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THE SITUATION ROOM

Rep. Murtha Responds to President's Sinking Poll Numbers; Sen. Feingold Introduces Resolution to Censure Bush; DNC Rules Committee Approves Plan to Alter Election Calendar

Aired March 13, 2006 - 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 our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you the day's top stories.
Happening now, it's not good news for the president. We're just seconds away from unveiling our brand-new CNN poll. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington, where Mr. Bush is trying to convince Americans he understands their concerns about Iraq. We'll have the inside story and analysis of the poll, his speech and his political problems.

Also this hour, a new move in the U.S. Senate to censure the president. Democrat Russ Feingold going forward with the measure right now. Is it a valid response of domestic spying or is it blatant political stunt work?

A developing story we're also following that could have implications for your health.

The federal government confirming the third case of mad cow disease here in the United States. I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM..

Just in to CNN, a new political punch in the gut for the Bush White House. You're getting the first look right now at our brand-new poll. The president's job approval rating has taken a downward turn again, falling to only 36 percent. His disapproval rating now up to 60 percent. This represents his lowest rating ever in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.

It comes as Mr. Bush is launching another series of speeches on an issue that has been weighing heavily on his presidency and his poll numbers, namely, the situation in Iraq. Our correspondents are standing by, John king with us, Dana Bash at the White House. Let's begin with our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider with all the latest numbers.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The numbers in our poll give even greater urgency to President Bush's new Iraq initiative.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): President Bush's support at 36 percent is at an all time low. There are signs his base is weakening. Among conservatives, Bush's approval rating has dropped sharply. Disapproval among conservatives is up to 41 percent. It is not good news for Republicans who have to face the voters this fall.

Voters give Democrats a 16 point lead when asked how they would vote for Congress. What's the main reason for President Bush's troubles? Iraq. More than 60 percent of voters say Iraq will be very important in their vote for Congress and the more important the Iraq issue is to voters the better Democrats do.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our goal in Iraq is victory.

SCHNEIDER: Two thirds of Americans say they do not believe President Bush or the Democrats have a clear plan for Iraq. But it was the Bush administration that took the lead on going to war. And so Democrats have a slight edge on the issue.

The ports controversy also appears to have hurt Republicans who are losing their advantage on terrorism. Republicans now have a four- point lead over Democrats on terrorism compared to an 11 point lead in October. Any good news here for the White House? Yes.

Nearly 60 percent say the country's economy is in good shape, the highest number in more than three years. But you might say, it's not the economy, stupid. When asked what the Bush presidency will be most remembered for, the war on terror or tax cuts or Supreme Court appointments or response to Hurricane Katrina, 64 percent say President Bush's legacy will be Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

The uprising over the ports deal and the Hurricane Katrina videotapes have hurt President Bush in another way; 51 percent now call Mr. Bush a weak president. Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Stand by. I want to bring you back. We'll take a look at another new poll number, 60 percent of Americans surveyed also say things are going poorly in Iraq, up from 53 percent in January. That certainly helps explain why Mr. Bush is once again trying to better promote his Iraq policy less than a week before the third anniversary of the U.S. led invasion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle. We will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come. The terrorists are losing on the field of battle. So they are fighting this war through the pictures we see on television and in the newspapers every day. They're hoping to shake our resolve and force us to retreat. They are not going to succeed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our White House correspondent Dana Bash, our Chief National Correspondent John king. Dana, first to you, what is the White House overall strategy this week and next week, dealing with sinking poll numbers and the third anniversary of the war on Iraq.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's really basic. It's just to have the president keep talking about what's going on in Iraq, try to find new ways to get people's attention. Today, the way they did that was by focusing on security but specifically by trying to focus on the thing Americans see and understand is the most harmful and deadly to U.S. troops, one of the things they care most about, that is IEDs or roadside bombs.

That is what the White House hopes the president is going to get across today. Next week, he will talk about the political progress. The bottom line is they keep trying to find different ways to break through. Because of the numbers we saw today, those numbers will not be a surprise at the White House.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, Dana. John King, you and I have covered Washington for a long time. The president's poll numbers are pretty bad, pretty awful, rock bottom as far as this CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. The American public thinks the economy, used to say it used to be the economy stupid, the economy is in pretty good shape, how do we explain that?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The president has been talking about a growing economy, in most parts of the country, the economy is doing fairly well by the numbers. Everyone at the White House knows the cloud over this presidency is Iraq. They would love to turn the American people's attention to the economy, make it their number one concern.

When you ask what do you care most about, people are worried Iraq. This president is in trouble both in defining his own legacy and in defining the chances for his party in this election year. His approval rating among Republicans has fallen 16 points in a year. It is still high at 75 percent, but it is down from 91 percent a year ago. Almost 4 in 10 Republicans think he doesn't have a clear plan for victory in Iraq. That spells trouble for a party that won in 2002 and again in 2004 by motivating and turning out its voters doing much better than the Democrats at doing that.

If Republicans are demoralized, it spells trouble for the president's party this year.

BLITZER: How much of a bonanza, Bill Schneider, does this potentially represent for Democrats?

SCHNEIDER: Democrats are very optimistic. That 16 point lead is very significant. Everyone knows there are lots of obstacles for the Democrats to talk seriously about taking over Congress. What it does suggest is there could be an earthquake coming. Every now and then when there is a political earthquake, it upsets all prior expectations.

BLITZER: For the next couple days, during this week and next week, Dana, the president will be doing what, more of the same? BASH: He will be talking about different things. Tomorrow he'll be talking about another big issue that is going to be on the campaign trail this coming year, that's Medicare, the prescription drug benefit that has a lot of seniors who vote in off-year elections very upset.

In terms of Iraq, the president will have weekly speeches, three this month, also some next month. Again, the number that Bill Schneider talked about, the fact 64 percent say the president will be remembered for Iraq, that is a stunning number, one that makes it crystal clear to this White House why they have to keep trying to turn around those particular figures on Iraq. Their biggest fear is in this election the Republicans who have been with the president on Iraq will start to split.

BLITZER: Dana, Bill, John, all of you be standing by and back here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much. Up to New York, another week of Jack Cafferty here with us in THE SITUATION ROOM. Hope you had a nice weekend.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Wolf, you, too. Iraq is worth looking at today for a number of reasons, none of them good. Sunday will mark three years since the invasion, 2,309 American soldiers have died there. Britain announced today it will cut 10 percent of its troops in Iraq by May.

New polls indicate 57 percent of Americans say it was a mistake to go there, 60 percent say things are going poorly there. Almost 70 percent say neither President Bush nor the Democrats in Congress have a clear plan what to do about Iraq. Violence continues to escalate, perhaps toward a civil war and there's still no unity government in place. All in all, things are pretty ugly, don't you think?

Where is the question, what should the U.S. be doing about Iraq? E-mail us at caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Coming up a in THE SITUATION ROOM, mad cow in the United States. There is a new case that has just been confirmed. We'll have the details on this disturbing still developing story. Plus a former bush aide arrested. Authorities say he scammed thousands of dollars from department stores. We're going to take a closer look at the charges that have caught the White House, caught all of us by surprise.

A leading critic of the Iraq war, Congressman John Murtha, what does he think of the president's latest P.R. offensive and his new poll numbers. The Democrat who pushed for a quick pull out from Iraq, he's standing by to join us live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Senator Russ Feingold about to introduce a resolution on the floor of the U.S. Senate. A resolution that would censure the president for domestic spying. We are going to go there live once he does that. In the meantime, we'll move on. President Bush, once again, urging Americans to have patience while the U.S. tries to secure democracy and victory in Iraq.

Democratic Congressman John Murtha famously lost patience with the mission a while ago when he called for a prompt troop deployment outside of Iraq.

Congressman Murtha is joining us now live from Capitol Hill.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us. I take it you're not surprised by the plummeting of the president's poll numbers, especially when it comes to Iraq.

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Well, Wolf, that's been the problem. It's been rhetoric. They get on and they make speeches, the secretary of defense, the president, so forth, in the meantime, the public knows better. The statements they made turned out to be a mischaracterization of what's going on.

They're now calling what they called a dead-end kid, then they killed it insurgency. Now they are calling it secular violence. It's a civil war, and our troops are caught in between. And the public knows it.

Every place I go people come up to me, and they say, you know, you're right, keep speaking out because we believe there's no chance of winning it. I said a year ago, as you know, Wolf, you can't win this military. And they keep using rhetoric for the answer.

Let's take these IEDS. That's the roadside bombs. Two and a half years ago, I came back from Iraq and I said to the secretary of defense, we need to do something about these roadside bombs. Since that time, there have been 10,000 casualties from roadside bombs. And they now put another task force together and they keep making a big play.

The president finally is talking about it two and a half years after I brought it to the attention of the secretary of defense. That's why the American public is upset.

BLITZER: Congressman, as bad as the numbers are for the president and for the Republicans, they're not very good for Democrats either. This question in our brand-new CNN "USA Today" Gallup poll that has just come out -- the question is this, do Democrats in Congress have a clear plan for Iraq? Only 25 percent said yes, 68 percent said no.

It looks like -- and correct me if I am wrong, Congressman -- Democrats are all over the place as well.

MURTHA: Well, I think we're finally starting to get some traction on this issue. They're finally beginning to realize what I realized right along. This is not a Republican...

BLITZER: Congressman, hold on just one second because Russ Feingold is introducing a resolution censuring the president on domestic spying. I want to listen briefly.

MURTHA: Sure.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that I be recognized for up to 25 minutes, as if in morning business.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there an objection?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understand, Mr. President, this is off the resolution. Is that correct?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The senator from Wisconsin asked to speak as if in morning business. Is there objection?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think an agreement was reached that it would be off the resolution, is my understanding. It would count towards the time on the resolution.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there objection to that stipulation?

FEINGOLD: Mr. President, it's our understanding that 25 minutes would count...

BLITZER: OK. What we're doing is a little parliamentary maneuvering. The senator, Russ Feingold announced yesterday that on the floor, he would introduce a resolution that would censure the president. It has virtually no chance of actually passing in this Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.

But Russ Feingold feels very, very strongly that the president illegally authorized the domestic surveillance program. And he is going forward. Let's listen briefly.

FEINGOLD: As I understand, I've been recognized for 25 minutes, as if in morning business. Is that correct?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An objection has been heard to the unanimous consent request that the senator from Wisconsin sought.

FEINGOLD: I thought that was the second unanimous consent, as to I simply asked originally for 25 minutes in morning business, and I believe that was approved.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there objection to the senator from Wisconsin's request to speak as if in morning business for 25 minutes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Reserving the right to object and I will object, and we are perfectly willing to have the senator speak but not -- but have that 25 minutes count to the underlying bill.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is an objection.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator from Nevada. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clerk will call the roll.

BLITZER:: All right. We're going to have to move on, because they clearly have a parliamentary procedure that has disrupted the plan of Russ Feingold to go forward shortly after 4:00 p.m. Eastern and introduce this resolution that would censure the president.

You heard the senator majority leader say that any of the time allotted to Senator Feingold would be taken away from other pending Democratic oriented statements on other legislation. Clearly, there is an objection. As a result, the Senate moves slowly in these matters. We'll continue to watch what is happening on the Senate floor.

Let's bring back a representative from the house, John Murtha, who was talking to us.

Are you in favor, by the way, Congressman Murtha, of this -- I know you don't vote in the Senate. You have got your own problems in the house. But did the president go too far? Did the president break the law in authorizing this domestic surveillance without warrants?

MURTHA: Well, I've been briefed very thoroughly on this issue just very recently. I think there are a lot of safeguards. And I think it's certainly something that is worth looking into. I think I can understand the concern.

I kept asking questions over and over again about privacy and how the privacy of individuals were protected. I'm convinced there are safeguards that are available, but still it's certainly something that should be looked into. I think the members themselves, the committees of jurisdiction, have every right to ask very hard questions, are we invading the privacy of individuals?

BLITZER: All right. Let's get back to Iraq, which is the subject we invited to you come on and discuss. The concern that a lot of people express, including some of your -- a lot of your fellow Democrats, is that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would merely fuel this civil war and that if the U.S. simply pulled out right now over the next six months, shall we say, there would be nothing to that really effectively would stop all hell from breaking loose out in Iraq.

MURTHA: Wolf, we're in a civil war right now, and our troops are caught in between. Sixty percent of the Iraqis say there will be less chance -- it will be more stable if the United States pulls out. All the countries in the periphery say the same thing.

We have united the enemies against us. There are three countries in particular -- or three groups that want us to stay there. One is the al Qaeda. There are only 1,000 al Qaeda there and 25,000 insurgents who are civil war participants. Iran wants us there and China. Now why do they want us there? Because we're using up our financial resources and our personnel resource. We're killing and hurting people and we're draining the resources of the United States. And the American public knows that.

We responded slowly to Katrina. We haven't had the money at home to do the things that need to be done. We have got a Medicare problem, a Social Security problem, and we will have spent by the end of this year $450 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So this war is draining us and it's hurting the future of the military. And all of the military leaders say you can't win it militarily. So what is the purpose of what is going on? The worst poll of all, Wolf, is the poll taken of the troops themselves. Seventy-two percent of the troops don't understand -- or 42 percent of the troops don't understand why there and 72 percent would like to get out within a year.

Now, when I introduced my original resolution, I said redeploy as quickly as possible. I didn't say immediately. I said as quickly as possible.

Then a reporter asked me a question, how long would it take? I said well if they decided to get out, they could do it within six months. I'll tell you what worries me about a prolonged withdrawal because the less troops that are there on the ground, the more vulnerable they are to the roadside bombs and to attacks by the enemy.

Obviously they're not letting up. The incidents are increasing. That's the problem, they keep mischaracterizing, say things are getting better, 18 provinces are better. Well four provinces got 40 percent of the population and that's where most of the action is.

BLITZER: All right, well let me just be precise. You said six months. Are you now saying that a withdrawal should be much quicker?

MURTHA: No I've always said that we could get out as quickly as possible. I'm advocating we start a timetable for withdrawal right now. I think we give the Iraqis the incentive to take over the country themselves.

Let's look at the political situation, how badly we bungled that. First place, they were for a guy name Allawi, that was their prime minister. He got eight percent of the vote. And then we're for Chalabi, that's the Defense Department, that's the -- Defense Department likes him. He got one percent of the vote.

So we haven't done very well politically and militarily, you cannot win this type of a war. We're caught in a civil war and everything we try to do makes us enemies. So my feeling has been, yes, we should start a timetable to withdraw as quickly as possible. And I think Democrats and Republicans will come around to this, Wolf.

BLITZER: John Murtha, Democrat from Pennsylvania, he's been to Iraq several times, very outspoken, very passionate on this issue. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us. MURTHA: Nice to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: And this note to our viewers, in the next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we'll get a different perspective. Republican Congressman David Dreier of California, he's going to join us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're watching what's happening on the Senate floor. The Democratic Senator Russ Feingold was about to introduce a resolution to censure the president on domestic surveillance without warrants. That's been held up. There's a parliamentary maneuvering situation underway. We're watching what's happening on the Senate Floor. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, speaking right now. We'll watch it, we'll get back there as soon as we know what is going on.

Still ahead, the president's Iraq problem and his new low point in the polls. Is there anything he can do to try to stop the slide? Our "Strategy Session," we'll have some answers.

Plus, mad cow in the United States. Are Americans at risk now that a new case of the disease has been confirmed here in the U.S.? We're following this developing story as well, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're watching what's happening on the Senate floor, Senator Russ Feingold expected to introduce a formal resolution that would censure the president of the United States. In fact, let's go to the Senate floor right now.

FEINGOLD: He must be held accountable. That is why today, I am introducing a resolution to censure President George W. Bush. The president authorized an illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil and then misled Congress and the public.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Would the senator from Wisconsin yield for a question? May we have a copy of your resolution?

FEINGOLD: I will be introducing it at the conclusion of my remarks.

SPECTER: May I ask...

FEINGOLD: ... I'll be happy to supply the senator with a copy of the resolution, but I do intend to introduce it at the conclusion of my remarks.

SPECTER: Well Mr. President, if the senator from Wisconsin would let this senator have a copy of it now.

FEINGOLD: Mr. President, I just said that I'd be happy to give the senator a copy of the resolution right now.

SPECTER: Mr. President, I thank the senator from Wisconsin. FEINGOLD: Mr. President, I will ask that my time be unanimous consent, that my time be started over again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Without objection.

FEINGOLD: Mr. President, when the president of the United States breaks the law, he must be held accountable. That is why today, I'm introducing a resolution to censure President George W. Bush.

The president authorized an illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil. And then misled the Congress and the public about the existence and the legality of that program. It is up to this body to reaffirm the rule of law by condemning the president's actions.

All of us in this body took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and bear true allegiance to the same. Fulfilling that oath requires us to speak clearly and forcefully when the president violates the law.

This resolution allows us to send a clear message that the president's conduct was wrong. And we must do that. The president's actions demand a formal judgment from Congress. At moments in our history like this, we are reminded why the founders balance the powers of the different branches of government so carefully in the Constitution. At the very heart of our system of government lies the recognition that some leaders will do wrong and that others in the government will then bear the responsibility to do right.

BLITZER: So there it is. The Democratic senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold, introducing a resolution to censure the president for what he called illegal domestic spying, the warrantless wiretaps. Feingold saying the president simply broke the law.

Let's bring in our congressional correspondent Ed Henry. He's been watching this story. He announced yesterday he was going to do it, Ed. It's only happened once before, a formal censure of an American president, that was a long, long time ago. It's almost certainly not going to happen this time. But give our viewers some perspective what Feingold is up to.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, bottom line, the only time it's happened that a Congress has actually slapped a president with a censure, which is basically a severe admonishment, one step short of actual impeachment was Andrew Jackson back in the 1830s.

So the bottom line is this is not going to happen. It's not going to pass, especially in a Republican Congress. But this is essentially a free pass for Russ Feingold. He is running for president, very likely, in 2008. He's somebody who, you know, three, four years ago, was the only senator who voted against the Patriot Act.

There are a lot of liberals out there who think he took a courageous stand then. They're cheering him on now as well. But I think you're going to start seeing Democratic leaders, not individual senators potentially running for president, but Democratic leaders, put on the griddle a little here politically. Because it may not turn out to be a free pass.

What just happened a few minutes ago is that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the reason why there was an objection, is Frist declared he wants to bring this up for an immediate vote tonight, so it will not be a free pass. He wants to get Democrats on record here, make them decide whether they want to take what could be seen as an extreme stand and vote for a censure of President Bush.

Frist is gambling that in fact this will go down something like 85-to-15 or 90-10 because a lot of Democrats are probably saying they will not support this. So what you're going to see is a little bit of back and forth, a lot of showmanship.

But, at the end of the day, it's not going to go anywhere. And I think, Feingold, for -- potentially for his presidential campaign, but other Democrats as well, want to make a broader point that they think this administration has not seen enough accountability, that they need to have their feet held to the fire, on the NSA, on the Dubai port deal that we saw last week. And this is really emboldening Democrats to start standing up to the administration on Iraq and a whole host of security issues -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry is going to have a lot more on this coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Ed, thank you very much for that.

There's plenty of reaction online to Senator Feingold's proposed censure of the president.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we will start on the right.

A lot of conservatives don't like this move by Feingold, calling it grandstanding. There's also now a move online to censure Russ Feingold, in retaliation. But what we're seeing from moderate blogs and liberal blogs is, they're happy that, love him or hate him, Feingold made a move.

We are also seeing support for Feingold, not only to call his office, but to call your senator's office and to find out where they stand on this issue. Now, you can read this censure resolution online for yourself at Senator Feingold's Web site. You can also see where he blogged about this at the big liberal blog Daily Kos. In his own words, he wants the president to be accountable for what he says is breaking the law.

We are at least seeing one voice coming out and saying, be careful; this could be evidence that there is Democratic overreach -- so, a variety of opinions, Wolf, online.

BLITZER: Jacki, thanks very much.

And, to our viewers, remember, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where political news is arriving all the time, CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Let's check in with Zain Verjee at the CNN global headquarters in Atlanta for a quick look at some other stories making news.

Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Tomorrow, the federal judge in the penalty trial of confessed al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui will hold a hearing in which she could declare a mistrial. She sent the jury home today, after learning that the government had sent transcripts of opening arguments to several witnesses. She called the move an egregious violation of a court order. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Questions, even intrigue, are swirling around the death of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. He died of a heart attack in his jail cell over the weekend. A drug that counteracts his blood pressure medication was found in his system. Now, there's speculation that Milosevic took it to get out of his war crimes trial, or that it was deliberately given to him.

At least seven people are dead and more than 660,000 acres of grassland scorched in the northeastern Texas Panhandle. The fast- moving wildfires forced evacuations of several small towns. Only a few hours ago, the wind-driven flames were a little less than half- contained.

Firefighters still battle the blazers using bulldozers and tanker planes. Officials still don't know what sparked the fires. But conditions still remain dry.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has declared seven counties disaster areas, in the wake of weekend tornadoes and violent thunderstorms. Blagojevich got a firsthand look by air at the devastation in his state today. He says that the state is going to help people clean up and get back to normal. About two dozen people in Springfield were hurt. But there are no reports of any deaths -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much -- Zain reporting for us.

Still ahead in the -- here in THE SITUATION ROOM, an arresting development that caught the White House, a lot of us, off guard, everyone, almost, off guard -- a former Bush aide accused of swindling stores. There are new details in this unfolding drama.

And Republicans and the last straw -- some party activists have named their presidential favorite in 2008, at least 2,000 of them, at least. We are going to have the backstory from this weekend's event in Memphis -- that, much more. James Carville, J.C. Watts face off in our "Strategy Session." You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

In our "Strategy Session" today, the president tries to make his case for the war in Iraq on the same day our brand-new CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll shows his approval and policies now are at new lows. Can the president do anything to turn the numbers around? Will Democrats be able to capitalize in the November elections?

Joining us, our CNN political analysts, Democratic strategist James Carville, former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

J.C., the president's job approval number in this new CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll, rock-bottom, the lowest it has ever been. Only 36 percent approve of the way he's handling his job. Sixty percent disapprove. He has got to do something about that.

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, Wolf, those numbers, obviously, are not good.

But I will tell you the numbers in those polls that -- that I would be concerned about, if I'm someone that is going to get voted on in November. And is that 55-39 generic poll with Republicans and Democrats. I think...

BLITZER: Democrats do much better on that...

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: They are doing much better. The Republicans have about a four-point lead, in terms of security. We have kind of relied on that and kind of hung our hat on that.

So, I think that's the challenging number in this. You know, the president needs something good to happen in Iraq, or we need to do a much better job talking about the good things that's happening in Iraq, because, as he said today, they're defending themselves. They're governing themselves. They are -- you know, they have -- they have got to sustain that now. And -- and -- and that's still going to be a little bit of time.

BLITZER: The president is going out, speaking, a new series unveiled today. He was at G.W., George Washington University, earlier today.

Listen -- listen to this little clip of what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our strategy to protect America is based on a clear premise: The security of our nation depends on the advance of liberty in other nations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, that's a theme the president has articulated many times. He's renewing it today.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: What's his strategy, you think?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I have no idea.

(LAUGHTER)

CARVILLE: You're asking -- neither -- neither does the public.

By our poll, 20, 25 percent say he doesn't have a clear strategy for Iraq. It -- it -- it's a nice speech. It's wonderful to hear it. But it -- they haven't even formed a government yet.

And I think, as the public watch this thing go on and on, they're perceiving that they keep -- saying, things are getting better, things are getting better. They don't see it getting better. They don't see a strategy emerging. They see us going to Pakistan, which it does not advance liberty. They see us having, you know, relationships, which I think we must, with a lot of countries that don't. The public is -- turned against this war.

BLITZER: Let me put some numbers up on the screen.

CARVILLE: Right.

BLITZER: And then we will talk about these numbers.

How are things going for the U.S. in Iraq? In January, 46 percent thought that things were going well. It's down to 38 percent. Was it a mistake to send U.S. troops to Iraq? It's now up to 57 percent think it was a mistake. Does Bush have a clear plan for Iraq? Only 32 percent say yes. Sixty-seven percent say no.

But, James, take a look at this number.

CARVILLE: Right.

BLITZER: Do Democrats in Congress have a clear plan for Iraq?

CARVILLE: Right.

BLITZER: Twenty-five percent say yes.

CARVILLE: Right.

BLITZER: Sixty-eight percent say no.

CARVILLE: Well, first of all, I would look at the number is, who are you going to vote for, for Congress? Fifty-five percent say Democrats, 39, Republicans. So, the idea that, somehow or another, the Democrats are not profiting from this -- or, who do you prefer on Iraq? Forty-eight Democratic, 40 Republican.

But -- but the truth of the matter is, the minority party doesn't have anything to do with Iraq strategy. And -- and I think Congressman Murtha made a point. I think Senator Biden made some good points yesterday on Sunday-morning TV. I think that -- that Congressman Murtha does.

And one will emerge between now and the campaign. But, right now, the Democrats are doing pretty good, according to the CNN poll.

BLITZER: What do you think?

CARVILLE: Well, I hope that holds up.

WATTS: Well, I -- I -- we have said all along, you know, the -- the best offense for Republicans is Democrats, because, you know, just what they're doing.

I think that Russ Feingold resolution is an example of how, you know, they sometimes take two steps forward and three steps back, because, you know, what he's saying, let's -- that let's have a resolution against the president, or let's censure the president for trying to listen to what the bad guys are going to say about trying to take American lives, I -- I think that's a good thing that he has done. It's a constitutional question that, you know, the legal scholars are going to debate. But there's nothing there clear-cut saying that this president....

BLITZER: Is Feingold overreaching?

WATTS: ... has abandoned the law.

CARVILLE: Well, to tell you the truth, if you look at the sort of weight of legal opinion, it is that the president broke the law.

I think this is why you have a Supreme Court. I mean, we can all postulate or theorize on this. I think the Supreme Court ought to figure a way -- or somebody ought to figure a way to get this to the Supreme Court as fast as they can. I think most people in the country are going to follow what the Supreme Court does. If they say he didn't break the law, they're going to say he didn't. If they said he did, then it -- the president is going to be in a world of trouble.

But they're -- there are certainly a lot of conservative legal scholars that think that he did break the law. That's not an unreasonable or radical position.

WATTS: But -- but, see, Wolf, let me tell you, Mr. Democrat here...

CARVILLE: Right.

WATTS: ... is already disagreeing with Russ Feingold. CARVILLE: Why?

WATTS: Russ Feingold is saying he broke the law.

CARVILLE: Well, I -- I think...

WATTS: I don't know. We don't know if the president broke the law or not.

We are saying -- what you just said is, let the Supreme Court make that determination.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: That is much different than saying the president broke the law.

CARVILLE: I think the Supreme Court will.

I'm saying Senator Feingold's idea that he did is supported by a lot of people, many of them conservative legal scholars. So, it's not a far-out, left-field, weird kind of thing. There are a lot of people that really believe that he did. There are a lot of people who think the Supreme Court will find that he did. I...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: We will see if it gets that far.

CARVILLE: You bet.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, guys, for joining us, James Carville, J.C. Watts.

Coming up, something of primary importance to Democrats, the presidential nominating season calendar. We will take a look at the changes in the works and how they may affect the bigger election picture.

And would a man who had been a White House insider risk all he had to scam stores, department stores, that is? Authorities say yes. We are going to have the latest on this real-life legal and political drama.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

Let's get more now on the early 2008 presidential race and some political positioning by Democrats. The DNC Rules Committee has approved a plan to alter the election calendar. The plan would allow one or two states to hold Democratic caucuses between the traditional kickoff contest in Iowa and then in New Hampshire.

Our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, is joining us now with more on this primary issue.

The -- the rationale would be -- would be to give a more diverse opportunity to Democrats to select their president, because both Iowa and New Hampshire are largely white states. Is -- is that the bottom line?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: That's right, Wolf.

And it's as predictable a part of our four-year presidential cycle as leap year or the Summer Olympics. Once again, the Democrats are trying to tinker with the nomination calender, trying to make states, as you pointed out, other than Iowa and New Hampshire count.

Now, could that actually happen? Could citizens of other larger, more diverse states actually have a say who in the nominee is? Well, in fact, it has happened, often, and not that long ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD (voice-over): When George McGovern won the Democratic nod in '72, he had to battle all the way through California and to the convention itself.

Ronald Reagan lost every early primary in '76. But a win in North Carolina led to a string of late victories. President Ford didn't wrap up the nomination until the convention.

On the Democratic side, Jimmy Carter had to win primaries all through the spring, before he knew he had won. In 1980, Ted Kennedy's fight to unseat President Carter seemed doomed in the early tests, but a win in New York kept him alive until the convention. When Gary Hart derailed Walter Mondale in New Hampshire in '84, Mondale had to struggle to stay alive, until a key New York state victory effectively won the nod for him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1992)

GOV. WILLIAM J. CLINTON (D-AR), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But New Hampshire tonight has made Bill Clinton the comeback kid.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: And, in 1992, Bill Clinton fought off challengers all the way through New York.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 2000)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I think -- I think we finally have a poll without a margin of error.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: In 2000, John McCain's landslide win in New Hampshire kept his insurgent campaign alive until Super Tuesday.

In fact, John Kerry's Iowa and New Hampshire victories that put him on a glide path to the nomination in 2004 was an exception to the general pattern of Democratic contests.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: So, why the concern? Well, as we have said, for one thing, some Democrats say it's just not fair to put so much weight on two states with a diversity shortfall, few African-Americans or other minorities, key elements of the Democratic base.

And, if there is an argument to let smaller states go first, where candidates have a chance to do so-called retail politics, well, why not let other small states go first for a change? And, then, of course, for people like me, there is an issue of blatant self- interest.

We don't want to have to trudge every four years through two freezing-cold states mid-winter. And I speak here as co-chair of the journalist committee to begin the process in Hawaii -- Wolf.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: I -- I second that motion.

GREENFIELD: All right.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jeff, for that.

Jeff is going to be back with us in the next hour.

Still ahead, the Republican presidential race and the weekend straw poll that has the party buzzing.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where political news is arriving all the time -- remember, CNN, American's campaign headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our political radar this Monday, the first test of Republicans mulling a race for the White House -- party activists still are talking about the results of a straw poll taken at a GOP event in Memphis over the weekend. Claiming a home-state advantage, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, came in first, with Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney coming in a distant second.

President Bush wound up being tied for third place, in large part, because of the man who trailed him in the straw poll. That would be Senator John McCain.

Our senior national correspondent, John Roberts, has more on the results. He was down in Memphis. What did we learn about this overall Republican contest, John?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we learned, Wolf, that it is absolutely wide open.

This really was the first event of the 2008 election campaign. Delegates in Memphis had a chance to size up the prospective candidates, as you said, vote for their preference in that non-binding straw poll.

And even though John McCain finished well down the line, it is still clear that he will be the one to beat.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROBERTS (voice-over): It was no shock that Bill Frist won the weekend Republican straw poll. After, he was the home-state favorite, and had packed the conference with delegates.

But there were two big surprise in Memphis. One was the strong second-place finish of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The other was how tightly John McCain wrapped himself around President George Bush, defending his almost every move, including the ports deal debacle.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think the president...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN: The president deserved better.

ROBERTS: Whether it was genuine or opportunism, it was a clear move, observers say, to position McCain as the heir apparent to President Bush.

CHUCK TODD, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "THE HOTLINE": I think he not only wants to be heir apparent, but he is trying to create an aura of inevitability, so that, even if you're not enamored with McCain, you know he is going to be the guy that is going to get the nomination, so you better be with him now, because you will pay a price if you're not with -- if you go with him later.

ROBERTS: The about-face on President Bush is stunning, given how viciously the two were at each other's throats in the 2000 campaign. No question, McCain needs to repair badly broken relations with conservatives.

But does he risk what made him popular in the first place?

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Does he threaten to blur the -- the portrait of him as a -- as a maverick, independent, straight-talking, moderate conservative, or does he become -- begin to become another Bush, hard-core conservative? ROBERTS: Though he may risk his maverick image, the loyalty has earned McCain an entree with the Republican fund-raising machine, essential in a year when he may need to raise $100 million just to compete.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: so, why is the party apparatus getting behind McCain? Well, for one, he's seen right now as the only Republican who could possibly beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. And supporters, like South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, said during the Memphis conference that McCain is a different person now, trying to be the leader of the party, rather than the leader of a movement -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, John, very much -- John Roberts reporting.

And, remember, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where political news is arriving all the time -- CNN, American's campaign headquarters.

Still to come, a Syrian-American professor takes a stand against Islamic terrorists. Now she finds herself in the crosshairs, both -- both figuratively and literally. I will speak with her, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM -- an interview you don't want to miss.

And just ahead, from top White House official to accused thief -- the very, very strange case of Claude Allen, that's coming up.

Be sure stay right here, in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go right to Jack Cafferty in New York -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thank you, Wolf.

President Bush called on Iraqis today to embrace compromise, as they work toward a unity government, something that seems to be a bit elusive in that country. Mr. Bush asked Americans to show patience for the situation in Iraq.

Meanwhile, this coming Sunday will mark three years since the invasion of Iraq. And new polls indicate that 57 percent of Americans say it was a mistake to send our troops into that country.

The question this hour is this: What should the U.S. be doing about Iraq? That's a tough question.

Steve in Cleveland, Ohio, writes: "What to do? Declare victory and get out. We 'won' and got out of Korea in 1953, Vietnam in 1975, and then when the wall fell in 1989. Now those countries are prime trading partners. Are we really this forgetful or just plain stupid?"

J. writes from Atlanta: "Give them two weeks to assemble a government, get out, bind our war wounds, restock our arms, and prepare to take on Iran, this time, from a deeply-in-debt position and with far fewer potential allies."

Mary from Havertown, Pennsylvania: "I think the Democratic suggestions I have heard sound sensible, Jack. Strategic, progressive deployments, bringing in the Arab community to help, along with the United Nations' assistance, will take some diplomacy and perhaps some contrition from this arrogant administration -- no more lies or happy talk."

Paul writes from Park City, Utah: "All of our elected officials and those in the administration who were pushing for invasion, proclaiming 'cake walk,' 'mission accomplished,' etcetera, should be resettled into the Green Zone with their families and bank accounts and put in charge of that country.

Marjorie writes: "Our government should be doing everything they can to split Iraq into three countries. Nothing else will work, when religion is not separate from government."

And Jessica in Kentucky: "We have to let the Iraqi people take control of their country, for better or for worse. America had to suffer through a civil war in order to become a strong united nations -- united nation. We cannot baby and protect Iraq from itself" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thanks very much.

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