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THE SITUATION ROOM
Giffords Making More Progress; Michael Steele Drops Out; W.H. Shake-Up & Tilt to Center; The U.S./China Connection; Reince Priebus Elected New RNC Chair; Her Husband Died Saving Her; Inside an Accused Assassin's Mind; President Obama's Popularity on the Rise; Pope John Paul II Nears Sainthood
Aired January 14, 2011 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, inside the recovery room where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is healing and making more progress dramatically every day. I'll ask one of her lead doctors, Dr. Peter Rhee, to share up to the minute information about her recovery. He's standing by live.
And breaking news -- Michael Steele ends his bid to stay on as the Republican Party chairman. He dropped out of the running just a short while ago after several rounds of voting. Stand by to find out what happens next.
And new insight from Ronald Reagan's own son about something many people suspected, that the late president of the United States suffered from Alzheimer's while he was still in the White House.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
A just released police time line reveals just how busy shooting suspect Jared Loughner was in the hours before the Tucson massacre. It says he dropped up -- dropped off and picked up rolls of film the night before, including the "good-bye friends" photo he posted on MySpace. The time line also says Loughner bought ammunition at 7:27 a.m. on the morning of the shooting. Authorities are waiting for DNA results on a bag filled with ammunition that they believe belonged to Loughner.
A funeral was held today for U.S. district court Judge John Roll, one of six people shot to death that day. Arizona senators now say they'll introduce legislation to name a new federal courthouse after the 63-year-old judge.
And doctors say the target of the shooting, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is showing even more improvement almost a week after a bullet tore through her brain. One of Giffords' staffers, Ron Barber, was released from the hospital today to attend Judge Roll's funeral. He's seen here with the woman who is credited with helping to save his life.
Another Giffords' staffer, Pam Simon, spoke to reporters a day after she went home from the hospital. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PAM SIMON, WOUNDED IN TUCSON SHOOTING: There are a lot of wounds, some that will gross you out. The wounds in our heart are a lot deeper. They're -- they're not going to heal for a long, long time, if ever. And I think it's going to be very important for us to stick together, because I happened to get hit by bullets, but all of you, especially those of you that were there, you -- you got wounded, too.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Four of the 13 people wounded in the attack remain hospitalized, including Congresswoman Giffords.
And joining us now from Tucson, one of the lead doctors on Congresswoman Giffords' case, the medical director of the trauma center where the victims have been treated, Dr. Peter Rhee.
Dr. Rhee, thanks very much for joining us.
Update us, first of all, on Congresswoman Giffords' condition.
How is she doing today?
DR. PETER RHEE, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, UMC TRAUMA CENTER: She's doing very well. We're very pleased with her progress. And she seems to be improving every day.
BLITZER: Give us an example of what changed from yesterday until today.
RHEE: Yesterday, she started -- as you know, when the president was here, right after his visit, she started to open her eyes spontaneously, meaning that before we had to provide some sort of stimulation to arouse her and then she would, you know, open her eyes to see what's going on. But then she started a spontaneous movement of her eye, which was also very positive for her and everybody involved.
But even overnight, since that time period, she started becoming, apparently, a little bit more aroused. And this morning when we examined her, as well, she was better every single time, noticeably, than before.
BLITZER: We're talking about (INAUDIBLE)...
RHEE: She's able to do...
BLITZER: Excuse me for a second.
RHEE: -- fairly complex tasks.
BLITZER: Yes. Excuse me. I'm sorry for interrupting.
But we're talking about one eye, right? She's only using one eye right now, is that right?
RHEE: Yes, right now, the other eye is bandaged and patched.
BLITZER: And why is that?
What -- why is it bandaged and patched?
RHEE: She suffered injuries in that area. And, also, we did surgery to relieve the pressure on that. So we're letting that heal.
BLITZER: But you think that both eyes eventually will be OK?
RHEE: That's our hope, yes.
BLITZER: All right. Good.
Now, I interrupted you and I apologize for that.
Go ahead and finish your thought on what else has changed between yesterday and today.
RHEE: Oh, you know, just the fact that her level of awakening is better every single day so far. And it seems to be noticeable from, you know, one -- one period of the day to the next. And she seems to be having some, you know, very fine motor skills at this time period.
BLITZER: But there's a difference in her ability to use her left hand and her right hand. Explain what's going on there.
RHEE: Well, obviously, she was injured on one side of the brain. So that portion is going to affect the other side. She was shot on the left side of the head, so it affects the motor and sensory skills of the arms and legs on the right side.
In the beginning, for example, her right leg didn't seem to be functioning that properly.
However, over a time period, as of this morning, when we had her up in bed and dangling on the side of the bed, as well, she was able to extend and move her leg on command.
So that's all very positive for us at this time period.
But again, this is still very early on in her healing process. And she has a long, long ways to go. The next set of healings that she's going to do and advancements will most likely be slower and slower.
BLITZER: What about the breathing tube?
It's still there?
RHEE: She's still on a machine. She -- you know, as far as her lungs are concerned, they're just fine. There's no problems with that. But I'm just concerned right now that she may not be awake enough time -- time of the day that she can protect herself, as far as, you know, breathing in the liquids that's in her mouth rather than swallowing. So because of that, we just want to leave it in for extra security.
BLITZER: Because the longer that breathing tube is in -- correct me if I'm wrong -- the greater the danger for infection or pneumonia or something like that, is that right?
RHEE: And you're absolutely right. Eventually, if you have it long enough, you might get an infection. So there's a time window when we do like to try to get this out of her body as soon as we can. But it's not -- it's not absolutely critical that there's a -- a specific day that we have to do it by.
BLITZER: Your colleague, Dr. Lemole, who's the neurosurgeon, he agreed with a lot of folks that this is almost a miracle, what's happening with Congresswoman Giffords.
Do you want to weigh in on that?
BLITZER: All right. You don't have to if you don't want to.
Three months from now, realistically, based on your experience -- you're a neurosurgeon -- what do you expect we'll see as far as Congresswoman Giffords is concerned?
RHEE: I'm not sure if you just referred to me as a neurosurgeon. I'm a trauma surgeon...
BLITZER: Oh, you're a trauma doctor.
RHEE: -- not a neurosurgeon.
BLITZER: I -- I apologize.
RHEE: So I do the...
BLITZER: You're a trauma doctor, yes.
BLITZER: So three months from now...
RHEE: Yes, so I...
BLITZER: Based on your experience...
RHEE: So I'm managing now her...
BLITZER: -- what do you expect?
RHEE: Well, it's hard to say what's going to happen in three months. I -- I would say that she's going to continue to get better compared to today. There might be time periods when she takes a few steps backwards.
But what exactly she can do in three months is -- is very difficult to -- to outline.
BLITZER: And she'll go through physical therapy.
Finally, the other survivors who -- who you're dealing with, how are they doing?
RHEE: So far, so good, as far as the body goes. I think we can get everything repaired from that portion of it. I guess the next portion that we really have to pay attention to is their social needs and their psychological needs, as their entire life and family lives were disrupted by this horrible process.
BLITZER: Dr. Rhee, we appreciate very much what you're doing.
And thank you so much on behalf of the entire country.
RHEE: Thank you.
BLITZER: Now some breaking news we're following -- a change at the top of the Republican Party. Just a little while ago, Michael Steele took his name out of the running to keep his job as the Republican National Committee chairman. He clearly did not have the support after several rounds of voting and after a very controversial tenure as the front man for the Republican Party.
Our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is over at the RNC meeting, just outside Washington -- Jessica, I take it Michael Steele may clear who he would like to see as his successor?
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.
Yes, he did. Michael Steele, through the first four rounds of voting, was steadily losing support. And before the fifth round began, he made it clear he'd like his supporters to back, instead, Maria Cino, a woman who comes from the George W. Bush days -- from that administration, has some significant backing from heavy-hitters.
This is far from decided. We're on the seventh round of voting right now.
But here's is a little bit of what Michael Steele said about his decision to bow out.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL STEELE, OUTGOING RNC CHAIRMAN: Our target, our ground game, our opportunity rests out with the people of America. So I really thank you for the chairmanship of this party for the two years that I've had it. And at this time, I will step aside for others to lead.
(END VIDEO CLIP) YELLIN: Now, many of the people in this room felt that Michael Steele did not do as good a job fundraising as the party should have and distracted from some of the other efforts. And all the candidates who have run against him have said that that will be their primary focus -- better coordination with the states and better fundraising -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Tell us about the other candidates, how their race is shaping up right now in the last round of voting.
YELLIN: You know, it's, right now, moving at a -- a very fast clip. In just the last few minutes, one of the remaining contenders backed out. Ann Wagner bowed out and said her supporters should go to whomever they choose.
So what we have left are the following -- Reince Priebus, who was a member of Steele's inner circle, but then turned on him at the very end of his tenure and has 80 votes now. All you need is 85 to win, so he is the strong frontrunner.
You also have Maria Cino, the woman I mentioned earlier. And she has some significant heavy-hitters in her corner, as well, from the George W. Bush administration.
And then Saul Anuzis from Michigan, who has been a big donor and a guy who has been focused on social networking and getting the party more sophisticated than they are.
But right now, the -- the race seems to be between Cino and Priebus, Priebus with the heavy lead by far.
Wolf, I can tell you, they're in their -- the round of balloting now, when this finishes, we could know the winner. It could happen in the next 20 minutes or so -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You'll let us know right away.
We'll check back with you.
Jessica Yellin is over at the RNC meetings outside Washington at the National Harbor in Maryland.
Another big hire within the Obama White House today. It's being seen as yet another fresh sign that the president of the United States is trying to move to the center of the political spectrum. And after her own trip to China, Hillary Clinton has a warning for the country's president about his upcoming visit to the United States.
Stay with us.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: A new piece of evidence today that President Obama is trying to stake out the middle ground after his election shellacking. It involves a new hire by the administration, a veteran leader of a group with a history of pushing Democrats to the center.
CNN's Kate Bolduan is over at the White House.
She's covering the story for us -- all right, Kate, the shakeup continues.
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It sure does, Wolf.
It's not quite a revolving door, but there are definitely a lot of moves going on among the White House staff. And some of the incoming names and faces may be familiar.
BOLDUAN (voice-over): It's the latest announcement in the White House shakeup -- Vice President Biden choosing Bruce Reed to replace Ron Klain as his chief of staff. In a statement, the vice president said, quote, "We worked closely together to pass the crime bill in the 1990s and I've frequently have sought his advice and counsel in the years since."
CNN senior political analyst, David Gergen, worked with Reed in the Clinton administration.
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: It's a very shrewd move and -- because Bruce Reed is someone who is a -- has very strong views, but is also a team player.
BOLDUAN: Reed served as chief domestic policy adviser to President Clinton before heading up the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which fueled Clinton's reelection campaign. And most recently, he was the executive director of President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My new chief of staff.
BOLDUAN: President Obama picked his new chief of staff last week, Bill Daley, former commerce secretary during the Clinton White House.
OBAMA: I'm convinced he'll help us in our mission of growing our economy and moving America forward.
GERGEN: Bringing in Bruce Reed along with Bill Daley as chief of staff to the president sends a very clear message that we have two centrists now as chiefs of staff who both care a lot about deficits and both really are more moderate within the Democratic Party.
BOLDUAN: Add to that other Clintonites like the president's new top economic adviser Gene Sperling who was also Clinton's top economic adviser.
So what does this all say about the self-described retooling at the White House? And the president's course correction after the mid- term election? JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Look, the far left is not going to be happy. They are going to feel abandoned or ignored by these decisions.
But what they're going to do is strengthen the administration's connection to the center, which is precisely what they need to do to not only govern effectively for the next two years but look towards 2012.
BOLDUAN: And to that point, the liberal activist group Progressive Change Campaign Committee released a statement criticizing the Reed announcement as, quote, "gravitating toward individuals who push policies that benefit big corporations over regular Americans" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Kate. Thanks very, very much. Fascinating developments at the White House.
Let's go to China right now and its growing potential to surpass the United States economically one day. The two countries will come together next week when President Obama hosts a visit here in Washington with the Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised an improved relationship with China during a major speech today, but she also warned it must use its emerging power responsibly.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: There was an old Chinese saying that when you're in the same boat you have to row in the same direction. We are in the same boat, and we will either row in the same direction or we will, unfortunately, cause turmoil and whirlpools that will impact not just our two countries but many people far beyond either of our borders.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Let's talk about this right now, the U.S./China connection, with our senior political analyst David Gergen.
This summit meeting next week, David, is going to be very important. Who has the upper hand right now, the Chinese or the U.S.?
GERGEN: Right now, China has the growing momentum, Wolf, and they've been much more aggressive toward the United States. Even as warnings are coming from Secretary Clinton and Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, the Chinese are pushing us, too.
I think what Secretary Clinton did today was she put -- very much put human rights on the agenda. There has been criticism of President Obama for not being tough enough on China. Clearly, he is going to ratchet it up because the president of China comes here with a Nobel Prize winner, peace prize winner, in prison. That is the first time the president of the United States has ever entertained another head of state who has a Nobel Peace Prize winner in prison.
BLITZER: But they have a lot of our Treasury notes right now, the Chinese, so the U.S. has to tread very, very carefully in terms of dealing with the Chinese president.
GERGEN: Well, that's exactly right, Wolf. And we on the American side, Timothy Geithner has been saying, look, you know, we want certain things from China. They really have to deal with their currency evaluation, they've got to lower the value of the yuan. They've been exploiting us in terms of their trade. There's intellectual property theft going on in China. He's got a pretty long agenda of things that the United States wants from China.
But China is coming and has just been saying, the Chinese have been Europe in just the last couple days saying, we're worried about the value of our U.S. assets. We're worried that all the bonds that you're going to buy up, they're going to drop the value of our assets. We're worried as you build up these deficits that it's going to mean your bonds aren't worth as much, the prices are going to drop.
So this is going to be a -- there's big, serious issues building up. And too, Wolf, as you will recall so well, Secretary Gates was just in China dealing with defense issues and it was a tough set of meetings. The Chinese basically -- he wanted to get a military-to- military relationships set up. The Chinese rejected that and they put up in the air a stealth aircraft that surprised the United States. Just not long ago, Secretary Gates thought publicly that the Chinese wouldn't have a stealth aircraft before 2020. They put one up and flew it last week while he was there.
BLITZER: Money talks, as they say. You can do a lot with a lot of money.
One other question before I let you go, David. "The New York Times," in the lead editorial today, wrote this about China and North Korea, "The only country with any chance of getting through is China, the North's main supplier of food and fuel. Beijing needs to end its cynical diplomacy as usual and use all of its influence to ensure that Pyongyang arrives at the table ready to deal."
Is China going to play a constructive role in defusing the tension right now in the Korean peninsula?
GERGEN: Hard to say. They have played a reasonably constructive role in the eyes of the Obama administration in the past. There's been some disappointment right now.
And one of the reasons is Secretary Gates is in the region is to talk to Japan and South Korea about strengthening the alliance and get the -- put pressure on China to be more aggressive against the North Koreans.
BLITZER: David, thanks very much.
GERGEN: Thanks, Wolf.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
BLITZER: All right, let's go back to Jessica Yellin, she's over at the Republican National Committee meetings that are underway.
I take it there is a new chairman of the Republican Party? Is that right, Jessica?
YELLIN: That's right, Wolf. Reince Priebus has just won 90 votes, which makes him the new chairman of the Republican Party.
He was a member of Michael Steele's team, he was the general counsel for the RNC. People who worked with him credit him with being enormously effective and a hard-working fundraiser and activist who does the hard work behind the scenes.
And it cannot be ignored that he is from Wisconsin, which had enormous victories in the Republican Party this year, defeating Russ Feingold, winning the governor's mansion.
Would you like to listen to what he's saying briefly, Wolf?
BLITZER: Let's listen very briefly. We'll see Reince Priebus, he's going to be the new chairman of the Republican Party.
Let's listen in for a moment.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
REINCE PRIEBUS, CHAIRMAN, RNC: -- and I said that to you so many times. Just being a little kid growing up in Kenosha. My first date with my wife, Lincoln Day dinner with Henry Hyde and Jim Sensenbrenner, which should tell you a little bit something about me. But I've got to tell you, with two great kids in Jack and Grace, we can't wait to get to work here in the party and rebuild this party, move on to conservative candidates.
I want to thank the Republican leaders from my home state of Wisconsin, including Steve King, Mary Buestrin, Scott Walker, Ron Johnson, Sean Duffy, and Paul Ryan, thank you very much.
I want to thank --
BLITZER: All right, so that's the new chairman, Reince Priebus of Wisconsin . He worked magic in Wisconsin helping Republicans win major races there, including Russ Feingold getting defeated, the Democratic senator from Wisconsin. He is now going to replace Michael Steele as the next chairman of the Republican Party.
Let me quickly get David Gergen's reaction. David, what do you think about this?
GERGEN: Well, the big news is, of course, they deposed Michael Steele. They knocked him out of there and he -- and this is going to be a very, very different kind of chairman, someone who is coming from behind the scenes. He who has been very effective as a quiet person, but is not a public voice.
And there was a sense, as you know, that Michael Steele, first of all, wasn't raising money properly, but secondly he was a loose cannon and you never knew what the hell he was going to say next.
And Republicans wanted somebody like Mr. Priebus to come in and steady the ship and raise a lot of money. I think this is what the leadership wanted. John Boehner supported him, as you remember. This will be a plus for John Boehner, too.
So it's an interesting move. It means they're going to lower the profile but raise the fund raising at the Republican National Committee.
BLITZER: I thought he was supporting Maria Cino, John Boehner. I could be wrong on that, but I thought --
GERGEN: I may be about that wrong, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, I think he had indicated --
GERGEN: I'm sorry. I may be wrong about that. Paul Ryan definitely supported him.
GERGEN: As you say that, I was just trying to think, am I right about that?
GERGEN: But again, I do think there is no question, though, about what he represents in terms of. The big news here is Michael Steele is defeated.
BLITZER: The big news. And it's amazing when you think about it, all the Republican victories over the past two years, the special elections in New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts where you are right now, the huge wins in November at the midterm elections, for the Republican Party to dump its chairman at a time of these extraordinary victories says a lot, David. Let me get quickly your thought.
GERGEN: I do think it says that the Republicans were elated coming out of it, but they didn't particularly like Michael Steele and they thought they did it despite Michael Steele, not because of him.
You know, he was -- he brought a lot of energy, but he was unpredictable and that worried -- you know, Republicans like sort of an orderly process, and they -- and I think they wanted to go into the general election with greater assurance that, A, they're going to raise the money.
What has become apparent in the last couple days is, of course, that both sides are bracing for huge fundraising deals over the next couple years. President Obama is gearing up for that and now we can see the Republicans want to gear up for it, too.
BLITZER: Yes, good point. All right, David, don't go too far away. We have more stuff to discuss later.
The Defense Department is making shocking demands, asking thousands of military widows who got benefits after their husbands died to pay the money back. We'll hear from one of them. What is going on?
And did the shooting suspect Jared Loughner fall through the cracks of America's mental health system? Critics are calling it an enormous failure, blaming doctors and politicians.
BLITZER: Now to a love story that lasted for decades. Even when bullets flew in Tucson last week, Dory Stoddard died in the massacre while trying to shield his wife.
CNN's Ted Rowlands talked to Mavy Stoddard about her life with her husband and the day they were torn apart.
TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this was one of many stories of heroism that came out of last weekend's tragedy. Dory Stoddard got in front of his wife to get in between the shooter and his wife and doctors say he saved her life.
ROWLANDS (voice-over): Seventy-six-year-old Mavy Stoddard says she and her husband, Dory, were living a fairy tale.
MAVY STODDARD, TUCSON SHOOTING VICTIM: We had as good a marriage as I believe anyone in this world could have.
ROWLANDS: They were classmates who shared a first kiss in school, but didn't marry until they were in their 60s. Both were widowed, both had raised four children. For the past 15 years, Mavy says she and Dory had a ball.
Last Saturday, the couple decided to go meet their Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
STODDARD: Tell her how we admired her for going in person out among the people.
ROWLANDS: Whet the shooting started, Mavy said Dory put himself between her and the bullets.
STODDARD: He threw himself over me. I don't know whether he threw me down, whether -- my first thought was get down when I saw what was happening. I think it was the last shots that killed him.
ROWLANDS: Dory was pronounced dead at the scene. STODDARD: He died in my arms -- on my leg actually On the side of my leg, with me talking to him and telling him I loved him and kissing him.
So he saved my life and gave his for it and you can't ask for much more. And he would have protected me with his dying breath, the same way he loved me.
ROWLANDS: Mavy says she feels sorry for everyone involved, including the man responsible.
STODDARD: It's a horrible thing that happened. It touched so many lives. It hurt so many people. And that's why I feel no real animosity.
I do forgive the young man. I hate what he did, but I don't hate him.
ROWLANDS: Mavy was shot three times in the leg. She'll make a full recovery, but she will be without the love of her life.
ROWLANDS: Mavy says she's going to be lonely, obviously, without Dory by her side. She has her dog, Tuxedo. She says that her strength that Dory gave her will keep her going.
And just an incredible woman to meet and talk to. She is just really a strong, strong woman, and she says she's going to be just fine because of Dory -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks so much, Ted Rowlands. What a story.
Let's get inside the mind now of an accused assassin. A lot of questions about the warning signs that Jared Loughner was very troubled and whether more could have been done to foresee and prevent this tragedy in Tucson.
Candy Crowley will be exploring all of these questions in depth on a special "STATE OF THE UNION" this Sunday.
And you've already started talking to people about this, Candy. Tell our viewers what you're learning.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, we're learning that it is very tough, because the vast majority of people with serious mental issues are not violent. What's the key? To figure out who is going to be violent, which is very, very hard, even though it is a small part of the universe.
Talked to E. Fuller Torrey today, a leading expert on schizophrenia, and by all accounts, Loughner looks like he suffered from schizophrenia. And I said to him, "You know, we look at what happened in Tucson, and some people see, well, it's the lack of civility, that's what we're seeing here. Other people say, well, the gun laws are bad." I said, "When you look at what happened in Tucson what do you see?"
And here is what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. E. FULLER TORREY, FOUNDER, TREATMENT ADVOCACY CENTER: This is a psychiatric failure, it's not a political failure. It's a failure of our ability to provide basic care for people who have brain diseases, that are seriously mentally ill. If these people had kidney diseases, we wouldn't stand for it, but they don't understand the brain well enough, and we have completely failed them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: So we're going to try to do a little more about trying to understand the brain. It certainly doesn't -- is not in the legal sense of who is guilty, but what happened to this young man, who we hear described as a nice, a quiet guy, and then something snapped in him. And it's all the signs of schizophrenia.
We also are going to have on the show one psychologist who himself has been institutionalized for schizophrenia in the past, and another, a father and a journalist, who helped his schizophrenic son sort of work through the medical system to try to get care.
BLITZER: And hopefully people will learn from these interviews and be able to deal with this issue which is so, so terrible.
All right. Thanks, Candy -- 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning, "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley.
We're monitoring other important top stories, including a state of emergency in one area of a country as the government collapses amidst violent and deadly protests. We'll have the latest.
And this -- he gave his life shielding her from the bullets in that horrific Tucson massacre and died on top of her. Ahead, a shooting victim's wrenching account of those final moments with her husband.
BLITZER: Political unrest and a state of emergency in one key Arab country.
Samantha Hayes is here. She's monitoring that, some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
What's going on, Sam?
HAYES: Hi, Wolf.
Tunisia's prime minister says he is taking over the North African government. This, after the nation's president fled the country and is headed toward France. The president had earlier dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency. The Tunisians had been protesting poor living conditions and a repression of their rights.
President Obama met with the Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari in the Oval Office today. They talked about fighting terrorism and the importance of the stable Pakistan. Mr. Zardari came to Washington to attend a memorial for diplomat Richard Holbrooke.
And that service for Holbrooke was held at the Kennedy Center this afternoon. Some of the biggest political and diplomatic names were there, including President Obama, former President Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
President Obama called Holbrooke a leading light of a generation of diplomats.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Five decades after a young president called him to serve, we can confidently say that Richard bore the burden to assure the survival and success of liberty. He made a difference. Let us now carry that work forward in our time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HAYES: Recently, Holbrooke served as the point man in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was best known for his role in the Dayton Peace Accords. Richard Holbrooke died last month at 69 after emergency heart surgery.
Some conflicting news for new moms. British researchers say breast-feeding exclusively for the first six months isn't necessarily best for babies. They say that these babies could lack iron and develop allergies. But this goes against the World Health Organization. It recommends mothers breast-feed exclusively for six months.
BLITZER: You can get confused with all these conflicting recommendations.
HAYES: I guess it's up to the mom.
BLITZER: Yes. I mean, one day they say this, the next day, not so fast.
BLITZER: Good advice, up to the mom. Thank you. Mothers know best. Isn't that right?
HAYES: I think so.
A stunning new revelation about former President Ronald Reagan's years in the White House, what his son is now saying gave him shivers of concern. Plus, is President Obama's popularity right now across the country on the rise? We have details of new polling numbers.
Stay with us.
BLITZER: Let's get right to our "Strategy Session."
Joining us, our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist, Hilary Rosen. Also joining us, Republican strategist Tony Blankley. He's executive vice president for Global Public Affairs at Edelman Public Relations here in Washington.
Tony, these new numbers for the president over the past month, the approval numbers, keep going up. Right now, this new McClatchy poll has him at 48 percent approve, 43 percent disapprove, nine percent unsure. But those are pretty good numbers at this point.
TONY BLANKLEY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Now, the average are up three points, and that makes sense to me.
I think what has happened is he has always been personally more popular than his policies. In the last month, Congress hasn't been in session, and I think that when we re-engage the issues, we'll see which side gets the better of it. But I would suspect we'll see some tightening.
BLITZER: I think the lesson, at least one of the lessons officials in the White House are learning, is if you move to the center, your numbers are going to go up. And if you just listen to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, your numbers will go down.
HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, and I also think that, you know, the experience of December is that if you accomplish some things, working together on behalf of the American people, and show leadership while you're doing it, your numbers will go up because you're doing good things.
BLITZER: But that's moving to the center. When you accept the Reagan tax cuts, for example, for the rich, that's moving to the center. Right?
ROSEN: Yes. It showed compromise, it showed leadership, a lot got done. People in the base were happy and Independents were happy. And both of those two numbers in this poll got solidified.
Independents are now up for grabs again. They had shifted way Republican in the last election. And the Democratic base is back supporting President Obama.
BLITZER: And that all important number, right track, wrong track, from a month ago, there is an improvement. More Americans think the country is moving in the right track now than they did a month ago. BLANKLEY: I think the question is going to be, if the president really wants to govern from the center-right, the way Bill Clinton did starting late '95, then I think he has a pretty good chance of reestablishing his image and a policy zone the public will accept. I'm not convinced that he really wants to fundamentally shift as far as his convictions have been so far. We'll see. But, I mean, to a certain extent, my old boss, Newt, kind of won the battle even though he got --
BLITZER: Did you like the president's speech in Tucson the other night?
BLANKLEY: It was a fine speech. I've always thought and I said for years that individual speeches don't have long impact. The question is whether the president sustains a position that the public wants and sustains an image of himself that the public appreciates.
BLITZER: The other encouraging numbers in this new McClatchy poll show that in hypothetical, one-on-one races against some of the key Republican potential presidential candidates, whether Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin, the president gets re-elected. And against Sarah Palin by about 20 or 25 points.
ROSEN: I think the president will be re-elected, but let's also look at some of the things that have been focused on lately.
So, the Republicans have come in. And what's the first thing they want to do in the House? Re-litigate the past and bring up the old -- the health care Bill again.
The president's State of the Union I think we're going to hear in a couple of weeks is going to focus on jobs, it's going to focus on the economy, it's going to focus on expanding global competitiveness. Those are the things that the American people really want Washington to be focusing on.
BLANKLEY: Health care, all the polls continue to show it's not popular. More people don't like it than like it. And the president and the White House have for two years been saying they're going to talk about jobs. And so far --
BLITZER: Let me just correct you on one thing, because when you take the people who don't like the health care law because it didn't go far enough, because it didn't have a public option, you may be right. But when you just say the people who don't like it from the Republican perspective, the conservative perspective, there isn't that lopsided --
ROSEN: And next week, when people realize that the Republicans are going to start to take away their 25-year-old child's right to be on their health care, that they're going to take away -- put back lifetime caps for health care --
BLANKLEY: On the other hand, the rising health care costs that are coming out may be because of Obamacare, maybe not. There are going to be a lot of play-outs on how Obamacare --
BLITZER: Did you see, Hilary, this political story that the Obama re-election campaign thinks they might need and might be able to raise $1 billion to get the president re-elected in 2012? Is that necessary?
ROSEN: Well, I'm sure the Republicans are going to end up spending a lot more than that because, after all, they're going to have a primary. So they're going to be raising a lot of money for their primary and then for their candidate.
BLITZER: But you think a billion dollars -- because the last time he spent, what, about $600 million?
ROSEN: I was going to say, the last election, the last presidential election, was $600 million or $700 million. But when you look at the numbers of money that was raised in this last congressional election, when you look at how much corporate money was there, when you look at a huge amount of influx of outside money from individual wealthy Americans, this is going to be an enormously expensive race. I don't think either side is going to get accused of --
BLANKLEY: But so far, the president is going to have to regain his support in the business community, particularly in Manhattan, in order to hit the billion. But it's doable.
BLITZER: Well, he's certainly trying to do that.
BLANKLEY: He's trying to do it.
BLITZER: Let's see how he succeeds.
All right, guys. Thanks very, very much.
BLANKLEY: Thank you.
BLITZER: A new honor for the late Pope John Paul II. Is the Catholic Church rushing though to make him a saint? I'll ask the archbishop emeritus of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Pope John Paul II is one step closer to becoming a saint. The Vatican announced today that the late pope will be beatified in May for performing what the Catholic Church believes is a miracle after death, the healing of a nun. Two miracles must be confirmed for full sainthood.
The development comes as all of us are being touched by what many see as miracles and that horrific tragedy in Tucson, Arizona.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) And joining us now, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He's the archbishop emeritus of Washington.
Your Eminence, thanks very much for coming in.
CARDINAL THEODORE MCCARRICK, ARCHBISHOP EMERITUS, ARCHDIOCESE OF WASHINGTON: Thank you, Wolf. Pleased to be here.
BLITZER: Let's reflect on Tucson and what happened. A federal judge goes to mass Saturday morning and he is shot and killed. A sweet little girl, 9 years old, Catholic, Christina Taylor Green, killed.
I know you've got an answer to this, but a lot of people don't understand why these horrible things can happen to such good people.
MCCARRICK: Wolf, it reminds me of the 9/11 story. You know, how often such good people were killed in the middle of their careers and lives. It's the same thing here. This little girl has -- doesn't have a chance to grow up. And the judge, who apparently must have been a great man, a wonderful man --
BLITZER: Went to mass every single day.
MCCARRICK: A great Catholic. And the Lord takes him. I think two answers.
The first one is, maybe the -- maybe the easiest and the hardest. Death is a mystery. Life is a mystery. The end of life is not -- is not a terrible thing.
We believe, we Catholics believe, that life goes on forever, and that this life here is a challenging spot where we have to prove ourselves, where we have to show that we can -- that we are good people. And if we prove ourselves, then the Lord takes us, and we can be happy with him forever in heaven.
We truly believe that, there is a heaven, and that's where the good people go. And that's where all people who try to be good will end up going, whether they are Catholic or not.
But here, in this time, when you have a case like that, we say, well, this little girl, the Lord loved her so much, that he took her right to himself and she will be happy forever in heaven.
BLITZER: Let's talk about Pope Benedict XVI's decision to go ahead to sign off on the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Tell our viewers who may not understand what this means -- it's a step towards sainthood -- what is going on here?
MCCARRICK: Well, this pope was just an extraordinary man. He was loved by most of the people in the world.
There were thousands of stories of that I won't tell you how good this man was and how loving. We saw him everywhere. He went all over the world. And when he died, after a tough time of illness, which he bore with great heroism --
BLITZER: He had Parkinson's.
MCCARRICK: Parkinson's. And he kept going.
I remember walking with him and seeing the pain that he had when he was doing it. But the Lord took him, and right away people were saying this man had to be a saint. We all felt that this man was a saint.
The process is a long one. Pope Benedict was gracious and allowed the process to start earlier, but still, it was a very intense and careful process.
BLITZER: There is one issue that has come up, and certainly while Pope John Paul II has been adored by Catholics, questions have been raised that under his watch, perhaps not enough was done to deal with the sexual abuse by clerics out there. And I wonder if you would want to respond to that.
MCCARRICK: The Catholic Church is a Church of more than a billion people, and thousands and thousands of priests and bishops and religious -- no man can know everything that is going on. You'll remember though that he called all the cardinals of the United States when it broke here and brought them to Rome, and told them that he needed us to develop a system which would prevent this in the future, and we have it.
The Catholic Church in the United States, with the program it has to protect young people, is the best in the country, better than any of the other even secular programs that we have, because we have worked on it. We have come back to it time and time again to make sure that what we have protects children. And we have it now, thanks be to God, because you don't see the cases -- once in a blue moon, but now, those days, please, God, are gone.
We believe that, God.
This holy father was the one who spoke to us and said, you have got to do something, you can't let this go on. This is a horrible thing. And he said so that so often and was -- this came to him in the latter years of his life, but he talked to it.
He could have walked away from it. He didn't. He was on top of all of the things that were happening. He wanted us to be holy men and he wanted us to be holy people, and he gave us a great example of his holiness in his own life.
BLITZER: Your Eminence, thanks so much.
MCCARRICK: Thank you for the opportunity.
BLITZER: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is the archbishop emeritus of Washington.
Appreciate it. MCCARRICK: Thanks very much.
BLITZER: More than 50,000 military widows and widowers now being ordered to pay the government tens of thousands of dollars. Why is this happening now?
Stay with us.
And what was the alleged Tucson gunman doing in the final hours before that deadly massacre? We're getting new information.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Let's look at some "Hot Shots."
In Brazil, people rummage through debris left behind by mudslides and flooding.
In India, a woman rows a boat on a lake during snowfall.
In London, an artist works on an ice sculpture.
And in Japan, a ski jumper from the Czech Republic practices for a meet.
"Hot Shots," pictures worth a thousand words.
Losing a spouse is painful enough, but imagine being told you must pay the federal government back tens of thousands of dollars in benefits. That's the case right now for more than 50,000 military widows and widowers across the country.
Let's bring in CNN's Martin Savidge. He's got the details -- Marty.
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.
Well, ironically, really, this all began with a federal law that was designed to try to give widows or widowers more access to benefits, but unfortunately, due to a quirk in the law, it's actually working just the opposite. They're going to get less benefits.
And as hard as this is to believe, it all begins when they try to move on with their lives and remarry
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To 2010.
SAVIDGE (voice-over): In 2003, Frieda Green (ph) got a $41,000 check in the mail from the military. She couldn't believe it.
(on camera): You thought, what a mistake, maybe, for me?
FRIEDA GREEN (ph), ASKED TO RETURN MONEY: Yes. And then I called the Air Force Finance, and they said, "No, that's your money."
SAVIDGE (voice-over): The military assured Frieda was owed her after the death of her 81-year-old husband. The Pentagon said that Gerald Shropel (ph) died of a medical condition linked to his 34 years in the Air Force. The money was Gerald's way of looking out for his wife after he was gone.
Then, last November, Green got another letter from the military she couldn't believe. They wanted their money back.
SAVIDGE (on camera): Do you have $41,486?
GREEN: Are you going to loan it to me? No, I don't have that money.
SAVIDGE (voice-over): What happened? Green got married.
The process is really complicated, but the bottom line is Green's husband paid into an insurance policy over his military career. When he died, the government refunded those payments to Frieda. Now it wants the refund back because she started getting a second benefit after she remarried at the age of 74.
(on camera): So what do you think of all of this?
GREEN: You want me to be nice?
SAVIDGE: Language acceptable on television.
GREEN: I'm not very happy.
SAVIDGE (voice-over): Green is not alone. Estimates are some 57,000 widows are now being told to repay the government, much to the anger of veterans organizations.
REAR ADM. NORB RYAN (RET.), MILITARY OFFICERS ASSN. OF AMERICA: Here we are taxing the group that has done the most for this country, and if I were in the Pentagon, I would be awfully embarrassed about this situation.
SAVIDGE: Fixing the problem is estimated to cost $600 million a year, something Florida Senator Bill Nelson says the government should pay, just as it does for planes, guns, and war in general.
SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: -- the cost of war is taking care of the families, the widows and the orphans.
SAVIDGE: Now, Wolf, the idea is to perhaps fix this with legislation, which means money, and as we heard, to the tune of maybe $600 million a year. But, of course, right now, we know that Congress isn't really in the mood to spend any money. So, what really happens, how it's going to be fixed is still very much up in the air -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Marty, thanks very much.