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U.S. Combat Mission in Iraq Ends; NASA Tests Rocket It Doesn't Want

Aired August 31, 2010 - 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: Thanks very much, Rick.

Happening now, breaking news -- at this very moment, the U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially ends, as the president of the United States gets ready to address the nation on the handover to Iraqi forces and the changing role for U.S. troops.

There are no claims of mission accomplished, but what is the reality on the ground right now?

Can Iraq's leaders put together a government and can Iraq's military hold the line against the insurgents?

And as gang warfare is gripping Mexico right now, a deadly new attack on a night club spreads fear in the popular resort of Cancun.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: It's midnight in Baghdad right now and that marks an end to an extraordinary milestone for the American involvement in Iraq. Almost seven and a half years after the shock and awe invasion, the U.S. combat mission has just ended. Some 500 -- some 50,000 U.S. troops, I should say, remain as advisers and trainers. But get this -- they are also very much combat ready, because the violence in Iraq has certainly not ended.

President Obama will speak to the nation about the changing mission three hours from now. We'll bring that to you live, of course.

But let's go straight to Iraq for a closer look at the situation on the ground.

And joining us now from Baghdad, our correspondent, Arwa Damon -- Arwa, you've been there for years.

When the U.S. says combat operations are over and 50,000 U.S. troops, all combat ready, are still there, what does that mean in practical terms?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it really does boil down to the semantics of it. The U.S. may be saying that it's officially ending its combat mission, but this is, at the end of the day, still a war zone and those 50,000 American soldiers will still be going out in the streets, wearing their flak jackets, their helmets, carrying weapons. And they will remain very much on high alert because although the insurgency here has been weakened, it is still very active. I mean, look, Wolf, it's not like come September 1st, someone has managed to find a magic switch that is going to, all of a sudden, transform this country into one of peace and prosperity.

BLITZER: What are you hearing from Iraqis on the street right now?

You speak Arabic. You get the insight on what they're thinking.

Are they happy or sad that the U.S. is pulling out?

DAMON: You know, Wolf, to be completely honest, the last few months that I've spent here, in speaking to Iraqis, they are, to a certain degree, more desperate than I, at least, have ever seen them, perhaps because there was so much optimism that was generated after the March elections, because, perhaps, the Iraqis believed that change might finally be coming.

And now, it's not as if Iraqis want the Americans to stay forever. They most certainly don't. But because there is such a political deadlock -- a political vacuum here, because people are only too aware that politics and violence do go hand in hand and the memories of what this country has been through are just so fresh, there is a lot of apprehension surrounding this current U.S. troop withdrawal. People do not have the same faith and confidence in their own forces that the Americans do -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the -- the fear that another bloodbath between Shia, Sunni and Kurds could emerge within Iraq, how realistic -- how strong is that fear?

DAMON: That fear amongst the Iraqi people, Wolf, is very, very real; very, very strong. You'll remember back to the days of 2005 all the way to 2007 and 2008, those were times when, in Baghdad, hundreds of bodies were being found a week unidentified. Those were times when neighbors turned on each other. And it's not as if the individuals who carried out these horrific acts of violence have all been apprehended or brought to justice. Many of them are still out there. We're talking about neighbors turning on neighbors, in some cases, families turning on families. And when the situation finally settled down here, they all largely melted away.

We've spoken to a number of gunmen fighters who have admitted to carrying out horrific acts, who are now the person who's driving the taxi. So the reality that these individuals could emerge, if the politics here don't settle, it's very real and very frightening for Iraqis.

BLITZER: It's a scary, scary moment in Iraq right now, as it has been.

Arwa, thanks very much. President Obama is on his way back to the White House right now from Texas, where he met with troops at Fort Bliss and thanked them for their service. He spoke to them about the changing mission in Iraq, offering a preview of tonight's address to the nation.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our task in Iraq is not yet completed. Our combat phase is over. But we've worked too hard to neglect the continuing work that has to be done by our civilians and by those transitional forces, including some folks who are going to be deploying, I understand, today. We're still going to be going after terrorists in those areas. And so our counter- terrorism operations are still going to be conducted jointly.

But the bottom line is, is that our combat phase is now over. We are in transition.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Republican Congressional leaders are also going public today, trying to convince voters the U.S. success in Iraq has come in spite of the current commander-in-chief.

Let's turn to our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What are they saying, the Republican opposition?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, they are noting that this is a momentous occasion. They -- everybody saying that they welcome that. But they are also trying to wedge into the narrative today a recent history lesson. And that his lesson is, Wolf, that leading Democrats, including and perhaps especially the president of the United States, opposed the surge of troops that many credit with, at least in part, getting to this place.

Listen to what the House minority leader, John Boehner, said at the American Legion convention Earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MINORITY LEADER: And some leaders who opposed, criticized and fought tooth and nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for the results. One lawmaker rejected the idea that the surge would reduce violence in Iraq, saying -- and, again, I'm quoting: "In fact, I think we will do the reverse."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, that lawmaker John Boehner was talking about was, Wolf, then Senator Barack Obama. And it was really interesting. Both he and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who also spoke today, they were so border line starky -- sarcastic and even bitter, at times. Mitch McConnell, for example saying that it certainly makes it easy to fulfill a campaign promise when the previous administration was the one who signed this agreement that led them to this place.

BLITZER: And they spoke a lot about national security, the Republican opposition, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. But they're also talking about the economy.

BASH: This really struck me. As soon as I saw John Boehner's prepared remarks earlier today, I noticed that it's a national security speech. This was billed as a big national security speech. After he thanked the troops, the number one thing he talked about was the economy. He talked about a spending spree and permanent bailouts. And here's an example of why our deputy political editor, Paul Steinhauser, pointed something else out today -- a poll from earlier this month. Check this out, Wolf. '

The economy -- no surprise, we know this, but just to see it in black and white is interesting -- 56 percent.

But Iraq?

Way down in terms of what voters really care about, way down, 32 percent. This is Iraq, 32 percent. This is the issue, of course, that drove the last several election cycles. It most recently drove the Democratic primary and perhaps, because of her position, drove Hillary Clinton out of the race and before that drove Nancy Pelosi into the speaker's chair and now it's so far down.

One interesting point that, perhaps, even though John Boehner thinks that this is a big issue, he talked about the economy first.

BLITZER: It's issue number one, the economy --

BASH: The economy.

BLITZER: -- for most Americans.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

BASH: Thanks.

BLITZER: We're going to continue to watch what the president will be saying tonight. Of course, we'll have special coverage.

Meanwhile, the U.S. combat mission in Iraq is ending.

But how do U.S. troops still there feel about the changing role?

We're going to hear from Chris Lawrence.

He's on the scene for us in Baghdad. Plus, why is NASA testing a giant rocket that doesn't really -- that it doesn't really want?

Will the launch project ever get off the ground?

And just in time for tonight's Oval Office address, an Oval Office makeover. We're going to show you how a design team transformed the president's work space.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with the Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, when it comes to November's mid-term elections, the writing on the wall not looking good at all for the Democrats.

A new Gallup Poll shows Republicans with an unprecedented 10 point lead over the Dems, 51-41, on the generic ballot question. That is the Republicans' largest lead in the 68 years Gallup has taken this generic ballot poll.

Then there's this. Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats -- 50 percent to 25 -- to say they're very enthusiastic about voting.

Gallup suggests all this could mean a major wave election, where Republicans win enough seats to take control of the House. To do that, they'd have to win 39 seats. Some people think it could be even worse than that for the Democrats. A political science professor at the State University of New York who has a pretty good record of predicting presidential elections says the Democrats could lose 51 seats come November.

Even a growing number of Democrats themselves now say privately they think the House is already lost. One Democratic strategist tells Politico: "The Democrats are out there talking about Iraq and President Bush while Americans are worried about the economy and their jobs."

Some Democrats are also frustrated the White House has been focusing on the wars and issues like the mosque near Ground Zero instead of the economy.

But other Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- ever the optimist -- insists they will hold onto their majority. Gallup points out Democrats did not lead in the generic ballot earlier this summer. And there's always the chance that they could -- that the positions could change again before election day, although with a 10 point lead at this point, that's increasingly unlikely to happen.

Here's the question -- how concerned should the Democrats be about losing the House in November? The hint is very.

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

BLITZER: Some experts are saying 60 seats, Jack --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Not just 51, 60 seats, potentially; maybe even more.

CAFFERTY: Yes. That -- that would be a bloodbath.

BLITZER: Yes, that would be a bloodbath.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens.

All right, Jack.

Thank you.

With the space shuttle program ending, NASA today tested a rocket engine that it says it doesn't even want. It's part of a launch project that may never really get off the ground because of the planned budget cuts.

CNN's John Zarrella is following this story for us.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, fire.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The test firing of the 154-foot Ares rocket lasted just about two minutes. Pretty cool. Well, enjoy, because this could be the last time that candle is ever lit.

The Ares, built here in Promontory, Utah by ATK Aerospace, was going to be the backbone of the future -- the rocket that propelled astronauts to the Space Station, the moon and some day Mars. The problem is -- and it's sort of a big problem -- no one can agree whether this is the rocket they want.

The White House wants something new, much bigger and cutting edge for deep space missions. So does NASA.

CHARLIE BOLDEN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: We have always had big dreams, but we have all -- we have also always failed to match the -- the -- the budget or the funding to those dreams. I think, for the first time, at least that I can remember, a president has matched the funding to the dreams.

ZARRELLA: Meanwhile, commercial companies like SpaceX want to take over the shuttle's role of ferrying astronauts to the Space Station. For its part, Congress is leaning toward continuing the development of Ares, but one more powerful than this one, just in case cutting edge doesn't cut it because it doesn't yet exist.

GEORGE MUSSER, "SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN": It's really a matter of money. If Congress is asking NASA with its own resources to divert some resources to keeping the Aires project alive, something else is going to suffer. It could be scientific missions, Mars missions, for example.

ZARRELLA: Greg Cotter runs ATK's Aires rocket program. They've built rockets here for more than 30 years including every space shuttle, solid rocket booster. The Aires is an evolution of that booster, bigger and more powerful. One billion dollars has already been spent on its development and until the funding runs out and someone tells them to stop --

GREG KOTTER, ATK ARIES ROCKET PROGRAM: We're working as if, you know, this is what we're going to do. I mean, that's our direction and what we're under contract to do and how we're behaving.

ZARRELLA: In coming months Aires' future will likely be decided by NASA, Congress and the White House. Aries program supporters say if it's completely abandoned then this test was quite literally your tax dollars going up in smoke.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZARRELLA: Now there is an urgency to set a future course and to stick to it. The space shuttle program ends next year and the United States does not have the capability, its own capability, to put astronauts into space for the foreseeable future once the shuttle program ends -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So what? We'll just rely on the Russians, is that it?

ZARRELLA: That's it, Wolf. The Russians until the commercial rockets are ready to take the astronauts to the space station and that might not be until 2016 at the earliest -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John Zarrella reporting for us, as he always does. Thanks very much, John.

Hurricane Earl prompting new warnings right now for all of the folks along the Atlantic Coast. We'll have the latest on this powerful Category 4 storm.

Plus, the desperate effort to free 33 miners entrapped -- they're hundreds of feet underground. We'll have the details of a brand new operation just getting underway.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Deb, what's going on? DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a hurricane watch has just been issued for parts of North Carolina as Earl nears the East Coast. FEMA administrator Craig Fugate says the powerful Category 4 storm could trigger evacuations even if it doesn't make landfall due to surge flooding and high winds.

Now, Earl has already hammered Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and is now barreling toward the southeastern Bahamas. It could potentially hit North Carolina's Outer Banks and points further north later this week.

Also, the daunting effort to free 33 miners trapped underground in Chile is now underway. Rescuers are drilling an evacuation hole through more than 2,300 feet of rock in a process expected to take months.

The miners have been stuck since August, an August 5th cave-in. They are currently surviving on food and supplies being funneled through four-inch bore holes.

And actress Zsa Zsa Gabor has been rushed to the hospital after being found unresponsive in her home. The 93-year-old Gabor had been hospitalized for three weeks following hip replacement surgery last month. She returned to the hospital this month after suffering complications, but her publicist says she later left to spend her final days at home.

Wolf, you know she is most famous for being famous.

BLITZER: Yes, Zsa Zsa, let's wish her only the best. Thanks very much for that, Deb.

The changing mission in Iraq. The combat role is officially over, but what is the reality on the ground for U.S. troops? We'll go there. CNN's Chris Lawrence, our Pentagon correspondent, is in Baghdad, we'll speak with him live.

And if Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives, will they start investigating officials over at the White House? That is ahead in our "Strategy Session."

And the Oval Office gets a makeover in time for the president's address tonight. We'll show you what other presidents have done with their official work space and what this president has now done.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, eight people now dead in the wake of a massive attack. We're going to show you what other presidents have done with their official workspace and what this president has now done.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, eight people now dead in the wake of a massive attack not far from a popular tourist area. Why were explosives hurled into a Cancun, Mexico bar? We'll have the latest on the investigation, stand by.

Plus, a new development in the case of two men arrested in an Amsterdam airport on suspicions of plotting a terrorist attack. Was it all just a false alarm?

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

Step back to our top story. Right now the U.S. combat mission in Iraq has now officially ended. President Obama will make that declaration to the American people from the Oval Office later tonight. You, of course, will see it live here on CNN, 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Some 50,000 U.S. troops, though, remain in Iraq as advisers and trainers, but they are also combat ready because of the violence. The violence has certainly not ended.

Let's go live to our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence, he's joining us from Camp Liberty, the U.S. base in Baghdad, right now.

Set the scene a little bit for us. What are troops in Iraq saying to you, Chris, about this new mission that they now have?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I was talking to a sergeant about just that, about what this moment, that minute the mission changed, what did it mean. And he said, you know, as a soldier, it doesn't mean much because I'm going to be doing the same thing tomorrow that I was doing today. They had already started transitioning to this new mission of advising and assisting and sort of taking a backseat. But he said, personally, it meant a lot.

You know, when you think about it, we talked with some soldiers who had done four deployments -- they're on their fourth deployment here. Over the last seven years, they have spent the majority of their lives here in Iraq. And I think for a lot of those kinds of soldiers, when they look back at the (AUDIO GAP) you know, Fallujah, back in 2004 and 2005 and being part of the invasion back in 2003, that perspective of finally seeing this mission start to wind down really resonated with a lot of them.

BLITZER: Do they think the Iraqi forces, and there are now 600,000 military and national police troops in Iraq, Iraqi forces, do they think the Iraqi forces can get the job done?

LAWRENCE: It's been a big change, Wolf. I remember, you know, being here with troops during the invasion in 2003, spending time on embeds in 2004 and 2005. And I have to tell you, I mean, honestly, there was a lot of distrust among American troops of the Iraqis. There wasn't a lot of respect for their capabilities, they felt they were just not up to snuff. Troops would tell me, you know, you can't even get them to stand watch, that they would abandon their posts. Getting them to take on the hard missions was extremely difficult. I've seen a big shift in that. You know, now at a lot of these bases, the one we just came from, the American troops and the Iraqi troops are living on the same base. They're conducting the joint operations. The American troops are not going on missions by themselves anymore, they're all partnered with the Iraqis. I sense a lot more respect at the Iraqi forces' capability.

Now, are they fully capable of securing the country? Probably not. You look at the amount of violence that still exists here, you look at the wave of bombings that went off all across the country, and that's with 50,000 American troops still supporting them.

So, yes. It's still going to take some time before they are truly able to stand on their own, Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. Thanks very much, Chris. We'll get back to you.

As we noted, President Obama was at Fort Bliss, Texas today. He gave a welcome home speech to some U.S. troops, he also spoke about the changing mission in Iraq.

But he also focused on America's other war zone, take a listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We obviously still have a very tough fight in Afghanistan. And a lot of families have been touched by the way in Iraq. A lot of families are now being touched in Afghanistan. We've seen casualties go up because we're taking the fight to al Qaeda and the Taliban and their allies.

It is going to be a tough slog, but what I know is that after 9/11, this country was unified in saying we are not going to let something like that happen again. And we are going to go after those who perpetrated that crime, and we are going to make sure that they do not have safe haven.

And now under the command of General Petraeus, we have the troops who are there in a position to start taking the fight to the terrorists. And that's going to mean some casualties and it's going to mean some heartbreak. But the one thing that I know from all of you is that when we put our minds to it, we get things done. And we're willing to make some sacrifices on behalf of our security here at home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: In his address to the nation later tonight, the president will discuss that shift in focus from the war in Iraq to the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Let's discuss what's going on with our senior political analysts, David Gergen and Gloria Borger. You know, listening to that clip, David, he sounded very much like president Bush in talking about the operation in Afghanistan right now. DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he did. He sounds more committed than sometimes he has in the past. He does not sound like President Bush in claiming mission accomplished in Iraq, however. And I think a lot of people are going to ask tonight, OK. We appreciate the fact that you're saluting our troops. We do too. We're all united on that. I hope he is gracious and thanks President Bush for the surge which did help turn this around but the big question to me, Wolf, is what is the future mission in Iraq? Are we going to leave Iraq on a deadline or leave Iraq that's standing on its own? I don't think that's clear yet. It is very ambiguous.

BLITZER: The agreement right now with the Iraqis government as you know, David, is all U.S. forces, combat, non-combat, all U.S. forces are out of Iraq irrespective of what happens on the ground by the end of next year.

GERGEN: That is the agreement but as you know there are a lot of experts who believe that agreement could well be renegotiated next year. And so the question becomes, are we going to leave Iraq regardless of what the -- what state they're in, or are we going to leave them with a stable government and forces that stand on their own or are we going to leave them with the potential to succeed or an Iraq that is succeeding? I think we want some clarity tonight of what that mission is. On what we're trying to do here before we leave.

BLITZER: I can't tell you, Gloria, how many Democrats who are really worried about the November 2nd mid term elections have said to me over the past couple days, why is the president doing an Oval Office address on Iraq and Afghanistan when he should really be focusing in on issue number one shall t, the economy?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: This is more ceremonial than anything else. I think it is an opportunity for the president to say, look, I kept a campaign pledge. Obviously the Democrats would rather be talking about good news in the economy but the truth is, Wolf, they don't have a lot of good news to trumpet right now. And so the president is acting as if he were president.

I'd like to get back, which he is, I'd like to get back to something David Gergen just said. John McCain wrote a very interesting op-ed piece today in "The Wall Street Journal" saying two things. One is that this president ought to give George W. Bush some credit. Be interesting to see whether he does that tonight. And also in terms of deadlines, he uses this as an opportunity to talk about the deadline in Afghanistan, which is another self-imposed deadline for July 2011 for withdrawal saying that these deadlines just don't work and we ought not to stick to that in Afghanistan. So it'll be interesting to see whether the president talks about the Iraq deadline for the noncombat forces and whether he talks about the deadline in Afghanistan and says we're going to stick to that.

BLITZER: Well, the administration insists that the deadline for Afghanistan is the start of withdrawal. They're saying it's going to be based on what's happening on the ground but they're not saying all U.S. troops are going to be out of Afghanistan at any point. BORGER: That's right. So it is a question of whether the deadline is fuzzy there and whether the deadline is in fact for noncombat forces fuzzy in Iraq.

BLITZER: There's no doubt, though, that the president today, we've learned, the White House has told us, David, that the president did call President Bush earlier in the day. They had a conversation. It will be interesting to see what he says specifically about President Bush in his address tonight.

GERGEN: Yes, I think that he would have the opportunity to unite the parties more than is now the case if he were to speak graciously about President Bush and also invite president Bush to stand with him on Afghanistan because there is going to be -- there are going to be a lot of challenges here especially after the November elections, our own November elections. You know, there is so much now that's in play. But I come back to the point, I do appreciate why Democrats feel, why isn't he talking about jobs tonight? And I think that the challenge in the speech is can he get to jobs in a meaningful way tonight even as he directs most of his attention to Iraq and Afghanistan?

BORGER: Well, I'm told he is going to take a bit of a turn and say, OK. We're taking the resources out of Iraq and we'll be able to turn those resources to some of our domestic needs. So in that sense, he is going to make a bit of a pivot to the domestic economy and to people's domestic needs and also say, double down on Afghanistan, and say, look, we're going to take the fight as you heard him say to the troops in Fort Bliss, take the fight to al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: And both of you will be with us during the 8:00 p.m. eastern hour after the president's address to the nation and we'll assess what the president said. Don't go too far. We have a lot of work to do tonight.

A Republican governor issues a direct challenge to President Obama's landmark health care reform bill. Is he gearing up for a presidential run?

And former presidential candidate John McCain, his daughter is now speaking out about his running mate, Megan McCain's startling new comments about Sarah Palin, that's coming up as well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get to Deborah Feyerick. She's monitoring some of the other top stories, political stories this time right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. What else is going on?

FEYERICK: Hey there, Wolf. New signs that Sarah Palin could be considering a presidential run in 2012. The former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate will head to Iowa next month for the GOP's annual Ronald Reagan fundraising dinner. The state's caucus typically leads off the presidential election year. Palin has raised her profile this mid term cycle by successfully backing a number of conservative candidates. And Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty could also be gearing up for a 2012 presidential run. The Republican governor issued an executive order today challenging President Obama's landmark health care legislation. The order directs state agencies not to seek federal grants under the bill. The Democratic National Committee responded by accusing Pawlenty of presidential posturing.

And embattled former Congressman James Traficant could be returning to Capitol Hill. The Ohio Democrat who served seven years in prison on bribery and racketeering charges intends to run as an independent candidate for the House. Last month officials said he did not have enough signatures to qualify him for the bid. Now after a long battle the county board of elections says the number is sufficient.

And the daughter of former Republican presidential candidate John McCain says she has what she calls, quote, conflicting feelings, unquote, about her father's 2008 running mate Sarah Palin. Megan McCain shared the controversial comments in an interview with ABC, timed with the release of her new book. In the book she writes that Palin brought, quote, drama, stress, complications, panic, and loads of uncertainty, unquote, to the campaign. She also says she once wondered whether the loss of Palin's fault but she decided it wasn't. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that. We'll see what the follow- up is from Sarah Palin on that.

Could a new poll mean real trouble for Democrats this fall? We'll talk about it in our strategy session, that's coming up.

And the defense attorney for the man accused of spilling top- secret information to Wikileaks is speaking out now for the first time. Brian Todd has the exclusive that's coming up as well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right to our strategy session and talk about this new Gallup polling number that is almost unprecedented, certainly unprecedented in terms of the Democrats. Who do you prefer the Democrat or Republican candidate? A ten-point spread, the Republican candidate gets 51% the Democrats 41%. Let's talk about it with our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and former Republican Congressman from Virginia Tom Davis. This goes back to 1942. The Republicans have never had a lead like this going into a mid term election.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, clearly, it will help Republicans with their fundraising but you know Wolf many of the primaries are over now. They've selected their candidates. And I'm sure that Tom Davis will agree with me it's about the campaign. It's what's going on in those individual districts. There is no question Republicans have a tail wind. Democrats are facing a very tough electorate out there. But at the end of the day I still believe Democrats will be able to retain both the House and Senate.

BLITZER: Have you ever seen anything like this?

TOM DAVIS (R), FORMER CONGRESSMAN-VIRGINIA: No.

BLITZER: You remember '94, you remember '80, a lot of big swings but this could potentially be one of the biggest.

DAVIS: Absolutely. This was registered voters. If you take likely voters the margin increases even more. There is a lot of enthusiasm on the Republican side. This is not about the Republicans. Voters fired the Republicans in 2006 and 2008. This is about sending a message to the president and balancing government.

BLITZER: Why are Republicans, registered Republicans twice as enthusiastic as registered Democrats are right now?

BRAZILE: Because I think many Democrats, especially the base of the party, really believe that the White House and the Congress while they have accomplished a great deal, they believe they've spent a lot of time compromising with the Republicans, not delivering on some of the promises that the president made in 2008. At the end of the day, Wolf, 63 days from now, I think that if Democrats become a little bit more enthusiastic this will be a tough electoral cycle and I don't give the Republicans that much champagne this early in the game.

BLITZER: But they need 39 seats in order to be the majority.

BRAZILE: Yes.

BLITZER: Some experts are saying it could be 60 seats. Are you ready to concede that the Democrats almost certainly won't be in the majority in the House of Representatives?

BRAZILE: No I am not ready to concede. And I'm not ready to give them the measuring stick to go out there and figure out what size the drapes are. I'm ready to go out there and fight. I think every Democrat needs to roll up their sleeves and come out of Washington, D.C. and hit the road.

BLITZER: Are you ready, Congressman, to say that the Republicans will be in the majority after November?

DAVIS: Well I think that's where they'll be but I wouldn't declare victory and you have 60 plus days. A lot can happen in that period. You have to run individual campaigns but overriding is the voters want a divided government. In the last two times one party controlled everything, they flipped it. '94 and 2006. Voters like balance.

BLITZER: I can't tell you how many Democrats have expressed fear to me including in the Obama administration that if the Republicans are in the majority in the House of representatives and you serve there as a Republican for a long time, get ready for investigations, for subpoenas. These Republican committee chairmen are going to go after officials in the administration like crazy.

BRAZILE: That is so 1990s. DAVIS: I think we learned and I think Republicans learned. I was chairman of that committee for two terms. I had subpoena power by my own signature. I think Republicans have learned their lesson from the '90s and will go a little slower. They want to be partners in governing.

BLITZER: You remember in the Clinton administration how many officials had to hire lawyers and how much that cost them. There are a number of officials right now who are privately concerned if Darrell Issa, Congressman from California, becomes chairman of one of these investigating committees, they don't want to have to go through it. They're ready to leave. That would be a very demoralizing moment for this White House.

BRAZILE: Well let me tell you that is one of the reasons why I think Democrats will become a little bit more excited as we get closer to the election. Once they figure out the Republicans have no ideas to govern, to help lead this country but rather want to go back to the 1990s and investigate and try to you know cause more gridlock, the voters are not interested in that.

BLITZER: What do you think?

DAVIS: I think Republicans have learned their lessons from the '90s. Certainly there will be investigations into programs that aren't working, things the current Congress isn't doing but I think they learned lessons from the 1990s and will be more judicious.

BRAZILE: There is one problem right now with the moderate Republican Party. They lack a number of Tom Davises, men and women willing to work with Democrats to get things done. I remember back in the 1990s when I worked up on Capitol Hill, Tom Davis was a Republican that Democrats did go to on a number of issues.

BLITZER: If the Republicans are the majority, is John Boehner the speaker of the House or does your fellow Republican from Virginia Eric Cantor challenge him?

DAVIS: No. I think Boehner is the speaker. Remember when he was committee chairman, education and labor, he put together a lot of coalitions with George Miller the ranking Democrat. He knows how to govern. We want to step up to the plate and be partners.

BRAZILE: I don't know why voters would give Republicans back the keys to the vehicle when they drove it off the cliff last time. These are the same individuals that drove this economy into the shambles that it is today.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much. We'll continue to watch. We still have about 60 days or so until this election.

BRAZILE: And we're both young.

BLITZER: And you're counting.

DAVIS: A lot can happen. BLITZER: You're right a lot can happen. Thanks very much.

As gang warfare grips Mexico a deadly new attack on a night club spreading fear on the popular resort of Cancun. We'll go there.

And a United Nations agency issues a grim warning about hunger and homelessness in flood ravaged Pakistan. Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta is on the front lines of the disaster zone.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack?

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, Wolf, how concerned should the Democrats be about losing the House of Representatives in November? Estimates running as high as they could lose up to 60 seats in the midterms.

Jerry writes from Georgia: "The Democrats have proven to the American people that they are capable of change. They can take dollars out of your pocket and they leave change."

Jane in Minnesota: "I'm more concerned for us everyday Americans than those not in the top 2% of earnings if the Republicans come back into power. This is the party that looked the other way and rewarded corporations for outsourcing American jobs and now that the tax revenue is gone with the jobs, all of the sudden, there is concern about running up the deficit. The Republican Party gets an F for me on economic understanding."

John in Delhi, New York says: "You have it wrong, Jack, the question should be how concerned should the American public be?"

Rose in Arizona writes: "You bet the Democrats should be concerned about losing the House in November. They have only themselves to blame. They had the majority for several years now and all they have done is passed unfavorable bills whether the people liked them or not, and the closed door meetings will come back to haunt them. I would pay big money to watch Nancy Pelosi to hand over her gavel. She has worn out her welcome."

Joe in Houston writes: "In my dreams, all the incumbents lose to their independent and libertarian challengers whether they worry about it or not."

Ogilvy writes: "The Democrats lost the House and the Senate when they started giving our grand kids' money away to the fat cats and shoved Obama care down our throats. It is just that the news is not going to be broadcast until the first Tuesday in November."

And Earl writes: "It's a good thing. I can't wait until we get back to where we were in 2008."

If you want the read more on the subject, go to my blog, CNN.com/CaffertyFile. BLITZER: All right Jack thank you.

As Hurricane Earl now eyes the east coast, officials are keeping a very close watch trying to decide if they'll have to order evacuations. We will have the latest forecast. Chad Myers is standing by.

And the Oval Office is getting a makeover ahead of tonight's address to the nation. Tom Foreman is getting ready to show us all what other presidents have done with their personal work space.

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BLITZER: Let's look at some "Hot Shots" coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

In northwest Spain, a helicopter flies in the thick smoke of a forest fire.

In Auckland, New Zealand, light from a purple building illuminates the historic Bird Cage Tavern. The 124 year old structure is being moved for the construction of a tunnel and then moved back in six months.

In India, a young Tibetan looks out of the robe of a monk.

And in the Edgeboro Zoo in Scotland, two monkeys enjoy a tasty treat on a branch. Hot shots, pictures worth a thousand words.

And the White House Oval Office has undergone a makeover, it underwent a renovation while the first family was away on vacation. But President Obama is not the only one to update the room. Most presidents have also made their personal mark. Our Tom Foreman is looking at the changes it's undergone dating back all the back to the early 1900s and show us what you have, Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the early 1900s when the Oval Office was a new part of the White House. Well, the pictures look great. Look at how it looked when Taft was in office. He had this sea green carpet, sea green walls, just a really frightening look. But over the years, it changed with every president. It was the custom for them to update it. John Kennedy with the red carpet here, sort of stately drapes back here. Lyndon Johnson reflecting the times here, look, a bank of TVs in his office. As we moved on the Jimmy Carter in 1977, remember he had a very distinct goal of avoiding the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon, so a very plain and simple look to everything. When Ronald Reagan came in, as you might expect, a very traditional look, and the white sofa over here, and the presidential seal in the carpet. The carpet is one of the things they often change. Bill Clinton, very bright colors and very striking emblem, and remember the yellow drapes here, of the '90 a painting over here called "Avenue in the Rain" and famous painting that has been in the presidential office several times. And George W. Bush's office, and now we come to the current iteration, this is Barack Obama office. This is one thing you can say about this. He shops in New York, because the new carpet came from Michigan, but the sofas, the table, the lamps, and some upholstery on the chairs all came from New York, and the fabric on the sofa, Wolf, came from Pennsylvania and you can't see it, but there's tiny red, white, and blue threads woven through there. This rug is unique to him, and he has had the edges embroidered with sayings that he liked from Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. here. It is a homey feel here although there are some touches of tradition. I mentioned the painting over here which has once again appeared in his White House and this desk is called the resolute desk. This was actually made from a British ship in the mid- 1850s that was caught in the Northwest Passage. It was rescued by an American ship and returned to England and averted a war between the two countries because it was an agreement that the queen much later repaid the favor by having desks made out of the ship, gave one to the United States which has been used by many presidents since. All in all though what we've had is a very beautiful choice by this present of his new Oval Office and we will see lots of it in the coming years.

BLITZER: White house officials are telling me that none of the changes cost taxpayers any money, Tom, that this all came from private funds.

FOREMAN: Yes, and they say that the overall cost was about the same in the past when also other presidents have reinvented the office, although they are not releasing an exact figure of what it cost, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Tom Foreman.

You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, the U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially ends. We are now one hour into operation "New Dawn" and just two hours from President Obama's address to the nation marking this historic milestone. We will have a preview from the national Security Council chief of staff Dennis McDonough. He is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, a deadly attack on a bar in a popular resort town. We are learning new information this hour about the fire bombing that killed eight people in Cancun.