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THE SITUATION ROOM

New Ruling on Gay Rights; President Bush Delivers State of War Conference; Interview with Ken Mehlman

Aired October 25, 2006 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Ali. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by CNN reporters across the United States and the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, breaking news, a new ruling on gay rights. The New Jersey Supreme Court may have opened the door to making same-sex marriage legal in that state. We'll have details on the decision and whether it might have an impact on the midterm election.

Also this hour, shifting tactics and discontent about Iraq. President Bush delivers a state of the war news conference. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington. It is too late for Mr. Bush to ease anxiety about Iraq? Only 13 days before American votes.

And the Republican Party under fire, accused of playing the race card in one of the hottest senate races. I'll ask the Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman about the ad attacking the Democratic candidate Harold Ford Jr. And whether he's pulling the spot from the airwaves. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But up first, the breaking news we're following out of New Jersey. Right now a new battle line is drawn in the culture wars. The New Jersey Supreme Court has just issued a ruling only a few moments ago on gay rights. It could influence the legal and political debates over gay marriage in the long term as well as in the upcoming election.

Our senior analyst Jeff Greenfield is standing by with more on this. But let's get the specific details. Carol Costello is in New York. She's following this story for us. Give our viewers an update, Carol, on exactly what the New Jersey Supreme Court has decided.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK. Here's what it means. The New Jersey State Supreme Court took eight months to come to this conclusion. A few weeks before the election, in essence, it affirmed that gay couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples under the state constitution, but it is up the legislature to decide what to call it. For example, they could call it civil union, which is in essence marriage in everything but name.

Lawyers for the seven gay and lesbian couples in case had argued the New Jersey constitution's guarantee of liberty and equality allows them to marry. The case was closely watched because New Jersey is one of five states that has no law barring same-sex marriage. And Wolf, the legislature has six months in which to act. So we'll keep our eye on it.

BLITZER: All right. Carol, stand by for a moment. I want to bring in Jeff Greenfield, our senior analyst. It sounds on the -- at least hearing what Carol just reported Jeff, that the New Jersey Supreme Court sort of has punted to the state legislature.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN ANALYST: Well, yes, what they said - and it's very important -- was they did not say that the state constitution mandates the approval of gay marriage. What they said was that same-sex couples must be accorded the same privileges and benefits as heterosexual couples but that it's up to the legislature to figure out what that means.

And there are a couple of keys to this. I want to read you one particular item from the opinion from the majority. " At this point," the court majority said, "the court does not consider whether committed same-sex couples should be allowed to marry but only whether those couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits accorded to married homosexual couples. Cast in that light, it is not about the transformation of the traditional definition of marriage but about the unequal dispensation of benefits and privileges to one of two similarly situated classes of people."

Three of the seven justices said no, our state constitution mandates gay marriage, the way the Massachusetts Supreme Court required that a couple of years ago up there and kicked off a political firestorm.

So what I would say initially, Wolf, is that those people on the right who are perhaps hoping for a gay marriage requirement that would get their voters to the polls this fall in the eight states where this issue is on the ballot, they may not have quite the same push that a full scale marriage must be allowed decision would have required, Wolf.

BLITZER: So in terms of the short term forget about the long term, the election 13 days away. What do you sense the political fallout from this New Jersey State Supreme Court decision is going to be?

GREENFIELD: Let me briefly review the bidding. Back in November of 2003, as I mentioned, the Massachusetts Supreme Court rule by a one-vote margin that gays had the right to marry under the state constitution. And they specifically said marriage, not just civil unions.

The next year voters in 11 states approved bans on gay marriage in all those states by margins from 57 percent in Oregon all the way to 86 percent in Mississippi. One of those states was Ohio with a ballot proposal helped turn out large numbers of socially conservative voters. And there's a case that could be made that those voters tipped Ohio into the Bush column. He only won by a little more than 120,000 votes and those are the electoral votes that put him back in the White House. This year, as I mentioned, the issue is on the ballot in eight states including Virginia and Tennessee where there are two very close Senate races that could decide whether Democrats take the Senate. And we should note that while Americans over the years have become more accepting of gay rights, the issue of marriage still elicits opposition.

Our most recent CNN/"USA Today" poll taken back last spring slows that by 56-39 percent, voters don't think gay marriage should be recognized, but the opinion on civil unions is a lot more accepting. So I guess we're going to have to wait, Wolf, and see whether or not this decision somehow fires up the social conservatives and say get out to the polls and vote on this issue.

BLITZER: We'll continue to watch this story, Jeff. Thanks very much. Carol Costello will be back with us this hour. Thanks to both of you.

Today the president again acknowledging a harsh reality for his party that Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. The dissatisfaction helps explain why Mr. Bush held an Iraq-dominated news conference less than two weeks before congressional elections.

Our latest poll shows just 20 percent, 20 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq. That's an all-time low. John Roberts is standing by with the view from Iraq. Dana Bash is covering all this from Capitol Hill. But let's go to our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux with an update on what the president said today. Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this was a second press conference in two weeks. So what you are seeing from this White House really is an extraordinary effort, a very aggressive campaign to frame the debate, the elections debate to make sure that Republicans maintain control of the Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): With midterm elections less than two weeks away and his party struggling to maintain control of Congress, President Bush hastily gathered the press for his second news conference in two weeks to try to convince voters he gets it.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied either.

MALVEAUX: The president once again is using the bully pulpit to try to frame the election debate.

BUSH: Who best to protect this country and who best to keep taxes low? That's what the referendum's about.

MALVEAUX: The gamble is Republicans will go to the polls and keep the GOP in power. If they still believe in Mr. Bush's war on terror.

BUSH: They will support the war as long as they see a path to victory.

MALVEAUX: But with October being the deadliest month for American troops this year and increasing pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike to a change in course, Mr. Bush is trying to portray his path to victory as a flexible one. One way to draw a distinction between the Democrats' call for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops and his own plan to set benchmarks for the Iraqis to take over their own security.

BUSH: The benchmarks will make it more likely we win. Withdrawing on an artificial timetable means we lose.

MALVEAUX: The president also tried to project confidence in the Iraqi government while reassuring the American public there would be an end in sight to the Iraq War.

BUSH: We're pressing Iraq's leaders to take bold measures to save their country. We're making it clear that America's patient is not unlimited.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: And Wolf, there are already signs that Americans' patience is really beginning to run out. A poll showing two-thirds of the American people do not really even support the Iraq War. One thing I thought was interesting in the press conference the president did was he deflected criticism away from his secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld as well as Republicans saying I'm fully accountable for the failures, essentially, of the Iraq War.

That, of course, is because the president, it doesn't cost him anything politically. He's not on the ballot in a couple of weeks.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Suzanne, thanks very much. Let's go to the hill. Dana Bash is standing by with the Democratic reaction. What are they saying on the Hill, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Democrats' reaction is pretty straightforward. And that is don't be fooled by what you saw in the East Room today. What you saw, according to Democrats, was a man well aware that Iraq is really hurting his party in the polls, trying to sound more sober, trying to sound more humble, if you will, about Iraq. But the bottom line from Democrats' point of view is that the strategy in Iraq is still the same.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JACK REED, (D) RI: The president is trying to change the rhetoric, but he's not really changing the policy and not, I think, effectively taking the steps that we need and the Iraqis need to secure a stable Iraq. He has never in his administration committed the civilian resources necessary.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BASH: After Democrats had struggled internally about just what plan to settle on, most agree that at least setting the beginning of a timetable for troops to start to come home in Iraq is the way to go. The first Democrat to come up with that, Jack Murtha, in a conference call with reporters today said that the president has backed himself into a corner by demonizing everybody that came up with a policy alternative.

Now the president, of course, today, rejected any kind of timetable once again when it comes to Iraq. But Wolf, some Democrats, especially some on a conference call today said that they are convinced after Election Day some key high profile republicans will come forward and back their idea of saying point blank it is time to start bringing troops home.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Dana on the Hill. Thank you, Dana, for that.

Meanwhile, in Iraq today, new battles and bloodshed. Still more ammunition for the wartime political debate back here at home. Let's bring in our senior national correspondent John Roberts. He's on assignment in Baghdad. What's the latest coming in from the battlefield in Iraq, John?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's pretty much status quo. It goes on every day. It is almost like Groundhog Day here 3 1/2 years after the initial invasion.

There was another firefight today. This one in Sadr City in the northeastern part of the city as U.S. and Iraqi forces went in on a joint operation to try to capture a member of the Mahdi militia who they believe was leading death squads that had been wreaking so much havoc in this city.

And lo and behold after that firefight was over, U.S. forces came out and said we went in there with permission of the Iraqi government, out comes Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to suggest, well, you didn't have my permission and operations like this aren't going to happen again.

Wolf, the politics of this whole thing is so convoluted that it is difficult to see how everyone will get on the same page to be able to bring security to this country. You had Zalmay Khalilzad and General George Casey yesterday saying we're pushing the Iraqi government for timetables, for benchmarks.

We had Nouri al Maliki coming out today saying we listen to nobody on benchmarks or timetables, we'll make our own decisions.

So Wolf they are on this same page privately. But publicly there is just so much what would appear to be rancor between the two sides, you wonder how they can ever really make progress here. And meantime the security situation here on the ground isn't getting any better despite the best efforts of the U.S. troops under the current plan.

BLITZER: All right, John, thanks very much. John Roberts reporting from Baghdad for us.

And John Roberts, Dana Bash, Suzanne Malveaux, Jeff Greenfield, Carol Costello, all of them are part of the best political team on television.

Now, remember, for all the latest campaign news at any time check out our political ticker. Go to cnn.com/ticker.

Jack Cafferty is back. Yay. With the "Cafferty File." We missed you, Jack, the last few days.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, thank you. It's nice to be missed. President Bush, Wolf, says he's going to send more troops to Iraq if the top military commander there, General George Casey, says he needs them.

General Casey said yesterday sending more troops to Baghdad is not out of the question. Those troops could come from the Iraqi military, from U.S. forces that are elsewhere in Iraq, or from U.S. troops stationed outside Iraq, as in troops from here at home.

Casey said it will take another 12 to 18 months before Iraqi forces are completely capable of taking over their country's security. This once again pushes back any date when U.S. troops can look forward to getting out of that place.

Meanwhile, the death toll for U.S. military personnel in Iraq keeps climbing. Ninety-one U.S. soldiers have been killed so far in Iraq this month. And we still have a week to go. It will be the deadliest month ever, it looks like. Two-thousand eight-hundred four U.S. soldiers have died since the start of the war in Iraq 3 1/2 years ago.

So here's the question. Why is it taking Iraq so long to provide adequate security for its own country? E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile. Wolf?

BLITZER: Someone pointed out to the president today, Jack, that this war in Iraq right now has lasted longer than World War II.

CAFFERTY: Yeah, and we won that one.

BLITZER: We did.

CAFFERTY: Yeah.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. We'll get back to you later this hour. Coming up, are America's borders broken? Do we need a fence along the border with Mexico? We have a new poll. Some of the numbers may surprise you. Bill Schneider is standing by with that.

Plus, it's one of two controversial campaign ads everyone seems to be talking about. But did this one go too far? I'll ask the Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman. He'll join us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. And later the Buckeye battle, the Republican incumbent, the Senator Mike DeWine fighting for his political life right now. Can his Democratic opponent, Congressman Sherrod Brown knock him off? They're both here in THE SITUATION ROOM. That's coming up in the next hour. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're just getting information right now on disgraced former Congressman Mark Foley, where he's being treated. Our Susan Candiotti is joining us on the phone. She's got this information for us. Susan?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on phone): Hi, Wolf. The announcement comes from his lawyers that ex-Congressman Mark Foley is being treated in a place called the Sierra Tucson, it is a treatment center located near Tucson, Arizona.

It consists of 160 acre campus or so. It offers counseling for various kinds of addictions, according to its Web site, including alcoholism and other behavioral difficulties. You'll remember that Mark Foley checked himself into that center on October 1st. He is still receiving treatment, and he is asking through his lawyers that his privacy be maintained.

BLITZER: We'll watch this story with you. Thanks very much Susan Candiotti.

Let's move now to San Antonio, Texas, the CNN election express is in position for another America votes special. Tonight, Lou Dobbs will host a town hall meeting on broken borders.

Right now we have some brand new CNN poll numbers on the red hot campaign issue of immigration reform. Let's turn, as we always do, to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's in San Antonio. Bill?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN ANALYST: Wolf, on the issue of illegal immigration, Americans agree on the generalities, but they disagree on many of the particulars.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Illegal immigration is really two issues. One is border security. Americans generally favor stronger border controls in a new CNN poll taken by the Opinion Research Corporation. Put more agents on the border with Mexico? Nearly three-quarters of Americans say yes. Impose fines of tens of thousands of dollars on employers who hire illegal workers? Fifty eight percent say yes.

Congress has approved building a 700 mile long fence on the border, although they have not funded the project. Does the public favor a fence? They're sitting on the fence. Democrats are critical.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY, (D) MA: Voting for fences may be good politics for some, but it's bad policy for America. It's a feel-good vote that will do more harm than good.

SCHNEIDER: Republicans, including President Bush, tend to support it.

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I think building a fence along the border or doing whatever it takes to control the border is an important step. It's not the entire process.

SCHNEIDER: There is a second issue.

GINGRICH: We're clearly going to need to think through what you do with people who are already here.

SCHNEIDER: Generally the public agrees with President Bush.

BUSH: There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation.

SCHNEIDER: But the public is divided over where to draw that line. Half say they'd like to remove all or most illegal aliens. Nearly half say they'd like all or most to remain in the U.S.

Given that division, it's not surprising that neither party has a decisive advantage on the issue. Forty five percent say Democrats in Congress would handle illegal immigration better. Forty three percent say Republicans would do a better job.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (on camera): But there is agreement on one big point -- something has to be done about this problem. Wolf?

BLITZER: Bill Schneider reporting for us from San Antonio. Bill, thanks very much. And stay with CNN for Lou Dobbs' "Broken Borders" town hall meeting. That will be live from San Antonio tonight at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, 4:00 Pacific.

Up next, is the Republican Party pulling a controversial attack ad in the crucial Tennessee Senate contest? I'll ask the party chairman, Ken Mehlman. He's standing by live.

And later, the battle for the Senate. Is the tide turning? I'll ask Paul Begala and Bay Buchanan in today's "Strategy Session." Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. The Tennessee Senate race is turning into one of the nastiest contests of this 2006 campaign. It played out right here in THE SITUATION ROOM last night. The Democratic candidate, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. accused Republicans of promoting sleaze and smut by airing an ad that critics have called racist.

And his Republican opponent Bob Corker called the spot in his words, "tacky" and said it has no place in the race. Joining us now, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, which is behind that controversial ad.

I just want to remind our viewers a little bit about that ad. Because a lot of people were really, really disgusted. Let's listen to this little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I met Harold at the Playboy party.

ANNOUNCER: The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Harold, call me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now he said it was so bad he wanted it out. And he also -- we're talking about the Republican candidate, Bob Corker, who said this last night right here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB CORKER, REPUBLICAN SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: Everybody at the RNC from the top down knows that I want this down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: First of all, the news, I understand and correct me if I'm wrong, the ad has now gone away. It has finally been pulled.

KEN MEHLMAN, RNC CHAIRMAN: Yes, my understanding is the same thing, Wolf. And let me explain why I'm answering it the way I do, my understand is. The way the law works, the campaign reform law is the following -- I work very closely with Bob Corker. Talk to him most days. We work very closely on lots of different parts of different campaigns. But what the law says that is when you work closely with a candidate for office, you're then not permitted behalf of that same candidate to run television ads beyond a certain limit.

We've already worked with him to run ads up to that limit. So these ads are what are called independent expenditures. They're run bay separate unit that works not in the RNC ...

BLITZER: So why does it say in the ad that the Republican National Committee is responsible for this ad?

MEHLMAN: That's the crazy thing about how this law works. I pay for it. I can't have anything to do with creating it. Can't figure out when it is going to be on television, can't figure out when it is going to stop. If your viewers are confused imagine how we feel dealing with these campaign laws.

BLITZER: Was it playing the race card? Here have you an African American young congressman, this blond woman not wearing much clothes, if any clothes at all, making these comments, knowing the history of African American men, white women in the South, was this playing the race card?

MEHLMAN: Wolf, as you know, when I became chairman of this party I set two very clear goals. One was to use technology to do a better job of reaching out to voters and spreading our message. And the other was to make sure that we once again became the party of Lincoln. I'm very proud of the first event I did as chairman was at Prince George's Community College where Michael Steele and I did an African American town hall. The second was at Howard University.

There is nothing I'm working harder to do ...

BLITZER: Listen to ...

MEHLMAN: Let me just finish. Something I'm very sensitive to. I'll tell you, I looked at this ad as it was created by this independent agency. I didn't see it. I understand that others saw it. I respect where they're coming from.

BLITZER: Listen to what former United States Republican Senator William Cohen who served as defense secretary during the Clinton administration, he was here on Monday. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think the Republicans have to be careful also in terms of not engaging in conduct -- and I was watching the Tennessee race specifically. It reminded me of what happened in North Carolina with Harvey Gantt, a purely over-racist approach.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MEHLMAN: Wolf, I agree with Senator Cohen. As you remember I made some news last year when I spoke at the NAACP and as chairman of the Republican Party said it was wrong for Republicans did that in the past. I was condemned by some within my own party. I stand behind that statement. I would never countenance an ad that does that.

I think what our party is doing is working to focus on the issues. The ad is down now. And the focus I think is going to be on taxes, it's going to be on defense, it is going to be on judges and issues like that in the Senate race.

BLITZER: Looking at it now, knowing everything you know, was it a racist ad?

MEHLMAN: Again, I stand behind what I said before, which is as someone who is extraordinarily sensitive to it, I don't believe that it was. At the same time there are good people on both sides who believe otherwise. I respect where they're coming from. I hope they do the same with where I'm coming from.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about another controversy has erupted in these final days before the election. MEHLMAN: A lot of controversy.

BLITZER: Rush Limbaugh and the actor Michael J. Fox who suffers as you know from Parkinson's disease. Here's what Michael J. Fox said in an ad promoting Democratic candidates who support embryonic stem cell research. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL J. FOX, ACTOR: ... anti stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local, but that's not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: When he saw that ad, Rush Limbaugh on his radio program said this ...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO HOST: He is moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act. This is the only time I've ever seen Michael J. Fox portray any of the symptoms of the disease he has. I know he's got it. And he's raising money for it. But when I've seen him in public I've never seen him portray any of the symptoms.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Since then he's apologized for it saying, you know what, he has in public displayed all the symptoms that are common with people who suffer from Parkinson's disease. What's going on here now?

MEHLMAN: Wolf, I think what's going on is that Mr. Fox is putting forward his view on a critically important issue. Obviously, everyone can and I very much do sympathize with his plight or the plight of anyone who has an illness like that.

But here is the interesting question. This was an ad against Jim Talent, Jim Talent supports stem cell research. The fundamental question is what kind of stem cell research should the federal taxpayer fund? And what he believes is that it ought to fund adult stem cell research that doesn't destroy some life in order to benefit other life.

BLITZER: But he doesn't support embryonic stem cell research beyond what is already authorized. He doesn't want to see new breakthroughs in embryonic stem cell research that people like Michael J. Fox and others believe some day could help cure their disease.

MEHLMAN: Well, what he wants is -- he believes that there is more promising breakthroughs potentially available in adult stem cell research. And he thinks while there ought to be allowed that research, he doesn't think you should pay for it with your tax payer dollars. That's the fundamental question. There's no disagreement over whether it's legal and there's no disagreement whether the private sector can pay for it and the states can pay for it.

The question is when it comes to federal taxpayer dollars should the money be used for adult research where there's no controversy or for more embryonic stem cell research in which case there is controversy because millions of people don't like fact that they believe it involves the destruction of some life to benefit other life. I think it's an important debate to have. And I thing that voters are going to ultimately look and they are going to say where do the candidates stand on these and other issues?

BLITZER: And we're going to have both Ohio Senate candidates here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour.

MEHLMAN: Close race.

BLITZER: The incumbent, Mike DeWine, is behind in all of the polls. Has the Republican Party, the national Republican National Committee, pulled its money, given up on Mike DeWine as has been reported, as you know?

MEHLMAN: Absolutely not. We corrected the record the next day. We're spending millions of dollars in the final days of the campaign in Ohio. We're spending it on television ads. We're spending it in turning out the vote. We're spending it in mailing and contacting the voters working with the state party. Look, I think Mike DeWine will get re-elected.

You know why? Because you are going to have two folks who have different worldviews. Mike DeWine is in favor of lower taxes. Mr. Brown has been in favor of higher taxes. I think voters in Ohio want lower taxes. They want a strong approach in the war on terror. They think it was wrong, I think, that Mr. Brown voted against the $87 billion for body armor our troops, they think it was wrong that Mr. Brown voted against the PATRIOT Act, against missile defense.

I think Mike DeWine has a great record of delivering for the state. He's exactly the kind of independent minded guy that wins. And I am confident that in 14 days, not 13 but in 14 days he'll be the United States senator elect and the United States senator.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens.

MEHLMAN: Thanks a lot.

BLITZER: And we'll have both of them here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour.

MEHLMAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Mike DeWine and Sherrod Brown both standing by. Ken Mehlman, thanks very much for coming in.

MEHLMAN: Thanks a lot.

BLITZER: And up next: 13 days before the election, a presidential news conference and a major statement on Iraq. Is this a smart strategy? Paul Begala and Bay Buchanan standing by for that.

Plus: the battle for the Senate. New poll numbers may surprise you. We will go state by state in today's "Strategy Session" for that, also.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

In our "Strategy Session" today: President Bush switching gears, instead of staying the course, in Iraq, 13 days before the midterm elections -- new polls offering more evidence, though, that the president's party is at serious risk of losing control of the Senate, the House of Representatives.

Let's get some analysis. Joining us now, our CNN political analysts. Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and Bay Buchanan, the president of American Cause.

The president was short and sweet when asked, who is winning this war in Iraq right now?

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're winning, and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done. And the crucial battle right now is Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, what do you think, Paul? He says the United States is winning this war.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is why he has not just a credibility gap, a credibility crisis.

The American people no longer believe the president is leveling with them. They no longer believe he's telling the truth. And the more charitable think he's in, as Bob Woodward says in his book, a state of denial. Others believe he's in a state of deception.

Either way, four out of five Americans think we're not winning this war in Iraq. And he -- he can keep saying it, but, as long as the facts on the ground are -- are as tragic as they are -- we have lost 90 troops this month, and he's standing up telling us, boy, howdy, we're winning, it's just -- it's terrible...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: The American public agree with Paul in our poll, our CNN poll. We asked, is the U.S. winning the war in Iraq? It is now down at the lowest level it has been in three-and-a-half years. Only 20 percent, one in five, think the United States is winning this war.

So, the president is part of that 20 percent.

(LAUGHTER)

BAY BUCHANAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Thank goodness.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN: You know, Wolf, the facts of the matter are, things do not look well over there. The American people had obviously expected it to be much better now, after three-and-a-half years. The president expected it to be much smoother going at this stage.

But, at the same time, he's saying, we're not giving up. We're going to stay in there. We're going to win this war, and that there is -- and that he understands it's difficult, but that they have got plans, they're moving things, they're responding to the crises over there, and that he has every intention of winning.

I think that's a good message. Americans instinctively want to win. This is what -- they do not wish to cut and run; they do not wish to surrender. It's not part of their persona. And, so, I think he's sending a message that: We can do this. Stick with me. Give me a chance. We understand the problems. We're going to win this.

BLITZER: Let's go through some new poll numbers that are just out today. The "L.A. Times"/Bloomberg...

BEGALA: Mmm-hmm.

BLITZER: ... came out with several key Senate races. Let's start with Virginia.

Take a look at this. In the new the "L.A. Times"/Bloomberg poll, James Webb, the Democratic challenger, 47 percent, George Allen, the incumbent Republican, 44 percent. Paul, is this just a blip? The margin of error, 5 percent.

BEGALA: The -- the key thing to look at, for all of those polls, where is the incumbent, OK? Because the challenger is going to be at basically 100 percent minus the incumbent.

With George Allen, the incumbent, look at that, at 44 percent? I'm stunned. I -- I live in Virginia. I'm stunned. He was a popular governor. He -- he won his Senate election against Chuck Robb, who's a legend in that state, Democratic senator and governor before him. He's at 44. He has got 13 days to turn this around. But don't look at the gap between Webb and Allen, which is three and within the margin. Look at the gap between Allen and 50. And that's huge.

BLITZER: There was a "Washington Post" poll the other day that had Allen ahead. But maybe it's shifting. What do you think?

BUCHANAN: Well, this -- this is what concerns me. All of the polls, until this one, kind of showed that it was settling in, and that Allen was pulling ahead. This one shows an enormous surge, if, indeed, it is accurate, for Webb.

I see nothing that could have happened in the last four days that would give Webb this kind of surge. I think this is an anomaly. I think Allen's own poll shows him at 50. He's just moved over to that in the last couple days, but he's moving up. I think this is -- it's obviously a dead heat. Anything can happen. But I think Allen is in good shape.

BLITZER: Let's go to Tennessee. Both of these candidates were here THE SITUATION ROOM last night.

In this new poll, Corker is ahead, 49 percent, against the Democratic challenger, Harold Ford Jr., with 44 percent. It looks like, after what they call that Memphis meltdown, when Harold Ford Jr. showed up at that news conference that Corker was having, there may have been a shift in momentum in this campaign.

BEGALA: There may have been. But I don't think there's anybody running in this cycle who has more talent than Harold Ford Jr. He's got the deck stacked against him. He's an African-American running in Tennessee. And you talked to Ken Mehlman about this remarkably sleazy ad they're running against him.

BLITZER: They have pulled it now.

BEGALA: Well, that they have now pulled, but the damage is done.

Everybody across Tennessee is now talking about whether that nice, handsome, young black man is sleeping with white women at the Playboy mansion. It is scurrilous. It's worse that Willie Horton. And I -- I still think Harold has a very good chance to overcome it, because of his talent.

Here is why I say it's worse, actually, because it is about his private life. It's not about -- at least Willie Horton was a criminal who was released on a furlough, OK? I think the execution of that issue was racist by the Republicans many, many years ago. But the issue was legitimate.

This issue is not even legitimate. He's an adult man. Who gives...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And William Cohen the other day said it was like the Harvey Gantt ad a few years ago...

BUCHANAN: Listen...

BLITZER: ... who was running in North Carolina, a black man.

BUCHANAN: You know, I don't think there is anything racist about the ad -- I happened to agree with Ken Mehlman -- whatsoever.

I think it would have been far more racist if you had the gal who was saying, hey, "You know, call me, Howard," was indeed black. I think, then, that would be a much huger stink, and legitimately so.

The key here is this. The ad is basically pointing out the fact that Harold Ford is a socializer. He's a well-known playboy in this town. He's smooth-talking. He's glib. He's good looking, et cetera.

But the key here is, Tennessee prefers boring. They're the ones that gave us Gore and Frist. They like boring.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN: Boring wins down there, goes...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I want to go through three more states very quickly, and give -- get your rapid-fire response.

In Missouri, according to this new "L.A. Times"/Bloomberg ad -- poll -- excuse me -- Claire McCaskill, the Democratic challenger, 45 percent; the incumbent, Republican Senator Jim Talent, 48 percent, once again, within the four-points margin of error.

BEGALA: Right, but he's in a lot better shape than George Allen. And 48 is a lot closer to 50.

Again, my standard is, match the incumbent against 50. Talent is now very, very close to 50.

BUCHANAN: You put that 48, and you add the strong get-out-the- vote effort, which we will definitely have there, and you give -- you know, he's got the 50.

BLITZER: Here's the incumbent Democrat in New Jersey, Robert Menendez, at 45 percent, Tom Kean Jr. at 41 percent. What do you make of this?

BEGALA: I think New Jersey has a history of closing late and closing for the Democrats. It has always been, for the Republicans, like Lucy and the football was for Charlie Brown. They run at it.

It's the most awful state to -- to spend money in, because you have to buy New York television and Philadelphia television. And the Republicans always rush in at the end, thinking they're going to win...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... and New Jersey always closes for the Dem.

BUCHANAN: The bottom line is exactly what Paul is saying. He -- incumbent at 45 percent. And, if you look at that 45 percent, it's a weak, a soft 40.

Seventy percent -- 77 percent of his own vote say that they will vote for him. The rest aren't so sure. This is a soft vote. I think Kean has a chance. Indeed, it's a tough uphill battle for Kean. But I think there's a chance...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Here is Ohio.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And we are going to be speaking with both of these candidates here in THE SITUATION ROOM in next hour.

Sherrod Brown, the Democratic challenger, 47 percent; the incumbent Republican, Senator Mike DeWine, only 39 percent.

What do you make of this?

BEGALA: The question is, do you like butter or jelly on your toast? Because Senator DeWine is toast.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: When you're at 39 percent 13 days before the election in -- in a swing state -- and Sherrod Brown is a remarkably talented candidate. You will see him in here. He's a very, very bright guy.

BUCHANAN: And -- and he's running on issue that is very, very popular right now in Ohio. He's running as a protectionist. He has got a record for it. The people out in that state are concerned about their jobs, as -- more so than in some of the other states. He's in a strong position right now.

BLITZER: We will continue to watch -- 13 days to go.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

BEGALA: Are you butter or jelly, though? Come on.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Jelly.

BEGALA: OK.

BLITZER: Thanks to Paul Begala and Bay Buchanan. They're part of the best political team on television.

And, remember, for the latest campaign news at any time, check out our Political Ticker, CNN.com/ticker.

Coming up: the power of the presidency. Did a presidential visit help a Republican congressman fighting to keep his job? We will find out in today's "Political Radar."

Plus: The battle for Ohio, it could decide which party controls the Senate. In the next hour, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, I will speak with Senator Mike DeWine and his Democratic challenger, Sherrod Brown. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our "Political Radar" this Wednesday, a new blow to Congressman Chris Shays' troubled reelection campaign. Today, the Connecticut Republican failed to get the endorsement of "The New York Times." "The Times" is backing his Democratic challenger, Diane Farrell. The paper says it previously backed Shays every time he faced a serious challenger, but the newspaper complains, Shays has moved, along with his party, too far right.

Another key endorsement today -- "The Washington Post" backing Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich against Democratic challenger Martin O'Malley. "The Post" praises the Republican incumbent as -- quote -- "proficient, pragmatic" as a governor. And it says O'Malley has failed to make a compelling case for toppling Ehrlich.

President Bush's effort to bolster a House candidate in Pennsylvania apparently hasn't registered with voters. Just days after Congressman Don Sherwood appeared with Mr. Bush, a new Keystone poll shows the Republican incumbent trailing the Democratic challenger, Christopher Carney, by 9 percentage points.

In the battle for Congress, at least one Republican is going to new lengths to try to convince voters that Nancy Pelosi should not be the speaker of the House of Representatives. Embattled Indiana Congressman John Hostettler has launched a new radio ad that warns against voting for his opponent, and helping to give Democrats control of the House.

The ad charges that, if she becomes speaker, Pelosi would -- and I'm quoting now -- "put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda, led by Barney Frank."

Frank is an openly gay member of the Congress. The campaigns -- the campaign of Hostettler's opponent, Brad Ellsworth, says the race isn't about Nancy Pelosi. It's about who is best for Indiana's 8th District.

Let's check in with Zain Verjee. She's watching some other important stories making news.

Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Prosecutors in Argentina are asking a judge to issue an arrest warrant against a former Iranian president. It's in connection with Argentina's worst ever terror attack. Eighty-five people were killed in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. A prosecutor says the decision to attack the center was made by the highest authorities of Iran. He says they directed the militant group Hezbollah to carry out the attack.

A government panel is conducting routine vaccinations to protect older Americans against shingles. The single-dose vaccine becomes available in May, and costs about $160 a shot. The panel's recommendation is likely to increase the number of health insurers that cover it. Shingles is a really painful rash. It is common in adults 60 and older. One in five people with shingles develop excruciating long-term nerve pain.

Interest rates will stay where they are. As expected, the Federal Reserve Board left interest rates in place today for a third straight meeting. The Fed is hoping that a slowing economy will keep a lid on inflation. The decision keeps the federal funds rate at 5.25 percent, where it has been since June -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks for that -- Zain Verjee reporting.

Up next: Why it is taking to so long for Iraq to provide adequate security for its own people? Jack Cafferty, collecting your answers, he will share them with us in just a few moments.

Plus: much more on that stunning gay marriage court decision in New Jersey. What does it mean? What are the political ramifications? We will find out in our next hour.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow.

A Japanese sub surfaces during a fleet review exercise south of Tokyo.

Soldiers stand guard at a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan. Inside the mosque, Muslims went to offer prayers at the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.

Sadr City in Baghdad: A man carries the coffin of a person killed earlier today during a U.S. airstrike. A total of four people were killed during the airstrikes aimed at capturing a leader responsible for some of Baghdad's death squads.

And taxis drive -- drive through Times Square in New York City.

Starting Monday, this program will air from the brand-new studios at the Time Warner Center in New York City. We will be there through the midterm election on November 7. Not only that; we will be on the air starting Monday not for three hours, but for four hours, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern, as well as from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

All that starts Monday, the week before the election, four hours of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Jack Cafferty, you ready for four hours of work starting Monday?

CAFFERTY: You -- you think that's enough? I mean, four hours... BLITZER: That's enough...

(CROSSTALK)

CAFFERTY: ... of this might not be enough.

BLITZER: It's enough for the week before. We will go back to usual after the election.

CAFFERTY: It's -- it's more than enough for me.

The question: Why is it taking Iraq so long to provide adequate security for its own country?

Ed in Port Aransas, Texas: "We have been told with endless repetition that, when the Iraqi army stands up, we can stand down. To that end, we have extended huge amounts of money and effort in training them. My question is, who is training the insurgents? They're standing up. Their leaders must be smarter than our leaders."

Brian writes: "Jack, the reason the security forces in Iraq have yet to secure the country is because democracy was never their cause. It was imposed on them from without, from the president's delusion that this would be a panacea for the ills of the Middle East."

Mike in Albuquerque, New Mexico: "Dear Jack, the Iraqis will never be able to stand up for their country, because there is no country there. This is the saddest waste of blood and money in my 50 years. And the people we are fighting for there make me sick to my stomach."

Bill in Kirby, Texas: "Iraq's security forces will never stand up and seriously fight their countrymen, because they know, once we leave, they will likely be subject to reprisals against them. Remember, Iraq is a country where reprisals are a way of life."

And John in New Jersey: "Jack, it's good to see you're back from rehab. While..."

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: "While you were away, succumbing to pleas of, 'Get out of the house,' Laura and Barney left. The phrases adequate security and stay the course are now taboo, and they have been replaced with civil insurrection and, boy, did we screw this up."

I was not in rehab.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Wolf.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Jack, thanks for coming back.

Still to come: power players on Capitol Hill. Who has the most clout? We're checking out some new rankings online.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: So, how much influence does your lawmaker have on Capitol Hill? Just in time for the election, there are new power rankings for each and every senator and congressman. Those numbers could very well change if Democrats take back one or both houses.

Let's got to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She has details -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the idea of this site is to give voters information on how their lawmakers have performed this year, independent of any campaign spin.

The site is Congress.org, launched earlier this year by software and research firm Knowlegis. And it ranks lawmakers in terms of position, influence, and legislative activity.

So, no real surprise who is number one in the House and in the Senate -- this is power rankings, after all. But the site also monitors some less tangible factors -- the sizzle factor, for example. Democratic Senator Barack Obama's news mentions puts him at number 51 in the Senate, despite his freshman status.

There's also the fizzle factor, which has affected some House members -- at the bottom of the chart here, Republican Congressman Bob Ney, who pleaded guilty in the Jack Abramoff investigation -- slightly above him, Democratic Congressman William Jefferson, who has denied any wrongdoing in a bribery investigation. Jefferson's office did not return a call today for comment on these rankings.

The site is also looking ahead, not just back at how these legislators have done over the year, wondering what will happen to the positions of all these lawmakers if Democrats take back the House or the Senate -- Republican committee chairs suffering, and Democrats with multiple committee assignments reaping the benefits -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

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