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Katrina Recovery Potshots; Defending Pet Projects: Top Dem Says They're Good; Noriega Extradition Decision

Aired August 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, two years after Katrina, there's new political potshots over hurricane recovery. The New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, now charging President Bush is ignoring Louisiana.
Wait until you hear what he says the reason is why.

Also this hour, potential lifesavers for U.S. troops. We're going to give you a brand new and up-close look at the blast-resistant vehicles so desperately wanted in Iraq.

And will Iowans wind up holding presidential caucuses with a New Year's Eve hangover? This hour, the consequences of an overbooked early primary season.

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

President Bush heads back to the Gulf Coast next week to mark two years since Hurricane Katrina's devastating strike. And he may have a bone to pick with the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin.

The blunt and controversial Democrat is leveling some tough charges against Mr. Bush, accusing him of ignoring Louisiana, get this, for purely political reasons. That's the charge from Ray Nagin.

Our Gulf Coast correspondent, Susan Roesgen, is joining us in New Orleans.

Susan, you spoke with the mayor about this. Tell our viewers what's going on.

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN GULF COAST CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, talk about biting the hand that feeds you. This city depends on federal money, but Mayor Nagin says the reason the recovery has been so slow is not his fault. He says it's presidential politics.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MAYOR RAY NAGIN (D), NEW ORLEANS: We're tied up in between whether this is going to be a red state or a blue state. And you have a Democratic governor and a Republican president, and there's all sorts of tension there. And it slowed things down tremendously.

ROESGEN: Are you suggesting that a Republican president doesn't care about citizens of this country who are Democrats? NAGIN: No, I wouldn't say that. But I think that, you know, as they look at the landscape, and if he has a preference to work with a Haley Barbour in Mississippi and work things through very smoothly, and work with a Kathleen Blanco and she's not as versed or not as comfortable with dealing with him, things will slow down.

ROESGEN: Ooh, that's a pretty hot thing to say. I mean, that Mississippi's faring better with the feds because it's a red state and we're not faring as well because...

NAGIN: The facts speak for themselves. If you go look at the per-capita funding that's gone to Mississippi -- and look, I'm not complaining. I think we've gotten a lot of money to help us. We haven't moved the money as quickly, and I think we have an opportunity to go back.

But the facts are the facts. On a per-capita basis of residents or damaged buildings, Mississippi has fared much better.

ROESGEN: Could it be that they have better leadership on the ground?

NAGIN: I don't know. I gave you -- I've given you my theory. That may be your theory.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN: Well, we did some checking, Wolf, and it turns out that the mayor is not quite right in his assessment of who has gotten what.

Of the $110 billion promised by the federal government for the entire Golf Coast recovery, Louisiana has been promised $60 billion. Mississippi has been promised about $23 billion. However, Louisiana has gotten the money slower in some cases than has gone to Mississippi.

The real problem, I think, for both states, for everyone along the Gulf Coast, Wolf, is that the money has been very slow in getting to the people who actually need it here on the ground to rebuild.

BLITZER: And it sets the stage for some awkward moments next week when the president comes back to Louisiana, and presumably the mayor's going to be seeing him.

ROESGEN: Yes, and I doubt, Wolf -- frankly, I doubt that he will make the same sort of charges to the president as he said to me. Our mayor here has a tendency to blame other people and other agencies at times for the slow recovery, and I don't think he will be saying that to President Bush, but who knows?

BLITZER: Susan Rosegen, thanks very much.

Despite Mayor Nagin's claim, Louisiana isn't necessarily a blue state. It's a red state, in fact.

President Bush won Louisiana back in 2004 with 57 percent of the vote compared to 42 percent for the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry. Mr. Bush also won Louisiana in 2000, getting 53 percent of the vote, versus Democrat Al Gore, who got 45 percent of the vote.

Let's go to another provocative statement now from another high- profile politician, and that would be the House Democratic Caucus chairman, Congressman Rahm Emanuel. He has some surprising things to say about what many regard as a notorious Capitol Hill tradition that Democratic leaders have vowed to reform.

Lawmakers call them earmarks. Critics call them unnecessary pet projects, pork, if you will, buried in the often unrelated spending bills.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She's watching this story for us.

Earmarks, they get a lot of bad rap, but all of a sudden Rahm Emanuel writes an article on the op-ed page of "The New York Times," Jessica, saying, you know what? These earmarks are a good thing.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, Rahm Emanuel is never shy about bucking convention, and this time he's saying, you know, not all pork barrel spending is bad.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice over): Call him the front line of defense for Democrats. In an op-ed in "The New York Times," Congressman Rahm Emanuel said Democrats made major changes to those pork barrel spending tools called earmarks. "Democrats never promised to eliminate earmarks. We promised to reform them," he writes. And brags, "That was a pledge we kept."

This from a congressman who has requested more than $174 million for pet projects this year alone.

Bucking conventional wisdom, Rahm Emanuel defends all that special funding. He says not all earmarks are created equal. And, in fact, "... most members believe it is their prerogative and their duty to channel federal resources to important public purposes."

Government watchdogs say that argument is preposterous.

TOM SCHATZ, CITIZENS AGAINST GOVERNMENT WASTE: Earmarks by themselves are a corrupting influence, regardless of what Congressman Emanuel might think. There's no good earmark.

YELLIN: He argues, funding for projects is supposed to be doled out by government agencies, not elected officials.

The Democrat-led Congress has made some reforms. Now, every time a member sponsors an earmark, it's a matter of public record. And they can't benefit financially, nor can their spouse.

Emanuel also boasts that Democrats cut earmark spending in half this year. But there's no way to confirm it. Still, Democrats, just like Republicans before them, rely on earmarks to get business done. Case in point, in March, the Democratic House passed an emergency war spending bill. Although it was eventually vetoed, they inserted billions of dollars of pork in it, including $25 million for spinach growers, $74 million to store peanuts, and $252 million for a milk program for dairy farmers.

What does any of that have to do with Iraq? Nothing.

SCHATZ: Earmarks corrupt the process. It's not a lot of dollars, but it's a form of legalized bribery, where members of Congress get influenced by special interests in order to receive a few dollars.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: And the Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are not even close to done with their spending bills. So, we can't know just yet how much money will go to earmarks in this Congress -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin reporting for us.

Thanks, Jessica, very much.

I want to go to Susan Candiotti. She's watching a developing story, the fate of the former Nicaraguan president, Manuel Noriega.

We're just getting the word in now he's going to be sent out of the United States. Tell our viewers what we know.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Two countries wanted him, France and the United States. It looks like France is going to get him first. That is because Manuel Noriega qualifies for parole coming up on September the 9th after spending just under 18 years in prison here.

France wants to try him and sentence him for money laundering charges. Panama wanted him back for murder, kidnapping and extortion. But a judge has now refused to block Noriega's attempt to prevent him from being sent to France -- rather, from -- that's right, to France, and so that is where Noriega will be going, according to this federal judge. And he'll be going soon. As we said, he gets out September 9th.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. What was a U.S. problem will become a French problem, at least for some 10 years. He could spend 10 years in jail in France for those charges he's accused of. Is that right?

CANDIOTTI: That's right. And much more time, of course, in Panama. Panama also wanted him, and that's where he wanted to go. He won't be going home.

BLITZER: He'll be going to France, unless there's some other decision down the road.

Thanks very much for that, Susan Candiotti.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. Time for "The Cafferty File". He's in New York.

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The Pentagon's plan to reopen Iraqi factories and persuade U.S. firms to buy those goods isn't working out so well. "The Washington Post" reports American retailers are not exactly jumping at the chance to buy products that are made in Iraq. And one reason is, there isn't much being made in Iraq these days.

The Defense Department at one time thought companies here would be willing to help revitalize the Iraqi economy, create jobs for young men in order to keep them from joining the insurgency. But, a lack of security, a lack of electricity, a lack of a lot other stuff, has made it all but impossible.

Iraqi officials had recently pointed to pending deals with places like Wal-Mart and JCPenney, but both of those companies announced last week that they are not in negotiations to buy Iraqi products because of the country's uncertain future and the issue of finding reliable suppliers. So far, only one American company has agreed to buy some clothing from a factory in Mosul.

Meanwhile, the U.S. can't even get us Americans to buy American. We're all clamoring for the cheap stuff from China, leading one to wonder who had the great idea that Americans would be willing to line up to buy stuff made in Iraq.

Here's the question: Is there any reason to believe that Americans would be likely to buy products that are made in Iraq?

You can e-mail your thoughts on that to caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know one product all of us would be happy to buy, that would be oil. But they seem to have some problems getting their oil export program back to where it was, even under Saddam Hussein. Now, that's one Iraqi product that presumably a lot of Americans would buy.

CAFFERTY: This is the same oil that was supposed to pay for the war, right?

BLITZER: It hasn't done that yet.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: OK, Jack. Thanks very much.

It's a slap in the face to President Bush, new insights into why big-time Washington lobbyists with very close ties to the White House are working against Mr. Bush's ally in Iraq. That would be the current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.

Plus, a Democrat defects to the president's side on Iraq. I'll ask Democratic Congressman Brian Baird of Washington State why he wants to give the troop buildup in Iraq more time.

And on Capitol Hill, he's among the Democrats' top election-year target. Maybe even number one. We're going to tell you who he is and why he's so vulnerable right now.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There are now eye-opening new details about the effort right here in Washington to pull the rug out from under Iraq's current government and its current prime minister. A story we first reported yesterday here in THE SITUATION ROOM. This is potentially a huge embarrassment to the Bush administration.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is joining us now from Crawford, Texas, where the president is on vacation.

You broke this story for us yesterday, Ed. I want you to update our viewers on what is going on, because the political sensitivity, the Washington intrigue is enormous right now.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It really opens a window on how Washington really works. Big-time Republican lobbyists who are normally on board with the White House and trying to help them promote and pass their agenda, instead this time slapping the president in the face by working to undermine the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and promote as a potential alternative the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi.

Why would these Republican lobbyists be doing this, these Republican lobbyists at the firm Barbour, Griffith, Rogers? Well, some new details today.

We're learning that they're getting $300,000 for six months of work. That's $50,000 a month.

These new details first reported today by a blog, iraqslogger.com, a blog run by a the former CNN executive Eason Jordan. You can see the documents we have there.

Now, the lobbyist who is handling the Allawi account, we learned today as well, is Ambassador Robert Blackwell. Why is that interesting? He used to be a U.S. ambassador serving under this President Bush, also was a deputy national security adviser for this White House and an envoy to Iraq for President Bush. That certainly could be embarrassing, that he's now working against the president.

I asked White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe today about whether or not this is an embarrassment for the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GORDON JOHNDROE, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SPOKESMAN: Far be it from me to judge why people, you know, sign contracts for whatever reason. I'm sure they have -- they have a desire to help out their clients. But they're former administration officials, administration policy remains -- remains unchanged. There is a sovereign elected government with Prime Minister Maliki and the presidency council.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now, what are these lobbyists doing for $300,000? So far, they are sending out e-mails to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, their staff, some people in the media that are essentially clips that have already been out there in newspapers like "The New York Times" attacking Nuri al-Maliki, saying that he hasn't stepped up. Things that have already been in the public domain.

Not bad work if you can get it, $300,000 to be sending out those media clips. They'll obviously be doing some other lobbying, but not bad work -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He had an op-ed in "The Washington Post" over the weekend which I read in the actual hard copy of "The Washington Post". But then a day later I got the e-mail from Dr. Ayad Allawi. I had no idea where that was coming from, but you've cleared it up for us.

Ed Henry watching this for us.

The White House, are they suggesting they could have -- they could have turned this whole deal off had they wanted to? Because as you know, in the Middle East, a lot of conspiratorial theories out that if the president really didn't want these Republican lobbyists to do it, they wouldn't be doing it.

HENRY: It's very interesting, because I can tell you, Republican aides on Capitol Hill, too, not just in the Mideast, have speculated privately that they think maybe there's been a wink and a nod from the White House that if Maliki were to fall, that maybe they would on board with Allawi.

I can tell you, Gordon Johndroe, in no uncertain terms, sharply denies that the White House has had any involvement in this. But obviously, the fact that big-time Republican lobbyists normally allied with this White House are suddenly going against the White House, going against Maliki, has certainly raised a lot of eyebrows -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Ed Henry doing some excellent reporting for us.

More than anything, Ayad Allawi certainly is a survivor. He was part of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party back in the 1960s and '70s before breaking with Saddam Hussein, opposing him in exile. Allawi narrowly survived an assassination attempt back in 1978. It took him a year to recover from ax wounds inflicted by one of Saddam's agents during a middle-of-the-night break-in at Allawi's home near London. In the 1990s, apparently with CIA backing, Allawi's political party attempted a coup but it failed. In June of 2004, Allawi became Iraq's first post-Saddam leader. He lost power as interim prime minister when his secular political party was trounced in Iraq's 2005 national elections.

I'll be speaking with Ayad Allawi exclusively this Sunday on "LATE EDITION". That airs 11:00 a.m. Eastern for two hours, 11:00 a.m. Eastern on Sunday.

While some Republicans are breaking ranks with President Bush on Iraq, why is a Democratic congressman now taking his side on the troop buildup? Congressman Brian Baird of Washington State, he's standing by to join us.

And which party has the best prescription for healthcare reform? It's an issue that could help sway the presidential race one way or another.

James Carville and John Feery (ph), they're both standing by for our "Strategy Session".

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

A Democratic congressman is making a surprising appeal to give the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq more time, even though he voted against the war and still calls the invasion of Iraq a huge mistake. That would be Representative Brian Baird of Washington State.

He's joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. BRIAN BAIRD (D), WASHINGTON: Great to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, you wrote a piece. You spent some time in Iraq. You came back. And you said the troops deserve more time -- more time to succeed.

A lot of people say militarily they might be able to get some progress on that front. Maybe locally some of the tribal leaders will make some progress. But politically, it's a mess there. And no matter what the U.S. military does, this thing is not going to succeed.

What say you?

BAIRD: Well, what I say, first of all, is if you talk to people in the region, as I did -- it wasn't just a visit to Iraq, it was to Egypt and Jordan and surrounding countries -- there's almost universal belief that we cannot walk away. In fact, someone said to be, a leader of one of the foreign countries, said, "Look, you created this mess, you created the uncertainty. If you walk away now, we can't walk away. We live in the neighborhood."

I believe we have a moral responsibility to the Iraqi people and to the region, and a strategic interest in making this mission succeed. And we are seeing progress on the ground. And I think six more months of American troops can help stabilize and secure the situation and give time and breathing space for the political solution to work out.

BLITZER: The national intelligence estimate, the declassified summary that was released yesterday, said, among other things, it said this, "To date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively." It goes on to say, "The intelligence community assesses that the Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months."

A question. What's the difference? What difference would it make even if the military does an excellent job if the Iraqis themselves can't get their act together?

BAIRD: It's a legitimate question. The intelligence report also pointed out that the anticipation of potential premature withdrawal actually makes it more difficult for the situation to resolve politically. I think we'd all have to ask ourselves, would you be willing to serve as a leader in the Iraqi government if you thought our security forces were about to withdraw and leave chaos and possible assassination to reign?

My belief is, after having been there a couple of times, and just four in the last four months, and five times to the region, is that if we talk about premature withdrawal, it actually makes it more difficult, not less difficult, to resolve the political situation. If you look at Mr. Maliki, if he sides with the Iranians, naturally our talk of withdrawal just plays right into that.

On the other hand, if he sides -- if he's more neutral but is afraid of a Ba'athist or a Sunni insurgency, our talk of withdrawal could drive him further into the Iraq arms just as a self-defense mechanism -- rather than into the Iranian arms.

BLITZER: On this point, Congressman, you're a Democrat, you disagree with the Democratic leadership in the House, the Democratic leadership in the Senate. You feel strongly on this point, obviously, to go against the speaker, the majority leader, and others.

BAIRD: Well, you know, I think this has been too politicized on all sides. And I really wish we would take a break from it.

This is not about whether one likes or dislikes President Bush or his policies. It's not about the next election. It's about a terribly difficult situation.

Our country invaded Iraq. We dismantled their police force, their military, their civil government, the infrastructure, left the borders unguarded, with thousands of people out work. And now we're somehow saying to them, gee, you haven't solved your problems in three months. That's not realistic. I spoke to one of our...

BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a moment.

BAIRD: Sure.

BLITZER: Three months maybe since the surge, as it's called, really got going. But this has been going on for five years.

BAIRD: It's a legitimate point, but I would just ask, again, what country could rebuild a military, a police force, a civil government, an infrastructure, et cetera, in five years, especially while being attacked by insurgents? I don't think that's realistic. And I think we have a moral responsibility.

I spoke to one of our soldiers who said, "Look, Congressman, I would like to be home tomorrow if I could. I miss my family. I'm worried that we could get killed here."

"We've lost so many lives already. I'm seeing real progress. As a grunt on the ground, I'm seeing progress. And I'd hate to walk away, leave all those lives wasted just when we might make progress."

For sure, Wolf, the political struggle at the national level in Iraq is a problem. But at the local level, people are starting to come together to take care of one another, to side with our forces and against the extremists. Let's give those local communities a chance to make things work in their own back yard while we work at the national level diplomatically to try to encourage the parliament...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: We're out of time, Congressman. Very quickly, though, on the basis -- how long were you in Iraq that you could come up with that conclusion?

BAIRD: Well, I've been in Iraq for two days, but in the surrounding region for a total of eight this time, five days just four months ago. Met with our leaders, Iraqi leaders, our soldiers and Iraqi civilians as well. Granted, it's limited, but I would say I've met with people who spent hundreds and thousands of hours on the ground, and that's generally their impression as well, including Egypt and Jordan and other surrounding states.

BLITZER: Congressman Brian Baird, Democratic of Washington State.

Thanks for joining us.

BAIRD: Thank you.

BLITZER: Democrats may be ready to sue one another over the current state of primary confusion. Will voters cast the first presidential ballots with New Year's Day barely behind them?

And he's on the Democrats' most-wanted list in 2008. Why do they think they can topple Senator John Sununu?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now: The White House and U.S. commanders in Iraq are giving the cold shoulder to Senator John Warner's call for even a very limited troop pullout from Iraq. Warner says the U.S. should make it clear to Iraq that Americans aren't staying forever -- much more on this story coming up.

Democratic Senator Chris Dodd is blasting Senator Hillary Clinton's latest comments about terrorism. The Associated Press quoting Senator Clinton as saying an attack before next year's election will give the Republicans an advantage. Dodd says it's -- quote -- "tasteless" to discuss the political implications of a terrorist attack.

And a Florida judge will consider letting the former astronaut Lisa Nowak take off her ankle bracelet. Nowak faces charges of assaulting a rival in a love triangle. That woman told the court she feels safer because Nowak's movements are monitored.

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

A showdown is brewing over states' efforts to move up their presidential primaries, and it could pit Democrats against Democrats in court. Senator Bill Nelson is vowing today to consider legal action against the Democratic National Committee if it punishes his home state of Florida for pushing up its primary to January 29.

Nelson spoke on a conference call earlier today.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: It appears that the DNC, by the statements that have been made, is poised to assault the basic right of a person to vote at its meeting tomorrow. And what we're doing is, we're going to fight to have Florida Democrats' votes counted.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: Tomorrow, a DNC panel will consider whether to punish state parties, including Florida, for bucking national party rules by moving up their presidential contest.

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's watching all this calendar chaos.

What's at stake, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, the January political calendar is beginning to look like an overbooked airplane. Somebody's going to get bumped.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: We don't know what date New Hampshire's going to hold their primary. We don't know what date Iowa is going to hold their caucuses.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): We know Iowa is determined to hold the first-in-the-nation caucuses, and New Hampshire is determined to hold the first primary. Right now, Michigan is poised to schedule its primary January 15. By law, the New Hampshire primary must take place at least a week before any similar event, possibly January 8.

But Iowa traditionally holds its caucuses eight days before New Hampshire. Are Iowans really going to hold presidential caucuses on New Year's Eve, maybe drunk and wearing funny hats? Iowa insists it will not be pushed into 2007. So, maybe they could hold a post- hangover caucus on January 3. That might crowd New Hampshire, which could move to January 10. A Thursday?

BILL GARDNER, NEW HAMPSHIRE SECRETARY OF STATE: That it could be a day other than Tuesday.

SCHNEIDER: What about that pesky law saying there has to be a week before the next primary? Well, Michigan is kind of a hybrid event between a caucus and a primary, so New Hampshire might see some wiggle room there.

GARDNER: There is a little more flexibility this time for New Hampshire.

SCHNEIDER: Then Iowa would have to choose between being first in the nation and staying in 2008. This will begin to be straightened out when New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner announces the date of the New Hampshire primary. And when will he do that?

GARDNER: The earliest that I have done it in recent times would be -- was September 28, the very end of September.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what's the latest?

GARDNER: December 20.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Who's helped by all the overbooking? The candidates with the most money and the highest name recognition, like Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. They have the resources to compete in the big states, like Michigan and Florida, and to recover from early setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire fast, with such a crowded calendar -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, watching the calendar for us, a very, very important calendar with lots of stake.

While Congress breaks for the month of August, Democrats and anti-war groups are trying to hit Republicans hard on the war in Iraq. They're trying to pressure them to vote for a troop withdrawal deadline. Let's bring in our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Who are the Democrats and these anti-war group targets the most, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They're targeting Republicans, Wolf, all across the country. In fact, let's look at the map to see some of the key Republicans.

First, in New Mexico, Senator Pete Domenici, he's up for reelection. He recently criticized the president's war strategy. Then, in Ohio, you have Senator George Voinovich. He's also bucking the president, but has said that he's not right now ready to vote for a deadline for withdrawal.

Then let's look in New England. Senator Susan Collins, moderate Republican there, she has more and more inched towards the Democrats when it comes to Iraq. And, then, finally, in New Hampshire, you have Senator John Sununu. He is perhaps, Wolf, one of the most vulnerable Republicans that Democrats are targeting, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the Senate.

BLITZER: You were just up there in New Hampshire, spent some time with him.

BASH: That's right. And essentially what we saw there is that Senator Sununu's numbers, his poll numbers, really are plummeting.

And there are a lot of issues, Wolf, that are hurting him there. But you talk to New Hampshire Republicans, and they say the issue that is making it hardest for him to hold on to his seat is Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): He's back home talking about the war, but no controversy here. Senator John Sununu pays tribute to a 24-year-old Iraq vet.

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: I'm pleased to present you with a flag flown over the Capitol and a combat service ribbon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much, Mr. Senator.

SUNUNU: Congratulations.

BASH: Sununu plays down the political pressure he faces come September, whether to join the growing number of fellow Republicans urging troop withdrawal.

SUNUNU: I think that the pressure has got to be to get the policy right.

BASH: Tag along, and Granite State voters aren't asking him much about Iraq, but it's on their minds. Independents are the decisive voting bloc here, people like Ken Southard. He voted for Sununu last time. Now, he's not sure.

KEN SOUTHARD, NEW HAMPSHIRE VOTER: I want him to take a position that forms a firm exit strategy from Iraq.

DANTE SCALA, UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE: What's striking is that independents in New Hampshire have increasingly looked just like Democrats in their stance toward the war. They want Senator Sununu to get the troops out.

BASH (on camera): New Hampshire used to be a reliably Republican state, but not anymore. In fact, anger over Iraq fuelled huge Democratic gains here in the last election, and Democrats think continued frustration with the war will help them capture Senator Sununu's seat.

(voice-over): There's already a stop Sununu campaign, roadside protests, ads slamming him for voting against troop withdrawal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

NARRATOR: Call Sununu. Tell him it's time to do the right thing. It's time to start bringing our troops home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SUNUNU: We don't want to see any service member in Iraq a day longer than absolutely necessary. And I think we ought to focus on what General Petraeus has to say.

BASH: It's no accident he talks of listening to the military commanders in Iraq, not the commander in chief in Washington.

SUNUNU: The president's obviously not popular, doesn't have high popularity ratings in New Hampshire right now. And that's a fact. And, in a campaign, you have got to get out there, work yourself, town to town and person to person.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Next up, please welcome Senator John Sununu.

BASH: A little off the mark, but a chance to savor summer, before critical Iraq votes and decisions that shape his next season.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And Sununu said last month he could do without a campaign visit from President Bush. But, Wolf, he told us, if the president wants to come to New Hampshire and raise money for him, he said that would be just fine.

BLITZER: He will take the money and run.

BASH: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks very much -- Dana Bash here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Coming up: a place where the misery just won't quit. Floodwater is everywhere. It's brutally hot. And more storms are on the way.

Also, Mitt Romney's brand-new prescription for fixing health care. Who has the right prescription? We will talk about that, and more, in our "Strategy Session."

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is working today to put a more conservative spin on an issue that's being played up by Democrats. That would be health care for all Americans.

In a speech to the Florida Medical Association today, Romney said the nation's health care system should be overhauled through plans tailored to individual states, not through the federal government by a takeover. Romney says other states could model programs after the universal health care system he signed into law as Massachusetts governor.

Romney is likely to be blasted by some Democrats who say his plan doesn't go far enough and by some Republicans who say it goes too far. Democrat John Edwards already is pouncing, saying Romney's plan would make a dysfunctional health care system even worse.

We're going to get some more reaction. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

More storms, meanwhile, are adding to the misery in the already flooded Midwest. Thunderstorms have drenched communities from Missouri, through Iowa, and into Illinois and Wisconsin. We're getting images sent in to CNN's I-Report of the effects of these storms on people's homes and their lives.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, has been watching these pictures.

You're going through them, Abbi. Tell our viewers what you're seeing.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, all week, we have been seeing these pictures, damage to homes in Ohio, Minnesota, now northern Illinois, after torrential thunderstorms there yesterday.

Look at the picture in Sycamore, Illinois, here, these pictures Douglas (ph) Pardridge sent into CNN's I-Report. This is a 200-home trailer park, the scene here just an hour or so ago when he took these pictures. He said the roads around town, half of them are blocked. It's hard to get from A to B. Vehicles are stuck after the flooding that started last night.

But he said they're still expecting more rain and possibly more flooding there today, torrential thunderstorms yesterday, severe weather. And look at the result here in Algonquin, 50 miles west of Chicago. Greg Hazel watched his neighbor's house burn after it was struck by lightning. He said the lightning storm went on for about an hour- and-a-half. Two people inside that home, but nobody was hurt, thankfully, but Greg said it was just heartbreaking to watch his neighbor's house burn.

Wolf, CNN.com/ireport is where we're getting all these pictures and these stories sent in.

BLITZER: And we always tell our I-Reporters don't do anything dangerous, but go ahead and send us the pictures.

Abbi, thank you.

Now to a potential lifesaver for U.S. military forces in Iraq. They're known as MRAPs, and they are desperately wanted protection from roadside bombs that have killed so many American troops.

We are now getting an up-close look at these blast-resistant vehicles, as they're called.

Here's our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these are the MRAPs you have heard so much about. And, of course, MRAP stands for mine-resistant ambush protected.

And what makes these vehicles so safe is, they have a couple of unique design features. One is, the undercarriage is V-shaped. And we can't really show you that, because, for security reasons, they don't want us to shoot that part of the vehicle. The other thing is, they are high off the ground, about three feet. Look at this big buffalo over here. See how high it is off the ground? That distance makes a big difference when a blast goes off.

And perhaps you remember those cages that are around some of the Stryker vehicles. Those are to stop rocket-propelled grenades from going off right next to the vehicle, because, if you can just put a foot between the explosion and the vehicle, it makes a big difference. So, three feet makes a big difference.

The other thing is simply the armor. These are very heavily armored vehicles. This is what are called class one armor, that is, it's designed into the vehicle, very thick, designed in as an integral part of it.

But these are, again, blast-resistant vehicles. They're not blast-proof, because, if you get an explosion that is big enough, any vehicle can be vulnerable -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jamie, thanks very much. Let's hope they get those vehicles there as quickly as possible.

Up next in our "Strategy Session": Universal health care, presidential candidates from both parties say they're for it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would like to provide access to quality health insurance for every American. I would like to see every American have insurance that is affordable, every American.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want somebody to explain to me which Americans aren't entitled to health care, because I think they're all entitled to health care.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But is it a winning issue right now for either party and either side?

A key Democratic leader, meanwhile, is now suggesting he's pro- earmark. Is he exercising good political judgment?

James Carville and John Feehery, they're here for our "Strategy Session." That's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Virtually everyone in Congress does it, but is it wise for the Democratic Party Caucus chairman, Representative Rahm Emanuel, to defend earmarks, so-called pork-barrel spending?

Democratic strategist and CNN political analyst James Carville is here, Republican strategist John Feehery.

Let's talk about this article, this op-ed piece. I woke up this morning, saw it in the op-ed page of "The New York Times." Don't get rid of earmarks.

Is this a smart strategy, for Rahm Emanuel to be going public and saying, you know what, these are important, these earmarks?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I actually called Rahm this morning after I read it, and said, I thought your piece was absolutely brilliant. I think you made some very good points.

This is a kind of goo-goo, good-government editorialist kind of thing that all -- quote -- "earmarks are bad." As he points out, there was a deficient bridge in his district. He's supposed to know about that. He put it in. His point is that Democrats have changed it to make it completely transparent, who authored it, who put it in, is there any connection to it.

I think, as he pointed out, the Iraq Study Group was the result of an earmark by Republican Representative Frank Wolf of my home state of Virginia, my current home state of Virginia. So, like anything else is, we would say, nothing is all bad; nothing is all good. And the Democrats have really made an effort, and a successful effort, to reform the ways it's done.

BLITZER: Democrats aren't the only ones who do earmarks. Republicans love earmarks as well.

What do you think? Was it a smart strategy for Rahm Emanuel to come out today and defend these earmarks?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Democrats defending pork, boy, that's a real shock.

I would say that this is one of the reasons why the approval rating for the Democrat-led Congress is at 18 percent. This is a bad strategy for Rahm Emanuel. He shouldn't -- you know, pork is part of the process. It always has been. And, as James says, there's good pork and bad pork. But you shouldn't try to defend it in "The New York Times." It's not part of a strategy to get out of the 18 percent approval rating.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: The critics call it legalized bribery.

CARVILLE: Well, the critics -- no, well, that's an asinine assertion.

If you do what the Democrats have done, and what Rahm has done, is, you make it completely transparent. And you say, I'm the one who authored this. I have no financial interest in getting this done.

The number of earmarks when the Democrats -- when the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, as Rahm pointed out, through 2006, it went from 4,000 to 15,000. And any number of these earmarks can be good. And, by the way, if somebody wants to run against a new courthouse in the district, let them run against a new courthouse in the district. That's where...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Go ahead, John.

FEEHERY: Democrats said they were going to clean up Congress, they would drain the swamp, they were going to clean everything up, and that they were going to be a reform Congress. Now they are saying they are defending pork. That's not a really good message for them to send to the American people. The America people don't understand that and they don't like it.

BLITZER: But, whether or not you agree or disagree with Rahm, what about the strategy, though, to wake up in the morning and to see one of the top Democratic leaders in the House saying, you know what, keep the system as it is; let a little sunshine come in, but keep the system basically as is?

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: To be fair to Rahm -- and I would be, because he's one of my best friends -- he said that they had complete transparency. They have reduced enormously a good number of these -- quote -- "earmarks" -- unquote -- that they have. So, they done a good job reforming this.

But I think that, at some level, I think one of the reasons that you have a congressman and he comes home or she comes home is to find out what's wrong in the district and come back and get it fixed.

FEEHERY: Watch at the end of the year when you are going to have a huge omnibus spending bill, and no one is going to know what is going to be in that bill. The Democrats have done none of their appropriations bills. And you're going to see that they're going to stick all kinds of pork in that. And they're -- there's not going to be any transparency.

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: No one's going to see it.

CARVILLE: Sure there will.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about the health care issue, Romney today coming out with his plan: Let the states take the lead in trying to get universal health insurance for all Americans. Edwards obviously has a different position.

I know you love Hillary Clinton.

CARVILLE: Right.

BLITZER: She -- her position on this whole issue is still a work in progress, shall we say.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Well, I mean, she -- she has put out a position. She said she's going to amplify it, which is -- I think what -- what Romney does is -- is recognize that this is a huge issue in American politics.

You know, he -- he had Senator Kennedy, when he had his thing in Massachusetts, praised him effusively for helping him get this through. It's going to be interesting to see how Romney plays in the Republican primary, being so close to Senator Ted Kennedy, who helped him so much with his reform plan in Massachusetts.

FEEHERY: Romney's smart for getting in the game on health care. Rudy Giuliani did a couple weeks before. I think it's smart for Republicans to talk about health care. It's a very big issue.

But keep in mind, 82 percent of Americans, according to Democracy Poll, think that their health care is fine. They like their health care. So, you have to be very careful on this health care. Republicans could possibly steal this -- this issue away if they're -- if it's perceived that Hillary Clinton wants to overreach on this.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You know what the Republicans are going to argue: The Democrats want socialized medicine.

CARVILLE: Right.

But you know what? There's a real comparison here. For six years, we had a Republican president and a Republican Congress. Look at what happened to the number of uninsured America. It exploded. Look what happened to health care costs. They exploded.

There's a real record here. And you know what? The public, by margins that are almost unbelievable margins, trust the Democrats more on health care, and for good reasons. They delivered.

The Republicans, when they -- the new drug plan, they let the pharmaceuticals write it. They are a complete captive. Right now, the president is fighting tooth and nail giving health insurance to children.

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: Republicans actually had some solid achievements on health care. Prescription drugs, that program is overwhelmingly popular. Health savings accounts. There are other things that they have done on health care that are incremental. And people want incremental change. They don't want a socialized medical scheme. They don't want it.

CARVILLE: Well, they -- give them credit. They didn't provide incremental number of increasing uninsured. There was an explosion in the number of uninsured. They didn't provide incremental increase in health care costs. There was an explosion in health care costs. They are not incremental about this at all.

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: The increase in costs come from increased lawsuits and the trial lawyers.

BLITZER: It's going to be a huge issue in the campaign. We will watch it every step of the way.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: James, John, thanks very much.

CARVILLE: Thank you.

FEEHERY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Is there any reason to believe Americans would buy products made in Iraq? Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail.

Also, Hillary Clinton opens the door to criticism by talking of the political fallout if there's a new attack on America. We will talk terror, the presidential race. That's coming up.

Plus: a reality check on Senator John Warner's plan to try to bring at least some U.S. troops home from Iraq by Christmas. My powerful interview with our man in Baghdad, Michael Ware -- that interview coming up. You will want to see it.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A well-known attorney is on our "Political Radar."

Geoffrey Fieger is now accused of making more than $120,000 in illegal contributions to the John Edwards presidential campaign back in 2003 and 2004. A newly unsealed indictment claims Fieger and one of his partners recruited 60 people and gave them $2,000 each to pass on to the Edwards campaign. Fieger, as most of our viewers probably remember, is best known as the attorney for the so-called assisted suicide doctor, Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Former Congressman Mark Foley face -- may not face any criminal charges for sending sexually explicit e-mails to congressional pages -- the Scripps Howard News Service quoting sources close to the investigation as saying that could change if any new evidence surfaces. Foley, a Florida Republican, resigned in disgrace last year after his messages to male pages were made public.

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

Let's go to Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: So, another congressman potentially will skate on having done this stuff, right? No charges, is that what they're saying?

BLITZER: At least as of now, according to Scripps Howard.

CAFFERTY: Yes. Well, the system works pretty good.

The question is this: Is there any reason to believe Americans would likely to buy products that are made in Iraq?

Terry writes from Phoenix: "Last time I looked, there was not a big market here in the States for IEDs or roadside bombs. What else do they make? This is just another neocon fantasy. I think oil revenue was going to finance the reconstruction, too, right?"

Claire in Utah: "I would buy products from Iraq if I was looking for whatever it is they make. I buy stuff from Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, and China. So, why not?"

Mike in Texas: "Can't you just imagine the hell you would have go through trying to get a container shipped from Iraq to your house in the U.S. and cleared through customs? Think about it. Who would be willing to ship it to you? And what else might be in the container?"

Dave writes: "I don't want to buy Iraqi goods. I also don't want to buy Chinese goods. And I'm tired of you and other people telling me how much I am clamoring to get them. I always buy U.S.-made goods, when I can find them. That's why I don't shop at Wal-Mart or Kmart. Have you tried to find U.S.-made goods lately? If I go shopping for a particular item, I now look first to see where it's made. Unfortunately, if it isn't made in China, which is rare enough in itself, it's always made in some other Third World country."

Donna writes: "What does Iraq produce, besides IEDs, militants, failed states, and inept politicians? No thanks. I am fine with buying the cheap, dangerous stuff from China."

Chris from Brooklyn writes, "As we seem to have exported our democracy to Iraq, maybe we can buy some of that back."

And Joseph in Florida: "What the hell do you think this war was all about? Oil, Jack. Oil. We will be buying the oil with our blood for a long time to come. Would you please read my comment and then send me a copy of your new book?"

No, Joseph. I will read your comment, but the book is not out yet. It doesn't come out for another 10 days or something.

Wolf, that's all I got.

BLITZER: Thank you. September 10, to be precise...

CAFFERTY: Thank you.

BLITZER: ... the new book coming out.

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

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