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Clinton Counts on Blowout in West Virginia; China Quake: Thousands Dead, Trapped in Rubble; Interview With Mario Cuomo

Aired May 13, 2008 - 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, Hillary Clinton tries to rack up a huge vote in West Virginia. Will this primary day help her plant seeds of doubt about Barack Obama?
We're standing by for the first exit poll information.

And I'll ask the former New York governor Mario Cuomo about his scenario for party unity.

Also, high gas prices driving many Republicans to break right now with President Bush. But would the plan they're backing actually bring down fuel costs?

And thousands upon thousands of dead and injured. The enormity of China's earth quake disaster becomes more evident by the hour. We're going to take you to a middle school where young lives and parents' hearts were crushed.

I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Polls close in West Virginia in about three and a half hours, and we could find out then if Hillary Clinton pulls off the big win she's expecting. Barack Obama has all but written off the state to Clinton.

Twenty-eight delegates are up for grabs in today's primary. Even if Clinton scores a blowout, the delegate math still will weigh heavily in Obama's favor as this primary season winds down. After tonight there are five more Democratic contests and 189 pledged delegates up for grabs.

As West Virginia votes, Clinton is making the case that today's primary shows her strength and Obama's weakness in a fall showdown with John McCain.

CNN's Jessica Yellin is in Charleston, West Virginia. She's watching this story for us.

Jessica, Senator Clinton and her team, they maintain this primary tonight means a lot down the road. What are they saying?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. They are reminding reporters today that no Democrat has won the White House without winning West Virginia since 1916. And they insist Senator Clinton would win this state in November.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): Senator Clinton in Washington, D.C., to vote says she's feeling good.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Excellent. Excellent.

YELLIN: No surprise. She's expected to score a landslide victory today.

Her campaign insists a win in West Virginia has far-reaching significance. Declaring, "Senator Obama has been unable to close a significant gap in the polls here. With a win in West Virginia, Senator Clinton will have once again proven her greater ability to win in the key swing states."

Her campaign is showing no signs of letting up. Today, announcing she'll visit upcoming primary states South Dakota, Oregon and Kentucky. And daughter Chelsea is in Puerto Rico, which votes in almost three weeks.

But team Clinton seems to be fighting gravity. Obama, also in D.C. to vote, was received like a hero. After working out in a U.S. Senate gym, he was cheered by a group of kids and swamped by reporters.

The drip, drip, drip of bad news for Senator Clinton is turning into a torrent. Today, former Colorado governor Roy Romer, who had stayed neutral, announced he's backing Obama. Romer, once a co-chair of Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, told reporters, "I believe it is over. Obama's lead cannot be overcome. It's time for the party to unify and get on to the general election."

And while Clinton is wildly popular in West Virginia...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She understands the middle class person. And that really is one of the big reasons I'm for her.

YELLIN: ... there are signs her blue collar base is open to Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not saying he's going to win. But he's going to do well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll have Barack Obama's sticker on my car on Wednesday morning if he takes it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: And Wolf, Barack Obama is clearly aware of his need to bolster his support among those blue collar voters who have favored Clinton so far. This week he is visiting Macomb County, Michigan. Now, that's a swing county in a bellwether state. But it's also significant because that's the county where the term "Reagan Democrat" originated. It's got great symbolic meaning that he's going there this week -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right, Jessica. Thanks very much. Stand by.

There's also been a new development for John McCain's campaign. An influential televangelist who endorsed the Republican is expressing regret for anti-Catholic remarks.

John Hagee has referred to the Roman Catholic Church as "the great whore." McCain rejected Hagee's remarks, but not his support. And the controversy has hung over his campaign.

But now Hagee has written a letter to the president of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights. It says, and let me quote right now, "Out of desire to advance a greater unity among Catholics and Evangelicals in promoting the common good, I want to express my deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful."

Here's the response from the Catholic League's William Donohue. He says, "What Hagee has done takes courage and, quite frankly, I never expected him to demonstrate such sensitivity to our concerns, but he has done just that. Whatever problems we had before are now history. This case is closed."

So, does Hagee's regret clear up a big campaign headache for John McCain? We're going to be talking about that. We'll have much more on that story coming up in our "Strategy Session."

We're also standing by for the first exit poll results coming in from West Virginia. Bill Schneider will be sharing those numbers with us. That's coming up.

Much more coming up on the presidential political front. But there are also right now new developments in China's Sichuan Province reeling from that magnitude 7.9 earthquake that devastated the area yesterday.

Take a look at this video that's just been released showing how the disaster unfolded at the region's main airport. You can see the panic and the damage the quake caused there.

Thousands of Chinese troops are pouring into the quake zone where they face a daunting, daunting task. The death toll has now topped 12,000 people. More than 26,000 reported injured. Thousands remain missing. Many buried under collapsed buildings. And one local official reports more than three million homes have been destroyed.

CNN's John Vause is at the epicenter.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There are few comforts here for the badly hurt. Just a sheet of plastic to protect them from the rain. They're left on the road to moan.

This woman has back injuries and cannot walk. Remarkably, though, no one complains. No one speaks at all. They just wait for hours until the soldiers come and take them away.

Most are dazed, confused. Like Gao Shun (ph). He slowly recalls how he received those horrific bruises.

"I was on a bridge," he told me. "I don't know who saved me." This is that bridge Gao (ph) was crossing just as the tremor struck. Along with the concrete and steel, he went crashing to the river below.

Everywhere here the scale of the devastation is sweeping. And amid the rubble, memories of lives before the quake, lives that will never be the same again.

(on-camera): The force of the earthquake was so powerful that many homes didn't simply collapse. They were destroyed, smashed into pieces. And in many cases beneath the pile of wood and brick, are the people who once lived here. The focus, say officials, is not on finding the dead, but, rather, on trying to save the living.

(voice-over): But for many of the living, there is only misery. Survivors with nothing and nowhere to go, they huddle together in makeshift tents.

"It's horrible. There's devastation everywhere. We have no food," this woman says.

Thirteen thousand people lived in this small town, not far from the epicenter of the quake. The local communist party secretary who has been directing the rescue tells me 3,000 people are still missing. As he shows me the damage to his community, I asked, "How many have died?"

He breaks down in tears. "Up to 500 have been killed," he says, including his parents, wife, and two children. In the midst of his anguish, there's a call on his radio. He's needed again and goes back to work.

John Vause, CNN, China.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: What a heartbreaking story. Thanks to John Vause for that.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Barack Obama has generated an excitement, hope perhaps, not seen in American politics in years. Maybe even decades. But behind the scenes, some of his field workers and volunteers are coming face to face with something very different -- racism.

"The Washington Post" reports about what it calls raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed and unreported in this election so far. Obama volunteers have had doors slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names. Some Americans apparently can't deal with the idea that Barack Obama might become our first African-American president.

One volunteer says that she was chased by dogs while canvassing in Indiana. Another woman in Pennsylvania gave up her phone bank duties after one night because of negative responses from voters in her county which is 98 percent white. Drivers yelling out racial slurs as they passed a group of black high school kids holding up Barack Obama signs in Indiana.

The campaign says these are isolated incidents, that most volunteers and staffers have had positive experiences. It says the election has reinforced Obama's view that this country is not as divided as our politics.

As for the candidate himself? Well, he doesn't talk much about race, but then he doesn't have to. Obama has won 30 of the 50 contests so far, including five of 12 primaries where blacks made up less than 10 percent of the votes. He also won in caucus states that are overwhelmingly white, places like Iowa and Idaho and Wyoming.

So here's the question: Now that it looks like it will be Barack Obama against John McCain, how big an issue will race become?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. You can post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's pretty depressing stuff.

CAFFERTY: Sad.

BLITZER: Yes, very sad. All right, Jack.

Tomorrow, by the way, we just got word we're going to be having an interview in THE SITUATION ROOM with Hillary Clinton tomorrow. We had one with Barack Obama last week. It's good to get one with Hillary Clinton.

An important programming note. Tomorrow, 4:00 p.m. Eastern in THE SITUATION ROOM, Hillary Clinton.

Democrats divided between Senator Clinton and Senator Obama also are split on whether a joint ticket is possible.

Coming up next, I'll speak live with the former New York governor Mario Cuomo. I'll ask him why he thinks Obama and Clinton should and could team up and actually make it work.

Plus, we're standing by for the first exit polls from West Virginia. We're looking for fresh clues about where the Democratic contest goes from here.

And Republicans choose between voter worries about soaring gas prices and loyalty to President Bush.

We're live at the CNN Election Center, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This note to our viewers. Barack Obama is going to be speaking before the polls close, before the polls close in West Virginia. He's in Missouri getting ready for that speech. You'll see it here live in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, we're standing by for exit poll numbers from West Virginia. The primary there taking place right now. The polls there close 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

Bill Schneider and his team going through those numbers. We'll share what we're getting with you as soon as they come in. Stand by for all of that.

Right now, Democrats are debating among themselves over a lot more than whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama should be president. There are serious disagreements over whether a drawn-out fight is good or bad for the party. And the prospect of an Obama/Clinton ticket has some Democrats applauding, others saying no way.

Joining us now is Mario Cuomo, the former Democratic governor of New York. He has not endorsed either of these candidates, but he has very strong views.

Thanks, Governor, for coming in.

MARIO CUOMO (D), FMR. NEW YORK GOVERNOR: Good to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: If Barack Obama is watching us right now -- maybe he is, we don't know -- what is your message to him about a possible ticket involving Obama and Clinton?

CUOMO: Well, first of all, I'd say to him, congratulations for the extraordinary race you've made and the great success you've made so far. It's not over, but you've done a heck of a job.

And I'd say the obvious. Look, what we want more than anything is to win, and to win you're going to need all the votes she gets and you don't. And all the votes that she gets that -- that all the votes she gets, all the votes you get, they're different votes.

You've got Hispanics here. You have African-Americans there. You have all people. You need them both. The best way to do that...

BLITZER: And the only way to do that is to invite her on the ticket?

CUOMO: No, no. The best way to do it is to invite her on the ticket. If, in fact, at the end of process you win, which it looks like you might very well, then why not add her to the ticket? Now, all the arguments I hear against it don't make any sense to me.

BLITZER: Well, let's go through some of them and I'll give you a chance to respond.

For example, he has many ardent supporters who want change, and they think that by bringing her on the ticket, that negates this concept of change.

CUOMO: I think that's not ridiculous, but close. She was part of the Clinton years. Is that what you want to change?

BLITZER: Well, their argument is, been there, done it, time to move on.

CUOMO: Well, just a minute. You had the eight best years in modern history in the Hillary and Bill years.

You had the following -- you had a balanced budget; you had a $5.4 trillion surplus; you had 22 million new jobs; you had a middle class ascending and doing better; you had poor people shrinking in number. You had all of that in the Clinton years.

You want to change that? Who changed it? Bush changed it. Into what? Into a disaster. He reversed all of that.

BLITZER: What about the personal, though, the relationship that they have, that he might not feel comfortable bringing her on the ticket because you also bring her husband into the mix as well? You've heard that.

CUOMO: Do you really think Bill Clinton...

BLITZER: I'm not making the -- I'm just asking you to respond.

CUOMO: We would all know that -- you think Bill Clinton wants to hang around the Blair House, you know, for fun and give opinions? People should understand this about the vice president like lieutenant governors.

They don't have any authority. None. Except if there's a tie in the Senate you have to vote. After that, it's all up to the president.

BLITZER: Dick Cheney's been a pretty powerful vice president.

CUOMO: And that's why we're getting rid of Bush. And people like him because he turned the presidency over to him. But Bush did it. The president can do it.

If Obama wants to do it, he can hand to it Hillary. I doubt that would happen. If Hillary were there, Obama would be a strong president and he would use her as he wishes to.

So, this notion that, well, they disagree on issues, so what? It's the president that counts.

George Bush won, the first George Bush -- was accepted by Reagan and lived for eight years. Reagan had one big proposition: cut the taxes, especially on rich people. George Bush said that's voodoo economics. He couldn't have been more...

BLITZER: They were a good team for eight years.

CUOMO: Eight years.

BLITZER: And LBJ and JFK.

CUOMO: And JFK, and so on. Look, the argument...

BLITZER: So the argument that there's so much bad blood between these two...

CUOMO: It's all nonsense. It doesn't mean anything.

Here is what you have to focus on: win this race against McCain. And the way to do that is to get all those women, all those people who love Hillary, all those workers who like her for whatever reason, and bring them in with all the people who like you, Obama, which may be a few more than like her. Put them all together.

Look, we might have the first African-American president in history. Hallelujah. But imagine the first African-American president and the first woman vice president in history.

BLITZER: And what about the traditional notion that you need geographic distribution? Because New York State and Illinois, they're pretty Democratic states.

CUOMO: Like Clinton and Gore? Geographic? Two southern guys. What are you talking about?

BLITZER: So you don't believe in that?

CUOMO: No, of course, not. History doesn't believe in it.

BLITZER: And this other notion that neither one of them has any military -- they never served in the military, that's been an argument that's been made why this wouldn't necessarily be a good team.

CUOMO: I don't think it's going to stop people from voting for...

BLITZER: Some people have suggested Wesley Clark, for example, might be a good running mate.

CUOMO: Or he might make a good appointment to -- to the government. He doesn't have to be the vice president to give them his expertise.

Yes, he might be a good running mate. But, look, it's not stopping Obama from saying that Hillary would be a good president that she's never run an Army, and it's not stopping her from saying Obama would be a good president. Either they're both lying or they're both telling the truth.

So, no. You don't need a military person as vice president. As a matter of fact, they're not good politicians usually, the military people, because there's a difference.

So, you surround yourself with good military people like Wesley Clark. I don't hear any really good arguments against Hillary.

BLITZER: And it's interesting, neither of these two candidates has accepted the notion, but it's also interesting they haven't rejected it either.

CUOMO: And why should they? Why should they reject it?

BLITZER: You think she would accept?

CUOMO: I really don't know, but there's one way to find out. Offer it to her.

BLITZER: All right. Governor, thanks very much for coming in.

CUOMO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Mario Cuomo is the former governor of New York.

West Virginia has what Democrats want, but can the party get it? You're going to want to hear what that is and why tonight's outcome could teach Democrats a very important lesson for down the road.

And if Barack Obama suffers a blowout in the primary tonight, what might that mean for the general election? A lot more coming up, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, Hillary Clinton expected to win big in West Virginia's primary tonight, but can a Democrat win big there in the general election?

I'll speak with the West Virginia governor, Joe Manchin. We'll talk about that and more. And I'll also ask him why he's not yet backing a candidate, despite Clinton's major support in his state.

Keep the lights on or pull the plug. When asked whether Hillary Clinton should leave the race, you're going to want to hear what a majority of Democrats are now saying in a brand new poll.

And there's another heated race among fierce rivals for a Mississippi House seat. What happens is of major concern to both Democrats and Republicans, and could affect you.

I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Hillary Clinton is planning a huge primary victory party, but might Barack Obama upstage the celebration? He's planning a huge campaign event in Missouri, a state sure to be a battleground in the general election in November. And over the next few days Obama will pointedly visit several other states that will be in play come November.

Let's walk over to our chief national correspondent, John King. He's watching this story for us.

John, this is a fascinating new development -- Obama not going to be delivering a speech in one of the upcoming primary states, or even today's primary. But he's looking ahead.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Looking ahead, Wolf, and trying to learn the lessons and learn from his weaknesses in the primary campaign, as he prepares for what he believes will be the general election.

And let's look first at Missouri, where he will be tonight. You see the dark color blue here on the map. That means Barack Obama carried the state of Missouri in the primaries. You will remember that, how narrow a victory it was, Barack Obama winning 49 percent to 48 percent.

But look. The light blue is Senator Clinton. She won all across the state of Missouri. Barack Obama won the state because he won in the big population centers. Well, tonight, he's going to be right down here, Wolf, Cape Girardeau County, very small piece of the state. Hometown of who? Rush Limbaugh was born in Cape Girardeau. You know he's on conservative talk radio saying, vote for Hillary Clinton. Keep the primaries going.

What is Barack Obama doing here? He's trying to talk to white rural voters. Now, let's go back in time and look at this county. We will go back to the 2004 red. George W. Bush who this county. But go back to 2000, red. George Bush won this county.

But a big, interesting thing happened in 2006. I'm going to keep it red for here. An interesting thing happened in 2006. Claire McCaskill, the new Democratic senator from this state, won a very narrow victory in this county over her Republican challenger.

It is in a part of Missouri where you have white conservative voters. If you go loosely across this area, this is the Bible belt of Missouri, white conservatives. So, Barack Obama targeting one of his weaknesses.

BLITZER: She's a big supporter of Obama, too.

KING: She is. And she will be with him. And he's trying to target one of his weaknesses, white rural voters, more conservative Democrats and independents. That's one of the places we will see Barack Obama campaigning, quite interesting.

Another place he's going, Wolf, in the coming days is up here in the state of Michigan, Macomb County. Now, this is back in time. George Bush won this state -- lost the state, but won this county against John Kerry. Macomb County is what? Blue-collar. General Motors is there. There are General Dynamics tank plants there. It's where Michael -- the county where Michael Dukakis rode the tank back in 1998, white blue-collar union voters, many of whom fled north from Detroit years ago to get away from the city, a huge swing area.

BLITZER: They used to call them Reagan Democrats. KING: Reagan -- the birthplace of Reagan Democrats.

And if you go back in time and you look at other elections, you can see it swings over time. Macomb County was -- it was Democratic. Al Gore won it in 2000. That's the Republican primary there. John McCain won it in the 2000 in the primary. But it's a swing county, more upscale, more blue-collar middle-class voters. Barack Obama has had a weakness in the primaries.

And lastly this week, he will be going down to Florida. And he will be going, Wolf, in the key part of the state, the I-4 Corridor, which runs roughly like this, from Tampa over to Orlando and Daytona Beach. Forty percent of the state's voters live right here along the I-4 Corridor.

You have independent voters that live big in this area. Also, the Puerto Rican part of the Hispanic population of Florida tends to be along this corridor.

And, again, let's go back in time. As you can see, it's a swing area. John Kerry won somewhat up here. They tied in Orlando. George Bush won across here. George Bush went on to win the state of Florida. You remember the infamous close contest back in 2000 in the state of Florida, much more competitive for Al Gore. He won many more of the counties along I-4. The state went 49-49.

Remember, George W. Bush won that state by 500-something votes, 537, I think it was. Well, he won by 4,400 votes along this corridor, the counties just along I-4. It is the swing vote area in the state of Florida. And Barack Obama will be in the Tampa area, we are told, later in the week.

BLITZER: And Florida and Michigan both critical, also very important, because he didn't campaign there because those primaries in those two states were negated because they moved them up to January, against DNC rules. So, this will give him a chance to start campaigning in two states where he really didn't spend a whole lot of time over the past, what, year-and-a-half.

KING: Absolutely right.

And that's we have -- on our Democratic map, we have those states a different color, because they don't count. Their delegates don't count because of the rules. So, Barack Obama essentially has two big missions when he goes to those states: try to make peace with angry Democrats, who say, hey, why aren't our votes going to count at the convention? Look for Barack Obama to say, I want to work this out somehow.

But, also, he's looking ahead to November, trying to make peace with Democrats, also reach out to independents and address his weaknesses. Those weaknesses have been discovered during this long and tough Democratic primary.

KING: All right, John, don't go anywhere. I know you are not, because you're going to be here. We have got a lot more to talk about over the next several hours.

Meanwhile, what might the West Virginia results mean for Clinton and Obama going forward?

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is joining us.

Bill, what are we looking for tonight in West Virginia, specifically?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, West Virginia Democrats could deliver an important message to their party.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): West Virginia could send Democrats a message, that Hillary Clinton has something to say, and they better listen.

Clinton's strengths all along has been not just with women, but also with older, rural, and blue-collar Democrats, the kinds of voters who predominate in West Virginia. Are they Reagan Democrats? Not exactly. West Virginia did not vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980, and it did not vote for his vice president in 1988.

But the state did vote for George W. Bush -- twice. They're Bush Democrats, and the Democratic Party wants them back. Obama has had trouble reaching them with his message of inspiration and unity.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have got to open up our arms and say, we want everybody, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight. We want everybody under the banner of a new America.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SCHNEIDER: A lot of West Virginia Democrats are hurting. They're not bitter. They're looking for hope.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's going to have to somehow convince older socially conservative voters that he can make their life better. And he's going to have to stick to the issues of economics and health care.

SCHNEIDER: Hillary Clinton seems to know how to reach those voters.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's going to take somebody who gets in there and rolls up her sleeves and gets to work for you.

SCHNEIDER: She's a fighter.

CLINTON: Let's show the world that West Virginia knows what kind of president we need. If you stand with me tomorrow, I will stand with you every single day in the White House. (END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Senator Clinton may not win the nomination, but she is sending a valuable message to Democrats: Show more fight.

You know, sometimes, it takes a woman to toughen up a man. Screw your courage to the sticking place and we will not fail, Lady Macbeth said -- not that Lady Macbeth is a role model, but still.

BLITZER: Always good to quote Shakespeare.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Bill.

And don't go very far away, because we're only moments away from the first batch of West Virginia exit polls.

Bill Schneider will bring those numbers to us as soon as they're released. Stand by for that.

With Barack Obama now slightly leading Hillary Clinton in the race for those superdelegates, two college students have found themselves right in the middle of it all.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is joining us now.

Abbi, who are these very young superdelegates?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, they are two undecided superdelegates, Lauren Wolfe and Awais Khaleel, leaders of the College Democrats of America.

Last month, they asked for input from college-age students about who they should support. And, boy, have they been getting it, especially from supporters of Barack Obama online, who are increasingly saying, what are you waiting for?

Take a look at this blog post from Students for Barack Obama, who are saying, he's inspired, empowered our generation. It's time for you to pledge your support.

There's Facebook petitions urging the same thing. And, yesterday, actor and Obama supporter Kal Penn, he of "Harold & Kumar" fame, weighed in with an open letter on "The Huffington Post," saying, "I understand that you wanted your constituents to weigh in, but that time has come and gone."

You can find people on Hillary Clinton sites as well, urging them to pledge their support for Hillary Clinton, but they're far outnumbered. I spoke to Lauren Wolfe earlier today, who told me, "No endorsement yet, but you will probably hear from us soon" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Abbi.

We're only minutes away from bringing you the exit polls from West Virginia. As I said, Bill Schneider is going through those numbers.

Also ahead, there's a new move in Congress aimed at lowering gas prices, and Republicans feel so strongly about it, they're breaking ranks with President Bush right now.

Plus, is John McCain's pastor problem going away? We're going to look at the impact, now that Pastor John Hagee says he regrets those anti-Catholic remarks.

And we're standing by to hear from Barack Obama in the fall battleground state of Missouri. We're going to carry his remarks live, as he braces for what likely will be a big loss in West Virginia tonight -- much more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We should pretty soon -- momentarily, in fact -- be getting the first exit poll numbers coming in from West Virginia. We have been questioning actual voters today on their thoughts on a whole range of issues.

Bill Schneider going through those numbers. He's going to be sharing them with us as soon as they come in. Stand by for that. That's going to happen soon.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill today, a direct challenge to President Bush, driven by concerns about gas prices. Senators voted overwhelmingly to temporarily stop the shipment of thousands of barrels of oil a day to the government's emergency reserve.

CNN's Kate Bolduan is joining us now. She's watching this story for us.

Kate, a lot of politics involved in this idea. It's not necessarily a new idea, but it's controversial. What's going on?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It definitely is. It's definitely something on everyone's mind as well, Wolf.

In a rare bipartisan move today, senators voted to offer what they think will result in some relief at the pump. But the White House says it won't work.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN (voice-over): Facing pressure to do something about skyrocketing gas prices, Senate Republicans joined Democrats and voted overwhelmingly to defy the president and temporarily halt oil shipments to the country's emergency stockpile. They say that will make more oil available and drive down the cost.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D), NORTH DAKOTA: Why on earth should we be putting oil underground at a time of record high prices?

SEN. PETE DOMENICI (R), NEW MEXICO: Now, make no bones about it now. This is no big energy policy. This is one little thing we can do, and I think we ought to go ahead and do it.

BOLDUAN: The stockpile, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, was set up on the Gulf Coast after the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. It's a backup in case oil supplies are disrupted. Right now, there are 700 million barrels of oil stored underground in salt caverns. Every day, the U.S. adds 70,000 barrels to the reserve. The Senate proposal stops that.

FRANK VERRASTRO, ENERGY AND NATIONAL SECURITY EXPERT: By adding back between 70,000 and 100,000 barrels a day, you ought to get some relief in the short term.

BOLDUAN: Estimates of just how much consumers will save vary widely, from as much as a quarter a gallon to as little as a few pennies. President Bush opposes the move, saying it wouldn't affect price. He argues, an additional 70,000 barrels a day is negligible when compared to the 86 million barrels consumed every day worldwide.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're talking about one-tenth of 1 percent of global demand.

BOLDUAN: He also says, withholding from the reserve is a risk to national security.

BUSH: One of the things the al Qaeda would like to do is blow up oil facilities.

BOLDUAN: Despite the president's objections, even his conservative allies are breaking away. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison says gas prices are just too high.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), TEXAS: It's an honest disagreement with the president. People are really worried. They're worried about the high cost of food. They're worried about the high cost of transportation. And that's the bread-and-butter issue for most families.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN: Now, the House is expected to pass a similar measure this evening.

Today, the White House restated the president's opposition to the legislation, but members of Congress say, Wolf, that, if the president decides to veto the bill, they do expect that they will have the votes to override it.

BLITZER: All right, that would be pretty significant, Kate.

Thanks very much. Stay on top of this story for us.

BLITZER: In our "Strategy Session," Barack Obama has all but conceded defeat in West Virginia. But could a blowout there tonight rekindle doubt in uncommitted delegates' -- superdelegates' minds that Obama may not be able to carry key swing states in November? And McCain supporter Pastor John Hagee now says he regrets offending the Catholic Church. Will his words help McCain with the Catholic vote? Donna Brazile and Leslie Sanchez, they are standing by live, right here in our "Strategy Session."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In our "Strategy Session," the evangelical Pastor John Hagee has endorsed John McCain, but, previously, he denounced the Catholic Church, among other things, accusing it of supporting Hitler. Now Hagee is expressing regret for that and other remarks he calls -- and I'm quoting now -- "hurtful."

Joining us now, our CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez.

Among other things, Donna, he says this, Hagee: "Out of a desire to advance the greater unity among Catholics and evangelicals in promoting the common good, I want to express my deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful."

You're Catholic. What do you think?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I forgive him. I'm a Catholic.

But, more importantly, I'm someone who believes in redemption. I think what Pastor Hagee is trying to do is to put this episode behind him, so that Senator McCain can campaign without having to renounce and denounce and distance himself.

On the other hand, I think Pastor Hagee may have to go a step further. He also insulted and -- and demeaned the people of Louisiana when he said the Hurricane Katrina was a sin from God. There are many Catholics in New Orleans. I was just there this weekend. And that's also hurtful.

But, personally, I don't think that this has any place. I believe in religious tolerance. I don't think it has any place in our political discussion, especially in light of many of our problems today.

BLITZER: Here's the reaction from Karen Finney, the communications director of the Democratic National Committee: "Unless John McCain's idea of being a new kind of a Republican includes cozying up to radicals who compare women to dogs, hold racially insensitive fund-raisers, and call one of the worst natural disasters in our country's history 'God's punishment,' he should renounce John Hagee's endorsement immediately."

Clearly, Karen Finney, speaking for the DNC, is not ready to forgive and forget.

(LAUGHTER)

LESLIE SANCHEZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think there's a partisanship there. There's no doubt about it.

I think that -- a couple of things. The Democrats are trying to connect and build a stronger bond between the pastor and John McCain. But I think John McCain's going to do incredibly well among Catholics on his own record, which is really the bigger issue.

He's somebody -- if you look at the fact that many Catholics are in these Rust Belt states, a disproportionate number of them come from the military or are veterans. They are going to really like the personal appeal of John McCain, as well as the fact that he's put together a very strong Catholic coalition that is very much the Bush team that delivered Ohio and Florida by two-thirds of the Catholic vote.

So, I think John McCain is making very strong inroads, and he's going to stand on his own record, not on something the DNC...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: A lot of them used to be called Reagan Democrats, as you well know, Donna.

BRAZILE: Well, as Bill Schneider said, some of them are Bush Democrats, too.

Look, but the truth is, is that the partisanship on religion really started with the Republicans. So, let's not play any game.

(CROSSTALK)

SANCHEZ: No, I would start with Hillary Clinton and Reverend Wright.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: No, it started long before this election.

SANCHEZ: Or Bill Clinton...

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: It started long before this election season. And we're now split into born-again, not frequent churchgoers.

The truth is, is that this country's struggling. When you read "The Washington Post" poll today, you see 82 percent of the American people want a different direction. These are Catholics, like myself, who are struggling, working-class Catholics, like the people I saw when I was home. They want a new direction. They want a president who will rebuild this economy and really fight for...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: It's been a long time, Leslie, since that right track/wrong track number of "The Washington Post"/ABC News poll that was released today -- 82 percent of the American people, according to this poll, believe the country is now going on the wrong track.

SANCHEZ: No, there's no doubt about it. That's a significant thing.

But when you are talking about a faith community, many in the faith community feel the Democrats don't give them alternatives. They see them as social liberals who don't endorse policies that they fundamentally believe are important.

(CROSSTALK)

SANCHEZ: When you talk about faith, when you talk about partial- birth abortion, when you talk about religious persecution, these are significant things to many evangelicals, charismatic Catholics, and faith communities.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: So is poverty. So is poverty. So is homelessness.

SANCHEZ: No doubt about it. But what is the motivator for their vote?

BRAZILE: So is lack of health care.

And what -- there's no such thing as Republicans have some kind of monopoly on faith. I'm a woman of faith. I'm a liberal Democrat. What does that make me?

SANCHEZ: No.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: It makes me a liberal Democrat. It makes me passionate about issues.

BLITZER: All right, let's -- Donna, let's talk about...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let's talk about West Virginia for a moment. Let's talk about West...

BRAZILE: No, it's about the Democrats.

SANCHEZ: We're talking about who is going to vote in November.

BLITZER: Let's talk about a blowout, if she gets one tonight, against Barack Obama in West Virginia. What does that mean?

BRAZILE: It says everything about Hillary Clinton, that she's still fighting to win, that she's been able to connect with these voters on the economy.

One in six West Virginians are on food stamps, one in six.

BLITZER: That's pretty -- that's pretty shocking.

BRAZILE: It was 246,000 people in five years ago. It's up to 274,000 people.

I follow this, because I care about people in this country, caring about them in terms of their livelihood, and that's what this election is about. And Hillary has spoken to those needs. I don't think it says anything about Barack Obama that he's not going to aggressively compete to use his financial resources to -- to run up her negatives or his negatives.

What it says is that she's been able to connect in that state. It's a swing state. It's a very important state. He's been able to connect in other states. Hopefully, he will be able to do better in the fall.

BLITZER: What does it say if she wins big tonight?

SANCHEZ: I think it says two things. One, it just -- it shows her strong appeal. She's going to say she has momentum. She's going to try to change the conversation. Those are very strong points to be made.

But it's an interesting thing. If Barack Obama did incredibly well with working white, even lower-income voters in Virginia -- he did well in Maryland -- why is it falling off today? Why does he not want to be competitive in a state like this?

And if you look at the electoral map -- John King has beginning about this -- it's going to go to those Rust Belt states. I do believe that. It's going to go to those Reagan Democrats, who fundamentally may -- not only on faith, but on issues of elitism and kind of direction of this country, are going to have a problem with his candidacy.

BRAZILE: But he did won Wisconsin. And that is so-called Rust Belt.

(CROSSTALK)

SANCHEZ: He won't even compete in West Virginia. I mean, that's a significant state.

BLITZER: All right, guys, we will continue this conversation, because both of you are not going anywhere.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: If Barack Obama becomes the presidential nominee, should he pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate? You are going to want to hear what Clinton supporters think vs. what Obama supporters think. Also, what are West Virginia voters thinking as they vote today? We're going to have the first batch of exit poll numbers coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM.

And Barack Obama is set to speak shortly before West Virginia's primary results, before the results are even in. And he will be speaking from Missouri, a state key to the presidential win in November. You're going to hear Obama live, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Checking our Political Ticker: Democrats voters are weighing in on whether Barack Obama should choose Hillary Clinton as his running mate, if he indeed clinches the nomination.

A new Gallup poll finds 55 percent of Democrats surveyed say, yes, Obama should offer Clinton the vice presidential spot. Seventy- five percent of Clinton backers want Obama to offer her the V.P. job. Forty-three percent of Obama supporters feel that way.

And this programming note: We're going to have a one-on-one interview tomorrow with Senator Clinton. She will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM -- my interview with Senator Clinton tomorrow, 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

Jack Cafferty's joining us once again for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Now that it looks like it will be Barack Obama against John McCain, how big an issue will race become?

Tremendous story in "The Washington Post" today about this.

Kel writes from Auburn, Alabama: "Being a black man, I will tell you, racism sometimes seems to show up in the most subtle ways, even in today's society. I just hope that the smarter part of America will vote for the best candidate, and not let their ignorance keep the man for the job out of the office."

Mary in Wethersfield, Connecticut, says: "If Obama loses the election, the media will say it's because the U.S. is racist. There will be no talk of his lack of experience, his longstanding association with Reverend Wright, his lack of substantive, realistic ideas. We will all just be a bunch of racists who couldn't bring themselves to vote for the black guy."

Jenny in Boston writes: "It depends who answers your question. It is not an issue for me, but, for the ones who are voting today, it might be."

J. writes: "Race was not an issue. And Obama started his campaign as a champion of all people. Then came the Clintons, with her surrogates, such as Bob Johnson and Bill Clinton himself. I can just see the talking heads tonight bloviating on this issue and what it all means. It means that certain parts of this country are bigots. It would have happened had Hillary won, and they would not have been able to accept a woman. Only, she voted for the Iraq war. Wonder how many West Virginia men and women died for Hillary's Bush policy on Iraq?"

Bill in New London, Connecticut, says: "Huge. Race has been huge all along. Ever wonder why Obama can't secure the older voters and blue-collar white voters? It's because he's black. Polls won't show it, but we all know there are just some people who will not vote for a black man. Sad, but true."

And Nic writes: "I really hope it doesn't matter. Bush fit the perfect stereotype that was safe to vote for. And look at the mess he got us into. If people are so blinded by race and hate that that is the only reason that they don't vote for Barack Obama, then they deserve whatever they get."

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

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.