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THE SITUATION ROOM

Bush Administration Wants To "Talk Things Over" With Iran; Iraq War: Three Years Later; David Satterfield Interview; Talks With Iran Possible; New York Republicans Having Tough Time Finding Hillary Clinton Challenger; Russ Feingold Takes A Stand

Aired March 17, 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: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington. After accusing Iran of stirring up trouble in Iraq, the Bush administration now says it wants to talk things over with Tehran. So why not talk about Iran's nuclear program?

It's midnight in Iraq, where local troops join Americans in the hunt for insurgents. But are the Iraqis any closer of taking care of themselves?

And three years after the start of the war, the polls show deep pessimism here in the U.S. Has the American public just plain had enough? Has the war been worth it? I'll ask a top American diplomat on the scene in Baghdad.

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

The White House has pulled no punches when it comes to Iran, an original member of the president's so-called axis of evil. Officials repeatedly accuse Iran of being a bad influence next door in Iraq, and the president himself says some of the roadside bombs taking a deep toe on American troops are made with Iranian parts. But now the Bush administration wants to talk it over with Iran.

Let's go live to our White House correspondent Elaine Quijano. Elaine, what's going on?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Wolf. Well, officials here at the White House are being very cautious in how they talk about this possible next step. Now, of course, any discussions between the United States and Iran are a very sensitive matter, because the White House has not minced words about suspecting Iran of trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Now, another concern has, of course, been that Iran is a state -- considered a state sponsor of terrorism. Yet today, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan rejected the notion that any discussions with Iran amounts to negotiations with terrorists.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is not a negotiation by any means. It would be for the sole purpose of reiterating the concerns that we have expressed publicly. Repeatedly, we have expressed our concerns about Iran's behavior in Iraq and about their activities in Iraq. And so that would be the sole purpose of the discussion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

QUIJANO: And McClellan insisting that any talks with Iraq would not include the discussions about the -- Iran's nuclear ambition. And of course, right now, though, Wolf, there is no definitive word on when or where these talks might take place -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elaine, as you know, the U.S. won't talk to Hezbollah or to Hamas, arguing these are terrorist organizations. The United States doesn't deal with terrorist organizations. In the past, the president has said there's no difference between the terrorists and those who sponsor those groups. Iran, the U.S. argues, is a direct sponsor of Hezbollah and Hamas. So how does McClellan and other White House officials back away from that seeming contradiction?

QUIJANO: Well, that's exactly the crux of the question that was posed to Scott McClellan today, and you heard his response. In his -- in their view -- they look at these discussions as sort of lower level, not really opening them up to these larger discussions about the nuclear issue, which, of course, has been the lynchpin of the difficulties between the two countries.

So the way the administration is reconciling this is to say, look, there is an issue, a very specific issue here about Iraq. There is a mutual concern about the violence there, perhaps getting out of hand. And this is a way that these discussions can take place, but they are, of course, expressing skepticism that these talks will even take place at all.

BLITZER: Elaine Quijano, thanks very much.

The hunt for insurgents continues in Iraq, where U.S. and Iraqi troops are swarming in the area of Samarra. It began as an airborne assault, the largest yet in Iraq since the start of the war. Right now, it's a methodical search on the ground and a test of how well Iraqi forces can perform as the U.S. seeks to reduce its own presence in Iraq.

Let's get some more details now. Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is watching this story -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, U.S. and Iraqi forces are expected to remain on the ground in the Samarra region for the next several days, but so far, the largest air assault since the invasion of Iraq appears to be going very quietly. Resistance is light, officials say. They have captured some suspected insurgents, but they've already let some people go. They have captured some weapons, but there doesn't appear to be any major confrontation yet. The second day into this operation, a top general in Baghdad, briefing the Pentagon press corps this morning, pressed the case that one of the benefits to come out of this operation, indeed, was that it demonstrated the capabilities of Iraqi forces. He said that the Iraqis would, indeed, take on a growing responsibility for Iraq in the coming months.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GEN. PETER W. CHIARELLI, CMDR., MULTINATIONAL CORPS-IRAQ: By this summer, about 75 percent of the Iraq will be -- that battle space will be owned by Iraqi units. We're finding Iraqi units, with our support, can be used in just about any operation we do in a counterinsurgency role.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: But Wolf, to be clear, 75 percent of the battle space of Iraq -- that's 75 percent of Iraq's land mass -- and a good deal of that, of course, is uninhabited desert, or the relatively peaceful areas of the south.

As for the area where the sectarian violence has been occurring, mainly in the Baghdad region, that remains, by all accounts, extremely unsettled.

General Chiarelli saying that attacks, sectarian attacks, were down in the last couple days. But sounding a fairly ominous note, saying that civil war was as possible as it ever had been in the three years since the invasion -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, is this operation today, 24 hours after we learned about it, as big as we thought it was yesterday?

STARR: Well, you know, as big as it is, the question is why did it take 1,500 troops? Why did it take the largest air assault since the invasion of Iraq, according to the 101st Airborne Division? By all accounts, one of the reasons was the area they were trying to cover, 10 miles by 10 miles. That's a pretty significant piece of rural area.

They wanted to move in, not knowing exactly, they say, what they would find; whether there would really be significant resistance by insurgents that they would encounter. So the U.S. military and the Iraqis are beginning to do the same thing, always goes in heavy, if you will, with enough fire power to take care of whatever they think they might find.

Here, they didn't find it, and it is probably worth remembering, Wolf, that there had been so many operations over the last so many months. It's debatable how many one operation really makes a difference to the overall security situation in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much.

Three years later, have Americans had enough of the war in Iraq? Poll after poll shows deep pessimism about the situation there, and President Bush is paying a price, as his approval ratings plummet.

Let's go live to our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield. He's looking at this part of the story -- Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Well, Wolf, as you know, as just pointed out, it's not exactly news that the public is very pessimistic about Iraq and unhappy with the president's conduct of that war. But what may be less clear is that much of this discontent stems from an early success, the remarkably swift victory of the strictly military campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD (voice-over): It took barely three weeks from the start of the Iraq war for U.S. forces to enter Baghdad. The pictures of that triumph were replayed endlessly in our homes: the fall, literally, of the tyrant; the celebrations in the streets.

And the enthusiastic supporters of the war were jubilant in their ridicule of those who had predicted a long, tough stalemate. "The only people who think this wasn't a victory are Upper West Side liberals and a few people here in Washington," said conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. "All the naysayers have been humiliated so far," said Fox News' Mort Kondracke.

What about weapons of mass destruction? "Freed scientists will lead us to caches no inspectors could find," predicted "New York Times" columnist William Safire.

So when President Bush made his top gun visit to an aircraft carrier, with a sign claiming "Mission Accomplished," he was embracing an assumption, one shared by top policy makers, but not by many who were providing guidance about post-war dilemmas -- an assumption that the hard part was over.

From a historical point of view, you can understand the administration's rush to proclaim "Mission Accomplished." Americans are not a patient people with conflicts that drag on.

A year and a half after the start of the Korean voters, voters turned Democrats out of office in favor of a war hero, Dwight Eisenhower, who promised to go to Korea. Three years after the Vietnam War escalated, pressure from left and right drove President Johnson into retirement. Even Abe Lincoln would likely have lost his 1864 reelection to a peace candidate had not the Union army turned the tide on the battlefield.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: So here's the real irony: that quick military success and the president's rush to celebrate that victory left most Americans convinced that the hard work was over. But bad news has continued to follow all the other hopeful signs, from the capture of Saddam to the inspiring turnout for elections for the constitutional referendum. Which is why a pessimistic citizenry has now come to doubt the very worth of the enterprise and the competence of the people who led it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: One thing that would turn around public opinion, presumably, would be a change in the battlefield, a reduction in the insurgency and the creation of a really serious government of national unity in Iraq that would seem to have democracy at hand. That cut turn things around for the Republicans, specifically for the president.

GREENFIELD: Yes, provided that lasts, provided it's not a one- week story that's followed by a new outbreak of sectarian violence and an inability to make that country stable. That's been the dilemma from the very time Saddam was toppled -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff Greenfield, thanks very much for that. Jeff Greenfield is our senior analyst.

The polls show Americans are weary of the war in Iraq three years after the U.S.-led invasion. Was it worth it? I will ask a top American diplomat on the scene in Baghdad. That's coming up this hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Coming up right now is Jack Cafferty. He's joining us from New York with "The Cafferty File." Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, Wolf.

One California city is getting even tougher on smoking. A secondhand smoking law goes into effect today in the town of Calabasas, California. The city says it's the first in the country to ban smoking in all public places. That includes sidewalks, parks, outdoor businesses, restaurant patios, and condominium common areas.

Smokers will only be allowed light up in designated areas at shopping malls or at work. And if a non-smoker asked them to stop, they must or face a fine. Health advocates except similar laws to be passed in other parts of the state, but some smokers say that they alone should be able to decide where they light up.

The question then is this: Is it fair to ban smoking outdoors in public places? E-mail us at caffertyfile@cnn.com, or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

Coming up, major new developments in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. A judge reconsiders a ruling crucial to prosecutors. We're going to have late details coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, can Republicans mount a credible challenge to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate race this year? We're going to show you why they're having so much trouble.

Plus, serious concerns about the U.S. mission in Iraq, as the third anniversary of the invasion approaches. I will talk about those concerns with the number two U.S. diplomat in Baghdad. That's coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Three years after the war in Iraq began, Americans have been taking stock of the situation and increasingly not liking what they see. Is there more than meets the eye in Iraq? American diplomats on the ground there would argue yes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now is the deputy chief of mission in the United States embassy in Baghdad, Ambassador David Satterfield. Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for joining us.

On this third anniversary of the start of the war, the American public is certainly not convinced, no longer convinced, it was worth it. Was the situation in Iraq worth going to war over? That was the question we asked in our CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll. Only 37 percent now believe it was worth it. That compares to 68 percent three years ago. Was it worth it?

DAVID SATTERFIELD, DEP. CHIEF OF MISSION, IRAQ: Well, Wolf, I think that question needs to be addressed not just to the American people, but to the people of Iraq. And they are a people who, by overwhelming numbers, in a progression of elections and referenda over the course of the past 15 months, have stated their views on the worthiness of what has happened here since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

And the story that they are telling to the world, to the region, to the American people, is that yes, it was worth it. It was worth it to rid themselves of the tyranny of Saddam and the Baathists.

It was worth it to have the opportunity to do what they're doing, literally, today, working together -- Kurds, Arabs, Shias, Sunnis, the representatives of the people of Iraq -- to form a government that can speak for all of them, that can accomplish the national goals all Iraqis are seeking, and in doing that, help to make this country a stable place for the future. And that is an important goal for the American people.

BLITZER: Well, you're a career foreign service officer, a professional diplomat, not a political appointee. Your former boss, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday, and she offered this assessment when I asked her if it was worth it. Listen to what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECY. OF STATE: I honestly think that the incompetence in which the post-invasion plans were put together and the chaos that is now existing in Iraq makes one really question it, and the over 2,000 American lives that have been lost. I think it would have been worth it if it had been planned properly.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: I think that's a big criticism, that it was not done well, the post-invasion strategy, so many blunders, so many mistakes, so many people now saying the insurgency could have been prevented. What do you say as someone who is there?

SATTERFIELD: Wolf, the job that Ambassador Khalilzad, General Casey, I, and our team are charged with is to work with the Iraqi people today to create a better future, a better tomorrow for Iraq, and by so doing, help to address the concerns which brought us here in the first place: the issue of terror, the issue of violence, the issue of instability.

We believe mistakes were made, and we've spoken very forthrightly to that, but the issue is not what happened in the past. It's where is Iraq today, where is Iraq going, what can the United States, what can our allies in the region, around the world do to make this a success. And we believe we are on the right track. So do the Iraqi people.

BLITZER: Most Americans believe Iraq is moving towards a civil war. In our most recent poll, we asked that question. Is it more likely to happen, a civil war or a stable government? Fifty-five percent said civil war. Forty percent said a stable government.

Even your boss, the Ambassador Khalilzad, he said that -- in the "Los Angeles Times" the other day -- "we have opened up the Pandora's box, and the question is what is the way forward."

How worried are you that Iraqis -- Shia, Kurds, Sunnis -- are around about to get into a full-scale civil war?

SATTERFIELD: Well, Wolf, there's no question there are deep divisions in this country. There are divisions that are the product of the historical experience of Iraq, exacerbated by the misrule of Saddam, who played on ethnic and sectarian divides for his own benefit, for the benefit of the Baath Party's hold on power.

The issue today is how do the Iraqi people, with our help, with the help of the region and the international community, move forward to begin bridging those divides, to begin creating in Iraq a government of national unity that can speak for all Iraqi people, that can provide the services that all Iraqis need and that can lead this country forward.

Now, the Iraqis who are meeting daily to discuss the future of their country -- and make no mistake about it. Iraqis themselves have their future in their hands -- not the United States, not any outside power. They're the ones that are going to determine the way ahead.

They are not saying that this country is doomed to civil conflict. They're not saying that it's impossible to bridge the divides that are between them. They're working together. They're sitting together. It takes time. It's a difficult process, but they're confident, and we're confident with them, they can move the country forward. But remember a moment why it is that this issue of civil war, civil strife is so much before us. It is because Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda movement, the terrorists, are trying to play on the divisions in this society to prompt a civil war, a civil conflict that they can benefit from.

Iraqis, as the president has said, have looked into the abyss. They don't like what they see. And what they are doing in talking with each other each day is an attempt to pull back and put this country on a different, better course forward.

BLITZER: The Iranians now say they're willing to have direct talks with the United States. Ambassador Khalilzad has told me on several occasions recently he's ready to sit down with Iranian diplomats in Baghdad. When are those talks expected to begin?

SATTERFIELD: Well, Wolf, as you correctly state, we have been prepared for Ambassador Khalilzad to discuss with Iranian representatives issues relating to Iraq. We remain ready to do that. This is something that the Iranians now need to come forward with beyond rhetoric.

BLITZER: Well, here's what Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, said only yesterday about Iran's role in Iraq. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN HADLEY, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It is Iranian activity in Iraq which is giving comfort, and in some cases, equipment to terrorists that are killing Iraqis and killing coalition forces.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Question is -- that a lot of people are asking, why should American officials meet with Iranians who, according to Stephen Hadley, are trying to kill Americans?

SATTERFIELD: Wolf, we have well-known -- and Dr. Hadley expressed many of those -- well-known concerns regarding Iranian policy and Iranian actions here in Iraq. The future of this country is important to us.

The ability of the Iraqis to move forward, to take choices about their future on their own with outside interference is very important to us, and very important to Iraqis. We are prepared -- we have long been prepared -- to talk with Iranian representatives about these concerns.

BLITZER: Ambassador, good luck to you, and all the men and women who work with you.

SATTERFIELD: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: And on the Iranian issue, we're getting some new word coming in from the White House. We're going to be going there right after a quick break. Also, other news we're following. After a bad stumble by the prosecution, has the government now been given another chance to make the case for a death sentence against Zacarias Moussaoui?

President Bush pummeled and pounded in the polls. Can he pick himself back up. We'll take a closer look in our "Strategy Session." Lots more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're just getting some new information coming in right now on our top story. The prospect of the United States and Iran, a government the United States accuses of sponsoring terrorism. The prospect of direct talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad.

Let's go over to the White House, our Elaine Quijano is standing by, she's getting some more information. What are you picking up, Elaine?

QUIJANO: Hello to you, Wolf.

Well just a short time ago, the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, spoke to reporters and basically we're learning a little more about how things got to this point regarding that possible step of talks with Iran and the United States on the issue of Iraq.

Now we're told by Stephen Hadley that about four or five months ago, the authorization was given to the ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to go ahead and reach out to the Iranians on the issue of their behavior in Iraq, only on that issue.

Now what's interesting is that we are now seeing that response. And according to Hadley, what this demonstrates to him is that this is, quote, "simply a device by the Iranians to divert pressure that they are feeling in New York."

Now of course as the international community is looking at Iran and its nuclear ambitions. So the line out of the White House now, essentially, is that they're viewing this with great skepticism. It was four or five months ago, we are told, that this authorization was made. There are now plans in the works perhaps for these talks to go forward, but much skepticism coming out about this.

The U.S. also very clear, Stephen Hadley saying that there will not be a softening, essentially of the United States' position on Iran's nuclear positions. He says, quote, "this is something that we will not let happen" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elaine, the U.S. government, specifically, the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, they have been under enormous pressure from Iraqi Shia leaders, including the prime minister, the acting prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to have these kinds of direct talks with Iranian diplomats in Baghdad.

The U.S. has been anxious for these talks to begin now for months. Khalilzad has told me that on several recent occasions. Now the Iranian government, I believe, comes back this week and says, "We're ready for these talks." And what I hear you saying now, is Stephen Hadley is saying, this is all a stunt. In other words, that the Iranians are not really serious about having these kinds of conversations with the U.S. ambassador?

QUIJANO: Right, well what he had said is that it's a device, he believes, to divert attention away from the fact that of course the international community is now taking a very close look at what the next step with Iran and its nuclear ambitions should be.

So to answer your question, yes, essentially, right now, that appears to be the position of the United States. Obviously they would very much like for Iran to sit down and talk about these problems with Iraq, but the impression we're getting here is that they'll sort of believe it when they see it.

BLITZER: And it contrast to the U.S. government, the Iraqi interim government has very good relations right now with the government in Iran.

The interim prime minister and the other top Iraqi officials have been to Tehran, many of them have lived there in the past during the reign of Saddam Hussein. All right, Elaine, we'll watch this story together with you and update our viewers as we get more information.

In the meantime, let's check in with Zain Verjee, she's joining us from the CNN global headquarters in Atlanta with a closer look at other stories making news. Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Right now in central Florida, firefighters are using airplanes, helicopters, and bulldozers to battle wildfires that are raging out of control. Look at these pictures. In some areas though, residents of a five-block area of homes near the town of Sebring, that's about 80 miles south of Orlando, are now being evacuated. Local media reports saying that more than 500 acres have already burned. The fires have said to have repeatedly change directions and jumped fire breaks. Pine forests and dry conditions in the region are contributing to the threat.

Just a short while ago, the judge in the Zacarias Moussaoui terror trial backed off an earlier decision to bar all aviation security testimony and evidence. Instead, Judge Leonie Brinkema agreed to allow witnesses and evidence not linked to government lawyer Carla Martin. Martin's accused of improperly coaching witnesses. The judge's decision basically means that the government now has a slightly improved chance of winning a death penalty verdict against Moussaoui.

And right now, officials at the international court in The Hague are moving to counter speculation that war crimes suspect Slobodan Milosevic did not die of natural causes. Just hours ago, they released preliminary toxicology tests that indicate the former Serb leader was not poisoned. And the judge in the case says that there -- there's going to be an internal inquiry into the detention unit that housed Milosevic. Milosevic died last week. And he is going to buried in Serbia tomorrow -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much -- Zain Verjee reporting.

In the culture wars, one woman is taking a very drastic measure to fight South Dakota's sweeping abortion ban. And she's doing it online.

Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, is joining us with the story -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, her name is Molly. She's 21. She lives in Florida. That's a pseudonym.

But she's very much interested in this. She posted what she calls an abortion manual online. She said the idea was to open up conversation, that, if we ban abortion, this would be the best-case scenario.

She's had this up for about three weeks. She says she has gotten some 2,000-plus responses, three positive for every negative, she tells me. But the negatives are pretty bad. People want her dead.

Now, we spoke to people on both sides of the discussion today. Nobody think that this is a good idea. Planned Parenthood of South Dakota tells me, they think this is very bad; it's terrible to promote to women who are already vulnerable and in a dangerous mind-set.

Also, talking to the National Abortion Federation, they say a woman would be ill-advised to self-induce an abortion via instructions found on the Internet.

Also spoke to the National Right to Life. They directed me to a quote from one of their outreach directors, who called this a scare tactic and said it would be terrifying that anyone would advocate this.

But Molly tells me, Wolf, the idea to get people talking. And they certainly are.

BLITZER: All right, Jacki, thank you very much -- Jacki Schechner with that.

Up next, one candidacy crumbled -- now another Republican steps forward to take on Senator Hillary Clinton. And we are going to show you why it's such an uphill battle.

Plus, what can the Bush administration do to get back on track and heal its rift with Congress, including with Republicans? We are going to talk about that next in our "Strategy Session."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Today, in our "Strategy Session," President Bush has had a very rough week, at least in the polls. What can the Bush administration do to try to get back on track, and can the rift with Congress be healed?

Joining us now, our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and Terry Jeffrey. He's the editor of "Human Events."

Before we get to that, a quick question, Terry -- do you understand the U.S. policy toward Iran right now, on the one hand saying it sponsors terrorists, but, on the other hand, saying, you know what, let Ambassador Khalilzad talk to them in Baghdad?

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": Well, I have a little bit of an idea, Wolf.

I think they're trying to put the best face on what's a very complicated game. On the one hand, they don't want to give any impression that they're backing off on the pressure they're putting on the Ahmadinejad government in Iran to stop its nuclear program, which many people, I think, logically, understand is heading towards an Iranian nuclear weapon. After all, this is a guy who has threatened the United States and Israel directly.

On the other hand, the leading parties that dominated the Iraqi election, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Daawa Party, are Islamic parties. They operated in exile in Iran for a long time. They have close ties with the government in Tehran.

And it's possible that we have a number of shared interests with the Iranian regime with what happens politically now on the ground in Baghdad. And, if they can help us, we ought to take a look at it and see if they can.

BLITZER: He has got a sophisticated view. But, to the average American out there, Paul, it sounds pretty convoluted. They're being told Iran is building a nuclear bomb.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Right.

BLITZER: They sponsor terrorism. But now the Bush administration wants to talk to them.

BEGALA: Well, you know, Winston Churchill said, jaw-jaw is better than war-war. And I think it's -- it's a good thing if there's some kind of contact...

BLITZER: So, you don't have a problem with that?

BEGALA: ... going on.

I don't. What I have a problem is this -- I'm hearing these drumbeats to war with Iran. I'm telling you, this administration, if you go back and dial back the tape to 2002, the way they were talking about Iraq, all of a sudden, they discovered that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, OK, even though he had been a client of America 20 years before that.

Now, all of a sudden, they have discovered the Iranians are bad. They have discovered that they're trying to build a nuclear weapon. They are going through the same drumbeat toward war. By the end of year, I think there's a very good chance that President Bush is bombing Iran. And you watch. He's going to play out the string with the U.N., maybe with some negotiations with Khalilzad, theoretically about Iraq. Look, I hope I'm wrong.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BEGALA: But this is where they're moving...

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY: Well, look, I think it's pretty obvious we have a regime in Tehran right now that is a threat to the Middle East, a threat to the United States.

They clearly have an interest in developing a nuclear weapon. Not only do the Americans, but our friends in Europe, understand this would be a bad thing. We have to find a way to prevent them from doing that, hopefully, short of the use of military force.

It's not clear to me there's a path right now where military force could be used to effectively achieve our goal, not in the short run. So, I don't think what Paul is saying is true.

But I think, if you look what the administration is doing, they're following a very shrewd policy in dealing with Iran. You may want to talk about the rhetoric and the debate we hear from some people in Washington. Look at the action on the ground.

And, by the way, I think our ambassador, Zal Khalilzad, is doing an outstanding job there. And this is part of his initiative. He wants to talk to these guys. It's a good idea. He ought to be allowed to do it.

BEGALA: He gets -- Khalilzad gets very high marks from both sides. I have talked to Democrats who have been over to Iraq and met with him, who are not big supporters of the Bush administration. And they say he's doing...

BLITZER: But he understands the region; he understands the mentality.

BEGALA: He's an Afghan.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He speaks the languages.

BEGALA: Sure. And that -- I think that's very impressive. But that's necessary, but not sufficient.

The problem is, the big winner of the American-Iraqi war is Iran. They have lost no soldiers. And they have gained enormous influence and stature. They are going to wind up controlling Iraq, not President Bush...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... not President Bush, not the Americans.

JEFFREY: You know, I don't -- I really don't believe that's true.

First of all, I think the Iraqi people are patriots of their own nation. I think...

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY: ... when they get a government on the ground in place that is stable, they're not going to want to be a cat's-paw of the Iranian regime. They're going to look for their own terrorists.

BEGALA: I disagree. There's no such thing as Iraq.

BLITZER: It depends on which Iraqis you're talking about.

BEGALA: Yes.

BLITZER: The Sunnis and Kurds don't want to be pawns of Iran. But there are a lot of Shiites who have spent a lot of time, including the leadership, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other of his colleagues, they spent a lot time in Iran, and they have a very close relationship with the Iranian regime.

JEFFREY: Well, that's true. But look at it from the other perspective. Do the Iranians want an all-out civil war next door to them in Iraq? Do they want the possibility of Sunnis coming back into power? I don't think, if there was a civil war that was based on sectarian lines in Iraq, that we can predict it's the Shia who are going to dominate.

BEGALA: Well, here's the president's problem.

JEFFREY: And I don't think the...

BEGALA: Let me get back to strategy.

The problem -- last night, the president gave a speech at a fund- raiser. And he was musing aloud about the situation in Iraq. And he basically said, it's all on us, that if I falter or waiver -- I, the president -- or if America falters or waivers, then Iraq won't become a country and become a democracy.

I think it's nuts. I think we are doing everything we can, and kids are dying, and they're being wounded, they still don't want to be a country. It may well be that there...

BLITZER: All right.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... is no Iraqi patriotism or nationality...

BLITZER: Let's -- I..

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... that they want to divide and have a civil war.

BLITZER: We are running quickly out of time.

I want to get both of your takes on the politics this week, specifically the poll numbers for the president. We did an averaging out of what we call the poll of polls, all the major polls that came out this week. And we will put them up on the screen. You see the job approval rating. In our own poll, it was 36 percent. That was this week. The low was the Pew survey at 33 percent.

The average, 35 percent, Terry. It's -- these numbers are not going up for the president. If anything, they're going down.

JEFFREY: Well, the good news for the president is, he is -- he's not standing for reelection. The Republicans in Congress are, Wolf.

And I think the most significant development this week is when Senator Frist, the majority leader, said he wants to move his own immigration bill that doesn't include a guest worker -- that's amnesty. That is a...

BLITZER: That's another slap at the president.

JEFFREY: It's a slap at the president, but it's also about the reality that Republicans in this country do not want the president's guest worker program. They don't want it on its merits, and they realize it's political poison.

So, I think you are going to see Republicans in Congress moving ahead in their own agenda, in their own political interests, and also because they disagree with the president on the merits on this.

BLITZER: One final question on this -- Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser under Former President Jimmy Carter, he said this about your fellow Democrats.

He said: "Democratic leaders have been silent or evasive. They have not offered an alternative to the war in Iraq. It's easy to criticize, but they haven't offered an alternative" -- tough...

BEGALA: He's wrong.

BLITZER: Tough words.

BEGALA: They have offered 12 alternatives.

I mean, Democrats have lots of positions. They have not offered a unified alternative. That's a valid criticism. But there are lots of different positions that many Democrats have put forward. The problem is, the Democrats can't come to agree. Why? Because it's an unsolvable problem. It's a mess. If we stay, it's a disaster. If we leave, it's a disaster. So, which disaster do you choose?

Well, if you're out of power, you say, it's his fault. He did it.

And that's what the Democrats are doing.

BLITZER: We have got to leave it there.

BEGALA: And I don't blame them.

BEGALA: Guys, thanks very much, Paul and Terry. Have a great weekend.

JEFFREY: You too, Wolf.

BEGALA: Thanks.

BLITZER: Coming up, is Hillary Clinton unstoppable? New York Republicans are having a very tough time rallying around a candidate to challenge her Senate seat. It could be because many of her contenders have made so many mistakes.

And it's Friday -- time for the "Political Play of the Week." That means our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is about to tell us which bold person earned this week's honor and why.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Most observers agree that beating Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York's Senate race will be a tough battle for the state's Republican Party. But it also turns out, so is finding a strong candidate.

CNN's Mary Snow takes a closer look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: Thank you.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Call it the Hillary Clinton quandary. Two women, one who failed to unseat her in the Senate, the other challenging Clinton, are both suffering new setbacks.

The current contender, K.T. McFarland -- just two weeks into her campaign, she admits she hasn't voted in several recent elections. Under pressure from state conservatives, Republican leaders say the party is moving towards supporting her conservative opponent, John Spencer, to take on Senator Clinton.

BETH FOUHY, POLITICAL WRITER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: A lot of conservatives really hate her, thought they would have a race here which would really, really weaken her for a presidential campaign. We haven't seen that yet, but that doesn't mean it's not going to happen.

SNOW: Touted as the party's golden girl, Republicans had first placed bets with Jeanine Pirro. But hopes faded in August, when she announced her challenge to Senator Clinton during a speech where she lost her place.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AUGUST 2005)

JEANNE PIRRO (R), NEW YORK SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: Do I have page 10?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOUHY: Pirro eventually dropped out of that race, opting to run, instead, for state attorney general.

Now another gaffe on geography -- listen to Pirro comment during a radio interview about Upstate New York, a traditionally Republican area.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

PIRRO: You know, New York is a beautiful, beautiful place. And I have been to Chautauqua County, which is all the way on the west coast -- I should say on the west end of New York, bordering Ohio.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: New York actually borders Pennsylvania, an innocent mistake, yes, but some say it underscores the fact that the state party lacks a mapping strategy to oppose Senator Clinton.

FREDRIC DICKER, STATE EDITOR, "THE NEW YORK POST": The White House wanted one thing from the New York City Republican Party. They wanted a strong challenger to Hillary Clinton. They didn't get it.

SNOW (on camera): New York state Democrats, as you can imagine, are crowing, sending Jeanine Pirro a map of New York state. Pirro's camp calls it childish games, touting her credentials on the issues. And, as for the Senate race, K.T. McFarland says she will press ahead with her challenge of Senator Clinton.

Mary Snow, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Hillary Clinton has no primary challenger in her race for the Senate. But her next-door neighbor in Connecticut does. That would be Senator Joe Lieberman. And it's the result of his stance on the Iraq war. It has angered many on the left.

Now another Democrat is mounting a challenge to try to oust Lieberman from his Senate seat -- and that challenger getting some big help online. Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, has more -- Jacki.

SCHECHNER: Wolf, it's not just his stance on the war. It's also his stance on cultural issues. They're not happy with his confirmation vote of Samuel Alito either.

You can see, some of the blogs from around the country who are not in favor of Lieberman, they're pushing for Ned Lamont instead. These are blogs from Connecticut and across the country on the left. Now, you can see, Ned Lamont here is getting a good push from the liberal site ActBlue. It's a fund-raising site. He has raised $111,000 so far. He just officially announced his candidacy on Monday.

His campaign did not say how much money he has got into the coffers up until now, other than this online donation -- but liberal bloggers continuing to push donations and volunteers their way. They're upset about a lot of the things that Lieberman is doing. Lieberman says he is well aware of what people think of him, Wolf. He's not going to change their mind, but he is open to dialogue.

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.

Up next, a Democratic senator takes on President Bush over domestic spying. Is he taking a stand on principle or playing politics? It's our "Play of the Week."

And should you be free from secondhand smoke everywhere? Is it fair to ban smoking outdoors in public places?

Jack Cafferty going through your e-mail -- stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's head up to New York and Jack Cafferty with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf.

A secondhand smoking law goes into effect today in Calabasas, California. The town claims it is the first in the country to ban smoking in all public places. That includes sidewalks, parks, outdoor businesses, restaurant patios, and condominium common areas.

So, the question is, is it fair to ban smoking outdoors in public places?

Marie in New York writes: "These smoking bans are ridiculous and, I think, unconstitutional. If it's legal to sell cigarettes, then it follows that it's legal to smoke them."

Jeff writes: "It's about time people stood up to these cigarette companies and their addicts, and put an end to this health hazard."

T.S. in Miami: "It is totally unfair to ban smoking outdoors in public places. As a former smoker myself, I know how hard it is to not smoke inside of a non-smoking restaurant or some other privately owned enterprise."

Jordan in Tyler, Texas: "Smoking should be absolutely banned in all public areas. Why should I have to risk my health due to someone's else's bad habit?"

Courtney in San Jose, California: "A great idea. I have family and friends who smoke. They hear it from me all the time. I don't like that I have to breathe their byproduct. It's deadly, and I don't want it anywhere near me or my loved ones."

And Larry in Lompoc, California, writes: "In Calabasas, it's not like you're sullying pristine air. Are they going to outlaw the millions of automobiles whose fumes they're breathing as well?"

And a reminder, Wolf -- I know you set your TiVo for this. This week, on "IN THE MONEY," we are going to meet a woman who gave up shopping for anything but the barest of essentials for an entire year. Not only was she able to pay off all her credit card bills as a result, but the experience itself had a profound effect on her. This week's program will be required viewing in the Cafferty household, where they do like to shop.

We hope you will watch, too. "IN THE MONEY" airs Saturday afternoon at 1:00, and Sunday at 3:00. That is Eastern Time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, he has got a great show on the weekends. And I hope our viewers watch it, Saturdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, and Sundays replayed at 3:00 p.m. Eastern.

Jack, thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, almost five years after the U.S. threw them out of power in Afghanistan, the Taliban are making a comeback in neighboring Pakistan. But guess what? They're as brutal as ever. And we are going to show you videotape, how they're terrorizing civilians with their harsh brand of Islam.

Plus, he's a political maverick who thinks nothing of teaming up across party lines. He's also the winner of our "Political Play of the Week." Bill Schneider is standing by with that.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Zain once again. She has got some other news that we're following.

Hi, Zain.

VERJEE: Hi, Wolf.

Former associates of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff may have more reasons to be concerned tonight. Just hours ago, a federal judge in Washington delayed sentencing for Abramoff on corruption charges. He has been cooperating with investigators looking into what they now call a very extensive corruption scheme. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

President Bush is using St. Patrick's Day as an opportunity to push for the restarting of the Northern Ireland stalled peace process. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern presented the president with a bowl of traditional shamrocks in Washington today. Ahern says that he's renewing his commitment to implementing the 1998 deal known as the Good Friday Accord.

Also on hand were Northern Irish political figures, including Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein. That's the IRA's political arm -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much -- Zain Verjee reporting.

A solo charge this week by a maverick Democrat -- is he tilting at windmills. Could he skewer his own party with that lance of his?

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is joining us now live -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, Senator Russ Feingold's motion to censure President Bush has been called foolish, bold, reckless, courageous, self-serving, and principled.

We call it the "Political Play of the Week."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Senator Russ Feingold isn't afraid to take a stand. He was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act after 9/11 and the first senator to propose a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Now he has moved to censure President Bush for authorizing wiretaps without a court warrant.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: Congress should censure a president who has plainly broken the law.

SCHNEIDER: Republicans are scornful.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: If he's more interested -- interested in the -- in the safety and security of the terrorists, as opposed to the American people.

SCHNEIDER: Democrats are nervous.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: I think that people should cool their jets and let the process take its course. SCHNEIDER: Conventional wisdom say Feingold's move will backfire and rally Republicans. "Russ Feingold, Karl Rove's Secret Weapon," a conservative blogger writes.

Knowing heads say Feingold is positioning himself for the Democratic nomination. He has certainly become a hero to the left. A liberal blogger urges readers to "donate your spine to Senate Democrats."

Here's another possibility:

REID: My personal conviction is that Senator Feingold did this as a matter of principle.

SCHNEIDER: Imagine that. Acting on principle need not be political suicide. Ronald Reagan gave Republicans a healthy injection of principle just when they needed it, after Watergate. It did them a world of good.

Now people are asking, what do Democrats stand for?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, at -- at some point, the Democratic Party and the leadership must grow a backbone.

SCHNEIDER: Spines, backbones, they help you stand up for what you believe. Of course it's risky. That's what a "Play of the Week" is all about.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Senator Feingold did not choose an easy issue to confront the president on, like allowing an Arab-government-owned company to operate U.S. ports. He chose wiretapping conversations with suspected terrorists. And that's a tough one -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks very much.

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