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THE SITUATION ROOM

Examination of the Decision by J.D. Crouch to Resign. Republican Presidential Candidates Debate. Betting on the Queen's Attire.

Aired May 4, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, pulling back the layers of failed intelligence on Iraq. A former British diplomat accusing his government of exaggeration, manipulation and dishonesty. I'll speak to him live this hour. That's coming up.
Also this hour, the 2008 primary season could wind up starting close to New Years, or even earlier. We're going to tell you why Florida is creating some chaos in the presidential calendar.

And Republicans move beyond the Bush era.

With their first debate behind them, are GOP candidates charting a new course for their party?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up first this hour, the president's Iraq War team takes a new hit. His deputy national security adviser, J.D. Crouch, is stepping down. And it comes as Mr. Bush's Iraq strategy is being tested on several fronts on the battlefield, in Congress and at an international conference in Egypt.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is standing by -- Ed, it looks like the White House is losing a top official.

Do we have any indication what's going on?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, J.D. Crouch had indicated to the president a couple of months ago that he wanted to step down. But what we're really finding, what's going on here, as the president moves closer and closer to lame duck status, the White House is really dealing with a brain drain.

Mostly -- especially acute on the National Security Council staff, which is critical at a time when General Petraeus is getting closer and closer to making an assessment on whether the latest Iraq strategy is actually working. And the latest departee, as you noted, J.D. Crouch.

He's one of those relatively anonymous officials who nonetheless wields a lot of clout behind the scenes. It was -- it was J.D. Crouch who in -- at the end of the last year really led the assessment of the Iraq strategy that led to the president, in January, announcing that it was time to the number of troops on the ground in Baghdad.

This morning, the White House announced Crouch is stepping down, the second top National Security Council aide just in the last month to hit the exits.

Now, White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino insisted this was just sort of the normal comings and goings late in an administration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA PERINO, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I mean I have not been in other administrations, but I don't think it's unusual at this point in a second term in an administration that some people who have served for many years have decided to move on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: And, indeed, a former top aide in the Clinton administration reminded me that at the tail end of that administration, they had trouble keeping and bringing on senior staff, in part because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, other matters. But that administration, obviously, was not at war at the time.

This administration dealing with two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, at the same time. And their national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, already publicly has said he's got so much on his plate, he needs a war czar. Now he's looking for a war czar. He's looking for two other top aides on his staff. It's a difficult time to try to fill those posts so late in the administration -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Is the so-called brain drain, as you refer to it, strictly limited to national security, the National Security Council staff?

HENRY: No, other spots, as well.

I mean, for example, they're looking for a new political director. Sara Taylor wanting to step down there. What's interesting is they had a hard time finding someone there because the political staff here has been getting hit with all of these subpoenas from Capitol Hill, Democrats trying to delve into Karl Rove's e-mail and other matters.

That's another factor in all of this, the fact that Democrats are providing so much oversight now. Not a lot of people want to take some of these senior jobs -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ed Henry, thanks very much.

Let's get to the presidential race now. The Republican candidates are ushering in a new era. With their first debate under their belts, they're vying to put a new face on their party.

Let's turn to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

She's in California on this, the day after the debate. Was there a defining -- is this really a defining moment, Candy, for the GOP?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is the beginning of the end of the Bush era. And I think you saw that, certainly, in the debate last night. Because underlying all of those questions about abortion and immigration and the budget and the war was a single you know, and that is what's next?

The answer is not so easy.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

CROWLEY (voice-over): It was not just the first Republican debate of the '08 cycle. It was the first event of the post-Bush era, the first time 10 Republican candidates had a chance to show where the party goes from here.

They yearn for the heydays.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it's important to remember that what Ronald Reagan did was to give us a vision for this country, a morning in America, a city on a hill.

TOMMY THOMPSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We forgot to be coming up with new ideas, big ideas, like Ronald Reagan.

CROWLEY: But the party of Ronald Reagan is minus Ronald Reagan. And even Reaganites say back to the future is more wishful thinking than game plan.

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Ronald Reagan was a unique man at a unique time. And I think Republicans would be foolish to try and compare anybody to him.

CROWLEY: So where to next?

They had, at best, only a broad view answer to the question. What emerged last night is a party in flux, buffeted by a disastrous '06 election and the stewardship of a 36 percent president. They struggled to woo back an electorate overwhelmingly convinced that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MODERATOR: Mayor Giuliani, how do we get back to Ronald Reagan's morning in America?

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You lead from optimism. You lead from hope. As we should never in the face of terrorism.

CROWLEY: They are nine of the 10 at odds with voters over the premier issue of the day. They are supporting a war the public is weary of.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, if you wanted to have a president that just followed the polls, all we need to do is plug in our TVs and have them run the country.

CROWLEY: If there was a clear post-Bush direction out of the debate it was money matters. George Bush has presided over Great Society spending levels. Republicans have lost the mantle as the party of fiscal responsibility. To a person, they are trying to retrieve it.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The first pork barrel bill that crosses my desk, I'm going to veto it and make the authors of those pork barrel items famous.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

CROWLEY: In truth, it is difficult for a committee of 10 to set a single direction for the party. Then, too, on issues like abortion, stem cell research, immigration and taxes, there are differences between these candidates, differences that will be worked out by primary voters -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Did you get a sense that there was a consensus on priorities, Candy, in a post-Bush era?

CROWLEY: Certainly Iraq, you know, is always the one that right now needs to be settled. They are well aware in the Republican Party of how the public feels about this.

But beyond that, I will tell you that spending -- you know, George Bush has often been said as spending at the level of a Great Society. So we heard a lot last night about who's already done vetoes as governor of a state or Rudy Giuliani talking about the budget that he had as mayor of New York.

So, if there was one thing that you heard that was common to all of them, it was that spending needs to get under control, that the party needs to regain the reputation as the fiscally responsible one.

BLITZER: Our chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, in California.

Candy, thanks.

Republican presidential candidate Tommy Thompson is apologizing today for saying an employer should be allowed to fire a gay worker solely for being gay. Thompson says he misunderstood a question during last night's GOP debate.

Let's listen to that exchange and what the former Wisconsin governor is saying about it today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If a private employer finds homosexuality immoral, should he be allowed to fire a gay worker?

THOMPSON: I think that is left up to the individual business. I really sincerely believe that that is an issue that businesspeople have got to make their own determination as to whether or not they should be.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.

So the answer is yes?

THOMPSON: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THOMPSON: I made a mistake. I misinterpreted the question. I thought that I answered it yes when I should have answered it no. I didn't hear it. I had a -- I didn't hear the question properly and I -- and I apologize.

That is not my position. There should be no discrimination in the workplace and I have never believed that. In fact, Wisconsin has got one of the first laws, which I supported.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And, in fact, Thompson did have -- he fought very hard to have anti-gay language removed from the Republican Party platform when he headed up the platform committee back in 2000.

Let's get to Jack Cafferty in New York for The Cafferty File.

They've got to be very careful, these candidates, what they say during these debates -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's already a big departure from the Bush era -- somebody apologizing for making a mistake. It hasn't happened in years.

It could be President Bush's third veto. The House has passed a bill that would expand federal hate crime laws to include violent attacks against people because of their sexual orientation or gender. The White House says that state and local laws already cover these crimes and therefore this bill is unnecessary.

Other critics, including a coalition of pastors, say the measure would clamp down on the clergy, who preach that homosexual behavior is wrong.

Supporters, though, disagree. They say it only applies to violent crime, not to freedom of speech. The current federal hate crime law applies to violence committed on the basis of race, religion, color or national origin. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

If it ever makes it to the president's desk, he says he'll veto it and he may have a point. It's already against the law to attack someone, whether they're gay, straight, male or female.

And meantime, we still don't have that promised increase in the minimum wage.

Here's the question -- is the White House right to say it would veto the hate crimes bill that includes sexual orientation and gender?

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

BLITZER: See you in a little while, Jack.

Thank you.

Coming up, the 10 Republican candidates stood side-by-side at the presidential debate. But when it came to the issue of abortion, Rudy Giuliani stood alone.

How much will his stance on abortion hurt him with conservative voters?

Plus, did any candidate really stand out last night, or did any really hurt his cause?

I'll ask Donna Brazile and Rich Galen. They're in today's Strategy Session.

And we know that pre-war intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was wrong.

But was it manipulated?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Even as the candidates get into the debate mode, the 2008 primary season calendar is in chaos right now. Florida's new decision to move up its primary has left other states with early contests scrambling. One state party leader may only be half joking when he talks about a contest as early as Halloween.

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

Here's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's already on fast forward, but it could really be on fast forward.

JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, joking, you know, but only half joking, he's dead right. One piece of advice, my friend, get your Hanukah and Christmas shopping done very early. We may be going from Thanksgiving dinner to the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

KING (voice-over): The 2008 primary season that had an unprecedented early calendar to begin with now has a remote chance of seeing the first votes actually cast this year.

KATON DAWSON, SOUTH CAROLINA REPUBLICAN PARTY CHAIR: It's possible. You know, I can't control what New Hampshire or Iowa do. I mean, certainly, they're good partners with South Carolina in this process.

KING: Those three early states are fiercely protective of their nominating roles. And, as a result, an election calendar already front loaded with early contests is in flux again.

Until this week, it was penciled in this way: the Iowa caucuses January 14; followed by Nevada five days later; and the New Hampshire presidential primary January 22nd. South Carolina planned its Democratic primary January 29th and its Republican primary February 22nd.

But Florida's move this week rips that version up. Florida set its primary for January 29th. And the domino effect is already in the works, because South Carolina insists on being first in the South.

DAWSON: We are a very proud, maverick type state and we will do whatever it takes to retain our position in presidential politics.

KING: Assuming South Carolina moves up, New Hampshire will be required by state law to move. January 8th is a strong possibility, which will impact Nevada and perhaps land the Iowa caucuses at about 10 shopping days left until Christmas -- Christmas 2007.

KATHLEEN SULLIVAN, FORMER NEW HAMPSHIRE DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIR: There is still so much uncertainty with this calendar that it's not good for the candidates either. They don't know where to focus.

KING: The irony is that the biggest day on the 2008 calendar could have little impact. February 5th will feature nominating contests in at least 10 and as many as 25 states, including California, New Jersey, Missouri and New Mexico.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

KING: History shows, Wolf, as you know, momentum matters most, especially in those early contests. That's why some think that big February 5 date might not have as much impact. Critics of the front loading process say, look, both national parties need to step in and use a mix of incentives and penalties to try to get the states to spread out these contests.

But it's very hard to get the states to listen any time, especially this cycle, because there's no incumbent president, no incumbent vice president. Both contests are considered wide open. Everybody wants to jump in early.

BLITZER: And all of these states, like Florida and California and everybody else, they -- they want to have a role to play in selecting the respective nominees.

But did I get that right, if this domino effect goes into play, mid-December we could be at the Iowa caucuses?

KING: It's possible, because if New Hampshire goes back as far as the first week of January, the 8th, there's traditionally a split -- a little bit of a break between Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa faces the problem -- do you go Christmas week?

So they probably wouldn't do that. So they would back it up even a little bit further.

So, we still have to see how this plays out. We probably won't know the final answer until late summer, early fall. But we could have an Iowa caucus in the middle of December, 2007.

BLITZER: And then -- and the Democrats still want Nevada -- a caucus in Nevada...

KING: Right.

BLITZER: ... before the first primary...

KING: You bet you.

BLITZER: ... in New Hampshire. So that could really shake things up.

John, we'll be watching. We'll get our Hanukah and Christmas gifts nice and early this year.

And heading into the first Republican presidential debate, Rudy Giuliani already had a problem with conservatives, who don't necessarily like his support for abortion rights. After last night's debate, that problem may even be worse.

Our Dana Bash is following the debate fallout -- Dana, what are conservatives saying about Giuliani's debate comments on abortion last night?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, Rudy Giuliani had to know, in this first Republican debate, that his remarks on abortion would be scrutinized to the nth degree. And they certainly were.

If you troll conservative blogs, listen to conservative pundits and activists, they are making clear they watched very closely and many were almost mocking what they heard.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

BASH (voice-over): It was framed as a yes or no question -- would overturning "Roe v. Wade" be a good day?

Nine Republicans on stage gave a direct answer.

The tenth, Rudy Giuliani, did not.

GIULIANI: It would be OK to repeal, it would be OK, also, if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent.

BASH: Giuliani said he'd leave "Roe v. Wade" up to the courts, repeating he personally hates abortion, but...

GIULIANI: Since it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman's right to make a different choice.

BASH: Witness a Republican who supports abortion rights trying to win over an anti-abortion GOP primary electorate. But conservative bloggers and activists are skeptical, to say the least.

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": And the more he's forced to explain his position on abortion, the more people will see that on a very profound issue, where the question is the life of an innocent person, that he has a completely opportunistic and irrational position.

BASH: It is not just that he supports a woman's right to an abortion.

(on camera): So you support taxpayer money or public funding for abortion, in some cases?

GIULIANI: If -- if -- if it would deprive someone of a constitutional right, yes. I mean if that -- if that's the status of the law, then I would, yes.

BASH (voice-over): As his record and positions get more attention, his frontrunner status has suffered. In just one month, Giuliani dropped 10 points in Iowa and in South Carolina fell 6 points since March.

Giuliani tried to clarify his stance at Thursday night's debate, saying he would not allow federal tax dollars for abortion.

GIULIANI: I supported it in New York. But I think in other places, people can come to a different decision.

BASH: Allies say Giuliani's abortion position may be a problem with some GOP voters, but not all.

REP. DAVID DRIER (R), CALIFORNIA:

And I will acknowledge that is a unique position for a Republican presidential candidate but I believe it's a position that is very reflected, certainly, among mainstream Republicans in my state of California and in many other states across the country.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: And even hard core conservatives acknowledge that Rudy Giuliani's stance on abortion may not prevent him from getting the Republican nomination this time around because many of those blue states, their primaries have moved up. And that means that there will be more Republicans voting earlier, many of them who may have a more -- a stance that may be more in line with Rudy Giuliani -- Wolf. BLITZER: That accelerated calendar could help Giuliani, in other words.

Dana, thank you very much.

Dana Bash, John King, Candy Crowley, Ed Henry -- they are all part of the best political team on television.

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

Coming up, which Democrat is beating Republican frontrunner Rudi Giuliani in a hypothetical head-to-head match up?

Find out when I speak with Donna Brazile and Rich Galen. We have new poll numbers. That's coming up in today's Strategy Session.

Plus, Queen Elizabeth's heading off to Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby tomorrow.

But why are people betting on her attire instead of the horses?

We'll get the situation online.

Stay with us.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is here in Washington with a closer look at some of the stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM -- Carol, what's making news right now?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, officials at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan are warning Americans and others to be very careful in Pakistan's tribal areas. Taliban militants are believed to operate in those areas along the Afghan border. And in a statement, the embassy warns non-governmental organizations and international groups they remain the target of kidnappings and violence.

Back here in the United States, many are fuming over the rising price of gas. It's just gone up again, now topping $3 for a gallon of regular. This amid worries over whether refineries will have enough inventory to meet the summer driving demands. The summer driving season begins Memorial Day weekend, as you know.

And more people are out of work. The unemployment rate inched up last month, according to a government report out today. It says employers added fewer jobs than experts expected. The unemployment rate rose slightly, to 4.5 percent for April, up a 1/10 of a point from March.

It's not every day a queen comes to your town. So many are lining up, hoping to catch even a glimpse of the queen. It's getting mighty crowded. Queen Elizabeth continues day two of her U.S. trip in Virginia. She visited Jamestown, established as the first English settlement 400 years ago. Vice President Dick Cheney and Governor Tim Kaine accompanied her. Tomorrow, the queen will attend the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. And we await what her hat will look like -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of people interested in that part of the story.

Stand by, Carol.

The queen's visit to the Kentucky Derby is causing people online to wager on more than just horses. This afternoon's hot bet is on what color hat the queen, Her Majesty, will wear to the race.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

She's been a British royal watcher for a long, long time.

And what's -- what are they saying online -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the favorite online for the hat tomorrow is some kind of white or silver. They don't rule out red. Those who are interested in wagering should check out her form. This is the queen earlier this week. Yesterday it was in a pinky salmon color hat there yesterday in Richmond. And earlier today, Her Majesty was wearing a sort of turquoise color.

All of this important history for people who are going online to Internet betting sites to predict what she's going to be wearing tomorrow.

Long shot, pink again, at seven to one. At two to one, white or silver is a good bet. It's not going to pay you much. And there are some strict rules here. The wager is specifically on the base of the hat. It's not on the trim or on the decoration. It's not on the feathers, though if you do want to bet on the feathers, there's a place to do that.

Also, we should point out that Congress here in the United States clamped down on online gambling late last year. For the queen's own subjects, however, all bets are on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Abbi, with an important story on the hats.

Coming up, pre-war intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons -- it wasn't right, but was it twisted?

A former British diplomat now accusing his own government of manipulation and dishonesty. I'll speak with him live. That's coming up next.

Also, while Democrats and Republicans in Congress try to reach agreement on Iraq, out on the campaign trail, it's a very different story. We're going to tell you why. That's coming up next -- in the next hour in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, there were brief encounters between Americans and Iranians, but an international conference in Egypt ended without a close encounter between the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and her Iranian counterpart. He left a dinner at Sharm-El- Sheikh just as Secretary Rice was arriving. The Iranians apparently felt an entertainer's red dress was too revealing.

Also, the chaos and carnage are causing anger, fear and paranoia. A groundbreaking new study shows the impact of the Iraq war on the minds of American troops. Many are suffering serious psychological problems. And experts fear the stress may be affecting the judgment of some troops.

Also in Iraq war, a tug of war -- presidential candidates are being pulled in different directions, trying to satisfy demands from lawmakers for compromises and demands from their parties to stand their ground.

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

Now fresh claims that the war in Iraq was launched based on intelligence that was purposely manipulated -- a former British diplomat now is talking at length about his powerful charges that he says the British government tried to keep quiet.

Our Brian Todd has more on the accusations being leveled, the secrets being spilled right now.

Brian, Carne Ross, the British diplomat, why is he speaking out now?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, he says he couldn't speak out earlier, because the evidence he presented to a special British commission about the run-up to war was essentially sealed, until the British parliament requested that evidence and made it public themselves.

Now Carne Ross is not only speaking out. He is facing accusations of betraying his government for personal gain.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): He was Britain's top expert on Iraq at the United Nations until just before the start of the war. Now Carne Ross says his government had this intelligence at that time on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

CARNE ROSS, FORMER BRITISH DIPLOMAT: Iraq did not pose a threat to us or its neighbors, that its stocks of WMD were residual and not substantial, and that containment was working.

TODD: In his new book, "Independent Diplomat," Ross says the case for war presented by the U.S. and Britain "was a gross exaggeration of what we knew," and Britain's behavior at the U.N. at that time "was, at best, manipulative and, at worst, dishonest." Ross has so angered the British government that he says London tried to discourage him from publishing it and deleted some sections after he sent the manuscript for approval. An official with Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office didn't respond to that claim, but did give us a statement, saying that office is "disappointed that Mr. Ross has chosen to betray the trust and confidence placed in him, and the book is also frequently inaccurate."

Ross not only stands by his claims; he says Tony Blair's government was submissive to the Bush administration, figuring it could do nothing to stop the Americans from going to war.

One analyst says Britain's reputation as a loyal, but honest behind-the-scenes partner with the U.S. did seem to break down at the most crucial time.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, SENIOR FELLOW IN FOREIGN POLICY STUDIES, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: But it did not convince the United States to slow down the decision about when to launch the war. It did not manage to secure a second U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the war explicitly. Therefore, it did not manage to create much international legitimacy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: As a result, Michael O'Hanlon says Tony Blair will take a serious historical hit from the Iraq experience, and Britain may be much less willing to publicly support the Americans in the future -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, is there any comment from the prime minister's office referring to Carne Ross' specific charges that the British were -- quote -- "submissive" to the Americans before the invasion?

TODD: Well, we called Tony Blair's office. They wouldn't comment on the book or Carne Ross' added characterization that they were submissive.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office also wouldn't comment on that. But they are clearly furious over this book.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Brian, some very, very blunt talk about prewar intelligence, the case against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The former British U.N. Security Council diplomat Carne Ross is joining us now. He's the author of that new book, "Independent Diplomat."

Mr. Ross, thanks very much for joining us.

ROSS: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: So, the bottom line is your suggestion that the intelligence was manipulated to justify going to war? Is that what you're suggesting? ROSS: Well, it's not really a suggestion. It's actually a recollection of fact. All the time I worked on Iraq as a British diplomat, our assessment, both inside the British government and inside the U.S. government, was that Iraq was not a threat.

And, yet, by the time the dossier or the public manifestation of the government's claims came out in September 2002, the governments were claiming something much more ambitious.

BLITZER: And, so, this was not an honest mistake, the fact that the U.S. and the British government and other governments around the world concluded Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, but it was -- well, what are you suggesting? I don't want to put words in your mouth.

ROSS: Sure.

It's not an honest mistake. I mean, both governments claim to this day that they were somehow misled by the intelligence. The intelligence was, in fact, pretty clear that Iraq had only residual stocks. It's not that they had nothing, but they had not nearly enough to pose a threat.

And that, emphatically, was our internal assessment for all the years I worked on it, between '98 and 2002. So, for these governments now to pretend that it was the intelligence that misled them is false.

BLITZER: You're familiar with the so-called Downing Street memo that was written in July...

ROSS: Yes.

BLITZER: ... of 2002 by Sir David Manning. He was then a foreign policy adviser to the prime minister. He's now the British ambassador here in Washington.

ROSS: Yes.

BLITZER: Among other things, that memo, which was strictly classified, but was later revealed, said this: "Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD, but the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

The memo goes on to say: "The NSC had no patience with the U.N. route, no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath of military action."

Give us the context of this memo, because it's caused, as you well know over these years, a huge stir, especially the line that intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.

ROSS: Well, I think that confirms what I'm saying.

It's pretty clear the Bush and the Blair governments took a decision to go to war, and then tried to use the weapons inspection route and the claims of Iraqi WMD as a justification after the fact, when, in fact, the intelligence and the facts of WMD did not justify that course. That was not the real reason they went to war.

BLITZER: As you know, the -- the British government has issued statements to the effect that you betrayed the trust and confidence placed in you as a diplomat in order to seek personal gain by writing this book...

ROSS: Yes.

BLITZER: ... and that they don't agree with much of the content of the book. They argue that the book frequently is inaccurate and misrepresentative of the Foreign Office and foreign policy.

I want you to respond to those serious charges from your own government.

ROSS: Well, I challenge them to name where it's inaccurate. I mean, they have given me a list of supposed inaccuracies, but, in fact, they're differences in judgment over my own personal experience.

The book is a recollection of my own work. I'm not making claims about other people's experience, simply my own. And I think my memory of my own work is pretty accurate. And I would challenge the government to name those inaccuracies and debate me about them.

As for the betrayal of trust, well, that's a fair -- fair criticism. I am betraying the trust that was put in me, but I think these -- these issues are more important, frankly, that the public should know what their governments have done in their name.

And I think this is an extremely, extremely serious matter, to go to war on the basis of a falsehood.

BLITZER: The -- some have suggested you should have spoken up earlier, just before the war, or at the war, and gone public...

ROSS: Yes.

BLITZER: ... with your concerns then, when they might have had an impact. What do you say to those?

ROSS: They're right. I am ashamed that I didn't speak up earlier. I was afraid to. Friends of mine who were encouraging me to suggested I should have. I was too afraid. I was too attached to my career. I regret it.

Friends of mine, such as David Kelly, paid a very great price for the fact that some of us did not speak out at the time. I deeply regret it.

BLITZER: Carne Ross is the author of "Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite."

Thanks very much for coming in. ROSS: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM: another take on allegations that the U.S. and Britain were misled into the Iraq war. I will speak about that with Richard Perle, who had a central role in promoting the war early on.

Also coming up: After their first debate, where do the Republican presidential candidates go from here? Some interesting stops when we take you on the campaign trail.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A Republican who wasn't at last night's GOP presidential debate tops our look at the candidates out on the campaign trail.

Fred Thompson speaks tonight at a Republican dinner in Orange County, California. The former senator from Tennessee may jump into the White House race, as all of you know, operative word, may. John McCain is also in California for a town hall meeting with Google employees at their Mountain View headquarters. Tomorrow, Rudy Giuliani is the commencement speaker at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. Mitt Romney does the same thing at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia -- that university founded by Pat Robertson.

Among Democrats, John Edwards is in New Orleans, hammer in hand, helping to build a new home in the hurricane-damaged Ninth Ward. He also hammered away at the president's response to Katrina. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are heading to Louisiana tomorrow to speak at a national conference of black mayors -- all that on the campaign trail.

Presidential candidates are also using online video to interact with potential voters. Congressman Dennis Kucinich is the latest candidate to enter the YouTube Spotlight.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, once again joining us.

Abbi, what is Dennis Kucinich up to?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: He's asking the YouTube community to share their stories about a time that they felt the most peaceful, a time they felt the most loved. And the responses are coming in. They are as varied as the YouTube community itself.

This one here, a woman recollecting the time she was in a high school marching band, another one here, BlueFire Witch, reminiscing about her own Wiccan wedding.

And then there's this one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Before I met Dennis Kucinich, the highlight of my life was getting gonged on "The Gong Show."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: We will see if that gets a response from Dennis Kucinich himself.

This is an ongoing project between YouTube and the presidential candidates called YouTube Spotlight. And you will see from Congressman Kucinich's video that he is sharing his spotlight. Throughout, his wife, Elizabeth, appears in the background. And she is generating some online responses of her own.

Congressman Kucinich, like the other presidential candidates that have used this forum, plans on responding online to some of these videos -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a highlight, getting gonged on "The Gong Show."

Thanks, Abbi, for that.

Up next: the high points and the missteps in the GOP presidential race, including an entry into what one candidate calls the gates of hell. Donna Brazile and Rich Galen, they are standing by. We will talk about debate winners and losers.

Also, in our "Strategy Session": Do the Democratic front-runners now have an advantage over their Republican rivals?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Win, lose or draw, that's what many are debating after last night's debate among the Republican presidential hopefuls. That's also a topic of our "Strategy Session."

Joining us now, our CNN political analysts, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Rich Galen.

Guys, thanks for coming in.

Quickly, was there a clear winner or a clear loser, in your mind, Donna?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, no question. Ronald Reagan was the winner last night. I saw all of the...

BLITZER: He's not running, though.

BRAZILE: Well, he's not running, but they were running to succeed Ronald Reagan, not George W. Bush.

What I found interesting in that, here you have the 40th president of the United States. They were talking about his optimism, his strength, his strong family values. I thought Ronald Reagan came out the winner last night.

BLITZER: Any of the candidates, though?

BRAZILE: Well, Mitt Romney did himself a great deal of good.

But, if I was a Republican looking at the debate last night, I would want to know more about Mike Huckabee.

BLITZER: What about you?

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, Huckabee is a very strong potential candidate.

I thought that the top three probably didn't do themselves much harm, didn't move the needle ahead. I think they probably -- much like the Democratic thing the other night. The trained candidates know how to do this.

BLITZER: Here's what Giuliani said on abortion, standing alone on that platform on this issue. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: In my case, I hate abortion. I would encourage someone to not take that option.

But, ultimately, since it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman's right to make a different choice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is that going to hurt him in this Republican contest?

GALEN: Well, I mean, but he's -- this is typical of what he's been saying. Remember, a couple of weeks ago, he said he believed that there should be public funding for abortions. So, the issue for Giuliani is, does he keep on being Giuliani and hope that this thing becomes a national security election? Or does he try to moderate? I don't think he can moderate.

The question, though, is, for Republican primary voters, at what point, if any, does the camel's back break? And I think, for many, the camel's knees are beginning to buckle.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BRAZILE: Clearly, it's not his issue. He was not strong on many of the social issues. And he came across as an opportunist, someone who is changing his position to get in votes in the primary. But, in a general election, he left it open for independents that maybe he is pro-choice after all.

BLITZER: Well, he says he does support a woman's right to choose, even though he hates...

BRAZILE: And I support that decision. BLITZER: ... hates abortion.

So, what I hear you saying is, it probably will hurt him among Republican conservatives...

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... but could help him in a general election.

BRAZILE: Clearly, that's the way he's trying to position himself, to reach out to independents in the fall. But, in the primary, he knows he has to appeal to conservatives.

GALEN: But, you know, the other person in the room last night that I thought had some impact on this was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And, if the Republican primary voters look past everything else to who can win, then somebody like Giuliani can trump all that stuff, because, if Republicans think he can beat Hillary or Barack Obama or Al Gore, then...

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: Or John Edwards. We don't know.

GALEN: Well, we don't know.

BLITZER: Well, here are some hypothetical polls that "Hotline" published today in a potential hypothetical contest involving the Democratic front-runner right now, Senator Clinton against McCain, shows 45-45, 11 percent undecided. Against Giuliani, on the other hand, he wins, 47-43, over Senator -- and 10 percent undecided.

So, Giuliani does better against Senator Clinton than McCain does.

BRAZILE: I think one reason why is most voters still do not know who Rudy Giuliani is, or who the real Rudy is. And, so, I think Hillary is well positioned. She's electable. And, clearly, given those poll numbers, her campaign should continue to put her record out there and put her personality forward.

BLITZER: Well, take a look at this, Rich.

On the -- if Barack Obama were the Democratic nominee, if he ran against John McCain, look at this poll number. He gets 48 percent, Obama, McCain 37 percent, undecided 15. And, if he runs against Giuliani, he wins, too, Obama with 48 percent, Giuliani 39 percent, undecided 13 percent.

So, he decisively beats both McCain and Giuliani in this "Hotline" poll.

GALEN: Yes.

And, in a poll that was released yesterday by Quinnipiac -- this is why you have to be careful about one poll. Whether everybody -- what we do, by the way -- and I think Donna will agree with this -- it is sort of like figure skating. You assume that the French and the, you know, the East Germans are going to cheat. So, you throw out the top, you throw out the bottom, and you take the mass of them.

The other day, the Quinnipiac poll had McCain beating Obama -- or tied with Obama, 42-42, and Giuliani just barely beating Obama, 44-41. I think this -- what this tells us is, this is a 50-50 country, and this election will probably turn on something very small.

BLITZER: In the generic, would you vote for a Democratic candidate for president or a Republican candidate for president, in this "Hotline" poll, Democrats get 47 percent. Republicans get 28 percent. Neither get 8 percent. That's -- there's no names attached.

What do you make, if anything, of that?

BRAZILE: Well, it goes to show you that the Democrats have come a long way in convincing the American people that we're strong on security, we can handle domestic issues, and we can bring this country back down the road to prosperity.

GALEN: I don't think it says much at all.

I think generic...

BRAZILE: I'm reading into it.

GALEN: I think generic...

(LAUGHTER)

GALEN: I think generic votes matter in congressional races and in Senate races. I think, at the presidential level, it's a completely different choice. It has a lot to do with emotion, not very much to do with logic.

BRAZILE: I will take those numbers today, though.

(LAUGHTER)

GALEN: Well, the election isn't...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: It's a snapshot.

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: That's what those polls are. It doesn't necessarily mean much down the road. But it's a little snapshot of where we are right now.

BRAZILE: Thank you. BLITZER: Guys, thanks for coming in, Donna and Rich.

GALEN: You bet, Wolf.

BLITZER: And still to come: The presidential candidates harden their positions on Iraq -- the Democrats vs. the Republicans, and their war debate.

And would the White House be right to veto a bill that defines anti-gay and anti-women violence as hate crimes?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Bush was there to strike up the band. But there was no dancing this time. With Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on hand, the president presided over a Cinco de Mayo celebration in the Rose Garden a day early.

Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Welcome to el Jardin de las Rosas. It's a great place to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

As a matter of fact, I have been looking forward to celebrating this so much, that we decided to have it on Cuatro de Mayo.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican national holiday widely celebrated in the United States and especially in the president's home state. So, the Rose Garden event included a Latin-flavored ode to Texas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): The stars at night are big and bright...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS (singing): Deep in the heart of Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): Remind me of the one I love...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS (singing): Deep in the heart of Texas.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Pretty good stuff.

We also want to thank our longtime national correspondent, Bob Franken. During his 21 years here at CNN, Bob has reported on some major stories here in Washington, across the nation and around the world, from the war in Iraq, to the 9/11 terror attacks, to the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Bob has been key in all of those stories. He's been also key in our political coverage over these many years, including numerous presidential campaigns and the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Bob is always, always someone we could trust and go to on a moving story. We want to encourage Bob to stay in touch with us. He's, fortunately, moving on to some new adventures. We expect he will approach whatever is next in his career with the same quick sense of humor he always brought to his work here, to our bureau.

And we, of course, wish Bob Franken only, only the best.

And I know Jack Cafferty, who is joining us from New York, wishes Bob Franken only the best as well.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I got to know Bob a little bit during the Republican National Convention about three or four years ago. He always brought a wonderful sense of irony to the work that he did. And he had one of the better B.S. detectors on the street that I have ever ran across.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You're absolutely right on that.

CAFFERTY: Right?

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: Yes. He -- he got it. You know, he just -- he could look at a situation, and he saw right through it, to whatever the essence was. And that's a quality you don't find too often.

So, we will miss that here at CNN. And whoever winds up taking advantage of Bob's talents next will be fortunate to be able to do that.

Our question here is: Is the White House right to say that it would veto the hate crimes bill that has passed the House that includes sexual orientation and gender?

Eugene writes in Myers Flat, California: "The latest hate crimes bill goes too far. Why don't we add disabled veterans, senior citizens, left-handed people, et cetera, to the list? I object to homosexuality on religious and moral grounds, and that can't be legislated away."

Dave in Pennsylvania: "Ordinarily, I would agree with this. If you kill someone just because you hate them, they are no more dead than if you killed them by accident. But I would disagree with this White House, because its motives are not charitable. The veto would be for all the wrong reasons." John in Riverton, Wyoming, writes: "There are ample laws on the books to deal with assaults on people. There's no need to further try to legitimize the homosexual community by giving them even further protected status."

Denis, Washington, D.C.: "Your question misses the point. Federal hate crimes laws already exist for classifications such as race, religion, color, and national origin. The question is whether that should be expanded to include sexual orientation, a classification that accounts for more than 14 percent of all hate crimes, according to the FBI. There's no reason to exclude sexual orientation from existing federal law, other than pure bigotry."

Jim writes: "As usual, Bush is consistently wrong. Bigotry that results in violence is still very common in this country. It's often not prosecuted. This law would ensure that, if local law enforcement refuses to prosecute violent bigotry, it can be prosecuted by federal authorities."

And Jacob in Gainesville, Florida, writes: "President Bush should definitely veto this. As a gay man, I don't need or want special protection. People should be punished for the crimes they commit, not the reason they commit them" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

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