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GOP Furious That Senator Craig Could Stay; Report: Iraq Forces Not Ready; Geography of Iraq War

Aired September 5, 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, an embarrassing scandal that won't go away as some would like. After saying he intends to resign, the senator busted in a men's room now apparently wants to keep his job. And some Republicans are furious.
Plus, we'll get former President Bill Clinton's take on this scandal.

Also, a report on Iraq says some security forces are so ineffective, entire units should be scrapped and started all over again.

And he will be a big no-show at the Republican debate, but Fred Thompson will be all over the airwaves. And he has a message for you about the fate of the world.

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

With over a week of gritty headlines and embarrassing jokes, Republicans anxiously want to move on from a disgraced senator in the spotlight, but some are now saying not so fast. Just a short while ago, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said he spoke with Senator Larry Craig. McConnell says Craig intends to try and keep his seat.

This, after Craig's attorney said the same thing. And that attorney has a special message for senators: bug off.

Our Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill. She's watching this story for us.

What are you hearing about the calls that Senator Craig, Dana, is making to his colleagues?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, CNN is told that Senator Craig is calling around to his Senate Republican colleagues trying to gauge their support. We have talked to several Republican senators today, it and seems his support is tepid, at best, especially when it comes to reconsidering his resignation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice over): Larry Craig may be having second thoughts about resigning, but his own Republican leadership sure isn't. First they pushed, now a shove. SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: My view remains what I said last Saturday, I thought he made the correct decision. The difficult, but correct, decision to resign. That would still be my view today.

BASH: Senate Republican leaders have been boasting about their swift success in pressuring Craig to resign. Now GOP leadership aides tell CNN top Senate Republicans are furious that Craig is keeping the tabloid-like scandal alive.

DAN WHITING, SPOKESMAN FOR SENATOR LARRY CRAIG: He's innocent and he believes that there's a good chance that he eventually will have this charge overturned.

BASH: Craig may now reconsider resigning on September 30th if he is able to overturn a guilty plea by then, one he signed admitting to disorderly conduct in a men's room.

Most legal experts say clearing his name will be extraordinarily hard.

TIM HEAPHY, FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: And it almost never works. It's an extremely high uphill climb for Senator Craig.

BASH: But Craig's change of heart was prompted by GOP senator Arlen Specter, who encouraged him to fight.

Craig discussed his decision on a voicemail message obtained by "Roll Call" newspaper left shortly before his news conference on Saturday.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), IDAHO: Arlen Specter is now willing to come out in my defense, arguing that it appears by all that he knows I've been railroaded and all of that. Having all of that, we've reshaped my statement a little bit to say it is my intent to resign on September 30.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Meanwhile, Craig's attorney is asking the Senate Ethics Committee to dismiss a request by the Senate Republican leadership to investigate this matter. His attorney, Stan Brand (ph), says in over 200 years the committee hasn't looked into a misdemeanor, especially one that has nothing to do with the senator's official duties here in Congress -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana, what about the governor of Idaho? Is he moving on with finding a replacement during this obviously sensitive period?

BASH: He is. Our Thelma Gutierrez is in Boise, Idaho, now, and she reports that the governor met with Senator Craig for the first time face to face this morning. It was about a 30-minute meeting. And she also says that the senator -- that the governor told the senator he is going to proceed under the assumption that Senator Craig is going to resign September 30th.

That means he's going to step up his actions to find somebody to replace Senator Craig here in Congress.

BLITZER: All right, Dana.

Dana is back in Washington from Boise.

Thanks, Dana, very much.

Joining us now is someone who previously served with Senator Craig both in the Senate, as well as in the House. That would be the former defense secretary, William Cohen. He has a long career here in Washington.

Let's talk a little bit about the dilemma facing Republicans right now. They're in a very awkward position. They effectively forced him to resign, at least expressed his intent to resign, and now things are moving in the other direction.

WILLIAM COHEN, FMR. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, the Ethics Committee in particular is under some strain right now because the members -- the Republican members have asked for an investigation. I think it would be very difficult for them to now cease and desist.

This is not going to be down to the benefit of anyone, Republican or Democrat, because while this investigation, if they go forward, if Senator Craig insists that he's going to stay until such time as this is resolved, then they're going to have an inquiry, and people are going to be asking the question, at a time when we have terror attacks plotted against us in Germany and in Denmark and elsewhere, at a time when we have our young men and women who are dying in Iraq, losing limbs and life there, in Afghanistan, we are now conducting an investigation with all that that entails? I think it's going to cause serious concern about all the members, Republican or Democrat, on Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: And I think you will agree, if it were just this one incident in Minneapolis involving what could have been a misunderstanding, if you listen to the audiotape between the arresting police officer and Senator Craig -- he presumably could have made a strong case, you know, it was just a big misunderstanding -- that might be one thing. But now there's going to be a focus to see if there are other incidents out there, and that could have enormous political ramifications.

COHEN: Once these investigations start, I've seen them take place in the past, and you start to have a bevy of reports coming in, allegations, some serious, some spurious, and there's no end to it. But in addition to that, the issue is not whether there is a misdemeanor or a felony charge. It has to do with any conduct that is seen as being a discredit upon the Senate as an institution. It doesn't have to be a crime.

So this is a very vague standard. The committee will then be required, duty bound at this particular point, to go forward, investigate whether the allegations have merit or no merit, whether there are other allegations. So this is, again, not going to be down to anyone's credit here at a time when we've got -- you have got a young man out in the green room who has no legs who fought in Iraq. And these are the kinds of issues that the Senate is going to be taking its time with.

BLITZER: Exactly. You point out it's not going to do well for all of Washington.

COHEN: All of Washington.

BLITZER: Republicans or Democrats, for that matter.

Thanks very much, Secretary Cohen, for coming in.

Many people are weighing in on the scandal, including the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton. Senator Craig criticized then President Clinton during his own scandal that led to his impeachment. You're going to find out what President Clinton thinks about what's happening right now to the senator.

That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also on Capitol Hill today, a senator who suffered a life- threatening brain hemorrhage goes back to work. The South Dakota Democrat, Tim Johnson's, colleagues are warmly welcoming him back. He's physically weaker, but he says he's ready to go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TIM JOHNSON (D), SOUTH DAKOTA: My speech is not 100 percent. The doctors tell me that it will get there. But my thoughts are clear and my mind is sharp, and I am here to be a voice for South Dakota in the Senate. With patience, persistence, and faith, I have fought back and my will to keep fighting for South Dakota is strong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Johnson says he thinks he might run for re- election. He says he'll make that decision in the fall. He suffered that brain hemorrhage nine months ago.

We wish him only, only the best. He's one courageous United States lawmaker.

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

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Interesting contrast, isn't it? Senator Johnson and Senator Craig?

BLITZER: Yes, Senator Johnson is one amazing guy.

CAFFERTY: Yes, he is.

BLITZER: To be able to recover and come back the way he has...

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: ... we all have to tip our hats to him.

CAFFERTY: Yes. And then there's the other guy.

Anyway, as the country marks the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and very soon the sixth anniversary of 9/11 terror attacks, it's not a bad time perhaps to think about how prepared we are for another disaster, because we'll get one eventually.

Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has some ideas. For one, he's calling for less federal control, more regional training to prepare communities for terror attacks and other disasters. He says that states and cities need less federal meddling.

He's right.

The former New York mayor has proposed making the Department of Homeland Security more regional, and he suggested that FEMA should have a regional structure as well instead of a central one. Giuliani's other ideas include giving FEMA updated technology in order to track relief supplies and aid and cutting off federal money for congressional pet projects. Instead, focusing on long-term infrastructure needs. You know, like bridge improvements.

So here is the question: How well do you think your local community would respond to a terrorist attack or natural disaster?

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

He might be on to something, Wolf, giving the local folks a little more say over what goes on in their own communities.

BLITZER: They know those communities a little bit better than folks here in Washington. Is that what you're suggesting?

CAFFERTY: I'm suggesting that.

BLITZER: I think you're right. Thanks, Jack, very much.

A report says Iraqi forces are not ready to stand up so more American troops can stand down. It says problems are so bad in Iraq's national police force, that entire units should simply be scrapped and started all over again.

We have a first look at the report. That's coming up.

Former senator Fred Thompson has a message for you, but he won't be delivering it at a big Republican debate. Find out the unique way the soon-to-be presidential candidate will try to get his message out.

And one of the most famous men in the world takes a back seat to his wife. Find out how Hillary Clinton's campaign is now using Bill Clinton. We're going to hear directly from Bill Clinton. He spoke to our Larry King exclusively.

You're going to want to hear what the former president says about Larry Craig's sex scandal, his wife's run for the White House, and a troop withdrawal from Iraq.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Most Americans are understandably concerned about the course of the war in Iraq, including the former president, Bill Clinton. He sat down today with CNN's Larry King for a one-on-one interview.

Here is part of what the former president had to say about the war in Iraq and the issue of drawing down U.S. troops.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't see any alternative consistent with the responsibilities for national security to a substantial withdrawal of troops this year because the military is so overstressed. If we had a big national security emergency now, we'd be virtually compelled to meet it with naval and Air Force forces because the Army, the Marine Corps, the National Guard, the Reserves are all overstretched, all deeply stressed.

Given the problems we have in Afghanistan with a resurgent Taliban and the al Qaeda and the imperative of defeating them there, I still believe that we'll have to have a substantial drawdown of troops this year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And you can hear and watch Larry King's entire interview with Bill Clinton. That airs here tonight, "LARRY KING LIVE," 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

We'll have more excerpts of the interview coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM as well.

Meanwhile, a new report about the readiness of Iraq's security forces has mixed reviews.

Let's get some more now from our congressional correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She's on Capitol Hill.

This is a report that we've now seen, Jessica, involving another outside panel of experts that has taken a close look at the military and the police force in Iraq.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

This new Jones report, which will appear here formally on the Hill tomorrow, as you say has some mixed reviews. It says the Iraqi army is showing some real signs of progress, but it slams other Iraqi military forces, especially the police, saying they're ineffective.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice over): The president has made it clear.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our strategy can be summed up this way: as the Iraqi's stand up, we will stand down.

YELLIN: Now a commission headed by General James Jones, former top commander of U.S. forces in Europe, reports Iraqi forces are not ready to stand on their own. It finds the national police are operationally ineffective and should be disbanded and reorganized. The Interior Ministry, vital for support of the police, is dysfunctional and sectarian. And that the border security forces are generally ineffective and riddled with corruption.

The study does offer significant praise for the army, saying it's gaining size and strength, with soldiers willing to fight against enemies of the state. But it adds they will not be ready to fulfill their security role within the next 12 to 18 months without significant coalition support.

Democrats say that's evidence of a failed policy.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: The facts are self- evident that the progress is not being made. Now, they might want to find one or two places where there's some progress and cherry-pick in that way.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now, Wolf, there's ammunition for both sides in this report. The signs of progress in the army, well, Democrats say that's evidence that the U.S. should start turning responsibility over to the Iraqis. But Republicans point out that there has been real progress, as demonstrated in this report, and the U.S. should stay and help those security forces mature -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jessica. Thanks very much.

Jessica Yellin on the Hill.

When it comes to assessing the overall situation in Iraq, a lot depends on where you look.

Tom Foreman, the host of CNN's "THIS WEEK AT WAR," is joining us now with a closer look at the role geography may be playing, Tom, in this war and what is going on.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the geography here right now, as Jessica was alluding to there, is a lot of positioning about these reports. But generally, the vast bulk of the experts we've spoken to say the surge is working to a point. If you're in the White House, you want people to be looking at the western part of Iraq, Al Anbar province. This is hard-core Sunni territory full of folks who are tied to Saddam Hussein. And a year ago, this was very, very hot.

Relentless attacks on coalition troops, many fatalities. Every assessment said Al Anbar would be the hardest part of this country to pacify. But U.S. officers in this area switched tactics.

They started focusing instead on trying to make tribal leaders accept this big national government dominated by the Shia. They said, look, you're tired of getting killed and bombed, and so are we. Let's work together to drive al Qaeda out, who is causing problems here. And it worked.

Attacks are way down. Cooperation is way up. And now the major hotspots are over here in the east with Shia militias. This is where opponents of the war want you to look right now. The Shia are unhappy with the buildup of their opponents, the Sunnis, over here, and they're also fighting among themselves for control of given areas.

The surge has been involved in all of this. This is where the bulk of the surge troops went, and then they spread out from that area, about 17,000 or so to Baghdad, 4,000 over to Al Anbar. And they have been heavily involved, according to all of our experts, in controlling the problem over here of al Qaeda, getting the Sunnis calmed down, and then trying to control the Shia over here.

The big question though comes down to this: Can Iraqi forces protect any of these gains if the coalition troops pull out? And by virtually every assessment right now, they just can't.

So all of our "WEEK AT WAR" analysts say what the White House is going to do is say that's the very reason that you can't leave, and that's the very reason that the Democrats are going to say you have to leave.

BLITZER: Because even after all these years, they're still not ready to step up in order to let U.S. forces step out.

FOREMAN: Exactly. So the bottom line is, we're all waiting for this big report, and when this big report comes out, it's going to say some version of this, and both sides are going to take from it exactly what they want. And we'll be right back where we are right now.

BLITZER: "THIS WEEK AT WAR" airs Saturday nights, Sunday afternoons, right after "LATE EDITION".

Thanks very much, Tom, for coming in.

Apparently, money is a very attractive way to get more people to join the Army. According to "The Washington Post," the Army had hoped to recruit 9,600 new troops in August, but the paper reports the Army surpassed that goal, reaching just over 10,000 men and women.

The Post says higher enlistment bonuses helped, especially an extremely popular $20,000 quick ship bonus. It's given to troops who go off to basic training within 30 days of enlistment.

Still ahead, Fred Thompson has a message for you, but he won't be delivering it at a big Republican debate. You're going to find out the unique way the soon-to-be presidential candidate plans to get his message out.

And one of the most famous men in the world takes a back seat to his wife. Find out how Hillary Clinton's campaign is now using Bill Clinton. You're going to hear more from Bill Clinton's interview with Larry King.

All that coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Former President Bill Clinton has an interesting perspective on those arrests in Germany, by the way, and what they can teach us about how best to fight terrorism.

He spoke to Larry King only a short while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: First, it's good news.

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": That they got them.

CLINTON: Great news. But secondly, it proves what works here.

It proves that the best strategy is not one that is primarily unilateral or primarily military. How were these people found? Through intensive law enforcement and intelligence work, and probably through tracking money change and money movement.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And you can see Larry King's full interview with Bill Clinton tonight, here on CNN. "LARRY KING LIVE" airs 9:00 p.m. Eastern. You're going to want to see this interview, Bill Clinton and Larry King, tonight.

After months of buildup, Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson is just hours away from officially entering the race. Should Rudy Giuliani, should Mitt Romney, should both of them be worried? What about the other candidates?

We're going to check in with our John King in Iowa, Candy Crowley in New Hampshire, two of the best political team on television.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, happening now, the U.S. military loses track of six nuclear warheads and finds them thousands of miles from where they were supposed to be. How could this happen? We're standing by for details.

Some veterans of the war in Iraq now say they're facing their biggest and most important mission now that they're back home, and it's pitting some of them against some other fellow veterans.

We're going to tell you what they're fighting about here in the United States.

And we're going to have more on the record-setting adventurer, Steve Fossett. He's unfortunately still missing after taking off for a short flight in a single-engine plane on Monday.

We're going to take you along in a ride in the cockpit of the same type of plane and look at what might have gone wrong.

Brian Todd working this story.

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

Some are calling it his coming-out media blitz. Right now, the Republican candidate Fred Thompson is not yet an official candidate, but he will be very soon. He's expected to change his status only a few hours from now.

He's skipping a big Republican debate and hopes to get his message to you in a very unique fashion.

We have several reporters following the story. Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is watching it. Candy Crowley is in New Hampshire.

But let's go to Iowa. That's where our chief national correspondent, John King, is following all the news -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Fred Thompson won't be at that debate tonight, but he will be on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Then, just after midnight, an official campaign announcement posted on the Internet, then here in Iowa to begin his rallies and his first bus tour as an official presidential candidate. Many of his rivals say Senator Thompson has waited too long. His campaign says, no, they believe Republican voters are still looking for what they call a consistent conservative.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): Fred Thompson is banking on the idea that it's better to be late than to be one of the other guys.

CYNDI MOSTELLER, REPUBLICAN ACTIVIST: For Giuliani, of course, it's the social issues. For John McCain, it's become the immigration issue. For Mitt Romney, there's a sense of, what is his core? Is -- is he the John Kerry Republican in this, in terms of flip-flopping? KING: Cyndi Mosteller is a veteran Republican activist in Charleston, South Carolina, a McCain backer until a few months ago, now helping Thompson try to prove waiting so long to officially jump in wasn't a mistake.

MOSTELLER: I think that Fred Thompson really is the intersection of conservative ideology and political electability.

KING: On the one hand, it sounds silly to say he's late to the race. But the first voting is four months away, and the others have been in Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and beyond for months.

WHIT AYRES, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: Expectations are sky-high, which means he better perform flawlessly out of the blocks, or a lot of people are going to start grumbling that he's not the great savior we thought he was.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, THOMPSON CAMPAIGN AD)

FRED THOMPSON, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: On the next president's watch, our country will make decision that will affect our lives and our families far into the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Thompson is angling for a conservative base that hasn't coalesced around one candidate, promising his commitment to outlaw abortion is more than lip service.

THOMPSON: I don't think, as a president, you can do anything halfway.

KING: On Iraq, he's in no rush to talk about bringing troops home.

THOMPSON: Right now, we need to make every effort to make sure that we don't get run out of there with our tail between our legs before we have done the job.

KING: Thompson is a former federal prosecutor, made his mark as the Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee, and served eight years in the Senate from Tennessee. But bring up his name, and one word trumps all others.

AYRES: Actor. He is known as an actor. Senator Thompson is not that well-known. In many ways, he's a vessel into whom many Republicans have poured their hopes and dreams. We will see whether those hopes and dreams get realized.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: And, just a short time ago, we got our first glimpse at the buses Senator Thompson will use on his kickoff bus tour here in Iowa. On the side of the buses, Wolf, emblazoned the words, "Security, Unity, and Prosperity." Now, Fred Thompson has a laid-back, genteel image, but already evidence his campaign is not afraid to throw sharp elbows either, some criticism of Thompson's views on immigration in the newspaper this morning. The campaign quickly put out a press release countering what it says is misinformation from the Romney campaign, saying that Senator Thompson is for tough border security, denying welfare to illegal immigrants, though, Wolf.

He will be into the fray in just a few hours. And guess what? The others have been waiting.

BLITZER: I know you have spent some time with him and his advisers in recent weeks. And you have known him for many years, John. What are they saying about his health? Because he did have a cancer scare, lymphoma, a few years ago.

KING: He -- he did have that scare. It is now in remission. They say his doctors have given him the A1 green light to be out on the campaign trail. They do expect questions about it in the debates and in town hall forums. But they say that he will prove his vigor.

You know, one of the criticisms in Washington is that he's lazy sometimes. Fred Thompson personally told me and his campaign says they will prove his vigor, prove his health is up to the task of being the next commander in chief over the next several days as he campaigns here in Iowa, then off to New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and beyond, Wolf.

He's been waiting on the sidelines for a long time. They say he will get very busy starting tonight.

BLITZER: All right. We will be watching it with you, John. Thanks very much.

Let's get some more now on Senator Thompson's no-show at the Republican debate tonight in New Hampshire.

Our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, is standing by there.

Candy, give us a little bit, a sense of what people in New Hampshire are saying about this.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're certainly watching very closely, and you can look at tonight as sort of two events. There's the televised debate of the eight Republican presidential candidates, and then there's the counterprogramming.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY (voice-over): Say this for actor/politician Fred Thompson. He's running second in national polls without breaking a sweat, and he knows how to steal a show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, THOMPSON CAMPAIGN AD)

THOMPSON: I invite you to take a look and join us.

NARRATOR: Fred Thompson, Republican for president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: The ad is titled "Debate," kind of an inside joke, since it airs around the New Hampshire debate this evening, and Thompson isn't coming, at his own peril.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think, if you look back to 1999, the beginning of the end for the Bush campaign was when he skipped the Dartmouth debate. There became a sense that he wasn't ready for prime time, and his campaign staff was trying to keep him out of the media light. There's -- that storyline is already starting to develop in New Hampshire. Earlier this week, "The Manchester Union Leader" had an article that was questioning why Thompson wasn't showing up. So, I don't think it's a good thing for him to do it.

CROWLEY: Instead of the debate of Durham, Thompson will be shooting the breeze in Burbank -- echoes of another actor/politician.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO")

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: I will pump up Sacramento.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: "The Tonight Show" has an audience roughly twice as big as the one likely to see the debate. It may be no coincidence that team Thompson, in a constant state of flux, has recently hired a couple people who worked for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Shortly after midnight this evening, an hour-and-a-half after the debate, Thompson announces his presidential campaign via Webcast. Tomorrow, when the morning news might be expected to feature debate highlights, he begins a maiden campaign voyage through the early primary states.

Thompson is not the only shadow on tonight's debate. George Bush also factors in. Along the campaign trail, Republican candidates seem increasingly uncomfortable about the war. Consistently close to the president's position, Mitt Romney has taken a step away.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is a mess. So, when you got a mess, there is no easy, good answer. All right. The easy, good answer is to turn the clock back and do some things differently a long time ago.

CROWLEY: John McCain has not backed away from his support of the war, but, lately, the sales pitch seems more forceful when he talks about where he differed. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was the only one of the major Republican candidates who adamantly, vociferously opposed the Rumsfeld strategy.

CROWLEY: McCain has long held not enough troops were sent into Iraq at the beginning.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: Iraq is a difficult calculation for Republicans, who have to keep in mind that primary voters, 75 percent of Republicans, still favor the war in Iraq. But then there's the general election, and independent voters overwhelmingly oppose it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Candy. Candy is on the scene for us in Durham, New Hampshire, tonight. Thanks very much.

Fred Thompson is known for being in touch with the online community. Now the '08 hopeful is going back online tonight to make his White House run official.

Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She is watching this for us.

How is he planning to roll out the official announcement online?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it's happening overnight tonight at Fred08.com with a Webcast.

And, although Thompson won't be at that televised Republican debate tonight, he's promising to be answering some questions submitted online in the next few days -- the campaign sending out an e-mail to conservative bloggers this morning and their readers, saying, if you have a question for the former senator, ask away. Post it. We will be going through them and videotaping responses and from the senator and the former senator in the next few days and posting them on the Web site.

For months now, this online campaign has been up and running, even though Thompson himself has not been up and running. He's been posting Web video. He's been writing on blogs, on conservative blogs, and by -- posting Web video and putting them on conservative blogs, as well.

And, by contrast, the campaign of the Republican front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, has been notably devoid of this kind of online outreach, but that might be about to change. This post-Labor Day week is the week that the Giuliani campaign is rolling out their expanded Web presence, promising more to come -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Which only shows you, if you want to be a serious candidate, Abbi, you have got to have a major online presence in this day and age. And it's only going to become more intense.

Abbi, thanks very much.

Abbi, Candy, John, as all of you know, are part of the best political team on television.

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

Coming up, our "Strategy Session." Senator Craig, he's having second thoughts about resigning from the Senate. A lot of Senate leaders, though, have heard enough.

And our own Brian Todd takes a ride in the exact same type of plane that multimillionaire adventurer Steve Fossett was last seen in. We're going to show you the view from the cockpit, take a closer look at what might have go -- might have gone wrong, as the search continues.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the theater of American politics, Bill Clinton spent eight years on center stage. Now he's having to learn to step out of the spotlight, at least a little bit.

Let's go to Mary Snow. She's been looking into this story for us.

It's something of a learning process for the ex-president, Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Wolf, and it's a very public one, as the former president steps up his visibility.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): From the campaign trail...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Bill Clinton.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SNOW: ... to the talk show circuit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

OPRAH WINFREY, HOST, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW": Please welcome former President Bill Clinton.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Former President Bill Clinton took center stage on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to promote his new book, "Giving." But his wife's presidential aspirations are never far away.

On CNN's "LARRY KING," Hillary Clinton was on his jacket lapel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE") LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Hillary 2000...

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Eight.

KING: Eight.

You didn't -- you could have kept it on.

CLINTON: Oh, I have got another one.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY SABATO, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA CENTER FOR POLITICS: The Hillary Clinton campaign has lost all fear of having Bill Clinton out on the campaign trail. They started off very carefully with him, small doses. They were afraid that he would overshadow her. That's now dissolved.

SNOW: Back in 2006, when the Clintons attended the funeral for Coretta Scott King, the president was seen as overshadowing his wife. But, now on the campaign trail, he takes the backseat.

CLINTON: I love not running for anything. I can say whatever I think. Of course, nobody has to care what I think.

SNOW: Being deferential is a far cry from once being the leader of the free world. But the former president seems to be at ease with it, and told Larry King, if his wife is elected to the White House, he's prepared to take the supporting role.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE")

CLINTON: I will do whatever she asks me to do, but, you know, I -- I can't and shouldn't be appointed to the Cabinet. That's now not legal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: As Bill Clinton has taken on a more visible role in his wife's campaign, polls show he ranks high among Democrats. But one political observer says he may have a limited role in a general election, should Hillary Clinton become the Democratic nominee.

SABATO: I would expect Bill Clinton to drive up Republican turnout and also to cause heartburn among many of the independents.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, in a general election, some observers say the big test for Bill Clinton will be able to balance the political baggage that is seen as red meat for the right and his political stardom that's been appealing to Democrats -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary, thanks very much -- Mary Snow reporting.

And, to our viewers, you can see Larry's entire interview with the former president tonight. "LARRY KING LIVE" airs 9:00 p.m. Eastern. And I think you're going to want to watch this interview.

On Saturday, Senator Craig said he intends to step aside. So, why are Republican leaders still talking about it?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: This matter, if Senator Craig is still in the Senate, will be referred to the Ethics Committee, and any comments about him will have to come from them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Did Senator Craig launch a campaign to save his Senate seat? Could it work?

And Fred Thompson, he's not quite a candidate, and he's not getting a warm reception from his soon-to-be opponents. I will talk about that with Paul Begala and John Feehery. They're standing by live for our "Strategy Session" -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Senator Larry Craig of Idaho is rethinking his decision to resign his Senate seat. It's a development that's causing some divisions, serious divisions, within the Republican Party.

Joining us now for our "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist John Feehery.

I want to play a little clip from a voice mail that he inadvertently left on the wrong recording machine. What bad luck.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: On your machine, I think, wasn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: No, it wasn't my machine, but on somebody's machine.

Listen to this. It was done just before he made public his statement that he intends to resign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), IDAHO: I think it would help drive the story that I'm willing to fight, that I have got quality people out there fighting in my defense, and that this thing could take a new turn or a new shape, has that potential.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Let me start with John.

What do you think? I mean, is this giving heartburn to a lot of the Republican leadership in the Senate?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Larry Craig has made three mistakes.

First, he said he was guilty. Second, he said that he was -- that -- that horrible press conference in Idaho. Third, he said that Arlen Specter is someone to be listened to. This is a big mistake. I think most Republican senators want this situation to be over with.

No Republican -- and I don't think any Democrat -- really wants an ethics investigation, because, for the Democrats, what it does, it -- it drives down the positive ratings of the Congress even lower. And no one really wants this to keep on going on. This story should be over.

BLITZER: But he's apparently not -- he's determined, apparently, not to see it over. He's hired two of the best lawyers...

BEGALA: Yes.

BLITZER: ... on these kinds of issues in Washington, Billy Martin, Stan Brand. You know both of these guys. They don't get much better, if he's serious about fighting.

BEGALA: Yes. They're about the best lawyers he could possibly get. And, so, good for him for that. He's entitled to a defense.

What's troubling about that tape is, it suggests that he was intentionally misleading people when he very cagily said, I intend to resign.

And I say this as somebody who, when this broke, said, I don't think he ought to resign. I think he ought to stand for reelection or not, but the citizens of Idaho put him there, and he ought to be able to -- to see out that term, I think, because this seems to be mostly personal conduct.

BLITZER: It's easy for you to say that, because you're a Democrat.

BEGALA: Sure. And it...

BLITZER: But, if you were a Republican leader, you might have a different attitude.

BEGALA: Yes. But the problem the Republicans have opened themselves up to -- there's a couple.

First off, they have opened the door to private conduct being the cause for getting thrown out of the Senate, which is a slippery slope they ought not go down. Second, they offer themselves up as major hypocrites, not only because they have driven this vicious anti-gay agenda, which forces guys into the closet, where then they act out in self-destructive ways. They also have the David Vitter problem. The Louisiana senator, runs on family values, admits to a grave sin when he's listed on the D.C. madam's customer list, call list.

So, they have the problem of one senator who admits to illegal sex outside of matrimony, who they defend. The other guy, who doesn't admit to it, and he's driven out. Why?

BLITZER: Go ahead, John.

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: This double standard thing, first of all, Larry Craig admitted that he broke the law, and then he said he didn't break the law. So, he's -- not only is he a law-breaker. He's also a flip- flopper.

(LAUGHTER)

FEEHERY: The second thing...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And, potentially, legally he could have -- if he's acknowledging that he lied when he signed that -- that guilty plea, that could be -- that could be another element going against him, legally speaking.

FEEHERY: And David Vitter admitted he made a mistake. Larry Craig has never admitted he made a mistake. And I think that, in the court of public opinion, that is devastating.

People think he -- he lied. And now he -- and broke the law. So, I think that this thing is much different than the David Vitter. I don't think that anyone, especially the Senate Democrats, want to have an investigation into this kind of conduct. I think you're right about that.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the Republican presidential battle right now, Rudy Giuliani, specifically, and Fred Thompson -- Fred Thompson tonight going to make it very, very official that he's a candidate.

Peter King, who is a strong supporter of Rudy Giuliani, he said this. He's a congressman from New York. He said: "Rudy is a real crime-fighter. Fred Thompson has primarily done it on television."

That's a pretty stinging little rebuke of the former senator from Tennessee.

BEGALA: Well, but good for Rudy for having a guy like Peter King in his corner. King is a fighter. I think Rudy has a reputation for being pugnacious himself. But they send a surrogate out there to do it.

This is what politics is about. Let's -- now let's see Fred Thompson's response. You know, I think this -- he's -- he's -- he has huge expectations. Now, Hillary Clinton, in my party, had expectations just as high, and she's met them. She's run a flawless campaign, in the eyes of most Democrats.

Senator Thompson, let's see if he -- but he starts out with such high expectations, and there's so many banana peels between here and Iowa, that, one slip-up, and we're just going to kill him. Poor guy.

BLITZER: How much pressure is Fred Thompson under right now?

FEEHERY: Well, it's kind of like that Samuel Beckett novel "Waiting For Godot." And, well, Godot is here, finally.

And I think Paul is right. There's a lot of expectations. Peter King is a great guy. He's hilarious. (INAUDIBLE) I think Paul is also right that this is going to be part of the campaign. You have got to be able to step up. The thing that, finally, Fred Thompson is doing is getting involved in the campaign.

I'm not sure if I would have opened up the campaign on "Jay Leno," because then people say, well, this is all a big joke. He should have been at the debate.

BLITZER: Is it too late for Fred Thompson, do you think?

FEEHERY: I don't think -- it's too late, because so many Republicans are looking for that perfect candidate. The question is, is he the perfect candidate? He might be. Who knows? And that's what this whole debate is going to start.

BLITZER: Do you think it's too late? Politically, as a strategist, what do you think?

BEGALA: No, for the reason John states.

It probably -- it may be too late, say, for Al Gore in my party, because Democrats are very happy with their candidates. It's a very strong field for the Democrats. Frankly, it's a very strong field for the Republicans, too. But Republicans don't seem to believe that. They're unhappy with a field that includes, you know, John McCain, a war hero, Rudy Giuliani, a popular mayor of a Democratic city, Mitt Romney.

I mean, they have really talented candidates, and yet they hate them all. So, maybe Thompson has an opening.

FEEHERY: On the question if it's too late, the only thing is, there's so much machinery that is already in place that the other campaigns have done. Fred Thompson hasn't really laid that machinery down. And it takes a while to build that up.

BLITZER: It's a lot of work.

All right, John Feehery, Paul Begala, thanks very much.

BEGALA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail. That's coming up.

Also, officials say it could take a week to cover the rugged terrain as they look for aviation explorer Steve Fossett. And that's under ideal conditions. Our Brian Todd is going up in a similar plane, similar to the one that Fossett went down in. We're watching this search. How safe, by the way, is that plane?

And it's a mistake involving nuclear warheads, a big mistake. A plane flies nukes across several U.S. states. How could this happen? Barbara Starr working this story.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The battle over change tops today's "Political Radar."

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is out today with a new campaign commercial that says he is the candidate of change. The senator from Illinois also calls himself a political outsider. The ad is running in Iowa.

A similar message of change in a new campaign commercial from Hillary Clinton -- the senator from New York and former first lady is known as the candidate of experience, but her new ad says that her years of experience make her the best candidate to shake things up here in Washington. Clinton's ad will run in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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

Jack Cafferty is in New York with "The Cafferty File."

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Small things to be grateful for, we're not being subjected to those political commercials here in the New York area just yet.

BLITZER: You will be eventually.

CAFFERTY: Yes, I know.

The question this hour is: How well do you think your local community would respond to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster?

Fred in Menominee, Michigan, writes: "I think my community in the Upper Peninsula would do fairly well. These are small cities, very generous people. Getting help from the feds would be only be wishful thinking. The idea to regionalize FEMA and other disaster-aid departments is excellent, could be patterned after the way Justice has divided up the country into workable regions."

Ken in Escondido, California: "Are you kidding? The cost is way too much for small town tax bases to absorb. In the past, local militias couldn't guard America, so Congress created the United States Army. We need a strong federal rescue and response system, not the local volunteer fire department."

Jimmy writes from my home town, Reno, Nevada: "The area I live in, Reno-Tahoe, would have a great response to any disaster. We already know this. We have proven it time and again each year when we deal with the seasonal wildfires. But it isn't just the first- responders or fire departments and other agencies that respond during the disaster. It's about the communities and the Americans who live in them and how they respond to help their neighbor in need afterwards."

Shawn writes from Cleveland: "The city officials in Cleveland, Ohio, are a joke. Took them four days to remove a tree that downed a power line on my street, another three days to restore the power. With the conditions of the highways around the city, I can't imagine having to try to evacuate people quickly. The city needs real help with the simple things, let alone a major attack of some sort."

Jack writes from Pittsburgh: "They can't even figure out the freeze-thaw cycle here in Pittsburgh in order to prevent potholes. They think they're going to figure out bin Laden? I think not."

And Adam writes from Wilder: "I live in Vermont. I would be dead."

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Hope that doesn't happen, Adam -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We hope so, too.

Thanks, Jack, very much.

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