose to do so.

Still ahead tonight, how low will they go? President Bush's already sagging poll numbers take a turn for the worse. We're going to tell you where the president's job approval rating is right now and what it means.

And could a former president become the First Man? To be the First Man? Get it? We'll examine the possible scenario if Hillary Clinton becomes the next president.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, forces of political gravity are tugging harder than ever on President Bush and his poll numbers, despite his State of the Union Address last week. Take a look at this. Five surveys taken in mid-January show the president's job approval rating ranging from 28 percent to 35 percent. The 28 percent figure in a new CBS News poll is the lowest approval rating ever for Mr. Bush.

Averaging all of the numbers together in all of these polls, the president gets a 32 percent approval rating.

Our Bill Schneider is looking at all these numbers. The numbers clearly do not bode well for the president during the start of these final two years in office, Bill.

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: No, they don't. A job rating, Wolf, is a measure of the president's clout. More than 70 percent of Americans do not think President Bush will have the clout to get what he wants done over the next two years.

When members of the president's own party begin to distance themselves, as some Republicans are now doing over the troop build-up in Iraq, you know he's in trouble.

Voters elected a Democratic Congress to challenge him, and 64 percent told the "Newsweek" poll that since the Iraq war began, they do not think Congress has been assertive enough in challenging the administration on the war.

Wolf, only four presidents since World War II have seen their job ratings drop below 30 percent. One was Harry Truman. He chose not to run for reelection. Richard Nixon was forced to resign. Jimmy Carter was fired after one term, and so was Bush's own 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 wished George W. Bush' presidency were over -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Those are pretty horrible numbers. So how does it play out? Because politicians always look at these poll numbers, even though they insist they don't -- they ignore the polls, they don't pay attention to the polls. We know they really do. How does it play out in the 2008 presidential race if these numbers stay firm?

SCHNEIDER: Well, right now, they're doing serious damage to the president's party, even though, of course, he can't run again. That "Newsweek" poll shows that when you ask people, do you want to see a Republican or a Democrat win in 2008, the Democrat -- generic Democrat -- has a 28-point lead.

That's not a prediction, because when the poll asked about specific Democrats -- Clinton, Obama, Edwards, versus specific Republicans -- McCain, Giuliani, Romney -- the race was much closer with real names. But it does mean that starting out the 2008 campaign, the Democrats are in -- have the advantage.

BLITZER: All right, Bill Schneider, with the latest on the numbers. Thank you.

Meanwhile, another Republican White House hopeful seems to be distancing himself somewhat from President Bush when it comes to the situation in Iraq. That would be the former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He filed papers today to form a presidential exploratory committee. Huckabee has offered qualified support for Mr. Bush's Iraq policy. I asked him about that right here in THE SITUATION ROOM earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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?

MIKE HUCKABEE, FORMER GOVERNOR OF ARKANSAS: 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, speaking with me earlier.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton's likely presidential candidacy would chart new ground on at least two fronts should she win. Not only would she be the first female commander in chief, but former President Bill Clinton would become the country's first first man. Let's go back to CNN's Carol Costello -- Carol.

Unfortunately, we're not hearing Carol Costello. But I want to go to a report Carol Costello filed a report on how this would play out if in fact Hillary Clinton were elected president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Perhaps the first sign Bill Clinton as first gentleman might be a little awkward came in Iowa. A campaigning Hillary Clinton heard a voice from the crowd ask, "what qualifies you to deal with evil men like Osama bin Laden?"

CLINTON: What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?

COSTELLO: The crowd roared for a full 31 seconds. To this crowd, Senator Clinton had just taken a playful jab at her husband Bill.

Republican pollster and author Frank Luntz, who wrote "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say," says brilliant.

FRANK LUNTZ, GOP POLLSTER: Sometimes the most powerful language in American politics is to say absolutely nothing at all. She's starting to learn how to become a good communicator.

COSTELLO: And maybe get voters to put that philandering husband and that impeachment thing behind them, and get them to think of Bill Clinton as first gentleman. Something some Democrats say is a cinch.

LARRY HASS, FORMER CLINTON ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: People look back fondly on the 1990s. And if Bill Clinton campaigning on behalf of Hillary Clinton reminds people of the 1990s, that's a very good thing, and I think that's much more important than this getting used to process that we're going to have with a first gentleman of some kind.

COSTELLO: Maybe the role of first gentleman is something Mr. Clinton has long been thinking about. Back in 1999 with Hillary thinking of running for the Senate, then-President Bill Clinton put together this spoof for the Washington press corps.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: I wish I could be here more, but I really think Bill has everything under control.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wait, wait, wait! Come on!

COSTELLO: But if he doesn't play the loving spouse role, will voters accept him in a more traditional first lady persona? Will he be (inaudible) like Laura Bush with her literacy campaign? Will he be responsible a la Nancy Reagan?

NANCY REAGAN, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: What should you do when someone offers you drugs?

CHILDREN: Just say no!

COSTELLO: Nearly everyone I spoke to says, none of the above. No. First traveler is more like it.

LUNTZ: I would love to see Bill Clinton in Africa. I'd love to see him in Europe, rebuilding those bridges that have been destroyed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: But what about the campaign itself? Will we see the Clintons together with Bill Clinton pushing Hillary Clinton into the limelight. Unlikely. Mr. Clinton will campaign for his wife, but they will be mostly at separate events. No chance of one overshadowing the other that way, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, good report. Carol Costello reporting. Still ahead, Jack Cafferty wants to know which presidential candidate would you like to have over for dinner? Jack standing by with "The Cafferty File."

And who needs campaign commercials when you have YouTube? But are these the spots Senator Barack Obama necessarily wants you to see? Jeanne Moos standing by with that. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go back to Jack in New York -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: "Time Magazine" did a poll on this. And the question was, "Which presidential candidate would you like to invite into your home to have dinner?"

And here is some of what you wrote. Some of you are not taking this very seriously.

Deborah in North Pleasant Lake, Indiana: "None of them. I exist on $880 per month Social Security disability. I couldn't afford to feed them in the manner in which they're accustomed to. A little rich for my blood... I live in a farmhouse alone in the sticks somewhere in Indiana now and I don't want that much company, ever,"

Barb in Michigan writes: "Why is the media covering presidential candidates this long before the election? Are you trying to drive your watchers stark raving mad? If you have to report on these politicians for a year and a half, Jack, you'll look worse than Don Imus and will be drinking Jack Daniels out of Wolf's shoes, on air!"

Donald in Michigan: "We would welcome Senator John McCain. Why? Because of his Vietnam experience as a POW, his integrity, his experience, and his character."

Joe in Houston: "Dinner at my house? I'd pick Al Gore. I'd like to ask him why he didn't fight back in Florid and demand a complete recount. Also, if he is running in 2008, why he doesn't get the lead out and jump in."

Gary in Louisville: "It's easy, Jack. I'd like to invite Cameron Diaz. We could just pretend she's running for president, and anybody would be better than the candidates we already have, anyway!"

Don in Louisiana: "Hillary, of course. Just to see if she remembers how to do dishes."

And John in Staunton, Vermont writes: "Which one would I have for dinner? It doesn't matter, Jack. They would all taste like chicken."

If you didn't see you e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and read some more of them online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that. Very funny e-mail from a lot of our viewers. Let's find out what's coming up right at the top of the hour. That means Paula is standing by.

Hi, Paula.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Thanks.

Just about eight minutes from now, we will shine a light on America's hidden secrets, bringing intolerance out in the open. Tonight, hateful words and the debate raging over whether to ban the "n-word" and other slurs calculated to offend. We're going to take you to a Texas town where they tried to ban. You might be surprised at what happened.

Also, a disturbing story from a small Quaker college in North Carolina where three Palestinian students say they were brutally assaulted by football players who accused them of being terrorists.

Al that and a whole lot more coming up for you at the top of the hour -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Sounds like a good show, as usual.

ZAHN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Paula, for that.

And still ahead here in the SITUATION ROOM, homemade political ads. We're going to find out why voters are taking Barack Obama to YouTube. Jeanne Moos has this story. You're going to want to stick around and see it.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Clear night in the nation's Capitol. Let's take a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your own hometown newspapers tomorrow.

Near Najaf in Iraq, hundreds of militants sit blindfolded after being captured by U.S. and Iraqi forces after a battle.

A car is lowered into the floor in New York's first automated parking garage. Machines move the cars underground and bring them back up pointed toward the exit.

In Ohio, a construction worker shows off an eight-foot long boa constrictor he found frozen solid along a bike path.

And in Florida, Super Bowl security preparations already under way. Officers from the Miami-Dade Police Department practiced on the Segway personal transporters they'll be using to patrol outside Dolphin Stadium.

Some of today's "Hot Shots", pictures often worth a thousand words.

Possible presidential candidate Barack Obama doesn't have to worry about campaign ads, at least for now. As CNN's Jeanne Moos reports, some supporters have him covered.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Barack Obama is still just exploring the idea of running for president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mightier than a roaring hurricane!

MOOS: And already, there's something...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Up in the sky. Look!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a bird.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a plane.

MOOS: It's a campaign commercial. A homemade "Obama for president" ad, one of two dozen or so floating around on YouTube.

This one's called "The Good, the Bad, and the Rest of Us".

The senator is shown facing a gun slinger with a twitchy trigger finger, but the only thing Obama draws is his hand, offering a handshake.

This spot, by a Chicago graphic arts director sort of reminds us of the real ad Bill Richardson appeared in when he was running for governor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Over 400 meth labs shut down.

GOV. BILL RICHARD, (D) NEW MEXICO: Give me a milk.

MOOS: Who would bother to make homemade ads like these that hardly anyone sees? Some political junky?

DAILEY PIKE, PRES., YUKS ENTERTAINMENT, INC.: I am ashamed to admit I have never voted in my entire life.

MOOS: Dailey Pike, 55 year-old comedian and small-time producer, says he's inspired by Obama.

Those these little homemade Obama commercials are supposed to be complimentary, there are certain things that a professional Obama campaign staff would probably not want to advertise. For instance, the pot spot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In high school, my girlfriend Anne (ph) and I went around with Jim and Bob. They both smoked pot. That's jive talk for marijuana.

MOOS: Obama admitted in his first book using a little blow, in his words, and smoking pot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And, yes, he did inhale.

MOOS: Whenever Dailey Pike hears something he doesn't like aid about Obama, he just whips up a new ad.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, TALK RADIO HOST: African-Americans...

MOOS: For instance, when Rush Limbaugh and other commentators used "Halfrican" to describe half-white, half-black Americans like Obama...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Halfrican...

MOOS: .. Dailey Pike laid his commentary over theirs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I get offended and I know I have many black friends who get offended when he stands in front of that black audience talking like he's from the hood...

MOOS: Radio host Brian Sussman, by the way, did apologize for his insensitive comments.

Here's a guy trying to create a little pot luck for Obama.

PIKE: I'm sure everybody knows Barack's story, born in the traveling show, momma used to dance for the money they'd throw. Papa would do whatever he could.

Wait a minute. That's Cher.

(MUSIC)

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Leave it to our Jeanne Moos.

Thanks very much for joining us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

I want to thank my colleague Kitty Pilgrim for helping us out earlier tonight.

Let's go to Paula in New York -- Paula.

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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