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THE SITUATION ROOM

Fred Thompson's Decides to Join the Presidential Race. Tuberculosis Traveler

Aired May 30, 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, he's moving out of the wings and closer to the presidential stage. The actor, the former senator -- Fred Thompson officially testing the waters.
Which GOP rival might he hurt the most?

Also this hour, Hillary Clinton's new prize -- an endorsement from a Democratic rising star and a California power player.

Will it help her lock up the Latino vote?

And health officials keep searching for dozens of airline passengers exposed to a potentially deadly strain of tuberculosis.

Did the man who flew knowing he was infected actually commit a crime?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First this hour, Fred Thompson's big step toward a run for the White House. Several sources close to the "Law & Order" star tell CNN Thompson is testing the presidential waters. They say he'll start raising money and hiring staff as early as this Friday. The former Senator from Tennessee has been casting a shadow over fellow Republicans who dived into the presidential race months ago. Now, that shadow is even bigger and potentially even more threatening.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is joining us with more on this story -- Bill, is it too late for Fred Thompson to make a really serious threat to these other Republican contenders?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, not if he brings something other candidates don't have.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): With 10 Republicans already running for president, what would Fred Thompson bring to the race?

As an actor, he's well-known. As a former Senator, he's well connected.

DAVID WINSTON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: He is sort of well-known in a sort of -- sort of soft level. But in terms of the details about him, I think one of the challenges for him is he's going to have to flush those out.

SCHNEIDER: Thompson's conservative.

FRED THOMPSON (R), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: You wouldn't think you'd have to make the lower tax case again, but you have to make it every day in Washington, D.C. It doesn't...

SCHNEIDER: The anti-Washington theme can be heard in his criticism of immigration reform, including his promise to secure the border.

THOMPSON: Putting it on a piece of paper anymore and even passing it into law, does not convince the American people they will do what they say they're going to do.

SCHNEIDER: Thompson joined John McCain in supporting campaign finance reform, an anti-Washington cause that was not popular with conservatives.

Thompson has been a Senator, a lobbyist and a Washington lawyer going back to Watergate, when he served as chief Republican counsel. But he runs as a Washington outsider.

When he ran for the Senate in 1994, Thompson wore a flannel shirt and drove a pickup truck all over Tennessee, calling for term limits. He still plays the role of outsider.

THOMPSON: Just being a country lawyer and enjoying life and...

SCHNEIDER: To prove he's an outsider, he got out. Thompson left the Senate in 2002. Good timing, because that's when the Bush administration started to get in trouble. Now, once again, Thompson is positioned to run against Washington.

THOMPSON: I think the biggest problem that we have today is what I believe is the disconnect between Washington, D.C. and the people of the United States.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SCHNEIDER: At a time when voters have lost confidence in the administration and are desperate for change, an anti-Washington candidate could be very interesting, especially a Republican -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Especially a movie star, if you will.

You know, I can't tell you, Bill, how many Republicans, especially conservatives, have said to me over these past many weeks, they really like Fred Thompson because he evokes Ronald Reagan -- a likable conservative, a movie star, an actor, but someone who has those good conservative credentials.

Who does he represent as a threat?

Which of the other Republican candidates should be most worried about this decision? SCHNEIDER: Well, the polls don't make it too clear. When you put Thompson's name in, he tends to hurt whoever is the frontrunner.

Right now that's Rudy Giuliani. So Giuliani loses a few more points when you add Thompson's name to the list -- and other Republicans do. But in a few key early primary states and caucus states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney has been moving ahead, particularly from conservative support, well, Thompson takes more support from Mitt Romney.

I think he hurts whoever is emerging as the frontrunner.

BLITZER: All right, this is going to be an exciting new chapter in this Republican competition.

Bill Schneider, thanks very much.

Let's take a closer look now where Fred Thompson stands on several key issues.

As a U.S. senator, he voted for the use of military force in Iraq and he supports President Bush's Iraq policy. He backs stricter enforcement of existing immigration laws, but he says he poohs blanket amnesty programs. He supports expanding the visa program for skilled workers.

Fred Thompson opposes abortion rights. He says "Roe v. Wade" is a bad law and bad medical science. He also opposes same-sex marriage. He's personally against civil unions, but he says laws on those unions should be left to the states.

Thompson voted for President Bush's 2001 tax cuts when he was in the Senate and he voted in favor of a private savings account program to supplement Social Security. That was pretty controversial at the time.

All that -- we'll have a lot more on Thompson throughout this hour and the next hour, a lot more on this major development in the Republican race for the presidential nomination.

But let's move on to that strange and very frightening case of a man who flew on two transatlantic flights while infected with a rare and potentially deadly form of tuberculosis. This is a significant story.

Today, federal health officials say he will knew he wasn't supposed to travel, but he did anyway. And the hunt still is on for fellow passengers he might have exposed.

Let's bring in our medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen.

She's watching all of this with us.

First of all, what do we know about his travels precisely, Elizabeth?

Because there's a lot of disconnect, if you will, between what authorities are saying and what he is saying.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. There is a lot of disconnect. And I'll try to explain it.

What we learned today from the CDC, Wolf, is that this man wasn't just on two flights, he was actually on seven flights. In addition to the two transatlantic flights we've heard so much about, he was on five shorter flights within Europe.

Now, at the time that he started all of this traveling, Fulton County authorities here in Atlanta, Georgia, they didn't realize that he had this extensively drug resistant -- this very, very powerful and deadly form of tuberculosis. They just thought that -- they didn't realize he had this terrible form of tuberculosis. And so they said to him -- Fulton County officials said today we told him not to travel.

And then he asked, what if I wear a mask? And they said, OK, if you wear a mask, we would agree that it would be OK for you to travel.

It's not known if he actually did wear a mask. And so that question is still open right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So what happens to him now?

COHEN: What happens now is that he wants to go to Denver, at National Jewish Hospital. They specialize in a surgery for T.B. patients where they go into the lung and they remove the most infected part of the lung. And that's where he wants to go now. It's not clear exactly when he'll be allowed to go there.

BLITZER: And they want to remove that surgically, presumably, because the -- all the drugs simply don't work.

He's got a drug resistant form of this tuberculosis?

COHEN: Right. It's not just that -- it's not just a drug resistant form of tuberculosis, this is extensively drug resistant. They've tried many drugs and they're just not working on him.

BLITZER: We're going to stay on top of this story. A lot more coming up in the next hour.

Elizabeth, thanks very much.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: An executive order from the Bush administration will soon ban some of the harshest interrogation techniques used on detainees, like water boarding. But the order falls short of banning other controversial tactics, and that's something the White House might want to reconsider.

It turns out, moral issues aside, torture is not the most effective way to get information out of prisoners, according to a report in today's "New York Times."

The Intelligence Science Board -- this is a group that advises the director of the CIA and other leaders in the intelligence community -- recently got a group of psychologists and other experts in the field gathering to review U.S. interrogation methods. Among other things, they found the tactics the Pentagon and CIA have been relying on are largely ineffective, outdated, amateurish and unreliable.

Isn't that just great?

We're finding this out four-and-a-half years after the start of the war in Iraq.

But hey, what's the rush?

According to one of the panelists, many of the men and women who try to coerce intelligence out of the detainees don't even speak the language.

Let me say that again.

People who are interrogating the detainees don't understand the language that the detainee speaks.

How the hell are you supposed to get information from somebody if you don't understand their language?

The panel suggests that interrogators borrow more verbally persuasive methods used by homicide detectives and sophisticated marketers -- you know, maybe watch a few Tide commercials and some episodes of "Law and Order."

Here's the question -- how can U.S. interrogation techniques become less amateurish and more reliable, you know, like maybe speaking the language of the person you're questioning?

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

This stuff is unbelievable.

BLITZER: You know, I've spoken to some of those interrogators and it loses something in the -- in the translation when you need a translator. Let's say you're trying to get somebody who only speaks Arabic or Farsi and you're working with a translator and trying to be threatening and intimidating and get some points across. But when you have to wait for translation that, might lose some of the effectiveness in that kind of sophisticated interrogation.

CAFFERTY: Didn't we fire a bunch of people in those areas, translators who spoke Arabic...

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: ... shortly, either after the war began?

BLITZER: We did a report on it yesterday, Brian Todd, because they were gay.

CAFFERTY: That makes a lot of sense.

BLITZER: OK.

All right, thanks, Jack.

We'll check back with you shortly.

Coming up, the deadliest month this year for U.S. troops in Iraq draws to a close. I'll ask the new U.S. top military spokesman in Baghdad how the bloodshed squares with claims of progress in the war zone.

Plus, the buzz on the campaign trail.

What are voters talking about and worrying about most?

We're checking the score in New Hampshire.

And why won't Fred Thompson, the former senator and movie star, just jump into the presidential race instead of only testing the waters?

Paul Begala and Bill Bennett -- they're in our Strategy Session today. We'll have lots of ground to cover.

Stick around.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: U.S. troops raid Iraq's Sadr City today, detaining five suspected terrorists. At the same time, American forces frantically searching for five British citizens kidnapped the day before.

Joining us now from Baghdad, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, U.S. Army. He's the new chief spokesman for the multi-national forces in Iraq.

General Bergner, I guess we should say congratulations to you on your new job.

It's a tough assignment.

Let's get through some of the specifics right now.

There was a brazen kidnapping yesterday of five British citizens. Apparently the kidnappers wearing Iraqi Army and police uniforms. I take it this must be of great concern to the U.S. military.

What can you tell us about new precautions that you might be taking to make sure that Americans are not kidnapped along these lines? BRIG. GEN. KEVIN BERGNER, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Well, Wolf, first, I want to tell you that our focus right now is on developing the information and intelligence that would help us to assist in their -- in their safe release. And so our focus is on developing information and intelligence that people could act on.

The circumstances that you describe are very serious and troubling circumstances. We don't know what -- whether those people were part of an Iraqi security force or not. We are going to work very closely with the government of Iraq, because they're equally concerned about the implications of that. So both the government of Iraq and the coalition are -- share a very serious burden about it and we're working hard to investigate and find out exactly who was involved.

BLITZER: Any new leads on those missing -- those two missing American soldiers?

BERGNER: We're continuing to conduct intelligence-based operations to try to locate our missing soldiers. We have -- we have continued to receive information from Iraqi sources and Iraqi security forces. And we're doing everything possible to follow up on those and find our missing soldiers.

BLITZER: It looks like May -- and it's not even over yet -- has been the third worst month as far as U.S. military casualties are concerned -- what, in three years, maybe since the start of the war. This is not going in the right direction.

Isn't it supposed to be going down, U.S. casualties, as opposed to going up?

BERGNER: Well, Wolf, more forces operating in more places and making more contact and a more distributed nature of operations is -- is part of what's going on here. And those kinds of operations and that level of effort is what's necessary to -- to raise -- to improve the population security and improve the prospects for stability here in Iraq.

We are -- our thoughts and prayers are with the families of every soldier that's -- that has been a casualty here in Iraq. And so we are -- we are working very hard, though, to improve the population security. And more forces and more places conducting more operations is what it's going to take.

BLITZER: It looks the -- a lot of those casualties are the results of IEDs, improvised explosive devices, and even more sophisticated devices. And in the past, we've been told some of these devices coming from Iran.

There's been a discussion now, four hours of talks on Monday between U.S. and Iranian diplomats.

Do you see any immediate -- any immediate improvement on the military battlefield as a result of that conversation between the U.S. ambassador in Iraq and the Iranian ambassador in Iraq? BERGNER: Wolf, the flow of -- of fighters, of weapons, of funds into Iraq is a shared responsibility, as you pointed out, among the neighbors to help work with the government of Iraq to stop it and to give the people of Iraq the best chance to achieve their own stability and secure future.

The fact that talks have taken place is -- I think as Ambassador Crocker pointed out -- a step forward. But we really do need to see the actions that would follow that and stopping the flow of those resources that are currently being used by extremists to kill Iraqis and target coalition forces.

BLITZER: The flow from Iran into Iraq.

I take it you haven't seen stoppage yet?

BERGNER: It's -- it's something that we're watching for very carefully. And we're hopeful that those kinds of steps would be taken.

BLITZER: General Bergner, thanks very much for joining us.

Brigadier General Kevin Bergner is the new spokesman for the multi-national forces in Iraq.

Good luck over there.

Be careful.

BERGNER: Wolf, thanks very much.

BLITZER: And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, how far would Hillary Clinton go to win votes in the Latino community?

Well, we know she went at least to California and back again. Her new political coup. That's coming up.

Also, has Senator Joe Biden been stung by his own words again?

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring the wires, keeping an eye on all the feeds coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from around the world.

She's joining us from New York with a closer look at other stories making news -- hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Carol -- hi, Wolf.

Hi, everyone.

President Bush says he'll nominate Robert Zoellick to be the next president of the World Bank. The president says Zoellick is deeply devoted to the bank's mission of defeating world poverty. Zoellick is currently a vice chairman at Goldman Sachs, but served various government posts, including deputy secretary of state in the current Bush administration. If approved by the World Bank's board, Zoellick would replace outgoing bank president Paul Wolfowitz, as you know, was forced to step down.

The president also made another major announcement today. He said he'll ask Congress for three times the original amount of money to help fund the administration's fight against AIDS worldwide. The president will also seek to extend the program another five years. If Congress goes along, the program would increase by $30 billion. That's double the current U.S. commitment. The money would provide treatment for more than two million people living with HIV and AIDS.

Can you spell intense?

The tension at this year's spelling bee in Washington is so thick, you could probably cut it with a K-N-I-F-E. Two hundred eighty- six students are competing for spots at the next round. At stake, $35,000, a $5,000 scholarship, a $2,500 savings bond and, of course, bragging rights for knowing how to spell words most people never even heard of.

And Congress says it wants to do things to ease your pain at the gas pump. Really. But some warn their actions might hurt more than help. Petroleum producers say a proposal currently in Congress may hurt supplies and actually boost prices. The federal energy legislation is designed to limit access to petroleum reserves on public land. It's currently moving its way through Congress. Of course, we'll follow that for you.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Carol, for that.

We want to check in with Jacki Schechner.

She is monitoring YouTube.

She does that a lot these days.

Joe Biden, the Democratic Senator from Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic presidential candidate, he's on YouTube today.

Now, he didn't do anything bad. He didn't say anything stupid.

He said some smart things today on YouTube, right?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: He is, Wolf.

It's his turn to take a swing at the YouTube presidential spotlight. And this time he's talking about oil.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DW), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What is it you're willing to do to free us from the axis of oil and these outrageous oil companies who are -- who are sucking us dry?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHECHNER: Now, Senator Joe Biden is intentionally not talking about his plan for Iraq. It's something he talks about a lot. He wanted to take this opportunity to address something else.

His campaign said he is currently on a six day swing through Iowa and he's going to take a look at the video and comment responses on YouTube, and then respond to them from his turn on the road.

In the past few weeks, we have seen candidates ask about everything from tax reform to what do you believe is America's single greatest challenge.

But so far in the YouTube You Choose spotlight, Senator Clinton's video has been the most popular. She was asking people to help pick her campaign song. She has not come up with a finalist yet, Wolf, but she has narrowed it down to the top 10 choices.

BLITZER: Jacki, thanks very much.

We also want to apologize to Senator Biden if we mistakenly left the impression he said something stupid on YouTube. He did not.

Up next, Fred Thompson's new step toward a presidential bid. The "Law & Order" star is shaking under the race. Is it the answer to conservatives' questions and dreams?

And from the presidential field to the ball field, voters have a lot on their minds and eager to vent.

Stay with us.

We'll be right back.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: Happening now, health officials continuing to look for anyone who may have been exposed to a rare and potentially deadly form of tuberculosis. This after officials identify an infected air passenger who took transatlantic flights.

But how did the person get back into the United States undetected?

We have much more on this story coming up.

And we also have an exclusive interview with Condoleezza Rice. Our own Zain Verjee asked the secretary of state about pressing world issues. That interview coming up.

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

It's the most wide open early starting thriller of a presidential race in recent memory. And many voters are eager to have their voices heard loud and clear.

Our Dana Bash has been talking to people in the leadoff primary state of New Hampshire.

Dana is on the scene for us -- Dana, what are they saying to you?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're saying it is still very, very early, when you look at the calendar, to be talking about politics. But then in the next breath, they'll talk freely about the campaign. And that is what really it is all about here. They say, really, it's never too early in New Hampshire to talk about politics.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Spring in New Hampshire, fans out to cheer on their minor league baseball team. Talk to anyone in the stands here, and you will also find an expert on the sport of politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like Mitt Romney.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hillary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Giuliani.

BASH: What issues are most important?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The war in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Iraq war.

BASH: But there's also this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm as ambivalent about the war as everyone else is. We're sort of dulled to it now. It is what it is. We have to be there. We will be there as long as it takes.

BASH: And this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you are any viable candidate, you're going to be against the war in Iraq. Otherwise, you're going to lose a lot of votes.

BASH: And you're a Republican.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a registered proud-to-be Republican.

BASH: More and more, New Hampshire voters are concerned about the home front, like health care. This father of five is uninsured. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I, myself, have experienced, you know, getting ready to get operations and not being able to get the operation because of lack of insurance, not being able to come up with several thousand dollars to pay up front.

BASH: This mother of two worries about affordable education.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: State schools, especially in New England, are like -- something like $15,000 to $20,000 for your child to go to college. I mean, that's ridiculous. I mean, I make very good money, but that will still be tough on my income to send two kids to college.

BASH: Which candidates do they like? Most Democrats say they're still shopping, but impressed with their options.

As for Republicans, a national CNN/Opinion Research poll showed only one in five Is very satisfied with GOP candidates.

It's not unusual to hear this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm rooting for Fred Thompson to get in there, I think.

BASH: No matter the party, Granite State voters are looking for a winner.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BASH: And, here, they found one...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BASH: ... the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And the spring and summer of baseball will give way to the winter and snow by the time the leadoff primary actually happens here in New Hampshire. And any of the seasoned voters will tell you here, Wolf, they know that anything can alter the political universe between now and then -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Fred Thompson is getting ready himself, as you know, Dana, to throw his hat in the ring -- Dana Bash on the scene for us in New Hampshire.

Those of us who like baseball looking for a winner with the Washington Nationals here in Washington. Could happen tonight. They're playing the Dodgers again. Let's see.

He's played the role of a president in a movie. Now Fred Thompson appears to want that job in real life.

Let's get some more on our top story this hour, the "Law" actor -- the "Law & Order" actor, that is, the former Tennessee Republican senator will take a major step toward a possible White House run. That's what sources are telling CNN.

Joining us now is our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley. She's joining us from up in New Hampshire, as well.

So -- so, Candy, update our viewers. What's all the talk saying about Fred Thompson?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the talk up here, obviously, is what they're hearing from the headlines, which is that Fred Thompson has inched closer to getting into the presidential race.

So, you get sort of varied opinions. We talked to one top Republican today, who said that he felt that, in some ways, this was a little bit unfair to those in the race already, because they're sort of being characterized as not good enough, and that's why Fred Thompson is running in the -- running -- thinking about running in this race.

Now, what Thompson does bring to this, this Republican said, is that sort of leadership and the confidence and the strength that Republicans are looking for in a candidate.

As you heard in Dana's piece, there are those around here, obviously, who can't wait for Fred Thompson to run. And part of that is because particularly the conservative part of the Republican Party is still kind of looking for their dream date, and they just haven't settled on one yet.

BLITZER: You know, a lot of us began to believe he really was going to run once they announced he would not return to "Law" -- the cast of "Law & Order" in the next season. That was a sure indicator.

But walk us through the process. He has to, what, create some sort of exploratory committee, and, then, around July 4, supposedly, he's going to make the formal announcement? Tell us what he -- what steps he's got to take.

CROWLEY: Well, right now, what the -- the step they're going to take is, some time next week, they're going to have a testing-the- waters committee. This is something that they can file at the state level. It's not federal election papers.

So, it will -- what it will allow Fred Thompson to do is to raise money and put together a staff, without having to file a second- quarter report on how much money he's raised. Obviously, he doesn't want to start and then have a very low level of spending. So, it will allow him not to report at the end of this month those second-quarter numbers.

So, after that, obviously, he does have to file federal papers if he's going to go ahead and run, a presidential exploratory committee, whatever you want to have -- whatever you want to call it.

Now, Politico.com, as you know, has been saying that, in fact, he will announce on or around July -- the July Fourth holiday. We haven't been able to confirm that. In fact, people have told us around Fred Thompson that that's one of the dates being considered, but that he hasn't actually, you know, gotten into the race or made that decision.

But I have to tell you, everybody around him that we have talked to today has said they fully believe that he's going to get in.

BLITZER: We will watch this latest development, significant.

Thanks, Candy, already on the scene...

CROWLEY: Sure.

BLITZER: ... for us in New Hampshire.

And, don't forget, we're gearing up for our big debates in New Hampshire. CNN, WMUR, and "The New Hampshire Union Leader," we're co--sponsoring back-to-back debates next week. The Democratic candidates square off this Sunday, June 3. The Republicans go head to head on Tuesday, June 5. We will all be there. Hope you will be watching, two hours, uninterrupted by commercials, on Sunday and then on Tuesday.

Candy Crowley and Dana Bash, as you know, are part of the best political team on television.

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

Coming up: more on Fred Thompson. He's in the spotlight right now. It's a place he's been for decades, long before he officially began testing these presidential waters. We are going to look back at the twists and turns on his resume.

And, if she can make it there, can Hillary Clinton win over Latino voters anywhere? Her new endorsement in California and how it may affect her presidential bid nationwide.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's likely making her opponents green with envy, Hillary Clinton picking up a major prize today. It involves the Los Angeles mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, an Hispanic who is hugely popular among Hispanic voters and a lot of other voters in L.A., as well.

Joining us now, CNN's Tom Foreman.

What did Senator Clinton win, Tom? And why is this so important for her campaign?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What she won, Wolf, was a guy she's been after for quite some time. She's wanted to rope him into her campaign. And is he finally in the corral.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (D), MAYOR OF LOS ANGELES: We love this country! Our children fight in our wars. Our children defend this country. And we want to be a part of the team.

FOREMAN (voice-over): He is the mayor of Los Angeles, California's largest city and the second biggest in the nation. And Antonio Villaraigosa is considered one of the rising Latino stars in the Democratic Party.

Today, he endorses Senator Hillary Clinton for president. It's a major prize for the Democratic presidential front-runner, since Latino voters play a large role in California politics.

STUART ROTHENBERG, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT": This is the kind of endorsement that Senator Clinton will not only want, but would want to keep away from anybody else.

FOREMAN: The endorsement comes just a week-and-a-half after Bill Richardson formally declared his candidacy.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D-NM), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I'm running for president because this nation needs a leader with a proven track record, an ability to bring people together.

FOREMAN: The New Mexico governor, born to a Mexican mother, made his announcement in Los Angeles. So, an already hot battle for Hispanic voters is heating up even more.

RICHARDSON: En Espanol or en Ingles?

FOREMAN: New census estimates show that they are the largest minority in the country and the fastest growing. And, while Hispanic voters may not have an early impact in the early Democratic primary states outside of Nevada, they could play a large role in the states that follow.

KEATING HOLLAND, CNN POLLING DIRECTOR: California, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York all have primaries on February 5, and all have significant Hispanic populations.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: Now, most endorsements don't really mean anything to average voters. We read about them in the paper, see them on TV. We don't really care.

This one, though, might. And there's a big reason. Last year, the Democrats made significant gains with Latino voters. Latino voters had been moving to the Republican side. The Republicans had been really wooing them. Last year, a big shift -- a lot of them went over to the Democrats. So, this will matter, not only in the primary, but, if Hillary Clinton makes it into the general election, another key player rallying those Latino votes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman watching the story for us, thanks.

Let's get a few facts now about the L.A. mayor. He's the first Latino elected mayor of Los Angeles since 1872. Back in the 2004 presidential race, he endorsed Democratic Senator John Kerry early on in the primary season over Kerry's Democratic opponents.

Villaraigosa then went on to co-chair Kerry's campaign. Meanwhile, many suspect Villaraigosa has some higher political ambitions himself. In fact, many of the pundits out in California expect he might run for governor of California in 2010. We will see.

Up next: His supporters say he's the right man for the job.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe Senator Thompson is a strong, rock- ribbed conservative who would represent our values. Let's ask Fred Thompson to run for president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Some are coming out to support Fred Thompson for president, even though Thompson has not officially jumped into the race. But he's getting mighty, mighty close. We will discuss all that in our "Strategy Session." Who wins? Who loses?

Stick around. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Who's afraid of Fred Thompson? It appears many people are. The "Law & Order" actor is taking some huge steps toward a White House run.

Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and our CNN contributor Bill Bennett, Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Let me start with you, Bill.

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Sure.

BLITZER: Why is Fred Thompson so appealing to a lot of Republicans?

BENNETT: Big handsome man, you know?

No, well, he is -- he's a big presence. He's kind of the brooding omnipresence. He is strong. He is conservative. He sounds good. The base likes him. He has a certain Reaganesque quality, right down to the acting thing.

And no one has caught fire. I mean, Giuliani is ahead in the polls, and doing surprisingly well, but conservatives say, well, we wish he weren't so liberal on some of these issues.

With Fred Thompson, they get what looks like the whole package. Now, he does have a record, which is -- and Paul and I were talking about this earlier -- which is more like John McCain, in many ways, than Ronald Reagan.

BLITZER: A moderate Republican?

BENNETT: Yes, 80s, I think, from American Conservative Union.

But he has since, I think, become more conservative. He sounds more conservative. The other thing about Fred, he feels conservative. You know, he just -- he just feels like a kind of traditional values conservative.

These commentaries he's doing for ABC, the Paul Harvey spot, are endearing him to a lot of people. And I will...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: On ABC Radio.

BENNETT: And I will steal this from Paul. Apparently, this thing did he on Michael Moore, where he took on Michael Moore and Cuban cigars, had more hits than what people...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: It got...

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: Right.

BLITZER: But how worried should Democrats be about a Reaganesque, likable movie star who's a Republican running for president?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it's -- it doesn't look like a good year for the Republicans, 2008. And, yet, he looks like a pretty good Republican, for the reasons you state, and the reasons that Bill states.

Now, can he get through, first, the primary process, where he will have to explain why he's no longer a McCain Republican, running against McCain, pretending to be to the right of McCain, when they really were ideological soul mates in the Senate.

The -- the only important vote I found where they disagreed was on the first article of impeachment of Bill Clinton, where Thompson voted with us.

BENNETT: Yes.

BEGALA: He voted with the White House, voted with President Clinton, to find him not guilty of lying to the grand jury. So did most of the Senate, but only 10 Republicans voted the way Thompson did on that day.

That will be a challenge. If he gets past that, though, he is going to have to explain to the general election, moderates and Democrats, why -- we know him as an actor, and we know him as a legislator. The career, apparently, he's had the longest is as a lobbyist, nothing necessarily dishonorable about that.

But he lobbied for General Electric, for a bunch of overseas insurance companies. He even lobbied -- this will hurt him in the primaries -- for Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the left-wing leader of Haiti, who was a great hero to many on the left. He was a liberation theologian when he was a Catholic priest, later took over that...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I suspect we're going to learn a lot...

BEGALA: Conservatives don't like Aristide...

BENNETT: Sure.

BEGALA: ... very much.

BLITZER: We're going to learn more.

But, when he was a lobbyist for these corporations or these individuals, was it the firm he was working for that was lobbying, or was he personally involved in those lobbying activities?

BEGALA: I -- I don't know enough to know.

But, you know, he was part of a law firm. I suspect he was at that law firm because of his legislative contacts. I mean, come on. He came to Washington over 30 years ago as an influential congressional aide. And guys like that get jobs in law firms, not for their lawyering, but for their contacts on Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: Because he can open and close doors...

BEGALA: Sure.

BLITZER: ... if he wants.

And he was going back to Watergate.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And a lot of viewers will remember, he was right there with Howard Baker...

BENNETT: Right.

BLITZER: ... in all of those -- those inquiries of Richard Nixon.

BENNETT: That's right. And that's basically good news, I think, for him.

I mean, this is experience. This was an important drama. He seemed like he was, you know, going at it in a bipartisan or nonpartisan way. Whether the Aristide line of attack will hold or not, it depends on a lot of things. American Trial Lawyers Association, too, he's big in that. That could be a disqualifier for some people.

But, again, there is so much hope for him, so much interest in him, something funny will happen. He's either the beneficiary of this and comes in and just gets a huge amount of praise, or he comes in, fails to answer questions in the way people would like, and then is diminished...

BLITZER: So...

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: ... to the size of everybody else.

BLITZER: Put your strategist hat on. Take a look at the Republicans, McCain, Giuliani, Mitt Romney, the other -- who loses because Fred Thompson is a candidate? Who's going to suffer?

BEGALA: Well, I think McCain does, first and foremost. But, also, I think Mitt Romney does.

Romney is a guy, he is moving forward in Iowa now. He's sort of caught fire in that state, which is very important, an early caucus state. He's raising a lot of money.

All of a sudden, he won't be the fresh face. He won't be the outsider. You know, Fred Thompson has been out of the Senate since 2002. And one of Romney's good -- great calling cards is: You can't blame me for Iraq. You know, I'm not part of the mess in Washington.

Well, Thompson, even though he's got a 30-year track record in Washington, he's been gone for most of the last six, seven years.

BENNETT: When you seem better and more attractive than the guys who are most like you, then they tend to diminish in the background. The guy who remains standing is Giuliani, a very different character.

But I think McCain may be having a lot of trouble soon, anyway, because of this immigration thing. This -- this thing is a train coming down the track, and it's going to mow down a lot of Republicans.

BLITZER: If -- assume Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards gets the Democratic nomination. And it's a huge assumption at this point, because it's still very early.

Which Republican should they fear the most in a general election? Would it be Giuliani? Would it be McCain? Would it be Mitt Romney? Or would it be Fred Thompson? BEGALA: You know, the -- the best strategy for the Democrats is, run against Bush. The reason he's at 28 percent is because the country doesn't like him. He's a failed president.

And can my party use that to leverage the entire brand down, right? Can they say, you're a Bush Republican?

Certainly, McCain is a Bush Republican. I mean, even though Governor Bush beat him in those primaries back in 2000, he's made it his stock in trade to be Bush's best friend on the war, which is the president's least popular issue.

Guys like Rudy, he has very much been a Bush Republican, even though he's been a mayor. I think Romney and Thompson have an easier ability, perhaps, to run as a -- as an anti-Bush Republican. Still hard to do, but I think that's -- that's the tougher play for the Democrats to contend with.

BLITZER: And you -- nobody watches the Republicans as closely as you do, Bill. What do you think? At this point, who's got the inside edge -- very early -- to get that Republican nomination, if you had to -- if I had to press you?

BENNETT: All right, process of elimination, Romney just does not seem to be catching on. Maybe people aren't buying these various changes of opinion, changes of view.

McCain, I think, is in real trouble because of the immigration thing. So, I think it's Giuliani and Thompson. Thompson, to the base, the traditional base, I think, is very strong.

But Giuliani competes against Hillary, I think, if -- if I read it right, in a lot of states where Republicans have not competed, New Jersey, maybe New York, maybe California, unheard of places for Republicans.

BLITZER: Because those -- those primaries are going to be very early.

BENNETT: Right. So, that's right.

BLITZER: All right, serious analysis here.

Paul, Bill, thanks very much.

BENNETT: Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM: the United Nations Security Council voting just a short while ago to form an international court to prosecute the assassination of the former Lebanese Minister Rafik al-Hariri. That will likely enrage Syria.

I will speak about it, coming up live. The new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And, amid growing calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, the White House floating a notion of troops staying, not for a few more years, but for decades. We will explain what's going on.

Stay with us. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York for "The Cafferty File."

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the question this hour: How can U.S. interrogation techniques become less amateurish and more reliable?

Apparently, a lot of experts are coming to the conclusion that some of the things we're doing just aren't working, stuff like water- boarding, et cetera.

Danny writes from West Virginia: "They're not just finding this out now. Experts have been saying this all along. But the Bush gang ignored and ridiculed them as quaint. The Bushies were busy figuring out how to get around the law and hide what they were doing, so much so that they never bothered to ask if their methods of interrogation actually worked."

Randa, Washington, D.C.: "Mr. Cafferty, the translation language issue only a small part of the problem. Do we in the U.S. have the foresight to utilize the talents of the Arab-American and Muslim- American community for law enforcement, public diplomacy, and intelligence-gathering?"

Wendy in California: "It seems the Israelis have it down. Their techniques involve befriending the suspect, empathizing, and getting all the information they need. It works. They have arguably one of the best intelligence-gathering units in the world. We need to learn from the experts, rather than listening to the chest-thumping Neanderthals when it comes to interrogation techniques."

B.H., San Diego: "U.S. interrogators have already taken the step to get more reliable, less amateurish results. They send the detainees to countries where no-holds-barred techniques are used, then return them to U.S. custody, where they then claim not to use torture. By not defining what being a terrorist is, this can be used on anyone. Isn't divine guidance great? It's sort of like the Spanish Inquisition."

M.B. in British Columbia: "Regards to how to get more effective interrogations, I suggest, if you want to continue with torture, show the prisoners the 'Head On' commercial. One might want to monitor the subject closely, though, in order to avoid insanity."

Ron in San Francisco: "Maybe the military should stop dismissing Farsi-speaking soldiers just because they didn't follow the out-of- date rule of don't ask/don't tell."

And my favorite letter maybe of the week is this, from Amy: "They should rehire the gay translators. Have them work in teams of five. And, instead of good cop/bad cop, they can play 'Queer Eye For the Bad Guy.' The threat of shaving their beards, dressing with matching tie and hanky, and learning how to cook a quiche will get the truth out of any fundamentalist Muslim" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We have got some very, very clever e-mailers out there.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Jack...

(CROSSTALK)

CAFFERTY: "Queer Eye For the Bad Guy," I like that.

BLITZER: Let me -- let me get your political analysis, because you're part of the best political team on television, Jack.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: You know you are. You have covered politics...

CAFFERTY: You are shameless.

BLITZER: ... for a long time.

The Fred Thompson decision to go forward and run for president, it's going to shake up that Republican field, at a time when this race is really wide open.

CAFFERTY: Well, it is.

And I -- you know, I question characterizing Thompson as a Washington outsider. He was a member of the United States Senate. And the comparisons to Reagan are a little lame, because Reagan had a full head of hair.

I don't know if there's a Republican that's going to -- that's going to make a real run at the White House anyway. I'm not sure there's anybody with the Republican moniker that could win in 2008.

But I suppose Thompson is as good a choice as any of the others who are in the race. And -- and, as one of the guests earlier suggested, Romney is not exactly catching fire. McCain has -- has maybe shot himself in the foot, to the point where he won't be able to walk right again.

And Giuliani, some real question marks about some of the social issues, and -- and some of the fear-mongering, quite frankly, that he's done concerning 9/11.

So, Thompson might sense that there's, you know, a little blood in the water; it's time to make a move.

BLITZER: It's a big story. We will see what happens.

CAFFERTY: Oh, yes, huge.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

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