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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Bush Travels To West Virginia To Spread Iraq War Message; Hillary Clinton Firing Away At GOP Immigration Bill; Immigration Divides Some Republicans; Wounded Iraq War Veteran Running For Congressional Seat In Illinois; Bob Dole Interview

Aired March 22, 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: And 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, the president's balancing act on Iraq. For a third straight day, he's been answering questions about the violence on the ground and the prospects for victory. It's 4:00 p.m. in West Virginia, the latest testing ground for Mr. Bush's P.R. campaign.

Also this hour, an Iraq war veteran's new victory. It's 3:00 p.m. in Illinois, where Tammy Duckworth narrowly won her congressional primary. And now she's on the front line of the Democratic party election year mission.

And immigration wars. The Senate gearing up for a showdown that's exposing another huge rift among Republicans. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington, where we're watching the election year run for the border.

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

Just moments ago, President Bush arrived back here in Washington with another round of remarks about the Iraq mission under his belt. He traveled to West Virginia to keep spreading his Iraq war anniversary message. The words and the format felt very familiar once again today, but that's apparently just fine with the White House.

Let's go to the White House. Our correspondent Dana Bash is standing by with what happened today -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. That is just fine with the White House. If you're looking for headlines in today's event, you're not going to find any. And that is really the point. The point at this event and what we've been seeing over the past several days is for the president to just keep talking about Iraq, keep communicating in a way that many people, even the president's supporters, say he simply has not done. And that has added to the decreasing support for the war and for him.

So what we saw was a town hall kind of structure that did, from the White House's perspective, allow the president not to stand in back of a podium, to appear more relaxed and certainly more folksy. And so the things that the president said, in terms of maintaining his support for the war, were not that different but perhaps the way he described them, the White House hopes, was a little bit different.

So we heard, for example, the president try to answer some of the questions he knows that Americans do have, specifically, the big question, whether or not the U.S. can win the war in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm an optimistic guy. I believe we'll succeed. Let me tell you this -- put it to you this way. If I didn't think we would succeed, I'd pull our troops out. I cannot look mothers and dads in the eye.

(APPLAUSE)

I can't ask this good marine to go into harm's way if I didn't believe, one, we were going to succeed and, two, it's necessary for the security of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, what you just saw was the president speaking, answering a question. But it was a question that he knew that was out there, but didn't actually wait for somebody in the audience to ask it, Wolf. That was an interesting sort of tactic by the president today.

This was an Q&A session. The White House thought perhaps he was going to get some tough questions. And that has been an internal debate here, whether putting the president out in these formats, with the potential for tough questions, is really the right thing to do. But it actually didn't happen here at all.

The toughest question on Iraq that the president got was somebody saying that they liked him as commander in chief and it was good that he kept moving around talking about this. Another woman, using essentially a White House line, saying that she believes, because she had a husband who served in Iraq, that there is good news that is not getting out and questioned the fact that the media, perhaps, was contributing to that.

BLITZER: Were those questions today screened by the White House, Dana?

BASH: They weren't. And, in fact, what's interesting is that White House officials say there were about 2,000 tickets. Most of them were given out by the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. But they did give about 200 tickets to the military and also 200 tickets to the newspaper to give out to whomever wanted to come. Again there encouraging the idea that there could be some tough questions. But today, it just didn't happen.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks very much.

Let's check in with CNN's Zain Verjee from the CNN global headquarters with some other news, specifically what's happening in Iraq today -- Zain. ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, while insurgents ratchet up their strikes on Iraqi targets, Iraq's former interim prime minister is toning down his position on what it means. Over the weekend, Ayad Allawi declared that his country over the weekend is in the throes of a civil war.

Now, in a conversation today with CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson, Allawi played down his comments.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AYAD ALLAWI, FMR. IRAQI INTERIM PRIME MINISTER: It's not a full- blown civil war. It's really terrible and severe sectarian violence which can turn into a full-blown civil war. And sectarian violence is a stage over civil war, one of the stages of -- probably an early stage of civil war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VERJEE: Nic Robertson will be with us live from Baghdad with a full report on Iraq, as well as on his interview with Ayad Allawi. That will be in our next hour at 5:00 p.m. Eastern.

The insurgent and sectarian violence had been especially destructive today. Gunmen in two separate attacks in Baghdad killed two Shia pilgrims and wounded about 46 more as they returned from Karbala. Insurgents hit a another police station, and three were found dead along the highway in western Baghdad, in a neighborhood in the area. In all, at least 12 people died in the scattered attacks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much.

And there are new shots today in the immigration wars. The Citizens Border Patrol, known as the Minutemen, planning a new crackdown on illegal immigrant. The group says it expects up to 1,000 volunteers to be on throughout April watch along Arizona's border with Mexico.

The Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, is heading to the U.S./Mexico border today. Democrats are raising red flags about illegal immigration in their border -- broader attempt to one-up the Republicans and look strong on national security.

And coming up, I will speak live with Senator Reid on the border. That's coming up in our next hour.

Meantime, Senator Hillary Clinton is firing away at a tough GOP immigration bill by the House. It includes tough penalties for aiding illegal immigrants. Listen to what she says.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: It is hard to believe that a Republican leadership that is constantly talking about values and about faith would put forth such a mean-spirited piece of legislation. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our Mary Snow is going to have a full report on what Senator Clinton had to say today. That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour.

All this as the Senate braces for a battle over immigration legislation. The issue is dividing Republicans, and pitting some of them against the president once again.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst Bill Schneider -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, when the Senate returns to work next week, topic A on the agenda will be immigration reform, something many senators would just as soon not have to talk about.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Immigration reform sounds easy. President Bush has a plan, his party controls Congress, they pass the plan. Maybe not.

BUSH: Immigration is very a difficult issue for a lot of members, as you know.

SCHNEIDER: Republicans are keenly aware of public sentiment on immigration, which is running nearly 60 percent against President Bush's guest worker plan. Could be another populist uprising, just like the Dubai ports deal. Members of Congress face enormous pressure from workers, Hispanics, citizen activists, business, farmer, labor, civil rights and religious groups.

ANNA BURGER, CHANGE TO WIN COALITION: The Sensenbrenner bill adopted by the House is an evil bill. It criminalizes children, all of us, those who are immigrants and those who help immigrants.

SCHNEIDER: That House bill calls for tougher enforcement.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: And in the House, we have passed now an immigration bill that includes 700 miles of border fence.

SCHNEIDER: But some Republicans, including the president, say enforcement is not enough.

BUSH: The idea of having a program that causes people to get stuffed in the back of 18-wheelers to risk their lives to sneak into America to do work that some people won't do is just not American.

SCHNEIDER: He's proposing a guest worker program, with no promise of citizenship. But there's a bipartisan proposal that does.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: But you have to work for six years, you get a green card, you pay a $2,000 fine, you have to know English and have to have a background check in case of criminal behavior.

SCHNEIDER: Just don't call it amnesty.

MCCAIN: That's very tough medicine. And anybody that calls that amnesty does not read the same dictionary that I do.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: The Republican position on immigration reform is all over the place. And a president who says he's spending his political capital somewhere else. The only thing the Republican majority seems to agree on is tougher enforcement, and that may be the only thing Congress can pass -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider reporting. Thanks, Bill, very much.

And once again, the Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is along the Mexico/California border right now. He's going to be joining us in the next hour, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Joining us right now in THE SITUATION is Jack Cafferty. He's joining us from New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, things are going real well since we brought democracy to Afghanistan. An Afghan man who converted from Islam to Christianity has been thrown in jail and could be executed under Afghanistan's constitution, which is based on Islamic law.

President Bush says he is deeply troubled by this, nevertheless the president claims success in Afghanistan today, while acknowledging there is still more work to be done. U.S. troops overthrew the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.

American and NATO troops are now supporting President Hamid Karzai's government and fighting Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in parts of the country. But there's been recent increase in violence along the Pakistan border where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding, so the question becomes this -- what exactly do you think the U.S. has accomplished in Afghanistan? E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, Wolf.

BLITZER: This is pretty outrageous, if someone wants to convert from one religion to another religion that's a death sentence in Afghanistan under the sharia, under Islamic law? Is that why U.S. troops went to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban?

CAFFERTY: Uh, no. I don't think it is why they went there, but the constitution that they put together is based on Islamic law. To ask westerners that makes little or no sense, certainly executing someone because he wants to go to Church A as opposed to Church B seems barbaric, at least.

I don't quite understand it, but there are a lot of other questions. The bin Laden thing, the heroin poppies that grow over there, the crop is supposedly better than ever. The Taliban is continuing to make inroads and is on its way back to a comeback in many parts of the country and they are a long way from uniting the entire country under Hamid Karzai's free and Democratic government. That's a real long way from where we are now. I don't know how much progress has been made there.

BLITZER: Jack we will have a full report in the next hour. Our Brian Todd is investigating this story which, as you and I and all of our viewers, I suspect understand as an outrage.

CAFFERTY: Is today your birthday? Are you as old as I am.

BLITZER: No, not that old, but I am getting up there. I am appropriating your age.

CAFFERTY: Happy birthday.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack. Coming up a wounded Iraq war veteran is a critical step closer to winning a seat in the Congress. We're going to tell a remarkable story in how she figures into the Democratic party's election year hopes.

Also ahead, he's a veteran of World War II, the United States Senate and presidential politics. The former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole joins us here in THE SITUATION ROOM to talk about Iraq war, the president's problems and lots more.

Will Condoleezza Rice go after her dream job? We have new word from the secretary of state about her career plans, we will share them with you. All that coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This hour in Illinois an Iraq war veteran is even more of a hero to the Democratic party, Tammy Duckworth narrowly won her congressional primary race in the Chicago area yesterday. Our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley has been following this story. A slough of Iraq war veterans that are involved in trying to run for Congress and other races, what are you picking up?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting because the Democrats have, in fact, made quite a deal of this sort of army of Iraq war veterans they are putting out there, sort of a tacit rebuke to President Bush and his conduct OF the war. Among all those veterans there is one in particular that stands out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D), ILL. CONG. CANDIDATE: Well, thank you. Good to meet you.

CROWLEY (voice-over): She's the Polaris in a galaxy of Democratic hopes this election year, running in the once solidly Republican, now evolving, west suburbs of Chicago for a seat long held by Republican Henry Hyde.

DUCKWORTH: Vote the issues. That's all I'm going to say. We will probably find we share a lot more in common.

CROWLEY: Tammy Duckworth is a natural, a newcomer, young, female, an Iraqi war veteran who opposed the war and proudly served.

DUCKWORTH: When I came home and I had all that time to think, I started thinking more and more about different ways that you can serve and the changes that needed to be made.

CROWLEY: Duckworth won her primary bid fueled by national Democratic dollars and power endorsements: Kerry, Clinton, Cleland. Max Cleland campaigned for her recently. They hadn't seen each other for about a year, since the day he visited Walter Reed Hospital.

MAX CLELAND, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: You are taller than I am now.

DUCKWORTH: I know. I don't think you've seen me walk before.

CLELAND: No, I have not.

CROWLEY: She was A Blackhawk pilot with the Illinois National Guard, flying at treetop level near Baghdad when a rocket-propelled grenade landed in the chopper.

DUCKWORTH: Listen, my legs are gone, they're never going to grow back, and if this gives me a platform to talk about those issues that are important to people of this district, to talk about education, to talk about health care, that's fine.

CROWLEY: Cleland is the ex-senator from Georgia, proof that war hero credentials are not a political guarantee, but he gets why she has to try.

CLELAND: You lose so much. You get back in terms of your own healing what you give out to others.

CROWLEY: It will be a brass knuckles race with lots of national attention and a tough opponent. Duckworth is up for the run.

DUCKWORTH: Nothing is as tough as surviving a rocket-propelled grenade blowing up in your lap. That's what I tell myself.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: Like most of the veterans running, Duckworth says her race is not about her service or her injuries, but that's what makes voters sit up and notice. So be it.

BLITZER: What an amazing woman. I have flown in those Blackhawk helicopters over Iraq at low level, one of the most dangerous assignments. But for her to rebound like that and take on this mission, whether you are a Democrat or Republican, whatever, you have to tip your hat to her.

CROWLEY: What Cleland said was just so interesting, that in some ways it helps to heel her as she runs. They sort of come back -- she mentioned Bob Dole as one of her heroes. She mentioned a number of veterans who came back from war and went into politics. It seems like a natural progression for here as for others since war began.

BLITZER: Thanks for that report. And the field of Iraq war veterans running for Congress now is smaller. In North Carolina, the House candidate, Tim Dunn, made a surprise announcement yesterday, he's dropping out of the Democratic primary race, he says the campaign was hurting him financially.

Remember you are in THE SITUATION ROOM where political news is arriving all the time. CNN America's campaign headquarters.

This week the public is getting a healthy dose of President Bush and his own words. There's plenty of reaction on-line, let's check in with Jacki Schechner.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Here's what the public is saying in their own words. Starting on the left with think progress, this big speech yesterday was more of the same. They've now had 24 hours to digest it. No one believes, at least on the left, that we went to war as a last resort.

From Firedog Lake, saying that the public would actually appreciate some candor at this point, how about solutions on how to make things in Iraq better.

From Kevin Drum at the Political Animal, the candor they're hearing is really scary, the idea that troops aren't coming out of Iraq until after President Bush's presidency.

On the right, a totally different conversation. They are cheerleading President Bush, saying they think he is bringing his "A game." Also conversations, these kinds of speeches should have been happening all along. Over at Outside the Beltway, James Joyner wondering with the negative images out of the media, as they say, whether or not speeches like this will be enough.

And then there is an interesting point by Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice. With the increasing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, how will Republicans running for election or reelection counter this idea that the troops will be staying for sometime? We will keep an eye on that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jacki.

Still ahead, he's steeped in both domestic and foreign affairs, the former Republican Senator Bob Dole. In minutes, I will ask him to assess the war in Iraq and an issue important to so many Americans, Medicare and prescription drug benefits. Bob Dole, my guest, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And why is Arianna Huffington responding to an apparent blog posting by George Clooney? We're going to have details on that as well. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is on a new campaign today to highlight the success of the controversial Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. He has a lot to say about prescription drugs, the war in Iraq and more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. Of course, he was a Republican presidential nominee.

Senator, I want to get to prescription drugs in a few moments, but I want to pick your brain on some of the other important issues while we have you, specifically the third anniversary of the war in Iraq.

Was the situation in Iraq worth going to war over, we asked in our poll. Only 37 percent of the American public now says yes, 60 percent say no. Has the president lost the American public on this war?

BOB DOLE, FMR. SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: I don't think so, but I think there's been so much bad news coming from Iraq the past few months, I am not surprised at the 37 percent number. What we need are some good news coming out of Iraq.

And that means a unity government with everybody represented, and more Iraqis taking over more responsibility on the ground. But now with all the tragedies that have happened in the past couple of months, I can understand the American people feeling the way they do.

BLITZER: Do you have any specific advice you would offer this White House on what they should be doing, what the president should be doing, to try to bring that 37 percent number up?

DOLE: Well, I think he made a speech yesterday and again today. And I think when he says I'll make up my mind not based on polls or election or politics, whatever, I'll make up my mind based on the troop level, based on advice from the commanders, I think the American people understand that. He just has to keep doing it.

You can't -- and the Iraqi government is going to have to get off the ball too here -- get on the ball and get a government put together that brings in the Kurds and the Sunnis, as well as the others. But I think that the president has got a lot of work to do, no doubt about it. Right now his numbers aren't good.

BLITZER: Here's a very tough statement your old friend Ted Kennedy put out the other day. He said this. Listen to these words. They are very, very strong. "On this third anniversary, it is clearer than ever that Iraq was a war we never should have fought. The administration has been dangerously incompetent, and its Iraq policy is not worthy of the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform."

More than 2,300, as you know, Senator, men and women have died, U.S. troops have died, thousands of others have been injured. Those are very strong words from Kennedy.

DOLE: Well, what he didn't say, that there were over 3,000 killed on 9/11, and maybe Ted, like -- a friend of mine, like most people have forgotten, you know, really why we -- partly why we're there. And another reason we're there is ...

BLITZER: All right. Let me interrupt you, Senator. Let me interrupt you. But everybody now agrees that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

DOLE: Yes, but I think -- I'm not sure everybody agrees, but everybody also -- most everybody agrees that having Saddam Hussein gone is a good thing. But, anyway, I can't recall a statement Senator Kennedy has put out this year praising President Bush. I don't think you can find one.

He was very critical during the recent judgeship with Judge Alito. Senator Kennedy is a very hard-working senator from Massachusetts, but he's a strong, liberal Democrat who criticizes the president almost daily. He and Chuck Schumer are tied for first place.

BLITZER: As long as you can clarify the one point. Are you suggesting, Senator -- I don't think you are, but I just want our viewers to be clear -- that Saddam Hussein did have something to do with 9/11?

DOLE: Well, I'm not, you know -- I'm a skeptic. I still think when it's all said and done, we're going to find some trace of some weapons that he's either moved or destroyed. And, you know, I may be the only one in the country who believes, that but I really believe there could have been something there.

But the point is, the American people are concerned. There have been a lot of American casualties. Everyone is important, all of us. But I think we have -- you know, we're not going to leave as President Bush indicated.

We were -- we're going to stay probably beyond his presidency. I remember when president Clinton sent troops to Bosnia for one year, there's still some in Bosnia all these years later and it's cost some $40 billion. So you don't want to put a deadline.

BLITZER: But on this 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, I just want to be clear. You don't believe that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11 as opposed to WMDs?

DOLE: No.

BLITZER: All right. I just want to be clear on that.

A controversial comment that the Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, an old friend of yours, wrote in the "Washington Post" this past weekend -- it's a very sensitive subject. "Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today," he wrote, "would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis."

A subject you are intimately familiar with, you fought in World War II, against the Nazis. Did he go too far in making that statement?

DOLE: Yes, I think he went a step too far. I mean, you know, he's in a tough spot. He's secretary of defense. He's getting a lot of criticism because we're still there and everything is not going as people would like to have it go, and there are American casualties. I think the rhetoric on both sides could be toned down and we might be better off.

BLITZER: Would the country be better off if Rumsfeld resigned?

DOLE: No, I didn't say that, no. No, I think he's going a good job. I agree with the president too. I think he said, again, as recently as today that Rumsfeld -- he has confidence in the secretary of defense.

BLITZER: Let's talk about prescription drugs for seniors, a subject close to your heart.

DOLE: Oh good, good.

BLITZER: I know you're on the road. You're are working for Pfizer; you're trying to get this message out. And it's a tough message. In fact, a Republican congressman from Florida, Tom Feeney, said this the other day. He said, "Bottom line, there is a lot of buyer's remorse on the Medicare prescription drug program."

He said, "It was probably our greatest failure in my adult lifetime." It's a new entitlement as you know. Was it a mistake, with hindsight, for the president to push this prescription drug benefit for seniors?

DOLE: Well, I don't know where Tom Feeney is on whether it's because it's costing so much, or because it's he thinks the plan isn't working. I can tell you, we just left a meeting in Houston just a few hours ago, and we had a whole number of people stand up and tell us success stories, how they're saving $500 a month, $1,400 a year.

It's a good program, particularly for low-income people. This is a real, real bonanza. And they can get all the information they need by just calling 1-800-Medicare. That's 1-800-Medicare. There's 6,000 people there to answer their questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But, you know -- so one congressman, or probably many congressmen can find fault with the program. But I think our job now is whether we were for or against it initially is to make certain everybody has a chance to see whether or not the program will benefit them. And that's what we're doing.

BLITZER: The deadline is May 15th for seniors to sign up. What happens if they don't sign up, Senator? They miss that deadline. Are they out?

DOLE: They're out until next year, and they have to wait a year. It's just like any insurance program. But I think there will be -- well, I'm not certain I can make that statement, yet. I'm not quite certain. But there will be other people, low-income people, automatically enrolled before that deadline.

And, again, if you just listen -- and I know there are people saying it's confusing, there are too many plans. But they can go to 1-800-Medicare and probably resolve the whole thing in 30 minutes. Some less than that, maybe some more than that. But they have really good people there, Wolf, who are trying to help.

It's not just the government. It's AARP. It's almost every organization in America, every care-giving organization out there trying to help seniors, trying to figure out which is the best plan, whether or not they got a better plan now. And I really believe it's going to work. I think by December, this is could to be a plus for Republicans -- by November, not December.

BLITZER: By November. That's an important month in the political calendar. As usual, Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

DOLE: Thank you.

BLITZER: And up next, might your private information on your tax returns be sold to anyone who wants it? Perhaps, if new IRS rule changes go through. We're going to have details.

And it's a new round of presidential charm offensive. The president using style and substance in his recent question and answer sessions with the American public. Might that help his approval rating? We'll assess that in our "Strategy Session." That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In our "Strategy Session" today, the president holds his third day of question and answer sessions. Will these forums help give his policies a boost in public opinion? Joining us now, Mike Berman, he's a Democratic strategist, author of an important terrific new book, "Living Large: A Big Man's ideas on Weight, Success and Acceptance."

Terry Jeffrey, the editor of "Human Events." I want to talk about this book, because it is a great book. But let's talk politics, first and foremost. Here's what the president said today on his strategy, in effect, in Iraq. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: If I didn't think we would succeed, I'd pull our troops out. I cannot look mothers and dads in the eye. I can't ask this good marine to go into harm's way if I didn't believe, one, we were going to succeed and, two, it's necessary for the security of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think of this strategy that the president has now engaged in on this, the third anniversary in the war. MIKE BERMAN, AUTHOR, "LIVING LARGE": I think it's the only option that's there. He's got to go out and convince people that he does believe -- it's clear he believes in the strategy. And he's got to go up there. And he's the best spokesperson for himself. Other people can't do it for him. And I think it's the only thing available to him.

BLITZER: What do you think?

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, HUMAN EVENTS ONLINE: Will, I think that's right. I think the president is doing an excellent job on two levels, Wolf. One is communicating his sincerity and conviction in the strategy and the policy, which was evident in that clip.

Another is the actual hard-nosed realism in the things he's saying and the way he's explaining it, which I think are coherent and make sense. What he needs ultimately is what he said yesterday in his press conference is facts on the ground, the things people see on TV eventually are going to move public opinion.

So as Bob Dole said earlier on this program, if we see better news coming out of Iraq with the formation of a unity government, not so much violence, public opinion will move then.

BLITZER: That's really what he needs, Mike. He needs the situation in Iraq to dramatically improve.

BERMAN: He does need it to improve. But there's other parts to this puzzle. There's other issues for the American people that are going badly at the same time. People are concerned about the economy, for example. They're concerned about health care. They're concerned about energy. So there are things working in their personal lives that make them uncomfortable and therefore less willing, I think, to perhaps listen to the president's strategy at this point.

JEFFREY: You know, Wolf, I think the Republicans wish that the Democrats would bring up the economy. We have an economy that grew at more than 4 percent. Unemployment at 4.8 percent, which is better than average it was during the Clinton years.

The economy in this country is booming. The fact of the matter is, other issues right now are trumping what ordinarily would be the key issue, the economy. Right now, people are focused on the Iraq war. If they get back to the economy, the Republicans are going to clean up.

BLITZER: But you know what? They think the Democrats can do a better job with the economy than Republicans in almost all of the recent polls.

JEFFREY: You know what, Wolf? I think if we get in a debate towards election time on that, you're going to have Democrats talking about things they always talk about, government control of the economy, increasing taxes, regulating our life. I don't think, in the crunch, they're going to win the debate on that. BERMAN: See, I think there's three subjects which the American public really are experts and don't need much help. One of them is the economy, based on what they see in their daily lives, what happens to their neighbors, how secure their job is.

The second thing is healthcare. They know if it's hard, they know if it's expensive. And the third thing, if they have children, they understand the education system. And all those three things are not working together well for their lives. So I think when they really focus on that, there's going to be a problem.

BLITZER: Here's some praise for the president from the "Washington Post" editorial page: "President Bush should hold more news conferences. In his sometimes blunt, sometimes joking, sometimes unpolished way, he sounded authentic." That's praise from the "Washington Post."

JEFFREY: Well, I think the "Washington Post" is right on target. And I think that people in the White House should listen to that. The more the president gets out and takes adversarial questions from the press, deals with Helen Thomas, for example, the way he dealt with her yesterday, people are going to understand he knows what he's talking about.

He's committed to the policy. The policy makes sense. He's going to go over the heads of the media the more he goes directly to the media.

BLITZER: And having said that, the news conference yesterday, which we all watched yesterday. We reported on it extensively. "The Hotline" makes an interesting point today, the political newsletter here in Washington, widely read.

It points out that if his strategists, Karl Rove and Andy Card and Dan Bartlett were thinking before the news conference what they wanted the headline to be, they certainly weren't thinking that it would be "U.S. Troops Remain in Iraq Long After Bush leaves the White House." That was not necessarily their strategy.

BERMAN: Well, certainly they wouldn't. But if you're the strategist in the White House, you're thinking in a much more aggregate sense. You're thinking about this speech, the next speech, the next press conference.

The fact that he stood there for an hour, which has been the first time in many months when he's done that, really says, "Look, I believe in this. I'm prepared to stand up and listen to the tough questions," whether it be Helen Thomas or somebody else.

BLITZER: Here's what Anthony Cordesman -- he's a military strategic thinker at the CSIS, the Center for strategic and International Studies -- says. He says, "The problem with the speeches is that they get gradually more realistic, but they're still exercises in spin. They don't outline the risk. They don't create a climate where people trust what's being said." A lot of people have made up their minds about this president. JEFFREY: Well, you know what, Wolf? I'll say there's a lot of truth to what Anthony Cordesman. I think the president has two ways of talking about the Iraq war. Part of it does have the impression of spin, a little more propaganda.

Another part of it is very realistic, very clear, very concrete. We saw that yesterday. I think the president needs to go with the clear, realistic, concrete. People will believe it, people will understand it. And if it shows results on the ground, people will be happy with it.

BLITZER: Mike, let's talk about your book, which is a great, great read. "Living Large." Tell our viewers what this book is all about. I've known you for 20, 25 years, but they haven't. Why did you write this book?

BERMAN: I wrote this book because, as I was reading through various books about fat people, I couldn't find anything about fat men.

BLITZER: And you used to be a lot fatter than you are now.

BERMAN: I sued to be roughly 100 pounds fatter than I am now. But I'm still 240 pounds, I still have a 50-inch waist. So I'm not sylph-like. And I decided that, since there are many fat men like myself, perhaps writing this book would give other people the opportunity to see there are other people like me. And my life has been a great life. And to show people that if you can overcome the fatness and the kinds of problems you have as a fat person.

BLITZER: How long did it take you to lose 100 pounds?

BERMAN: Well, I've lost 100 pounds a couple of times. It usually takes about a year.

BLITZER: And you've done this through diet and exercise, not through any surgery or anything like that?

BERMAN: No surgery. And the exercise is kind of an add-on. It's really through diet.

BLITZER: Mike Huckabee, the Republican governor of Arkansas, Terry, he's got a terrific story to -- I've interview him about the 100 pounds he's lost. And he's amazing.

JEFFREY: Right. They've both done a great job. I say more power to Mike. Keep it going. More power to Governor Huckabee.

BLITZER: You and Huckabee should go on the circuit.

BERMAN: That's an interesting idea. Maybe we should suggest it.

BLITZER: One Democrat, one Republican. There's 200 pounds down the drain right there.

BERMAN: Invite us back together. BLITZER: Maybe we will. That's a good idea. Mike Berman, congratulations on the excellent new book. Terry, thanks for joining us, as usual.

And coming up, new word today on whether the secretary of state Condoleezza Rice will go after her dream job. She's made an important decision. We're going to fill you in.

And later this hour, Jack Cafferty returns with your thoughts on his question of the hour. What has the U.S. accomplished in Afghanistan? You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Zain Verjee is joining us once from the CNN Global Headquarters with a quick look at some other stories making news -- Zain.

VERJEE: Wolf police in Milwaukee are widening their search for two missing boys, one 12 and the other 11. A spokesman told reporters about two hours ago that in addition to officers searching on foot, they plan to look in less secure locations like sewer pipes, for example. They also plan to use drivers to search -- divers, excuse me -- to search a lagoon. The boys were last seen playing basketball on Sunday afternoon.

In New York, murder charges are expected against a bar bouncer with a long rap sheet in last month's murder of a New York graduate student from Boston. An official in New York tells CNN that Darryl Littlejohn will be indicted tomorrow for killing Imette St. Guillen. She was raped, strangled, and dumped in a remote area in Brooklyn. Her body was found on the 25th of February.

Britain's highest court has upheld the dress code for the school whose student population is about 75 percent Muslim. Seventeen-year- old Shabina Begum had challenged the code, saying it infringed on her right to wear a tradition gown that concealed all but her face and hands. The school says its code, which includes, tunics, trousers, skirts and headgear, is respectful, inclusive and unthreatening. Begum says she's considering appealing to the European court.

And in Spain, a significant development. The long-standing Basque militant group ETA has announced a permanent cease-fire. In a videotape statement this morning, three masked ETA members said that they're laying down their weapons. They say they hope to promote democracy in the northern Spanish region. Spain's prime minister expressed caution and hope, but has yet to commit to start of negotiations with the militant group.

Wolf, back to you in THE SITUATION ROOM. And happy birthday. Did you get any presents?

BLITZER: Yes, I did. Thank you.

VERJEE: What did you get?

BLITZER: I get presents all the time.

VERJEE: Happy birthday.

BLITZER: Thank you, Zain.

Up next, the speculation is intense. Will she or won't she? We have new word, definitive word from the secretary of state, about her future career plans.

And who's sorry now in an online spat involving the actor- director George Clooney? We'll have the latest. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check what's on our "Political Radar" today. In Texas, prosecutors are trying to bring back some of the charges against Congressman Tom DeLay that were dismissed last fall. They're asking an appeals court to restore one conspiracy charge against DeLay and part of another.

DeLay still faces one money laundering charge in the campaign finance-related indictment against him. A ruling on the appeal isn't expected for at least another month. DeLay denies any wrongdoing.

In New Orleans, mayoral candidates are exactly one month away from election day. Today, incumbent Ray Nagin is promising residents the city is better prepared for the upcoming hurricane season. Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu is the most prominent of the two dozen challengers trying to take Nagin's job.

The candidates are campaigning beyond New Orleans' borders, hoping to win votes from residents who relocated after Hurricane Katrina. The Reverend Jesse Jackson is touring southern cities this week, voicing opposition to the New Orleans vote. He contends too many residents are scattered across the country and won't be able to cast ballots.

And Americans want to know, what's next for the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice? Yes, there's been speculation about a run for the White House. But there's an even more urgent job opening right now. Namely, for NFL commissioner. Rice now has weighed in on whether she'll apply for her once-admitted dream job since Paul Tagliabue is set to retire in July.

It turns out, she's taking a pass. A reporter asked Dr. Rice about the job during a trip to the Bahamas, and she said, and I'm quoting now, "Unfortunately it came open at the wrong time." Condoleezza Rice will stay secretary of state, won't become the NFL commissioner.

How did George Clooney's words turn up on the liberal blog "The Huffington Post"? Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, has an update on the story that we've been following -- Jacki.

SCHECHNER: Wolf, Arianna Huffington runs a celebrity blog. So when George Clooney's words turned up on it, it didn't seem that likely. It turns out, though, he didn't blog them. Here's what happened. She compiled a post of interviews that he had previously given. Most of it came from a show from "LARRY KING LIVE" and one of those programs.

George Clooney got upset. He came down. This is what it looked like when it was up. Originally, Arianna blogged that this was all a big misunderstanding, that she had gotten permission from his camp to run it. She did so, and they did say OK to run it, but they expected attribution and full disclosure on exactly what it was.

We thought it was left at that, but it turns out she's now come ahead and apologized. She says she's learned her lesson. She's apologizing to her readers and everyone else out there, saying she should fully disclose what these things are, and fully attribute them to where they should be.

Now, as for George Clooney, don't expect him to be blogging any time soon. His spokesman tells me he has absolutely no Web presence. He doesn't like blogs. He thinks that they are unhealthy, they have no accountability, and this incident, unfortunately, has done nothing to help that opinion -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jacki. Thanks very much.

Up next, President Bush says he's troubled by recent developments in Afghanistan? Are you? Jack Cafferty reading your emails in this hour's question. What has the U.S. accomplished in Afghanistan?

And still ahead, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton turns to the Bible to make her case. We're going to have details on what she said today. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack's back with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, an Afghan man has converted from Islam to Christianity. He's been arrested, thrown in prison, and could be executed under Afghanistan's constitution, which is based on Islamic law. President Bush says he is, quote, "deeply troubled" by this. The question we're asking is, what exactly has the U.S. accomplished in Afghanistan? Here's some of what you've written.

Joe in Charleston, West Virginia: "The whole idea of someone being executed for changing religions in Afghanistan's eyes is moral. Others looking in may not think the same, but can America really go around dictating what is right and what is wrong?"

John in Oaga (ph), Oklahoma: "Absolutely nothing. Isn't it amazing how these Christian Republicans are willing to fight non- existent enemies like the demise of "Merry Christmas," but wring their hands and do nothing when a real Christian faces real death because we don't want to interfere in another nation's internal affairs."

Mike in Concord, New Hampshire: "Bush recently visited Afghanistan. He told reporters that Afghanistan is an inspiration to other in the region. We have radical Islam enforcing its law to execute non-Muslims. Will we find the same scenario when the Shiites dominate Iraq?"

Michael in El Prado, New Mexico: "It seems the main thing that we have accomplished in Afghanistan is to bring their opium production back up to number one in the world. If we could only be as effective in getting Iraq's oil production above what it was when we invaded there."

And Bob in Louisville writes, "We have established democracy where it's a capital crime to become a Christian" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It is pretty shocking. And, Jack, we just got a statement in from the Afghan Embassy here in Washington even as we've been reporting this story. Let me read to you briefly what it says. "Please note that the government of Afghanistan is fully aware of and pursuing the best ways to resolve Mr. Abdul Rahman's case judicially. It is too early to draw any conclusion about the punishment, and we appreciate public understanding of the sensitivity of religious issues."

The statement form the Afghan government goes on to say, "Afghanistan's judicial system is currently evaluating questions raised about the mental fitness of Mr. Rahman, the results of which may end the proceedings. Hence, we kindly request that the judicial process be given time to resolve Mr. Rahman's case."

Jack, we're going to have a lot more on this story coming up in the next hour, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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