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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Bush Links Iraq, al Qaeda; Polls: Public Wants Change Now; Wanted Dems Seek GOP Rebels

Aired July 24, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, they may be separated by boundaries, but President Bush says they're united in their thirst for blood. He links Al Qaeda in Iraq to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. And in a twist, the President suggests anyone that tries to convince you otherwise is misleading you.
They are looking for Republican rebels. Two Democrats, one of them conservative, the other one liberal, teaming up. They suggest if President Bush won't budge on Iraq, maybe more members of his party will.

And a verbal slugfest between the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns. One day after our CNN/YouTube debate, each side is blasting the other over the issue of dealing with the world's dictators.

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

President Bush says they're united in a common goal to kill Americans. In an impassioned speech just a little while ago, the President linked Al Qaeda in Iraq to the same terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11. And so that it would sink in with war- weary Americans, the President repeated the phrase "Al Qaeda in Iraq" literally dozens and dozens of times.

Our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is standing by.

Suzanne, the President was very emphatic in those remarks.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He was very impassioned in his speech. There wasn't a lot that was new here.

He did classify some information, the countries of origin for al Qaeda leaders, about four of them foreign operatives. What he is trying to do here, Wolf, is make the case that Al Qaeda in Iraq is real, dangerous, and connected to 9/11.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Al Qaeda in Iraq...

Al Qaeda in Iraq...

Al Qaeda in Iraq...

Al Qaeda in Iraq...

There's a good reason they are called "Al Qaeda in Iraq". They are al Qaeda in Iraq.

MALVEAUX (voice over): Get the message? President Bush mentioned al Qaeda 93 times in just 29 minutes in an attempt to convince the American people U.S. troops must stay in Iraq. The strategy is simple: emphasize al Qaeda's role in the violence, not the fighting between warring Iraqi groups.

The administration's thinking is the public will support the war if they understand the enemy. The enemy now in Iraq, they say, are the same folks who attacked us on September 11th.

BUSH: Al Qaeda in Iraq is run by foreign leaders loyal to Osama bin Laden. Like bin Laden, they are cold-blooded killers.

MALVEAUX: Intelligence analyst Paul Crookshank (ph) agrees.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He doesn't overstate the case Al Qaeda in Iraq is part of the al Qaeda franchise and is a threat to the United States long term.

MALVEAUX: But it's a threat of the Bush administration's own making, he says.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. invasion of Iraq dramatically increased the threat to the United States from jihadist terrorism.

MALVEAUX: In October, 2002, the administration was warned of that very possibility by the intelligence community. Last week, a new national intelligence estimate confirmed al Qaeda's now robust presence.

But intelligence analysts warn, simply emphasizing al Qaeda as the enemy oversimplifies America's problem.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, FMR. CIA DEPUTY DIRECTOR: No question Al Qaeda in Iraq is an important part of this conflict. But to describe it in just those terms is to describe really a game of checkers when what we're dealing with here is a game of chess. Because we have many other facets to this conflict, including a civil war, including tensions between tribes, nationalists and so forth.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, so, of course, he's talking about the civil war between the Shia and the Sunni. And there's another debate that is taking place, just how to define Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Some people note that the foot soldiers are mostly Iraqis when it comes to al Qaeda. The administration chooses to look at the leadership that is aboard -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I was struck by the timing of the president's speech, and also the location in Charleston, South Carolina, where the CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate occurred last night.

I don't know if you've had a chance to speak with White House officials about, A, the timing and, B, the location. If you have, what are they suggesting?

MALVEAUX: Well, it was certainly before a friendly audience. It was the military. So obviously, they're putting him forward and they're hoping to kind of get that friendly reception. I don't know exactly, Wolf, whether or not it was a reaction to the YouTube debate, but I will ask.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House.

Thanks. Get back to you if you get an answer on that.

Meanwhile, there were heated exchanges and moments of tension. That's how the U.S. ambassador in Iraq describes the meeting he held today involving U.S. and Iranian delegations in Baghdad. The U.S. accusing Iran of helping militias in Iraq involved in bloodshed. And the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, says he used very blunt language to stress to the Iranians that that's simply unacceptable. Crocker also announced the U.S. and Iran will set up a panel to talk about improving security in Iraq.

We're going to have much more on this story coming up later in THE SITUATION ROOM. Our Michael Ware is watching it as well.

As Americans express outrage that the U.S. is still in Iraq, fresh polls are gauging whom Americans think is best suited to make changes.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is watching all the numbers.

What do the latest polls on Iraq, Bill, show us?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Exasperation, and it's bipartisan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice over): Americans want to change course in Iraq, but who do they trust to do it? Only 25 percent of the public approves of the way President Bush is handling the situation in Iraq.

The Democrats in Congress? Not much better. Thirty percent approval on Iraq.

Republicans in Congress? Worse. Twenty-two percent.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What we need to do is turn up the heat on George Bush and hold him responsible and make this President change course.

SCHNEIDER: The public agrees. Nearly 80 percent do not think President Bush will change course in Iraq unless he is forced to do so. A majority of Republicans are of the same view.

And the Democrats in Congress?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Democrats have failed the American people.

SCHNEIDER: Nearly half the public believe the Democrats in Congress have done too little to get President Bush to change his policy.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And since the election of 2006, the Democrats have tried repeatedly to win Republican support for the simple proposition that we need to set a timeline to begin bringing our troops home now.

SCHNEIDER: But Democratic voters are even more likely to agree that the Democrats have done too little to pressure President Bush.

The President is pleading for more time. Is the public willing to give it to him? Apparently not. By nearly 2-1, Americans do not expect the increase of U.S. forces to improve the security situation in Iraq over the next few months.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Bipartisanship at last. Voters of both parties are exasperated with the situation in Iraq and with their own party leaders in Washington -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Bill. Thanks.

Bill Schneider reporting for us from Charleston, South Carolina.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" from New York.

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: How are you doing, Wolf?

The Republican presidential field may soon grow by one. And we're not talking about Fred Thompson either.

The examiner's reporting that former House speaker Newt Gingrich is dismissing the current crop of Republican presidential candidates as a "pathetic bunch of pygmies". Imagine that, name calling from a man whose name is Newt.

Newt says that if by mid-October it's quite clear that one or more of the Republican candidates can beat Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, then he won't enter the race. But otherwise, he says, there's "space for a candidate."

Gingrich had especially harsh words for one of the Republican presidential debates, ridiculing the idea of 10 or 11 people standing passively at microphones. He said he refused to "shrink to the level of 40-second answers, standing like a trained seal waiting for someone to throw me a fish."

And he added that these are not debates. These are auditions.

This comes after recent remarks that Gingrich made to "The New York Post," where he warned his fellow Republicans that Clinton and Obama are generating more passion than the GOP White House hopefuls.

So here's the question: Why is Newt Gingrich comparing the Republican presidential candidates to pygmies and trained seals? EAGAN:

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

Somewhere there's a saying about people in glass houses and stuff. This guy named Newt -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I've got a funny name, too. What can I say?

CAFFERTY: That's...

BLITZER: Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by.

Coming up, a top Republican suggests some of his fellow Republicans are chickening out over Iraq. The House minority leader, John Boehner, calls Republican defectors in the Senate wimps. I'll ask him what he's talking about.

Also, wanted, two Democrats forming an unlikely alliance, looking to recruit more Republicans to pressure President Bush on Iraq.

And the embattled attorney general of the United States fighting back. He gives his side of the tale that involved him, a controversial decision, and a showdown in a hospital room over a sick man's bed.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: They're mad as ever and apparently don't want to take it anymore. Two Democrats on opposite ends of the political spectrum now teaming up. They're angry over the current course of the war in Iraq and they want more Republicans to get angry as well.

Our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is following the maneuvering up on Capitol Hill.

Their frustration I assume, Dana, mirroring a lot of the public opinion polls on this sensitive subject.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Even a new one in "The Washington Post" today.

Check this out on the wall next to me, Wolf. Sixty-eight percent of Americans say they disapprove of how President Bush is handling the Iraq war, but 63 percent disapprove of how Democrats in Congress are handling the Iraq war. And it's that kind of disappointment with the fact that Democrats haven't been able to get a new approach on Iraq that is pushing rank-and-file Democrats, several of them, to find a new approach with how to deal with this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice over): Two very different Democrats -- a conservative from Tennessee, a liberal from Hawaii -- on opposite sides when the war began, now joining forces to try to break partisan deadlock on how to end it.

REP. NEIL ABERCROMBIE (D), HAWAII: The country's disgusted with everybody. They think the president is being stubborn and not trying to resolve the situation, more concerned about scoring points against the Congress. They think the Congress has failed to act in a responsible way.

We have to change the direction of the conversation.

BASH: Democrats Neil Abercrombie and John Tanner are pushing legislation to force the president within 60 days to give Congress his plan for redeployment from Iraq, which they say would attract Republican votes.

REP. JOHN TANNER (D), TENNESSEE: There's nothing partisan about this. We don't -- we don't ask him to do anything other than give us his idea in 60 days of where we go from here.

BASH: It is a blunt challenge to their own Democratic leadership to stop taking vote after vote on deadlines for a withdrawal that won't become law.

ABERCROMBIE: Any fool can take a stand, and most of them do. This isn't about taking stands. This is about resolving the dilemma of the war.

BASH: But anti-war forces like MoveOn.org tell CNN they will fight any such compromise, saying it would give Republicans political cover, a chance to challenge the president without mandating a course change in Iraq.

To that, these Democrats throw up their hands, literally.

TANNER: When some poor kid died this morning, I don't worry about political cover.

ABERCROMBIE: Yes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: CNN is told there is active discussion, even some disagreement within the Democratic leadership in the House about whether to allow this for a vote before the August recess. But one thing is for sure, Wolf, that this push, which has seven Democratic co-sponsors right now, does expose the mounting tensions within the Democratic Party about the fact that they simply have not been able to force a change in course when it comes to the war in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A serious debate on strategy, not only in the House, but in the Senate as well.

Dana, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, some Republicans angry that their -- that members of their own party are revolting from President Bush's strategy in Iraq, are using some very colorful words. One GOP leader actually suggesting they're chickening out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now from Capitol Hill, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, the minority leader, John Boehner.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), MINORITY LEADER: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Recently you caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that your Republican colleagues in the Senate who were starting to raise serious questions about the president's Iraq strategy were wimps. I wonder if you'd want to explain what you mean, because by our count there's at least 12 Republican senators who have now started to ask some serious questions about his strategy.

BOEHNER: Wolf, what I was trying to do is illustrate the fact that we had all voted, just in June, to give General Petraeus the money and the troops that he needed to implement, fully implement his plan, and that we really ought to wait until September and to see what the general's report looks like.

The fact is, is that he's had all of his troops in place now for about four weeks. They've been on a massive offensive against al Qaeda.

There have been a tremendous number of successes over these last four weeks. But I want to wait until September to give General Petraeus and his commanding generals the chance to succeed in Iraq, because at the end of the day, success in Iraq will, in fact, make America a much safer place.

BLITZER: One of those 12 Republican senators, Chuck Hagel, probably the most outspoken critic of the president's strategy himself, a Vietnam War veteran.

Do you honestly believe, though, he's a wimp? BOEHNER: No. What I'm trying to do is to make sure that we give General Petraeus and his troops all the time they need, up to September 15th, to have a chance at success.

We know that if we don't succeed in Iraq, and we have failure there, we will destabilize Iraq. We'll probably provide safe haven for al Qaeda. We'll destabilize the rest of the Middle East, put Israel in jeopardy. And if all that isn't bad enough, who doesn't expect that al Qaeda won't follow us home and we'll be dealing with those terrorists here in America?

BLITZER: I want to move on to some other issues. But just on this "wimp" issue, do you want to clarify, do you want to advise or amend, do you want to take it back? Or are you still holding to that word?

BOEHNER: No. Wolf, listen, I was using that statement to help illustrate the frustration that I and others feel that we ought to give the Petraeus plan a chance to succeed.

BLITZER: OK. Let's move on to this "Washington Post"-ABC poll. "Who do you trust to do a better job handling the situation in Iraq? Thirty-two percent said President Bush, 55 percent said Democrats in Congress.

You've lost a couple votes in the House of Representatives to the Democratic majority on a timeline for getting troops out of Iraq. And it looks like the American public is more aligned with the Democrats right now.

What do you think?

BOEHNER: I understand people's frustration with Iraq. It's gone on for a long time. We've lost 3,000 of our fellow citizens fighting the terrorists in Iraq. And so I understand the frustration. The significance, though, of the fight that we're in is really important.

Al Qaeda is our number one enemy. They made Iraq the central front in their war with us.

The Iranians are our second biggest problem. They're the ones stirring up the sectarian violence, bringing weapons and training to those who don't want success by the new Iraqi government.

And so, we have to draw the line somewhere in terms of taking on al Qaeda and defeating them. And I think doing it in Iraq is much smarter than trying to -- trying to ward off America and trying to keep them out of here. Let's fight them over there and defeat them, and America will be a much safer place.

BLITZER: So much of this strategy, though, as you know, Congressman, depends on Iraqis themselves stepping up to the plate, doing what they need to do, make those tough decisions to disband the various militias, to start fighting, if you will, as strongly as U.S. troops are fighting. But you know what? They're going on vacation now, the Iraqi parliament, for a month, the whole month of August, while U.S. troops are fighting and dying.

And I've got to tell you, a lot of Americans are outraged about that.

BOEHNER: Well, no, I understand. And I'm concerned about it as well, because while we're having success on the ground and providing greater security for the Iraqi people in Iraq, the government has not performed as well as anyone would like.

I know that our ambassador there continues to work with the Iraqi parliament, the prime minister, to begin to move this process along. And we all continue to be hopeful and optimistic that the Iraqis will soon be able to take greater control of their own destiny.

BLITZER: You think they will?

BOEHNER: I'm hopeful.

BLITZER: All right, we'll leave it right there.

John Boehner is the top Republican in the House of Representatives.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

BOEHNER: Thanks, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And we're going to get a very different perspective later here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Senator Ted Kennedy, he'll speak to us about his views on what's going on in Iraq right now. Also on education, what was said at the debate last night about No Child Left Behind. Also says college kids need some breaks right now over tuition.

Senator Ted Kennedy, here in THE SITUATION ROOM. That's coming up.

And a former state chairman for Rudy Giuliani quits another high- ranking post over cocaine charges. One-time rising political star Thomas Ravenel goes to court. We're going to tell you how long he could face prison if he's convicted.

And an incredible scene on a Wisconsin highway. Caught on videotape, an emergency landing that involved traffic, traffic on this highway.

We're going to tell you what happened, tell you how it all ended.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK) BLITZER: Up next, words like "naive" and "flip-flop" are being used one day after our suite CNN/YouTube debate. We're going to tell you whom they are being used against.

And a shake-up in an organization that is not even a presidential campaign yet. We've just learned of some changes in the group advising presidential prospect Fred Thompson.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, the U.S. trying to put the lid on the smuggling of weapons from Iran to Shiite militias in Iraq. The U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, saying today's Baghdad meeting with his Iranian counterparts was heated and tense.

We'll have a full report coming up.

The hard-line Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also getting the message from the American people. A growing number of U.S. states are divesting pension and retirement funds in a move that could cost Tehran billions of dollars.

And he may be the most powerful vice president the U.S. has ever had, and the most elusive. But are Dick Cheney's secrets coming out?

I'll talk to the author of a new revealing biography about the vice president.

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

Last night's debate wasn't like anything we've seen before, but it did shake up the Democratic race for the White House. Or didn't it?

John King and Candy Crowley are standing by in Charleston, South Carolina. That's where the debate took place.

Let's go to Candy first. OK. Let's find Candy Crowley and see if we can get her up there. There she is.

Candy Crowley, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, they're going at it, against each other today, in the aftermath of that debate. Tell us what -- what they're saying.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, in separate interviews with Iowa's "Quad-City Times," Hillary Clinton is accusing Barack Obama of being irresponsible and naive. And, in turn, he is accusing her of fabricating a controversy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY (voice-over): It began with a debate question: Would Obama meet with the leaders of hostile nations, like Iran and Cuba, in the first year of his presidency? SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous.

OBAMA: It was just the sort of opening camp Clinton was looking for, and she fired.

CLINTON: I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse.

CROWLEY: Team Clinton was so excited about the moment, they made former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright available to tell reporters that Clinton's answer was -- quote -- "perfect, a sophisticated, nuanced view."

In a memo titled "Strength and Experience," they said Obama "committed to presidential-level meetings with some of the world's worst dictators without precondition."

Pushing back in a memo titled "Obama Wins Debate and Commander in Chief Test," the Obama folks said Clinton's debate's comments were at odds with a previous statement, when she said it was a mistake for President Bush to say he won't talk with bad people. "The American people choose straight talk over Washington double-speak," the memo read, "and they know that change must be more than a slogan."

With that, the Clinton people put out the rest of the quote, in which Clinton talked of diplomatic discussions, not necessarily presidential meetings. The Obama people pointed out that, in a CNN dial test of debate watchers, Obama's answers scored high on the charts. But camp Clinton thinks Obama stepped in it and is trying to spin his way out.

What's all this about?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: This is a super-struggle for control of the post-debate spin in an election season that has gotten heated earlier than any election season before it. It's getting testy out there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I assume, Candy, it's going to get a little bit more testy as this campaign goes on.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. Absolutely. It always does.

And, look, let's think of this. This is now July. We have about six months, a little less than six months, to go. If it's already this heated, you can only expect a hotter August and beyond.

BLITZER: Thank you, Candy Crowley, on the scene for us.

South Carolina is the heart of Republican country, but will growing concern over the war in Iraq and President Bush's handling of it help Democrats?

Our chief national correspondent, John King, is also in Charleston watching this.

Are Democrats getting any confidence, any hope that what's going on now eventually will lead to their political advantage?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, South Carolina would be a long shot, Wolf, but it is interesting, watching things.

The Democrats had barely said good night and goodbye after their debate when President Bush came into this very important political state. It is all part of an effort by both parties to shape a political climate at a time the public is clearly in a very sour mood.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here you go, sweetie. There you go.

KING: The Water Festival is a chance for Beaufort to showcase its patriotism and its military tradition. And, yet, even here, in conservative South Carolina's Lowcountry, something seems not quite in step.

BILL RAUCH, MAYOR OF BEAUFORT, SOUTH CAROLINA: At this stage, they are ready to change the commander in chief. I think the war is far more popular in this town than the commander in chief is.

KING: Mayor Bill Rauch says support for the troops and their mission runs high. It's the sense the president wasn't up front about why in the first place or when things went wrong.

RAUCH: It had to do with -- with honesty, honor, doing what you say you're going to do, being forthright. In Beaufort, that's not a war issue. In Beaufort, that's a credibility issue.

KING: That Mr. Bush has an anemic 34 percent approval rating in bedrock Republican South Carolina is eye-opening. And, yet, it's not as if Democrats have turned things upside down here.

RAUCH: The government not working. And we're back to gridlock. We can't get legislation through the Congress anymore.

KING: This is normally sleepy summertime. But a Democratic debate, followed by a presidential visit, highlights South Carolina's big role in a campaign that, at the moment, is lopsided in the Democrats' favor.

Only two in 10 Americans think the country is headed in the right direction. Seven in 10 say it is off on the wrong track, including, for the first time in the Bush presidency, a majority of Republicans.

NEIL NEWHOUSE, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: The critical environment going into '06 was -- was pretty negative for our party. The bad news is, you know, it's gotten more negative. It's eroded since then. This is a very negative, very pessimistic political environment.

KING: It's not just the war. The stock market at record highs means little to families dealing with higher energy, health care, and mortgage bills.

NEWHOUSE: They may be bringing more money home, but they're also spending more money. And I think that you're -- you're finding a lot of households across the country being squeezed by these increased costs.

LONNIE GOLDEN, FRIPP POINT SEAFOOD OWNER: Something out of whack. Something out of balance.

KING: Fripp Point Seafood business has been in Lonnie Golden's family for four decades. Sales are a struggle. And Lonnie sold his shrimp boat years ago.

GOLDEN: Imports, high fuel prices is running everybody out. They can't make a -- not a good living -- can't make a living. A lot of people can't even make a go at it no more.

KING: In his case, it is a way of life fading before his eyes. Others are war-weary. In a country turning more and more to picking a new president, and across a state that gets a giant say in the race, it adds up to a nagging sense that things are off on the wrong track.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Quite interesting, Wolf, to talk to Republicans at this early moment in the campaign. They say, more and more, they see signs their base remains demoralized after 2006, heading into the early 2008 cycle. Some are saying the only way to unite the Republican base is for Democrats to nominate Hillary Clinton. Some Republicans think that would be the best thing for their party, even though they say, in the next breath, she would be a formidable candidate. It would be still be an incredibly hard race for the Republicans to win at this early juncture -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you're doing some reporting on a non-candidate, at least not an official candidate yet, but a very likely candidate, Fred Thompson. What are you picking up?

KING: Certainly some growing pains and we're told by some sources some internal tensions in the Thompson campaign that are leading to some changes at the top.

Back when Fred Thompson said he was forming his exploratory committee and getting ready to run for president, he brought in a veteran of George H.W. Bush's administration. His name is Tom Collamore. His job was to assemble a staff and get the campaign organization up and running.

Well, Tom Collamore resigned today. And we're told by several sources he resigned in part because he couldn't find an official role in the campaign going forward because of tensions with the senator's -- the former Senator Thompson's wife, Jeri. Now, we also know, as Tom Collamore steps aside, he says he does this out of respect, that they wanted to go in a different direction as the campaign moved on. Tom Collamore says he will stay as a senior adviser.

And, Wolf, some veterans being brought into the campaign, including former top aide to Dan Quayle, former Michigan Senator and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham coming in to the Thompson campaign, along with a man who used to run the Florida Republican Party, Randy Enwright -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks, John -- John reporting for us, John King.

Nevada, meanwhile, is an important state in the Democratic presidential process. It's moved up its caucus, which will now be on January 19, right after Iowa.

So, we sent our own Ted Rowlands to Nevada to ask voters whom they think did best in our debate.

Ted is out in Las Vegas.

Ted, tell our viewers what you are picking up.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they thought Hillary Clinton did an excellent job, but you never would have figured that out watching them watch this debate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS (voice-over): When you take a look at the reaction meter, our Nevada focus group didn't show Hillary Clinton much enthusiasm. As she answered YouTubers' questions, the reactions to her remained relatively flat, lacking the spikes of approval that the focus group gave other candidates.

To see some real surges, look at Clinton's competitors -- John Edwards on special interests.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You want real change, you need somebody who has taken these people on and beaten them over and over and over.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": Time.

KING: Bill Richardson slamming No Child Left Behind.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D-NM), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would scrap it. It doesn't work.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RICHARDSON: It is -- it is a law...

ROWLANDS: Richardson's lines go over 90 percent, the high of the night.

Now, look at Barack Obama's response on talking with leaders from outcast countries.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need to talk to Iran and Syria.

ROWLANDS: Now watch as Hillary Clinton couldn't get the same reaction with her response.

CLINTON: But, certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.

ROWLANDS: So, with such a lackluster reaction, why did this group of Nevada Democrats and independents, when it was all over, say that Hillary Clinton performed the best, along with Bill Richardson?

DAN SCHILLS, PROFESSOR, SMU: Hillary had a lot of slow build. So, I think the audience gradually warmed to her. She didn't have a lot of the big moments, the things they are going to talk about tomorrow around the watercooler. But she -- the audience liked what she said, and it -- it grew on them over time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS: Before the debate, we asked all of our participants what they thought of each of the candidates. Hillary Clinton was fourth before the debate. After the debate, Wolf, she was in first place with Governor Richardson -- very interesting.

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed, Ted. Thanks very much.

And, in the next hour, we are going to find out whom voters in the critically important state of New Hampshire thought won the debate. In our debate, voters took their questions directly to the candidates. Now we're going to give you the opportunity to weigh in with your own reactions.

Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, has been monitoring CNN's I-Report.

What are people saying? What do they think about the format, for example?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the format worked. We're getting a lot of positive response. And some of our I-Reporters are saying that last night's stage may set the stage for some good things to come.

Take a quick listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The YouTube debate is an exciting opportunity for democracy. And we hope it's just the beginning of this kind of debate in politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think what we're going to find is a more engaged citizenry, a citizenry that's more interested in the political process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHECHNER: Now, of course, not everyone was thrilled. There were certainly some people who had criticism. And we have got some I- Reporters weighing in that way, too.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think the questions weren't answered by every candidate. I feel that the next time you have this sort of debate, you allow every candidate to respond to the people's questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Despite its unique format, the YouTube debates forecast a likely future of politics as usual.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHECHNER: Now, of course, Wolf, we're going to get to do it all over again with the Republicans on September 17.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jacki, for that.

Republican candidates, as Jacki points out, will have their opportunity. Our next CNN/YouTube debate, the Republicans will join Anderson Cooper in Saint Petersburg, Florida, September 17 for that. Mark your calendars.

Coming up: The U.S. attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, changes his story. What's he saying now about a dramatic hospital-room confrontation with his former boss, John Ashcroft?

And I will talk to Senator Ted Kennedy. Does he think some of his key friends are turning on him over the No Child Left Behind Act? I will ask him right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Embattled and besieged with questions, the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, took the hot seat once again today before senators, members of the Judiciary Committee. They peppered him with questions regarding various controversies, including the firings of those federal prosecutors.

And one senator wondered if Gonzales should just leave.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HERBERT KOHL (D), WISCONSIN: Would you please explain to us why the administration of justice and the American people would not be better served by somebody sitting in the office who does not have all of the problems that you possess with respect to believability, credibility, confidence, trust? What's the -- what keeps you in the job, Mr. Attorney General?

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL: That's a very good question, Senator. Ultimately I have to decide whether or not, is it better for me to leave or just stay and try to fix the problems? I have decided to stay and fix the problems. And that's what I -- and that's what I have been doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena.

Kelli, besides vowing to stay, in his words, try to fix the problems, he seemed to give some conflicting testimony about that controversial hospital-room visit he made when he was the White House counsel, a visit to the then-ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Talk about that.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right.

Gonzales says that he never pressured John Ashcroft to approve any intelligence program while he lay in that hospital bed. And, of course, that directly contradicts testimony from the former deputy Attorney General James Comey.

And, Wolf, it just infuriated Democratic senators, who told Gonzales that, when he left that room, he should review his testimony, see if he needed to correct the record at all, which really suggested that he may be held in contempt of Congress if lawmakers find out that he misrepresented anything.

BLITZER: Any other ground, any new ground, that he was breaking today?

ARENA: Well, for the first time, we had a Republican senator, Arlen Specter, suggesting that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate the allegations against the Justice Department.

And even -- that's even -- you know, Wolf, we have several internal investigations already under way. And, you know, this really did reflect how little, if any, credibility Gonzales has left.

BLITZER: Kelli Arena reporting for us -- thanks, Kelli, very much.

Still ahead in our "Strategy Session": In last night's CNN/YouTube debate, Senator Obama ratcheted up the rhetoric towards Senator Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: At this point, I think we can be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. But we have to send a clear message to the Iraqi government as well as to the surrounding neighbors that there is no military solution to the problems that we face in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But Senator Clinton gave as well as she got. So, what did we learn about the Democratic presidential field? And what lessons did the Republicans learn from last night's debate? How do they prepare for their own CNN/YouTube debate in September? All that coming up.

Maria Cardona, John Feehery, they are standing by for our "Strategy Session."

Stay with us. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's the day after the debate, but do we know more about the Democratic White House hopefuls than we knew before? And is President Bush turning the tide of public opinion on Iraq?

Joining us in our "Strategy Session" to discuss this and more, Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, Republican strategist John Feehery.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Maria, everybody seems to suggest Senator Clinton did very well, but the other mainstream candidates did fairly well as well. What do you -- what -- what was your morning-after thought?

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think they all did quite well, Wolf. And I think what we were able to glean from last night is not that we necessary -- necessarily learned anything groundbreaking, new about these candidates, but that we saw them in a new light, answering real questions from real voters in a very nontraditional way.

And I think you were able to see a little glimpse of the persona behind the candidates.

BLITZER: We did see Barack Obama go on the offensive against Hillary Clinton.

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, you know, I loved it. I loved the questions being answered, by real people. I loved the fact that they were able to flush out that Democrats wanted to raise taxes with that guitar-playing questioner. It was a spectacular debate from the questioners' side.

The answers were kind of ho-hum, kind of expected. I would say that what they have to learn to do it again is be spontaneous, have some humor.

BLITZER: Well, they did have a few jokes that were going on. But, you know, they're -- they're all so -- as both you know, they are so programmed, they are prepared, they get so much advice, sometimes, they can overprepare for this kind of event.

CARDONA: I think that what this also showed is that it did take them a little bit out of their comfort zone.

But, again, I think that is what voters are trying to glean. Who is this person behind the prepared persona of each candidate? What I also think it demonstrated is, again, for the Democrats, what the good breadth and depth of the field that we have, because they answered questions very well about what the challenges are from real people.

BLITZER: With Senator Hillary Clinton, the front-runner, everybody seems to suggest, as long as she doesn't make a major mistake, that's good news for her.

FEEHERY: I think that's right. For Hillary, she's -- she's the front-runner. She has nothing to win by making -- breaking any new ground. I think that all -- of all the candidate videos, they were all kind of ho-hum. But I thought hers was fine.

BLITZER: What -- what about the Republicans, as they prepare now -- and let me start with you, John -- to get ready for the September 17 CNN/YouTube debate down in Saint Petersburg, Florida? What lessons should they learn from this new format? Because it is something we haven't seen before.

FEEHERY: When you do your video, make it funny. Make it -- but -- cutting-edge. Don't...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: This would be advice for people out there?

FEEHERY: Well, I'm talking about the candidates.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Oh, I see what you -- for their commercials.

FEEHERY: All the candidates...

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: I thought their commercials were kind of lame, all the Democrats.

BLITZER: But how do they prepare? The Republicans, now that they have seen two hours of this format, what should they be looking for?

FEEHERY: I think they should be getting some good humor in their minds. What -- what is the best one-liners? I think they should think of being spontaneous and being -- you know, some of these -- some of these guys are so good off their -- on their feet. I think Rudy Giuliani's good on his feet. All these guys are good on their feet. And they should be ready for that. BLITZER: And Fred Thompson, assuming he announces around Labor Day, as a lot of people think he will, he will be part of that platform as well. So, there -- we will be back to 10 Republican presidential candidates, we assume.

CARDONA: I think that that will -- his addition will make it a little bit more interesting.

But I also think that the Republicans face a real dilemma in that a lot of the questioners from YouTube, we saw, want to know what change is going to happen in Iraq. And I don't think the Republicans right now have a very good answer to that.

BLITZER: You're close -- about as close to anyone to the Republican establishment here in Washington, John. Do you think Newt Gingrich is seriously thinking about jumping into this race?

FEEHERY: I think he's seriously thinking about it. I don't think he's actually made the decision that he's going to do it. I think it's going to be a tough decision for him, because, you know, all -- he -- he can't just be a backbencher again. He's got to actually come up with -- he's got to run. And his personal life is going to come in -- into play. And I think that is going to be tough for him.

BLITZER: And, if he comes in, that will liven it up, given the very nature of who Newt Gingrich is. And he's a very, very smart guy, obviously.

CARDONA: I think it will definitely liven it up, and it will give us some very interesting moments, I think, in -- in the debates to come.

But I still think it's going to be very difficult for the Republicans to face the YouTube voters and answer the kinds of questions that they had last night.

BLITZER: Is it fair to say that, as Hillary Clinton is the front-runner on the Democratic side, Rudy Giuliani is the front-runner on the Republican side?

FEEHERY: Yes, it's fair to say that. But it's not as big a margin. And I think that a lot of people think that Fred Thompson and others could be a better candidate.

You know, it's -- it's -- Hillary really seems to be the -- the winner for the Democrats' side.

BLITZER: And we heard earlier some suggesting, some Republicans suggesting, that, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, that, in and of itself, will do more to unify the Republicans than anything else.

CARDONA: Well, I think it -- I think it will unify all Democrats as well. And I think that we have seen also, as we move on with -- in this election cycle, that poll after poll shows that a lot of people believe, independents, as well as the Democrats, as well as some Republicans, that she can win a general election.

FEEHERY: And, as Hillary unifies the Republicans, they also want someone who will be non-traditional. I think that they will see -- Republicans will take -- maybe take a chance on someone, like Rudy, because he can do better with independent voters.

BLITZER: All right, John -- John Feehery, Maria Cardona, guys, thanks for coming in.

CARDONA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And still to come: a revealing look at a private man. We will speak to the author of a new biography of Dick Cheney.

And some call him friend blasting his work on the No Child Left Behind. I will ask Senator Ted Kennedy about his reaction. What happened last night at the debate?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is: Why is Newt Gingrich calling the Republican presidential candidates pygmies and trained seals?

David writes from Walnut Creek, California: "Newtie, as he is fondly called by his family, is trying so hard to emerge from the political scrap heap, into which he was banished by mainstream Republicans like myself. It is time now for a change, away from Newt's neocons and toward rational Republicans."

J. in Atlanta writes: "Because he's right. Republican hopefuls are all seriously outmatched by 'none of the above' in the current polls, and for good reason. Republicans candidates talk around political truth. There seems to be no discussion of the realities of increasing population, diminished energy, national indebtedness, ongoing idiotic Republican-led policy-making, misguided war activity, Justice Department shenanigans, tax advantages for the wealthy. On the Republican side, there seems to be intolerance of truth or compromise."

Charles writes from Houston: "Jack, his name is derived from a small, semi-aquatic salamander. Does anything he says really matter?"

Dick writes from Corpus Christi, Texas: "Newt Gingrich is an overblown, stuffed ego with no class and a highly overrated I.Q. He is desperate to enter the fray as a candidate himself, but it seems that Fred Thompson has stolen his thunder as the leading undeclared candidate of the GOP side. No Newts is good Newts."

Nick writes from Michigan: "You mean the Republicans aren't trained seals? When did this happen?" Mark in San Francisco: "Ah, yes, Jack, that's what we need in politics: more name-calling. How about a Gingrich/Coulter ticket? That ought to fix everything."

And Roger in New York: "Some of my best friends are pygmies, and my grandkids are fond of trained seals. I resent Newt Gingrich comparing them to Republicans" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack, for that.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: President Bush mentions al Qaeda 95 times in linking the war in Iraq to the war on terror.

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