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THE SITUATION ROOM

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld Going Out With Military Honors; Small Signs Today That Senator Tim Johnson Is Recovering; Federal Authorities Unveil New Set Of Rules Aimed At Helping Protect America's Railroad System Against Terrorism

Aired December 15, 2006 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, a farewell salute to Donald Rumsfeld. The defense secretary going out with military honors.

But did he let down the troops and his commander-in-chief?

We'll examine his legacy over at the Pentagon and in Iraq and the Rummi-isms -- as they're called -- he's coined along the way.

Also this hour, who's the boss of foreign policy?

Some senators are freelancing as envoys to Syria. That's the accusation.

What might they accomplish besides ticking off the White House?

And Miami heat -- a Republican congressman who compared Miami to the Third World country finds he's not very welcome there. But Tom Tancredo is sticking to his guns despite threats and being called a nut -- a nut -- by Florida's governor.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Bush gave Donald Rumsfeld a hero's sendoff from the Pentagon today, never meaning the often harsh criticism that led to the defense secretary's nomination. Rumsfeld was honored with full military pomp and circumstance as he prepares to turn over his job to his successor, Robert Gates.

Mr. Bush and Vice President Cheney offered tributes to Rumsfeld and his six year tenure over at the Pentagon. Cheney called him the finest defense secretary this nation has ever had. And the president portrayed Rumsfeld's role as an architect of the Iraq War as a historic campaign for freedom.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Don Rumsfeld helped see the Iraqi people through the resumption of sovereignty, two elections, a referendum to approve the most progressive constitution in a Middle East and the seating of a newly elected government.

On his watch, the United States military helped the Iraqi people establish a constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East, a watershed event in the story of freedom.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: When Rumsfeld went to the podium, he briefly referred to the main reason he's now calling it quits, the public's disapproval of the Iraq mission.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: America's enemies should not confuse the American people's distaste of war, which is real and which is understandable, with a reluctance to different our way of life. Enemy after enemy in our history have made that mistake, to their regret.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: There are plenty of kind words and pats on the back for Donald Rumsfeld today. But his legacy is a lot more complicated, and the public's view of him far less flattering.

Let's turn to our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield -- Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Donald Rumsfeld takes his leave from the Pentagon today, and it's safe to say he's not going out on a high note. Little more than a third of Americans approve of the job he's done and no one seems happy about where the war in Iraq now stands.

But the nearly six year tenure of Rumsfeld has been marked by not just one, but a series of dramatic shifts in his standing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BUSH: A good man, an honorable man, Mr. Don Rumsfeld.

GREENFIELD (voice-over): When the Bush administration took power in 2001, Rumsfeld was one of several prominent alumni from earlier Republican administrations. In fact, Rumsfeld had been the youngest defense secretary ever under Gerald Ford when his protege, Dick Cheney, was the youngest chief of staff ever.

In his first months this time, Rumsfeld was the reformer, determined to transform the military into a lighter, more mobile, post-cold war enterprise. It was a campaign that drew the ire of Pentagon brass and powerful members of Congress, who liked military bases and defense jobs in their districts.

Indeed, in August of 2001, Rumsfeld acknowledged setbacks in his campaign and was supposed to be the likeliest first departure from the Bush cabinet.

But after September 11, when American forces achieved a swift, stunning victory in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld was seen in a new light -- the quarterback of success; indeed, even something of a senior citizen's sex symbol -- "the stud," "National Review" magazine called him.

But it was Iraq that would define the Rumsfeld legacy. He and Vice President Cheney were the most forceful voices for the war, overriding the cautionary advice of Secretary of State Colin Powell. And, consistent with his belief in lightness and mobility, Rumsfeld rejected the advice from those, like Army Chief of Staff Shinseki, who said that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed in Iraq.

In strictly military terms, Rumsfeld was right. It took three weeks to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. But what followed was an almost endless series of setbacks -- chaos and looting in the early days; the dismantling of the Iraqi military, leading to thousands of disaffected armed men; the abuses of Abu Ghraib Prison; and the ever increasing resort to sectarian and tribal violence.

America's might in Iraq was supposed to serve as a warning to enemies not to challenge the United States and the emerging free, stable Iraq was supposed to be a model for reform throughout the region. Those hopes seem very distant today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: When the president replaced him the day after the mid-term elections, Rumsfeld found himself with few defenders -- left, right or center. His critics include those who say the war itself was a disastrous mistake -- that there were never enough troops; that he never understood the people or terrain or culture; or that Rumsfeld refused to listen to advice.

But now that he's gone, the hardest question of all remains -- what is to be done now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of questions, no simple answers, at least not yet.

Jeff, thanks very much.

And as Jeff mentioned, just about a third of Americans have a favorable opinion of Donald Rumsfeld. This according to our most recent poll on him. That was done back in September.

Take a look at this. In 2003, before Iraq descended into chaos, a majority of Americans, 58 percent, viewed Rumsfeld favorably. Rumsfeld's often colorful way with words once helped make him a political star. Some thought he was actually a rock star. But as the years went on, it made him even more controversial.

Our special correspondent, Frank Sesno, has been watching Donald Rumsfeld for a long time. He did an outstanding documentary on him that aired here on CNN.

I want to play, Frank, some of those clips of Donald Rumsfeld speaking up in recent years.

FRANK SESNO, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Rumsfeld unplugged.

BLITZER: Right.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD: Freedom is untidy and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD: If you do something, somebody's not going to like it. Therefore you've got a choice -- you can go do nothing or you can go do something and live with the fact that somebody is not going to like it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD: You're looking for some sort of a guillotine to come flowing down if some date isn't met. That is not what this is about. This is complicated stuff. It's difficult.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you want history to remember you?

RUMSFELD: My goodness.

Better than the local press.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You know, he's a complicated guy.

Talk a little bit about him on this, the end of the Rumsfeld era at the Pentagon.

SESNO: Well, I think the adjectives flow. He's irascible. He's combative. He's difficult. He's smart. He's demanding. He can be pejorative. He can put people down. He's done it with the four star generals in meetings, dressed them down publicly. And that's what's gotten him into a lot of trouble.

Distinguish his accomplishments and his setbacks from his management style. They're all in there and it's part of the complexity you talked about.

BLITZER: Yes, obviously the war, you know, as things got bad, his image got bad...

SESNO: Right.

BLITZER: ... because he was seen as one of the chief architects of this war. But this statement -- and I'm going to play this clip -- also got him into trouble. And the context was the body armor that was necessary to protect the men and women who were fighting and serving in Iraq.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD: You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That seemed, what?

SESNO: A turning point, a couple of turning points. One -- and let me go first with that very piece of sound people heard, where he talked about freedom is messy? That was as the looting was unfolding in the very early days. And it suggested that he was dismissive of what was happening.

The body armor comment, that you fight with your -- the army you have, came quite a bit later. Americans and the world had been seeing these improvised explosive devices blowing up, people being hurt and killed, American troops and others. And, again, it was a sense of dismissiveness -- very clumsy, at the very least -- public relations and, at worst, a sense of Rumsfeld perhaps in a bubble and denying what he was hearing.

You know, he had been pressed in 2003 to say call it an insurgency. He didn't want to call it an insurgency. He resisted even when General Abizaid called it an insurgency, in a sense, just as he's resisted more recently calling it a civil war.

BLITZER: Now, a lot of people don't like Donald Rumsfeld. But a lot of people do.

SESNO: Yes.

BLITZER: Talk a little bit about that.

SESNO: Well, it is interesting, because he is such a polarizing character. But he is very smart. When he was CEO of a company, he took a company over, G.D. Serle, a pharmaceutical company, that was -- it was dying. And he fired people, he reorganized it, he turned it around, he brought synergies in -- hate that word, but there it is. And he wanted to do the same thing at the Pentagon.

There are loyalist generals around him -- Peter Pace, who's the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is one of them -- who says that his very combativeness forces you to be smarter, quicker, better. You've got to think your positions through and if you're not strong and you can't stand up to him, you're going to get bulldozed, which is what happened to General Shinseki, actually.

BLITZER: And Vice President Cheney says he's the finest defense secretary the country has ever had.

Frank's going to be back with us in the next hour.

Frank, thanks very much.

We'll have more on the future of Iraq, also, this Sunday. My exclusive Sunday interview with the vice president of Iraq, that country's top Sunni politician. He's here in Washington fresh from meetings with President Bush. Tareq al-Hashimi will be our guest on CNN's "LATE EDITION." "LATE EDITION" airs Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, two hours. "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk.

Let's check in with Carol Costello for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

The U.S. military is reporting more American deaths in Iraq. Two Marines and a soldier were killed in combat this week. The American death toll in the Iraq War now stands at 2,941. Fifty-one of those have died this month.

We're just hours away from the opening of a key political conference in Baghdad. It's an important piece of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's plan to build national unity and stem sectarian violence.

In the meantime, Iraq's soccer team is doing its part to build a spirit of national unity, at least in some very small way. After celebrating an unlikely run-to the final of the Asian Games, many Iraqis paused today to watch their team go for the gold. The game ended just a short time ago, with the Iraqis losing one mil (ph) to Qatar.

Polls are now closed in Iran after voting hours were extended twice due to heavier than expected turnout in local elections. Iranians and international observers are now eagerly awaiting results. Many see these elections as a significant gauge of the popularity of the Iranian president.

Blizzard conditions are slowing search and rescue efforts on Mount Hood. But there is one piece of good news regarding the possible fate of those three missing climbers. A short time ago, authorities reported finding a note at a ranger's station in which the climbers detailed the supplies they had with them when they started their climb eight days ago. Items such as food, fuel, a shovel and ropes could be helping the men weather the storms.

And that same weather system that's making things so difficult on Mount Hood wreaked havoc through much of the region. Crews are working over time to clear roads and restore electric service to more than a million homes and businesses that lost power in Oregon and Washington State. At this hour, heavy snow warnings are still in effect in many areas and forecasters say the conditions should start to improve overnight.

Take a look at the headlines right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Carol, thanks very much.

Carol will be back.

Jack Cafferty has the day off. He'll be back with "The Cafferty File" on Monday.

Small but hopeful signs for a recovery for Senator Tim Johnson, who's fighting back following emergency brain surgery. We're going to go live to Capitol Hill -- that's coming up next -- for his condition, both political and medical.

Plus, Vice President Cheney says Donald Rumsfeld was the finest defense secretary ever.

Is he right?

I'll ask Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett. They're standing by live in today's Strategy Session.

And later, America's pastor, as he's now being called, gets a lot of grief for inviting Barack Obama to his church. Find out why when Rick Warren, the author of "The Purpose Driven Life" joins me right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

All of that coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Small signs today that Senator Tim Johnson is recovering after undergoing emergency brain surgery. That's a relief to friends and colleagues of the South Dakota Democrat in more ways than one.

Let's turn to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She's watching all of this from Capitol Hill -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the only news we've gotten from George Washington University Hospital, where Senator Tim Johnson is recovery and recuperating is good news today. And, you know, since two nights ago, when he had brain surgery, there have been small signs, as you said, of progress, very small signs, but important signs.

For example, we're told today that he has the movement on both sides of his body. We understand that he also is responding still to voice and to touch and from his wife, who asked for his hand, and he gave her his hand. So those are all encouraging signs, according to Senator Johnson's office.

And today, we have seen several of Senator Johnson's Senate colleagues go visit him at the hospital. As he has done every day, the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, was there this morning. Senator Jack Reed, as well. And Senator Tom Carper of Delaware -- he actually came out and talked to reporters and gave a progress report.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TOM CARPER (D), DELAWARE: He's sedated, as is not uncommon in this situation. He's just got to get some rest over the weekend. Apparently he had a CAT -- another CAT scan during the night and the signs are actually quite encouraging. And we're -- we've got a lot of people praying for him all over the country, Democrats and Republicans. It's a bipartisan thing. And we're actually very much encouraged with his progress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now there you heard Senator Tom Carper saying that Senator Johnson is sedated and will be over the weekend in order to get him some rest.

What we are hearing again from Senator Johnson's office is encouragement, but also caution, Wolf, because as his spokeswoman, Julianne Fisher, said, we live in a 24-hour news world. The body doesn't heal that way. It will take time.

So there is still quite a lot of concern because the bottom line is there is still nothing really known about the senator's long-term or even, frankly, short-term prognosis, in terms of what is going to happen with him when it comes to his recovery, his ability to come back to work, when that will happen.

But one thing I can tell you in terms of the political dimension of this, because of the good news coming from Senator Johnson and coming from that hospital, the political questions swirling about whether or not the Democrats' one seat majority that they were supposed to take in January, whether that will evaporate, those have really been tamped down because, as we have been talking about, Wolf, over the past 24 to 36 hours or so, the reality is that a sitting senator can stay in his seat as long as he wants. And, in fact, there is precedence for senators, even if they are ill, to be in their seat for months, even years, without being replaced -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, by all accounts, the Democrats are going forward with being the majority. The Republicans are going forward with being in the minority. No change on that, Dana.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for your report.

Coming up, some top presidential hopefuls head overseas.

But are they freelancing when it comes to foreign policy? We'll have something on that.

Also, Al Gore's campaign for his film, "An Inconvenient Truth" -- is it just a stepping stone for another White House run?

I'll ask Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett. They're standing by in today's Strategy Session.

Stay with us.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is rejecting a bipartisan panel's call to get Syria and Iran involved in easing the crisis in Iraq. The "Washington Post" today quotes the Secretary as saying: "The price of such a partnership might simply be too high." And she says: "If Syria and Iran really wanted stability in Iraq, they'd take action without any incentives from the United States."

Senator John Kerry says it's a mistake for the Bush administration to reject talks with Iran and Syria. Kerry right now on a Middle Eastern tour. It includes stops in Syria and talks with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

The White House says trips to Syria by senators aren't necessarily appropriate or helpful. Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida met with Syria's president in Damascus on Wednesday.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, has a lot more now on the lawmakers and the foreign policy freelancers, as they are being called by some of the critics -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, politics abhors a vacuum. If people see weak leadership at the top, others will step in, especially if they have presidential ambitions of their own.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): First, the voters expressed no confidence in President Bush's leadership in the mid-term election. Then a bipartisan committee of the national establishment, in the form of the Iraq Study Group, issued a similar no confidence vote.

So what's happening?

Freelancers are rushing in to fill the vacuum, some of whom want to take over after President Bush. Four senators went to Baghdad to complain about weak leadership in two places.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: There has to be leadership from the political leaders here, frankly, as well as the political leaders back home in the U.S.

SCHNEIDER: Likely 2008 contender John McCain offered his own policy prescription.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I believe there is still a compelling reason to have an increase in troops here in Baghdad and in Anbar Province in order to bring the sectarian violence under control.

SCHNEIDER: Four senators are defying the White House by going to Syria to meet with President Assad.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have discouraged members of Congress from doing this.

SCHNEIDER: Senator Dodd's response?

Members of Congress need to go to hot spots, not just garden spots. Senator Kerry's spokesman said if Ronald Reagan could talk to the Evil Empire, surely United States senators with a responsibility to American troops can visit Syria.

Oh, by the way, Dodd and Kerry may run-for president in 2008.

New Mexico-Governor Bill Richardson may run, too. The former U.N. ambassador met with North Korean officials in Sante Fe to discuss how to end the nuclear weapons crisis. Ten members of Congress, six Democrats and four Republicans, went to Havana to talk with Acting President Raul Castro about a new opening to Cuba now that Fidel Castro may be dying.

Is all this freelancing undermining the president's authority?

SNOW: No, the president is in charge of foreign policy. It may cost some people their credibility.

SCHNEIDER: White House to freelancers -- you stand warned.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Freelancers to White House -- you stand warned. They say it's the president's credibility that's suffering -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good piece.

Thanks very much, Bill Schneider, for that.

And Bill Schneider, as you saw earlier, Dana Bash, Frank Sesno, Jeff Greenfield, they are all part of the best political team on television. And remember, for all the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Up next, does Donald Rumsfeld deserve all the praise he's getting today, as he makes his exit from the Pentagon?

Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett -- they're standing by for our Strategy Session. That subject and more.

Also, President Bush weighing in on the pregnancy of the vice president's daughter, Mary Cheney. Are there any in between the line hints about his views on gay rights?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.

Happening now, lavish praise for Donald Rumsfeld as he ends a stormy and widely criticized six years over at the Pentagon. He received a full military send-off today. President Bush says the country is better off for Rumsfeld's service, including his leadership of the war in Iraq.

New Jersey may soon become the third state in the nation to allow gay couples to form civil unions. Democratic Governor Jon Corzine expected to sign the bill approved by state lawmakers yesterday. It's not clear, though, when he will sign it.

And President Bush says he's happy for Mary Cheney, the vice president's openly gay daughter, who's pregnant. In an interview with "People" magazine, Mr. Bush says he thinks Mary Cheney will be a "loving soul to her child." And the White House says Mr. Bush has not changed his mind that ideally a child should be raised by a married mother and father.

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

In today's "Strategy Session," how much of a shadow will Iraq cast over Donald Rumsfeld's legacy?

Joining us now, CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and CNN contributor Bill Bennett, the author of "America: The Last Best Hope." He is also the host of the "Morning in America" radio program. And he represents -- and he also works at the Claremont Institute as a Washington fellow.

Got a lot of...

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I do.

BLITZER: A lot plugs out there today for you.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Well-deserved. You work hard.

BENNETT: Slow news day.

(LAUGHTER) BLITZER: Yes.

BENNETT: OK? That's...

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Donald Rumsfeld had this sound bite about -- excuse me -- Vice President Cheney had this sound bite about Donald Rumsfeld.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD B. CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Don Rumsfeld is the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, you agree with him?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think he's a failed military strategist.

Look, Donald Rumsfeld had an opportunity, over the last couple years, to get it right in Iraq. He failed to implement many of the changes and suggestions that have come his way. He failed to listen to his military advisers. He failed to plan for an exit strategy. So, I think he will be remembered as a failed defense secretary.

BLITZER: But not necessarily the worst defense secretary ever?

BRAZILE: Well, Robert McNamara may hold that title, but I will guarantee you he's in the top five.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BENNETT: I agree on the McNamara.

But it's -- look, it's very nice of the vice president to do this, to say this, because Rumsfeld is really going through a very tough time, obviously. This is a tough town, you know?

BLITZER: You have known him personally for a long time.

BENNETT: Oh, very well. We're good friends. What is it? Sic transit gloria mundi. That's the glory of the world.

I mean, remember when Rumsfeld was the hottest thing in town? He was just great. His stock was high -- and, now, way, way down. He probably didn't deserve all that then. He certainly doesn't deserve all this now.

What -- what history records is what history will record, when we know a lot more facts, and know a lot more about what is going on.

But let's be sure of one thing. Things that have gone wrong in Iraq have been things often other than what the Defense Department was doing. Weapons of mass destructions intelligence, that was the CIA. Other nations not joining, some of that is the State Department. I don't believe...

BLITZER: So, he doesn't deserve all the blame?

BENNETT: No. And I don't -- I just don't believe the notion that he sat there with all these generals, and all of these generals were saying, go left, and he went right. Most of the generals we talk to, in fact, say that's not true. There are about a dozen people who have real arguments.

BRAZILE: Well, disbanding the Iraqi military, that is a failure. Abu Ghraib, the torture, that's a failure.

Clearly, Mr. Rumsfeld had an opportunity to listen to generals on the ground. More troops early on, that is a failure as well.

BENNETT: I agree more troops on the ground. And I agree Abu Ghraib. And so does Don Rumsfeld. In fairness, he said that was the worst say that he endured.

This is one hell of a tough situation. And the secretary of defense bears some responsibility for it. But, again, it's a very complicated situation, a lot of people involved, a lot of mistakes along the way.

There were people who, you know, after the military part of this, the initial military part of this, was very successful. The part for which the secretary of defense and the military was preeminently responsible succeeded very well. A lot of the other decisions -- and one of the decisions you're talking about is one of those -- had other parties involved that -- it's more than Rumsfeld.

BLITZER: All right.

I want to move on and talk about...

BENNETT: Sure.

BLITZER: ... Al Gore a little bit, your former boss.

He has got all these screenings now for "An Inconvenient Truth," his movie, his film, on global warming.

A lot of people are suspicious that, you know what? He still has that itch. He wants to be president of the United States. Is this simply a venue for him to throw his hat back in the ring?

BRAZILE: Well, for now, he has said he's not interested, but he hasn't closed the door.

But I think what Al Gore is trying to do now is to keep his commitment to the activists, to, you know -- to educate people, to activate them. He is holding over 1,800 house parties tomorrow night across the country, 7:00 p.m.

I know Bill Bennett will probably tune in and watch it.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He's got it -- he has organized one at his home.

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

And Al Gore will be live...

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: ... on a conference call, speaking to these activists, urging them to petition Congress to address climate -- the climate crisis. You can go on his Web site, Bill, www.AlGore.com...

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: ... to sign up for one of those house parties.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: What do you think? You know, Donna was the campaign manager for Al Gore.

BENNETT: Absolutely.

BLITZER: So, she knows a lot about this subject.

BENNETT: You bet.

BLITZER: I'm sure you have stayed close with the former vice president over these years.

But what do you think? What is going through, based on -- I know you're not close to him at all -- going through his mind right now?

BENNETT: Well, I mean, as a Republican partisan, let me just say that, for sure, I would rather face Al Gore than Hillary Clinton...

BLITZER: Why?

BENNETT: ... or Barack Obama.

Because I think it's an easier win for a Republican. But, by the way, when they got it tuned into the Al Gore channel tomorrow night, if they flip by accident, and they get Obama, people are not going to go back.

(LAUGHTER)

BENNETT: But, by the way, half the people in the country, in the northern tier, are going to have to fight through snowstorms to watch this global warming.

BLITZER: So, you -- so, you think that -- you think he is, what, more polarizing, less formidable than Hillary Rodham Clinton? BENNETT: I think his day is over.

And it may be that Hillary's day is over. This is very early to be saying it, but one of the interesting things about the appearance of Obama on the scene is, he makes her look, by comparison, somewhat more experienced and mature.

He also makes her look -- I don't want to say old, but makes her look like she has been around a long time and not as interesting. And I think that's a Gore problem, too.

BLITZER: You know, and...

BENNETT: He has been around a long time.

BLITZER: And a lot of people have said to me, that's one of the charming things about Barack Obama. He's only been a United States senator for two years.

If he waits, shall we say, another four years, and eight years -- and he's still only in his mid-40s -- he could wait, but, by then, he will have that baggage of all these years in the United States Senate, which is usually not a very comforting element for American voters.

BRAZILE: Well, first of all, if Al Gore decides to run, I think he will be a top-tier candidate. And he can defeat some of the so- called hot tickets right now.

I agree that Hillary and Barack are drawing a lot of the oxygen out of the room. But Barack Obama must plan this out carefully, as you well know, Wolf. I mean, I can see a scenario where he can pick up a couple of early states, but I also see the scenario that Barack needs experienced. He needs people around him that understand the political landscape.

And, also, he will have to address, in this post-9/11 world, his experience in foreign policy, and what if -- God forbid, another 9/11 attack, how would he respond.

BENNETT: Yes.

BLITZER: We have got to leave it there, guys. Thanks very much.

BENNETT: You age fast in this medium, though, don't you?

BRAZILE: Yes.

BENNETT: I mean, the news cycle, it looks like -- it seems like people have been out longer than they have been.

BLITZER: It's only two years he has been in the United States Senate.

BENNETT: I know. I know.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks . BRAZILE: AlGore.com tomorrow.

BENNETT: OK.

BLITZER: We want to thank...

(CROSSTALK)

BENNETT: ... there's no football.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: ... Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett. They are part of the best political team on television. But all of you know that.

Coming up: Denver or New York? That's the question facing Democrats right now. Which city will they choose to host their 2008 convention? They're getting very, very close to a decision. And it's a decision that could matter.

Plus: We have been talking presidential politics -- up next, a new invitation for Hillary Clinton to run for president. She's on our "Political Radar," along with some of her possible White house rivals -- lots more coming up.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's an important story coming in from the state of Florida right now.

Let's turn to Carol once again for details -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Yes, Wolf, the Associated Press is reporting that Governor Jeb Bush has issued a temporary halt to all executions in Florida, after a botched job on this man, Angel Diaz. He was sentenced to be put to death by lethal injections.

And, apparently -- and an autopsy found this out -- the people doing the injecting missed his vein. Now, during lethal injection, three drugs are pumped into a person. One anesthetizes you. One paralyzes you, in essence. And the third drug causes a heart attack, in essence.

So, death penalty opponents say Angel Diaz died a very painful death. An autopsy found he may have. So, Jeb Bush has put a temporary halt to all executions, until they can figure this out.

Of course, we will have much more on this later -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Carol, thanks very much for that -- Carol Costello reporting.

And there's another important story we are following right now. We have just received another statement on the condition of Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota from his office.

Let me bring you some of the highlights on what they're saying, a new medical update on his condition.

"The surgery," it says, "was considered a success. The surgeons evacuated the blood and stabilized the bleeding. The surgery also relieved the pressure on the brain. Senator Johnson remains in the intensive care unit," it says, "in critical, but stable, condition."

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, himself a neurosurgeon, is with us.

Sanjay, I don't know if you have actually seen the statement. It has got a lot of technical information in there, which will be of significance to you. Have you seen this actual statement?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm just looking at it as you are, as well, Wolf. I...

BLITZER: Let me read some of the specifics, and then tell our viewers what specifically this means.

"Routinely, patients with an intracranial hemorrhage experience post-operative swelling of the brain. Much like a bruise, it takes time to heal," says Dr. Caputi (ph), who is the -- one of the chief physicians, the neurosurgeon who was involved in this.

What do you make of this?

GUPTA: Well, you know, what happens, when you have bleeding in the brain, the brain -- that's sort of a foreign substance in the brain. The brain reacts to it, because it doesn't want the blood there, so it starts to swell.

And, at the time of the operation, just by touching the brain and removing that blood, there is some more swelling at that time as well. So, it's sort of two insults, if you will, to the brain, in a short period of time.

Obviously, the operation is necessary. You -- so, you have to do that. But, as neurosurgeons, we know that there is going to be some swelling at the time, or after we're -- after the operation is completed.

So, some medications are given to try and reduce some of that brain swelling. Obviously, the patient is still considered to be in critical condition, monitored very closely for any neurological changes, and probably get scans of the brain pretty frequently.

I read the statement. And they said they got another CAT scan of his brain, sort of a sophisticated brain image, this morning, as well, which looked pretty good. But that swelling can last for several days still. That's something they are going to be watching closely.

BLITZER: The statement says: "The surgery was considered a success. The surgeons evacuated the blood to stabilize the bleeding. The surgery also relieved the pressure on the brain."

And, as you point out, the regular C.T. scans are continuing.

We were told, also, he is responding to his wife and physicians. And I assume that's very encouraging?

GUPTA: Very, very encouraging, Wolf.

I think that's probably the best takeaway from the entire statement. We heard that he actually opened his eyes to his wife's voice yesterday morning, really remarkable, very soon after the operation, really.

The biggest concern here, I think, probably for his doctors, for most doctors who know about this sort of thing, is that, because this hemorrhage, this bleeding affected those areas of the brain responsible for speech and the ability to understand speech, the question everyone has when he wakes up is, he going to be able to understand something? Is he going to be able to recognize a spoken or written word, or be able to speak himself?

The fact that he heard something, "Open your eyes," and then executed a command based on that, is critical. It means lots of different things in the brain are working. And that's very important, and bodes well for his recovery in the long run -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It also concludes, this statement -- and let me read it to you, Sanjay, and to our viewers -- "It is anticipated that Senator Johnson will be in the hospital until brain swelling goes down, and his overall condition improves. As he presented with weakness on his right side, doctors anticipate that physical therapy will be part of recovery."

And that physical therapy, Sanjay, could be weeks, months. This is a long-term ordeal he is presumably going to have to go through.

GUPTA: Yes, very likely.

And, you know, we talk a lot about these arteriovenous malformation, again, a big word, Wolf, that sort of cluster. And I think we have a picture of this cluster of the arteries and veins together in the brain.

And, a lot of times, when you see that sort of cluster, then, you remove that bleeding, you worry that it's actually injured, the bleeding has injured some parts of the brain, including that area responsible for strength on his right side, including that area responsible for speech.

So, not only physical therapy, my guess, Wolf, but also speech therapy, and possibly some swallowing therapy, because those muscles are affected as well.

(COUGHING)

GUPTA: Excuse me And you're right, weeks and months much more likely than hours and days, in terms of how long this will take to recover.

BLITZER: All right, we are going to stay on top of this with you, Sanjay. Thanks very much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

I want to bring in Dana Bash, our congressional correspondent.

Dana, I guess, politically, this statement represents really a lot more encouragement for Democrats, who certainly want to be the majority in the U.S. Senate.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: A lot more encouragement.

And, Wolf, as we got this statement from Senator Johnson's press secretary, Julianne Fisher, I was talking to her. And you could just tell, in terms of the tone and tenor and really atmospherics coming from that office, and, more generally, from Democrats, and really everybody here on Capitol Hill, that there is, as you and Sanjay were just talking about, as this new statement from the senator's doctor represents a lot more encouragement, in terms of his state, his condition, given the fact that he really does seem to be progressing.

But, still, his prognosis is a question mark, in terms of how long this is going to take. And that is what the senator's office is -- is emphasizing over and over again, something that is in this new statement that we got, that you talked about with Sanjay, where it says, much like a bruise, it takes time to heal, and going on to talk about the fact that the senator is going to need physical therapy, and he does have weakness on his right side.

So, that is kind of the idea and the emphasis that we're -- we have been getting now from Democrats over the past 24 hours or so, that they feel like they're out of the woods, in terms of Senator Johnson and his condition, but, again, urging patience, saying, this is going to take some time.

And the answer to your question on the politics, as we talked about just a short while ago, there is precedent for senators being out of work, not coming to work, not voting for months, even years. So, everybody here, Republicans and Democrats we talk to, say, look, we are just going to give the senator the time needs, the time he needs to take to heal.

BLITZER: And I speak for everyone when we wish him a speedy recovery -- 59-year-old Senator Tim Johnson apparently doing well, under the circumstances.

Thanks very much for that.

Coming up: Lawmakers have pointed out that, since 9/11, security on the nation's trains remains almost nonexistent -- today, a potent remainder of the danger posed by just one railcar full of toxic chemicals.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Just a short time ago, federal authorities unveiled a new set of rules aimed at helping protect America's railroad system against terrorism, critics saying this is too little, too late.

Let's turn to CNN's Kathleen Koch. She has more -- Kathleen.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's pretty much evident to -- to any traveler you go of the nation's airports, a lot more security since 9/11. At the nation's ports, security is up as well.

But, when you go to the train stations, not really much has changed, security-wise, since 9/11. And -- and, today, there was a very vivid reminder of just how dangerous one single car of toxic chemicals can be.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH (voice-over): A potential disaster -- a train derails this morning in Maryland with a tanker carrying anhydrous ammonia, potentially deadly if inhaled. This time, it was an accident, not a terrorist act, and no one hurt.

But it vividly illustrated the vulnerability of such trains. The incident came the same day the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to protect such railcars from intentional sabotage.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Almost 90 percent of high-risk chemicals travel in bulk either by train or in barges or ships. If we focus on protecting those means of transportation, we are basically taking a very significant percent of the risk of high- inhalation chemicals off the table.

KOCH: The new rules would require freight railroads to keep railcars packed with the most hazardous materials in secure locations when parked in high-threat urban areas.

Railroads would have security coordinators to receive intelligence from the government, and report security concerns and possible threats. A tracking system would be created to pinpoint the location and content of railcars carrying dangerous material.

But critics say the measure still leave gaping holes in rail security.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: We know what al Qaeda wants to do. We should be rerouting the dangerous chemicals around the densely populated areas. But, instead, the Bush administration listens to the railroad industry, instead of the warnings that have been emanating from al Qaeda for the last several years.

KOCH: Some cities are so concerned, that they have proposed requiring such railcars steer clear of their borders.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH: And, just last year, Washington, D.C., as a matter of fact, passed a law banning hazardous material shipments within 2.2 miles of the U.S. Capitol. Well, the railroad is suing.

And it just goes to show how cities are really ready to take matters into their own hands, Wolf, if the federal government doesn't act.

BLITZER: Kathleen, thanks for that.

KOCH: You bet.

BLITZER: Kathleen Koch reporting on a sensitive, important subject.

Coming up, we're going to have much more on that breaking news coming out of Florida, where all executions have now been suspended, after, apparently, a botched execution earlier this week -- the governor, Jeb Bush, making that announcement. We're going to have more details.

Also: Does Senator Barack Obama have the right stuff to become president of the United States? I will ask Pastor Rick Warren what he thinks. That's coming up in the next hour. He will tell us in our one-on-one interview, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our "Political Radar" this Friday: Senator Hillary Clinton is deciding whether to accept a politically important invitation. She has been asked to be the featured speaker at a major Democratic fund-raiser in New Hampshire early next year. If she goes, it would be Senator Clinton's first trip to the early primary state since she began weighing a run for the White House.

New Hampshire is a popular destination for White House prospects right now. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich is there today. Two Democrats, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, will be there this weekend.

Senator Barack Obama reportedly plans to reveal next month whether he will run for president. "The Chicago Tribune," his hometown newspaper, says, the Illinois Democrat will announce his decision after a two-week family vacation in Hawaii. "The Tribune" also reports that Obama told its editorial board he would not opt to run for president if he didn't think he could win.

Democrats are on the brink of announcing where they will hold their 2008 presidential nominating convention.

Those of us who cover those conventions are eager to know where we will be spending some time about a year-and-a-half or so from now. But why should you care about the location? Let's bring back our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, with a bit of background -- Jeff.

GREENFIELD: Wolf, for the Democrats, it has come down to two candidates -- no, not for the nomination, but for which city will host its 2008 convention. The Republicans have already picked Minneapolis/Saint Paul.

But, beyond the self-interest of hotels and restaurants and limo companies, does it really make any difference? Well, it has. And it might.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD (voice-over): One candidate is New York City. It's a choice actively backed by Hillary Clinton, which makes sense for a New York politician, and maybe for other, more expansive reasons.

New York has hosted the Democrats three times in the last 30 years. In fact, the only two Democrats to win the White House in the last 40 years, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were both nominated in New York.

The other finalist is Denver, Colorado, a choice that is backed by Democrats looking to stake out new electoral territory. Denver's first, and last, convention was in 1908, when Democrats chose William Jennings Bryan for the third time. He lost in a landslide to William Howard Taft.

More relevant is that Democrats have picked up House, Senate and governor's seats in the Mountain West in recent years, making the region's 40-plus electoral votes, almost reliably Republican, a tempting target for Democrats.

But, come on. How much does this matter? Well, in 1860, the still new Republican Party met at the Wigwam in Chicago. And the packed galleries helped cheer on the come-from-behind victory of their favorite son, Abe Lincoln.

In 1968, when Democrats gathered in Chicago, the clash between anti-war demonstrators and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's police produced images that deeply scarred the party. They didn't meet again in that once most popular convention city for 28 years.

In 1984, Democrats gathered in San Francisco to nominate Walter Mondale.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEANE KIRKPATRICK, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The San Francisco Democrats...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: And that gave Republican Convention keynoter Jeane Kirkpatrick a chance to slap a label, the San Francisco Democrats, on the party that seemed to mean all things out of the mainstream.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KIRKPATRICK: When the Soviet Union walked out of arms-control negotiations and refused even to discuss the issues, the San Francisco Democrats didn't blame Soviet intransigence. They blamed the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

KIRKPATRICK: But, then, they always blame America first.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: But, sometimes, the choice of a convention city can help.

When New York was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1975, President's Ford's refusal to bail the city out brought this overwrought tabloid headline, and it gave Jimmy Carter a chance to the tell the New York convention a year later that he would never tell the greatest city in the world to drop dead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: That November, Jimmy Carter carried New York state by just 4 percentage points. And, without those 41 electoral votes, Jerry Ford would have kept the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff, thank you.

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

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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