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Wildfires in California; Republican Dark Horse

Aired October 22, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And to our viewers, You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, breaking news. A quarter of a million people run for their lives in California. Raging wildfires already are consuming some of their homes and it may only get worse.

Republicans are sharpening their attacks heading into the stretch before the primaries. As the leaders swipe at one another, there may be a dark horse moving up fast on the outside.

And selling America overseas -- the government hopes a Disney film can warm the hearts of visitors and repair the country's image.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling it a tragic day for his state. Wildfires are raging out of control over huge portions of Southern California right now. More than 100,000 acres are charred, with one death and more than 20 injuries already reported, and evacuations on a massive scale. A quarter of a million people ordered to flee, many of them in the hard-hit San Diego area. The Chargers' Qualcomm Stadium is now an evacuation area and the team has canceled today's practice. And just added to the evacuation list, some 19,000 Navy families in the region. The Pentagon now working to notify their loved ones overseas of this situation.

Let's get the latest from CNN's Dan Simon.

He's joining us from near the fire lines in San Diego -- Dan, what are you seeing right now?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it really looks like we're seeing this fire occur on an unprecedented scale. We are in this San Diego neighborhood called Rancho Bernardo. And just take a look at this. The fire is still smoldering right here. And it's absolutely amazing when you come to this block, because home after home has been destroyed. And, Stych (ph), if you could actually pan to the left, you can see, Wolf, all these houses down the line have come down. And then look at the end there -- you've got a freestanding house. But the homes on both sides of that house have come down.

Wolf, we were just told by a fire crew that pulled up to this scene that about a mile away from here there is actually an apartment complex that is on fire. There are about 20 of these buildings at this complex and we're told at least seven or eight of these buildings have caught fire. Each building has somewhere between 70 and 80 apartment complexes -- or apartments, rather. So a couple of hundred apartments apparently on fire. We are hearing things like that left and right. It's just simply amazing.

Obviously, the folks here -- the fire crews are overwhelmed. And Governor Schwarzenegger asked the federal government for help today.

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: We are battling with this all over the State of California. There's seven, eight fires right now. We are stretched to the limit when it comes to the resources. We have been asking neighboring states to ask for help, to get some of the resources and some of the fire engines and also airplanes and stuff like that. We have asked the federal government for help and to release some of the troops. So we need as much help as possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON: The smoke is just so thick here, you need a mask. You need some goggles. It's really tough for us to stand out here.

I just want to say where we are. We're at the intersection of Andanza and Viaderias (ph). I'm just saying that because this house is still smoldering a bit and you still have some other homes that are just within an earshot of this house. I know fire crews are overwhelmed, but I just wanted to say my location just in case this becomes a problem, because, look, you have some homes right over here and you still have some active flames. It's, obviously, a very dangerous situation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: This is neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood. And it's apparently only going to get worse.

What about the elderly?

Because we hear 250,000 people have been evacuated.

What about the elderly?

Did local authorities have enough vehicles, do they have enough resources to do the job they should be doing?

SIMON: I know that they're completely overwhelmed in terms of the amount of resources. I just don't know. We know that a couple of nursing homes have evacuated. We know that a hospital has been evacuated. And -- get this -- we were told that some of the animals at San Diego's famous zoo are apparently going to a safer location. So in terms of what crews have here, just don't know. But, obviously, they've got their hand full -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It looks like your eyes are getting affected by this. You might want to put on those goggles and put on that mask.

Thanks very much, Dan Simon.

We'll check back with you.

Take a look at these I-Report pictures sent into us to us by Andrew Hughes. He took them in the wealthy San Diego suburb of Rancho Bernardo, where the wildfire was closing in on these homes.

He said they had already -- he says they had already been evacuated. And moments after he took these pictures, he was forced to leave, as well. So we don't know whether they're still standing. But these are pretty amazing, amazing pictures.

We'll get back to the fires and update you as more information becomes available.

But there's other important news that's happening right now, including a new appeal from Osama bin Laden, calling directly on insurgents in Iraq to join forces. The Al Qaeda message in an audio tape released just a short while ago.

Let's go live to our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena -- Kelli, what are we learning from this?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the CIA is doing a technical analysis of that tape. But there's no reason to believe it is a fake. If authentic, it would be the third message from Osama bin Laden this year, but the first time that he speaks directly to militants in Iraq.

And he's essentially calling on members of Al Qaeda and other groups in Iraq to unify their forces. Listen in.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

OSAMA BIN LADEN (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The interests of a group supersedes the interests of an individual. And the interests of a Muslim nation come above the interests of a group. And the interests of all Muslims are above the interests of one's country.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ARENA: Now, there are no dated references in this message. It makes it impossible to determine when it was taped. And what was interesting, this audio message first aired on the Arab network, Al Jazeera. Now, Al Qaeda stopped using Al Jazeera more than a year ago and put most of its messages out using the Internet. One expert suggests maybe that's because if you want to speak to people in Iraq, you need to get, you know, get on a network and not on the Internet, because they don't have access to an Internet. But the Internet was definitely seen as a much more secure way to get messages out. This time Al Qaeda took the risk -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kelli, thank you.

Kelli Arena reporting.

Is a key American ally about to launch its own invasion of Iraq?

Fresh fears and protests today among Kurds in Northern Iraq. But a notorious militant group may have already set things in motion with its latest bloody attack.

Let's turn to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

She's watching this.

What's the latest -- Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, our Ed Henry, at the White House, is just now reporting that President Bush today called the Turkish leader to express his concern about these rebel attacks against Turkish troops on that border between Turkey and Northern Iraq. Fears are growing, Wolf, that a war there is about to break out.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Turkey's military is moving troops and vehicles closer to the Iraqi border, raising ominous signs it may be planning an invasion. This follows a weekend ambush by PKK Kurdish rebels that killed a dozen Turkish troops.

Turkey is sending mixed signals. Parliamentary approval for military action is in place and the Turkish prime minister warned his country would not back away from an incursion if "the necessary military conditions occurred."

But diplomatic action continues. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met over the weekend with the Turkish defense minister, who seemed to indicate no invasion is imminent.

VECDI GONUL, TURKISH DEFENSE MINISTER: Not urgently, but they are planning. They are planning to -- planning to cross the border because, firstly, the intelligence is important. They get enough information. And we like to do these things with Americans.

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I told him that restraint should not be confused with weakness.

STARR: Military officials tell CNN the U.S. is sharing with the Turks the latest intelligence about Kurdish rebel locations -- making it possible for targeted raids against the PKK, something far short of a full invasion. And the U.S. is also pressuring Iraqi Kurdish officials to crack down on the PKK on their side of the border.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: What we want to see is we want to see action from the Iraqi government to prevent terrorist attacks.

STARR: The U.S. is especially worried that any border war would stop the flow of not only U.S. military cargo, but also commercial goods that travel by road into Northern Iraq.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

STARR: Now, the PKK says it's ready to announce a cease-fire. But no one thinks Turkey is about to move its 60,000 troops off that border -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Barbara.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

There are some 30 million Kurds stretching across Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq, Western Iran, parts of Syria and beyond. Many have long sought a homeland or autonomy. The Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as the PKK, has used violence toward this end. Rooted in Marxism and labeled a terrorist group by the United States government, as well as many governments in Europe, the PKK began targeting Turkey two decades ago -- attacking troops, bombing civilians and kidnapping tourists.

Turkey has launched massive crackdowns, destroying countless villages. Once numbering tens of thousands, the PKK is now said to have just 3,000 to 5,000 men under arms.

We'll stay on top of this story because the ramifications are enormous.

Jack Cafferty is in New York with The Cafferty File.

Who would have thought?

You know, enough trouble in Iraq with the notion of a NATO ally, Turkey, now poised to invade Northern Iraq. It's an amazing, an amazing development -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Well, and their cooperation was also threatened by Nancy Pelosi and her group in Congress, when they were threatening to push ahead with that resolution condemning the Armenian genocide that happened some 90 years ago during the Ottoman Empire. Fortunately, somebody with some wisdom prevailed and they backed away from that.

But it's not good. None of that stuff is good.

This isn't good either, speaking of Nancy Pelosi. Harsh words for the Democratic-led Congress coming from a somewhat surprising source. An editorial over this past weekend in the "New York Times" was titled: "With Democrats Like These," and it had this to -- quoting here: "Every now and then, we're tempted to double check that the Democrats actually won Congress of Congress last year. It was particularly hard to tell this week. Democratic leaders were cowed once again by propaganda from the White House and failed, once again, to modernize the law on electronic surveillance in a way that permits robust intelligence gathering on terrorists without undermining the constitution."

"The Times" goes on to say they were left wondering who is really in charge of the show after a bipartisan press release announcing the agreement came out. When a top Republican described the bill as a "delicate arrangement of compromises that couldn't be changed in any way," well, the Democrats didn't say anything. They didn't object. "The Times" editorial also said this: "It was bad enough having a one party government when Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. But the Democrats took over and still the one party system continues."

That's tough stuff.

Here's the question -- what does it mean for the Democratic-led Congress when the "New York Times" questions its ability to stand up to President Bush?

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

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

Jack Cafferty will be back shortly.

Up ahead, close calls in the skies and on the runway -- are federal authorities covering up a lot of near collisions because it would be bad for airline business?

Also, selling America abroad -- as the government tries to repair the country's international image, can a short Disney film warm the hearts of weary visitors?

And her husband has his work cut out for him in the Democratic presidential race.

Can he come charging back?

I'll ask his always outspoken wife, Elizabeth Edwards. She's standing by live, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Republican presidential candidates are taking some strong shots at their Democratic rivals, including John Edwards, as they reach out to the conservative base of the Republican Party.

His wife, Elizabeth Edwards, is joining us now from Los Angeles to talk about that and more.

I'll play a little clip, Mrs. Edwards, from what Rudy Giuliani told religious conservatives the other day.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards -- here's what they have in common. They have never run a city, they have never run a state, they have never run a business, they've never run anything. In other words, they have no executive experience.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, you get the point of what he's saying.

What do you think?

ELIZABETH EDWARDS, WIFE OF JOHN EDWARDS: I think Rudy did run something and the people who worked for him weren't that happy with him. Mayor Bratton is now the mayor in L.A. -- I mean he's the chief of police. Bratton is now chief of police in L.A., after Rudy Giuliani took a lot of credit for what he did. Firefighters there are not too happy with him.

I think that what we're looking for is not somebody with a lot of experience. Honestly, we had a lot of experience with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. I bet they had two of the best resumes in all of America. And what their experience got us was misbegotten s policies and taking us entirely down the wrong path.

We need somebody who has a lot of experience -- experience fighting entrenched interests, experience making certain that regular people in America -- normal Americans, working people -- have a fair shot.

John actually has a whole lifetime of experience doing that.

BLITZER: All right.

Well, what do you think?

They really went after Hillary Clinton, also, last night at their Republican debate, making the point she's not qualified, really, to be commander-in-chief. I think to a man they were making that point, even though Senator McCain said he liked and respected Senator Clinton. They were clearly going after her. They really, at their debate, they focused all their attention on her, not on your husband.

EDWARDS: You know, I think it's a little hard to criticize my husband. I can criticize him for things at home. But I think on his policies, it's pretty difficult to criticize somebody who is trying to fight for regular working people, make certain we have the health care that we need, make certain we protect our plant in the way that we need to, make certain we get out of Iraq, make certain we have a fairer tax program than we have, make certain we're creating jobs in this country. I'd like to see them go after him on those issues.

BLITZER: Well, what does he need to do, Senator Edwards, to move up in these national polls, to distinguish himself, let's say, from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?

EDWARDS: You know, honestly, I don't pay a whole lot of attention to national polls. They're certainly not the primary polls. What we -- that makes -- that's based on an idea that we're all going to vote from the primary on a particular day. The truth of the matter is, I bet no one has campaigned in the State of Vermont and yet in those polls, a Vermont voter would have exactly the same say in the national polls as an Iowa voter, who's seen these candidates up close and personal, gotten them a chance to ask them questions about where they stand on the issues. It's those polls in the early states, where they are deeply engaged in the process, that concern me. And, honestly, I feel quite good about John's position, both in terms of where he ranks in the polls and in terms of how the voters in those early states perceive him, which is they perceive him as the most policy oriented, the most dedicated to the working man, the person that they trust the most on these issues.

BLITZER: Why do you believe he's a better advocate for America's women than Senator Clinton?

EDWARDS: Now, I think that what we're looking for in a leader -- man or woman -- we're looking a leader, is somebody who, when they speak, you know they're speaking from their soul about the things that are deeply important to them.

And when John speaks from his soul, as he does every day when he campaigns, he speaks about universal health care. He's been speaking about it from the very beginning of this campaign -- making certain that every man, woman and child in the country has health care.

Senator Clinton adopted a health care policy very much like John's -- and I'm glad that she did -- in this past month, and that's great. But, John was the leader on this issue. And women are going to need a leader to get these policies -- policies in place. They're going to need somebody who is willing to fight against the HMOs, to not give in, never pull that policy. And John is a better advocate on these.

On issues with respect to poverty and education, John is a better advocate. He's -- in fact, he's addressing issues that Senator Clinton -- in fact, none of the other candidates are addressing.

BLITZER: You're out in California to attend a conference tomorrow with the first lady of California, Maria Shriver. She's going to be moderating a panel on the spouses of some of these presidential candidates. You're going it be on the stage with Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, Ann Romney, Jeri Thompson. This could be a nice session. It could be a lively session, although I suspect everyone will be very polite -- shall we say, lady-like, if you will.

What's your strategy going into that?

EDWARDS: My strategy going into anything that I do is just to be as completely honest as I can possibly be. I suspect this will be, because this is a woman's conference, about the legacy that women leave. That's going to have a lot do with the kind of people that these different women from very different background have themselves, what they bring to the table.

I don't know that it's enormously relevant for the presidential race, but it's interesting. You know, we have -- we're odd. We have what has to be described as a derivative existence. Whatever package we brought into the process, we are now a surrogate for the -- for our husbands. And that -- because we -- our existence is derivative, maybe the person that we were before this process is a little hidden.

And I think that what Maria is trying to do maybe is to peel that back a little bit and expose who we were before we became just surrogates for our husbands.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Edwards, good luck tomorrow.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Elizabeth Edwards here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Maria Shriver, by the way, will joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow. She's going to be moderating that panel discussion.

Also coming up, trapped upside down in a wrecked car for two days -- and a 78-year-old woman lives to tell us about it.

Plus, disturbing new information about near collisions. News impacting anyone who flies. You're going to want to hear this.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, some serious new allegations against Blackwater. The chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee says the embattled security contractor may have violated tax laws and owe the government millions of dollars. At issue is whether Blackwater workers are independent contractors, exempting Blackwater from paying Social Security and other taxes. The company calls the allegations groundless.

Six Navy personnel, including one officer, are facing discipline for faking inspection records on a nuclear submarine. Navy officials say they forged reports on checks of the cooling system on board the USS Hampton without ever actually doing the work. Officials say there was never any danger to the crew or the public.

Talk about some kind of horrible -- that's how 78-year-old Betty McCord describes her ordeal. She spent two days trapped, hanging upside down in her car after it ran off the road in Oklahoma. She was rescued only when a trooper noticed the skid marks and found her. She's still in the hospital tonight recovering from her injuries, but she is expected to be OK.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Carol, thanks very much.

Up next, Republican candidates heating up their rhetoric against Democrats and against each other. They're trying to gain an edge.

Plus, President Bush seeking billions of dollars more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, the breaking news we're following. Wildfires are raging across Southern California, fanned by powerful winds. Dozens of homes are destroyed, more than 100,000 acres burned and a quarter of a million people ordered to evacuate as the flames advance.

Also, President Bush is now asking Congress for another $46 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's on top of the $147 billion he's already requested for the current fiscal year. The Pentagon now estimating the cost of the Iraq War at $2 billion a week.

And growing doubts about tomorrow's scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. The forecast calls for rain and low clouds, and NASA now puts the chance of acceptable conditions at only 40 percent.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Last night's Republican debate showed a much sharper edge as the candidates try to gain an edge themselves. But as the leaders slug it out, could someone else be sneaking up from behind?

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

He's standing by.

John, it seems to be getting a bit nastier.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It sure does, Wolf. You had two big events this weekend. You had that straw poll of social conservative activists. Then you had last night a nationally televised debate, just the type of events you might think to bring some clarity to the jumbled republican race, think again.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Ten weeks to the Iowa caucuses and the tone is turning more testy, for a reason.

WHIT AYRES, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: I think the race is wide open, John, on the republican side. I can make a case for any of five candidates winning the nomination.

KING: As in Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, McCain and Huckabee, the latter a factor because of his steady debate performances and his slow but steady rise in the Iowa polls. Ten weeks out means looming tactical shifts. Already, the verbal exchanges are more personal.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Governor Romney, you've been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don't want you to start fooling them about mine.

KING: But the sharpest attacks often come in the mail. This Romney mailer in South Carolina takes after Senator McCain's views on immigration. It is mild to what is likely to come in the near future in the mail and over the Internet.

CRAIG ROBINSON, IOWA REPUBLICAN PARTY: More candidates use Internet and YouTube type of things to attack other candidates, as well as e-mail. That way it's not necessarily on the airwaves and they could target it to specific groups of people. So, we're seeing more of that here in Iowa.

KING: And TV ad spending is the biggest tactical decision facing the campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's no work more important than what goes on within the four walls of the American home.

KING: Romney is already on the air in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One man didn't play politics with the truth.

KING: And McCain is running ads in New Hampshire. The others have been hording their resources but are preparing to join the ad war soon.

And Giuliani by leaps and bounds has an advantage here. He began the month with more than $16 million in the bank. More than Romney and Thompson combined. McCain had a modest $3.4 million in cash on hand and Huckabee had only $651,000. That's enough to compete in Iowa but a liability given the packed primary calendar that soon follows.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: And because the race is so close, Wolf, with no overwhelming frontrunner, the other campaigns are essentially stalking each other watching to see who will jump in next when it comes to TV ad spending. A week ago, many campaigns said they were ready to do that, but now they seem to be waiting, knowing that the race is so tight perhaps they will need that money after Iowa, after New Hampshire into the latest contests. So they're waiting for others to spend first before they invest millions and millions of dollars.

Wolf.

BLITZER: John King, good analysis. Thanks very much.

Is the GOP race still wide open? Will it start getting even nastier?

Joining us now our CNN contributor, Bill Bennett. He's also with the Claremont Institute. He has a two volume set that's out now, "America, The Last Best Hope." Congratulations on that, an important two-volume set of history.

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: History books, Christmas present.

BLITZER: All right. Well, we're watching history unfold right now.

BENNETT: Yes, sir. We sure are.

BLITZER: You just heard that analysis. Huckabee only has $600,000 even those he's very popular with a lot of Christian conservatives especially. How does he break out?

BENNETT: I don't know that he does, Wolf, to tell you the truth. He blew the roof off at the value's voter summit.

BLITZER: He came out on top that among those who actually attended.

BENNETT: Yes and I think that's the poll that matters because you can register for a dollar and vote and you could have done so over the last six months. So I think that outside voting is a little suspect. But he won clearly way ahead with this audience. But $600,000 isn't going to get him that far after Iowa, not even that far in Iowa. So he's got to increase the fund-raising.

I think it's still a four-person race.

BLITZER: On the Republican side.

BENNETT: On the Republican side, absolutely. But it is starting to heat up. We had I think our best debate last night. It was very heated. What was interesting to me is the way Thompson opened up. He showed energy. By the way, I think people were pleased with that in his campaign going after Giuliani. Now, the name of the game seems to be going after Giuliani.

BLITZER: And Giuliani went after him, too.

BENNETT: That's right. I noticed watching CNN all day some of the democrats are going after Giuliani, too, the way the republicans have gone after Hillary. So they be presuming that's the front.

BLITZER: Giuliani had a tough time addressing the so-called values voters, the conference Christian conservatives and the conservative right over the weekend here in Washington.

Here's a little excerpt of what he had to say.

Actually, we don't have that, but he said this to them. You have absolutely nothing to fear from me. They didn't necessarily buy that.

BENNETT: Well, that was the beginning of the speech. I was in the front row because I had spoke just before Giuliani. And that was the beginning of the speech and it was a here I am, and here you are. As he warmed up, it seems to me, he won the audience over more. When he started to talk about his fight against pornography, you know clearing the pornographers out of Times Square, when he started talking about the Internet and all the smut on the Internet, the audience warmed to him. I think you're going to see more of this from him.

BLITZER: How serious is this threat though?

BENNETT: Where he expands the notion of values and says, look, I don't agree with you on abortion. I think he could say that he'd support the platform because that's not his to decide. But on a whole host of other values issues, he could say he'd be their champion.

BLITZER: The problem he has is that if he does get the republican nomination, there are so many of these Christian conservatives, they are already threatening a third party, republican oriented challenge him which would drain a lot of votes.

BENNETT: I just don't think it will happen. Or if it happens, I don't think it will be that substantial. Yes, some people will stay home. But all I can tell you when I do the radio show and we get somebody really strongly criticizing Giuliani, a lot of people come to his defense.

Sam Brownback would not have dropped out of the race for president if we hadn't had 9/11. The issues have changed. People are looking differently.

Remember, conservatives talking about values, the vicar of conservatism. Ronald Reagan. When he used the word evil, it was about the Soviet Union. So there's a way for Rudy Giuliani to take the values issue.

BLITZER: Some of these Christian conservatives could actually support him and vote for him and get in there, get in a fight on his behalf, even though on a moral issue like abortion rights for women, he takes a different stance.

BENNETT: Exactly right. But I think he needs to step forward as he has and talk about the judges, which he has done. Say that he will not repeal the Hyde amendment, you know, prohibiting federal funding and then I think he needs to address the issue of the platform. If I can't change the platform, I will be its champion but then talk about the other values.

BLITZER: But at this point, you have to be sort of worried if you're a good republican, a good conservative, because you take a look at those hypothetical match ups between Hillary Clinton on the democratic side whether Romney or Giuliani or McCain or any of the republican frontrunners, Fred Thompson, she wins virtually in every poll in a hypothetical race.

BENNETT: Given the fund-raising advantages of the democrats, given the number of surprises and things that have gone wrong over the last few years, I am not surprised by a democratic advantage. But the other argument, you know and the big argument, sure, sure, I'm right. The other argument for republicans is Hillary Clinton. And you heard that being made last night. And you'll hear a lot of it again. Giuliani, again, seems to put in play states that have never been in play before. Haven't been in play before.

BLITZER: Precisely because of his moderate stance on some of those ...

BENNETT: That's right. So it's a tricky thing. Can he get through this? But very strong performances last night, too, by Fred Thompson. And John McCain had the line of the century. I was tied up at the time.

BLITZER: When he was a P.O.W. in Vietnam.

All right. Bill Bennett, thanks very much.

BENNETT: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Can Disney help improve America's image around the world? We're going to show you what the company is now doing to improve perceptions of the United States.

Plus, airline pilots telling NASA there are far more near collisions than anyone realizes. So why are they just finding out now and why are they keeping the findings secret from all of us?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Can the people who brought you Mickey Mouse brought about a change in the way the world looks at the United States.

Carol Costello is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Carol, what is this all about?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't know if you realize this Wolf, but back in 2003 when America invaded Iraq, people coming into America visiting from overseas fell by 10 million people. This is an effort to get them to come back by saying we're nice, really.

It is our government's latest effort to repair America's image overseas, a seven-minute film produced and paid for by Disney.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Welcome.

COSTELLO: The film will play in embassies and at American airports as international visitors wait in line at customs.

That Disney is collaborating with the U.S. government is not unprecedented. During World War II it did its part. This time Disney doesn't vilify the other side, it welcomes it. The effort was spear headed by Karen Hughes, the undersecretary of public diplomacy at the state department, someone not exactly universally admired for her past efforts. In 2005, she went on an image-building world tour and was met with distrust in countries like Turkey or anger at the Iraq war trumped every friendly overture.

HELLE DALE, DIR., ALLISON CTR., FOREIGN POLICY: It is a really big job. I think she's done some good, but we need to do a lot more.

COSTELLO: A big job says Dale. In many countries anti-American sentiment because of the war is at an all-time high.

And not just in the Middle East. According to a Pew research poll earlier this year, only 37 percent of Germans have a favorable view of America. 39 percent of the French do and in Spain, only 23 percent have a favorable view of America. And that's one reason international tourism to the United States is still lower than it was before 9/11.

DALE: We need to do more in terms of explaining what we're doing and we need to show a welcoming face to the world, not a defensive one, which, unfortunately, we have tended to do in recent years.

COSTELLO: The answer for Hughes, turn to the private sector to businesses like Disney who know how to have a product, in this case America. Hughes told us, "This video conveys a clear message of welcome and quietly communicates our greatest strength, the great spirit and diversity of our people." Whether it trumps images of a war most of the world opposes, even Hughes' office admits it's a long step in a long-term strategy.

But you know, critics say dislike of Americans is not because of our image and because it's been tainted, but because people overseas don't like the president's policies and until those policies change, there will be no great love for the USA.

BLITZER: Carol, there's a long history of entertainment companies helping the U.S. government do these kinds of things.

COSTELLO: Yes, I showed you a little bit about that in the piece, but absolutely, Wolf. During World War II a lot of cartoons were used to promote the war effort. It wasn't just Disney either. Take a look at Warner Brothers' cartoons from 1944. This is starring Daffy Duck. Take a look.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's no military secret.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, everybody knows that.

COSTELLO: Oh, how times have changed. Now, Disney is producing films showing how nice Americans are and how welcoming they are.

BLITZER: We are nice.

COSTELLO: We are nice, absolutely.

BLITZER: It's an easy assignment.

Thanks very much, Carol Costello.

There's some disturbing new information today about safety in the skies. From time to time we hear reports of near collisions but the number of incidents may be higher than federal authorities have led on.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching this story for us.

Brian, how bad is the problem and is the government keeping it all secret from us?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, not clear whether government officials are downplaying this information, maybe hiding some of it or simply not communicating with each other. A new NASA survey that we're just finding out about shows that air safety may be much worse than we thought, but NASA itself is still analyzing it.

Now according to the Associated Press, NASA interviewed 24,000 pilots and asked about safety issues, how often they had engine problems, collisions with birds, near collisions with other aircraft, they found the problems are in some cases double what the government has been reporting.

Pilots tell America's chief space agency there have been far more near-collisions in the air and runway incursions than the government ever recognized.

In an exclusive interview CNN asked the head of NASA about his agency's survey of thousands of commercial and general aviation pilots first reported by the Associated Press. Michael Griffin told us he had just heard about the survey.

MICHAEL GRIFFIN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: This is raw data. It hasn't been peer reviewed. It hasn't been crosschecked. You know, I don't know how good the data is.

TODD: AP says NASA's survey was shut down more than a year ago, but that the public didn't hear about it. In a letter to the AP, NASA said it could scare passengers and be bad for airline business, but NASA's administrator now says ...

GRIFFIN: My position is that from a public policy point of view, if it is legal ((inaudible)) data, we will.

TODD: NASA's survey seems to cast doubt on reporting of near misses by the Federal Aviation Administration among other agencies. FAA officials tell CNN, aside from briefings years ago, they weren't looped in on NASA's interviews with pilots.

BOBBY STURGELL, ACTING FAA ADMINISTRATOR: I don't want to comment on their numbers since I have no idea what's in the survey, what's in the data, how it was collected, the methodology used or anything along those lines. TODD: Former NTSB investigator, Bob Francis, says runway incursions are a problem, but he says this of pilots' reports of near collisions in midair.

BOB FRANCIS, FORMER NTSB VICE CHAIRMAN: A general aviation pilot with 200 hours may think that anything that comes anywhere near them is a near miss whereas a commercial airline pilot wouldn't pay any attention to it.

TODD: Now again another key item in that survey, according to AP, more pilots than expected revealed so called in-close approaches. Those are last-minute instructions to change their landing plans. Those things can be dangerous, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Very dangerous, in fact. Thanks very much, Brian Todd watching this story.

Let's check in with Lou Dobbs to see what is coming up at the top of the hour.

Lou.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thanks.

Tonight, we have the very latest on the fire storms sweeping across southern California. Those massive fires partly a result of the worst-ever drought in the region and it's a drought that is now gripping the nation. We'll have complete coverage.

Also, a stay-down company from communist China buying a stake in one of this country's leading financial institutions; the deal another illustration of what is going on with this administration and its failed faith-based trade policies.

And a new political showdown over the New York governor's outrageous proposal to give away drivers' licenses to illegal aliens. I'll be joined here tonight by two leading state senators, a republican and democrat, who strongly oppose the governor's proposal.

The "New York Times" at it again. Just when I thought the "Times" and I were getting along so well, challenge me and my stand against illegal immigration. They call me a nativist. I'll have a few thoughts about what we should call the "New York Times" and all of its friends in the pro-amnesty open borders lobby.

Please join us for all of that, all the day's news at the top of the hour.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Lou, we'll see you in a few moments. Thank you.

Up ahead, a Navy S.E.A.L. earns the highest award for valor and combat. We're going to have details of the heroic actions that cost him his life. And Jack Cafferty wants to know, what does it mean for the democratic led Congress when the "New York Times" questions its ability to stand up to President Bush. Jack, standing by with the Cafferty File.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Bush today presented the nation's highest combat award, the Medal of Honor, to the family of a navy S.E.A.L., Lieutenant Michael Murray two years after he was killed in a firefight in Afghanistan. The president told the Murray family the medal is acknowledgment for a debt that can never be repaid.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. She's got the story behind this metal. And it is an amazing story, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is, indeed, Wolf. Three Navy S.E.A.L.s killed in that firefight as well as 16 commandos who had been sent in to rescue them. Their helicopter was shot down. Lieutenant Michael Murray sacrificed his life so that others may live.

June 2005, in the 10,000 foot mountain peaks of Afghanistan's Hindu Kush, Lieutenant Michael Murray led his four-man Navy S.E.A.L. team on a mission they knew could turn deadly.

DAN MURPHY, MICHAEL MURPHY'S FATHER: He was incredible person. Honest, kind, caring, probably the antithesis of what you would consider a warrior.

MAUREEN MURPHY, MICHAEL MURPHY'S MOTHER: He was like very protective of other people and he always stuck up for the underdog.

STARR: Dan and Maureen Murray and Michael's brother, John, now more than two years later receiving Michael's Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor and combat. 29-year-old Michael and two teammates would be killed.

MARCUS LUTTRELL, PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS, U.S. NAVY: He was my best friend. You know he was a good man. I mean everybody loved him.

Petty officer Marcus Luttrell was the only man on the team to make it out. The S.E.A.L.s were searching for a wanted terrorist, but they were spotted. A massive firefight broke out. It was four S.E.A.L.s against more than 40 insurgents. Michael kept the men together.

LUTTRELL: He was in a horrible position. He left himself open so he could move back and forth to each individual guy. We were hurting bad. We were out of ammo.

STARR: All four men were shot. Then Michael walked into the open to try to radio for help exposing himself to enemy fire.

LUTTRELL: When I looked back up at Mikey and he took two rounds to the back and sat back up, hung up the phone and finished the transmission, hung up the phone and then he flanked left again and that was the last time I saw him.

STARR: Dan and Maureen say they always supported their son's decision to join the military, but Dan had his worries. As a young man serving in Vietnam in 1970, he was seriously wounded in a mountain firefight, Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story. All right. Barbara, thanks very much for sharing it with us. He is a real hero for the country.

Still ahead, what does it mean for the democratic-led Congress when the "New York Times" questions its ability to stand up to president Bush? Jack Cafferty and your e-mail when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's got the Cafferty File.

Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The question this hour is what does it mean for the democratic-led Congress when the "New York Times" questions in an editorial its ability to stand up to President Bush?

Gene in North Carolina writes, "This week I wrote my representative in the house to recall Nancy Pelosi and replace her with John Murtha from Pennsylvania. This woman has done not one thing promised since taking over. First big mistake, taking impeachment off the table and it's gone downhill ever since. I want to know who gave her mission to take anything off the table. Do these people not work for us? After being a life-long democrat I just can not see myself voting for a democrat for the house or senate again."

John in Poughkeepsie, New York, "The New York Times is correct on the failed Democratic leadership in Congress. Democrats are not showing courage and strength in fighting the Bush administration. They're not responding to the American people's need to end this war."

Lee in Florida writes, "I think it's time for Ms. Pelosi to stop grinning and rolling her eyes and hand the gavel to someone with the courage to speak truth to power. Someone like Pete Stark who actually said what most, if not all, democrats believe and then had the courage to stand by what he said."

Dan in Des Moines, "The democrats have attempted to legitimize their empty headed, anti-American ideas and were rebuffed. We should all be rejoicing that these left-leaning cooks cannot get their agenda in place. When the "New York Times" is unhappy, America wins."

Kathy in Missouri writes, "It seems to me the democrats in Congress are just scared. No one wants to buck presidential policy or actions. Those of us who are democrats have pretty much decided to make some changes next year." And D.W. writes from Cedar Creek, Texas, "Get real, Jack, you talk like there is a two-party system in America. There isn't a dime's worth of difference between republicans and democrats. America is run by big business. The two-party system died a long time ago."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, it's probably because it wasn't very interesting. You have to say that once in a while. You can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. We post more of them online, some of the less interesting ones, along with video clips of the Cafferty File. I don't know why I did that.

BLITZER: Because you're Jack Cafferty. Jack, stand by. We'll see you in an hour.

Let's check out some of the Hot Shots coming in this hour, pictures often worth a thousand words.

In Washington, Capitol Hill police look on as demonstrators, one dressed as President Bush, protest the Iraq war and climate change.

In California, a super scooper picks up water from a lake. Approximately 100,000 acres have been burned.

In Hungary, riot police fire off a round of tear gas towards protesters. Demonstrators set fire to several cars and threw cocktails at police.

And check this out in Indonesia. Students wear masks to protect themselves against volcanic actions.

Some of this hour's Hot Shots.

This programming note, mark your calendar, starting November 5th, just one year from Election Day 2008, THE SITUATION ROOM will be on for three hours back-to-back from 4:00 p.m. eastern to 7:00 p.m. eastern. Lou will be on at 7:00 p.m. eastern.

Let's go to Lou, in fact, right now.

Lou.

DOBBS: Thank you, Wolf.

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