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THE SITUATION ROOM

Bush Confronts Attacks on Credibility, Unrest in Republican Ranks, William Caldwell Interview

Aired February 14, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And happening now, President Bush confronted with questions about his credibility.
Can he square conflicting claims about Iran's role in Iraq?

This hour, the flashpoints and the highlights from Mr. Bush's news conference.

Also, I'll speak about it with the top spokesman for U.S. military forces in Iraq, Major General William Caldwell.

More House Republicans are breaking with the president on Iraq and opposing a troop build-up.

Are they giving aid and comfort to Democrats?

And a sudden surge in the race for the White House. Republican Rudy Giuliani enjoys a boost in the polls.

Is he doing something right?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

At his first news conference this year, President Bush seemed resigned to a symbolic Congressional vote against his plan for a troop build-up in Iraq. But he sounded downright miffed at repeated questions about whether Iran is arming Iraqi insurgents.

Mr. Bush says he's certain Iran's military Quds force is supplying deadly weapons being used against U.S. troops in Iraq. But he says he doesn't know if top officials in Tehran actually gave the order. The president made those points after being pressed hard about mixed signals being sent by the administration on this issue.

The man doing the pressing?

Our own White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

He's joining us from the White House -- But before we go to you, Ed, I want to play for our viewers this exchange that you had at that White House news conference.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, I want to follow up on Iran one more time.

Are you saying today that you do not know if senior members of the Iranian government are, in fact, behind these explosives?

That contradicts what U.S. officials said in Baghdad on Sunday. They said the highest levels of the Iranian government were behind this. It also -- it seems to square with what General Pace has been saying but contradicts with what your own press secretary...

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Can I...

HENRY: ... said yesterday.

BUSH: Can I -- look, I can't say...

HENRY: What is...

BUSH: Let me finish, Ed.

I can't say it more plainly -- there are weapons in Iraq that are harming U.S. troops because of the Quds force. And, as you know, I hope, that the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. Whether Ahmadinejad ordered the Quds force to do this, I don't think we know. But we do know that they're there and I intend to do something about it. And I've asked our commanders to do something about it. And we're going to protect our troops.

HENRY: Some of those contradictions, Mr. President...

BUSH: There's no contradiction that the weapons are there and they were provided by the Quds force, Ed.

HENRY: But what assurances can you give the American people that the intelligence this time will be accurate?

BUSH: Ed, we know they're there. We know they're provided by the Quds force. We know the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. I don't think we know that -- who picked up the phone and said the Quds force go do this, but we know it's a vital part of the Iranian government.

What matters is, is that we're responding. The idea that somehow we're manufacturing the idea that the Iranians are providing IEDs is preposterous, Ed.

My job is to protect our troops. And when we find devices that are in that country that are hurting our troops, we're going to do something about it, pure and simple.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Ed Henry, you're at the White House right now. And he really didn't answer your specific question about the discrepancy between what he and General Peter Pace, the chairman of the joint chiefs, are saying now, that they don't know if the highest officials in the Iranian government actually authorized these shipments of explosives to Iraqi Shiites, even though Sunday morning in Baghdad, U.S. officials were making that specific charge.

HENRY: That's right, Wolf.

I mean, look, this all started with the administration itself, on Sunday, making these claims that the highest levels of the Iranian government were involved. That's why we've been pursuing these questions for the last couple of days.

And it really appears that the administration is not on the same page, that they're all over the map on this.

Now, I'm getting pushed back from very senior White House officials saying look, this is much ado about very little.

But the fact of the matter is that the president today really seemed to be pulling back from what those officials said Sunday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Is -- is this, as some of the president's critics are suggesting -- a pretext or a possibility of a step leading toward actual military confrontation with Iran?

HENRY: Look, the president insists absolutely not, that he has no intention of going to war with Iran. He said that again today. He's been saying that for weeks, as have a whole bunch of top officials.

Bottom line is that all of this talk about intelligence, what do they have, when did they have it, it's obviously reminding a lot of people about the buildup to the war in Iraq. There are a lot of lingering questions of credibility from that and that's why the president is getting these questions now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry doing his job at the White House for us, asking important questions of the president of the United States.

Ed, thank you.

President Bush, meanwhile, says members of Congress have every right to vent their opposition to sending more U.S. troops to Iraq. But he suggests his Iraqi -- Iraq critics in Congress are not being consistent. He cites the Senate's recent confirmation of his top military commander in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: When General Petraeus' nomination was considered three weeks ago, the United States Senate voted unanimously to confirm him. And I appreciated that vote by the senators.

And now members of the House of Representatives are debating a resolution that would express disapproval of the plan that General Petraeus is carrying out.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Mr. Bush spoke even as members of the House continue to debate the situation in Iraq full speed ahead and as more Republicans are actually now siding with Democrats against him.

Let's bring in our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel.

She's watching all of this unfold -- what happened today -- Andrea?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Republicans who spoke today, including North Carolina's Walter Jones, like most members, had actually signed up for their time slips long before they knew President Bush would be holding a news conference at the very same time that they'd be giving speeches opposing his policy.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

KOPPEL (voice-over): It was a telling moment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you believe that a vote of disapproval of your policy emboldens the enemy?

KOPPEL: Even as a reporter was asking President Bush about the implications of this week's vote in Congress...

REP. WALTER JONES (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Why are we in Iraq? That is the question.

KOPPEL: ... on the floor of the House, members of Mr. Bush's own party were breaking with him.

REP. STEVEN LATOURETTE (R), OHIO: I wish our president had chosen a different path.

KOPPEL: Almost a dozen Republicans lining up with Democrats opposing the president's strategy.

REP. RIC KELLER (R), FLORIDA: Interjecting more young American troops into the crosshairs of an Iraqi civil war is simply not the right approach.

REP. JIM RAMSTAD (R), MINNESOTA: It's time for a surge in diplomacy, not a surge in troops, to mend a broken country.

KOPPEL: Still, most Republicans agreed with Mr. Bush.

REP. MICHAEL D. ROGERS (R), ALABAMA: What disturbs me most, Mr. Speaker, about this resolution, is that it's clear purpose is to divide those of us in this chamber.

KOPPEL: The president worried aloud this mostly symbolic resolution could turn into a slippery slope and lead Congress to cut off funding for the troops.

BUSH: Our troops are counting on their elected leaders in Washington, D.C. to provide them with the support they need to do their mission.

KOPPEL: Even those Republicans opposed to the president's plan said that would be going too far.

REP. MICHAEL CASTLE (R), DELAWARE: Protecting American soldiers must continue to be our greatest priority and I will oppose any attempts to cut off funding for our troops who are serving in harm's way.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

KOPPEL: Now, Democrats have also promised they wouldn't cut funding for the troops. But at the same time, Speaker Pelosi, for one, has made clear there'll be no more blank check for President Bush. And other Democrats like Pennsylvania's John Murtha has said that he intends to scrutinize additional funding for the war -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Andrea.

I know you're going to watch this story for us.

Meanwhile, in a letter to colleagues, two GOP congressmen are urging Republicans to debate the Iraq resolution on their own terms. Now Democrats are seizing on that letter, accusing Republicans of playing politics with the war.

For a behind the scenes glimpse into this debate over Iraq, let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the letter says that the debate shouldn't just be on the current situation in Iraq, but the global threat of the radical Islamist movement.

It has a map attached of worldwide attacks since 2002. There's also recommended reading in the letter.

It also says: "If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose."

This letter was cosigned and dated yesterday by Arizona Republican John Shadegg and Pete Hoekstra of Michigan. It was obtained by Democrats and released by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

A spokesman for Congressman Shadegg says that the "we lose" line refers not to Republicans, but to Americans. That's a line that's being talked about on liberal blogs today.

In response to the letter, Democrat Rahm Emanuel put out a statement yesterday saying: "We all lose when we avoid discussing the war in Iraq" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi, thank you for that.

A key moment in the trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby happening right here in Washington. Let's get right to the federal courthouse.

Our Brian Todd is monitoring all these late breaking developments.

What has just happened -- Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Literally just now, Wolf, "Scooter" Libby's attorneys have just rested their case. Closing arguments should be next week.

A big development today in the trial. Libby's attorneys got some serious backlash from the judge related to their decision not to have Libby take the stand.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

TODD (voice-over): An angry Judge Reggie Walton warned "Scooter" Libby's attorneys not to play games, says he always expected Libby to testify and now that he isn't, the judge won't allow the defense to introduce some evidence it wanted -- documents that might have shown how distracted Libby was with national security matters in the summer of 2003 and might have bolstered Libby's claim that he didn't remember what he told reporters about administration critic Joe Wilson and his wife's job at the CIA.

JEFFREY JACOBOVITZ, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: That decision really will impact upon whether "Scooter" Libby gets a jury instruction to the jury on faulty memory and what the jury considers.

TODD: Something the jury won't be able to consider -- any testimony from Libby's former boss. Dick Cheney could have told the jury about Libby's huge work load that summer, all the crises he dealt with. But there was also considerable risk.

JACOBOVITZ: The evidence, as shown, is how essentially panic stricken the White House was over this editorial by Joseph Wilson. And if, in fact, Cheney was focused on it, then Libby was focused on it. And if Libby was focused on it, then Libby's faulty memory might not have been that faulty.

TODD: Bolstering the strategy of not calling Libby to the stand, the jury's already heard from him -- hours of audiotape from Libby's grand jury testimony. And his attorney, Ted Wells, has made this crucial strategy call before.

Wells defended former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy on charges of accepting illegal gifts. Wells didn't put espy on the stand, either. Espy was found not guilty on 30 counts.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: But Ted Wells did get another challenge today. He had wanted to call the prosecution's star witness, NBC News' Tim Russert, back to the stand or play TV clips of Russert to punch holes in one obscure part of Russert's testimony. The judge ruled, though, that that was just too obscure. And Ted Wells never got another crack at Tim Russert -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So now, next week, they go forward -- or when do they go forward with their closing arguments?

TODD: We expect closing arguments to resume on Tuesday -- to begin on Tuesday, after the federal holiday. The jury should get this case by midweek.

BLITZER: Brian Todd at the courthouse for us, watching this important trial.

Thank you, Brian.

Brian Todd, Abbi Tatton, Andrea Koppel, Ed Henry -- they are all part of the best political team on television. And remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Jack Cafferty has the day off.

Jack and The Cafferty File will be back tomorrow.

But coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, much more on the war of words between the U.S. and Iran over Iraq. Up next, I'll talk about it with General William Caldwell. He's the top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

Also, a winter nightmare across much of the Northeast.

Is there more ice and snow and misery to come?

We'll go live to the CNN Severe Weather Center for the latest.

And comedian Al Franken plays it straight, straight to the U.S. Senate, if he gets his way.

Will voters take his political career seriously?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: An aide close to Muqtada al-Sadr is denying reports the radical anti-American Shiite cleric has fled from Iraq to Iran. Iran's state news agency quoting the aid as saying Al-Sadr is in the Iraqi city of Najaf right now.

But U.S. officials are standing by their belief Al-Sadr is in Iran right now.

And joining us now in Baghdad, Major General William Caldwell, chief spokesman for the Multi-National Forces in Iraq.

General, do you know where Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical anti- American Shiite cleric is right now? MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, U.S. ARMY: We've got a fairly good indication, yes. We know he is not in Iraq and all indications are he's in Iran right now.

BLITZER: What does that mean, if, in fact, he's in Iran? Does he frequently go to Iran? Is this an unusual situation? Did he flee because he was afraid for his life?

What's your assessment?

CALDWELL: Wolf, obviously, you know, our -- we've been talking about that in-depth. We know he left some time last month and moved out of the country. But the exact reasons why, we really haven't gone talking public yet about because it's still supposition at this time.

BLITZER: Has he -- has he been to Iran often over the past few years?

I'm just trying to get a sense whether this is an extraordinary development or it may be more routine, given his previous visits to Iran.

CALDWELL: Wolf, we know he has been in Iran before. I'd really have to go back and do some detailed assessments there to take a look at that.

But we do know that there is some kind of relationship that exists and that that would have been a place he would go that would -- he would feel comfortable in.

BLITZER: As far as the U.S. military is concerned, general, what's his status? Is he someone you've been pursuing, you want to arrest or you want to kill? Or is he someone you now tolerate?

CALDWELL: What I'd say is he's somebody that we hope the government of Iraq is able to bring into their political process, as they try to move forward here in the country to develop a unified nation with all the political parties working together and all of the people reconciling their differences.

BLITZER: Even though the former U.S. military commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, once said that he had American blood on his hands, he had killed Americans and he was wanted, effectively, dead or alive? That statement, I take it no longer operable?

CALDWELL: Not at this time, Wolf. That is correct. He is part of the political process here in Iraq. We encourage him to be part of that, to help move this country forward and work out the differences that exist between the different sects right now.

BLITZER: The president of the United States, just a little while ago, said that he knows for sure that Iranians -- elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Quds force, have been sending in sophisticated munitions into Iraq to kill American soldiers. But he's -- he doesn't know for sure that the highest levels of the Iranian government are behind this. He doesn't know who is behind it.

This seems to differ from that briefing Sunday morning in Baghdad, where military briefers told reporters they were convinced the highest levels of the Iranian government were behind this.

What's the latest information you have?

CALDWELL: Well, Wolf, what I'll tell you is we're in complete agreement that the Quds force is, in fact, involved with, associated with and helping with the movement of arms, munitions, money in from Iran into Iraq. And they're also associated with the training of insurgent elements, extremist elements in Iran that then work their way back into Iraq.

There's no question there. And that's what we, here on the ground, are very worried about because of their nefarious activities that they keep being involved in.

BLITZER: Did the military briefers Sunday morning in Baghdad go too far in saying that they knew that the highest levels of the Iranian government were behind this?

CALDWELL: Wolf, what I would tell you is that during that Sunday briefing, the military analyst was making an inference as to where the chain of command existed for the Quds force. But the intent of the brief, the purpose behind it, was for us to talk about force protection, the protection of our soldiers and the criticality of coming out and bringing out that these explosively formed penetrators are being manufactured, they're being produced in Iran and being smuggled into Iraq to kill American soldiers and Iraqi security forces.

BLITZER: We -- this has been information that's been around at least for a year, maybe two, maybe even longer.

Why now? Why did you and the U.S. military decide to do that briefing Sunday morning?

CALDWELL: Wolf, we had -- several weeks before that -- had made the decision, after long, tough discussions, to come out publicly because of the rapid increase we were seeing in the number of explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, that were turning up in Iraq, being used to kill American soldiers and Iraqi security forces.

The levels of them had reached an all time high, increasing by about 150 percent since January at the beginning of the year, until November or December time frame, when we reached an all time high since 2004.

And, in fact, these last three months, November through January, have been the highest ever in terms of EFP events that we have had here in Iraq.

BLITZER: There's been some suggestion that the briefing Sunday morning was -- was, in effect, authorized, if not ordered, by the White House. What can you say about that?

CALDWELL: No, the briefing that was given here in Iraq was, in fact, conceived here. An initial briefing was put together here and the scenes that all ensued back in Washington once we sent it back for inter-agency intelligence community clearance, that somehow all the discussion started back there and everybody started making comments about what we were or were not doing.

The bottom line -- it was all about force protection, protecting American and Iraqi security forces, coalition forces that are operating here in this country.

BLITZER: Major General William Caldwell, speaking with me from Baghdad just a little while ago.

Up next, frozen shut -- parts of the United States paralyzed by an icy, snowy winter storm.

Will the big chill end any time soon?

Plus, another celebrity turned politician -- Al Franken makes audiences laugh.

But can he get the votes to win a U.S. Senate seat?

Stay with us.

We'll be back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This Valentine's Day, it appears Mother Nature has little love for many parts of the Northeast. As you can see in these traffic cameras, several roads are snarly, snowy and a mess, slowing traffic to an icy crawl. And the weather is impacting other forms of travel, as well, with planes grounded and trains stopped.

Let's get the latest on the weather situation from our meteorologist, Reynolds Wolf.

He joins us from the CNN Severe Weather Center -- it ain't pretty here in the Washington area and a lot of other parts of the country it's a lot worse -- Reynolds.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Oh, absolutely.

This storm system is just a monster. A big snowmaker through parts of the Ohio Valley. But now the storm system really is setting its sights on the Northeast. Parts of New York back into Vermont, as well as New Hampshire. And the snow has really been coming down.

The heaviest snowfall at this hour, Wolf, has been over in Albany, where they've seen about a foot of snow since early this morning. And we're expecting quite a bit more as we make our way through the evening and into early tomorrow morning. Now, would have a blizzard warning in effect through the Albany area, back over to Manchester. That will remain in effect until about 6:00 tomorrow. And, again, the snow is expected to be very deep, especially north and east of Albany, back up into Vermont, as well as New Hampshire.

But the problem is, once that snow moves out, we're expecting that cold air to remain in place. So all of the snow that will fall from tonight into tomorrow, you can see as we advance our computer model showing the temperatures, at least in terms of wind chills, will remain below zero through Thursday and even into much of Friday.

So all of the snow that's going to fall over the next 12 hours and into tomorrow is not going to leave any time soon.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Reynolds, thanks.

I know Reynolds is going to be monitoring all of this for us.

He'll be coming back in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour.

Up ahead, the secret to his success -- why has Rudy Giuliani gotten a lift in a new GOP presidential poll?

And is President Bush ready to weigh in on the 2008 race for the White House?

Find out.

All that coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, it's happening now.

One has it, the other wants it -- Republicans Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. One of the presidential prospects is seeing his popularity literally take off. We're going to tell you who and why.

The U.S. military says Muqtada al-Sadr left Iraq some time last month, and that he appears to be in Iran right now -- Major General William Caldwell refusing to speculate, though, at this point why -- but Iranian media and an aide to the radical Shiite cleric insisting al-Sadr is not -- repeat, not -- in Iran.

And he's a comedian known for political punchlines. But Al Franken has something to tell you, and it's no joke.

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

It's early in the race for the White House, but, as of right now, things are going quite well for Rudy Giuliani. He's finishing up a successful California swing, and he's sitting down with our own Larry King. Let's turn to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, for the latest -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, some candidates seem to be getting what the first President Bush once called the big mo' in the 2008 race. That would be momentum.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Rudy Giuliani is not just getting in; he's also taking off. Last month, the "USA Today"/Gallup poll had Giuliani and John McCain running neck and neck among Republicans nationwide. Now Giuliani has moved to a sizable lead over McCain.

What's driving it?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE")

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: I think on the basis of leadership. I think that -- I think they will on the basis of, ultimately, we need someone we think can handle this country at a time of war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: Giuliani is 9/11. That's what gave him the image of strong, decisive leadership, the same image President Bush used to have. McCain is becoming more identified with a different Bush image, Iraq.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The commander of the multinational forces Iraq, now General David Petraeus, and all United States personnel under his command should receive from Congress the full support necessary to carry out the United States' mission in Iraq.

SCHNEIDER: McCain and Giuliani both support the president on Iraq. It's a matter of which image the Republicans want to present to voters next year. The Bush of 9/11 got reelected in 2004. The Bush of Iraq got defeated in 2006.

Some social conservatives are determined to block Giuliani.

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: I think Giuliani is unacceptable from the outset.

SCHNEIDER: Giuliani will never be a favorite of social conservatives, but he's trying to make himself not unacceptable to them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE")

GIULIANI: I am pro-choice. But I -- but I -- I'm also, as you know, always have been, against abortion, hate abortion, don't like it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: In the end, Giuliani is relying on the halo effect of 9/11, that voters will set aside litmus tests for leadership.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE")

GIULIANI: We need leadership. I think there's an understanding that you can't -- you can never find a candidate you agree with 100 percent of the time. I don't agree with myself 100 percent of the time.

(LAUGHTER)

GIULIANI: So, how are you going to find a candidate you agree with...

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Do you think they will vote for you?

GIULIANI: I think they will. I think they will. And I think they will on the basis of leadership.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Now, among Democrats, Hillary Clinton seems to have the big mo'. Her lead over Barack Obama has widened, from 11 points last month, to 19 points this months.

And what happens if you ask all voters nationwide to choose between Clinton and Giuliani? Well, then, it's pretty much a tie.

BLITZER: We're going to discuss this and have more on this coming up in our "Strategy Session." Bill, thanks for that.

And, by the way, you can see the entire interview with Rudy Giuliani. That airs tonight on "LARRY KING LIVE," starts 9:00 p.m. Eastern -- Rudy Giuliani and Larry King tonight on "LARRY KING LIVE."

Being the front-runner so early in the race does not necessarily guarantee success, especially for Democrats. February 1987, the Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, was way down in the polls, at just 3 percent, far behind Gary Hart. But Dukakis went on to win the Democratic presidential nomination, before losing to Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush in the 1988 election.

Bill Clinton was just at 6 percent in the fall of '91. Jerry Brown, the former California governor, was at the top of the polls at that time, but the Arkansas governor went on to win the Democratic nomination, and then the presidential election.

And this -- at this time in 2003, John Kerry was trailing Joe Lieberman in the polls. Kerry sank even further back, storm -- before storming back to win the primaries and the nomination, of course, all that before losing a close election to President Bush in 2004. On our "Political Radar" today: a new poll, by the way, gauging a possible presidential smackdown between two titans of New York State on their home turf, Hillary Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The Quinnipiac poll of New Yorkers shows Democrat Clinton leading Republican Giuliani by 50 percent to 40 percent in the Empire State.

California takes a step towards moving up its primary. The state Senate has voted to push up its primary from June to the first Tuesday in February. The goal? To give California a bigger say in the presidential political game. The state assembly is expected to quickly act on the bill and possibly send it next week to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supports it.

At least eight other states have or -- or are seriously considering moving up their presidential contests to February 5, shaping up as a huge day in the presidential campaign.

And President Bush is making it clear, reporters who try to get him to speculate about the race to replace him will be sorely disappointed.

Listen to what he said at his news conference today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would just like to establish some ground rules here with those of you who are stuck following me for the next little less than two years. I will resist all temptation to become the pundit in chief, and commenting upon every twist and turn of the presidential campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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

And this note: CNN is a partner with WMUR Television and "The New Hampshire Union Leader" for the very first presidential debates of this current campaign season. They will air here on CNN on April 4 and 5 of this year -- again, the first debates in the leadoff presidential primary state. You will see it here.

Let's go to Carol Costello. She's monitoring the wires, keeping an eye on all the video feeds coming in. She's joining us from New York with a closer look at some other important stories making news.

Hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Actually, I have been monitoring the situation at JFK Airport here in New York.

Some passengers just got off an airplane. I know that doesn't sound like much, but they have been stuck on a plane on the runway for eight-and-a-half hours. Now, these passengers were on their way to Cancun. They boarded that airplane, that JetBlue airplane, at 7:45 this morning. And, literally, at 4:15 this afternoon, they finally got off the plane.

I talked to one of the passengers. She said it was like being freed from a soundproof coffin. Now, if you're wondering why that JetBlue plane was stuck on the runway for that amount of time, JetBlue says it was a combination of the weather and other things, planes ahead of them taking off, but, really, it was the weather.

And I have a statement from JetBlue. And it reads, in part: "Usually, in a weather situation like this, we are able to safely take off within a reasonable amount of time. But today's weather situation did not clear up enough for us to depart Flight 751. We apologize to the customers of Flight 751 for this inconvenience. JetBlue has given refunds to all of the 140 passengers who were aboard that plane."

And they get a free round-trip ticket to anywhere they would like. But, as I read that statement, Wolf, to the passengers on the plane over Caroline's (ph) cell phone, they just want to get to Cancun. And they don't know when they're going to be able to do that.

BLITZER: Did they at least get to watch television on JetBlue? They do have those TV screens on -- in each seat. Could they at least -- could they at least watch some television, or -- or we have to check that?

COSTELLO: Well -- well, the problem was the power went out for a time. So, it got really cold, and they were told to bundle up. There was also no food on board of -- there was also no food on board the plane.

We're going to have much more on this story, Wolf, at -- in our next hour of THE SITUATION ROOM.

In other news right now, some are calling it the Valentine's Day massacre. Thirteen thousand Chrysler employees in the United States and Canada will lose their jobs over the next three years. Chrysler made the announcement today as part of a restructuring plan. The automaker also announced a full-year loss of nearly $1.5 billion -- this after they posted a profit of over $2 billion for 2005. The United Auto Workers calls news of the job cuts devastating.

The U.S. economy is not exactly running, but it is steadily walking -- that suggestion from the man who helped chaperone the nation's economy. Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says, economic growth is happening at a moderate pace, and that the incremental stride could stay that way for some time. Bernanke made the comments in a semiannual economic report before Congress -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, thanks very much.

And still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM: A comedian-turned- senator, it's no joke. But the left's favorite funny man, Al Franken, has his eye on the United States Senate. We will tell you what's going on.

And coming up in the next hour: former Senator Max Cleland. Is it high time for his party to cut the funding for the war in Iraq? Max Cleland standing by to join us live right -- here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Add a controversial new name into the mix for the battle for Congress in 2008. As you can see from his Web site, comedian and talk show host Al Franken has just thrown his hat into the ring as a Democratic candidate for Senate in Minnesota. It's the latest chapter in Franken's very exciting and interesting life.

Our Brianna Keilar is following the story for us. And she is joining us with more -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf.

I'm sure you remember Stuart Smalley, one of Al Franken's characters on "Saturday Night Live." Well, perhaps Franken's new take on Smalley's mantra will be: I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonit, Minnesotans want to elect me to the Senate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): He wants to go from here...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

AL FRANKEN, COMEDIAN: Because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: ... to here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... following my remarks, the remaining time, until 12:30 p.m., be provided to the Republican side.

KEILAR: Comedian and liberal radio talk show host Al Franken made it official today.

FRANKEN: I'm going to run for the United States Senate.

KEILAR: Franken made his announcement as he hosted his last radio show with Air America, the liberal talk radio network.

We first got to know Franken back in the 1980s as a comedian and writer on "Saturday Night Live."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FRANKEN: But that OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Franken made the move from comedy to advocating liberal politics with books like "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations," appearances on CNN's "CROSSFIRE..."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "CROSSFIRE")

FRANKEN: I am the co-host of the show.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: ... and eventually to hosting a daily talk show on Air America.

Now he wants this man's job. Norm Coleman is the first-term Republican senator from Minnesota. He's up for reelection next year. And he's facing a tough fight to keep his job.

Democrats regained their strength in Minnesota in last year's elections, and they're putting a bullseye on Coleman's back. But is Al Franken the candidate who can knock off Coleman?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Franken has the name identification and star power to raise the millions of dollars that is needed to run a competitive campaign. He's also going to be able to tap into the deep-pocketed liberal base that is eager to knock off an incumbent Republican.

KEILAR: At least one other Democrat is already in the hunt for Coleman's Senate seat. So, can a comedian make it to the U.S. Senate? The ultimate decision is up to Minnesota voters...

UNIDENTIFIED MALES AND FEMALES: Jesse! Jesse!

KEILAR: ... the same voters who elected a former pro wrestler as their governor.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: Franken actually has a lot in common with Coleman, both native New Yorkers who moved to Minnesota. And both, Wolf, are Jewish.

BLITZER: We will be watching this race very, very closely. I suspect it's going to be exciting. Thanks, Brianna, for that.

Up next in the "Strategy Session": It's early, but the early polls show the race for the White House is shaping up as a battle between two of New York's biggest political powerhouses. But, once again, it's very early.

And does the White House have a credibility gap to mend? We will ask Bay Buchanan and Donna Brazile what is going on. They're standing by, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Senator Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, making a major statement today on the situation in Iraq and the implications involving Iran.

Joining us, our two CNN political analysts. Donna Brazile is a Democratic strategist. Bay Buchanan is president of American Cause.

She was on the Senate floor, and she had this message for President Bush. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: If the administration believes than any -- any use of force against Iran is necessary, the president must come to Congress to seek that authority.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Donna, what's her strategy behind this?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there's no question that the Senate believes that the president must come back -- if he -- if he decides to do anything in Iran, he must come back and get a new resolution.

And I think Senator Clinton is echoing what other senators, like Harry Reid and Mr. Wyden on your show this weekend -- they believe that the Senate must come back to the United States Senate and the Congress to get authorization.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BAY BUCHANAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There's no question the president has to go back to the Congress to get authorization.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: When you say there's no question, there are plenty of people in the executive branch of the government who think the president has all the authority...

BUCHANAN: Yes.

BLITZER: ... he needs, if he wants to take action against Iran.

BUCHANAN: And what's key is that the Congress steps forward and says, no, you can't, that it's -- we make it real clear, you cannot move into there. You have no authority. We didn't give it to you when we gave you that other resolution. That was about Iraq and nothing more.

And -- and there are going to be people. But the key is, is America ready to go into Iraq? And is Congress going to take upon itself the responsibility that it has been given by the Constitution and that they are the only ones who can authorize...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: So, you're not yet convinced that the -- there's a justification, even if the administration continues to make the case that the Iranians are shipping explosive devices to Shiite militias inside Iraq, and those militias have already killed, they say, 170 American troops and wounded hundreds of others?

BUCHANAN: Wolf, there -- there's no question that the administration is going to keep moving that information, because it gives them grounds to then take action.

And -- and I believe the American people will very likely support it. But the key here is, why don't you just shut down the border? If you're concerned what they're bringing in, shut it down. We don't have to go into a war with another country here. And -- and that is the problem.

BLITZER: Easier -- that's a long -- hundreds of miles, that border. That's -- that's not an easy...

BRAZILE: No.

BLITZER: We have a tough time shutting down the U.S. border with Mexico.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN: It's called the will.

BLITZER: Forget about the Iraqi-Iranian border.

BUCHANAN: We just need the will.

BRAZILE: But General Pace suggested that perhaps we don't know if the Iranian government is -- is authorizing the Quds Force to -- to use these IED explosive devices.

Our -- intelligence better be airtight. Of course we want to protect our troops and keep them out of harm's way, but, at the same time, we would better make sure that the administration has its facts together.

BUCHANAN: And what are we going to do, take our their nuclear facilities, because they're bringing the other things in? I mean, what is it we're going to take out? Because, if you take out the nuclear facilities, they can still bring the other stuff in.

BLITZER: I think the two of you agree on this -- this point.

BUCHANAN: You got that right.

BLITZER: Let's see -- let's get to...

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: ... presidential politics, this new "USA Today"/Gallup poll.

Among Republicans and independents who lean Republican, Rudy Giuliani doing really, really well on a national basis. He's gone up from 31 to 40 percent. McCain has gone down from 27 to 24 percent -- Romney still at single digits, gone down from 7 to 5 percent. A dramatic surge right now, very early in the process, Bay, for Rudy Giuliani.

BUCHANAN: It's great news for Giuliani. There's no question.

He -- he -- a lot of people think he doesn't have a real base in the party who he represents. And, yet, the polls show he certainly does. The significant part of this poll is not the numbers, that he's doing so well against McCain, for instance, is that he's doing so well against Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Obama. It looks like he could beat them in the general election.

That will tell Republicans out there, the pragmatists, here's a guy that can win, can get us the White House, maintain that White House for us.

BLITZER: Let's take a look at the Democratic side.

In the same "USA Today"/Gallup poll, among Democrats or independents leaning Democrat, Senator Clinton doing remarkably well, as well -- she's gone from 29 to 40 percent. Barack Obama has increased a little bit, from 18 to 21 percent. John Edwards, at 13 percent, he's flat in this poll.

But -- but she's clearly improving in her numbers.

BRAZILE: Well, look, ever since she began this conversation, people are open to her ideas. They're -- they're open to her candidacy.

And I think she's doing a remarkable job already setting up her organization. She has a terrific staff.

But, look, don't count out John Edwards. Don't count out Barack Obama. It's still early.

And, Bay, that poll also suggests that, while Mr. Giuliani may be winning by, you know, the margin of error, it's still an uphill battle in winning over social conservatives.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN: Oh, he -- he has enormous difficulty winning the primary. This will help him, because it helps him raise the money. A lot of pragmatists will move towards him. He's hurting McCain.

BLITZER: Will social -- will social conservatives, you think, conclude, Rudy Giuliani might be better than Hillary Clinton, and, if he's the only hope the Republicans have, they will go ahead and hold their noses and vote for him?

BUCHANAN: Oh, well, certainly, there will be a number of Republicans who will do -- but I will guarantee you, the core of the social conservatives will not vote for Rudy Giuliani, not in the primary, not in a general election. He will have real trouble beating a Republican, because there's going to be a lot of Republicans staying home -- a Democrat.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let me pick your brain on a very important point.

California now among several states, they want to move up. They want to be players in this process. If they hold their primary in June, you know what? It's over with long before then.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: If they move it up to the first week in February, they could have a significant role. Who wins, who loses on the Democratic side if, in fact, all these other states move up the -- the -- the schedule?

BRAZILE: Well, look, I would hope that California would just accept some bonus delegates and stay in March or perhaps go back to June.

There's no question that a lot of these states are trying to move up closer and closer. It's already front-loaded. But, if they decide to move up, we'll have to deal with it, I'm sure, on both sides of the aisle.

But I would say advantage Clinton, advantage Obama, advantage perhaps Al Gore, because, as you know, with that movie and that Oscar and the Nobel Prize, who knows.

BLITZER: He didn't win the Nobel Prize yet, but he's been nominated.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: Well, I'm always projecting.

BUCHANAN: But Donna has hope.

BLITZER: You know, you can't blame these states for wanting to be relevant in the process. If they wait until June, you know, it's -- it will probably be over by -- by February.

BUCHANAN: Yes.

But, Wolf, you know, if they move to February, which they're looking at first week of February, and next December that's coming up, we're going to have both the New Hampshire and Iowa -- Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

This hurts people who don't have the huge money. It helps those who have all kinds of money...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN: ... who can have organizations and media in these huge states, like New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, California. A grassroots fellow or a guy who is second-tier that could be pushed up in the top tier, if they don't have enough ground space to run and get themselves going before a big California primary, it's over for them.

(CROSSTALK)

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

BRAZILE: Wolf, happy Valentine's Day.

BLITZER: Hey, look at that.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: That's so nice of you.

BRAZILE: It's called a chatterbox.

BLITZER: Extra, extra tasty, too.

BRAZILE: Oh, well, you know...

BUCHANAN: Yes, it's extra tasty.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thank you.

BRAZILE: ... we're sweet on you.

BLITZER: Happy Valentine's Day to you guys.

BUCHANAN: It's only -- only appropriate for you.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Donna Brazile and Bay Buchanan, both my valentines, and, as you saw earlier, Bill Schneider, part of the best political team on television.

Coming up in the next hour: my interview with former Senator Max Cleland. Has the White House run out of credibility on all foreign policy matters? We are going to ask the former senator and Vietnam veteran. That's coming up in the next hour, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Bush has been known to take a joking jab at reporters from time to time. And he did that during his news conference at the White House earlier today.

In the process, he hearkened back to a bit of political history that, at the time, was not necessarily all that amusing for his father.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: What are you looking at? Checking the time?

For the viewer out there, you know, you're getting -- timekeeper, you know, and everything.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: I didn't mean to interrupt.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: I just thought he was looking at the watch because he was getting bored. I wasn't sure, you know.

QUESTION: I'm never bored.

BUSH: Remember the debates?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: This is what the president was actually referring to.

Mr. Bush's father glanced more than once at his watch during a presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot back in 1992. It was an image that certainly didn't help what turned out to be the 41st president's losing bid for reelection -- a little political history right there.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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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