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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Bush Defends Rumsfeld and Cheney; Some Democrats Come Out Against Senator Kerry's Statement; North Korea Returns to the Table; What Would a Democratic Win on Election Day Mean?; John Boehner Interview

Aired November 1, 2006 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories. Happening right now, President Bush seizes a new opportunity to stand by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Is this time any different as far as defending the architects of the Iraq war?

Six days before America votes, Mr. Bush spoke out just when the Iraq war debate was getting carried away. Top Republicans keep accusing John Kerry of insulting the American troops and now even some Democrats are demanding the senator apologize. Will this flap influence the elections?

And what will Democrats do if they take control of the Congress? We're examining the top players, their agendas and Republican fears that there could be a liberal dose of investigations. I'm Wolf Blitzer at CNN Election Headquarters in New York, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Senator John Kerry says he doesn't want to be a distraction from the Democrats fight for control of Congress less than a week before Election Day. But after his controversial remarks about Iraq, that's exactly what he's become. But now he may have gotten something of a reprieve from, of all people, President Bush. Just when a lot of people were talking about John Kerry, Mr. Bush offered a new defense of the Iraq mission and of two of the biggest lightning rods in his administration, the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Vice President Dick Cheney.

In interviews with news agencies today, the president says he wants his defense secretary and his vice president to stay on the job through the end of his presidency. Mr. Bush says, quoting now, "Both of those men are doing fantastic jobs and I firmly support them."

On Iraq, Mr. Bush says, "I'm pleased with the progress we're making," and he adds, "the troop level they've got right now is what they can live with."

Let's bring in our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux.

The president clearly in this interview with the "Associated Press," Suzanne, making it clear that he's anxious to try to defend his strategy, his policy in Iraq, even as it's teetering on what some are calling chaos.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely, Wolf. I mean, this is really a critical time for the president and the Republicans. The election's really just days away.

Now here's what is happening. The president coming out very forcefully saying that, look, Secretary Rumsfeld, as well as Cheney, while people say they may be polarizing figures, they've got low approval ratings, they have very important jobs in this White House and this president strongly believes that if either one were to step down before his term is over, that it would signal that somehow U.S. policy is a failure, particularly the war in Iraq.

So the president saying that is not going to happen, despite the fact that you've had Secretary Rumsfeld twice offer his resignation to the president. The president's former chief of staff, as well as former top generals and even Republican strategists have all called for Rumsfeld to step down to signal some sort of dramatic change, but the president outright rejecting that today, Wolf.

BLITZER: Making it clear he wants Rumsfeld and Cheney both to be in place until January 2009, when he steps down. Suzanne, stand by for a moment.

We're going to have more on this John Kerry flap over his comments yesterday. First, the senator canceled several campaign appearances for Democratic candidates today. Even some members of John Kerry's own party are joining Republicans in criticizing his suggestion that if students don't study, they'll get, quote, "stuck in Iraq."

The former presidential nominee says he botched a line intended to slam President Bush's Iraq policy. He meant it as a joke. It didn't work out that way. On a morning radio program, Kerry accused Republicans of trying to change the subject from the war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Yes, I'm happy they have an opportunity to be able to take something and exploit it. Obviously not, I'm sorry that that's happened but I'm not -- but I'm not going to stand back from the reality here, which is they're trying to change the subject. It's their campaign of smear and fear.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: There's been no let up today in the Republican demands for an apology from Kerry. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are leading the charge. Let's go back to our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. What precisely are they saying today, Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Well, Wolf, what's really behind is that they feel Republican strategists and the White House feel that as long as they can keep this controversy going, it really does move this argument forward, because they believe that John Kerry personifies what the Democrats are and their argument is that Democrats are weak when it comes to natural security.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Reporter: For the White House, it's the gift that keeps on giving.

KERRY: It was a botched joke about the president.

MALVEAUX: Every Kerry appearance is turning into another opening for the Bush administration to portray the Democrats as weak on terror.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is sort of a poster boy for Democrat weakness on national security.

MALVEAUX: So from the president on down, the White House is ignoring Kerry's explanation that his remarks were not meant to insult the troops. President Bush with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, TALK SHOW HOST: Thank you, Mr. Bush. The American people are outraged by this because John Kerry is just the latest, this is not the first.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Anybody who is in a position to serve this country ought to understand the consequences of words.

MALVEAUX: For weeks, the White House and Republican candidates have been pummeled for the failures in Iraq, hoping the Kerry controversy takes the focus off of them. And what better way to keep the story going than to bait Kerry with the one request he's not likely to fulfill?

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: All he has to do, it's really easy. Say, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend the troops.

MALVEAUX: It was a strategy that worked in the 2004 campaign when the White House repeatedly asked Kerry to state whether he approved funding for the Iraq war and then taunting him for what they said was flip-flopping on the issue.

BUSH: He said this famous quote, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

MALVEAUX: Vice President Cheney will hearken back at that refrain at a campaign event in Montana later today to rally the Republican base. His office released an excerpt of his speech saying, "Now Senator Kerry says he was just making a joke and he botched it up. I guess we didn't get the nuance. He was for the joke before he was against it."

(END VIDEOTAPE) MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, as we know, Kerry earlier on "Imus in the Morning" radio show saying that he was sorry he botched the joke but certainly not apologizing to the troops regarding the troops that he certainly stands by them -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Controversy still continuing. Suzanne, thank you very much for that.

And there's been a mixed reaction of sorts to Kerry's comments today from Democrats. In Tennessee, Congressman and Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. called on Kerry to apologize for his comments. Ford was out campaigning with former president Bill Clinton in Tennessee and the Senate contender, by the way, will be our contest here in THE SITUATION ROOM tonight in our special 8:00 p.m. Eastern hour.

In the meantime, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton also raising concerns today about Kerry's remarks and warning against a replay of the 2004 presidential election. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: What Senator Kerry said was inappropriate and I believe we can't let it divert us from looking at the issues that are at stake in our country. We do need a new policy in Iraq. I and others have been advocating that for quite some time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Some other Democrats are coming to John Kerry's defense. The party chairman, Howard Dean, trying to shift the focus back on President Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, DNC CHAIRMAN: Kerry made a blooper. Bloopers happen. To it my knowledge is he apologized to it on the "Imus" show this morning. I think we want to focus on the president's intemperate rhetoric and saying that a vote for the Democrats is a vote to help the terrorists win. That's clearly untrue and it's exactly the reason President Bush is a failed president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're now being we're going to be getting a new statement from John Kerry momentarily. We'll bring it to you as soon as it comes in here into THE SITUATION ROOM.

And by the way, you may have seen our promotion of an interview with Senator Kerry for THE SITUATION ROOM this afternoon. Senator Kerry's office had confirmed that the senator would be joining us today. This morning, a spokeswoman from Senator Kerry's office, however, told us that Senator Kerry had wanted to join us but I'm quoting now, "he is on a plane all day and would be unavailable."

It struck us a little odd because we were happy to have Senator Kerry join us any time, open invitation. We checked flights and learned that Senator Kerry would be landing back in Washington, D.C. sometime in mid afternoon. We're still hoping that he will join us. We want to interview Senator Kerry. We hope he will be joining us today in THE SITUATION ROOM, but we shall see.

We'll also have much more on this controversy coming up throughout this program.

Zain Verjee meanwhile standing by with a closer look at some other stories making news -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, inching toward chaos. That's how U.S. military commanders assessed Iraq two weeks ago at a briefing. Today the "New York Times" published a color-coded index of civil conflict. An hour on the chart shows Iraq's level of violence edging toward all-out chaos. The "Times" says the chart was prepared by the U.S. central command, which oversees the Iraq war. The White House says the chart shown on October 18th is simply a snapshot of the heightened violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Meanwhile, bullet-riddled bodies and a kidnapped volleyball coach are examples of such chaos today. Across Baghdad, police found 35 bodies some with gunshots to the head and two sports figures including the man who approached the disabled volleyball team were kidnapped.

Meanwhile, Iraq's Sunni vice president today suggested that yesterday's opening of checkpoints around Sadr City may be an emboldening Shiite death squads. The vice president also says he thinks the security situation is spiraling downward because the government is not doing enough to take on militias.

The Bush Administration wants Syria and Iran to stop trying to topple Lebanon's government. A White House statement says it's concerned about what it calls evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments want to overturn Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government.

And dealing with the issues of a deal. The State Department says that when North Korea resumes six-party negotiations over its nuclear program, Pyongyang will get a chance to seek access to its frozen overseas bank account. North Korea had made that an issue of returning to the talks and the State Department says it will be addressed during negotiations -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much.

We now have a new statement that just has come into THE SITUATION ROOM from Senator John Kerry. Let me read it precisely to you. A very carefully crafted statement from the Massachusetts senator. "As a combat veteran, I want to make clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones: my poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and never intended to refer to any troop. I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended. It is clear," Kerry goes on to say, "the Republican Party would rather talk about anything but that failed security policy. I don't want my verbal slip to be a diversion from the real issues. I will continue to fight for a change of course to provide real security for our country, and a winning strategy for our troops."

That statement just coming in from John Kerry. Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File," but first, your reaction, Jack, to that statement from John Kerry.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, if he had done that two days ago this all would of disappeared two days ago

BLITZER: He made that statement -- the original gaffe was on Monday and it's now Wednesday and he should of immediately realized it was a gaffe and he should of apologized.

CAFFERTY: I'm going to talk about him later on in the program this afternoon, but I listened to him on Imus this morning. It was painful listening to him trying to dig his way out of this thing. It was embarrassing, it was awful. If he had said this, what he had just said in the statement, two days ago we would be talking about something else right now, right?

BLITZER: Right, yes.

CAFFERTY: Anyway, we will talk about Mr. Kerry later.

The United States military now has a spin cycle. The Bush Administration has long complained about us in the media focusing on the bad news coming out of Iraq. Now the Pentagon's fighting back and doing it of course on your dime. We taxpayers are funding something called a rapid response public relations team.

It's supposed to be like those that are used in political campaigns to quickly respond to new stories that are critical of the Iraq war and of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. I expect they will be busy. Officials say it wasn't launched specifically because of rising criticism of the war but they say it will help the department, quote, set the record straight.

Some of the goals include creating products to distribute on the internet to the 24-hour news media, like us, and sending more letters to the editor. They say they also plan to put more civilian and military guests on radio and TV shows.

So here is the question -- how would you advise the Pentagon's new rapid response PR team. Send your suggestions to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

You know, the first rule of holes Wolf is if you're in one, you're supposed to stop digging. Senator Kerry had a shovel in each hand on the Imus radio show this morning

BLITZER: Well, he's got an open situation to come here into THE SITUATION ROOM and tell us on television what he's just said here in this statement. We hope he'll join us later today.

CAFFERTY: I bet you 50 cents he doesn't show.

BLITZER: Well, let's see. Coming up, what happens if the Democrats take over either house or Congress? Who will be running the shop and just what will they do? We'll go live to Capitol Hill to find out. Plus, the president praises the vice president and the defense secretary.

Do you think they're doing a good job? I'll ask John Boehner, he's the number two Republican in the House, the majority leader. And later, the war versus the economy -- we have a new poll driving home the top election issues. Whatever happened to the days when Americans voted with their wallet?

I'm at the CNN election headquarters in New York and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: If Democrats win control of Congress it will be their dream and the GOP's worse nightmare come true. In these final six days before the election, many voters may be wondering what Democrats will do when or if they get to be in charge of Capitol Hill. Some clues can be found by considering who would be in charge of various committees. Let's bring in our congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Republicans say they fully intend to hold on to their majority in Congress, but they warn what would happen if Democrats should take power.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL (voice-over): They're among the most liberal politicians in America. Nancy Pelosi, Alcee Hastings, John Conyers, Henry Waxman and Charlie Rangel. And if Democrats win back the House next week, they're set to rocket to the top positions in Congress. Republicans have seized on the prospect of liberal lawmakers running the House as a way to fire up their base on the campaign trail. The president singled out New York's Charlie Rangel, though not by name.

BUSH: I think it is interesting to note that the person who wants to be to be the head of the Ways and Means Committee for the Democrats said he can't think of one tax cut that he would extend. He said that's code word for get ready, if the Democrats take the House, your taxes are going up.

KOPPEL: Embattled Indiana Republican John Hostettler's campaign is using this radio ad to scare voters away from his Democratic opponent.

ANNOUNCER: Speaker Pelosi will reauthorize the Clinton gun ban. Give amnesty to millions of illegal aliens with Detroit liberal John Conyers, and raise taxes with New York liberal Charlie Rangel. KOPPEL: In a recent interview with CNN, Nancy Pelosi said Democrats are for tax cuts but only for the middle class.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: We want to do things that are positive rather than tax cuts to the wealthiest people in our country, which is only taking us deeper in debt at the expense of the middle class.

KOPPEL: But a member of the House Republican leadership, Eric Cantor, told CNN, he doesn't buy it.

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R), VIRGINIA: We've already heard from the ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee that there is not one of the Bush tax cuts that he would support for renewal, which to me means a tax increase for many Americans to the tune of maybe $2,100 for each family.

KOPPEL: Republicans also point to other Democrats who will be in charge, like Florida's Alcee Hastings, a former federal judge impeached by the House in 1989 in an alleged bribery scheme, who could be the next chairman of the Intelligence Committee. Hastings says he did nothing wrong.

And Michigan's John Conyers, who has called for President Bush to be impeached, and until recently on his congressional Web site demanded an investigation into what he called "administration abuses of power."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: And if Democrats take power, the 21-term lawmaker would likely become the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea, thanks very much. Andrea Koppel, as you saw earlier, Suzanne Malveaux, they are all part of the best political team on television.

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

Republicans doing whatever they can right now to try to prevent Democrats from taking control of the House or the Senate. The new attacks on Senator John Kerry would seem to be part of that effort. Less clear why President Bush would choose this moment to offer a new defense of the vice president and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Joining us now, the number two Republican in the House, the majority leader, John Boehner.

Mr. Leader, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MAJORITY LEADER: Wolf, nice to be here.

BLITZER: You said this on -- the other day, and I want to play it for our viewers. Listen to what you said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOEHNER: Donald Rumsfeld is the best thing that's happened to the Pentagon in 25 years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You said "he's the best thing that's happened to the Pentagon in 25 years." You know, a lot of people strongly disagree with you, including an increasing chorus of fellow Republicans.

BOEHNER: Well, there are a lot of people who want to blame what is happening in Iraq on Donald Rumsfeld, but when you look at the transformation that our military has been through, it's nothing short of remarkable.

And I think there's only one person in America who could have brought about that transformation, and that is Donald Rumsfeld. He's smart, he's been through the Pentagon, knows how it works. And now we have a lighter, more flexible force, a quicker force. It would not have happened without him.

BLITZER: But, you know, General Zinni, who used to be the commander, Anthony Zinni of the Central Command, he says that Rumsfeld threw out 10 years of planning for Iraq, 10 years of strategy with 500,000 troops that would be needed, not to necessarily topple Saddam Hussein, but to win the peace quickly. He just threw that out because he wanted that lighter force and, as a result, the U.S. is paying the price right now.

BOEHNER: Well, Wolf, you have to understand that the generals who have been in charge of the Pentagon have been very resistant to change. It's the younger generals who understand this new force structure that we need to be -- to have the military of the 21st century. And so I think Rumsfeld is the right guy for the job, and I know the president supports him and I'm glad he does.

BLITZER: Let me read to you what a few of your fellow Republicans have said in recent days. "I don't like the guy. I simply don't think he has measured up on running the war on Iraq. Would I vote for a no confidence resolution on Secretary Rumsfeld? Yes." Chris Shays, Republican of Connecticut.

"If I had my way, he wouldn't be secretary of defense now. I would have accepted his resignation after Abu Ghraib. I have lost confidence in him." That's the Republican candidate for the Senate from Washington state, Mike McGavick.

And Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis, Republican of Virginia: "It's probably the only thing in my life I've ever agreed with Hillary Clinton about. He's probably a nice guy, but I don't think he's a great secretary of defense."

BOEHNER: Wolf, I understand that, but let's not blame what's happening in Iraq on Rumsfeld. BLITZER: But he's in charge of the military.

BOEHNER: But the fact is, the generals on the ground are in charge, and he works closely with them and the president. We've seen this run up in violence as we get closer to the election, as we get closer to Ramadan, same thing we've seen over the last couple of years.

As we enter into Ramadan, we see this big spike in violence and there's no question, in my mind, that the terrorists, very smart people, are also trying to increase the violence as we get closer to the U.S. elections.

BLITZER: Well, I want to move on and get to some other important issues, but a quick question. Were you satisfied in the planning that the Pentagon did, specifically the defense secretary, not necessarily for getting rid of Saddam Hussein's regime, but for the post-war? Because it's been three-and-a-half years and $300 billion, $400 billion, 3,000 almost U.S. deaths ...

BOEHNER: Wolf, there's no question that there have been mistakes along the way. We're fighting an enemy that's unconventional, and we're -- and this has become the central front in our war with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda continues to bring people into Iraq to let off these bombs, to stir up sectarian violence and we're always have to adapt on the ground.

But the fact is, is that Republicans want to win. Democrats want to give up and pull out the troops. I don't think that's what the American people want.

BLITZER: Well, Democrats will disagree with you.

But let me move on to speak about this flap involving Senator Kerry. He has now apologized in this statement that he has just put out. I'll read it to you and see if you accept that as an apology. "I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended." Is this over with now that he's apologized?

BOEHNER: I think he has apologized. It sounds good enough. But when you led into this, Wolf, you said the Republicans were attacking John Kerry for his remarks. Nobody attacked John Kerry. We asked him to apologize to the troops that we believe he offended and I believe that he has.

BLITZER: So this story is over with as far as you're concerned?

BOEHNER: It is.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the elections, because it's, obviously, according to the polls, potentially a change, a turning point. You could be the majority leader. On the other hand, you could be the minority leader or nothing if the Democrats take control. What is your bottom line assessment right now? How does it look? Do you believe the Republicans will be in the majority after next Tuesday?

BOEHNER: If we're able to mobilize all of our resources to mobilize all of our voters on Election Day, I think we're going to do fine. We probably have got a handful of seats that are very, very difficult, maybe impossible.

And then there are two dozen seats where we're up in the margin of error or down within the margin of error. And so over the next six days, we've got to mobilize our voters. And if we're able to do that, I think we're going to do fine on Election Day.

BLITZER: Here is what Congressman Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, a man you know, said. "You can't blame the Democrats, but we certainly gave them a reason to do what they did. We simply didn't have an Ethics Committee process that worked at a time when we needed it. I feel badly that I didn't say anything and neither did other members. It's a pox on all of us."

Remind our viewers -- this whole Mark Foley scandal, you were told that there was a problem there. You went to the speaker. He doesn't seem to remember what you told him. Is that right?

BOEHNER: He's not sure that I talked to him. I feel like I did. But that's not what the American people are wanting to talk about. They want to know who is going to keep their taxes low and keep the economy going. Who is going to secure our borders and who's going to provide the president the tools to take on the terrorists?

The Ethics Committee is working in a bipartisan manner dealing with this issue of Foley. But when you look back over the last two years, as there were a need for the Ethics Committee to operate, it was Nancy Pelosi and liberal Democrats who prevented the committee from operating and takes -- it's even numbers of Democrats and Republicans on the committee. I'm glad they're working together now.

BLITZER: We have time for one final question. I'll read from Bill Kristol. He's a conservative editor of the "Weekly Standard." He recently wrote this or said this. He said, "If they lose the House" -- referring to Republicans -- "it might be time for a change in leadership for obvious reasons. Fresh faces, fresh blood. All three would go -- Hastert, Boehner, Blunt," Roy Blunt, who is the majority whip.

And he's not a liberal, he's a conservative, Bill Kristol. What happens to you, do you think, if the Democrats become the majority?

BOEHNER: Well, I feel good about our chances on Election Day, and I'm going to do everything I can just like I have over the nine months that I've been the majority leader to help keep us in the majority. And if we mobilize our voters, we're going to be fine on Election Day.

But the American people have a choice to make on Election Day, a choice between candidates, a choice between the two parties. And if you want bigger government, higher taxes and a weak border, continue to vote for the Democrats. BLITZER: John Boehner, we're going to leave it right there.

BOEHNER: Wolf, nice to see you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for coming in. Busy time.

And up next, we'll have more on the John Kerry controversy. Will the continued war of words have an impact on next week's election? We'll check that out in today's "Strategy Session."

But did the president steal the spotlight and give Kerry a bit of a reprieve? I'll ask two political experts, James Carville and Terry Jeffrey.

We're at CNN election headquarters in New York and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM.

I'm Wolf Blitzer at CNN election headquarters in New York.

Some say it's a nasty insult from a Democrat. Others say it concerns a nasty distortion from Republicans. Today, in our "Strategy Session," we will have more on John Kerry's words about Iraq and his new apology over the matter.

Joining us now, Terry Jeffrey -- he's the editor of the conservative publication "Human Events Online" -- and CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist James Carville.

James, I will start with you. And I will read the statement from John Kerry that he just released, at least part of it: "I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and -- uniform -- and to their loved ones, my poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, never intended, to refer to any troop. I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform. And I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended."

You just heard John Boehner, the Republican majority leader in the House, say, case closed. He accepts John Kerry's apology, and we can now move on.

What say you?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I -- he refused to apologize before he apologized. No.

(LAUGHTER)

CARVILLE: He -- it's -- I think the public looks at this. And it -- everybody is trying to rerun the 2004 presidential race. And I think people are about to throw up at this. And they wondering about what is happening in 2006. I agree with Congressman Boehner. And Senator Kerry flubbed a line. It was mistaken. And I don't -- but I don't think this is going to have any effect on the electorate at all. John Kerry is not even running -- not even running for office this year.

BLITZER: Terry, what do you think?

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": Well, look, yesterday was Halloween, Wolf, and I think what John Kerry did was pull the mask off the Democratic Party.

The Democrats have been trying to masquerade in this election season as the party that can be trusted on national security and national defense. And while I think that not all Democrats feel the way John Kerry does about the military, I think some of the Democratic elite let do.

And I'm glad he apologized, but I think John Kerry revealed what he really does believe about the military. He's been saying these things for years, starting from 1971, when he testified in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that his former combat colleagues in Vietnam were systemically committing war crimes on a day-to-day basis, with the knowledge of their chain of command.

So, John Kerry has a long history of this, and the leadership of his party has a long history of not being supportive of the military.

BLITZER: I know, James...

CARVILLE: Wolf...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... you want to respond to that.

CARVILLE: Yes, I have to, Wolf.

John Kerry was -- served in the United States Navy with bravery, was one of those decorated people in Vietnam. Everybody understands that. He has a 100 rating when it comes to veterans.

So, John Kerry, I agree with him. Nobody needs to question John Kerry's patriotism at all. I might remind Terry and everybody watching this show that, when it came to serving in the National Guard, President Bush cut and run. Now, we can end this discussion now as an attack on John Kerry's patriotism.

BLITZER: All right, I want you to both...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Hold on, Terry. Hold on, because Suzanne Malveaux, our White House correspondent, she is getting some reaction to John Kerry's apology from officials at the White House.

Suzanne, what are they saying? MALVEAUX: I just talked to Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary. And she says this to me.

She says that: "Senator Kerry's apology to the troops for his insulting comments came late, but it was the right thing to do. Our military is the best and the brightest, the most courageous and professional of any military in the world. And the president is honored to be their commander in chief."

As you know, Wolf, this comes after two days the White House has been able to exploit this controversy. Many Republican strategists we have spoken to, as well as those inside the White House, really believe that John Kerry personified what they saw as weakness on the war on terror, specifically with Democrats, and that they were able to use that to their advantage very close -- very close -- to the midterm elections.

BLITZER: It sounds -- thank you, Suzanne.

Terry, it sounds like the White House is ready to move on as well.

JEFFREY: Well, look, you know, I think it's good that John Kerry apologized.

And I didn't question his patriotism. But I did say he was anti- military. And his history is long and clear on this, Wolf. Again, he went into the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 with prepared testimony and said that our troops in Vietnam were, on a day-to-day basis, committing war crimes, with the knowledge of the chain of command.

I think his slip the other day was -- or yesterday was at peace with that point of view. I think it consistently represents John Kerry saying and doing things that are anti-military.

BLITZER: James...

CARVILLE: Yes.

BLITZER: James...

CARVILLE: Well...

BLITZER: ... I know you want to respond. I...

CARVILLE: Yes. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: I know you -- go ahead.

CARVILLE: He's the only person that served in the military, that is a decorated war hero, that is anti-military. I mean, come on. Let's move on to something else. We fought this thing in '04.

JEFFREY: You know what? You know what, James? And there is also another piece to this.

If you look at what John Kerry has been saying out on the campaign trail, he wasn't looking at Tuesday's congressional elections. He's looking at running for president again. He is trying to position himself for the hard-left, anti-war base of the Democratic Party. Quite frankly, he's trying to get around to the left of Hillary Clinton on the Iraq war.

He's going to be an anti-Iraq-war Democratic candidate. And that is the way he's been talking this way. And he hurt his own party because he went overboard yesterday.

BLITZER: Go ahead, James.

CARVILLE: Next -- there's nothing left to say, that he served and is a decorated combat veteran, while George Bush was cutting and running from the National Guard. Let's move on to the next topic. We discussed that in '04.

BLITZER: We're going to move on to the next topic the next time, because we are all out of time right now.

But, guys, thank very much...

CARVILLE: Thank you.

BLITZER: ... for coming in.

James Carville and Terry Jeffrey...

JEFFREY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: ... appreciate it.

Up next: It was the issue that got Bill Clinton elected president. But, in this year's battle for the Congress, it's not necessarily, the economy, stupid. Our Bill Schneider will tell us why.

Plus: some new numbers on the 2008 election that may surprise you. We will learn who is gaining ground in the next race for the White House.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

With only six days until the midterm election, our new poll suggests voters are not necessarily thinking with their wallets. Instead, they're thinking right now about war.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's got some new numbers, and he's here to explain what they mean -- Bill. WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the economy, stupid, is the old political cliche. It's dead. Long live the new political cliche.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Democratic political consultant and CNN contributor James Carville coined the phrase "the economy, stupid" in 1992. Is there any doubt what the issue is this year?

CARVILLE: Not anybody I talk to, and not anybody that any pollster talks to. It's Iraq.

SCHNEIDER: What happened to the economy? There are some signs it's gotten better. The stock market is hitting record highs. Gas prices are dropping. Have people noticed? Apparently, yes.

Two months ago, in our Opinion Research Corporation poll, most Americans said the economy was in poor shape. Now, 62 percent say it's in good shape. But look at what else has happened. Two months ago, at least 40 percent of voters said the economy and gas prices would be extremely important issues in their vote this year. Those numbers have taken a tumble -- the number who say the economy will be important, down seven points -- the number who cite gas prices, down 16.

A new rule has taken over. When the economy is bad, the economy is the issue. When the economy is good, something else is the issue. It's, Iraq, stupid.

Do voters give the Bush administration credit for the improving economy?

BUSH: The truth is, the tax cuts have led to a growing economy that has added 6.6 million new jobs since August of 2003.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SCHNEIDER: In August, people who said the economy was in good shape rewarded the president's party with a strong vote of support.

Now, more people say the economy is in good shape, and the reward they give Republicans is zilch. Their vote for Congress is just about tied.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And there's the thanks of a grateful nation for you -- Wolf.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thank you, Bill.

We're going to be getting new poll numbers throughout these next six days, and you're going to be here with us to show us every step of the way.

Thanks very much.

On our "Political Radar" this Wednesday: Two new polls from Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum trailing Democratic challenger Bob Casey by double digits. A Franklin and Marshall College survey of likely voters shows Santorum 15 points behind. A Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters shows Santorum trailing Casey by 10 points.

Looking ahead to 2008, our new poll shows Senator Hillary Clinton is the top choice of registered Democrats to be the party's next presidential nominee. She gets 28 percent support, compared to 17 percent for her closest competitor in this new poll -- check it out -- Senator Barack Obama of Illinois -- the top presidential choice of registered Republicans in our poll, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- he gets 29 percent support -- followed closely by Senator John McCain with 27 percent.

We're going to have more in our next hour on the poll and the big-name contenders whose stars appear to be falling right now. Those stars could go back up. You never know.

Coming up: He's apologized, but is it too late for John Kerry? Will the controversy hurt his chances in the next race for the White House? Or will it impact this year's election at all? Jeff Greenfield standing by to weigh in.

Plus: Is Iraq spiraling downward toward all-out chaos? We will go live to the Pentagon to find out what top military commanders are actually saying right now.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

The latest John-Kerry-vs.-George-Bush sparring over Iraq has a deja vu quality to it. But there is a big difference this time. Senator Kerry isn't running for anything, at least not officially.

Let's bring in our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield -- Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, you know, Wolf, ever since Senator Kerry's botched joke, I have been trying to think about one simple question: When have the ill-advised comments had a major political impact when the speaker wasn't a candidate?

Well, I did find one, but you have to go back a ways, a long, long ways.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD (voice-over): All the way back to 1884, in fact, when New York Governor Grover Cleveland was locked in a tight race for the White House with Republican stalwart James G. Blaine.

At a rally, a Blaine supporter, Dr. Samuel Burchard, attacked Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." That comment infuriated Roman Catholics, especially in New York, where the Democratic machine was boycotting the Cleveland campaign. It pushed enough of them to the polls to give Cleveland New York by 1,047 votes, and just enough electoral votes to win the White House.

By contrast, there are plenty of examples where an office-seeker was badly wounded by his own remarks, especially where they reinforced a damaging image. In 1948, New York Governor Tom Dewey was supposedly cruising to the White House against Harry Truman.

While whistle-stopping in Beaucoup, Illinois, the train suddenly lurched forward a few feet. "That's the first lunatic I had for an engineer," Dewey blurted. "He probably should be shot at sunrise."

That flip comment did not sit well with railroad workers and other blue-collar voters, who heard in it echoes of a pinstriped Wall Street elitist. That fall, Truman won Illinois by 1 percentage point and Ohio by three-tenths of a point. Those states gave him his electoral margin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLAYTON WILLIAMS (R), TEXAS GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: I didn't realize it at the time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: Or take the offhand comment of Clayton Williams, Republican nominee of governor of Texas in 1990, who compared bad weather to an old joke about rape. "If it's inevitable," he said, "relax and enjoy it."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN RICHARDS (D), TEXAS GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: That is an embarrassment...

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: That comment infuriated women voters, and Ann Richards was elected governor that year.

And Senator Kerry knows full well the impact of ill-chosen words.

His famous explanation for a vote on Iraq war funding...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I actually did vote for the $87 billion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: ... made its way into a Bush campaign ad, with devastating results.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

KERRY: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: Which is why it's reasonable to think that the principal victim of the Kerry comments is John Kerry, who has been out campaigning for Democratic candidates around the country, building up markers for a possible second White House run, just as Richard Nixon did, very successfully, in the 1966 midterms.

With Kerry canceling appearances this week to minimize fallout, that piece of a presidential campaign strategy now appears inoperative.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: And maybe the most puzzling part of this whole story is What Senator Kerry was trying to accomplish with that botched joke in the first place.

Mocking President Bush for not studying hard sounds just like that sort of Ivy League college campus, elitist ridicule that has proven utterly ineffective, even politically counterproductive. If the polls are right, the country has turned negative on President Bush because of what is happening in Iraq, not because of his SAT scores -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff, with the apology, story over with now?

GREENFIELD: Yes. I think -- I think you just heard from John Boehner that, what are they going to do now, you know, ask him to go run through the streets and flog himself? I think a lot of Democrats wished he had said this about 36 hours earlier, but I -- it's hard to see how they sustain this now.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Jeff Greenfield, with that.

And coming up: an insider's view of the 11th-hour Republican strategy, as the party tries to keep its hold on power in -- on Capitol Hill. I will speak with the former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. That's coming up in the next hour of THE SITUATION ROOM.

And next: the Pentagon's rapid response to Iraq war critics -- Jack Cafferty standing by with your P.R. tips.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're live from CNN's election headquarters in New York.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is back with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Something else you're paying for: The Pentagon has started something called a rapid-response public relations team. Its aim is to quickly respond to news stories that are critical of the war in Iraq and of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They will be busy.

The question is: How would you advise the Pentagon's new rapid- response P.R. team?

Diane writes from Allentown, Pennsylvania: "Wouldn't it be a lot cheaper to just let Rumsfeld keep getting up there and telling the reporters to back off? That seems to work, No one bothers him after that. It's actually cheaper than hiring people to respond. I wonder whose bright idea this was. Do we pay people to dream this crap up? It's unbelievable."

Pat in Clinton, Massachusetts: "I guess Bush and the Republicans really need some more spin doctors, now that they have abandoned an American soldier kidnapped by a Shiite militia, on orders from the Iraqi prime minister, left to die by the chicken hawk administration. I don't know how you spin abandoning an American soldier in the field."

I will have more on that story later, by the way.

Sean in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin: "You said it, Jack. They should take their crackpot team, put it back in a memo. The money could be used in a thousand different ways to help, other than to cover their butts for their stupid mistakes. The American people are not idiots. We know when they're blowing smoke in our faces. It's a waste of money. And it shouldn't be tolerated."

Juan in Huntsville, Alabama: "Jack, I would simply tell them to follow FEMA's rule of thumb: Crack a smile. Explain everything is in order and that you're ready to handle any situation that arises. Then sit back, and wait for the flood."

And Ron in Brockway, Pennsylvania: "I think the Pentagon should have hired Baghdad Bob, put him in charge. It would be more believable."

BLITZER: Did we ever figure out who pays for that operation, that fact-check...

CAFFERTY: The P.R. office?

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: We do.

BLITZER: Taxpayers.

CAFFERTY: You do. I do. He does.

BLITZER: All right.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: My pleasure.

BLITZER: Up next: Politicians aren't the only ones on the ballot next week. From same-sex marriage, to abortion, to stem cell research, voters will have a chance to weigh in on a number of crucial hot-button issues. We will get that "Situation Online."

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In addition to picking senators and members of Congress on Election Day, Americans will also be voting on over 200 different ballot measures in 37 states -- at issue, same-sex marriage, stem cell research and abortion, among other things.

For the latest on what is at stake, let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the measures range from an Ohio smoking ban to a South Dakota initiative on suing judges.

Summaries of the most high-profile of these ballot measures for Tuesday are being added today to CNN.com's America Votes page, like stem cell research. Missouri voters will decide on Tuesday on a proposed amendment to the state constitution to protect stem cell research. This is an issue that has been front and center in the tight Senate race between Republican Senator Jim Talent and his Democratic challenger, Claire McCaskill.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, this was on ballots on more than a dozen states in 2004. This time around, it appears on ballots in eight states, including the Senate battlegrounds of Virginia and of Tennessee.

Then, the issue of abortion, that is on the ballot in three states. Of those, the most closely watched will be a referendum in South Dakota. In March, the governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, signed into effect the country's most extensive ban on abortion, directly challenging Roe v. Wade. Voters who head to the polls in South Dakota will be voting on a referendum to repeal that law on Tuesday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you very much.

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