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Strategy in Iraq; High Stakes in New Jersey; "Sesame Street" Goes Global; North Korea's Disabled Population

Aired October 24, 2006 - 10:00   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone, I'm Heidi Collins.

Spend the second hour in the NEWSROOM this morning. Stay informed. Here's what's on the rundown.

Talking timeline. Iraqi leaders making plans to take more control of their country.

COLLINS: While U.S. soldiers fight in Iraq, politicians fight it out over Iraq. Does either party have a solution? We'll ask the heads of the Democratic and Republican parties coming up this hour.

HARRIS: And who is telling the truth? The congressman who says he told House Speaker Dennis Hastert about Mark Foley's actions is now before the House Ethics Committee. It is Tuesday, October 24th, and you are in the NEWSROOM.

The battle ground is Iraq, but make no mistake, the entire Middle East is at stake. That according to the top U.S. general in Iraq and Washington's ambassador to that country. Their joint news conference ended just about two hours ago now. It included some sobering assessments of the war. Let's get straight to the Pentagon and Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, good morning.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Tony.

This very rare joint press conference by General George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad clearly was an effort to put a different bit of a tone on things. Yes, things are serious in Iraq, but both men going to great lengths to spell out that there is a plan, there is a way ahead for both U.S. and Iraqi forces in that country as the war goes on. A lot of talk about a political plan being laid out by the Iraqi government to get a handle on the violence and talk about where U.S. troops are headed.

General Casey keeping his options open that more U.S. troops might be need, but no real clear indication at this point that he's going to ask for it. He said he thinks Iraqis can get a handle on the security situation in the next 12 to 18 months. Here's what General Casey had to say.


GEN. GEORGE CASEY, CMDR., MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE, IRAQ: I still very strongly believe that we need to continue to reduce our forces as the Iraqis continue to improve because we need to get out of their way. The Iraqis are getting better. Their leaders are feeling more responsible for the security in Iraq and they want to take the reins. And I think we need to do that. But I can't tell you right now until we get through Ramadan here and the rest of this when that might be.


STARR: But, Tony, will the Iraqis be able to take the reins of security in their own country? Ambassador Khalilzad actually acknowledging that the U.S. has no direct contact with Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi army leaders at this point. And that is vital because it is still the militias and the death squads that are causing so much of the mayhem in that country. A very different tone today, Tony, than General Caldwell last week who said the violence was disheartening and that the Baghdad security plan simply was not getting them the results that they wanted.

So, a bit more of a tone today that we have a plan, we're following it. But when they're not talking to Muqtada al-Sadr, there's a real question about whether or not they can really direct change on the part of these militias and death squads

HARRIS: Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr for us.

Barbara, thank you.

STARR: Sure.

COLLINS: "Stay the course," the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, but no more. The White House is adjusting the words it uses to describe its Iraq policy. We want to go live now to the White House and correspondent Ed Henry.

Ed, so how much of this is really -- I mean, I don't want to oversimplify -- but is semantics?

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Heidi.

In a way it is semantics. It's not going to be a change in policy for the most part, but instead it's a change in language. Basically the White House saying that they're no longer going to use the "stay the course" language. Let's face it, it's two weeks before the election. The president has been saying "stay the course" again and again, but White House aides note that he basically stopped using that phrase in about late August, early September in part because they realized that what they are constantly reacting to facts on the ground, military commanders, adjusting to how the enemy is acting so that U.S. forces can get the insurgents, can stop the insurgency so they do not feel "stay the course" reflects it.

But also there's a political reality, which is that Democrats were starting to use in their campaign commercials that "stay the course" was the status quo. Republicans do not want that to be the message going into the elections. So here's White House Spokesman Tony Snow.


TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is determined not to leave Iraq short of victory, but he also understands that it's important to capture the dynamism of the efforts that have been ongoing to try to make Iraq more secure and, therefore enhance the clarification with greater precision.


HENRY: And this is also a time when the White House is facing more pressure from a senior Republican on Capitol Hill, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Remember the Armed Services Committee. In an Associated Press interview is saying, "we're on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working in Iraq." That's another sign that this White House is facing pressure from within its own ranks.


COLLINS: Also something else going on at the White House today. This talk radio day. About 40 different radio programs being broadcast from the White House or near the White House.

HENRY: That's right. I just want to clarify something we said in the last hour, that it was all conservative. The White House points out it's mostly conservative. As you know, conservative talk radio medium dominated by conservatives. They say there are at least a couple of liberal radio host, like Juan Williams (ph) here today, broadcasting.

The president, as you know, also recently had a private meeting here at the White House with only conservative talk show hosts. But the White House wants to make clear, while it's mostly conservative hosts, that they are hearing some other voices here today. But this is mostly about, obviously, the White House realizes this is an important medium for them to reach conservative voters in the final two weeks. There are some conservatives disillusioned about some Republican policies and they want to use this to try to get the word out, try to get their people to the polls.


COLLINS: All right. White House correspondent Ed Henry.

Ed, thank you.

HENRY: Thank you.

HARRIS: The Democrats or the Republicans, who gets your vote on Election Day? The midterm election now just two weeks away. If you believe the polls, Americans are in a foul mood right now. There is the Iraq war to worry about, plus some economic and ethics issues. Polls show the Republican Party in danger of losing control of the House and maybe even the Senate. Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to take back the House and six seats to rule the Senate again. The GOP has controlled both Houses for a dozen years.

COLLINS: And high stakes in New Jersey. Republicans hope to do something that has not been done in 34 years. Here now CNN's Mary Snow.


MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT, (voice over): In Democratic Senator Bob Menendez's corner . . .

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) NEW YORK: If we can take back the Congress, we will stop that radical right wing Bush-Cheney agenda.

SNOW: In Republican Tom Kean Jr.'s corner . . .

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: The control of the United States Senate, whether it's in Republican or Democratic control, if you draw most scenarios rests on this race right here in the state of New Jersey. The eyes of America will be on this race.

SNOW: Senators Clinton and McCain, viewed as front-runners in a 2008 White House race, were just the latest to campaign in the garden state. Presidents past have also visited. President Bush rallying support for Kean and President Clinton doing the same for Menendez

JENNIFER DUFFY, COOK POLITICAL REPORT: This is a race that, to me, defies political gravity.

SNOW: That's because New Jersey is a blue state that hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1972. Tom Kean Jr. is hoping to change that. He is the son of former governor and 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean. He has tried to tie his opponent to the ethics problems that having been plaguing New Jersey politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kickback schemes, federal criminal probes, that's what you get with Bob Menendez.

SNOW: Menendez's strategy has been to tie Kean to President Bush.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tom Kean Jr.'s running a negative smear campaign. Why? Because he doesn't want you to know he'll be another vote for the Bush agenda.

SNOW: Their ads have made headlines for their nasty tone and so have their debates.

BOB MENENDEZ: If we're going to continue down the negativity, which I thought we were trying to avoid . . .

TOM KEAN JR.: We're answering the question about this tape.

MENENDEZ: I'm happy to look in to all . . . SNOW: With the fate of the Senate at stake, political observers say expect heavy political hitters to line up in the state with one exception. They say while First Lady Laura Bush has campaigned for Kean, don't expect to see President Bush.

DUFFY: Well, New Jersey is such a blue state and Kean is running as a very independent Republican, so, you know, a rally with Bush wouldn't do Kean any good.

SNOW: Some political observers say at the end of the day, money could be the deciding factor in this race. And that, they say, is where Senator Bob Menendez has the advantage in these final two weeks of the campaign.

Mary Snow, CNN, New York.


COLLINS: America's so-called "Broken Government." We're taking an in-depth look at that issue all week long here on CNN. Tonight, "Two Left Feet." Our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley takes a look at the Democratic Party and its problems. That is at 8:00 Eastern. Something you will see only on CNN.

HARRIS: And when we come back, we are talking the midterm election just two weeks away. We will talk about that with the head of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, right after the break.

COLLINS: And we're also looking at the big board here. Dow Jones down about 6 points or so, but it still is well above the 12,000 mark. You see it there at 12,110. We'll be watching it throughout the day. Back in a moment.


HARRIS: So, with only two weeks to go, we're talking midterm elections today. Key issues like Iraq, the U.S. economy and congressional scandals. On voters' minds this political season, let's get some perspective from DNC Chairman Howard Dean in Washington.

Dr. Dean, good to see you again, as always.

HOWARD DEAN, DNC CHAIRMAN: Thanks for having me on.

HARRIS: Hey, let's go to a couple of poll results, the latest CNN/Opinion Dynamics Research Poll. On the question of which party has a clearer plan for solving the country's problems, Democrats come out better, 38 percent to 31 percent. But the majority of Americans believe neither party has a clue. Let me give you an opportunity to sort of close the . . .

DEAN: Did you ask the question just like that?

HARRIS: Yes. Let me give you a bit of an opportunity to close the deal here, make the sale. Give me the top two priorities for Democrats.

DEAN: Let me give you the top three.


DEAN: First, if we should take back the House and the Senate, we'll raise the minimum wage. The down payment to America's working families. Second, we want real ethics legislation that's going to clean up the Republican culture of corruption. Third, we need to make a down payment on establishing a health care system that works for everybody. And I expect you're going to see those three things with a lot of concentration very early on. The fourth thing, is we want middle class tax fairness. We believe that the tax system ought to work for middle class people and not the oil companies and the insurance companies, which is what the president has -- who the president has favored.

HARRIS: On the question of which party can provide strong leadership, Democrats or Republicans, we've got a full screen for that as well, 63 percent to 49 percent. Let me ask you, would a Democratically led Congress, you know, perhaps work more? Maybe the question of leadership comes down to staying in Washington, working more than two or three days a week. Can we get more time on the job?

DEAN: Yes, I think you're going to see, should Nancy Pelosi be speaker, I think you're going to see a much more serious approach to legislation. The Democrats tend to care about policy, not just politics. And I think the Foley scandal, for example, was not just about a guy who was chasing after pages, a Republican congressman, it was about the Republican response to that, which was to think of their own political backsides before they thought of this family and the pages. That you won't see from Speaker Pelosi. You will see a tough leader who's willing to take on people in her own party and discipline them should they do things that are inappropriate and do it quickly.

HARRIS: So, Dr. Dean, why would a Democratically controlled House, Senate, both, why would it accomplish more than this year's Congress?

DEAN: Because we actually have an agenda. Our -- as I just told you what it was.


DEAN: In short, a couple . . .

HARRIS: But you know what I'm getting at. It's the idea that you'd still, on some level, have -- on an important level have divided government and that seems to be a recipe for gridlock.

DEAN: Well, I think that we want to give the opportunity to the president to change the direction. He is unable to do it by himself. He's not able to do it with a rubber stamp Republican congress who just does whatever he wants.

So we're going to propose some things that we think are long overdue. A minimum wage increase. That will help lift all Americans. Start to move towards a health care system that works for everybody. I'd like to see everybody under 25 covered. We can do that. That's very cheap. We did that in my state, everybody under 18. I'd like to see real ethics legislation. I think the leader has said that she would do that. And I'd like to see a tax system that works for the 80 percent of Americans who aren't enjoying the increase in the prices on Wall Street.

HARRIS: Would a Democratically controlled House, for example, launch investigations? A lot of folks, perhaps, would like to see what $2 billion a week in Iraq is going towards.

DEAN: Look, I'm sure people are going to look into all that stuff. But the major priority is to change the direction of the country, both at home and abroad. We need to regain our moral footing as the leader of the world. We've lost that. That's the first time since World War I that America hasn't been the moral leader of the world. We can be the moral leader of the world again. It's just a matter of respecting other countries and listening to them and working with them in a constructive way.

We need to deal with the economic problems that 80 percent of Americans have suffered under the Republican economy. So there's a lot that has to be done. And, you know, the Republicans are claiming they were going to do this and we're going to that. We're not particularly interested in raising taxes, except getting rid of some of the oil company and insurance company tax breaks. We're not particularly interested in impeaching the president. I don't think you're going to see that come up at all.

We -- if we win this, it's because Americans hire us to set a new direction for the country. And that is not bogging us down in undoing everything the president has done. It's setting a new direction with real leadership for the country. We haven't had that kind of leadership in the country for a long time.

HARRIS: OK. Let's get to maybe the central question, I'm sure there are a few, but with respect to Iraq. Where do you stand? Is it time to escalate more troops on the ground or disengage, pull back to the borders of the city, the major cities, pull back to the borders of the country?

DEAN: Eighty percent of Democrats in the House and 75 percent of the Democrats in the Senate believe we ought not to be in Iraq. Now, we -- there's virtually no sentiment for immediate withdrawal. That would be a mistake. The president has created -- the president's policies have created a climate of terror in Iraq that we can't leave because we can't risk that. There is a plan that has been adopted by many Democrats, certainly not all of them, called strategic redeployment, which gets us out of Iraq over a reasonable period of time, but keeps troops in the region, not in Iraq, but in the region ready to respond to terrorist activities. I think that's a plan that we think is a good idea.

The truth is, if we were to take over Congress, that the president is still going to control foreign military policy to a large degree. So what we will be able to do is put some restrain on the president, but we are not going to be able to change the policy overnight. That's going to require a new president. But, first, it requires a new Congress in two weeks.

HARRIS: OK. Let's leave it there for now. I'm sure we'll get an opportunity to talk again in the final two weeks.

Dr. Dean, good to see you.

DEAN: Thanks so much.

HARRIS: Thank you.

We'll take a break and come back and here the view from the other side of the aisle. We will speak with Jo Ann Davidson, co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. You're in the NEWSROOM.


HARRIS: Back to our focus on the midterm elections two weeks from today. We've heard from DNC Chairman Howard Dean. Now let's hear from Republican National Committee Co-Chairman Jo Ann Davidson.

Jo Ann, thanks for your time this morning.

JO ANN DAVIDSON, RNC CO-CHAIRMAN: Tony, thanks for asking me to join you.

HARRIS: Well, our pleasure to have you.

On the question of -- let's get back to some of the polling. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the polling, but I just want to hit a couple of points here. The new -- the latest CNN poll. On the question of which party has a clearer plan for solving the country's problems, Democrats come out slightly better, 38 percent to 31 percent. The majorities aren't clear. They don't believe either party has a real clue. Give me the top two priorities here, that same opportunity I'm going to provide for you to sort of close the deal, make the sale here in the final two weeks.

DAVIDSON: Well, I think this is clearly an election of choice and I think the two issues in which the choices will be made will be the war on terror and the economy. Those are the two issues, obviously, that the people are very much concerned about out there across America. I think those are the things they're going to weigh as they go in the polling booth two weeks from today to make those choices. And I can't remember ever in the history of elections I've been involved in when those choices have been as clear on who's better to protect them in the war on terror and who's better to keep the strong economy.

HARRIS: You sound optimistic, but I have to wonder, has a real opportunity been lost here by Republicans to really, in a fundamental way, change the course and direction of the country, perhaps bogged down in Iraq, perhaps over the last, oh, six months or so, with scandals. Has an opportunity been lost to really sort of reshape things in this country?

DAVIDSON: Well, Tony, obviously there have been obstacles there, but I don't think we've lost the opportunity. I think it's hard to cut through everything that's going through and get your message out there very clearly. But let's just take the economy as a for instance.

Everything as we know has been very strong in the economy right now, is the creation of the jobs, the 6.6 million jobs since August of 2003. You know, it's the Dow going over, you know, the 12,000 mark. It is being able to keep -- the president keeping his commitment to reduce the deficit in half three years early before intent because we have a strong economy. And consumer confidence . . .

HARRIS: And, Jo Ann, can I stop you there for just a moment?


HARRIS: Let me stop you there for just a moment. But, you know, you just mentioned that there -- it's difficult sometimes for things to cut through. You mentioned all of the positives of the economy and clearly the Dow is shooting through the roof now and that benefits a lot of people.

But $5.15 for a minimum wage. That's something that everybody understands. $5.15, 2006. What do you make of that? Why can't we get more for working people?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think that this is being debated across the country. In my home state, as you know, there's an issue on the ballot that will deal with the minimum wage. I think it's how you deal with it and whether or not it, obviously, ends up in helping to create more jobs rather than cutting back on jobs. I think people want to see some adjustment in the minimum wage. It's how you go about doing that. And the other factors that you wrap around it.

But again, in talking about the strengths of the economy, Tony, this economy is an economy that has put money back in people's own pockets. Have put it in the hands of the small business people, the entrepreneurs that create the jobs across America. That's what the tax cuts have done. And it's very clear that this choice is, that if you're going to turn over the majority of Congress to the Democrats, it is very clear from what they are saying in their own words, not what I'm saying, in their own words, where they're saying particularly Congressman Rangel, who would be probably the chairman of the Ways and Means, basically said he has not seen a bush tax cut in which he thinks ought to be extended. We're talking about $2.4 trillion of new taxes that could be placed on the American people if that happens.

HARRIS: So, Jo Ann, how long can we continue to spend, what, $2 billion a week for the war just in Iraq before it begins to impact in a significant way every other thing you'd like to do in this country?

DAVIDSON: Well, you know, again, Tony, I think that the American people, the president, the Republican majorities, everybody wants to see us move towards the requirements in Iraq that we have benchmarks for them to meet. There's more pressure, obviously, on Iraq to step up and meet those benchmarks. Everybody wants to see us to be able to get our troops out of there. But not as a result of risking losing the war on terror and in risking establishing a beachhead in the Middle East for a democracy that can succeed. It's all about their security, it's all about their ability to stand on their own two feet. That's what we're trying to promote. That's what the president is working toward.

HARRIS: Hey, Jo Ann, John McCain was joking when he said he'd consider suicide if the Democrats took over Congress. But one does wonder if you retain control with smaller margins, how will you respond to the clear dissatisfaction that is out there being expressed by the American people?

DAVIDSON: I think that the confidence in the Republican leadership in our Congress to respond to those concerns, we know what those concerns are, we know how the American people feel about the war on terror. We're responding to those concerns right now. One of the things that the American people feel strongly about is protecting themselves and their homeland. And that's what we've been trying to do, obviously.

And that's what the Democrats have fought doing. I'm basically really concerned on what they would do as far as reversal on that, on our ability to monitor what's happening in this country on terrorism, on their feelings toward the Patriot Act, and many of their unwillingness to support the kind of things that are necessary to protect the people in their homeland.

HARRIS: Hey, Jo Ann, one final question. What happens after 12 years of control by one party, in this case, the Republican Party? What happens? Does complacency set in? You certainly can't be happy with the Duke Cunningham situation. Democrats aren't happy with the William Jefferson situation. Tom DeLay. Mark Foley. What happens?

DAVIDSON: We're certainly not happy. Neither party is happy with that. And its happened on both sides. We need stronger ethical controls. I don't think that anything really happens in 12 years. I think if you look through those 12 years, there's been some very serious challenges for this country and I think they've stepped forward and tried to meet those challenges, whether it was 9/11 challenge, whether it was Katrina, whatever it was, they've tried to step forward and to meet those and to meet the demands and the expectations of the America people. And I believe they will continue to do that. The most important for them is to keep their lives safe and to give them the resources in which to run their own lives and not take it all for government.

HARRIS: Let's end it on that strong note.

Jo Ann, thanks for your time.

DAVIDSON: Thank you.

HARRIS: Jo Ann Davidson is the co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. COLLINS: Well, coming up, walk and lose. We have results from a couple health studies that could be just the motivation you need to get up and get moving. So stay righted here in the NEWSROOM.


ANNOUNCER: Live in the CNN NEWSROOM, Tony Harris and Heidi Collins.

COLLINS: The Mark Foley scandal investigation rolls on today. Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds of New York is going before the House Ethics Committee right now to discuss what he knew and when he may have known it. For the very latest, from congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel.

This whole scandal is affecting Reynolds but he is in a pretty tough election fight of his own, isn't he?


He is in the toughest fight of his political life right now in Buffalo, which is his district. Congressman Reynolds arrived here on Capitol Hill about an hour ago. He is now behind closed doors at the House Ethics Committee.

He is one of two top Republicans to claim that he told House Speaker Dennis Hastert about the Foley e-mails, the inappropriate behavior last spring. That's months before Speaker Hastert claims he first heard the news.

According to a timeline released by Hastert's office, Hastert says that he does not remember either the conversation with Reynolds or with House Majority Leader John Boehner, who testified before the House Ethics Committee last week. Hastert maintains, rather, that he first learned the news when the story broke on the media, on ABC News, last month.

Now, yesterday one of Hastert's top aides, his chief of staff, Scott Palmer, testified for six-and-a-half grueling hours behind closed doors. When he finally emerged about 8:15 last night, his attorney issued a very brief statement.


SCOTT FREDERICKSEN, SCOTT PALMER'S ATTORNEY: Scott was very pleased to have had the opportunity to testify before the committee. Scott's testimony has been consistent with the position he has taken all along.


KOPPEL: The House Ethics Committee has been interviewing about a dozen lawmakers and their aides for three straight weeks now, Heidi and, of course, they're trying to get to the bottom of whether or not Republican leaders have been involved in any kind of a cover up in the Foley scandal, Heidi. COLLINS: We should be hearing from Speaker Hastert soon, right?

KOPPEL: Well, we learned yesterday ...

COLLINS: Not we, the Ethics Committee. Pardon me.

KOPPEL: That's -- well, exactly. We learned yesterday from Speaker Hastert, who was out on the campaign trail and spoke to some reporters, saying for the first time that he planned to come before the Ethics Committee this week -- Heidi.

COLLINS: All right. We'll be watching for that. Andrea Koppel, thank you.

The midterm elections just two weeks from today. Control of Congress hanging in the balance, so which party has a clear plan to solve the nation's problems? Well, according to a new CNN poll, not much to brag about really for either party.

In this survey by Opinion Research Corporation, 38 percent of the respondents say Democrats have a clearer plan. Fifty-eight percent say they don't. And for the GOP, 31 percent say Republicans have a clearer plan. Sixty-seven percent say they do not. Another question, which party can provide strong leadership? Sixty-three percent of the respondents say Democrats. Forty-nine percent say Republicans.

America's so-called broken government. We're taking an in-depth look at that issue all week long here on CNN. Tonight, "TWO LEFT FEET." Our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley taking a look at the Democratic Party and its problems. That will be coming your way, 8:00 Eastern and something you will see only here on CNN.

Meanwhile, coming up in the NEWSROOM, election strategy perspective from a well-known Republican. Bill Bennett coming your way in just about an hour.

HARRIS: Well, the battleground is Iraq, but make no mistake: the entire Middle East is at stake, that according to the top U.S. general in Iraq and Washington's ambassador to that country. Their joint news conference ended just about two hours ago now. It included some sobering assessments of the war.


ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: More than Iraq is at stake. The broader Middle East is the source of most of the world's security problems, as was Europe in previous centuries. This is the defining challenge of our era. The struggle for the future of the region is between moderates and extremist political forces. The outcome in Iraq will profoundly shape this wider struggle and, in turn, the security of the world.


HARRIS: Another journalist has been abducted in Gaza. He's identified as Emilio Morenatti, an Associated Press photographer. According to the A.P., four Palestinian gunmen grabbed Morenatti off the streets of Gaza as he left his apartment this morning heading for his car.

There is no immediate claim of responsibility, but Palestinian militants have kidnapped foreign journalists before. The spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian government condemned the abduction.

COLLINS: North Korea's public face, does it mask a private shame? Details on a new human rights report ahead in the NEWSROOM.

SUSAN LISOVICZ, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Susan Lisovicz at the New York Stock Exchange. Sony is trying to say sayonara to the huge laptop battery recall. I will have that story when NEWSROOM returns.

You're watching CNN, the most trusted name in news.


RICHARD LUI, CNN ANCHOR: Midterm elections are just a couple of weeks away and a recent survey by the Associated Press/Pew poll says that American voters' interest in elections is at its highest level in more than one decade. You can find more about that at

You can begin by going to America Votes 2006 special. It's your one stop for the important issues and key races around the United States. Click through a few scenarios to see what would happen to the ballots in the Senate and the House if Republicans or Democrats win races considered to be too close to call.

One key race there in the Senate is in Missouri, where Republican incumbent Jim Talent is trying to keep ahold of his seat against Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill.

Also check out all the key races in the House of Representatives as well as gubernatorial races in 36 states.

And what is your political platform? Take our quiz to find out where you stand on the issues. Find more at For the dot-com desk, I'm Richard Lui.


HARRIS: A couple of health stories we want to put on your radar this morning in our "Daily Dose."

The first one about walking and weight. Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh studied 209 middle-aged people who were 15 to 29 pounds overweight. After 18 months of study, here's what they found. Those who walked 40 minutes or more daily lost seven pounds. People who didn't exercise regularly gained seven pounds.

COLLINS: In health news for women now, a link between how much women weigh and how well they'll handle ovarian cancer. A study shows overweight or obese women with ovarian cancer fare worse than patients who have a more normal weight. One of the studies' researchers says this is just one more reason women should work to keep off the extra pounds.

HARRIS: And promising news this morning for smokers trying to recover from lung damage. New hope may come from drugs used to lower cholesterol, known as a statin drugs. Researchers have released study results showing that current and former smokers who use the statin drugs lost less of their lung's ability to function than those who didn't use the statins. So, there you go.



COLLINS: Meanwhile, 37 years old and still looking like a kid. Oh, it's "Sesame Street." Staying young by keeping active all around the world. We'll catch up in the NEWSROOM.


HARRIS: We've been looking forward to this all morning.

COLLINS: We have?

HARRIS: You haven't been? Yes, you have.


COLLINS: Let's tell it.

HARRIS: Our trip to "Sesame Street"? Gone global, 130 times and counting.

COLLINS: Oh, I do like Big Bird. I'm not familiar with that guy, though. I haven't watched it in awhile, I guess. But "Sesame Street," as you know, has different settings, but a universal message.

CNN's Jason Carroll takes a look.


CHILDREN (singing): Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?

CARROLL (voice-over): It's a question children have been answering ever since 1969 ...


CARROLL: ...when "Sesame Street" debuted on American television. The show's original premise, teach inner-city children learning skills; and have Muppets, courtesy of their creator, Jim Henson, help with their instruction, along with diverse cast members like Sonia Manzano.

SONIA MANZANO, "MARIA": When I first got on the show somebody said to me that Jim Henson was a visionary. And I have to say that at that time, I didn't know exactly what that meant. But I think I do now.

CARROLL: The vision is worldwide. The Muppets don't just live on this iconic street anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's like lots of animals going along the street, and it's very -- it's cool.

CARROLL: In Britain and China ...


CARROLL: ...Big Bird is a household name. But in Germany, it's a giant bear.


CARROLL: There are "Sesame Streets" in 130 countries, although they don't all look like the one here in the United States.

In a new documentary called "The World According to Sesame Street," show producer Nadina Zylstra goes to Bangladesh to develop a show. Instead of a street, children gather around a tree called a parra (ph).

NADINA ZYLSTRA, "SESAME STREET" PRODUCER: It's a rue in France, a parra in Bangladesh, a galley (ph) in India. Each country creates its own content.

CARROLL: Each country has its own characters and themes. In South Africa, a Muppet called Kami, who is infected with HIV, speaks to former Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

ZYLSTRA: I think one of the exciting things about these Muppets is that you are able to find ways to tackle subjects that might be very difficult to talk about in another environment.

CARROLL: Sonia Manzano has been a cast member on the U.S. version since 1972. She says no matter what country, it's all about putting children first.

MANZANO: Every child has the right to an education. Every child has the right to be loved. Every child has the right to feel secure. I think we've announced to the world that those are children's rights.

CARROLL: Jason Carroll, CNN, New York.


COLLINS: That is terrific. And, you know, I'm so glad because I thought for a second there that I didn't recognize Snuffleupagus, but it was Sampson, the German bear.


COLLINS: I have not seen him before.

HARRIS: And you actually remember watching -- I can't remember watching "Sesame Street" as a kid.

COLLINS: I do. I do remember.

HARRIS: I watched it with my kids, but I can't remember -- "Electric Company," I remember that, with Morgan Freeman.

COLLINS: Oh, yes.

HARRIS: Easy reader.

COLLINS: You're right. Wow.

HARRIS: You remember the story, a man in a gorilla suit, a child grabbed, we showed you the story, told you all about it earlier in the week. Now there's an update to this story. That's ahead in the NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: And voters decide just two weeks from today if Republicans will retain or lose control of Capitol Hill. Ahead, election strategy perspective from a well-known Republican, Bill Bennett right here in the NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: China shoots down reports of North Korea's nuclear apology. China's foreign ministry today said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il did not apologize for carrying out a nuclear test earlier this month. South Korean media had reported Kim expressed regret for the blast during a meeting with the Chinese delegation in Pyongyang last week. China's foreign ministry does confirm at that meeting North Korea did say it has no plans to conduct a second nuclear test.

North Korea's threat, not a nuclear one to its neighbors, but one of imprisonment to its disabled citizens.

CNN's Richard Roth with the story.


RICHARD ROTH, CNN SR. U.N. CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A U.N. human rights investigator says North Korea is rounding up people with handicaps, subjecting them to subhuman conditions.

VITI MUNTARBRHON, U.N. INVESTIGATOR: I was actually very shocked during the year to find out that those with disabilities have been locked up in prison-like conditions, particularly those who are psychologically impaired.

ROTH: But the investigator has not personally witnessed any abuses, barred from entering North Korea by the government. Instead, the Thai professor, like many of U.N. special rights probers, must rely on reports compiled from other sources, such as South Korean government think tanks. He says there are also reports from North Korean defectors that there are prison camps for dwarves, who may marry but aren't allowed to have children. MUNTARBRHON: My conclusions in the report came very much from interviews with many refugees and even doctors. As I have concluded very sadly those with disabilities have been subjected to subhuman conditions, being locked up in various wards and so on, jails, detentions.

ROTH: The human rights officials briefed the United Nations human rights panel in New York last week. A North Korean delegate was dismissive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The anti-DPRK resolutions are only political plot documents that serve the U.S. hostile policy against the DPRK, and they have nothing to do with the genuine human rights.

ROTH (on camera): The U.N.'s expert recommends North Korea liberalize its laws, teach police to respect human rights and allow political dissent. But it's hard to imagine such an isolated and repressive country, now under pressure of sanctions, loosening its grip on its own people.

Richard Roth, CNN, the United Nations.



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