Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Twin Tragedies in Southeast; Turf Battle Between Clinton and Obama; Secretary of Army Resigns
Aired March 2, 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: Happening right now, twin tragedies in the Southeast. Tornadoes leave twisted wreckage and shattered lives in their path. And a plunging bus hurls college teammates to their death and leaves survivors in shock.
Also this hour, a turf battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- the dueling Democratic presidential candidates will be face- to-face this weekend. We're going to tell you what's at stake.
And a full court press for conservative votes -- Republican White House hopefuls make their appeals.
But are any of them -- any of them -- getting it right?
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
But we begin this hour with more news on what's happening at the Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital here in Washington, D.C.
As all of you know by now, there have been -- there have been huge problems there as a result of dilapidated conditions at an outpatient facility and enormous bureaucratic headaches for United States military personnel returning from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and other veterans.
Now, we're told the defense secretary, Robert Gates, about to meet with reporters once again over at the Pentagon and make another announcement. Only yesterday, the military commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital was fired. He was let go as a result of some of those conditions. We don't know what Robert Gates is about to announce, but we do expect that he will be speaking about these serious problems.
Earlier today, the president announced he wants to go forward and not only check the military hospitals here in Washington, D.C. the Army hospital at Walter Reed, the Navy hospital, the Bethesda Naval Medical Center out in Bethesda, Maryland, but he wants a review of all -- all of the military and veterans' hospitals across the United States.
He wants an in-depth investigation. This following Gates' decision only in the past few days to undertake a bipartisan review of all the military hospitals themselves. We're watching this story very closely. You can see the live pictures coming in from the Pentagon. As soon as those -- as soon as the defense secretary walks into the Pentagon, we're going to go there and hear what Robert Gates has to say.
Clearly, more shoes look like they're about to fall on this developing story.
But let's move on and go to the devastation, the devastation that's causing a lot of heartache out in the Southeast. Tornado survivors in Missouri, Alabama and Georgia -- they're trying right now to come to terms with what they've lost and what they need to do to rebuild. At least 20 people were killed by a massive and violent storm system that tore through the Southeast.
All of that will be coming up. We're going to have extensive coverage of that.
But let's go to the Pentagon and Robert Gates.
ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: First, earlier today, the secretary of the Army, Dr. Fran Harvey, offered his resignation. I have accepted his resignation.
Undersecretary of Army, Pete Geren, will act -- serve as acting secretary until a new secretary is in place.
I thank Dr. Harvey for his distinguished service to the department and to the nation.
Second, later today, the Army will name a new permanent commander for the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This flagship institution must have its new leadership in place as quickly as possible.
I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed. Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems.
Also, I am concerned that some do not properly understand the need to communicate to the wounded and their families that we have no higher priority than their care and that addressing their concerns about the quality of their outpatient experience is critically important.
Our wounded soldiers and their families have sacrificed much and they deserve the best we can offer.
Finally, I want to reaffirm my confidence in the staff at Walter Reed and their professionalism and dedication to providing caring treatment. From what I have learned, the problems at Walter Reed appear to be problems of leadership. The Walter Reed doctors, nurses and other staff are among the best and the most caring in the world. They deserve our continued deepest thanks and strongest support.
Thank you. QUESTION: Sir, did you demand Secretary Harvey's resignation?
QUESTION: Did you ask for his resignation, sir?
BLITZER: And there it is, the Army secretary, Francis Harvey, is no longer the Army secretary, a clearly, clearly angry Defense Secretary Robert Gates wasting no time in dismissing him, moving on, trying to make sure that the problems that have come forward over the past few weeks at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in the nation's capital are corrected and that there are no other similar problems around the country.
Francis Harvey, the secretary of the Army, loses his job. Yesterday, the commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he lost his job. And there may be more on the way.
Kathleen Koch has been following all of this for us over at the Pentagon -- Kathleen, it's not often you see a defense secretary as irate, as angry, as disappointed as he is in the leadership of the U.S. Army right now.
KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly, Wolf.
Obviously, that was a very stern statement by the defense secretary. Very concerned, actually, about how this all has played out in the public and also within the administration.
Of course, President Bush himself is going to be taking action on this, appointing and announcing in his radio address that he is going to be forming a panel, a bipartisan panel, to review medical care for all military veterans. And obviously it's unclear now as to whether any other shoes are going to drop on this.
There had been a temporary replacement for, as the head of Walter Reed, that was supposed to be taking over, and that was the -- that was Kevin Kiley, the Army surgeon general, Kevin Kiley, was supposed to be taking over as commander of Walter Reed after the dismissal of yesterday of Major General George Weightman.
But there have been a lot of concerns expressed about the fact that that Kiley, who had been at the helm of Walter Reed for two years, from 2002 to 2004, had himself, according to families, according to veterans and according to veterans organizations, been aware of these problems. They said they had informed him of the problems and he hasn't -- hadn't done enough.
So there were some who wondered why Kiley was being put in charge. And, obviously, the second announcement made by the defense secretary is that someone else, a permanent head of Walter Reed, will be named immediately -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And just some background, Kathleen, for our viewers, who may not be following this as closely as you and I have been following it. The "Washington Post," within the past few weeks, has had a series of very, very graphic articles...
BLITZER: ... a series of graphic articles depicting what's going on over at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in the nation's capital, especially at the outpatients facility, with dilapidated conditions, moldy walls.
Certainly not suitable for the veterans who need that kind of treatment. And this has resulted in the chain of events, as you pointed out, yesterday, the dismissal of the Army commander of that facility and today the announcement that Francis Harvey was losing.
What I was impressed by Robert Gates in saying that he didn't think that some of these individuals were focusing in as seriously as they should on these awful conditions and that's why they've lost their jobs.
KOCH: Correct, Wolf.
Obviously, the defense secretary had this belief that these people who have given so much, these service members who have lost limbs, who have been seriously, seriously injured, that they should -- they deserved the very best when they came back, that they deserved to be treated like the heroes that they were.
And when you read the articles in the "Washington Post" and then saw our report, saw what the cameras saw when they went into at least one of these buildings and read about the -- the real hurdles, the administrative hurdles that these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines had to leap over to the care -- again, predominantly these would be soldiers there.
But it certainly outraged everyone, from the defense secretary to the president to average Americans, who were inundating news organizations and certainly, I'm sure, the administration with e- mails, calls and letters, just saying this could not stand.
So clearly a belief from the top down that really hard and fast action needed to be taken.
BLITZER: And the Army secretary, once again, losing his job as a result of this.
We're going to follow up on this breaking news later here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're going to be speaking with the former U.S. senator, Max Cleland, himself a triple amputee, a veteran of the Vietnam War, someone who has spent a lot of time both as a patient and as a visitor at the Walter Reed Army Medical facility.
Max Cleland coming up here later in THE SITUATION ROOM.
But let's go back to those deadly storms out in the Southeast. Tornado survivors in Missouri, Alabama and Georgia are trying right now to come to terms with what they've lost and what they need to do to rebuild their lives. At least 20 people were killed by those massive and violent storm systems that tore through the Southeast. Eight of them were students of the -- at the high school in Enterprise, Alabama. It took a direct hit from a powerful, powerful tornado.
Today, witnesses say the lights went out, the roof blew off, the screening started and the fear set in.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People crying, everything. I went inside the third hallway. They said the hall collapsed. I pulled out two dead little girls and it was very disturbing. I don't feel right, right now. I've been up and down these roads just helping everybody I can.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: This is what the storm looked like as it churned across Alabama and Georgia yesterday. There are questions today about whether enough was done to protect those high school students and others in the path of this killer storm. The Alabama governor, Bob Riley, contends emergency workers and school officials did everything they possibly could. And we'll be speaking with him in just a few moments.
The storm moved on to Americus, Georgia, tearing a hospital to shreds. More than 200 homes there are damaged or destroyed. The National Weather Service says it received 31 reports of tornadoes across the Midwest and Southeast yesterday.
President Bush says he'll visit storm damaged areas tomorrow.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: With a heavy heart, I go down, knowing full well that I'll be seeing people whose loves were turned upside down by the tornadoes. I'll do my very best to comfort them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Let's turn now to that other disaster, the one in Georgia.
Take a look at this. It simulates how a stunning bus accident played out early this morning. The charter bus was carrying a college baseball team to Florida when it plunged off an Interstate overpass.
Four Bluffton University teammates were killed, along with the bus driver and his wife. Survivors who emerged from the wreckage are being treated at Grady Hospital in Atlanta.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
A.J. RAMTHUN, BLUFFTON BASEBALL PLAYER: This is something that's not going to leave the guys who were on that bus this morning. This is going to be with us forever. (END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What a sad story.
Amanda Rosseter is over at the Grady Hospital in Atlanta with more on the crash and the recovery.
What's the latest -- Amanda.
AMANDA ROSSETER, CNN
CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you mentioned, 35 people on board, including the driver and his wife. Right now, we know 29 were injured and taken to area hospitals. Six confirmed dead, including that driver and his wife.
We understand they were traveling south to Sarasota, Florida this morning for a baseball tournament, a spring baseball tournament. And they were driving in the left-hand HOV lane.
And it's understood that maybe the driver was confused about the HOV exit and on ramps. He simply exited from the left-hand HOV lane, the high occupancy vehicle or the car pool lane, if you will, went up onto the overpass and went through that concrete barrier, through that guard fence and landed the craft -- landed the bus on its side on I-75 below.
There was gridlock in Atlanta all of this morning. Twenty-nine people transported to the hospital. We spoke to one doctor at Atlantic Medical Center, which is just down the road from there, the second hospital that they took some of the trauma victims to. He said that many of the students he treated said that they were actually ejected from the bus as the bus hit the highway.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. MARK WATERMAN, ATLANTA MEDICAL CENTER: I think every one of them said they had been sleeping at the time, like probably typical teenagers, at that time of morning. So, but as to whether it helped or not, it's hard to say because, as we know, there were some fatalities.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ED KAY, FATHER OF BASEBALL PLAYER: The response here has been great. Like I said, I mean there were tons of doctors on the floor this morning, lots of people helping out. Social services was by. The chaplains were by. I thought it's been a great response.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROSSETER: Now, Wolf, that last gentleman we just heard from was Ed Kay. He is the father of Tim Kay, who was one of the students on that baseball team who was on that bus. The Kays happen to live in the Atlanta area, so they were able to get here quickly and check on their son, who is OK.
The status at this point here at Grady Memorial Hospital, two critical. One is in serious condition. We understand their injuries had ranged from head injuries to spleen and liver issues.
Sixteen, we are told, are in fair or good condition. The team captain, we are told, was able to come around and help identify some of the people who are a little more hurt and couldn't speak to the doctors.
There is expected to be a press conference here at about 4:30, just coming up in a few minutes, with the doctors. They are going to come out here from Grady and give us the status of everyone involved. And we'll keep you updated.
BLITZER: All right, Amanda...
ROSSETER: We're live in Atlanta.
I'm Amanda Rosseter.
Back to you -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Amanda.
We'll stay in touch with you on that.
Thank you very much.
Much more on this story coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, as well, as Amanda just said. That news conference at Grady Memorial Hospital. We're going monitor that, as well, and update you if there is important new information on that story. It's the heartbreaking story, indeed.
Jack Cafferty is off today.
Coming up, the battle here at home over the war in Iraq. We're going to go live to Capitol Hill to find out what Democrats are planning to do to bring the troops home.
Plus, we'll have much more on those deadly storms in the Southeast. The Alabama governor, Bob Riley, he's standing by to join us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM to talk about the recovery efforts in his hard hit state.
And new developments happening just now in the "Scooter" Libby trial. This as the jury finishes its eighth day of deliberations in the CIA leak case.
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Let's switch gears now to presidential politics.
An influential conservative group is starting to make judgments about the Republican presidential field.
The Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, as it's called, is meeting right now here in Washington. Most of the Republican White House hopefuls are appealing for the group's support. One contender joked about the heated competition for conservative support.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), ARKANSAS: This conference is called CPAC and maybe this weekend it might be renamed the Conservative Presidential Anxiety Conference. The theme might be dude, where's my candidate?
Well, I'd like to think that maybe he's standing in front of you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Let's check in with our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.
She's been covering this CPAC event -- give us a little sense of perspective of what's going on.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's going on, first of all, and probably the unspoken thing that's going on there is the absence of John McCain, who did not come to the CPAC conference.
BLITZER: Why did he decide, effectively, to snub this group?
CROWLEY: Well, first of all, they're -- the campaign says listen, he had a fundraiser. He was out in Utah and he wasn't going to be available. But there has been tension between this group and between John McCain, mostly because he's championed campaign finance reform and a good number of conservatives think that has stifled their voice.
BLITZER: The whole notion of this -- this conference is that a lot of these conservatives are not necessarily all that happy with the current presidential field.
CROWLEY: It brings me to a sticker that I brought back for you. And you can get it after the show. I wanted to show it to you.
BLITZER: It's over there.
CROWLEY: You see here, Rudy McRomney. So, you know, it's obviously Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, with a red slash over them. That is -- that certainly does show you what the poll leaders, how they're perceived in the community.
Now, all three are working hard to close the gaps. But the deal ain't done yet. Some of those in the lower threshold of the presidential polling see that opening. I give you Congressman Tom Tancredo.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. TOM TANCREDO (R), COLORADO: We should not be too surprised by the rush to the right or the host of new conservative converts during a Republican presidential primary. It happens all the time. It's just that conversions are supposed to be made on the road to Damascus, not the road to Des Moines.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: Despite the undertow of dissatisfaction with his social views, Rudy Giuliani packed the house and got a great reception, especially when he talked about national security.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our desire right now is to have peace. And maybe we made a mistake in calling this the war on terror. This is not our war on them. This is their war on us. This war is over when they stop planning to come here and kill us. When that ends, the war is over.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: And though the several references to conversions along the road to Damascus were clearly aimed at Mitt Romney's relatively recent flip on abortion, he, too, brought in a sizeable crowd and offered up some crowd pleasing rhetoric.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Time and again, judges add things that aren't in the constitution and they take away things that are in the constitution.
And in that regard, they let the campaign finance lobby take away first amendment rights. If I'm elected president, I will fight to repeal McCain-Feingold.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: Now, as we've said, the author of that campaign finance reform, John McCain, was elsewhere.
BLITZER: You know, it's a fascinating dilemma that a lot of these conservatives are facing right now, because, on one hand, Rudy Giuliani is really coming up in the polls among registered Republicans. They like him on national security and on the war on terrorism, but they don't like him when it comes to abortion rights or gay rights or gun control. So they face a serious problem right now.
CROWLEY: They do. But they do like a winner. And for every point he goes up in the polls, or John McCain, for that matter, or Mitt Romney, the more they look like a winner, the more conservatives look at them, and they've got to balance this out.
And you talk to conservatives and they say listen, you know, there may be 30 things we want. If somebody comes into the threshold of 18, 19, 20, we're happy. So there's some -- there's some room in there for all three of them.
BLITZER: Candy is going to have a lot more on this story coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Bloggers invited to cover this conservative showcase are taking in even the smallest details of the conference and they have decidedly mixed emotions about this GOP presidential field.
Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.
ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these are conservative bloggers who are camped out at the conference, really trying to take the pulse of the conservative grassroots there and adding it to their sights.
Early reports from the Giuliani speech, which they've just finished watching, that he drew a large crowd and he made quite the impression. Captain's Quarters Ed Morrissey reporting that he even saw Mitt Romney campaign activists glued to the screens as Giuliani was speaking.
There are Romney activists there. There are also detractors. Boi from Troy recording some of the charges of flip-flop in the hall, a flip-flop dolphin there, aimed at Romney and also Atlschul Footwear with Romney's name on it.
But really the attention the last couple of days in these blogs has been focused on the person that was not there. That's Senator John McCain. This attendance record has been circulating in the halls. Its made its way onto the blogs, showing that he was not at CPAC, but yes, he was, at Letterman's "Late Show" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you for that, Abbi.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the Democrats have been frantically working behind the scenes all week. They're trying to reach a consensus on what to do next when it comes to their opposition to the war in Iraq.
As CNN reported earlier in the week, Democratic leaders had hoped to press ahead with a new modified authorization for the war. But they faced some unexpected opposition from within their own party.
Let's turn to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.
So where does this struggle stand -- Dana, right now?
DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think to help sum that up, I can tell you, to look about the names of the 16 people in the wall there, Wolf. That is all of the Democrats in the Senate who voted against -- they're still in the Senate -- voted against authorizing war in 2002. And that, in general, Wolf, is the group giving the Democratic leadership in the Senate the biggest problem.
As we reported earlier in the week, when many of them heard that the leadership was planning on reauthorizing the war, they said wait a minute, we didn't vote for war to begin with.
Why should we vote to reauthorize a mission we didn't support at all?
And on the other side, you have conservative Democrats who say we're a little concerned about passing something that could tie the hands of the commander-in-chief.
So that is why all week long the Senate Democratic leaders, who were taken by surprise by this, had been working behind the scenes. They're doing it even as we speak, Wolf, trying to figure out how to thread the needle here, write a resolution, a bill, that will please all these Democrats.
BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much.
Dana Bash watching this story for us.
We're going to take a quick break.
When we come back, much more on the breaking news that we're following, breaking news right here in Washington. The secretary of defense, Robert Gates, announcing just moments ago that he's fired the Army secretary, Francis Harvey, because of the awful conditions at parts of the Walter Reed Army Medical facility here in the nation's capital.
More on that breaking news coming up.
Also more coming up on that bus crash in Atlanta, a bus crash that killed members of a college baseball team and injured lots of others. We've just heard from school officials. More on that story, when we come back.
BLITZER: Happening right now, the breaking news we've been following. The secretary of the Army resigns under pressure and the controversy over dilapidated conditions at the Army's top hospital. In our next hour, we'll talk about all of that, have a complete report. We'll speak live with senator -- for more Senator Max Cleland, himself a former patient there. He had his war wounds treated at Walter Reed. He's got a lot of thoughts about what's happening there right now. That's coming up.
Also, President Bush in Kentucky for his first 2008 campaign appearance.
How much will he help or hurt Republicans in the next election?
Just ahead, the campaigner-in-chief in action. Also this hour, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama prepare to stand together. Their appearance this weekend is driving home the rough and tumble battle for African-American votes.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
All that coming up.
But we're getting some more developments now on that bus crash in Atlanta.
Carol Costello is watching this story for us -- an awful story. Those baseball players from that college earlier in the morning. The bus simply went over the inner pass and I know you've been monitoring a news conference that just occurred -- Carol.
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I have been.
As you know, six people died in that bus crash. And we were awaiting the release of the names and we finally have who some of those victims were.
I want to take you to Eric Fulcomer.
He's dean of students at Bluffton University in Ohio.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ERIC FULCOMER, DEAN OF STUDENTS, BLUFFTON UNIVERSITY: Four student athletes, the bus driver and the bus driver's wife were killed in the accident. The deceased include Bluffton University students Tyler Williams of Lima, Ohio; David Betts of Bryan, Ohio; Scott Harmon of Lima, Ohio; and Cody Holp of Arcanum, Ohio.
The bus driver, Jerome Niemeyer and his wife Jean Niemeyer are both of Columbus Grove, Ohio.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COSTELLO: All of those towns that he mentioned, very small towns in the state of Ohio. So, they must be reeling, as well, Wolf.
Nineteen students are being treated at an Atlanta-area hospital. Of course, as we have been telling you, that charter bus full of the college baseball team plunged off a highway ramp on another -- on to the highway below, killing those six people -- back to you.
BLITZER: And we're going to have a lot more on this story, Carol, coming up.
We're going to monitor that news conference at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. That's coming up shortly.
And -- and, also, in the next hour, we're going to show you what we believe happened in the early hours of this morning that caused this awful, awful tragedy.
We will move on, though, to some other news we're watching here in Washington -- the trial that has much of the nation's important power players and journalists on edge right now. The trial remains a cliffhanger, at least now. That would be the trial of the former vice president's chief of staff, Lewis Scooter Libby.
Our Brian Todd has been covering this case for us. He is here in THE SITUATION ROOM with the latest twist.
They have been deliberating now for days and days and days.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, more than a week -- and some odd timing of this critical note that the jury just handed to the judge. The jury has gone home, hasn't been at the courthouse for two-and-a-half-hours, hasn't reached a verdict yet.
But a note to the judge just before they left this afternoon indicates that the jurors could be at a critical moment in deliberations. We're going to put it up on the screen.
The note reads -- quote -- "We would like clarification of the term reasonable doubt. Specifically, is it necessary for the government to present evidence that it is not humanly possible for someone not to recall an event in order to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?"
Now, according to two legal experts who we just spoke to, including our own Jeffrey Toobin, it's a very confusing question. But the answer, definitively, is, no, the government does not have to say, does not have to prove that it's not humanly possible for Libby not to recall a certain event.
And the -- these experts, including Jeffrey Toobin, say that this question likely means that the jurors are very seriously debating the question of reasonable doubt right now, debating the question of whether Libby lied to investigators.
It's very important to note here that each verdict on each count has to have a unanimous vote from the jury. The judge is going to take up this question first thing Monday morning.
BLITZER: All right, so, basically they have ended their deliberations for this week.
BLITZER: They will resume deliberations on Monday.
And they are now, presumably, getting to this very, very critical issue, as in all cases along these lines: What does it mean to be -- to be convinced that he's guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? And they are asking for some clarification what that means, beyond a reasonable doubt.
TODD: Even more critical at this stage, because there is no tangible evidence in this case. It is mostly circumstantial evidence. It is one person's word against another in each count. So, they have got to look at this very, very carefully -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you very much. You will -- I know you will be watching this trial for us all of next week, as well. We will see when there is a decision.
Let's get back now to one our top stories: the ruins of schools and homes and lives in the Southeast, after a massive storm packing powerful tornadoes.
Joining us on the phone right now, the governor of the state of Alabama, Bob Riley.
Governor, thanks very much. And deepest condolences to all -- all the people in Alabama who have suffered so much as a result of these horrendous tornadoes.
Give us the latest. What is the death toll and the -- the number of injured?
RILEY: Wolf, first, let me -- let me tell everybody in the country that has kept up with this, thank you. We have had cards and -- and phone calls and offers of condolences and help from all over the United States.
And I just wanted, on behalf -- behalf of the people of Alabama, tell how much we appreciate that.
BLITZER: Our heart goes out to you, Governor, and to all the...
BLITZER: ... the people of Alabama.
RILEY: Well, we really appreciate it, Wolf.
We have got 10 fatalities today. We have got numerous people that are injured, but none that are critical today.
You know, the biggest thing we're trying to do now is just get back to some sense of normalcy in Enterprise. It is a horrific situation down there, but that's the bad news. The good news is, we probably have 1,000 volunteers that have come from all over the state.
And they're down repairing roofs, moving debris. We have got all the federal resources that we have asked for. We have got all of our state people down there. So, we're going to put it back together. It's just going to take a few days.
And the biggest thing we're trying to do right now is just make sure that we can get them back to some sense of normalcy as quickly as possible.
BLITZER: Governor, as all of our viewers know, tornadoes are very different than hurricanes. Hurricanes, you usually have a few days notice of what is going on. When it comes to a tornado, you really only have sometimes minutes.
Did the system in Enterprise, for example -- Enterprise, Alabama -- where that tornado ripped through that high school, did the system, the warning system, work as it's supposed to work? Or, in your initial investigation, were there problems?
As far as I can tell -- and we have gone through a timeline on it, Wolf. I mean, the people down there really did do a remarkable job. As soon as the alerts went off, they got all of the kids, that -- they brought them into the most secure place in the -- in the building, put them in there. And, again, when a level-four hurricane comes through, it's going to destroy anything in its path.
You know, there was a lot of conversation today from the media about: Well, should you have let them go home? Well, you got to remember, if these kids had gone home, most of them would of gone home to an empty house, because mom and dad is at work. Many of them would have gone home to a building that wasn't as structurally sound as -- as that high school was.
So, I think the principal, I think the Board of Education made exactly the right call. But, again, when something that massive and that powerful hits anything, you're going to have some loss of life. This is one of these cases, at least in my opinion, where they did everything right and still had a loss of life.
BLITZER: A tragic situation.
Governor, thank you so much. And good luck to everyone in Alabama -- indeed, in the Southeast -- in dealing with the aftermath of these tornadoes. We will stay in close touch with you.
RILEY: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, let's go to Atlanta right now.
There is a news conference under way at Grady Memorial Hospital. They are updating us on the condition of those baseball players from that college in Ohio, that bus crash earlier in the day in Atlanta.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
DR. JEFFREY SALOMONE, TRAUMA SURGEON, GRADY MEMORIAL HOSPITAL: ... of the skull, remove the blood clot, and allow the brain more area to swell.
SALOMONE: It's a matter of medication, sedation, a tube into hollow areas in the brain that are filled with fluid, so we can drain that fluid out to give the cerebrospinal fluid, to give the brain a little additional room to swell.
QUESTION: Dr. Salomone, we're already talking about a very busy hospital. I'm just imagining the scene here this morning as people were coming in, so many of them. Can you give us a sense what it was like here this morning?
SALOMONE: Well, we are used to having multiple injured, seriously injured patients arrive at one point in time. And, in Grady's history, in the 10 years I have been here, we have had the Olympic Park bombing, the Buckhead shooting. I mean, this is not unheard of, for us to deal with situations like this.
SALOMONE: I don't believe there were any additional people called in today. It's just working with our -- our standard crew.
Because of the -- the three most seriously injured ones, two of those went to the operating room very quickly. One remained in the emergency department. And we moved the other 16 with less serious injuries to a quad area of the hospital where we were able to keep them all altogether, organized what needed to be done, get their X- rays done efficiently.
And that actually freed the emergency department up to continue its business as usual, while we did the work up there. So, all in all, things flowed very smoothly, because we have experience doing this.
QUESTION: Psychologically, how important was it to...
BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor this news conference at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, get more information as it comes in -- a really, really sad story.
This Bluffton University college baseball team, driving to a tournament in Florida, goes over an overpass on the interstate in Atlanta in the early hours of this morning -- six people dead. Three are now being treated in serious condition at Grady Memorial. Sixteen others are being treated in less serious condition.
We will stay on top of this story for you.
Up ahead: Hillary Clinton getting some help from her husband, as she battles Barack Obama for African-American support. We will take a look at what's expected in Selma this weekend. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."
Stay with us.
BLITZER: Let's get to the campaign trail now. That's where President Bush is spending much of today. Specifically, he is in Kentucky for his first political appearance of the 2008 race.
He is stumping today for Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is joining us now from Louisville with more -- Suzanne.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's a fund-raising dinner. And the tickets go for $2,000 a plate. Now, this is just the first of several events the president is going to be headlining in the coming months, we're told. But the big question is whether or not this is going to pay off.
MALVEAUX (voice-over): The campaigner in chief on the road again -- once the darling of the party, is he now the pariah?
VIN WEBER, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Everybody wants to be around the president of the United States, whether the president's poll ratings are high or low. This president is very popular with the base of the Republican Party.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I -- I -- I will resist all temptation to become the pundit in chief, and commenting upon every twist and turn of the presidential campaign.
MALVEAUX: But Mr. Bush says he will campaign for whomever becomes the Republican nominee, whether it's Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, or an unknown. And that certainly could be a big advantage for any of them.
WEBER: Republican donors think the war on terror is real, that the president has taken the right steps to protect us from another attack on this country.
MALVEAUX: During the last campaign season, the president raised a record $194 million for his party, with Cheney pulling in $40 million and the first lady $16 million.
With the election still 21 months away, the president opens the new campaign season today, fund-raising for Senate minority leader Mitchell McConnell. McConnell was instrumental in recently blocking the Democrats' resolution opposing Mr. Bush's plan to increase troops in Iraq.
He is also key in pushing through the president's agenda for the remaining two years.
BUSH: We're going to have a great day on November the 7th!
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MALVEAUX: But, while President Bush has broken all records for bringing in the cold cash, the cold reality is, his party got a thumping in the midterm elections -- the war proving to be too much for the moneymaker.
MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, Republican strategists say that the war was such a big negative in the last election, it really didn't matter that they made more money.
So, Republicans are counting on -- they are banking on that, perhaps with this new Iraq strategy, there will be signs of success, and it won't be such a big negative during this next campaign -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Suzanne, thank you. We will watch this.
Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM: two Democratic titans ready to meet on the campaign trail -- Senator Obama, Senator Clinton heading to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the historic civil rights march. And Senator Clinton plans to bring her secret weapon.
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Senator Clinton set to get a helping hand from her husband this weekend. They will appear at a site -- at the site of the historic civil rights march in Alabama -- Selma, Alabama, to be specific.
Senator Clinton's Democratic presidential rival, Senator Barack Obama, will there as well. And that should prove to be a fascinating political event on Sunday.
Let's turn to CNN's Mary Snow. She has a preview -- Mary.
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is an event that is steeped in symbolism. And the fact that former President Clinton was just added to the schedule yesterday is gaining attention.
SNOW (voice-over): Enter Bill Clinton into what is promising to be a political showdown between his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Hillary Clinton, and her rival, Senator Barack Obama. Both candidates are scheduled to be within shouting distance of each other in Selma, Alabama, this Sunday.
They will be on hand to mark the 42nd anniversary of the bloody civil rights march that helped lead the way towards ending segregation.
Former President Clinton, no stranger to Selma, will be inducted into the Voting Rights Hall of Fame, but the focus will likely be on presidential politics.
JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: There is no white politician in America who is more popular in the African-American community than Bill Clinton. So, she has a very strong card to play.
SNOW: And some political observers suggest, Senator Clinton may be needing to use that card. A recent poll showed that, among black Democrats, Obama now leads. Clinton had been ahead in January. Some black Democrats say, both are good picks.
REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: It's a very difficult position to be in, but it's a good position to be in. We have choices.
SNOW: But it's not just a choice between Obama and Clinton, some say. It's also a choice between the Clintons.
SIMMONS: There is a great deal of loyalty among African- Americans for Bill Clinton. The question is whether or not that loyalty transfers to Hillary Clinton. And that is really the test that she is going to have to meet.
SNOW: Part of that test, say some political observers, will be how she appears alongside her husband. Selma marks the couple's first major public appearance together since Senator Clinton announced in January she is seeking the Democratic nomination.
STUART ROTHENBERG, "THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT": There is, of course, something of a risk, that when the two -- when the Clintons appear next to one another, sometimes, Bill can outshine her.
SNOW: Now, as for the Obama camp on Bill Clinton's visit to Selma, a spokeswoman says the more people who commemorate this important event, the better it is for all Americans -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you, Mary, for that.
Mary Snow, as you saw earlier, Suzanne Malveaux, Candy Crowley, Dana Bash, they are all part of the best political team on television.
Up next: James Carville and Terry Jeffrey. They're standing by for our "Strategy Session." We will have more on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama -- conservatives also holding their conference here this weekend -- all that coming up.
BLITZER: We're joined now by our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist James Carville. Terry Jeffrey, he's the editor at large of "Human Events."
What do you make of this event Sunday morning, Selma, Alabama? At one church, Hillary Clinton will be speaking, together with her husband...
JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
BLITZER: ... the former president of the United States, at another church, Senator Barack Obama. And they're clearly going after African-American votes.
CARVILLE: I wish I was there. I just -- I think it's going to be a hell of an event. As a kind of Southern, pro-civil-rights white guy, I -- it -- I -- this does my heart good to see it. And it's -- it's going to be -- it's going to be something to see. It's a very historic thing in the -- in the history of the civil rights movement. There will be a lot of people.
And it will be great television and be a great event. And we will see. It's going to be pretty compelling.
BLITZER: And -- and Bill Clinton, he is a secret weapon, especially among African-Americans, among the liberal Democratic base who are -- that the senator from New York is clearly going after.
TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": Right.
There's no doubt that Bill Clinton is tremendously popular in the African-American community, Wolf. I think this is the second indication, though, in two weeks that Hillary Clinton is no longer the inevitable Democratic nominee. She knows she is in a real race with Barack Obama.
Obama can beat her. Obama has been coming up in the polls. Particularly, he has been winning over African-American voters, according to polls. She couldn't afford to let him go down there and really start to seal that deal.
So, I think now we're looking forward to a Democratic race that is going to be intense. It's going to be exciting. Just like James, I wish I could be down there.
BLITZER: It's not going to be...
BLITZER: It's not a coronation for Hillary Clinton.
CARVILLE: The last person in the world that would ever say that would be Senator Clinton. And I think, as she takes -- she takes -- she -- she is not a woman that takes anything frivolous. She sure doesn't take this.
I think President Clinton is also receiving an award down there. And -- but you -- you know what? You have the -- the most -- probably the most popular white politician in the history of -- of modern black America in Bill Clinton.
You have Senator Clinton, who is a very compelling figure. You have Senator Obama, the first black to run for president that is considered to have a very good chance of being elected, on -- on -- commemorating an event that is -- it is legend in the civil rights movement, and, to some extent, American history. You just couldn't -- it couldn't be any -- I -- I just -- I would rather be down there than a ball game.
JEFFREY: It also reminds people that being married to Bill Clinton is a double-edged sword for Hillary.
It's ironic. Two weeks ago, David Geffen was saying, Bill Clinton is one of the biggest liabilities for Hillary Clinton.
Here, no doubt, in Selma, Alabama, Bill Clinton is going to be an asset for Hillary.
CARVILLE: I will just make the point, Bill Clinton is the most popular Democrat, by far, in the United States. It's hard for me to see how being married to the most popular Democrat is a big liability. But we will see.
JEFFREY: David Geffen...
BLITZER: Let's talk about this -- this conservative political conference that is under way here in Washington, CPAC, as it's called.
Was it a mistake for John McCain not to go there this weekend?
JEFFREY: It was a huge mistake, Wolf.
This is really the premier conservative event of the year. It really is. It's the annual convention of the conservative movement. If there is one problem John McCain needs to overcome, if he's going to win the Republican nomination, he has to win back the support of conservatives.
And here was an opportunity for him to go in and stress those places where he agrees with conservatives. Even Rudy Giuliani did that today. He didn't do it. There is a feeling over there at the Shoreham Hotel that they were dissed by John McCain.
BLITZER: Rudy Giuliani was pretty well-received. I wasn't there, but from what we're -- we're hearing...
BLITZER: ... and -- and despite his views on some of the social issues.
CARVILLE: Yes, I think -- I think he was.
And I -- and -- and I agree with Terry. I -- some of the things that Senator McCain is doing -- now, I'm not a Republican -- but seem to be almost inexplicable. This is sort of being -- I don't know.
But, yes, he was received well. I think Governor Romney was received well. If -- I mean, if you go to these guys, they're not -- they're not, by nature, rude people. They're going to receive some people...
JEFFREY: That's right.
CARVILLE: ... better than others. But they're not going to be very happy if you don't go.
JEFFREY: That's right.
CARVILLE: ... kind of at a loss for an explanation of why Senator McCain didn't go. It doesn't make political sense to me.
JEFFREY: It -- it -- it makes absolutely no sense. It was a boneheaded move.
I will say this, though. You know, Rudy Giuliani may have gotten a good reception from the crowd. James is right. They are going to be polite. He's stressing his similarities.
But I know Candy Crowley, earlier on the show, Wolf, showed that -- that poster "Rudy McRomney," with the slash through it. I think that is the prevailing -- the prevailing mood at CPAC, really, is, conservatives do not believe, at this point, any of the top-tier candidates in the Republican field reflect...
BLITZER: I have heard a lot of them suggesting maybe former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, a movie star, like Ronald Reagan, a likable conservative guy. Is that someone whose name is floating around there?
JEFFREY: Well, actually, I -- I did hear that name floated around yesterday at CPAC.
But you know what? When Fred Thompson had a chance to really accelerate himself into the presidential race last time, he didn't get any traction.
So, it's not clear to me whether the -- the -- the buzz about Fred Thompson really is to appeal that Fred Thompson has, or it's a reflection of the lack of satisfaction with the leading candidates.
BLITZER: We have got to leave it there.
BLITZER: Hold your fire. We will talk next week, guys.
Have a great...
BLITZER: ... great weekend. Thanks very much.
Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM: former Senator, Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland. We will get his reaction to the fiasco over at the Walter Reed Medical Center. That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We will be right back.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com