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Obama Blasts Ex-Pastor's Remarks; McCain's Health Care Plan vs. Democratic Plans; How Will Americans Spend Their Stimulus Check?

Aired April 29, 2008 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama moving quickly and forcefully today to try to control the damage from those controversial comments by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama now denouncing Wright's remarks at the National Press Club here in Washington yesterday as "a bunch of rants," calling the question and answer session a spectacle, parts of which he found -- and I'm quoting once again -- "ridiculous, appalling and outrageous."

Let's go to Suzanne Malveaux. She's out on the campaign trail watching this story for us.

Has Obama put this story now to rest? What's going on, Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they certainly hope they've put this to rest. But the one thing that the aides realize is that he has been able to successfully define himself before in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but that is not the case anymore, that he has lost the control of that ability. And it comes at a critical time -- these primaries just days away in North Carolina and Indiana -- when he needs to reach out to black voters, white voters, both rich and poor.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Barack Obama ended his relationship with his controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Following Wright's three day media blitz aimed at redeeming his reputation, Obama had had enough.

OBAMA: His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church.

MALVEAUX: Wright did a sit down on PBS, preached in Dallas and addressed the NAACP. But it was his appearance at the National Press Club that put Obama over the top, after Wright insisted he was simply defending the black church. REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT, SENATOR BARACK OBAMA'S FORMER PASTOR: If you think I'm going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition, and my grandma, you've another thing coming.

OBAMA: Yesterday, I think he caricatured himself and that was -- as I said, that made me angry, but it also made me saddened.

MALVEAUX: Obama rejected Wright's theories, from the U.S. government's involvement in AIDS to Minister Louis Farrakhan's role as a great leader.

OBAMA: There wasn't anything constructive out of yesterday. All it was was a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth.

MALVEAUX: Obama especially took issue with Wright's assertion that he was distancing himself from his pastor for political gain.

WRIGHT: We both know that if Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected.

OBAMA: That's a show of disrespect to me. It is also, I think, an insult to what we've been trying to do in this campaign.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Now, Wolf, back in March, Obama's speech in Philadelphia on race was meant to put all of this controversy to rest -- at least to damp it down a little bit. Obviously, it did not work. There were questions that continued to come up about his relationship -- his association with the Reverend Wright. And his judgment and his character questioned by Hillary Clinton and the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain. Neither of those two today making any kind of public comments about what has happened today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more on this story coming up this hour.

All right. Thanks very much, Suzanne, for that.

John McCain is unveiling his plan for dealing with the health care crisis. And it's no surprise it's very different than what his Democratic rivals are proposing.

Let's go out to CNN's Dan Lothian. He's joining us now with more on what McCain wants to do.

Give us the details -- Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. Senator McCain offering his solutions on the health care problem. You know, this is an issue that's very important to voters all across the country. Certainly, they are very concerned about the economy. But health care is also important for them. And that is the reason that all of the candidates are offering solutions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): From do-it-yourself to letting the federal government do it for you, all three presidential hopefuls are offering prescriptions for America's health care system. Senator John McCain wants you to have the option of buying your own, cheaper health insurance. So he would offer tax credits -- $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Insurance companies could no longer take your business for granted, offering narrow plans with escalating costs. It would help change the whole dynamic of the current system, putting individuals and families back in charge.

LOTHIAN: But critics say a few thousand dollars in credits would only cover a fraction of actual health care costs. For example, the average plan for a family of four is more than $12,000. And people with pre-existing conditions might be prevented from getting coverage.

The Democrats are going down a much different road. Both favor some sort of federally mandated universal health insurance, but differ on just who should be covered.

Senator Clinton says all Americans.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When it comes to health care, I believe with all my heart health care is a right, not a privilege, and everyone deserves quality, affordable health care.

LOTHIAN: Senator Obama backs a plan that would mandate coverage only for children and make insurance affordable for everyone else.

OBAMA: I believe that the problem is not that people don't want health care, it is that they can't afford it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Senator McCain says he opposes federally mandated universal health care coverage. He calls what the Democrats are offering "big government solutions that will only reduce individual choice" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Dan.

Dan's with the CNN Election Express.

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

(AUDIO GAP)

BLITZER: Oh, I don't know if we have Jack.

Obviously, we don't have Jack Cafferty, but we're going to work on getting Jack Cafferty.

President Bush accuses the Palestinian militant group Hamas of undermining peace efforts. One of his predecessors strongly disagrees.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's completely mistaken. It's obvious that he doesn't know the policy of Hamas.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The former president here in THE SITUATION ROOM defending his latest controversial peace mission.

And we'll also show you how the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is giving analysts potentially critically new insight into his country's controversial uranium enrichment program.

Plus, calls to suspend the federal gas tax. But will we have to pay later for savings now? We've got a realty check.

All that and a lot more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We'll get to my interview with Jimmy Carter in a moment.

But let's check in with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, sorry I couldn't be with you a few minutes ago, Wolf. I apologize. I was pinned down by sniper fire.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: I barely made it.

BLITZER: Thank God you're OK.

CAFFERTY: Yes, I just -- well, I am. I'm fine.

The federal government began sending out checks to taxpayers this week, part of that economic stimulus plan -- 130 million payments totaling $110 billion will be made to citizens who filed a tax return for 2007. The minimum is $300; $600 goes to single taxpayers who earned less than $75,000; $1,200 to couples who earned less than $150,000 and Uncle Sam will pay $300 for each child under the age of 17 -- no limit.

The idea is to give our sagging economy a shot in the arm. Officials hope people will spend the check as opposed to using the money to pay down debt or simply saving it. But most surveys indicate people will send it off to the credit card companies, pay down their balance, put it in their gas tanks or stick it in the bank.

Retailers, on the other hand, smell all this money coming and they're already announcing promotions designed to get you to come to them so they can then empty your pockets of all of this additional dough. But at the end of the day, how much impact this will have on the economy, that's likely already in recession, is very much an open question.

It's important to remember this is an election year and this was one of the few items both parties could agree on in Washington all year long. The politicians figure that tossing breadcrumbs to the masses creates the impression that they care what happens to any of us. I seriously doubt that.

Here's the question -- how much of a difference will the stimulus checks make to our economy?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, where you can post a comment on my blog.

Now I have to get back into my bunker.

BLITZER: All right. Good luck.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Put on that vest.

CAFFERTY: OK.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jack.

The former president, Jimmy Carter, is just back from what may be his most controversial Middle East peace mission to date -- one that has him at serious odds with the Bush administration.

He joined us earlier right here in THE SITUATION ROOM to talk about that and more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's talk about foreign policy, a very sensitive issue -- your recent trip to the Middle East, your decision to meet with Hamas, a group the U.S. government brands a terrorist organization.

President Bush was asked about it at his news conference.

And here's what he said.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Foreign policy and peace is undermined by Hamas in the Middle East. They're the ones who are undermining peace. They're the ones whose foreign policy objective is the destruction of Israel. They're the ones who are, you know, trying to create enough violence to stop the advance of the of the two party state solution. They're a significant problem to world peace -- or Middle Eastern peace. And that's the reason I'm not talking to them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, he was specifically asked about your decision to talk to them.

You want to respond to what you just heard?

CARTER: Well, he's completely mistaken. It's obvious that he doesn't know the policy of Hamas. And I think that since I met with them, I can very well say that -- and I've talked to Hamas a number of times in the past...

BLITZER: Well, he says they're committed to the destruction of Israel.

CARTER: Well, I asked them about this. And that was one of the major requests or suggestions that I made to Hamas. I made five or six of them. They brought all of their leadership together, from Gaza and also from within Damascus. And they spent all night Saturday and all Sunday considering the proposals that I made to them. And they gave me a response to all my proposals Sunday night by telephone.

One of the things I asked them to do was to agree to accept any peace contract between Israel and the Palestinians, with Mahmoud Abbas being the representative of the Palestinians, provided it was approved by the Palestinians in a referendum -- even if Hamas agreed with the terms.

BLITZER: Did they say they would accept Israel...

CARTER: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ...living alongside Palestine?

CARTER: Absolutely. They said they would accept that.

BLITZER: A Jewish state of Israel?

CARTER: That's correct -- absolutely correct.

BLITZER: Because they haven't made that statement public. I mean that may have been -- the criticism is they may have said that to you, but they're not telling their own people that. It's one thing to say to a former president, yes, we'll do that. But it's another thing to say they're ready for what is called a two state solution -- Israel and Palestine living alongside each other.

CARTER: Well, you seem to be able to speak far more than I do and I just met with them.

BLITZER: Well, I -- yes.

CARTER: I know what they...

BLITZER: Well, I'm just saying what they're saying publicly. CARTER: I know what they told me. And since then, there have been spokespersons for Hamas who disputed what I just said.

BLITZER: That's what I mean.

CARTER: But they are not the leaders. I met with the top leaders of Hamas, the president and all of the leaders in the Politburo, they game me their commitment. And they have reaffirmed that commitment since they authorized me to make it publicly, which I did in Israel.

I also asked them to agree to a cease-fire in Gaza alone, because they always insisted they would only have a cease-fire in Gaza and the West Bank combined, which Israel objected to doing. So they came back a day after I left Israel and they said we will accept a cease-fire -- a mutual cease-fire with Israel just on Gaza alone. And Israel rejected that proposal. So there is no cease-fire and the conflict goes on.

BLITZER: Here's what Condoleezza Rice says -- at least she says this publicly -- about your decision to go ahead and meet with Hamas. She said: "I want to be very clear. We counseled President Carter against coming to -- against going to the region, and particularly against having contacts with Hamas."

CARTER: She's mistaken. No one in the State Department or any other branch of our government ever counseled me not to go to the Mideast, not to meet with Hamas, not to meet with the president of Syria. No one ever.

BLITZER: Because the State Department says in the private conversations that you had with the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, he advised you not to do so. And they point to this public statement that Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said about a week or 10 days before you left: "Because U.S. government policy is that Hamas is a terrorist organization and we believe it is not in the interests of our policy or in the interests of peace to have such a meeting."

So that's what they're saying.

CARTER: If you would ask that same question to her deputy...

BLITZER: The assistant secretary?

CARTER: The assistant secretary.

BLITZER: The one you spoke to?

CARTER: Yes, I heard him interviewed this week on National Public Radio in the morning and he refused to say that he had told me that, because he did not. And he knows he did not.

BLITZER: So somebody's lying here, right?

CARTER: I don't think Mrs. -- I don't think that Condoleezza Rice is a liar. I think she's a truthful person. I think she's an honest person. I think she's been misinformed.

BLITZER: You think that her deputy may have misinformed her about the nature of your conversation?

CARTER: I won't go into the intricacies of who told who what. But no -- not even any cautionary messages were given to me or anyone with me, except Robert Pastor, who made the preliminary trip to prepare for my trip. He was asked by someone in the State Department to be careful about going to Gaza because it might be dangerous. And we decided not to go to Gaza.

BLITZER: Because it is...

CARTER: That's the only cautionary comment.

BLITZER: Because it is dangerous in Gaza.

CARTER: I don't know. I'm not sure that I'd be in danger if I went there.

BLITZER: But you decided in the end not to go.

CARTER: We didn't have the time. As a matter of fact, the Hamas leaders in Gaza with whom I wanted to meet were brought out of Gaza to a hotel in Cairo so that they could meet with me and I wouldn't have to spend two days driving down to Gaza and back.

BLITZER: I know you support a dialogue with adversaries and that's what you're trying to do.

CARTER: Right.

BLITZER: And the argument that Hillary Clinton has made, Barack Obama has made, others have made, they would have a dialogue with leaders of states like Iran or North Korea or Venezuela, Syria -- countries where the U.S. does not have, obviously, normal diplomatic relations. But it's one thing to have a dialogue with leaders of states, it's another thing to have a dialogue with leaders of groups the U.S. brands as a terrorist organization.

How far would you go, in other words, in meeting with leaders of these kinds of groups?

CARTER: I would be very cautious about that. You know, I've been involved with Hamas for a long time -- since 1996. I met with them after Arafat was first elected president, in January of 1986.

In 2006, in January, the Carter Center once more was monitoring the election there. It was an election that was pushed hard by the United States government -- the George Bush administration and it was approved by Israel. And I was approved as one of the monitors.

And they knew that Hamas were candidates to that. Hamas put forward a whole slate of candidates to run for parliament. And, surprisingly, Hamas won. They won a majority of the positions in the parliament. It was then and after that the United States and Israel decided we don't want a united Palestinian organization or government. So they branded Hamas as a terrorist organization after they had approved their running for office. And now, of the 43 parliamentary members that were elected in the West Bank, 41 of them are in an Israeli prison plus 10 cabinet officers. So...

BLITZER: What did the...

CARTER: So that was a change that before the election and before they won, it was completely acceptable for them to run for office.

BLITZER: Would it be appropriate to meet with leaders of Al Qaeda?

CARTER: I wouldn't. No, I wouldn't (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: So you would differentiate between Hamas on the one hand...

CARTER: Sure.

BLITZER: ...Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups on another?

CARTER: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Because where do you draw that line?

CARTER: Well, I draw the line in the case of Hamas because they were elected in an open and fair and honest and safe election to be the leaders of their country and the government -- a democratic government. I think that's quite a difference.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We're going to have more of my interview with Jimmy Carter coming up in the next hour. We'll talk about superdelegates. He's one of those superdelegates. Where he stands in this race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Also, we'll get his reaction to the latest statements from Barack Obama on the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Much more of the interview coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, a presidential tour giving new clues about Iran's outlawed nuclear program. We're going to show you the images that analysts are poring over right now.

Plus, Ron Kirk, Leslie Sanchez and Paul Begala -- they're here to talk about Barack Obama divorcing himself today from his former pastor after remarks Obama calls appalling.

Can his campaign finally put this controversy behind him?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Here's a very, very weird story that we're watching today. Photos posted on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Web site -- yes, he has a Web site. They show the uranium enrichment plant in Iran and gives a rare glimpse inside Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's looking at these pictures.

What's going on here? Why is he showing all of us these pictures of what's going on in this uranium enrichment site?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, well, analysts are calling these pictures a gold mine -- almost 50 images from this underground nuclear complex in Iran in Natanz. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently toured this facility and now all these images have been posted on his Web sites. And experts here have been poring over the details.

In particular, what you're going to see in this picture, a new advanced centrifuge on display in these photos. And experts say this can take Iran's uranium enrichment to a whole new level.

Plus, they're looking at some interesting faces. Hovering in the background to the right, Iran's defense minister. That's interesting, says Jeffrey Lewis of the Washington think tank, the New America Foundation, for a facility that Iran insists is for the peaceful production of energy.

The United Nations has slapped Iran with three sets of sanctions because of their uranium enrichment program. And Lewis says of these photos, it gives you a sense of how hard it's going to be to get them to give this up -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

Barack Obama's forceful denunciation of his ex-pastor's world view.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The Democratic candidate severing ties going back two decades. You're going to hear for yourself his stunning remarks.

Also, we'll talk about the impact with all of this with Ron Kirk, Leslie Sanchez and Paul Begala. They're all part of the best political team to television. And we're watching this story.

And as -- we'll also talk about the key endorsement for Hillary Clinton today.

Will it help her close the gap with Obama in North Carolina?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, President Bush talks money in the Rose Garden. The president blames Congress for failing to pass bills that would ease the country's economic woes.

Also, one-on-one with former President Jimmy Carter right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Which presidential candidate does he think is best equipped to get gas prices under control?

And Senator John McCain thinks he has a cure for the nation's health care crisis. He wants to give tax credits so Americans can buy health insurance. We're going to tell you how much he's ready to hand out.

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

If the Reverend Jeremiah Wright thought presidential candidate Barack Obama was distancing himself in the past, Obama made it very clear today that the two are now miles and miles apart in their basic philosophy. Senator Obama held a news conference in which he used words like "divisive," "ridiculous" and "destructive."

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday. You know, I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992. And I have known Reverend Wright for almost 20 years.

The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago. His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate. And I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs.

And if Reverend Wright thinks that that's political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought either.

When he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS, when he suggests that Minister Farrakhan somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st century, when he equates the United States wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses.

It is antithetical to our campaign. It is antithetical to what I am about. It is not what I think America stands for. And I want to be very clear that moving forward Reverend Wright does not speak for me. He does not speak for our campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right.

Let's discuss now with our guests, the former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, he's an Obama supporter, the Clinton supporter, our CNN contributor, Paul Begala and Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez.

Mayor, first to you. What's the impact of this dramatic change in tone that we heard from Barack Obama today?

RON KIRK, FORMER DALLAS MAYOR: Well, I don't know that we'll fully be able to assess the impact of it perhaps until after these primaries are over.

But it was clear and somewhat sad for those of us that believe in Barack Obama and the promise that he brings in particular but especially those of us of my generation that have lived through integration and the civil rights movement. We know how painful change can be. And I am saddened because there are many of my colleagues that have the greatest respect for Reverend Wright. But what we saw yesterday was painful, almost vaudevillian.

But it also, I think points up why so many of us are excited about Barack Obama and his candidacy. That America desperately needs a new generation of leadership that understands that the way the progress is through redemption, is through forgiveness, is through healing. And that you can't move forward if you're going to keep one foot locked in the past.

BLITZER: Paul, what's the impact of all of this?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, first of a off, the more Barack Obama has Ron Kirk on TV and the less he has Reverend Wright on TV, the better of Barack's going to be. I mean Ron is one of my good friends and fellow Texans. You know Barack is I think very lucky to have a supporter like that.

I do have to say I think what Senator Obama said was absolutely right and appropriate. It does seem unhelpful to understate it that a man, a pastor like Reverend Wright, who is known outside of Chicago really only because of one of his congregants, Barack Obama, would then turn and be so destructive of everything that Senator Obama is trying to do.

I do feel for Barack Obama. He didn't do anything wrong yesterday. He did the right thing today and yet I do worry that he's going to suffer politically for this. It doesn't seem fair, because I do think he distanced himself as strongly as he could. But, you know, I think that Reverend Wright owes an enormous apology to Barack Obama and the millions of people who support him. LESLIE SANCHEZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Wow.

BLITZER: All right. Leslie?

SANCHEZ: No I think look at this politically. What Barack Obama is doing is cutting his losses. He realizes he has to do that for better or worse. When you try to untangle this relationship he has with Reverend Wright, it seems to get murkier. He tried to basically put Reverend Wright's comments into context in his Pennsylvania speech. That didn't work.

I agree with the mayor when he says it was a sad day, it really is a sad day. He was defending the idea initially of Black Nationalism in terms of understanding it and now I think he's walking away from it.

For a lot of people that don't know who Barack Obama is, it just makes it cloudier. Who is he really? Somebody who understood and basically related to what Reverend Wright was saying for 20 years or somebody who threw him under the bus today. I think it looks like it's politically expedient and now he's just another politician.

BLITZER: All right, Mayor, you're shaking your head.

KIRK: I couldn't disagree more. I guess it was too much for me to hope that Leslie might rise to the level of grace and dignity that my friend Paul Begala did.

The Republican response unfortunately is predictable because they would much rather talk about Reverend Wright than the wonderful job they've done in prosecuting this job of the war in Iraq, the great leadership they are providing on the economy, the fabulous manifestation of compassionate conservatism in the aftermath of Katrina. So the Republicans would rather talk about this.

The important factor is that Barack Obama made clear that he speaks for himself. While he has a great love for the church and the good things that Reverend Wright has done, that Reverend Wright does not speak --

BLITZER: But Mayor --

SANCHEZ: With all due respect, Wolf, I have to address that.

BLITZER: Hold on. Hold on one second, Leslie.

But Mayor because we're going to have another segment on this, so don't run away. But, Mayor, did the Reverend Jeremiah Wright say anything yesterday that he hasn't said numerous times over the past 20 years? That's the criticism that Barack Obama is now facing because he should have known and expected what the Reverend Jeremiah Wright has said.

KIRK: You know not being in that church, I cannot say that Reverend Wright, what he repeated yesterday is what he said. And, look, first of all, Reverend Wright clearly has been wounded by his characterization, his portrayal in the news over the last several weeks and he was hurt. But he shouldn't have spoken out of hurt. And as a man of god, if anyone can understand the power of the two greatest words I know, I'm sorry, it should be someone of faith that could have used this as a great opportunity for him, for the church, and allowed this campaign to go on unfettered by this.

But I don't think that's the point. The main point is that Barack Obama is where he is at this point in his candidacy because so many Americans see him as a refreshing break from that past. And I do think it's unfair to try to burden him and his -- with Reverend Wright.

BLITZER: Let me ask you, Paul, because Leslie made a serious point, that he should have known, he should have known, what the Reverend Wright stands for and by doing this today, he's doing it out of political expediency. What do you think?

BEGALA: I support Hillary Clinton, I already voted for her. I gave her money. But Barack Obama's political identity is now well known. And I see nothing in Senator Obama's career, his writings or his speeches that suggest that he's anything at all politically like Reverend Wright. In fact, he is, as he said today, the antithesis of Reverend Wright.

So I think you give him benefit of the doubt on the political views. He has stated his political views and he has said he disagrees with his pastor on them. And so you say why did he go to that church? Well, maybe, just maybe, even though there were these really outrageous political views, there was in the biblical message, in the gospel message, spiritual nourishment that Senator Obama and his family took from that.

I respect that and I admire that. I contrast that, though, Wolf this is the issue of fairness the media has to answer, with John McCain's embrace of Pastor John Hagee, another very controversial pastor.

SANCHEZ: Come on, Paul.

BEGALA: Just a second.

Pastor Hagee has said the most hateful things about Roman Catholics, the church I belong to. Now, John McCain doesn't even pretend to be getting spiritual guidance and spiritual sustenance from Pastor Hagee. He's only there for the politics of a man who is a hater and who hates Catholics and yet we don't talk about John McCain's relationship with this anti-Catholic bigot John Hagee. So I think fair is fair. If we're going to talk about Barack's pastor, let's talk about Pastor Hagee.

BLITZER: Leslie, go ahead. Then we're going to take a break. But go ahead.

SANCHEZ: Very quickly. For Hillary Clinton, Reverend Wright is the gift that keeps on giving. This is not a Republican issue. This is an issue of defining your opponent, defining the candidate and people are still trying to understand who Barack Obama is. That was part of the charisma and the appeal that he has as a new candidate.

He should have addressed this issue way before he decided to run for president. That's what I'm saying it looks politically motivated now. That's what's so sad about the situation.

BLITZER: All right, guys, hold your fire because we have more to discuss and we'll follow-up on the points you've just made when we come back.

Also, a major increase in U.S. troops. Military experts say NATO is failing and the U.S. has to come to the rescue. We're going to tell you where and why.

And lower prices at the gas pump might seem like a manna from heaven. And how some presidential hopefuls want to accomplish that, may cause more problems down the road. Forgive the pun.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our panel. We're talking about the dramatic change today from Senator Barack Obama, referring to comments by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

And let me pick up about what we were speaking with, among others, the former mayor of Dallas, Ron Kirk. He's a strong Obama supporter. You heard Leslie make the session that Barack Obama is behaving now like a political hack, if you will, like a politician, as opposed to the way he supposedly is trying to project it, and I want to give you a chance to respond.

KIRK: Well, I mean, and Paul, I appreciate your comments. I think he spoke very forcefully to that.

We know who Barack Obama is from observing him from this lengthy campaign, from his writings in his books, from his actions in the senate. And I don't see anything expedient about the position that Senator Obama took today. This was as painful for him as probably anything he's done.

And one of the things we talked about, there are many reasons people remain in the church, having nothing to do with the pastor. And there's no one questions the many good works that have been done by this particular church. But I think the conduct and the actions and the words of Reverend Wright yesterday made it -- put Barack in a position that he had to speak out in the manner that he did, it was not out of expediency.

BLITZER: You could make the argument, Leslie, that he was being very loyal to his longtime minister over the weeks that the controversy has been building and he didn't want go out there and hammer him and repudiate him because he has done, according to Barack Obama, good deeds in the community in Chicago at his church and he was trying take the high road. But yesterday it simply went too far what he was hearing from Reverend Jeremiah Wright and he had no choice to do what he was so reluctant to do. You could understand that interpretation.

SANCHEZ: No, I agree. Wolf, I agree with that. I started this conversation by saying that. That I said that he basically tried to put the relationship with Reverend Wright into context with his Pennsylvania speech. He tried to talk about it, you know, in a sense, you know, this became politically explosive and he had to cut his losses after yesterday's Press Club Speech. It really changed it, and for better or worse, this is going to stay with him through November.

This is not going to change and I think Hillary Clinton's campaign is going to use it. There's no doubt about that. It's starting to define who Barack Obama is.

Is he one of these political hacks, to use your term, or is he somebody who really wants to talk about what Reverend Wright's talking about, deficiencies in black education? Those are serious issues.

BLITZER: Paul, go ahead.

BEGALA: Well, like everybody in the media, I probably get 50 e- mails from Hillary's campaign and from Obama's campaign and I haven't seen any sign that Hillary Clinton's campaign is using this at all. I think that's an unfair attack.

Now the Republican Party is using it. They have already run ads in North Carolina that were divisive and John McCain didn't even have the strength to get them to pull it down. Now, he said they should pull it down, but even the Republican Party is not listening to the putative Republican Party's nominee. So I think it's actually the Republican Party that has to --

BLITZER: Hold on, guys.

BEGALA: Why don't you come back to John Hagee? I want to know from Leslie if she approves of John McCain's political relationship with Pastor John Hagee, a man who has said the most hateful things imaginable about the Catholic Church.

SANCHEZ: The Democrats it's almost like the talking points, Paul. You guys are trying to say there's a comparison and there really isn't. This is not somebody that John McCain, Senator McCain, had a strong relationship with him. He did not have him you know marry he and Cindy. He did not have a relationship for 20 years in that church.

You know the question that a lot of American voters had is what kind of position or influence would Reverend Wright have in a Barack Obama white house. That's a fair question. Is he the Billy Graham to George Bush? You can't make that argument ...

BLITZER: I think it's fair to say, Leslie, after today he's not going to have any influence obviously. These two men have reached a turning point in their relationship, and I doubt if they can turn it back.

Let me ask you this react, Mayor, to a very important endorsement that Hillary Clinton received today in North Carolina. That would be from the governor, a popular Democratic governor in the state. You know that when governors get involved, whether it's Rendell in Pennsylvania on behalf of Hillary Clinton or whether it's Charlie Crist in Florida on behalf of John McCain, they can often have a big impact.

How worried are you about this endorsement right now? And I'll play a little clip of what Easley said.

Listen to this first.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. MIKE EASLEY (D), NORTH CAROLINA: There's a lot of, yes, we can and, yes, we should going around. Hillary Clinton is ready to deliver. That's the difference. She's ready to deliver today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, here's the question for you, Mayor. Can he deliver North Carolina for Hillary Clinton?

KIRK: Well, you know, you know, I don't know. The wonderful thing about me being in Dallas, I don't have to deal with all the pundits. We'll know on Tuesday.

Obviously we would have loved to have the governor's support. But I believe the message that carried Barack to this point, that got us to this point, is one that still resonates with America. And I still believe in a somewhat contorted way the actions and the commentary of Reverend Wright yesterday made Barack's message of hope, of healing, of unity, even more relevant and powerful.

I think that's a message that will resonate with the people with North Carolina and in this country. Because at the end of the day what is important is who can change the poisonous atmosphere and tone in Washington, so that congress can come together and create an economic stimulus package, and do something to put America on a path of energy independence. And it isn't going to happen in the same gotcha environment we have right now.

BLITZER: She's got an uphill struggle according to the polls in North Carolina. It's neck and neck, though, in Indiana right now. What do you think?

BEGALA: Well, I think you're right on both counts. Governor Easley's a very popular man in a very critical state. He's very popular with Democrats especially in North Carolina who are only voting in this primary on May the 6th.

Now, he's pushing a heavy rock up over a hill. You know Barack Obama is 20 points ahead. I don't think anybody should try to say that only the governor is going to deliver that state. It's really hard to do.

But as you point out, Ted Strickland, the governor of Ohio was instrumental in helping Hillary carry that state. Ed Rendell is going to go down in political history for the victory that he helped Hillary Clinton pull off in Pennsylvania.

So I think it's helpful, but I don't know that it's going to be sufficient. I think Senator Obama is still the prohibitive favorite in the Tar Heel state.

BLITZER: What do you think, Leslie?

SANCHEZ: I agree with that analysis. I think that you know it's still a challenge for Hillary Clinton. There's no doubt you get grassroots support that the governor has and that has proved historically through this election to be tremendously important in victories.

But the difference is it makes Hillary Clinton, it's kind of a longer term, it makes her more of a compelling candidate. It shows that she has momentum. If she can keep it close in North Carolina and win Indiana, then Pennsylvania will not look like a fluke and she'll have to be taken more seriously. Then if you have the case of Barack Obama limping into Denver, the Democrats have a big problem.

BLITZER: Well, that's material for our next round, but that's not going to happen today, guys. Thanks very much for coming in.

KIRK: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Presidential candidate John McCain wants to put money in your pocket to pay for health insurance. He says it's the program that sets him apart from the two Democratic presidential candidates. We're going to tell you why.

And lower gas prices sound great but will we be paying later with poorer roads and more dangerous bridges?

Also coming up in the next hour, more of my interview with Jimmy Carter.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go back to Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, the question this hour is: How much of a difference will the stimulus checks make to our economy?

Washington started sending those out yesterday, $110 billion on its way to try and goose the economy out of this slowdown.

Courtney in Connecticut writes: "I thought stimulation was meant to spur people into action. The only thing this so called stimulus package is going to do is help thousands of Americans beat back the bill collectors for a few more days. We're going to stay exactly where we are instead of hemorrhaging more money into useless pursuits like this one."

One Georges writes: "Not as much impact as the president would like for it to. The economy would get a much larger boost if he would put windfall taxes on the oil companies and get rid of the tax cuts for rich folks."

Mary writes: "The stimulus checks hopefully will help the American people. They won't solve the critical issues that are facing the country. They won't stop the rise in crude oil prices that's putting a burden on all drivers depend on gasoline but having something is better than nothing. We need to believe the new president will make a start in steering America in a more positive direction."

Jack writes: "We're Americans, of course, we'll spend the money. I think a small portion of the recipients will save it or put it towards debt, but the majority will spend the money in some fashion. I think most will go towards travel, summer vacations, either way it won't affect the economy, because housing is still a huge problem. And high oil prices and inflation bigger problems than anyone realizes."

Jerry in Roselle, Illinois: "I think I'll just put it in my savings account and get that one percent interest going. Then maybe I can help by giving it to the future George W. Bush presidential library. Can't believe I just said that."

And Bridgette writes: "My stimulus check is going to pay my bankruptcy lawyer. If that is going to stimulate the economy, more power to them."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog, CNN.com/CaffertyFile. You can look for your e-mail there along with hundreds of others.

We have gotten I think more than 5,000 e-mails this afternoon, Wolf. This Reverend Wright thing has generated a lot of interest.

BLITZER: A lot of passion out there. A lot of interest. Thanks very much for that. Jack, we'll see you back here in a few moments.

The former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, who took heat himself back in the '70s, has a unique perspective on gas prices.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARTER: The basic problem with our economy, which is now very bad, has been that gross giveaways to the richest people in the nation, with tax breaks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Jimmy Carter is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Coming up, that interview.

And American troops come to the rescue, a major troop buildup in a major hot spot. We'll tell you what's going on right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The U.S. plans a major increase in troops for Afghanistan next year. It's a new plan to try to prop up a struggling NATO program faltering in its attempts to stop the Taliban.

Let's go to our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre. He's watching this story for us.

All right, what's going on here? Why is it NATO apparently up to the job?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, sometimes it's hard to spot a turning point except in retrospect. But Pentagon planners are hoping that the small U.S. operation could be the start of something big.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: These marines are on a Taliban-killing hunt in southern Afghanistan, but the fresh reinforcements are also the vanguard of a much grander plan, a new American initiative to over the next two years reassert U.S. leadership and rescue the sputtering NATO mission, a mission that President Bush had to be coaxed to say was succeeding.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think --

BUSH: I do. I think we're making good progress. I do.

MCINTYRE: The marines, seen here test firing their weapons a few days ago, are part of the first major U.S. offensive in the south in years. They swept into poppy-rich Helmand province, an area along Afghanistan's southern border with Pakistan, which has become a lawless Taliban sanctuary.

When he reluctantly dispatched the marine expeditionary unit to Afghanistan earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted it was a stop-gap measure until NATO came up with reinforcements.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: This is a one time plus up, this 3,200 Marines that we're sending over there.

MCINTYRE: But sources say Gates has since given up on NATO and it's increasingly likely Marines will have to say beyond their seven month tour until early next year when the U.S. has plans to add at least two additional brigades, some 7,000 more troops to its forces in Afghanistan.

But as the most recent suicide bombing indicates, the insurgency is spreading to the American sector in the east and last Sunday's assassination attempt against Afghan President Hamid Karzai shows the man the U.S. is relying on to unify the country is just one security lapse away from death with no obvious successor in the wings.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: The Pentagon is resigned to the fact that aside from the British, Canadians and Dutch, NATO just doesn't seem to have the stomach for the tough fight needed to fight the Taliban. Pentagon planners are working on a new strategy that would put American troops, probably more Marines, in a lead role -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Jamie, thanks.