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THE SITUATION ROOM

Hillary Back on the Trail; Obama Holds Slight Lead in New Presidential Poll

Aired August 5, 2008 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: shocking allegations about the president's determination to invade Iraq. There's a new book that claims the White House actually forged a key piece of evidence and then turned a blind eye to another.

Barack Obama gets a tricky question and an opening to be critical of John McCain. You are going to find out if he takes the bait.

And the McCain camp brandishes a brand-new campaign weapon against Obama, tire pressure gauges -- all that and the best political team on television.

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

A controversial new book drops one bombshell after another on the Bush White House.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

Some of the most explosive allegations address just how far the Bush administration was willing to go to justify the war in Iraq.

Brian Todd has been going through the book. You have been looking into these allegations by this Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Ron Suskind.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're very powerful accusations, Wolf, and we have gotten some very strong pushback from the White House, the CIA, and from the agency's former director.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Two bombshells from a controversial author, that the White House issued a fake document and that the administration knew well in advance that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

In his new book, "The Way of the World," Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind writes that, in 2003, the White House concocted a fake letter from former Iraqi intelligence chief Tarir Jallil Habbush to Saddam Hussein backdated to July 1, 2001. Quote: "It said that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had actually trained for his mission in Iraq."

In an interview with NBC's "Today Show," Suskind said former CIA Director George Tenet got the order to fabricate the letter.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE TODAY SHOW")

RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR/JOURNALIST: The CIA folks involved in the book and others talk about George coming back -- Tenet coming back from the White House with the assignment on White House stationary and turning to the CIA operatives, who were professionals, saying, you may not like this, but here's our next mission. And they carried it through step by step.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: Contacted by CNN, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the notion that the White House would concoct such a letter is absurd.

Tenet issued a statement saying there was no such order from the White House to him. And he said the idea that he would plant false evidence is ridiculous.

CNN contributor Fran Townsend was Condoleezza Rice's deputy for counterterrorism at the time.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: It's just patently ridiculous. I will tell you that when you think about, there were 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions that Saddam was flagrantly in violation of. There were reasons that we went to war.

TODD: Suskind also writes that months before the Iraq invasion, Habbush had relayed to the Americans through British intelligence that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He quotes a former U.S. intelligence official as saying, when that information was passed to President Bush, He said: "F. it. We're going in."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, the White House did not respond to that specific quote, but again pushed Back hard on the idea that they knew there were no weapons of mass destruction. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said U.S. and foreign intelligence estimates at the time said Saddam Hussein did have such weapons. And Fratto said Saddam had already used them to murder his own people -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They're also pushing back hard on the credibility of this former Iraqi intelligence chief.

TODD: They are. George Tenet said that the British themselves had lost confidence in Tarir Habbush. They said that they believed he was not credible and they cut off contact with him. That's according to George Tenet. The British did not get back to us when we asked them for comment on that. BLITZER: All right, I know you have got more on the story coming up, a lot more explosive details. We're going to have those coming up later this hour.

And also tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Ron Suskind will be among our guests. He will defend his new book.

Let's move on to the presidential race right now.

Barack Obama is among the youngest presidential candidate in recent memory. He's running against one of the oldest. And many of you have questions about both. It's a question Obama directly confronted today.

Let's go to CNN's Jessica Yellin. She's watching this story for us.

He was planning his speech on energy, but you know what? In the Q&A in these town hall meetings, he often veers off course.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Obama was outlining his energy proposals and taking aim at John McCain's plans, but when he started taking questions from the audience, the question of age unexpectedly became an issue.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GOV. TED STRICKLAND (D), OHIO: Hello, Youngstown!

YELLIN (voice-over): Ohio Governor Ted Strickland was the first to bring it up, repeatedly describing Barack Obama as young.

STRICKLAND: This bright, young, energized, compassionate, intelligent, committed young man...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

STRICKLAND: ... by the name of Barack Obama!

YELLIN: An audience member picked up on the message.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When I turn the TV on, I see these congressmen and senators and that, that are 80 and 85 years old. And they're making decisions for the next generation of Americans. That kind of bothers me. I mean, what is your opinion -- not being disrespectful to the elderly, but what is your opinion as far as setting term limits or age limits on these people, so that we get younger people in there?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is kind of a tricky question for me. You know, I have got colleagues in the Senate who are doing just outstanding work. And they are well into their 70s. And they have got incredible energy. I mean, one of my dearest friends in the Senate is Ted Kennedy, and that guy is still fighting. YELLIN: The age question has been in the background of this race. But Obama did not take this question as an opening to draw a contrast with John McCain on the issue.

OBAMA: I do believe in one form of term limits. They're called elections. And, so my attitude is, I'm less concerned about what age folks are than, what are they doing? And, if they're not looking out for your interests, then it's time to throw the bums out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Wolf, two different polls show that at least 75 percent of voters believe age does not make a difference when they choose their president.

And a "New York Times" poll actually shows that a plurality of people believe that age means more experience, which could be a good thing for John McCain.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jessica, very much.

Senators Obama and McCain are dueling over who can best help you deal with the energy crisis. But their approaches are quite different.

Let's go to Ed Henry. He's working this part of the story.

And there was some sharp jabbing going on by these candidates today.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

After days of going negative on Barack Obama, John McCain tried to sort of pivot and go positive about his own record in a new ad. But he also launched some broadsides at Obama just for good measure.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): Touring a nuclear power plant in Michigan, John McCain expanded his assault on Barack Obama's energy plan.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Obama has said that expanding our nuclear power plants -- quote -- "doesn't make sense for America" -- unquote. He also says no to nuclear storage and no to reprocessing. I could not disagree more.

HENRY: This is one of the sharpest policy differences between the two candidates. McCain wants to go full speed ahead on nuclear, building 45 new power plants by 2030.

MCCAIN: Now, we all know that nuclear power isn't enough, and drilling isn't enough, and we need to do all this and more.

HENRY: Obama has a much more cautious approach to nuclear power. He does not want to build any new plants without first getting a better handle on safety and security. OBAMA: It means finding safer ways to use nuclear power and store nuclear waste.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: In Ohio, Obama stepped up his own attacks on McCain, again charging, the Republican is in the pocket of the oil industry, and mocking his decision to embrace offshore oil and gas drilling.

OBAMA: This is what he talked about yesterday: I want to drill here. I want to drill now.

I don't know where he was standing.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: I think he was in a building somewhere.

(LAUGHTER)

HENRY: The McCain camp points out, however, Obama voted for the president's energy bill in 2005, which had billions in tax breaks for oil and gas interests. McCain voted against that bill, and has a new ad pointing out he has repeatedly taken on special interests.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: Only McCain has taken on big tobacco, drug companies, fought corruption in both parties. He will reform Wall Street, battle big oil, make America prosper again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Now, in that speech, Obama also stepped up his attacks on McCain by charging once again that he's in the pocket of the oil industry. But McCain is firing back that, back in 2005, when the president's energy bill came up for a vote, Obama voted for that. That had some huge tax breaks for oil and gas interests. McCain voted against it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Ed Henry, for that.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: There may be hope for the survival of the republic. The rise in the number of independent voters in several states has been so sharp that they now virtually constitute a third party.

And that's great news. It's not good news for the Democrats or the Republicans. It's really not good news for the Republicans. "The New York Times" reports that for more than three years now, there's been a steady decline in the number of voters registering as Republicans and an increase in the number registering as Democrats. These shifts could affect local, state and national politics for several election cycles to come. Already, Republicans have lost control in many statehouses and governor's mansions, and they took a beating as you will recall in the midterm elections in 2006.

It's important to note that swings in party registrations are not uncommon from year to year. And party registration often has no impact on how people wind up voting in the end. But experts say what is remarkable is that this shift away from the Republican Party is now in its fourth year.

One analyst says it suggests a fundamental change going on in the electorate. Former House Majority Leader Republican Dick Armey say these are -- quote -- "not good numbers for the GOP." Nothing gets back Dick Armey, but cautions, Armey does, that they don't give a clear indication about what will happen in the presidential race.

Armey suggests the key is who all these new independent voters will wind up supporting. Democrats point to President Bush as the main reason for the shift, but they're also benefiting from demographic changes, things like the rise in the number of younger voters and the urbanization of the suburbs.

So, here's the question: Republican voter registrations have been declining steadily since 2005. Why?

go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good question, Jack. Thank you.

Barack Obama says the McCain campaign is taking pride on being ignorant on one issue. His own words next.

Also, it's the move no traveler wants to make, sliding down the emergency exists. This happened only a few hours ago in Los Angeles. Why the jet was forced to land, that's coming up.

Plus, Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail once again. And about to do a first for the Obama campaign.

And they are not the typical audience at a political rally, John McCain and thousands, tens of thousands, of bikers. That's coming up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: I will take the roar of 50,000 Harleys any day.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Senator Barack Obama is using very strong language and suggesting that his critics within the McCain campaign take pride in being ignorant, a tough new response from Obama to attacks on his energy plan. He spoke just a short while ago in Ohio.

Let's listen in to his remarks at length.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: The other day, I was in a town hall meeting and I laid out my plans for investing $15 billion a year, energy-efficient cars, and a new electricity grid and all this.

Somebody said, well, what can I do? What can individuals do? So, I told them something simple. I said, you know what, you can inflate your tires to the proper levels, and that if everybody in America inflated their tires to the proper level, we would actually probably save more oil than all of the oil that we would get from John McCain drilling right below his feet there, wherever it is that he was going to drill -- wherever he was going to drill.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: So, now the Republicans are going around -- this is the kind of thing they do. I don't understand it. They are going around. They're sending like little tire gauges, making fun of this idea, as if this is Barack Obama's energy plan.

Now, two points. One, they know they're lying about what my energy plan is. But the other thing is, they are making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption by 3 percent to 4 percent.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: I mean, they think it's funny that they're making fun of something that is actually true.

They need to do their homework, because this is serious business. Instead of running ads about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, they should go talk to some energy experts and actually make a difference.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Come on.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: I mean, come on. This is serious.

In just 10 years, the three steps I outline will produce enough renewable energy to replace the oil we import from the Middle East. And along with the cap-and-trade, I propose we can reduce dangerous carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. We can slow the warming of our planet, create five million new jobs in the process. Why wouldn't be want to do that? Why would we make fun of those goals? Now, I won't pretend that these goals are going to be easy. They won't. They will be difficult. I won't pretend we can achieve them without a cost or without sacrifice or without the contribution of almost every American citizen. We can't.

But I will say that these goals are possible. And I will say that achieving them is absolutely necessary to make America safe and to make America prosperous in the 21st century.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Strong words from Senator Obama.

Let's listen now to what Senator McCain is saying about energy and gas prices. It's an issue that played well with motorcycle enthusiasts in South Dakota.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: I thank you all very much for that unique Sturgis welcome.

As you may know, not long ago, a couple of hundred thousand Berliners made a lot of noise for my opponent. I will take the roar of 50,000 Harleys any day! Any day, my friends!

(APPLAUSE)

This is my first time here, but I recognize that sound. It's the sound of freedom. And thank you for it. Thank you.

May I -- may I say -- may I say to you, is there anybody that's tired of paying $4 a gallon for gasoline? Is there anybody that's sick and tired of it? Is there anybody that wants to become energy independent?

Well, I'm telling you right now, we're sending $700 billion over a year, and your Congress just went on vacation for five weeks. Tell them to come back and get to work! Tell them to get to work!

When I'm president of the United States, I'm not going to let them go on vacation. They're going -- they're going to become energy independent, and we're not going to pay $4 a gallon for gas, because we're going to drill offshore and we're going to drill now. And we're going to drill here, and we're going to drill now.

My opponent doesn't want to drill. He doesn't want nuclear power. He wants you to inflate your tires.

My friends, we need a commander in chief -- we need a commander in chief who will end the war in Iraq, but will win it the right way, and that's by winning it. And we're not going to be defeated.

And my opponent -- my opponent wants to set a date to come home. I want us to come home with victory and honor so we will never go back again. And we won't go back! Thank you. Thank you.

And we owe -- my friends, we owe victory to the courage and love of this country by people who are here. You're the heartland of America. You're the heart and soul of America. You provide the men and women who serve our military.

I'm honored. I'm honored to be in your company.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator McCain speaking in South Dakota.

President Bush, meanwhile, is traveling to Asia, thousands of people on the streets to greet him. One side of the street says, welcome. The other says, you're not so welcome. Go home.

And it appears the Republican Party is rolling out the unwelcome mat for the vice president, Dick Cheney. He may not -- repeat, not -- be welcome at the presidential convention in St. Paul.

And Michelle Obama becomes first lady in a Tyra Banks photo shoot. In it, the Obamas celebrate their new home. We will tell you what's going on right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Ron Suskind says Iran -- yes, Iran -- made a surprising overture to the United States involving al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. There are more bombshells from his brand-new book. The best political team on television is standing by to consider the fallout.

Plus, the pressure is on, as in tire pressure. Our own Jeanne Moos takes on the surprising new gauge in the presidential race.

And NASA answers the question, is there life on Mars?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now: more bombshells in a new book by a Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist saying the White House passed up an offer that could possibly have led to Osama bin Laden himself.

And Barack Obama leading in our brand-new CNN poll of polls, but not by a lot. Why isn't he doing better? All of this, plus the best political team on television.

And Wall Street enjoys one of its best days of the year. Falling oil prices help the Dow soar more than 331 points.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Let's get some more now on our top story, the stunning allegations in a brand-new book by a respected Washington journalist, Ron Suskind. Among his allegations: The Bush White House ignored an offer from Iran to help crack the al Qaeda network.

CNN's Brian Todd has been working the sources, working the book.

Brian, update our viewers. What do we know?

TODD: Well, Wolf, a number of incendiary claims by Mr. Suskind in this book, the one you mentioned, one of those that we found the most fascinating, his report of an incredible offer from the Iranians to the United States after 9/11.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A startling post-9/11 overture from a bitter American enemy. They grill al Qaeda leaders, maybe even get them to give up Osama bin Laden.

In his new book, "The Way of the World," Ron Suskind writes that Iran made that offer just before the Iraq war. After senior al Qaeda leaders had fled to Iran, Suskind writes, "The Iranians were ready to start subtly working al Qaeda's exiled managers and maybe even use them to get to bin Laden."

In his new book, "The Way of the World," Ron Suskind writes that Iran made that offer just before the Iraq War.

After senior Al Qaeda leaders had fled to Iran, Suskind writes, the Iranians: "Were ready to start subtly working al Qaeda's exiled managers and maybe even use them to get to bin Laden."

Suskind writes: "The Bush administration never responded." And when a senior intelligence official asked President Bush why not, Suskind quotes the official saying: "He just looked at me with this funny blank stare."

A White House spokesman responded by saying he's not Ron Suskind's fact-checker. "That would be a full-time job."

An Iranian official at the U.N. says he knows of no such overture.

In an interview with NBC's "Today Show," Suskind defended his sources.

RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR, "THE WAY OF THE WORLD": They were off the record sources who laid out the story. And then I went to people actually involved.

TODD: Suskind writes in detail about what he says was a chilling phone call between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, September 2007, two months before Bhutto's assassination. Musharraf, according to Suskind, says: "You should understand something. Your security is based on the state of our relationship."

A senior Bhutto adviser who was with her right before and after that call tells CNN he can't confirm the quote, but says Bhutto was very upset afterward. The adviser says Bhutto said Musharraf's attitude toward her had changed, that he was confrontational and hostile.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: I also spoke with a senior adviser to the Pakistani government today. He said he knows Musharraf well and that he knew Benazir Bhutto. And he says he doubts Musharraf said that.

A current CIA spokesman says overall about this book: "If jumping to conclusions were an Olympic event, Ron Suskind would be in Beijing now." -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us.

Thank you, Brian.

As reported at the top of the hour, Suskind also claims the Bush White House actually knew before invading Iraq that there were absolutely no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Let's talk about this and more with senior political analyst, Gloria Borger; our own Jack Cafferty; and Michael Gerson. He's a senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations. He's a former assistant to President Bush.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Well, let me ask you, Michael, first. You were in the White House. These are explosive charges. And I'm told that it's only the beginning. Bob Woodward has got a book coming out in early September, as well.

What do you think?

MICHAEL GERSON, COLUMNIST FOR "THE WASHINGTON POST," SENIOR FELLOW AT THE COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, what I think is -- I mean Bob Woodward is a good example of a comparison. Bob Woodward has reported a lot of things that the Bush administration really didn't want out there. His last book was pretty hostile. But people think he has high standards. And there's a lot of people who don't think the same about this author.

These are not so much revelations as they are part of an industry, which is the use of spectacular tidbits -- thinly sourced tidbits -- in order to sell books. And I'm pretty old-fashioned about this. I think that when you have spectacular charges, you ought to have spectacular proof. And so far, we really haven't seen a shred of it. And given this author's background, I think we're not likely to.

BLITZER: Well, he's going to be here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow to defend his book and defend these spectacular allegations. Jack, there are already some members of Congress who say if these allegations are true, they want hearings and perhaps more.

CAFFERTY: Yes, well, you know, with the oversight of the executive branch of government in the hands of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, they could be walking out the back door of the White House with their cars, the china, the furniture and this Congress couldn't have a clue. I mean impeachment is off the table from two years ago.

The most explosive charge Bush ordered the forging of a document predating 9/11 to indicate that there was some sort of relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq, that he gave orders to the CIA to do this.

If that's true, if any of that's true, he belongs in prison for the rest of his life. The question we'll never get the answer to is whether or not there's anything to it.

BLITZER: What is the political fallout, Gloria, from all of this?

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think, honestly, Wolf, this isn't going to change anybody's mind. If you're predisposed to believe that the president wasn't truthful on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, this is going to be reinforcing. But if you think not, then not. And I think, you know, what's very interesting is that, you know, George Bush has a very low approval rating. The war in Iraq is very unpopular. And if you look at our latest CNN poll on John McCain, who supports the president on the war, he beats Obama 52-45 on who's better able to manage the war. So go figure.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by, because we have a lot more to talk about. This is only just the beginning.

A deeply unpopular Republican presidency should be helping Barack Obama against John McCain. But as we just heard, a new CNN poll of polls shows them to be very close.

Why isn't Senator Obama doing better in the polls?

Also, details of Hillary Clinton's first solo appearance for Senator Obama.

Plus, an accused mobster with a notorious name in court to face murder charges.

(What do we have -- Betty?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Senator Barack Obama leading Senator John McCain in our brand new CNN poll of polls -- but not by very much.

We're back with the best political team on television -- our senior political analyst,

Gloria Borger; Jack Cafferty and Michael Gerson. He's a senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations, a former speechwriter in the White House.

The latest polls has Obama at 48 percent, McCain at 43, unsure, 9 percent.

Why, Jack, do you believe he's not doing even better than that?

CAFFERTY: Well, I think he's doing pretty well. He's a relative unknown compared to John McCain, who's been in the Senate for 26 years. Here's a black man who came out of Illinois an unknown commodity, took the Clinton political machine to the wood shed and opened a can of whoop ass on them and probably will do the same thing to John McCain before it's over.

But it's early. It's summertime. People are still getting to know who these candidates are. And he's ahead. And he's ahead by something beyond the margin of error. So he'll probably take it at this point (ph).

BLITZER: And in almost all of these polls, in our average of the polls, Gloria, McCain has never really gone above 45 percent.

BORGER: Yes, but, you know, Obama really should be further ahead given what's going on in the country, given that 80 percent of people think it's headed in the wrong direction; given the fact that the president is very unpopular.

And so I think you have to take a look at Obama and you have to say that Americans are kind of unsure about him. In some polls, four out of 10 say they're not quite sure they can identify with his values or his background.

And so what Obama has to do now -- and I think the campaign really understands this -- is he has to reintroduce himself to the American people, which is what he's going to do at the convention. And he has to tell people who he is and where he comes from to make them more comfortable with him, because he's really an outsider coming into this race. He wasn't born into politics. He hasn't done it for the last 30 years. So they have a lot they need to learn about him.

BLITZER: You know, Michael, Senator McCain did something extraordinary today. He released a new ad in which he not only wants to not only distance himself from President Bush, but he goes after him.

Listen to this little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM JOHN MCCAIN FOR PRESIDENT CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Washington's broken. John McCain knows it. We're worse off than we were four years ago. Only McCain has taken on big tobacco, drug companies, fought corruption in both parties. He'll reform Wall Street, battle big oil, make America prosper again. He's the original maverick.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: All right. Michael, I mean, the fact that he's going after a sitting Republican president, a president almost for eight years, and saying Washington is broken, we're worse off than were four years ago, that's pretty extraordinary.

GERSON: It is pretty extraordinary, but it's also pretty understandable. John McCain has at least two advantages going into these things. He's not the vice president of a sitting president. He has actually been a pain in the neck for this president in many ways and he might as well get some credit for it.

(LAUGHTER)

GERSON: And I think the reality also is that he's been a pain of the neck for leadership of Congress for 20 some years. And he might as well get credit for that, too. He is genuinely disliked by many establishment elements of the Republican Party. He was chosen to be the nominee because of -- in spite of this.

But, in fact, I think he's doing better than any of the other primary candidates would be doing at this point precisely because he's not identified either closely with the administration or with the Republican Congress, which was deeply discredited.

BORGER: Well, and when you look at polls, you know, McCain is his own brand. And he's running ahead of Republicans in Congressional races and in Senate races because people do identify him separately.

And I might add, the theme that Washington is broken is kind of a theme that everyone agrees on. And both of these candidates are competing as to who's got the best way to fix it. And McCain has a story to tell here.

CAFFERTY: John McCain was opposed to the Bush tax cuts until he decided he was for them.

BORGER: Yes...

CAFFERTY: John McCain was opposed to offshore drilling before he decided he was for it. John McCain, in his years in the Senate, has voted with the Bush administration between 90 and 95 percent of the time. So this...

BORGER: Well, that's the Obama ad.

CAFFERTY: ...this maverick stuff is a lot of hooey. And for him to claim that he's some sort of Washington outsider who has -- who's divorced from the Bush administration is the ultimate hypocrisy.

BLITZER: Well, let's...

GERSON: (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: Hold on, Michael.

GERSON: OK. BLITZER: I want you to respond to that.

GERSON: Sure.

BLITZER: But listen to this new ad that the Obama campaign just released specifically on this point.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM BARACK OBAMA CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's the original maverick.

MCCAIN: The president and I agree on most issues. There was a recent study that showed that I voted with the president over 90 percent of the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John McCain supports Bush's tax cuts for millionaires, but nothing for 100 million households. He's for billions in new oil company giveaways, while gas prices soar and for tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.

The original maverick or just more of the same?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, you get the point, Michael.

GERSON: Yes, I do get the point. But if you look at the issues, you look at immigration, you look at torture, you look at campaign finance reform, you look at a variety of these issues, McCain has bucked his party.

I would challenge anyone to name a single area where Barack Obama bucked the liberal consensus of his party. And I think it's a real contrast.

BORGER: But then the question is why are these Republicans supporting John McCain, who they've loved to hate for the last 25 years?

GERSON: Because, I mean he -- I think he was supported in the primaries simply because he had the best chance. I think there are plenty of conservatives that are willing to hold their nose and vote for him. And, you know, I think that that's the main argument for the McCain candidacy and he needs to press it.

BLITZER: Jack?

CAFFERTY: If any Republican can overcome the wretched stain of eight years of George Bush and win the White House, we deserve whatever bad things will happen to us.

BLITZER: In recent days, Michael, I will say that Barack Obama has bucked the sort of liberal or the left part of the Democratic Party on the issue of offshore oil drilling. Now he's saying, you know what, I would accept it as part of a comprehensive package. And on that Supreme Court decision on guns here in the District of Columbia, he went out and he took a very strong stance on that in opposition to some of the liberals.

So, in recent -- in recent weeks, at least, he's not necessarily lockstep with the liberal side.

GERSON: That's actually a problem for him in a certain way because his recent strategy is undermining his basic image, which is I'm different, I'm better than politics as normal. He has decided I can't be tagged as a liberal. And I think that might be the correct decision going into this election, but it has a political price. And people are asking not does this man have political skills. Everybody knows that.

The question is does he have political character?

BLITZER: All right...

GERSON: And I think that McCain is right to raise that question.

BLITZER: Michael, thank you.

BORGER: But...

BLITZER: Gloria hold your thought. You'll be back, not necessarily today, but tomorrow.

BORGER: OK.

BLITZER: We'll see you then.

Jack's got The Cafferty File still to come.

A good discussion today.

An emergency landing and a heart-stopping evacuation -- passengers forced to flee on inflatable slides. We have the new video from inside the plane. You're going to want to see this.

And an accused organized crime boss in court facing staggering charges.

Plus, a supermodel portraying Michelle Obama.

(What do we have -- Betty?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello is off today.

Betty Nguyen filling in, monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What do we have -- Betty?

NGUYEN: Wolf, we have new video from inside that American Airlines plane that was evacuated after an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Appropriate this morning. Now, you can see passengers making their way to the exits where they had to jump down the plane's inflatable emergency slides. Flight 31 left lax for Honolulu just an hour earlier, when the pilot reported the smell of smoke in the cabin, but no evidence of fire was found.

Indicted in Florida, arrested in New York -- alleged mob figure John "Junior" Gotti, son of Gambino family mob boss John Gotti, appeared in court facing a number of federal charges, along with five others. Officials link all of them to a large scale cocaine trafficking ring and accused them of shootings, stabbings, even baseball bat beatings designed to bring fear. All six defendants face life in prison if convicted. Gotti is being held without bail.

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch gave emergency workers quite a scare. The New York "Daily News" reports the 83-year-old, who wears a pacemaker, accidentally set off his medic alert device last night. Well, firefighters and EMS workers rushed to his apartment. And when they got there, they saw he was OK, even joking about it. Koch says: "To the consternation of my enemies, I am still alive."

Well, hopes for life on Mars are getting dashed a little. NASA says its Phoenix lander has discovered a toxic chemical in the soil near Mars' North Pole.

Now, that could lesson the chance that life exists on Mars. But NASA is trying to make sure that it didn't bring the contaminant to the red planet itself. The chemical is widely used in solid rocket fuel.

How bad would that be, Wolf, NASA killed off all the Martians before they even found them.

BLITZER: That would be bad. That would be very bad.

NGUYEN: Yes.

BLITZER: Betty, thanks very much.

Let's go back to Jack.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is, the Republican voter registrations have been declining ever since 2005.

Why do you suppose that is?

Derick writes from New York: "In 2000, Republicans strayed away from issues that matter. After eight years of the wildly popular Democrat in office, Bill Clinton, George Bush ran on social issues. Nobody bothered to ask whether he could manage the economy or deploy our military responsibly. But don't fret. Once the Democrats clean up the mess, people will once again fall in love with the GOP siren song of lower taxes, less government."

Chris in Ottawa writes: "The GOP used to be a great party. They stood for small government, fiscal responsibility, non-interventionist foreign policy, no nation building. Unfortunately, they have allowed themselves to be hijacked by the neo-conservative nitwits. Now Republicans stand for big government, record deficits, unending war, domestic surveillance and telling Americans how to live their lives. As Ron Paul says, the party has lost its way."

Odessa in Ohio: "Well, well, Jack, there are some very decent Republicans, but they're very disappointed with Bush's failed policies and the Republican scams of the last seven years. That's why the voter registration has been slipping. Now McCain is running and the entire GOP party is very sad."

Gordon in New Jersey says: "This once proud party decays because the religious extremists and talk radio parroting classes have stolen the party's fiscally conservative and libertarian soul. They mock the Bill of Rights and will willingly trade liberty for the illusion of security. This increasingly corrupted Republican Party is nourished by fear and confounded by hope."

Victor weighs in with: "I recently switched parties after being a card carrying Republican for 25 years. The reason? Republicans of late have become brainwashed flag wavers who support without questioning a man like Bush, who is obviously incompetent and corrupt. The Republican seem to count on its party members being unthinking sheep who will obey without consider."

And one more in the same vein. Mike in Michigan: "The reason is a dirty four letter word -- B-U-S-H."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, check my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile and you might find it there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will check.

Jack, see you tomorrow.

Thanks very much.

On our Political Ticker today, Hillary Clinton is ready to venture out on her first solo campaign appearances for Barack Obama. The Obama camp says Senator Clinton will host rallies and voter registration events this Friday in Las Vegas and then in South Florida later in the month.

The model turned media mogul, Tyra Banks, poses as a political wife in the new edition of "Harper's Bazaar". In a photo shoot, Banks steps into the role of Michelle Obama. She and other models portray the Obamas taking their place in the White House as the first family.

Republicans officials say Cheney -- that would be the vice president, Dick Cheney -- likely will not attend the convention next month in St. Paul. They cite a desire by the McCain campaign to turn the page on the Bush/Cheney years. One official tells CNN, there still are talks underway between Cheney's office and the McCain camp to try to work something out. We're watching this story.

And remember, for the latest political news any time, go to CNNPolitics.com.

Jeanne Moos isn't the only one getting revved up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Tire pressure, tire pressure -- all this talk about tire pressure is raising my blood pressure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: John McCain mocked Barack Obama's energy tips. Now Barack Obama is striking right back, as CNN's Jeanne Moos finds out.

And all suited up for school -- Hot Shots. They're next.

(What do we have -- Betty?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at this hour's Hot Shots.

A damaged Piper aircraft sits on the ground after a crash landing.

And Washington State University quarterback Gary Rogers stretches at the opening practice.

And in Germany, a first grader waits for the beginning of the first day of school.

This hour's Hot Shots.

John McCain suggests Barack Obama is full of hot air when it comes to solving America's energy woes.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Could this be the hiss of the air going out of a political stunt?

The tire pressure gauge has become the political prop of the week, as the McCain campaign uses it to try to deflate Senator Obama.

MCCAIN: He suggested we put air in our tires to save on gas.

We're not going to achieve energy independence by inflating our tires.

The only thing I've heard him say is that we should inflate our tires.

MOOS: This is what Senator Obama did say when he ticked off things individuals could do to save energy.

OBAMA: Making sure your tires are properly inflated.

MOOS: Those seven words became what McCain dubbed "Obama's energy plan." Emblazoned on tire pressure gauges they handed out on the press plane.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A tire pressure gauge?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, thank you.

MOOS: The McCain folks even handed out tire gauges to people lining up for an Obama rally. They're being sold on eBay for 10 bucks.

And over and over, Senator McCain used tire inflation to tread on Obama.

MCCAIN: Do you think that's enough to break our dependence on Middle Eastern oil?

My opponent doesn't want to drill. He doesn't want nuclear power. He wants you to inflate your tires.

MOOS (on camera): Tire pressure, tire pressure -- all this talk about tire pressure is raising my blood pressure. There's something wrong with my blood pressure.

(voice-over): Boo hiss is what columnist Joe Klein is saying.

JOE KLEIN, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I think the McCain campaign has this weird idea that you can win a presidential election through mockery.

MOOS: But the Automobile Association of America isn't mocking tire inflation. On a vehicle like this, just one tire...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you're four pounds under inflated.

MOOS: ...could result in this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you're losing about 8 percent of your fuel economy.

MOOS: After several days of Republican spin on the tire issue, Obama got tired of it.

OBAMA: They're going around, they're sending like little tire gauges making fun of this idea, as if this is Barack Obama's energy plan.

MOOS: His actual energy plan fills page after page on his Web site.

OBAMA: And it's like these guys take pride in being ignorant. They think it's funny that they're making fun of something that is actually true.

MOOS: But watch your back. Tire pressure gauges can be hazardous. This guy used one created a pipe to smoke ganja. And our AAA expert found out it's not just the gauge...

(on camera): Oops, sorry.

MOOS: ...that's feeling the pressure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. That hurt a little bit.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: And that's it for us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT".

Kitty Pilgrim sitting in for Lou -- Kitty.