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THE SITUATION ROOM

Bush And McCain Reach Torture Ban Deal; $3 Billion To Fix New Orleans Levees; Iraqis Vote In Historic Election; Interview With Alberto Gonzales; Possible 2008 Presidential Race Poll Released; Hillary Clinton May Be 2008 Candidate

Aired December 15, 2005 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Ali. And to viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time. Happening now, the deal is done or is it? New movement this hour toward a ban on torture.
It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington where Senator John McCain appears to have won a political tussle with President Bush. The votes are in, in Iraq. It's midnight in Baghdad where the turnout was high and violence relatively low. What will happen next once the results are tallied?

A new commitment to rebuild New Orleans. The White House wants to double spending to fix levees swamped by Hurricane Katrina. It's 3:00 p.m. in New Orleans, will the city be safer when another big storm hits? I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Two former rivals who still butt heads from time to time now are on the same side in the push to ban torture. Just a short while ago, President Bush accepted Senator John McCain's amendment to ban cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of terror suspects. The Bush White House had been resisting this moment for months.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've been happy to work with him to achieve a common objective. And that is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: We feel that the provisions in this bill will make sure that we send a message to the world that we will not engage in torture or cruel or inhuman treatment. This is a done deal. Majority of the House spoke last night. The majority of the Senate has already spoken.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our White House correspondent Dana Bash is standing by. Our congressional correspondent Ed Henry is following all of these developments. Ed, first to you. There seems, despite this agreement, to be what, a little bit of a snag? ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Maybe not a done deal at all. Two Republican congressional sources now tell CNN that House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter is threatening to block this deal. He would do that because is he chairman of the conference committee on the defense bill. He can technically refuse to circulate the conference report and not allow everyone else to sign the bill.

Obviously, the McCain ban on the use of torture of detainees is contained in this broader defense bill. That would be in defiance of not only John McCain, in defiance of Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, but also the president of the United States.

I can tell you Senate Republicans on this side of the Capitol believe that Duncan Hunter may not get away with this because of public pressure. They point out -- they claim this would be the first time in 45 years that the Congress would go home for the holidays without passing a defense bill at all.

And some Senate Republicans believe that at a time of war, Republicans on the Hill as well as the president would not allow this to happen. So we're trying to get a handle. We're being told Duncan Hunter is planning a press conference later this afternoon to explain this. But this is fast developing, and late breaking obviously. There have been a lot of twists and turns in the story. And this is just the latest, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're expecting, as you say, Duncan Hunter to be speaking shortly. Is that right?

HENRY: That's right. We're expecting him to hold a press conference. This -- obviously this -- what we believe to be a deal came after a vote last night in the House, a key turning point where the House, which had not gone on record in support of the McCain ban on the use of torture of detainees, there was a procedural vote, technically non-binding but it was a clear bipartisan majority saying they supported the McCain language.

BLITZER: Ed, Duncan Hunter, in fact, is speaking right now. Let's listen in.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER, (R-CA) ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: McCain stated that he had a deal -- made a deal with the White House. You saw the president talk about that agreement. Our position is until we have an assurance from the White House that the provisions which we have been working on provides the same high level of effective intelligence gathering capability that we presently have. I'm not going to sign that deal. And be happy to take any questions. Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: Evidence that you need from the White House?

HUNTER: We need to have -- excuse me a second. Refreshing. We need to have an assurance from the White House that this twin package that we've put together, and it includes the McCain bar on inhumane treatment, and it also includes the provisions that the House has focused on and has injected into this process, which is the protections for American personnel, that that package, taken in its totality, with the bar on inhumane treatment but also with the protections for American personnel.

And that includes our soldiers, our GIs, our troops, and our intelligence gathering officers, that that package as analyzed by the White House will result in the same high level of intelligence gathering capability that we presently have.

Now, this -- the protection aspect of this is extremely important because you have people out there in very difficult inconvenient, dangerous places in Iraq, in Afghanistan, risking their lives, making moment by moment decisions. And we thought that it was important on the House side to give them a modicum of protection against lawsuits and against criminal prosecution, to give the well-meaning, good faith GI or marine or navy SEAL, or intelligent agent, that same protection -- thanks -- Josh.

BLITZER: All right. Duncan Hunter is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican of California. Duncan Hunter making it clear he's not happy yet with this deal worked out between John McCain and the White House. And he's threatening action to try to block it unless he gets some major reassurances. A major development. Ed Henry, was telling us all about it.

Ed, this is highly unusual. We saw the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Oval Office with John McCain and the president. Yet, a Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he's not there. Why didn't they get him on board before a deal was announced?

HENRY: That's the question everyone is going to want answered. We're trying to get reaction from Senator McCain's office. We haven't been able to get it yet.

I can tell you that Duncan Hunter for months has been opposed to the provision all along. Several days ago, he told me though that he was shifting a bit, and he believed the McCain language would be strongly manifest the in the final product. And just this morning, late this morning, Duncan Hunter said that he was, in his words, optimistic they were going to have a deal. Something happened in the last few hours that made him finally say no way.

What's different here though about this opposition is that the president of the United States has now joined forces with John McCain, and that could be the difference. Can he now, the president, get personally involved and try to push back on Duncan Hunter? In the past, Hunter has had the president and the vice president of the United States on his side. Now he no longer has the president on his side, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Ed, stand by.

Dana Bash, our White House correspondent. Dana, the people supporting John McCain and many others in the Senate say the president blinked in this showdown with John McCain. What are they saying at the White House?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly would not admit that, Wolf, but it is hard to spin this as anything but a loss if you will for the White House on this issue.

But first, before we get to that, I want to add what you were talking about with Ed and maybe, maybe give what appears to be an answer to how they could potentially get around Duncan Hunter's opposition.

Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, has been negotiating this intensely for the past several weeks. He just had a briefing here at the White House with reporters. Our Suzanne Malveaux was there, and something that he said was interesting. It might be very important to what we're talking about.

He said they have agreed on the language, they have agreed with John McCain, obviously Senator Warner on the language, but he said the vehicle by which it is enacted is still up for debate. And to put that in English if you will and not congressionalese, that means that perhaps this is not going to be done through Duncan Hunter, or perhaps it won't be done on the defense bill, perhaps they're looking for another way to get this through Congress.

That is what Stephen Hadley just told reporters. So that is something that we are certainly watching as the White House is trying to get past this and move on. And as Duncan Hunter is still saying that he is not fully on board.

But the other thing that Stephen Hadley did say is that the negotiations have been very much focused on what Duncan Hunter wants, which is protections for interrogators, protections to make sure that they have counsel and protections to make sure that they won't get prosecuted in such a way that they can't do their job as far as many people in the intelligence community believe.

BLITZER: Very interesting potential parliamentary move there. Dana, thank you very much. Stand by. Because I need you to touch on another story we're working on, as well.

But let me go back to Ed Henry. Battle as early as tomorrow in the Senate on the Patriot law. What's the latest?

HENRY: Well, you know, just today, the speaker of the house, Dennis Hastert sent out a very tough press release chastising Senate Democrats for leading this filibuster, trying to block the renewal of several key provisions of the Patriot Act that Hastert says are critical in fighting the war on terror.

The problem, though, for Republican leaders is that as you know, several high profile Republicans like John Sununu, Larry Craig have joined this filibuster. A vote early tomorrow morning. It does not look like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has the votes just yet.

And just wrapping up, one last thing to add one what Dana said, she's absolutely right, the McCain language could be added -- it's already, in fact, in the defense appropriations bill, this is the defense authorization bill. They could try to push it through. It's already on the Defense Spending Bill. But this is all kinds of fast- moving developments. We'll see whether or not McCain still prevails, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Ed Henry reporting from Capitol Hill. And we'll have much more ahead on the Patriot Act she showdown, the torture ban. My interview, coming up, with the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzalez.

There's another big announcement coming out of the White House today, the Bush administration saying it wants to spend more than $3 billion to repair and strengthen the levee system in New Orleans. Let's return to Dana Bash. She's over there. Was it a surprise? Wasn't it a surprise? What's going on, Dana?

BASH: Well, Wolf, you know, as you know, the White House hasn't at least in public been very focused lately on Katrina. They have been focused, of course, mostly on Iraq and the White House was starting to get once again some criticism about that, and they have been talking on Capitol Hill about doing just that.

Democrats and certainly the delegation from Louisiana have been wanting to do this, to double the funding from $1.6 billion to $3 billion to get the levees in a place where people feel comfortable. That was actually a deal that was done on Capitol Hill yesterday, the Republicans and Democrats. They were actually a little bit surprised to see that the White House was having this big event here essentially pushing it and taking credit for it.

So it was an interesting move here at the White House, but certainly something that the president wanted to -- and the White House wanted to make a big deal out of, if you will, that they are still very committed to fixing New Orleans and particularly focused on the levees.

BLITZER: Dana Bash at the White House. Thank you, Dana, very much.

Moving on to other news we're following, President Bush is calling the historic vote in Iraq a major milestone on the march to democracy. He spoke today about the election, standing with Iraqi expatriates who's ink-stained fingered showed they had voted.

In Iraq, one official predicts it will take two weeks or more to tally the results of today's vote. Let's go to Baghdad. CNN's Aneesh Raman is standing by with what happened and what's next in the process -- Aneesh.

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good afternoon. You were talking about raw politics back home. That is certainly making its way into Iraq. A huge day for this country's democracy, substantive turnout we're told seen across the country.

Iraqis lined up at 7:00 a.m. when some 6,000 polling centers opened. Some of them had to remain open past the 5:00 p.m. official closing time because the lines were so along because some of them had run out of ballots. Now, we saw something similar in October, as well.

A huge turnout reported in the Kurdish north and the Shia south, but most importantly, Wolf, among the Sunni minority, both in the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad and also in the western Al Anbar province.

A key concern had always been whether the Sunnis would turn out to the polls. It seems, at least initially, that they have. But as you say, it could take some two weeks for these votes to be officially counted. And then we'll see weeks if not months of political wrangling over who is going to become the next prime minister -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Aneesh Raman in Baghdad on this historic day. Aneesh, thank you very much. Let's go up to New York. Jack Cafferty is standing by once again. He's got "The Cafferty File." Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf. Hi. The first person who published Valerie Plame's identity says President Bush knows who leaked the CIA officer's name.

Columnist Bob Novak, who is also a CNN political analyst, said earlier this week, and we quote here, "I'm confident the president knows who the source is. I'd be amazed if he doesn't." He added, "so I say don't bug me. Don't bug Bob Woodward. Bug the president as to whether he should reveal who the source is," unquote.

Novak is thought to be cooperating with the criminal investigation of the special prosecutor. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he has no idea what Novak's talking about. They don't know anything.

Senator Chuck Schumer sent a letter to President Bush asking him to either identify Novak's source or say he doesn't know who it is. Here's the question: Do you think President Bush knows the source of the CIA leak?

You can e-mail us at caffertyfile@cnn.com or you can go to cnn.com/caffertyfile. Either one will get to us. We'll publish some of the thoughts that you have on this a little later. I guess we won't publish them. That means we'd print them on a piece of paper, right? We will broadcast them.

BLITZER: You will read them.

CAFFERTY: I will read them, thank you.

BLITZER: Something like that.

CAFFERTY: If people think this is easy, it's not. This is very difficult work we do.

BLITZER: It's not hard.

CAFFERTY: No. BLITZER: Thanks, Jack.

Coming up, the U.S. attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Does he think the new deal on banning torture of terror suspects changes anything?

Also ahead, is the Hillary Clinton campaign for president a done deal? We'll look at the senator's support and roll out a brand new poll on the early 2008 race for the White House.

Plus, a new threat to New York's subway riders and bus riders. Their lives aren't in danger but their commutes to work may be. Details ahead. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the developing story we're following this hour on a proposed torture ban, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, is threatening to try to block a new deal between Senator John McCain and the White House.

As we've been reporting, Mr. Bush reversed course, reached a deal with McCain on the treatment of terror suspects. I spoke earlier with the attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, about the deal and why the White House reversed course.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Attorney General, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to THE SITUATION ROOM.

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: There's a deal as you well know between Senator McCain and the White House on this whole issue of torture, cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners, detainees. Why did it have to come down to this?

GONZALES: Well, first of all, I think there is a misunderstanding that this debate has been about torture. The word torture doesn't even appear in the amendment.

BLITZER: Senator McCain keeps talking about that.

GONZALES: There already is a domestic law against torture. There already is an international prohibition against torture. The president has said, as a matter of policy, the United States government does not engage in torture, does not condone torture under any circumstances.

The debate has been about what constitutes cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. In some countries, there are court decisions where those words mean you can't even insult someone when you question them.

And, obviously, what we want to ensure is that we have the ability to question and gain valuable information from dangerous terrorists that will help us protect America from another attack.

BLITZER: So what does this do now, this legislation that Senator McCain has been pushing, that's got strong support in the Senate and the House? White House is now on board. What will this do? What does it change?

GONZALES: It provides additional clarification in terms of what are the limits of interrogating dangerous terrorists. And obviously, we'll study the law carefully. And to the extent that we have to conform our conduct in any way, we will do so.

BLITZER: The issue had been whether the civilian interrogators were bound by the same restrictions as the military interrogators, the army and other members of the armed forces. Is there going to now be, based on what you know, consistent guidelines, rules of interrogation that cut across civilian and military interrogators?

GONZALES: Based on what I know right now, Wolf, and I need to study the exact language, but I think that this will be applicable to everyone in the U.S. government.

BLITZER: Here's what Senator McCain said yesterday on this issue. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: The problem is that you've got to have a clear statement that the United States of America, by law, will not engage in cruel, inhumane treatment or torture. You need to do that now because of our image in the world and all the alleged abuses that have taken place, and it needs to be done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He's very firm. I think he's referring to the allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo Bay, the rendition policy of detainees being sent to third countries where perhaps they might be tortured. Is there anything here that he says that you can disagree with?

GONZALES: Absolutely not. I mean, I agree. We agree there needs to be a clear standard. People need to understand what the limits are. And if people don't meet those limits, they're going to be investigated and they're going to be held accountable.

And the administration has consistently said that abuses such as Abu Ghraib were horrific. They should not have occurred. They've been investigated, and those responsible have been held accountable.

And so, clearly, I think it's very, very important for the world to understand that we understand what our legal obligations are. We want to conduct ourselves in a way that's consistent with our legal obligations, and also consistent with the basic American values, quite frankly. And we believe that we can do so and still conduct the war in effective manner. BLITZER: I want to move on talk about the Patriot Act. But one final question on this issue of torture. I guess some people say it depends on your definition of the word torture. One very sensitive interrogation technique is this water-boarding, where the detainee or the suspect thinks he is drowning. Is that something that you think is acceptable?

GONZALES: What I will tell you is that the Congress has defined what torture is, and it is intentional infliction of severe -- I emphasize the word severe -- intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering. That is the definition that Congress says. That kind of conduct would constitute torture.

BLITZER: Water-boarding, is that severe?

GONZALES: Well, again, that would be something that would have to evaluated on a case-by-case basis. That -- the Congress -- Wolf, I'm not going to get into a discussion or debate with you about specific techniques.

What I can reassure you is that we know what the Congress has said torture means, and we try to provide guidance to ensure that everyone is meeting the standards as prescribed to us by Congress.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the Patriot Act. Do you want to extend it, the provisions that there's a sunset that will end at the end of this year? Yesterday right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, I spent some time with Senator Russ Feingold, who's clearly threatening to be involved in a filibuster, because he's not happy with some of the provisions.

Listen to this exchange I had with him yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: We should fix it. We should make the changes on library records and sneak-and-peek searches, and we should get it done before the end of the year. But we should not make the same mistakes we made four years ago. That would be a failure, and that's what we have to prevent.

BLITZER: Do you think they have the 60 votes to break your filibuster?

FEINGOLD: I don't think they have it now, and I hope they don't get it by Friday.

BLITZER: Will you definitely filibuster?

FEINGOLD: We will definitely make sure we have the strongest vote possible to prevent cloture. If you want to call that a filibuster, I guess that's what it is. It's appropriate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Do you think there will be 60 senators who will vote against him in order to break a filibuster?

GONZALES: Well, what I think is that the provisions that he was referring to have been fixed. The conferees came together in the conference -- in the conference -- and they made substantial changes to the Patriot Act.

BLITZER: There are Senate conferences?

GONZALES: Yes, there are now an additional -- at least 30 additional safeguards, protection of civil liberties, changes to the delayed notice search warrants that Senator Feingold was referring this.

This was a false choice, in terms of -- I'm sure critics say we have to protect our civil liberties or you support this conference bill. The conference bill does protect civil liberties. It does include additional audit requirements for the inspector general at the Department of Justice.

It does include additional reporting requirements. It does allow challenges to receipt of national security letters, 215 business record orders, to go to the court and challenge those. And so there has been a great deal of effort made to protect civil liberties in this conference bill.

BLITZER: Even some Republicans, though, aren't convinced. Senator John Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, said this, in the middle of November: "I do think that the president has not been well- served by his own justice department.

There was opportunity after opportunity to deal with these issues well in advance of today, and they have failed to do so. And I don't think that a number of key advisers have served the president well, because this is important. We can't protect civil liberties and still fight the war on terrorism."

GONZALES: What I would say in response is that since 9/11, we've not had another domestic attack in this country. Since 9/11, we have not had one verified case of abuse of the current authorities under the Patriot Act.

The Department of Justice has been extremely responsible in the exercise of these authorities, and the new conference bill adds an additional safe crutch to the protection of civil liberties.

BLITZER: So you think you have votes to get this confidence report passed?

GONZALES: What I'm trying to do is to meet with as many senators as I can, to talk with as many members as I can, to educate them, to provide them as much information as I can, to reassure them that this attorney general takes protection of our civil liberties extremely seriously.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Alberto Gonzales speaking with me a little bit earlier bit earlier today here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I also asked him about the CIA leak investigation. He said he has confidence in the work of the special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald.

One of the most controversial sections of the Patriot Act involves what's known as roving wiretaps. These are court orders that allow the FBI to track a suspect as he moves from say a cell phone to a pay phone to a computer. How could a roving wiretap affect you potentially? Our Internet reporter -- is that Abbi or Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: It's Jacki.

BLITZER: Jacki has discovered some startling ways. There she is over there.

SCHECHNER: Hi, Wolf. This is actually some very scary stuff if you dig down into it. If it's a roving wiretap, it means the Feds can tap into all communication that you do. I means over the phone, over the Internet line.

And even if you're not under suspicion, if you use a public phone or a public computer, you can get swept up in it. Or that's what the advocates -- sorry, the adversaries to this actually think could happen. Let's take a look.

You know about instant messenger, you know about e-mail. But what about stuff you might not think of? Voice calls over the Internet or video calls over the Internet, or even technology that we haven't even thought of yet.

Well we looked into the sites that deal with roving wiretaps today. And a couple of them we thought were really good to give you some background information. The Electronic Frontier Foundation online has a very good section on this. Also the Department of Justice will tell you all you need to know about it, it's called Section 206. That's what you're going to be looking for. And it has all this information at a couple of sites, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jacki. Thank you very much.

Still ahead, maybe December of 2005, but it's never too early to talk about the next race for the White House. When we come back, we have brand new poll numbers on who has the early lead.

Plus, winter doesn't officially start for another week. But don't tell that to millions of Americans across the East, South and Midwest. Stay with us, because you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Zain Verjee is standing by at the CNN Center in Atlanta with a closer look at some other stories making news. Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Iraq's most wanted terror suspect, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in the custody of Iraqi security forces just last year, but they released him because they didn't know who he was. That's what Iraq's deputy minister of the interior tells CNN.

The U.S. official says he can't confirm the report, but adds, quote, "It's plausible." There have been several reported near-miss attempts to capture al-Zarqawi. In April, U.S. troops raided a hospital in Ramadi on suspicion al-Zarqawi was there, but he wasn't found.

Philip Morris has scored a big court victory. The Illinois Supreme Court today tossed out a $10 billion verdict against the tobacco giant. It overturned a lower court's ruling that Philip Morris fooled customers into thinking light cigarettes are safer than higher tar brands. An attorney for one of the plaintiffs says that she may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

New York City subways and buses could soon grind to a halt, stranding millions of commuters. Transit employees threatened to strike at midnight eastern if a new contract deal isn't reached. Round the clock negotiations are continuing. New York's mayor is telling New Yorkers to be creative in getting around if there is a walkout.

And it's been an icy day across much of the southeast U.S. from Atlanta, here, to Charlotte, North Carolina. Thick ice and freezing rain caused power outages to more than 300,000 homes and businesses. The wintry weather closed schools, delayed flights, and really snarled traffic. Snow, sleet, and freezing rain will move up the northeast coast later today and through tomorrow -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much. And one footnote to that story about the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I spoke earlier in the day today with Iraqi lieutenant general Nasser Abadi. He's the second highest ranking military officer in the new Iraqi military.

He says he's not sure if that story is accurate. He says that there were reports the Iraqis were receiving that he was in a hospital. They ran to the hospital. He was no longer at the hospital by the time they got there. That interview coming up with Lieutenant General Nasser Abadi coming up, 5:00 p.m. during the next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Moving on, we have brand new poll numbers this hour in the very early 2008 presidential race. No one is officially a candidate yet, but voters are weighing in on their favorites. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is tops with Republicans getting 30 percent in our survey of GOP voters. Senator John McCain gets 22 percent. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gets 18 percent. Senators George Allen, Bill Frist round out the top five.

On the democratic side, Senator Hillary Clinton is far and away the favorite among Democrats. Look at this, 43 percent. 2004 running mates John Edwards and John Kerry are tied with 14 percent. Senator Joe Biden and Virginia Governor Mark Warner trail in single digits.

Political insiders see the race differently. A national journal poll of Republican insiders shows George Allen on top, followed by John McCain, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and Bill Frist. Democratic insiders agree that Hillary Clinton is the front-runner, but Mark Warner is number two, followed by John Edwards, Senator Evan Bayh, and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. Notice John Kerry isn't in the top five on this particular list.

Democrats of all sorts clearly are talking about Hillary Clinton, but are they sold on the senator as their ticket to reclaiming the White House? Our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley is keeping tabs. She's joining us now live -- Candy?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, she tops the Democrats' wish list, but Hillary Clinton has yet to be seen in any of the usual haunts of a presidential wannabe. Still, even when she's not there, Hillary Clinton has presence.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you want to please put buttons on, $2 donation...

CROWLEY: Miami Beach Democrat Bob Kunst is both unofficial and dogged in his quest to get Hillary Clinton to run for president. Of late, though, he's a little put out with the object his dedication.

BOB KUNST, PRESIDENT, HILLARYNOW.COM: There's a whole bunch of people that think Hillary's switching a little bit more to the right. We have tremendous objections to her staff and even Bill who's telling, you know, play centrist.

CROWLEY: Kunst is steamed over Clinton's support of the bill to criminalize flag burning. Others question the senator's low-key mostly centrist position on Iraq.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I hope we will have a government that we can begin to negotiate with, that will help secure a better and stable future for the people of Iraq, and begin the process of bringing our men and women home.

CROWLEY: As of last May, 85 percent of Democrats said they were likely to vote for Senator Clinton in a presidential election. And she is Mrs. Excitement, hands down winning the paraphernalia contest at the Florida party convention, which makes it surprising so many Democrats there were hesitant on Hillary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of them hope she doesn't run.

CROWLEY (on-camera): Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why? Because number one, they're going to jump on her. And they're going to dredge up all the stuff about her husband. She's going to have to fight an uphill battle right from the beginning.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Most of the people I've spoken to feel that her chances are not as good as some of the other candidates, so they're a little skeptical.

CROWLEY: Because she's a woman or because she's a Clinton?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, yes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: For now, Senator Clinton is content to be a leading light in the '06 congressional elections. Her office has made an art form out of not responding to '08 questions, but staffers defend her positions on the war and the flag as principled and consistent -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Candy, why is she so high on all of these lists, whether insiders or the public at large?

CROWLEY: At this point in any presidential cycle, we're three years out here, name recognition has a lot to do with it. And obviously, John Kerry is a name that Democrats are going to recognize. But not only is there name recognition in the name Clinton, there's also that good-old-days feel to it.

That's to say she isn't the legitimate front-runner as Democrats look at her, but there are a lot of people out there, you know, who believe that once she gets into the race that it'll be a much closer thing that polls right now which largely are based on name recognition would lead you to believe.

BLITZER: And remember, Candy, it's three years until the election. It's about two years until Iowa and New Hampshire, which doesn't sound like it's that far down the road.

CROWLEY: It's not.

BLITZER: All right. Candy Crowley, thanks very much.

Hillary and Bill Clinton are two people in contention for "Time" magazine's person of the year. Since 1927, "Time's" editors have named a person of the year on the cover of a special issue of the magazine. Now, more on the Clintons from our Anderson Cooper.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Five years after leaving the White House, the powerhouse couple of Bill and Hillary Clinton are still in the spotlight. And in the brass knuckle world of politics, they're working hand in hand with some unlikely high profile public figures, making the two candidates for "Time" magazine's person of the year.

PRISCILLA PAINTON, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "TIME": I think they're symbols of a yearning for this country for reaching out to the other side of the aisle. President Clinton himself was allied with former President Bush in an effort to raise money both for the tsunami and for Katrina. And, you know, essentially going around the world with your old enemy is a powerful symbol. Hillary has from the beginning formed alliances with Republican senators across the aisle. She's even collaborated with Newt Gingrich of all people, the man who almost took down the Clinton presidency, on health care. So they basically stand for the two politicians who have gone out of their way to signal, you know, let's bury our hatchets and start working on the business of America.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And this Sunday, December 18th, our sister publication "Time" magazine will announce its person of the year. 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning, by the way, CNN has a special with Anderson Cooper on the making of "Time" magazine's person of the year.

Up next, so you've seen our new poll numbers. But just what are Hillary Clinton's chances in the next race for the White House? I'll ask two experts. Donna Brazile and Bay Buchanan, they're standing by here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, a deal between President Bush and Senator John McCain over torture. It's in danger of unraveling right now. We'll talk strategy. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

Today in our "Strategy Session," the White House and Senator John McCain have reached an agreement on the treatment of detainees, but are there still more roadblocks ahead?

And it's never too early to look pollsters, strategists, pundits, to look forward to the next presidential election. We'll go over our just-released 2008 poll with our CNN political analyst, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Bay Buchanan, the president of American Cause.

On the McCain torture agreement with the White House, let's listen to what John McCain just said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: I'm very pleased that we've reached this agreement. And now, we can move forward and make sure that the whole world knows that, as the president has stated many times, that we do not practice cruel, inhuman treatment or torture.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Bay, did the White House blink?

BAY BUCHANAN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN CAUSE: Well, you know, Wolf, you have a House resolution, even if it was unbinding. And then you have the Senate passing this veto-proof bills, which are McCain bills. So obviously, they had to do some negotiating.

I think the key here is the White House has to make absolutely certain for national security purposes that they are left with some kind of caveat, some area where there are some people in the CIA that can go ahead and do what they need to do to extract information.

BLITZER: Some wiggle room.

BUCHANAN: Absolutely.

BLITZER: I suspect there is some language, in dire circumstances, the president personally could authorize that kind of behavior. But I don't know for sure.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: No, I don't know either. But yes, the White House did blink, and thank God they did blink. There's overwhelming support for Mr. McCain's approach, as you well know, in both chambers. And I think it's important for Mr. Hunter (ph) and anyone else who'd want to stop this train from going down the track that Secretary Rice last week said in Europe that the United States does not condone torture.

And the president reiterated that today. And for someone else to stand up and say, "Wait a minute, we've got to mess with this again," that sends a wrong signal.

BLITZER: What does it say about the whole political environment right now where you have a good conservative Republican like Duncan Hunter of California, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, after the president in the Oval Office with John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John McCain makes this big announcement. Then he comes out in a news conference on Capitol Hill and says, "Not so fast, Mr. President."

BUCHANAN: You know, what his position is is the same that the vice president's and president's was just a week ago. And so I don't think it hurts at all. In fact, I believe that the president had the opportunity. Politically, it's not astute to do it at the moment. But I think there is a very, very good case that we should have the ability to have some of our military, some of our CIA, to be able to torture. And I think we all agree with that. And so I think what Duncan Hunter is doing is making certain that's in there.

BLITZER: I'm not sure everyone agrees with you.

BRAZILE: I don't agree. The last thing we should do is re- litigate this issue. The president is now on board, the House and Senate overwhelmingly, so we should ban torture, period.

BLITZER: Let's talk pure politics right now. The new CNN-"USA Today"-Gallup poll, Republican voters choice for nominee -- this is among registered Republicans. Rudy Giuliani with 30 percent, John McCain 22 percent, Condoleezza Rice 18 percent, George Allen 7, Bill Frist 3. What does these numbers say to a good Republican like you, Bay?

BUCHANAN: It says we're going to have a social conservative. And I'll tell you, John McCain's problem is this. I think there's a glass ceiling for him. Now, that glass ceiling may be 30 percent. You can win a primary with 30 percent. So the key is for the social conservatives and the establishment Republicans which are not very fond and do not want to see John McCain move ahead, they're going to have to come up with a candidate or two that they come behind. We can't have five or six, split our vote. McCain slips through.

BLITZER: Let's look at the Democrats voters' choice for the nominee in 2008. Hillary Clinton with 43 percent, John Edwards, John Kerry with 14 percent each. Joe Biden at 8, Mark Warner at 3. I guess your candidate, Hillary Clinton, she's the front runner right now.

BRAZILE: She has wide personal appeal, and I agree with you. It's early still. But the fact of the matter is is that the Democrats have a wealth of good candidates who are preparing to run in 2008. We don't know if Mrs. Clinton will run, but we do know that other leading Democrats interested in tossing their hat in the ring. What I was interested in seeing that Mark Warner is up there. And of course, we have...

BUCHANAN: That's a race for the vice president.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens on that front. Yesterday, Paul Begala was standing where you were. He pointed out correctly that the vice president, Dick Cheney, did allege that there was a meeting in Prague between the CIA, between Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of 9/11, and somebody from the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein.

I suggested, "Well, I don't know if the vice president said it as hard and fast as you're saying, Paul Begala." But lo and behold, one Web site Media Matters for America, points out there is a direct quote from the vice president to Gloria Borger saying, "I know this. In Prague in April of this year as well as earlier," and that information has been made public. Paul Begala was right. I was wrong.

BRAZILE: Paul Begala is always right. Wolf, you're always right. You're always right.

BLITZER: So is Bay Buchanan. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Coming up, the debate over Christmas versus holiday trees with a Yiddish accent? It's no joke. We'll tell you what's going on.

Plus, Rush Limbaugh's legal troubles. Are politics to blame? The conservative talk show host's lawyer speaking out in an interview with me. That's going to be coming up during the 7:00 p.m. hour of THE SITUATION ROOM. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The power of the Internet is giving us a unique look inside the Iraqi elections. Let's check that situation with Abbi Tatton. She's got the situation online -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, firsthand accounts of voting today online. This is 20-year-old Hassan (ph), who got up early and went out with his camera to record what was going on. Said that there was a festive atmosphere in the streets. He also went along with his 85-year-old grandfather.

Lots of pictures today of proud fingers held up, ink-stained fingers there. Other perspective here from the military, milbloggers, as they're known. This is army major Gregory Prattman (ph) who has recorded his thoughts. He's saying he's taking a backseat today. The Iraqis today are running the show -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Abbi, thank you very much.

Up next, does President Bush know something he's not telling us about who leaked the identity of a CIA operative? Jack Cafferty is weighing through your email. He's standing by right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is back with us. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Anxiously waiting the transit strike. Boy, I hope that doesn't happen. Thanks, Wolf.

Bob Novak says he's confident President Bush knows who leaked the CIA officer's name. Novak, also a CNN political analyst, was the first person who published Valerie Plame's identity. And he's thought now to be cooperating with the criminal investigation being conducted by the special prosecutor.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan says he has no idea what Novak's talking about, and Plame's husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, says he agrees with Novak for the very first time in 29 months. Wilson says, quote, "The president needs to answer one simple question: Does he know?"

And that brings us to our question, which is this: Do you think President Bush knows the source of the CIA leak? This is good stuff.

Linda in Bellavista Arkansas: "Does the president know? You bet you. CIA leak, fractured intelligence, secret prisons, torture. He's the lead secret agent man. Bet he doesn't have any recording devices at the ranch, either. That's where they go to the mattresses and create the new Webster-Bush Dictionary."

John in Odessa, Texas: "Intentionally exposing the identity of our own American spy would now have been done without a direct order from the president."

Cecilia, San Jose, California: "I truly believe Bush is a puppet for Cheney and Rove. So it's entirely possible Bush doesn't know anything that those two people, and possibly a few others, don't want him to know.

Skip in Naples, Florida: "Of course Bush knows who leaked the information by now. However, there's no way he can admit to it since he told everyone to cooperate with the investigation."

Janice in Texas: "Have we ever had a president of the United States that didn't think he knew everything?"

And Stan in Muncy, Pennsylvania: "Hey, Jack, if I knew who the leaker was, I'd be sitting next to Wolf, sipping water from my souvenir CNN cup, not writing letters to you."

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, evolution, theory or fact? A controversial disclaimer on textbooks goes before the court.

Plus, a comedian takes on a new cause just in time for Christmas. Or is it the holidays? A few laughs in the what-to-call-it war this season.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Evolution in the courts and in the culture wars. A federal appeals court in Atlanta is hearing arguments today for and against a controversial move by a school district in Cobb Country, Georgia. Back in 2002, disclaimers were placed on science books proclaiming evolution is a theory, not a fact. But a lower court declared the stickers unconstitutional and they were removed. The 11th Circuit Court now is considering the school board's appeal. Now word on when there will be a ruling.

And get this. The comedian Jackie Mason is taking a debate that's no laughing matter for many people this season. Known for his borscht-belt brand of humor, Mason is a founding member of Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation. He helps kick off a new campaign aimed at Jewish people, telling them it's, quote, "OK to say Merry Christmas."

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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