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Hillary Clinton Stalls; Fred Thompson's Troubles; John Bolton Interview

Aired November 12, 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, the presidential race shifts into overdrive as Hillary Clinton apparently is stalling somewhat. There's new evidence that both the Democratic and Republican contests are clearly heating up.
We're tracking some brand-new poll numbers. And the potshots, we're tracking that as well aboard the CNN Election Express.

Plus, America's military veterans are caught in the middle of political warfare right now. On this holiday, are the men and women who served any closer to getting more help from Washington?

And he's a Bush loyalist who now warns the White House is simply too soft on Iran. I'll ask the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, if any of the presidential candidates would do any better, or would they be any tougher?

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

Fasten your seat belts. The closer we get to 2008, the more bumps and swerves we're seeing on the road to the White House. And there's plenty of mud flying already along the way.

What better way to follow the action than aboard the CNN Election Express, bringing campaign coverage directly to your background (ph).

Let's turn to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's aboard the bus out in Las Vegas right now.

All right. So what are the hot bets in Vegas saying right now, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what we're seeing is two races, both getting hot for very different reasons, and it's not such a good time to double down.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice over): Hillary Clinton's momentum has stalled. That's the message of the latest national polls of Democrats.

Clinton's lead over second-place Democrat Barack Obama had been increasing steadily since spring, but four polls taken in late October and early November show no significant change. Four others show Clinton's lead narrowing.

In the CNN poll by the Opinion Research Corporation, Clinton had a 30-point lead in October. Now her lead is down to 19 points.

Two polls just out in New Hampshire also show Clinton's lead narrowing from 23 to 14 points in the University of New Hampshire poll, from 22 to 12 in the Maris poll. The race has always been much closer in Iowa. Most polls in the leadoff caucus state show Clinton's lead in single digits, just three points in the latest Zogby poll.

Democrats sense she could be vulnerable. That's why the Democratic race is heating up.

Obama is taking aim at Clinton's honesty, a familiar charge that's been leveled at both Clintons.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You don't answer directly tough questions, you don't present tough choices directly to the American people for fear that your answers might not be popular.

SCHNEIDER: Her countercharge? Obama lacks fight.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What do we do?

SCHNEIDER: He's not tough enough to turn up the heat on the Republicans.

CLINTON: Let's make sure that we turn up the heat and turn America around.

SCHNEIDER: In the Republican race, national polls show Rudy Giuliani with a steady lead over his rivals, but in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is still the solid frontrunner. Two polls this month in New Hampshire by Maris and the University of New Hampshire both show Romney's lead increasing in the Granite State. The most recent poll shows Romney slightly ahead in South Carolina, the big showdown for the party's conservative base.

If Romney runs the table and wins Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan, where he has family roots, Giuliani's national lead could go up in smoke. The same thing could happen to Clinton if the cards turn up against her in Iowa and New Hampshire.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Now, what about Nevada, another early voting state where we are right now waiting for the debate? Things are in flux here. Some advice from Vegas -- don't bet the farm -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Good advice.

What about Nevada? All of a sudden for the Democrats, especially, it's become really important. Explain to our viewers why.

SCHNEIDER: Well, Hillary Clinton has been ahead here in the polls, but Nevada has a lot of labor voters and Latino voters, and among their Democrats, and that's where Bill Richardson and John Edwards have a lot of strength. So they could show strongly here in the Democratic caucuses. On the Republican side, the polls show Giuliani has a narrow lead here in Nevada, but Nevada has a lot of Mormon voters who could show up in large numbers to vote for one of their own, the Mormon candidate, Mitt Romney -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And that Democratic caucus in mid-January shortly after Iowa and New Hampshire. And that's the schedule now.

Bill is already in Las Vegas for us.

Be sure to join me and the best political team on television Thursday in Vegas for the Democratic national -- the Democratic presidential debate. That begins at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 5:00 Pacific, only here on CNN.

And we've added, by the way, another debate to our schedule. The Congressional Black Caucus Democratic presidential debate will be held on January 21, 2008. That's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. We're going to be carrying that debate live from Myrtle Beach South Carolina.

Republican Fred Thompson is about to get a badly-needed boost as he tries to play up his conservative credentials. Three GOP sources now telling CNN the former senator will get the endorsement tomorrow of a leading anti-abortion group, the National Right to Life Committee. This comes as the new Maris poll of New Hampshire Republicans shows Thompson now slipping into sixth place, behind not only Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, but also trailing Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee.

Let's go to our chief national correspondent, John King. He's watching all of this for us.

So, is there still hope for Senator Thompson?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, his campaign, Wolf, would certainly say so, but they are without a doubt struggling, and struggling deeply right now.

From the beginning, New Hampshire was not a part of their critical strategy. They thought about perhaps trying it a little bit to see if they could move the numbers. They have all but given up on the state of New Hampshire. You might see Fred Thompson there once or twice, but do not expect him to dedicate any time and, more importantly, dedicate any significant resources in terms of television.

Their whole strategy from the beginning, Wolf, was win first in South Carolina, try to do OK in Iowa and New Hampshire. But now they're worried even about that.

They're in a three-way tie right now with Romney and Giuliani in South Carolina. And the question is, how would they have any momentum coming in?

So, in their first advertising buy of the campaign -- it's about $500,000 in all -- most of it is an national ad buy on cable. But they did invest about $148,000, $150,000 in Iowa, trying to move the numbers. They're trying to see if they can move the numbers in Iowa, and if so, they would dedicate some more time and resources to that state, trying to at least if not win Iowa, get up into second place or so, so that they're not shut out in the early contest.

But they are struggling right now. And even their strategy of being the southern candidate to win in the first southern primary is in question.

BLITZER: I think it's fair to say, John, and correct me if I'm wrong, that what Governor Romney has done, spend a lot of money in those three early states, Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. A ton of money, a lot more than any of the other Republican presidential candidates. That is clearly -- that strategy is clearly paying off.

KING: It has reshaped the race, Wolf. Rudy Giuliani has the money to respond, Thompson does not have a lot of money. And right now Giuliani is your national frontrunner, but if you go state by state, Romney is ahead in Iowa, ahead in New Hampshire, ahead in Michigan, by most accounts, and then it's high in South Carolina. So if you look at the key early states, just as safe and easy to say Romney is the frontrunner.

BLITZER: John, thanks very much.

John King and Bill Schneider, as all of our viewers know, they are both part of the Emmy Award-winning 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.

Jack Cafferty is part of that best political team as well.

Welcome back.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Why, thank you. Did you miss me?

BLITZER: We did on Friday.

CAFFERTY: No you didn't.

BLITZER: One day you're gone. The e-mail -- you know, people say, "Where's Jack? Where's Jack?"

CAFFERTY: Well, I have to rest. I'm working much harder these days, so I need a little time off.

BLITZER: Jack, you can't take any more days off.

CAFFERTY: Fred Thompson is in sixth place now behind Ron Paul?

BLITZER: Yes in New Hampshire.

CAFFERTY: Well, I mean, in New Hampshire, yes, they're going to vote first. He made it pretty clear he wasn't interested in the people of New Hampshire or Iowa. Apparently they're not too interested in him, either.

Mark Fred down to be an early exit from all of this.

Dynasty or democracy? That's what some people are asking about U.S. politics these days.

When taking into account the possibility of a second Clinton presidency, along with the two Bush presidencies, consider this: 40 percent of Americans have never lived when there wasn't a Bush or Clinton in the White House. It goes all the way back to 1980, when President Bush's dad was vice President under Ronald Reagan. That's a long time.

The British newspaper "The Sunday Times" reports that conservative activist Grover Norquist wants to make it so it never happens again. He's commissioned lawyers to draw up a constitutional amendment that would ban family members from succeeding one another to elected and appointed office.

Norquist thinks it's unhealthy to have so much power concentrated within a family. Sort of line inbreeding, you know?

It will be -- this is a quote -- "It will be ridiculous to have Mr. President and Madam President in the White House. We're the United States of America. How can we say to President Mubarak in Egypt, you can't hand off the presidency to your son, it's got to be to our wife? Or, hey, Syria, North Korea, you've got to knock off this stuff and be more like us?"

So the question this hour is this: Should the Constitution be amended to ban family members from succeeding one another as president?

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

BLITZER: Because you know if Hillary Clinton is elected, there's already speculation after Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, he could be elected. We could go back and forth, back and forth for a long time.

CAFFERTY: That's awful. I mean, that's just a nightmare. I really hope that doesn't happen.

I mean, I don't care if Hillary is elected. She's elected. But at some point -- we've got 300 million people in this country. We've got to give somebody outside the political establishment a chance to run things. These people aren't doing a great job, any of them.

BLITZER: Jack is going to be back with "The Cafferty File". Also, in our 6:00 p.m. Eastern hour, Jack will be with us for our roundtable. That's becoming quickly a very popular feature.

It's hard to overstate the pummeling Hillary Clinton is getting these days. Did her campaign make matter worse by staging an audience question in Iowa? That's supposedly a no-no. We're digging into the charge and Clinton's explanation.

Plus, the threat of war with Iran. Are any of the presidential candidates likely to get tough with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

I'll ask Bush administration insider-turned-critic, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton.

And on this day honoring America's veterans, are Republicans and Democrats using them as ammunition against one another?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

Iran's nuclear threat is a hot topic for sparring in the presidential race, along with fears of giving President Bush a so- called blank check for a new U.S. war. When it comes to Iran, at least one long-time Bush administration insider is now calling for more sticks and fewer carrots.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. He's the author of the new book "Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad."

Mr. Ambassador, thanks for coming in.

JOHN BOLTON, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Glad to be here.

BLITZER: What's at stake from your perspective in the 2008 presidential race between any of the Democratic candidates versus any of the Republican presidential candidates?

BOLTON: Well, I think 2008 is a very consequential election for America on national security issues, because the challenges the next president face will require decisions that will have an impact far beyond the four years of his or her term. So...

BLITZER: Well, I just want to point out, you're obviously a partisan Republican.

BOLTON: You guessed. Yes.

BLITZER: You went down to Florida to work on the legal team helping the Bush campaign at that time eventually beat Al Gore in that disputed Florida recount.

But as you look at the Democratic candidates, what do you see? I mean, do you see -- well, let me ask you, what do you see?

BOLTON: Well, I see a number of problems. First, I don't think there's an adequate understanding that the threat we face from terrorism is really a war and has to be treated under a wartime paradigm. This is not a legal matter, this is not something that's going to be solved by a few more FBI agents or more vigorous litigation strategy. And the failure to grasp that central threat I think is very, very troubling.

BLITZER: But do you see a difference between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, for example, on the situation in Iran, as far as Iran is concerned?

BOLTON: I don't, and I find that very troubling, because I think the issue of the proliferation, especially of nuclear weapons in the next few years, is probably the single most immediate threat we face. And I fear that not only the Bush administration, but many of the Democratic candidates, are following the same failed policy.

BLITZER: Here's what Chuck Hagel, a Republican senator from Nebraska, said the other day. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: Now is the time for the United States to actively pursue an offer of direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with Iran. We cannot afford to refuse to consider this strategic choice any longer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, he sounds like a lot of the Democratic presidential candidates who say, let's take. The Bush administration's position is the U.S. will talk, but only after the Iranians suspend their enrichment -0 their nuclear enrichment program.

BOLTON: Well, I think there's nothing to be gained by negotiations with Iran over their nuclear weapons program. They are not going to be chitchatted out of a strategic decision they've been following for 20 years to achieve that capability.

BLITZER: But why not? Libya agreed to give up its nuclear ambitions. North Korea supposedly is doing that as a result of pressure and negotiations. Why not the Iranians?

BOLTON: Let's take it one at a time.

Libya agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program because Moammar Gadhafi believed mistakenly that our having overthrown Saddam Hussein meant he was probably next. That was a real strategic victory as a consequence of overthrowing Saddam.

North Korea has yet again for probably the fourth or fifth time in the last 15 years promised to give up their nuclear weapons. They promise a lot. They never actually do it.

BLITZER: And the Iranians, you don't think they can be talked out of this?

BOLTON: No. I think the Europeans over the last four-plus years have offered the Iranians almost every carrot conceivable to get them to renounce their uranium enrichment program, and the consistent and clear message from Iran has been no way.

BLITZER: Well, so what's the alternative?

BOLTON: Well, our alternatives are very few. I wish we had been able to get into the Security Council three or more years ago to try then to get tough sanctions. I think we've played out the Security Council route. I think we've played out the sanctions...

BLITZER: I mean, basically what I hear you saying is either the U.S. has got to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon, or there's going to have to be a war to stop it.

BOLTON: No, I don't think those are the choices, but I think our options are limited. I think there are basically two. One is regime change in Tehran, which I think we can get to by support for the Domestic opposition to the mullahs, or, as the last resort, the use of targeted military force against the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

BLITZER: Well, targeted military force, that would be air strikes, cruise missile attacks, maybe some ground operations, special operations. Isn't that war?

BOLTON: I think it's a very different kind of operation than we've seen in Iraq. I think there's a lot of confusion in people's minds about what would be involved.

But let me stress, I think this is an undesirable alternative, and I think it's the last alternative. I wish we had been working more in the last four years on regime change, because if we had, we might be a lot closer to that today.

BLITZER: Do you think the president -- this president will use that military option before he leaves office?

BOLTON: I don't know. When I was in the U.N., I used to say the president said Iran with nuclear weapons was unacceptable. The president was a man of his word, and when he said it was unacceptable, I thought that meant unacceptable. If unacceptable really means that, then I think military force should be on the table.

BLITZER: And you're not concerned that the reaction from the Iranians would be disaster?

BOLTON: I don't think it would be disaster. I'm obviously concerned about the reaction, but life is about choices. And the choice is not between the world as it is today and the use of force. The choice is between Iran with nuclear weapons and the use of force. And given that circumstance, I think you have to look at force.

BLITZER: Ambassador John Bolton is the author of "Surrender is Not an Option."

Thanks Mr. Ambassador for coming in.

BOLTON: Glad to be here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Is the United States doing enough for America's veterans? It's enough to make Colin Powell almost tear up.

I'll ask the former defense secretary, William Cohen, who's dropping the ball.

Plus, Senator John McCain's bold prediction. Paul Begala and J.C. Watts, they're standing by to take a cold, hard look at McCain's chances in New Hampshire. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: They risk their lives in service for to country. Now the country honors its veterans on this day. But on Veterans Day there's now a fight brewing over how to help them.

And it's getting ugly out there, to quote Jack Cafferty. The harsh attacks on the presidential campaign trail. You're going to find out why one Democrat blasted another for being like President Bush, and why another said it's time for Democrats to get some backbone.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto now under house arrest. Police officers surround the former prime minister's home, which officials call a sub jail. This comes one day after a major protest march.

We'll go there.

Brutal storms are sinking ships off Russia. In one tragedy, an oil tanker split in half, killing five and leaving up to 20 others missing. Crews are now racing to save them and thousands of affected birds and fish, they're in jeopardy right now.

And a king's royal request to a president. Simply put, and I'm quoting now, "Shut up." That's what the king of Spain told the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, but will the outspoken Chavez honor this request?

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

They've served, fought and shed their blood for all of us in this country, and today is their day. Right now many people are honoring millions of veterans on this Veterans Day. But even amid all the flags, all the flowers, the prayer and the praise for them, there's a fight over money to help them.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's watching all of this unfold.

It involves, of course, Democrats with one position in Congress, the White House with another.

What's going on, Ed?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. A lot of people talking about helping veterans, but the actual money to help fund veterans' programs being held up right now because of a political food fight.

Of course you've got leaders in both parties -- from President Bush in Texas yesterday at an American Legion post honoring veterans in Texas, and Vice President Cheney at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. You've got Speaker Nancy Pelosi today at a veterans medical center in California. But there's a lot of political maneuvering going on right now as well.

Democrats basically tried to take the labor health spending bill, which the president has vowed to veto. Democrats tried to pair that up with veterans spending, thinking it would be harder for the president to veto such popular spending for veterans' programs.

Republicans blocked that, however. So the Democrats failed to get the veterans funding bill to the president's desk in time for Veterans Day.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino teed off on the Democrats for that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESWOMAN: I'm not going to question their patriotism or their faith, but I do think that anyone who looks at how this process has been managed over the past year can only come to the conclusion that they don't know what they're doing, or they know all too well what they're doing and they're playing political games with our nation's veterans funding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now, Democrats note, in their defense, that they did send the president two other bills, the defense bill and the labor-health bill. Both of those have about $27 billion in veterans funding. They're waiting to see whether the president will sign them or veto them. He's very likely of course to sign the defense bill and get some of that money through.

But the bottom line is that Democrats have not gotten the main veterans funding bill to the president's desk, so that money is being held up -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry at the White House, thanks.

The origin of Veterans Day, by the way, goes back to World War I. It ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 1918. That day was called Armistice Day. In 1954, it became Veterans Day after President Eisenhower signed a bill to honor all those who served in the -- served the U.S. in combat.

And, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are now more than 17 million veterans living in the United States.

The former Secretary of State Colin Powell paid tribute to America's veterans over at the Vietnam War Memorial. The retired general and Vietnam veteran got emotional in honoring his comrades' service and sacrifice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: ... this wall of healing, listen and be heard. Life goes on. New generations come forward, but we will never forget those generations that went before. So, on this day, assembled here in this beautiful place, we say thanks again to these 58,256 Vietnam War heroes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Colin Powell himself a Vietnam War veteran.

We're joined now by the former Defense Secretary William Cohen. He now heads the global business consulting firm the global -- The Cohen Group here in Washington.

What do you make, Mr. Secretary, about this fight? It sort of seems unseemly, on this Veterans Day, a political battle over the veterans bill between the Congress and the White House.

WILLIAM COHEN, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: It's one of those issues in which I think the American people look at Congress and hold them with a minimum of high regard, as we used to say. Congress' ratings are down by virtue of this very type of politicking on both sides.

And what you need to do is look at the veterans, look what they have sacrificed. Look what we need to do for them. I mean, the most recent statistics coming out that one out of every four of the homeless are veterans? We aren't offering more...

BLITZER: How is that possible in this great country of ours?

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: That, if you go out on the street and you see homeless people -- and there are hundreds of thousands of them all over -- and you think one out of four of them is a veteran who served in the U.S. military, how -- how is that simply possible? Because that's a national outrage.

COHEN: It's unacceptable. It's pathetic that we make these representations to the people that come into our military, offer life and limb on behalf of this country, and then forget about them once they leave the service or drop out. These individuals need help. We're seeing more and more have post-traumatic stress syndrome. We're finding that people don't have jobs, and so they can't get a home. They don't have a home, so they can't get a job. They're caught in the middle of this catch-22. This is simply unacceptable.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Because I know you and your wife, Janet, that you do a lot of work with veterans. I know she spends a lot of time at the military hospitals.

But -- but who's to blame for this?

COHEN: Well...

BLITZER: Because, you know, we have been hearing about this for a long time, but every time we raise it, you know, it's still shocking.

COHEN: We're all to blame. To the extent that no action is taken, we're all to blame.

What needs to happen is a sense of outrage. If we're going to continue to have an all-volunteer force, to make representations to our men and women coming into the service that we are going to care for them when they leave, we have issues that we have failed to address. We have traumatic brain injuries. We have post-traumatic stress syndrome.

We have all of these issues that we have failed to address in a meaningful way. And, so, we have to express a sense of outrage.

BLITZER: The only thing I can imagine is that it's not necessarily all that much a priority, that there are so many other issues that are really immediately on the agenda, and the veterans, you know what? They will take care of themselves.

COHEN: Well, we say that in, time of war, the soldier men adore, and, then, when it's over, we forget them? No, we can't afford to do that.

We're in a long-term struggle. We need to beef up our military. We need more people coming in. We're not going to have more people coming in if we're not taking care of those coming out. It's that simple.

So, a sense of outrage and a sense of pressure on Congress to resolve these differences, get something to the White House, make sure we increase that budget to care of our veterans, we owe that to them.

BLITZER: Let's hope, especially on this Veterans Day, that happens.

So, Mr. Secretary, thanks.

COHEN: Pleasure to be here.

BLITZER: Let's move on now.

Her critics say she wants to be president, but is trying to dodge some tough questions, Hillary Clinton -- this after we learned her campaign actually planted some people in audiences to lob softball questions. What's going on?

And a major anti-abortion group is set to endorse Fred Thompson. Will that help more conservatives gather around him? Will the right be able coalesce around any of the candidates?

And look at this. Is it a bird? Is it a plane, or is it a UFO? If you have ever thought you saw an unidentified object, guess what? You're not alone. There's a whole conference under way, a conference of people here in Washington. They're talking about what they say they saw.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Look for some fur to fly in Las Vegas this week, when the Democratic presidential candidates face off in our debate.

The Democratic race is getting somewhat uglier by the day, as Hillary Clinton's rivals are trying to drag her down. This race is getting closer also.

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

We got a little bit of the infighting, a little -- a little of the bitterness over the weekend out in Iowa. What happened?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are less than two months from the Iowa caucuses. And, this weekend, at one of the most important political events in that state, the leading Democratic candidates had Hillary Clinton in their sights.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): It's a make-or-break evening that can turn a lagging candidate into the front-runner. Nine thousand Iowa Democrats turned out in force for the annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner. What they got, a brawl, with the punches aimed squarely at front- runner Senator Hillary Clinton.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is time for us as a party to stand up with some backbone and some strength...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

EDWARDS: ... for what we actually believe in.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am running for president because I am sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking and acting and voting like George Bush Republicans.

YELLIN: Obama kept slugging. After weeks of promising to take the gloves off, he finally did.

OBAMA: I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda is the Washington are over. The same old Washington textbook campaigns just won't do in this election.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Not answering questions because we're afraid our answers won't be popular just won't do.

YELLIN: Senator Clinton hit back, branding her opponents inexperienced.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Change is just a word, if you don't have the strength and experience to make it happen.

YELLIN: With just seven weeks to go, the race in Iowa is up in the air.

STUART ROTHENBERG, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT": This is really the crucial time. While everything else has been prologue, and, frankly, hasn't mattered a lot, this is crunch time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now, Obama's campaign manager said that, for Obama, this may -- may have been the most important speech of the campaign -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. He was on fire that night, Saturday night, in Iowa. Thanks very much for that, Jessica.

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign has self-inflicted problems, with one being especially embarrassing. Some are even calling it plant- gate. Right now, her opponents say she's tried to duck some tough questions after it was revealed that her campaign planted some people in an audience to ask Clinton softball questions.

Mary Snow is in New York watching this story for us.

The Clinton campaign seems to be sort of red-faced on this issue? What happened?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, it's rare that a campaign admits to planting a question. But the Clinton camp is explaining two separate Iowa events.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CLINTON: I would love to take questions.

SNOW (voice-over): It was a campaign event in Iowa that largely went unnoticed, until a Grinnell College student told her student paper that a Clinton campaign staffer prompted her to ask Senator Clinton a question about global warming.

MURIEL GALLO-CHASANOFF, GRINNELL COLLEGE STUDENT: As a young person, I'm worried about the long-term effects of global warming. How did you plan to combat climate change?

CLINTON: Well, you should be worried. And I find, as I travel around Iowa, that it's usually young people who ask me about global warming.

SNOW: The Clinton campaign admits a staffer encouraged the question, but insists Senator Clinton wasn't aware of it.

The Democratic presidential hopeful told reporters -- quote -- "It was news to me, and neither, nor my campaign, approve of that, and it will certainly not be tolerated."

But a second incident at an Iowa event last spring is being disputed. Democrat Geoffrey Mitchell, a Barack Obama supporter, told us by phone that a Clinton staffer encouraged him to ask Senator Clinton a question about Iraq.

GEOFFREY MITCHELL, OBAMA SUPPORTER: He asked me if I would ask Senator Clinton about ways that she was going to confront the president on the war on Iraq, specifically war funding. And I told him that that was not a question that I felt comfortable asking.

SNOW: Turns out no questions were taken.

When asked about the event, a Clinton campaign spokesman says, a campaign staffer bumped into someone he marginally knew. They started talking, Iraq came up, and the staffer suggested he ask that question. But Mitchell says he had never met the Clinton staffer prior to that event.

One Iowa political science professor says he doesn't believe planted questions are a big deal in themselves, but says they provide ammunition to Senator Clinton's opponents.

STEFFEN SCHMIDT, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY: You know, this is just one more essentially distraction and one more piece of sort of a general raising of questions about her competence as a campaigner.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, Senator Clinton's rivals are pouncing, particularly Democrats. In New Hampshire today, when asked about it, Senator Barack Obama said planting questions is not a practice his campaign engages in. And Senator John Edwards said it was similar to George Bush events that are scripted -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thank you -- Mary Snow reporting for us on this story.

And, as all of our viewers know, Mary Snow and Jessica Yellin are both part of the Emmy Award-winning 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.

Upcoming in our "Strategy Session": John McCain's bold prediction. He says he will win New Hampshire, no ifs, ands or buts about it. But can the onetime front-runner pull it off?

And Fred Thompson's once high-flying campaign is getting an endorsement today from a key conservative group. Can the right coalesce around any of the Republican candidates?

Stay with us. Paul Begala and J.C. Watts, they're standing by for our "Strategy Session" -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: John McCain sounds like he knows something no one else does. The Republican presidential candidate, who has been trailing his rivals, says he's going to win in New Hampshire.

Let's discuss that and more in our "Strategy Session." Joining us, two CNN political analysts. Paul Begala is a Democratic strategist. J.C. Watts is a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

He said yesterday, McCain: "We're on the upswing. And I can tell you right now, I will win New Hampshire."

Does he -- is he right?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't know, honestly, but he's wrong from a message point of view, right?

Voters don't want to hear a politician make predictions. Voters want to hear about their own lives. He should say -- look, because all we ever them are strategy questions. And I think that's lamentable. But a good candidate takes a strategy question and gives a message answer.

In other words, "Are you going to win New Hampshire?" Then McCain says, "Well, if people will sign on to my message of X," then -- then it's a good answer. I hate when politicians talk strategy.

BLITZER: What do you think, J.C.?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what -- what would we be saying today if John McCain said, "Well, I don't think I'm going to win New Hampshire; I'm going to be defeated there"?

I like the fact that you don't script John McCain. I think he really feels like that. I have talked to the campaign over the last couple of weeks. They have gotten a new energy. Their money isn't matching their energy, but I think John McCain is probably the one candidate on the Republican side that can pull it off without having the money to match his energy.

BLITZER: Because here in the new Marist poll that just came out, among likely Republican voters on the Republican side, he went from 17 percent to 14 percent in the new number. And you see Mitt Romney improving, going up to 34 from 27, and Giuliani from 21 to 23.

McCain is in third, and he really needs to win New Hampshire.

BEGALA: He does. He won New Hampshire against George W. Bush two ways, first off by swamping Bush among independents. And they're the wild card. That's going to be interesting thing to watch.

Will McCain have that magic with independents the next time? Will Rudy? Or will it be -- in my party, will somebody like Barack Obama catch fire and get them? They will the wild card. But he also won by being the anti-Bush. And I think he's stalled out because he's got the Bush position on immigration, the Bush position on Iraq. He needs to go back to the old John McCain, which was anti-Bush. Even Republicans are sick of President Bush.

BLITZER: He's not going to do well in Iowa, John McCain. He himself and his campaign concede that.

WATTS: Well, I don't think he's going to do well in Iowa, but I do think he still has a shot in New Hampshire. I still think it's open. I think the campaign is really just now getting started, just now getting fired up.

And, again, they have got a new energy there. They think things have gone well for them over the last 45 days. What he said four months ago about the surge in Iraq, it's turning out to be true. Good things are happening there. So, you know, the McCain camp is feeling pretty good right now.

BLITZER: I want to put those numbers of that poll back up.

And look at Fred Thompson, because his campaign in New Hampshire is in trouble. It's gone from 10 percent down to 5 percent. He's behind Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee in New Hampshire.

BEGALA: Yes.

BLITZER: But he did get the endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee today, which is an anti-abortion group.

How significant?

BEGALA: Again, I don't know. He was a lobbyist for a pro- abortion-rights organization. Now...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He did some legal work when he was a member of a law firm, right. Right.

BEGALA: When he was a lobbyist, yes, for a pro-abortions-right group, which is fine. He has a right to earn a living.

But it's -- it's ironic, then, that the Right to Life Committee is endorsing someone who once worked for a pro-choice, pro-abortion- rights organization.

But he started out with great hopes and expectations, great name I.D., great talent. And He's polling behind Lenny and Squiggy from "Laverne & Shirley." I mean, he's through. He ought to just like go back to TV.

BLITZER: Is it over?

WATTS: Well, I -- no, I don't think it's over. I still think, Wolf, I think it's wide open. I think he probably faces a few more challenges than he would -- than he would like to be facing at this point in time.

But the National Right to Life, I don't think it matters that he's done legal work for some pro-abortion organization. What matters is where has he been on that issue when he was a senator. He's voted that way. He's been with the National Right to Life folks. So, that endorsement makes sense to me.

BLITZER: Mitt Romney is ahead in Iowa, decisively. He's ahead in New Hampshire decisively. And he's even ahead in South Carolina right now.

And there's some suggestion, still some suggestion, he should deliver a speech on his religion, Mormon. Is that -- if you were advising him -- and you're a great political strategist -- would you tell him, go ahead, do what John F. Kennedy did back in 1960, and deliver a major speech on his religion?

BEGALA: Well, I went back and watched Kennedy's speech. You can get it online. It's such a miracle, the computer age.

It was an 11-minute speech that JFK gave in Houston to the Ministerial Alliance, all Protestants. He didn't actually give a speech about his faith, though. It was really intriguing.

I'm a Catholic, and I was expecting him to walk Protestants through the -- what I think is the mystery and the magic of my faith. He didn't do that. He talked about his country and how he will be independent of his faith. He didn't try to explain to people who didn't share his faith what his faith was.

I think that Mitt should take that page from JFK's book. Don't go up and try to explain everybody the revelations that Joseph Smith received from an angel of the lord. Instead, talk about his country and how his faith informs his values, but will not dictate his positions.

BLITZER: Because some...

BEGALA: Kennedy's speech is...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Some of his advisers say, you know, it's probably a mistake to do that, at least now, because it will draw more attention to his Mormon religion, which is something they don't want to do right now.

WATTS: Well, I don't think it is a mistake. I think he should do it, because everybody else is defining who he is in his faith.

I would much rather define what I -- what I believe and how I feel, in terms of my faith or my denomination or my relationship with Christ, as opposed to let -- letting everybody else do it. And that's what he's doing by not speaking to that issue.

BLITZER: We have got to leave it there, guys.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Good discussion...

BEGALA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: ... J.C. and Paul, always, in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The man behind the -- Jack Bauer in the TV show "24" is now talking about Hillary Clinton. You're going to want to hear what he has to say about her chances of winning the White House.

And John McCain is caught between a rock and a hard place. He's having to respond to something his mother said. It's a sort of harsh swipe at Mitt Romney's religion.

And, in Russia, an oil tanker splits in half, killing five and leaving up to 20 others missing. That's amid brutal storms sinking ships. We will have the latest.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our Political Ticker this Monday, political intrigue from the executive producer of the TV action thriller "24."

Joel Surnow is quoted as saying it's nuts to think that Hillary Clinton can be elected president. Surnow bills himself as part of a relatively rare breed, a conservative in the entertainment industry out in Hollywood. "The Washington Times" quoting him as saying he and other Hollywood conservatives are leaning toward Rudy, Rudy Giuliani.

Democrats are banking on Congressman Tom Udall to help them win an open Senate seat in New Mexico next year. The Associated Press reporting that Udall will announce his candidacy when he's back in his home state over the Thanksgiving recess. Udall will vie for the Senate seat now held by six-term Republican Pete Domenici. That means all three of New Mexico's current members of Congress are running for Domenici's seat. Republicans Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce have said they're running for the GOP Senate nomination.

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

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, the question this hour is, should the Constitution be amended to ban family members from succeeding one another as president?

Peter writes from Porter Ranch, California, "Having the presidency handed down from father to son, from husband to wife completes the evolution of the United States into a banana republic."

Patrick writes: "How convenient that Grover Norquist" -- the guy who suggested this -- "is now so concerned about dynasties when Hillary Clinton is showing strongly in the polls. Where was his fear of dynasties eight years ago? There's a huge difference between his North Korea example. Hillary Clinton would be elected."

Jay in Irvine, California, writes, "If someone would have been smart enough to think of this sooner, we perhaps would not have been invading countries that don't warrant invasion now, saving thousands of our troops lives in the process."

Leo writes: "It's undemocratic to suggest a constitutional amendment against the right for a citizen to run for president. If we're stupid enough to elect a dynasty to the White House, then that's our problem."

Sherre in Honolulu: "The only tweaking the Constitution needs to prevent the establishment of dynasties is campaign finance reform. If it were not so economically prohibitive for candidates to mount an election campaign, we would have a healthy field of candidates and no problem with dynasties."

Roger in New York writes, "The Constitution should be amended to ban ridiculous comments from people such as Grover Norquist."

And Mike in Mahopac, New York, writes: "Now you want to ban it. You're seven years too late" -- Wolf.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Jack -- Jack, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thanks...

CAFFERTY: Wake up, Wolf.

BLITZER: ... very much.

We have got this programming note. On Thursday, by the way, I will be in Las Vegas to moderate a debate in that key Western state among the Democratic presidential candidates. Don't forget, Thursday in Las Vegas.

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

Happening right now: cocaine controversy. Thousands of prisoners serving time for crack could be getting out of jail early -- why the feds may cut their sentences. We're watching this story for you.

Another story we're watching: John McCain and his 95-year-old mother. The -- she gets nasty about one of GOP Republican -- one of the GOP candidates. Can politicians' moms do more harm than good out on the campaign trail? We're watching that as well.

And a Pennsylvania youth jailed on suspicion of plotting a Columbine-like attack is -- he's linked to the teen who carried out a bloody school shooting in Finland.

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

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