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Emergency Team in Arizona Helps People Stranded in Two Cars During Flood; FDA Approves Sales of Morning-After Pill To Women 18 and Over; Some Changes Being Made in Policies Governing First Line Of Defense On Planes; Republicans May Cut into Democrats' Lead For Midterms; Ken Mehlman Interview
Aired August 24, 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 we'll pick it up, Kyra, from there. Thanks very much.
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 FDA gives the OK to Plan B. The morning-after contraceptive may now be sold over the counter, but not to those underage.
It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington. Is the long battle really over on Capitol Hill? We'll hear what Senator Hillary Clinton has to say.
New polls show a single-digit lead for Democrats in the battle for Congress. Are Republicans gaining ground ahead of the midterm elections? I'll ask the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman.
And coming up also this hour, just a day after the latest midair disturbance, there are new rules in place for air marshals. Will they help keep you safer in the skies? I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We'll get to all of that shortly, but there's a developing story we're following. We've been following it for a while now. An emergency team has moved into rushing floodwaters to help people stranded in two cars. It's happening in North Scottsdale, Arizona. The fast-moving, knee-deep water overflowed from Indian Bend Wash. The cars became stuck while driving on a road crossing the wash.
Let's bring in CNN's Reynolds Wolf. He's at the CNN Weather Center. He's following this story.
Explain to our viewers who are just tuning in, Reynolds, what has happened, because they hear the words "flooding." A lot of rain in Arizona this time of the year, some may be surprised.
REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely. Well, Wolf, what we refer to this as, the monsoonal flow. We've got moist air that comes in from the Pacific Ocean, sweeps across the four corners, including places like Phoenix. And at times, the rain comes down at a very quick rate.
In fact, earlier today we had rainfall rates, Wolf, in downtown Phoenix and parts of Scottsdale where the rain fell about an inch an hour. And what you're seeing is the result of that heavy rainfall.
Although the skies are clearing over places like Phoenix, all that water is beginning to stack up. And like the images you saw just moments ago, people are paying the price for it. They're trying to make their way home, perhaps going to the store, and they're dealing with, again, all that runoff.
In Scottsdale, you'll see right now on radar things have improved, but they've got water in places that is up to four feet across roadways. And you've got the cars that are -- just have been mobilized, like you see this crew right here trying to help someone. They've already helped them out of the car. They're walking through the floodwaters.
And with that stick, they're driving to avoid potholes. They're trying everything they can to avoid losing their footing. If they lose their footing, they'll get caught in the current, and then it's a whole, bad kettle of fish, to say the least.
BLITZER: Reynolds, this whole notion of this bad weather, severe weather in Arizona right now, I take it it's not that extraordinary?
WOLF: No, not at all, not at all. And I'll tell you, Wolf, in fact, if you happen to look at this wide shot, you might see in the middle of the road itself, or at least close to it, there was a street sign that had markers on it, say three feet, four feet, five feet.
This area is what we refer to as a wash, meaning it is a place that is -- I guess you could say it's kind of a roadway for heavy rainwater, for floodwaters to go through and then move out towards the open ground, out towards the desert, and then dissipate.
So it's not unusual at all to see this kind of thing. Of course, seeing people trapped in it in their vehicles, that's not something you want to deal with at all. But that has been occurring today. But having flooding in parts of Arizona like this, certainly not unheard of.
BLITZER: Reynolds, thanks very much. We'll stay on top of the story together with you.
We'll move onto other news we're following, especially news here in Washington, the long-running feud over the morning-after emergency contraceptive ends now with a compromise.
The Food and Drug Administration today approved over-the-counter sales of the so-called Plan B pill with a key restriction: Women wishing to purchase the pill must show proof they're 18 or older. Girls 17 or younger will still need a doctor's note. The age restriction battle has held up Senate confirmation of the president's pick to head the FDA. Our congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel is standing by on Capitol Hill. Our White House correspondent, Elaine Quijano, is in Kennebunkport, Maine. But let's begin with our senior medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta -- Sanjay?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, after a contentious three years, the FDA has approved over-the-counter sales of the controversial morning-after pill to women ages 18 and older. The drug is called Plan B and contains a high dose of traditional birth control pills. And when used within 72 hours of unprotected sex, it can lower the risk of pregnancy by almost 90 percent.
Now, the drug works one of two ways. First, it can stop ovulation or, second, if the egg has been fertilized, it increases the chance it won't attach to the uterus. Now, if the egg is already attached to the uterus, the pregnancy will not be affected. Now, critics have claimed it's tantamount to abortion. Proponents reject that and blame the three years it took to get it approved on political, not medical concerns.
So is it safe? Well, the evidence suggests yes. Some have raised concerns over the issues of blood clots, but like traditional birth control pills, the risk is greatest for women who smoke. This drug has been available for some time now to women, but only with a prescription from their doctor. Now women 18 and older will be able to get it at their local pharmacy but will have to show proof of age, much like buying cigarettes.
How many women will be affected? We're not sure. Of some three million unintended pregnancies a year, some guess that number will reduce by about half.
Wolf, back to you.
BLITZER: Sanjay, thank you very much. Sanjay Gupta reporting with the Plan B compromise. Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Patty Murray have now dropped their opposition to the president's nominee for the Food and Drug Administration. But he still may face another hitch.
Let's go live to our congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel -- Andrea.
ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, calling it a positive step forward, Senators Hillary Clinton and Patty Murray applauded the FDA's decision today to approve over-the-counter sales of Plan B and said they were lifting their hold on Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach's nomination to head the FDA.
For the last several years, New York's Clinton and Washington State Democrat Patty Murray had been walking a tight political line, blocking two of President Bush's nominees to lead the FDA, not because the FDA wouldn't green light Plan B over the country, but rather because it refused to make a decision either way.
As an aide in Senator Murray's office explained to CNN, "The FDA needs to be above politics. It needs to make decisions on its own. This is about more than Plan B," she said. "It's about the legitimacy of the agency, keeping it to a gold standard and listening to scientists."
But when Hillary Clinton, who is widely believed to be considering a run for the White House in '08, is front and center on an issue, you can bet politics are bound to be involved, especially on an issue as inflammatory and polarizing as a morning-after pill, pitting abortion rights activists against religious conservatives who say the drug will promote promiscuity.
Now, any decision Clinton takes is bound to be scrutinized. Clinton has said she personally supports Plan B and now wants the FDA to reconsider placing age restrictions on its sale, as Sanjay was just talking about. Now, as to whether she'll support von Eschenbach's nomination, both Clinton and Murray say, barring any red flags, they would.
But von Eschenbach may not lose the acting title any time soon, Wolf. That's because Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter's office says he plans to keep his hold on the nomination in hopes of pressuring the FDA to improve the import of prescription drugs from Canada -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Which are cheaper. Thanks very much, Andrea, for that. Andrea Koppel reporting.
President Bush, meanwhile, is responding to today's FDA approval of the Plan B over-the-counter sales decision. For more on that, let's go to our White House correspondent, Elaine Quijano. She's in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the president is vacationing -- Elaine.
ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Wolf.
Well, the president is raising the ire of social conservatives for his stand on Plan B. It was just a few days ago, in fact, that the president signaled his support for the impending FDA action to allow the over-the-counter sales. Now, the president at that time also said, though, that the drug should require a prescription for minors.
And today, the reaction to the official decision coming from White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino, in a statement saying the president, quote, "appreciates that the FDA did an exhaustive review, that they recognize the critical distinction between minors and adults, and the risks a drug like this can pose. The FDA made clear that it will insist on stringent conditions and restrictions on access to reduce both health risks and opportunities for abuse, especially to protect minors."
But conservatives, who are, of course, a critical element of support for the Republican base, are not happy. In fact, the group, Concerned Women for America, called the president's support of Plan B "beyond the pale," and today said that the FDA, quote, "overstepped its authority" -- Wolf. BLITZER: Elaine, we know the president's parents have a summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, where you are right now. I take it he's there for a family wedding, but he's also been busy making phone calls on some very, very important international issues.
QUIJANO: That's exactly right. The president, on his way here to Maine, in fact, made a couple of calls to Italy's prime minister and Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the two topics, of course, Lebanon and Iran.
On Lebanon, the president congratulated the Italian prime minister for his country's offer of up to 3,000 troops to help with that expanded peacekeeping force in Lebanon. And on Iran, of course, discussion of the diplomatic efforts that have been going on, nothing new on that. We heard yesterday that statement out of the State Department saying that Iran's counterproposal fell short.
Nothing new on that. The White House today simply reiterating that August 31st deadline for Iran to stop its uranium enrichment activities.
One more thing I want to mention, Wolf. Late today, we got word from the White House responding to the French announcement that they plan now to send some 2,000 troops to Lebanon as part of that expanded peacekeeping force. White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino saying that the president welcomes this decision by the French. She went on to say that, as he has said, an international force needs to be deployed urgently -- Wolf.
BLITZER: A major decision announced by the French president, Jacques Chirac, earlier. We're going to have a lot more on that coming up in our next hour. Thanks very much, Elaine Quijano reporting.
There's a developing story we're following right now, and it's centered on your safety and the safety of anyone who flies. Some changes are now being made in policies governing the first line of defense on passenger planes. That would include federal air marshals.
Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve -- Jeanne.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, to be effective, federal air marshals say they must stay undercover, but they have complained that some policies set by their bosses have jeopardized their ability to go undetected. Now, the new director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, Dana Brown, is making changes.
Instead of being required to dress business casual on most flights as they are now, air marshals will be allowed to dress at their discretion so they can blend in with other travelers. They will also be allowed to stay at the hotels of their choice, providing the hotels are not too expensive and are near airports or other work sites.
Air marshals had complained that staying in designated hotels made them potential targets. A congressional report agreed, noting that the Sheraton at Ft. Lauderdale's airport once declared the Federal Air Marshal Service company of the month for booking rooms.
Some FAMs also say that boarding procedures at airports make it difficult for them to remain anonymous. Brown says there is no simple solution to that problem, but he is continuing to look at it. He says the changes he has made are part of an effort to build an organization that is well-respected and sustainable -- Wolf.
BLITZER: No matter what they wear, though, Jean, presumably they'll be able to hide a weapon if, in fact, they're carrying a weapon on these planes.
MESERVE: And that's one of the requirements in the new dress code. It has to be something functional, something that will allow them to carry their equipment.
BLITZER: Jeanne Meserve, reporting for us. Thanks, Jeanne, very much.
And, remember, stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.
Let's check in with Zain Verjee. She's got a closer look at some other important stories making news.
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.
A controlled by impassioned appeal today from the brother of kidnapped FOX journalist Steve Centanni. A short while ago, Ken Centanni appeared on international television to plead for his brother's release. Earlier today, the wife of kidnapped FOX cameraman Olaf Wiig took her appeal for her husband to the Palestinian prime minister. She later begged the kidnappers to let her husband and Centanni go. The two journalists were abducted 10 days ago. Video of them was released yesterday.
More than a dozen people, most of them Iraqis, are dead, victims of the now-commonplace violence in Iraq. Shootings and bomb blasts were scattered in and around Baquba today. Civilians and Iraqi police are among the dead and wounded. A string of car bombings claimed more civilian lives in Baghdad. And two U.S. soldiers died in separate attacks in the Iraqi capital.
In northwestern Louisiana, explosions rocked a bomb recycling plant today. Smoke could be seen billowing for miles from the plant. A fire touched off a string of at least 10 blasts, and about 600 students are to be evacuated from area schools. More that 400 prisoners were moved from a jail. Remarkably, though, there are no reports of any injuries.
John Mark Karr boarded a plane just a short while ago for Colorado where he's wanted in the slaying of JonBenet Ramsey. Karr was bought from a Los Angeles County jail to Long Beach Airport south of Los Angeles and put aboard a waiting Colorado State Patrol airplane. Karr had been jailed in Los Angeles since his return late on Sunday from Thailand -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much.
Jack Cafferty has the day off. No fears: He'll be back with "The Cafferty File" next week.
But up next, the polls are tightening in the battle for Congress. Is the political battle over terror the reason why? Bill Schneider is standing by with the answer.
Senator John McCain has been beefing up his staff for a possible presidential run, but one new hire is raising some eyebrows.
And forget about what you know about the planets. Top astronomers have now booted Pluto out of the solar system. Why the nation's science books will never be the same. Stay with us.
BLITZER: As the midterm elections draw a bit closer, new polls now showing Republicans may be cutting into the Democrats' lead. Let's turn to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider -- Bill.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, Republicans won the last two elections on the terrorism issue. Will it work a third time?
SCHNEIDER: Three polls out this week: How is President Bush doing? Forty-two percent job approval in two polls; 36 percent in a third. The average: 40 percent.
In April, the president's job ratings averaged 34 percent. They've been slowing rising over the past four months. Why? The White House has been using the terrorism issue to rally the Republican base, just as it did in 2002 and 2004.
KARL ROVE, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: If leading Democrats had their way, our nation would be weaker and the enemies of our nation would be stronger. And that's a stark fact of modern life.
SCHNEIDER: President Bush's biggest gains have been on the issue of terrorism, particularly since the arrests in London earlier this month. And most of those gains have been among Republicans and conservatives, his base.
Will the terrorism issue save the Republican majorities in Congress this year? This week's polls all show Democrats in the lead by an average of nine points when registered voters nationwide are asked how they'll vote for Congress.
Some polls show the race getting closer. The "USA Today"-Gallup poll has the Democratic lead at just two points. Just after the 2002 midterm, Bill Clinton offered this advice to his fellow Democrats.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody that's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right.
SCHNEIDER: Some Democrats are determined not to make the same mistake a third time.
REP. HAROLD FORD, JR. (D), TENNESSEE: Once again, terrorists tried to take down passenger planes, this time with liquid explosives. Thank God the British stopped them.
SCHNEIDER: In his new ad, Democratic Senate candidate Harold Ford of Tennessee refuses to concede the terrorism issue.
FORD: It's time to put aside politics, adopt the commission's 41 recommendations, and get tough on controlling our borders.
SCHNEIDER: Our poll of shows that, while Republicans may be losing many middle-of-the-road voters, they still know how to rally the base -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And based on that clip and everything else we're hearing, Karl Rove now clearly playing a very active role, Bill, in getting out there and pushing this issue.
SCHNEIDER: That's right. It's his issue. He ran on it, and he used it for the Republicans in '02 and '04, and they seem determined to run on it again a third time.
BLITZER: And Democrats know that precisely, as well.
BLITZER: Thanks very much, Bill, for that. Bill Schneider, and, as you saw earlier, Andrea Koppel, Elaine Quijano, they are all part of the best political team on television. CNN, America's campaign headquarters.
Senator McCain may not have announced he's running for president but he's assembling a team of very seasoned political strategists. Now, one of his newest recruits, though, is raising some eyebrows. Today, McCain is signing up a prominent online strategist who used to work for none other than 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.
ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, Nicco Mele was webmaster for Dean for America, the campaign that used the Internet for organizing online in ways never before seen in politics. Today, Nicco Mele's personal Web log, he writes, "While I currently don't know what role I'd like to have in 2008, if Senator McCain runs, I hope to be helpful," that following a report in the political journal, "The Hotline."
A spokesman for Senator McCain's political action committee says Mele has not been hired. He's not on the payroll. However, he's verbally committed to help if Senator McCain decides to run. Senator McCain has himself admitted online he's not too up on the Internet. In this blog post earlier this summer, he acknowledged he'd never done this before.
Some discussion online about this new potential alliance. Red State expressing shock. Mele at his personal blog saying, "This is a personal decision" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.
Hillary Clinton tops our "Political Radar" today. A new poll showing the senator from New York far ahead of either of her two Republican rivals. The WNBC-Marist poll finds Clinton with a 25-point lead over former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer. And Clinton is 30 points ahead of former Reagan White House official Kathleen McFarland, who this week actually suspended her campaign.
The Senate race is a lot closer across the border in Pennsylvania. A new Keystone State poll shows incumbent Rick Santorum closing the gap with his Democratic challenger, State Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr. Casey now trails Santorum by only five points.
We may have gotten that wrong. Maybe Santorum trails Casey by only five points. The Green Party candidate in this race trails with four percent in the polls in this close race between Santorum and Casey. The third party candidate could make a difference. We'll check those numbers, correct them if we have to.
And New Orleans Major Ray Nagin, he's known for controversial comments like "chocolate city." It appears his mouth may once again be getting him into a little bit of trouble. In an interview to be aired this Sunday on "60 Minutes" on CBS, Nagin was asked why parts of New Orleans are still in disrepair one year after Hurricane Katrina hit the city.
Nagin responded by saying -- and I'm quoting now -- "You guys in New York can't get a hole in the ground fixed and it's five years later, so let's be fair." Nagin's office says the mayor's comments were taken out of context. We're awaiting a response from CBS and from New York City officials, and we'll have a live report from New Orleans on this story. It's coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour.
Once again, we did confirm: Santorum is trailing by five points. Bob Casey, Jr., he's the state treasurer, he's the Democrat, Santorum the Republican. We got it right.
Still ahead, political calculations on Iraq. Will the president's stance hurt Republicans at the polls? We'll ask the party's chairman. And one year later after Katrina, Gulf Coast residents are still feeling the effects. Does that translate into political pain for the Republicans? The party's chairman, Ken Mehlman, gives us his take. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
Front and center: midterm elections and the impact current events might have on their outcome. We talked about these hot topics yesterday with the Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean. Today we get the perspective from the Republican side.
BLITZER: Joining us now from Grand Rapids, Michigan, the chairman of the Republican Party, Ken Mehlman.
Ken, thanks very much for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.
KEN MEHLMAN, RNC CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Wolf, absolutely.
BLITZER: By almost all accounts, Iraq is going to dominate the midterm elections, and this is an issue that clearly shows, according to all of our polls, the Democrats have a pretty consistent advantage.
Which party would do a better job in Iraq? In our most recent CNN poll, 47 percent said Democrats, 41 percent said Republicans. Has the war in Iraq been a distraction from the war on terrorism? Fifty- two percent say yes. Essential to the war on terrorism? Forty-four percent say no.
How worried are you that, because of Iraq, Republicans could lose control of the House and/or Senate?
MEHLMAN: Wolf, I don't think that's the case at all. First of all, every election is going to be different and every issue will be different. But, certainly, the war on terror is a critical issue in this election and many of the races.
And one of the important questions, and if you look at polls, people answer this question, Americans do not believe we should give the terrorists a victory in Iraq. Not the Republicans, but Mr. Zawahiri, the number two guy in al Qaeda said their goal is to use Iraq as a base to launch further attacks.
We remember how they were able to do that before 9/11 out of Afghanistan, except Iraq is much more centrally located, it's between Syria and Iran, and it's home to the world's second largest oil reserves.
If we were to do what most Democrats want to do, which is to cut and run and give the terrorists that kind of a victory, if we were to leave Iraq the way we left Vietnam, which, again, is what Mr. Zawahiri said his goal is, it would make America much less safe. It would encourage jihadists all over the world, and it will leave a failed state in a pivotal place.
We can't let that happen, and most Americans are against letting that happen.
BLITZER: Your Democratic counterpart, Howard Dean, was in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday, and he strongly suggested that that argument, the argument you just made is exactly what Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew made in prolonging the war in Vietnam and thousands of American troops died needlessly in the process.
His argument to you would be, how many more American troops have to die before you recognize there's a civil war there and there's a no-win situation for the United States?
MEHLMAN: Wolf, Mr. Dean has said that for a long time. You may remember, almost a year ago, he was on a radio station where he said the notion that we're going to win in Iraq is wrong. He's had this kind of defeatist approach.
I think that's wrong. Here's the difference: Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues in Vietnam did not say that their goal was to use Vietnam to launch attacks on the American homeland. This is what Al Qaeda has said. This is what the enemy has said, and they have a record of doing it.
There wasn't a history with Vietnam the way that there is in Iraq, where, when we pulled out of Lebanon and we pulled out of Mogadishu, it was used by bin Laden and others to recruit more jihadists and encourage more danger.
The fact is: The situation in Iraq is much more critical to American national security, which is why we cannot allow it to fail. We have to win this war.
Will it be tough? Absolutely. Will it be challenging in days ahead? Sure. The American people, though, understand that, and they understand the last thing we want to do is cut and run on a political timetable which would give a huge victory for the enemy. According to the enemy's own words, they would use it as a victory.
BLITZER: The man who could be the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, John McCain, had some rather tough words for this administration the other day while he was campaigning in Ohio. Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Stuff happens, mission accomplished, last throes, a few dead-enders. I am more familiar with those statements than anyone else, because it grieves me so much that we have not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And, as you know, those are phrases directly associated with the president, the vice president, the defense secretary. He says that they have mislead the American public into thinking this would be a day at the beach -- that's a phrase that he used -- when, in fact, he knew from the beginning it was going to be hard, but the American people weren't told the truth.
MEHLMAN: I would -- I think the president has been very clear from the beginning, this was going to be a very difficult battle in Iraq and a long war on terror. He has said that from the beginning.
This is not new. Senator McCain has before made comments where he said, while he agrees with the strategic objective of the administration, he has had some disagreements about some of the characterizations of the nature of the battle.
The fact is, the big debate, Wolf, is not between John McCain and George W. Bush. They both agree, as do most Republicans, and some Democrats, that we must win this war in Iraq. The big question is, regardless of whether you agree about how we got where we got, what do we do going forward?
And the fundamental point is, for the reasons that I outline, we cannot allow a failed state to sit in between Iran and Syria.
BLITZER: All right.
MEHLMAN: We cannot allow the second largest oil reserves in the world to be in the hands of al Qaeda and other jihadists and terrorists. We can't send the same message we sent out of Mogadishu and out of Beirut, and, that, we just cannot allow to happen.
BLITZER: As difficult of an issue for Republicans Iraq might be come November, Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party, said, Katrina, and the way the Bush administration handled Katrina, is probably going to be a bigger issue.
Listen to what he said in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HOWARD DEAN (D), DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The response to Katrina was effectively the end of the president's presidency, in the sense that people saw -- all of a sudden, saw the small man behind the curtain.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Very tough words from Howard Dean, but effectively suggesting that the incompetence factor, the way the administration failed in the response to Katrina, the administration's failures in Iraq, the competence issue is going to help Democrats come November.
MEHLMAN: Wolf, I would disagree with that completely.
The fact is, we saw -- and the president has said this in Katrina -- a federal and state and local response that was unacceptable. Here's what else we have seen. We have seen $110 billion dedicated to rebuilding the Gulf. We have seen the administration learn lessons and improve with the responses.
And, hopefully, we have seen millions of Americans look and say, how do we have a more effective war on poverty? What I saw, unfortunately, in New Orleans was, we had a war on poverty, and, in many cases, poverty won.
So, how do we replace a welfare state with an opportunity society? How do we replace dependency and bureaucracy with opportunity and hope, and, hopefully, all those things we can do going forward? That's absolutely critical.
BLITZER: As chairman of the Republican Party, how does it feel to, effectively, abandon the senate race in Connecticut? You have Joe Lieberman running as an independent now, Ned Lamont as the Democrat. Alan Schlesinger, the Republican candidate, barely registers in all the polls.
Have you, effectively, forgotten about Connecticut?
MEHLMAN: Wolf, the way that, in my experience, having been the political director of '02 and the campaign manager in '04, the way you succeed is, you buy -- is, you target. And you work with your colleagues at the state party, at the NRSC, and at the NRCC, the congressional and Senate committee, to figure out what are the most winnable races.
I'm here in Michigan, because Mike Bouchard is running a very strong campaign against Debbie Stabenow. I was, earlier this week, in the state of Ohio with Mark DeWine, who's in a very competitive race. And, last week, I was in Minnesota...
BLITZER: But Connecticut...
MEHLMAN: ... with Mark Kennedy.
BLITZER: You have given up on Connecticut?
MEHLMAN: Well, the fact is what we have done is, we have talked to our state leadership in the state.
And what they have said is, you ought to focus on the congressional race and the governor's race.
That's what we're doing. In my experience, people who win in politics are people that focus their resources where they have the best opportunity. And that's what we're doing.
BLITZER: Do you have a strong preference between Lieberman and Lamont?
MEHLMAN: I -- again, following my local leaders in the state, I am leaving it to the people of the state to decide.
BLITZER: Thanks very much, Ken Mehlman...
MEHLMAN: Thanks as lot.
BLITZER: ... for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: And up next: a major decision from U.S. regulators on the controversial morning-after, or Plan B, birth control pill. We will hear from both sides of the debate in our "Strategy Session."
Then: Stem cells can reportedly now be made without destroying a human embryo. But ethical objections to stem cell research remain. I will ask two experts, Bill Press, J.C. Watts, about the political impact of all of this.
Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Welcome back.
Today's FDA move, clearing a -- a space on drugstore shelves for the so-called morning-after pill, raising eyebrows. Will there be political repercussions?
And terrorism as a political issue -- after the most recent terror-related events, how might it play in the next race for the U.S. Congress?
Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," radio talk show host Bill Press and CNN political analyst, former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.
In this Plan B decision, the morning-after contraception pill, in effect, Hillary Clinton came out with a strong statement: "While we urge the FDA to revisit placing age restrictions on the sale of Plan B, it is real progress that millions of American women will now have increased access to emergency contraception."
Women 18 and older can just go in and buy the pill. Seventeen- year-olds and under have to get a doctor's note.
J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well...
WATTS: ... Wolf, I don't know what is the difference in, you know, harming the child the night or the day after. I still don't think that changes the debate. Those...
BLITZER: You think this is abortion?
WATTS: I do. I think -- I still don't think it changes the debate one bit.
I think those who are opposed to abortion are going to be opposed to this. Those who support abortion, they will like this decision, as -- as Senator Clinton said. It's abortion the day after.
So, it doesn't change the debate any. And I do. I agree that the FDA has made a huge mistake in this ruling.
BLITZER: The other side, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women of -- For America, says, "The FDA's irresponsible action today takes those rights out of a parent's hands and gives them to ill-intentioned perpetrators."
Clearly, they're very unhappy with this FDA decision.
BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, you know, that's too bad, Wolf. I think this is a major breakthrough for American women.
And, J.C., it's hypocritical to be against abortion and to be against Plan B. We heard Sanjay Gupta, who knows more about this than you and I do, at the top of the show, say, if a woman is already pregnant, this does nothing. This is not an abortion pill. It's a contraceptive pill. It has been used safely by European women for years. It has been held up in this year only for -- in this country only for political reasons.
And what this pill is going to result in is fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions, which I thought -- is certainly my goal -- I thought was your goal, too.
WATTS: Well, it's ironic, Wolf, that we say it's a contraceptive, but you take it the morning after.
PRESS: So what?
PRESS: You take one pill the day before. You can take one the morning after.
PRESS: It's a medical breakthrough.
WATTS: The morning after.
PRESS: It's a contraceptive.
PRESS: And it's not funny.
PRESS: Three-and-a-half -- no.
WATTS: Bill, the bottom line is...
WATTS: ... your mind is not going to be changed by this decision. Nor -- and nor is mine.
WATTS: I believe it's abortion. I believe it takes the life of a -- you don't. So...
PRESS: No, but I...
WATTS: ... that's the issue.
PRESS: ... would hope...
WATTS: That's the issue.
PRESS: But I would hope people who have strong beliefs would listen to the experts and listen to the facts.
As Sanjay said, three -- and he's the medical expert here, not you, not me -- three-and-a-half million unwanted pregnancies in this country. One-half of them could be eliminated because of this pill. I would think you would say...
BLITZER: All right.
PRESS: ... it's about time.
WATTS: But you want to listen...
BLITZER: All right.
WATTS: ... to the experts on abortion, but you don't want to listen to the experts on the war that says that evil people are trying to kill us.
BLITZER: All right.
WATTS: But you don't want to do anything about that.
BLITZER: Before we get...
BLITZER: We are going to get to that in a moment.
BLITZER: But let's talk a little bit about the study in the science journal "Nature" suggesting that there may be a new way to get stem cells, and not necessarily destroy human embryos.
I assume that's something you are very happy about, if, in fact, this works out like that.
WATTS: Well, Wolf, again, I think this needs to be -- this needs to -- we need to continue to study this, and take a look at this, but look at the commonsense elements of this.
First of all, if you take a stem out of an existing embryo within a woman's body, that same cell, or that same stem that you remove is what makes a twin, could make a twin. So, again, what difference does it make if you separate the stem, and take the life, or you leave it attached to the current stem cell?
And I -- you know, and this debate fascinates me, because a stem cell, embryonic stem cell, we have seen no results from that. Adult stem cells, we have seen heart disease taken care of. We have seen that -- successes there. We have seen successes in terms of sickle cell anemia. We have seen successes in heart disease with adult stem cells. That's where the successes are...
BLITZER: All right.
WATTS: ... not in embryonic stem cell research.
BLITZER: All right, Bill, go ahead.
PRESS: Wait. Again, I would hope we would listen to the medical experts, and not just orate about something that, J.C., frankly...
WATTS: That's what the scientists are saying, Bill.
PRESS: ... you are way out of line on.
WATTS: That's what the scientists are saying.
PRESS: Look -- well, all right, let me say this. I think there was little reason to oppose embryonic stem cell research before. The idea that an embryo is a living human being is ridiculous, a microscopic little cluster of cells.
WATTS: You were an embryo.
PRESS: Pardon me. Let me just finish, OK?
And, also, these are embryos. What's going to happen to them? They are going to be kept in a freezer for years, and then threw -- then thrown away.
If they could be used to cure -- to find a cure for disease, then we should. There was even -- there was less -- not much reason to oppose it before. I think there's less reason today. If you can take out one cell, create a new stem cell line, and still save the embryo, then I would think that...
BLITZER: All right.
PRESS: ... this argument would be over.
BLITZER: Let's end the argument for a moment, because I want to quickly talk about the midterm elections. All of the polls, the generic question, do you support a Democrat, Republican, if we take a look all the various polls, the CNN, the Gallup, "USA," the CBS poll, the average we're showing in our so-called poll of polls, Democrats have a nine-point lead. Forty-nine percent say they are ready to vote -- among registered voters, ready to vote for Democrats, 40 percent for Republicans.
It looks like the Democrats, at least at this relatively early stage, has a significant advantage.
WATTS: Well, Wolf, I will remind is, you were an embryo; Bill was an embryo; I was an embryo at one time. And, today, we are live, living beings.
But, concerning the polling...
BLITZER: And we are all registered voters.
WATTS: And we're all...
WATTS: That's right. We're all registered voters.
Those polls, Wolf, I looked. In 2002, CNN had some polls that had Democrats ahead in generic polls by eight points. Republicans picked up something like six to eight seats, if I recall. So...
BLITZER: At this stage?
WATTS: At this stage.
Those polls are going to fluctuate. I do think it says this. There is gains -- there are gains being made, in terms of the generic numbers. You mentioned the Rick Santorum race in Pennsylvania. You know, he's almost within the margin of error there.
I think that confirms that some success is being had by Republicans. But those numbers are going to continue to change.
PRESS: I -- just a point. If I were an embryo thrown in the trash, I would not be here today.
But, back to the midterm elections, you know...
WATTS: You would be in the trash.
PRESS: ... I think what this -- I think what these polls show, Wolf, is, there's change in the wind. And the change is blowing in the Democrats' direction.
I think those polls are going to increase for the Democrats, for one reason -- and you just talked about it with Ken Mehlman -- the war in Iraq, George Bush is determined to hang that millstone around the neck of every Republican and senator who is running for reelection this year. I feel sorry for them, because they are going to have to go around the country and defend an indefensible war.
BLITZER: All right.
PRESS: Iraq is a loser.
BLITZER: All right. We have got to leave it -- hold your thought, J.C., next time, because we are out of time.
BLITZER: Thanks very much.
J.C. Watts, Bill Press, good to have both of you in the "Strategy Session."
Coming up: Are voters feeling ornery about those in office? Jeff Greenfield standing by -- he will take a closer look at the prospects for incumbents in November.
Then: Meteorologists say the threat from one tropical storm is all but gone, but that another , more dangerous storm may be forming right now. We're going to update you on what is going on.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: With midterm elections just around the corner, we are increasingly seeing some signs that voters are in a mood for change.
Our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, is joining us now with a closer look at some of the problems incumbents are facing.
Jeff, how extraordinary is it right now that we are seeing some major incumbents in deep trouble?
JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, it's unusual for this many to lose a primary in one season. I mean, since 1980, we have only had three incumbent senators lose primaries. Frank Murkowski in Alaska is the fourth governor to lose a primary in 12 years. And Senator Lincoln Chafee, in Rhode Island, is no better than even money to win his primary against conservative Mayor of Cranston Steve Laffey.
BLITZER: Well, are you seeing any common links that would be -- I mean, to go from Alaska, to Connecticut, to Rhode Island?
GREENFIELD: I don't think so. And, sometimes, it's a question of character or personality. Up in Alaska, Governor Murkowski gained a reputation for aloofness and even arrogance. He had appointed his daughter Lisa to fill out his term in the U.S. Senate. He wanted a jet plane for his travels.
Down in Georgia, Congresswoman McKinney lost her primary for the second time in four years -- this time after a publicized altercation with a Capitol Hill police officer.
But the other reason is policy or ideology. Joe Lieberman lost in Connecticut for being out of step with the Democratic Party's anti- war sentiments on Iraq, as well as for views he has held on everything from affirmative action, to school vouchers, to the Terri Schiavo case.
Up in Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee is being pushed hard for not being Republican enough. He is, depending on how you put it, the most independent or least loyal Republican of all in the Senate.
He didn't even vote for George W. Bush in 2004. He announced he had written in the name of Bush's father.
In fact, Wolf, the most eye-opening incumbent defeats, in my view, happened mostly beneath the national media radar in Pennsylvania last May. Seventeen state legislators, including the top -- including the top two Senate Republican leaders, were thrown out.
Now, this was a classic response to what was seen as arrogance. There were last-minute pay raises in the legislature, increases in benefits. So, there, you can see, voters just said, you guys -- throw the rascals out -- Wolf.
BLITZER: So, are there any broader lessons we should learn from -- going into this election, and maybe the next one?
GREENFIELD: I think there is one.
And that is that the emergence of the Internet, as an organizing and money-raising tool, means that disaffected voters have a way of bypassing the party establishment that's generally inclined to protect incumbents. For instance, national Republicans are backing Chafee, even though they don't like a lot of his votes, because they are afraid that a conservative candidate will likely lose in November in very blue-state Rhode Island. That could threaten Republican control of the Senate.
But the web Makes it easier for really passionate conservatives, who really don't like Chafee's voting record. They have got a way to get money to his opponent and to reach out to like-minded voters.
And, finally, this is going to seem very quirky, but I am kind of curious to see what happens in the New York primary, where Senator Hillary Clinton's relatively hawkish views on national security really don't sit well with a lot of New York liberals. But her primary opponent has no money, no support. He's now at about 15 percent in the polls. If he winds up with a whole more primary voters, to me, that will be a sign, for less secure incumbents, that there's a new ball game out there for the future -- Wolf.
BLITZER: I know you like those ball games. Jeff Greenfield...
BLITZER: ... thanks very much for that -- Jeff Greenfield, part of the best political team on television -- CNN, America's campaign headquarters.
Coming up next, we will talk about the weather. Could the first big named storm of the season be brewing in the Atlantic right now?
And, later, poor, pitiful little Pluto -- why the former distant planet has been dissed and demoted -- no more Pluto.
Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Let's check in with Zain Verjee. She got a closer look at other important stories making news -- Zain.
VERJEE: Wolf, police are holding one man in -- in connection with a series of shootings that killed at least two people in Essex, Vermont.
One of the dead is a teacher at the town's elementary school, where one of the shootings took place. Four people, including the alleged shooter, were injured in three separate shootings. Police say it all began as a domestic dispute.
Forecasters say that, while the threat from Tropical Storm Debby diminishes, another, potentially more dangerous, storm could be forming. Debby is moving over the open Atlantic, and is expected to stay well away from land. But a system of squalls in the Caribbean is said to be close to becoming a new tropical storm. It would be storm named Ernesto.
This comes exactly one year to the day after Katrina began picking up strength over the warm Caribbean waters and was upgraded to hurricane status. Four days later, it was a Category 5 hurricane, and slammed into the Gulf Coast.
Also, on this day in 1992, Hurricane Andrew made landfall on Florida's east coast, just near Miami. Until Katrina, Andrew was the costliest storm in U.S. history -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Zain, thank you.
And, still to come: kicked out of the solar system. Pluto has been fighting for planet status for decades, but it's apparently too goofy to measure up.
Stay with us. We will be right back.
BLITZER: Welcome back.
The votes are now in. It's official. Pluto is out. A group of international astronomers gathered in Prague and determined that Pluto is simply too small to be classified as a planet. That leaves our solar system with just eight planets.
What does it all mean?
Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.
TATTON: Wolf, the world's leading astronomers have been debating the definition of a planet for two years now.
At some -- during some of the deliberations, it looked like Pluto would remain in, and, actually, the number of planets would go up. But that wasn't to be. The votes are in on the new planet guidelines, and the number is eight, and Pluto is out, relegated to the somewhat inauspicious title of dwarf planet here, with another one, 2003 UB313.
Now, this means that there's a lot of changes that have to be made for textbooks, for Web sites. We spoke to the owner of nineplanets.org. He says no plans to change his site. In any case, eightplanets.org has already been taken. What about the NASA Web site? We searched that -- over 20,000 mentions of Pluto on the NASA site.
A spokesman for NASA, in a statement today, said, while they will, of course, follow these new guidelines, this doesn't make any change for any of those projects that are currently under way, like the New Horizons, the first ever mission to Pluto, which was launched earlier this year. That's still going ahead, planet or no planet -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We still love you, Pluto. Thanks very much for all the good work over the years. Too bad you're not a planet anymore.
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