Skip to main content
Search
Services


 

Return to Transcripts main page

CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Tony Snow; Interview With Harry Reid

Aired February 18, 2007 - 11:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's 11 a.m. in Washington, 8 a.m. here in Henderson, Nevada, 4 p.m. in London, 7 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for our special "Late Edition," winning the West 2008.
We're here at the Revere Golf Club, and you can see the skyline of Las Vegas behind me, the enormous sprawl of this incredibly fast- growing population, nearly 2 million people here in the Las Vegas area alone. We're going to have a lot more on the important politics of the American West coming up.

Also coming up, my interview with the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, in just a couple minutes. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now from CNN's Fredricka Whitfield. She's joining us from the CNN Center. Fred?

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred.

We're here in Henderson, Nevada. It's just outside Las Vegas. A special edition of "Late Edition, Winning the West." Here in the American West, indeed throughout the United States right now, there's an enormous amount of concern on what's happening in Iraq, whether the president's new war strategy is actually working, and what the U.S. is contemplating against Iran.

Just a little while ago, I spoke to the White House press secretary, Tony Snow.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Tony Snow, thanks very much for joining us. Let's get to the issue of the Senate vote yesterday, the House vote earlier in the week. Why shouldn't the president see these two votes, when taken together, as a vote of no confidence in his new strategy toward Iraq?

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, for one thing, the strategy has barely had a chance to begin working. The president has made the case to members of the House and Senate: Hey, you guys have been supporting General David Petraeus. The Senate confirmation vote was 81 to nothing. Why not give him the reinforcements he says are necessary to get the job done?

For those who are doing poll watching, in a recent poll they asked the question, do you want to fully fund the troops? The answer, two-thirds of Americans said yes. One asked, well, what about -- would you support cutting off extra funds for people who are going to go in? Sixty percent said no.

So, I think what you've got is a situation, Wolf, where Americans are rightfully uneasy about war. We are not happy with the progress of things, which is why the president's come up with a new strategy for dealing with the challenges in Iraq.

Members of Congress have expressed their anxiety about the war. What we're saying is, if you want to support the troops, give them the reinforcements they need to succeed in a new and different kind of mission.

We understand their apprehensions, but the president also understands the real necessity of succeeding in Iraq.

BLITZER: A lot of the critics, though, say if you want to support the troops, get them out of Iraq, because that is where the danger is, and their presence there, they say, doesn't seem to be doing a whole lot of good.

SNOW: Well, if you take a look at what's been going on, a couple of things. First, the Iraqis themselves say it's necessary. If you take a look at the National Intelligence Estimate, or the Baker- Hamilton Commission Report for that matter, when they talk about quick or "precipitous withdrawal" in the Baker-Hamilton Commission's words, what do you do?

You create a vacuum that creates an opportunity for al Qaida to set up shop in Anbar Province, which is a gigantic province in Iraq. You provide an opportunity for Iran to be adventurous in the southern part of the area. You could destabilize the north.

What you create is the possibility of an incredible humanitarian disaster in terms of real violence on the ground, and at the same time, you weaken the United States militarily and economically. If you ask the American people, do you want to be less secure and do you want that scenario to play out, my guess is they'd say no.

BLITZER: Here is what a recent Newsweek poll asked: Who do you trust more on Iraq policy, the president? He got 32 percent. Or the Democratic leadership in Congress? They got 55 percent. And I want you to listen to this exchange I had with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, on the Bush administration and the president's policies in Iraq. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: This war is a serious situation. It involves the worst foreign policy mistake in the history of this country. So we should take everything serious. We find ourselves in a very deep hole. We need to find a way to dig out of it.

BLITZER: So maybe I misheard you, but you are saying this is the worst foreign policy blunder in American history? REID: That's what I said.

BLITZER: Worse than Vietnam?

REID: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. That interview is going to be played in the next hour here on "Late Edition." But I want your reaction. He says this is the worst foreign policy mistake in American history.

SNOW: Well, disagree. In point of fact, it was important to get Saddam Hussein out of power. Seventy-two members of the United States Senate -- I think 75, actually -- voted to authorize the use of the force in Iraq.

The other point, Wolf, is, yeah, the war is tough, but the solution is not to get out. It is to provide the kinds of resources and reinforcements our forces need to get the job done, and at the same time say to the Iraqis, you guys have got to step up.

Now what have we seen in recent weeks with the Iraqis? We've seen the prime minister say to those committing acts of violence, we don't care who you are, we're going after you. They have rounded up more than 600 Mahdi Army, that is, Shia militia members in recent months, including one who was very high up in the ministry of health within the government.

You've seen military actions not only against Shia but also Sunni bad actors in recent days. You have seen the government sort of standing up and signing orders on the Baghdad security plan, dealing with border security on the Iranian and Syrian borders. There is a whole lot of stuff going on.

And what I would say to members of Congress is, calm down and take a look at what is going on and ask yourself a simple question: If you support the troops, would you deny them the reinforcements they think are necessary to complete the mission?

BLITZER: Here's what John Warner, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and someone who is now becoming very critical of the president's policy, said the other day.

I want you to listen to Senator Warner.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN W. WARNER, R-VA.: We support the president on the diplomatic aspects of his plan. We support the president on the economic aspects of his plan announced on the 10th of January. We only disagree with one portion of it.

Mr. President, do you need 21,500 additional men and women of the armed forces in this conflict?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. You want to respond to Senator Warner? SNOW: Well, we're glad he agrees on the diplomatic and economic side. And on the military, the answer to his question is, yes.

The president doesn't take this lightly, Wolf. As you know, you've probably heard him say, he sends personal letters to the families of everybody who dies in service, regularly meets with veterans, including wounded vets.

He understands the human price here. But he also understands the absolute necessity of dealing effectively with Iraq. Now, we're not talking about sending 21,500 people into the same old mission.

Instead, we've got a completely different approach to dealing with the situation in Iraq, and by the way, also a much more forceful approach in dealing with the Iraqi government so that they step up and take a lead responsibility on economics, politics, on the military side.

And we have started to see that.

SNOW: Secretary Rice was in Baghdad. She reiterated the message the other day. So Senator Warner and others are going to have an opportunity, in a little bit, to have a binding vote. You know, these resolutions have been non-binding. But there is going to be binding vote on whether to provide the reinforcements our forces need.

You see, that is going to be binding not only on the president, but to the guys in the field. They think they need the support, we think they need the support. And, frankly, early signs indicate that, once again, there seems to be some progress. I don't want to be putting on rose-colored glasses, because it is war. There are going to be reversals from time to time.

But when the United States shows determination and when we give our forces the freedom and the ability to fight, we succeed. We can succeed. That is what the president is determined to do.

BLITZER: Tony Snow, do you know where the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is right now? Some confusion whether he is still in Iraq or has fled to Iran.

SNOW: Don't know for sure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Because some suggestions earlier in the week quoting U.S. officials, saying for some reason he may be in Iran. But you are saying right now it is unclear?

SNOW: Yes. It is unclear. He may be in Iran. It is pretty clear he is not holding press conferences and making his whereabouts known. The most important thing about Muqtada al-Sadr, or for that matter, anybody involved in the Mahdi Army is, they have got to make some choices.

Because what you now have is a sign of determination on the part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and also General Abud, who is responsible for military operations in Baghdad, that if you are a member of a Shia militia, sorry, but they are going to go after you.

And if you are a member of a Sunni group that is trying to create violence, Al Qaida or otherwise, they are going to go after you. And furthermore, there will be presence on the ground in each of 10 districts of Baghdad 24-7, U.S. and Iraqi forces.

I think that is a sign of seriousness that now forces them to make a decision. Do they try to continue being a destabilizing force or do they drop their weapons and become part of the solution in Iraq, which is to enter the political mainstream and try to help this government succeed?

BLITZER: Here is what New York Times reported today. I will read to you from the story. "Documents captured from Iraqi insurgents indicate that some of the recent fatal attacks against American helicopters are a result of a carefully planned strategy to focus on downing coalition aircraft, one that American officials say has been carried out by mounting coordinated assaults with machine guns, rockets, and surface-to-air missiles."

Is that true?

SNOW: Well, I'm not confirming or denying. It shouldn't surprise anybody that an enemy is going to look constantly for ways not merely to kill Americans, but also to attract media attention.

There have been a number of occasions now where our helicopters and our aircraft have been brought down by enemy forces. And they have, in fact, adopted tactics that are designed to do that.

We are going to have to adjust.

BLITZER: Here is what Senator Joe Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the other day about the U.S. relationship right now with Iran.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., D-DEL.: The rhetoric coming from the administration about Iran is starting to sound a little like a run-up that we heard to the Iraq War in the fall of 2002.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is that true? Are you getting ready for a war with Iran?

SNOW: No. And furthermore, Wolf, I am at a total loss to find any place where this administration has been trying to, quote, "create a run-up with a war on Iran." It is interesting to me that it seems that some politicians maybe are trying to protect Iran. But no. The president has made it clear. We're not planning a full scale invasion into Iran. Instead, what we have said is, we are pursuing a diplomatic path to get the Iranians to rejoin the international community.

We think it can be effective. We believe in diplomacy.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let me interrupt.

SNOW: OK. Go ahead.

BLITZER: Let me interrupt and just point out, earlier, within the past week, you have been suggesting that Iranians are sending sophisticated munitions into Iraq to kill American soldiers. And the argument has been they have been doing this for a long time. It's coming up now which seems to suggest that you are raising the rhetoric against Iran.

SNOW: OK. Let me continue the point I was going to make before and then I will address this.

We understand that the Iranian people, they want freedom, they love the United States. And frankly, we want to do what we can to help Iran succeed. It is true that the Quds Forces, which answer to the Revolutionary Guard, have been sending explosively-formed -- what they call projectiles -- into Iraq to try to kill Americans.

They have been sending mortars and other weaponry. And we had a briefing in Baghdad, the military did, where they laid out the weaponry and let everybody take a look at it.

But what we've also said is we're going to deal with force protection inside Iraq. We're going to try to intercept shipments. If we find agents who are busy trying to spread this weaponry, we're going to apprehend them. We're going to do what it takes to defend our forces.

But our approach to Iran is through diplomacy. There's strength in numbers. You have the EU-3 plus Russia, plus China, plus the United States, working on diplomacy with Iran, designed to get Iran to drop the nuclear weapons ambitions, return to the table, and get integrated into the global community, economically, culturally, diplomatically, and so on.

BLITZER: If, in fact, the Iranians are providing these munitions that are killing Americans, why isn't this a causus belli, as some are suggesting, that would require a forceful U.S. military response?

SNOW: Because we believe that this is something that you can deal with effectively within Iraq. And by the way, the Iranians, they said they don't know anything about it, so this is an opportunity, if that is the case, for them to go ahead and make sure that they don't have rogue elements within their military trying to conduct the operations. But this is one where you do interdiction to try to prevent the weapons from making their way into or through Iraq. And in fact, I've used the same term. This is not a causus belli. It's interesting, Wolf, people are complaining about they are going to go to war, and then you are asking me why are we not going to war.

The fact is, we have a diplomatic strategy for dealing with Iran. It's a comprehensive strategy that involves multiple partners. That's the sort of thing in which those who are worried about whether -- I worry less about our rhetoric than the rhetoric that people are trying to put into our mouths and people are trying to do to create the idea that somehow there's going to be a big standoff. We're using diplomacy with the Iranians. We'll continue to do it.

BLITZER: Tony Snow is the White House press secretary. Thanks very much for coming in.

SNOW: Thanks, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: That was our conversation with the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, back in Washington just a little while ago.

Still to come here on "Late Edition," so is Iraq the worst foreign policy mistake in American history? I want to play for you my special, exclusive Sunday interview with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid. You'll hear what he has to say on that and a lot more. That's coming up in the next hour, right here on "Late Edition."

And what does the other side have to say about that view? We'll hear from the Republican minority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, and get his views on the war in Iraq, potential war in Iran and the race for the White House. All that coming up.

And here in the Las Vegas area, the master of magic, Penn Jillette. We'll talk about politics, religion, and the campaign ahead.

Stay with "Late Edition." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're reporting today from Nevada.

As the clock ticks toward 2008, the South certainly remains a Republican stronghold, while Democrats have tightened their grip on the Northeast, the upper Midwest and much of the West Coast. And that makes Nevada and its neighboring states here out West a political gold mine and a potential key to victory.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: In a Las Vegas casino, the bets are on red and black. In national politics, it's all about red and blue, but the action is still out here in the mountain West.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: We're looking to make the West a reliably Democratic part of the country, and I think we can do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: At first glance, this looks like quite a gamble. The West was almost all Republican red in the 2000 Republican race, and it only got worst for the Democrats in 2004. For years, national Democratic leaders have been accused of treating the West as fly-over states, concentrating all their efforts on the East and West coats.

But some are saying that the reality on the ground has changed, and now Democrats have a real chance to turn it around in 2008.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM COLLINS, NEVADA DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRMAN: The West has been ignored. And the Republicans say, we've got them in our pockets, so we don't have to tell them nothing. They're going to vote for us anyway.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: There is perhaps no better place to see how the demographics are changing than right here in Las Vegas. Two suburbs of Las Vegas are in the top 20 fastest-growing cities in the entire country. And that growth is fueled by people moving in. One study shows that only 2.9 percent of the local population was actually born here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAGGIE CARLTON, D, NEVADA STATE SENATOR: You have a lot of transplants from California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Many of the new immigrants are anything but high- rollers. They're service employees and union workers, voters willing to listen to Democratic candidates if they talk about the right issues.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARLTON: They're kitchen table issues. You have to deal with traffic. You have to deal with not enough schools. You have to deal with the water issue and growth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And national Democrats are listening. Their 2008 national convention will be in Denver instead of New York City, and Nevada has become a mandatory stop on the campaign trail.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: They need to come out here and learn Nevada. Because if they can learn Nevada, they'll know Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Political analyst Stu Rothenberg warns that betting on a Democratic surge may not pay off.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STU ROTHENBERG, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: The idea that the entire region has turned a different color and that suddenly this is a sea change in the mountain West is just going too far.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: No American politician is more attuned to the importance of the American West and the potential strength of the Hispanic vote than our next guest. That would be New Mexico's governor, Bill Richardson. He's a Democratic presidential candidate.

Governor, welcome back to "Late Edition." Always good to have you on our program.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Thank you, Wolf. Nice to be with you.

BLITZER: All right. I want to get to all the politics in a few moments. Let's talk about Iraq first of all. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, the majority leader in the Senate, says Iraq is the worst foreign policy mistake in American history. Do you agree with him?

RICHARDSON: Well, I believe it's one of the worst blunders, certainly is, and the focus now should be on how we can get our troops out and leave Iraq with a chance for sustainability in the future. But I do agree with that because our obsession with Iraq has cost us enormous amounts of prestige loss around the world.

But also the fact that we haven't focused on the real challenges facing this country, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, North Korea, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

BLITZER: So basically, you're saying we would have been better off, the United States would have been better off if Saddam Hussein had just been left in power?

RICHARDSON: Well, I believe that what we needed to do was have an exit strategy going into Iraq. We obviously should have disbanded the army. We should have had some clear goals. We should have had international support. We should have had NATO, Muslim countries supporting us. I just would have done things a lot differently, Wolf.

BLITZER: Here's what Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, said the other day. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: If you believe this is a lost cause and victory can't be achieved, that our people are in the middle of a mess, a civil war, and not one person should get injured or killed because we've made huge mistakes that cannot be turned around, then cut off funding. Have a vote on something that matters.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, what do you say to that?

RICHARDSON: Well, what I say to that is that there should be a vote that matters, not non-binding resolutions. What the Congress, I believe, should do next, now that they've identified where the votes may be -- and I noticed there were 56 against the increase in troops in the Senate -- is a resolution that takes away the authorization for the war, that has clear benchmarks on withdrawal, but also has some very strong diplomatic initiatives.

Getting a reconciliation from the three religious groups in Iraq for a coalition government. Bring Syria, bring Iran, bring Muslim countries, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, to deal with issues like reconstruction of a future of Iraq and the security of Iraq. That's what I would do now.

BLITZER: What about cutting off funding for the war?

RICHARDSON: Well, I think you have to have a resolution deauthorizing the war where, in effect, you basically say, yes, we are going to withdraw our troops by date certain based on these benchmarks. I wouldn't want to cut off funds immediately for troops that are in the field, but I think you can construct the resolution that forces the president by the rule of law to start disengaging.

He's not listening. And what I would like the Congress to do, you know, we've got a new Congress to change the course of the war. Move away from non-binding resolutions, take a stand. I believe the votes are there in the House.

In the Senate, it's going to be very close, but I think the American people want a change of course, and this is why the Congress was changed, to make that happen. And that has to happen, I think, soon or the American people will get more divided and more frustrated.

I was just in New Hampshire. I've been campaigning around the country. The consensus is, Congress, take a stronger stand.

BLITZER: Let me pick your brain on North Korea. As you know, the Bush administration agreed to a tentative deal with North Korea to stop its nuclear program, although most of it remains in effect, at least for the time being. I want you to listen to what the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, told me about this deal earlier in the week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BOLTON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world. If you hold out long enough and wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Who do you agree with, the president, who supports this deal, or John Bolton, who says it's a horrible deal?

RICHARDSON: I agree with the president. And what has happened here is that the pragmatists in the Department of State, like Secretary Rice and Christopher Hill, and hopefully the president, shoved aside the negativism of individuals like Ambassador Bolton, who don't want to negotiate with anyone, who have a policy of basically preemption.

I believe the president deserves credit. Finally, he listened to a lot of individuals, hopefully like myself, who said, talk directly to North Korea. Don't do it through third parties like China in the six-party talks.

And what we were able to do by talking directly is a little bit of a breakthrough. North Korea now is going to allow international inspectors. The Yongbyon nuclear reactor is about to be terminated. In exchange, North Korea gets some energy assistance. So I stand with the president against his own U.N. ambassador in saying you did the right thing. Now do the right thing also -- talk directly to Syria, talk directly to Iran. I think if you talk to your adversaries, you can negotiate in a very tough way, tough messages, but being isolated like we have been in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, in North Korea.

If we'd done this, we could have had this deal with North Korea two years ago. They wouldn't have detonated that nuclear weapon. They wouldn't have had that missile test.

So, diplomacy works. Be tougher, more aggressive. Pursue it now in Iraq, in the Persian Gulf, with Syria, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and also with Iran.

BLITZER: Let's talk presidential politics for a few moments. You want to be president of the United States. On the Democratic political calendar, Iowa goes first, the caucuses in Iowa, and then here in Nevada. Third would be the New Hampshire primary followed by South Carolina and a whole lot of others in the immediate days and weeks that will follow.

How important is it for you, being a neighbor of Nevada, to have some sort of upper hand potentially here in this state?

RICHARDSON: Well, I have to do well there. It's a neighbor state. It's a state of diversity. I'm a westerner, I'm a governor, I'm the only westerner in the race. So it is important to me. But nonetheless, so is New Hampshire. So is Iowa.

I was just in New Hampshire. We had huge crowds.

My sense is that voters, primary voters, national voters are looking for candidates. They haven't made up their mind.

I think the polls right now reflect name recognition. And that's good for me, because I believe I have the record, the experience, the commitment. I can bring this country together. I've done it in New Mexico. I've done it as a diplomat with foreign countries at the U.N., secretary of energy.

So I feel good. My polls are moving up. You know, I'm still in single digits. I don't have the resources the other candidates do, but I'm going to go grassroots. And a state like Nevada appreciates candidates that go grassroots, talk about water, protecting the environment, issues relating to traffic and transportation, because the whole country is moving generally to the West from both coasts.

BLITZER: Governor, why is Barack Obama doing this well at this time? Hillary Clinton obviously, she has got enormous name recognition, but why is he coming in second among registered Democrats, Independents who lean Democrats (sic)? In all of the polls, John Edwards coming in third. You're still at the bottom of that list.

RICHARDSON: Well, Senator Obama is a good candidate. The good thing is that we have a lot of good candidates out there, but it's a year away.

And what I have said is that because it's so important that we win, all Democratic candidates running for president should eschew and not have negative campaigning. They should sign a pledge saying we're not going to attack each other. I believe if we do that, we will go into a general election stronger, but it's very early right now.

Those polls are name recognition, but, obviously, he's a good candidate. So is Senator Clinton. So is Senator Edwards. In fact, we have, on the Democratic side, a lot of very strong candidates with experience, and I believe that we're going to feel the very strong slate.

But, again, this race is not over, and I'm in it to win. I feel good. My momentum is up. If people look at my background, my record, my resume, what I've done, hopefully they'll give me a chance.

BLITZER: Governor Richardson, thanks very much for coming in. Always good to have you here on "Late Edition."

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

BLITZER: And still to come on our special winning the West "Late Edition," a master of magic on stage. Penn Jillette sharing his thoughts on politics, religion and campaign 2008. I think you're going to want to see it.

And, remember, CNN will be moderating the Nevada Democratic presidential debate November 4th, exactly a year before Election Day.

Up next, though, we'll get a quick check of what's in the news right now, including today's trio of bombings in Baghdad.

Stay with "Late Edition." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're reporting today from Nevada.

U.S. senators stepped back from the brink of direct confrontation with President Bush and his new war strategy this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Searchlight, Nevada -- a dried-up mining town, a relic of the Wild West, a truck top 55 miles from Las Vegas. Most of the 800 residents live in trailers. The one house belongs to new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, shaped and scarred in Searchlight.

REID: I'm a pessimist about everything in life. That way I have fewer disappointments.

BASH: In the distance of this vast property, a mine where his father worked. "Pinky," young Harry's nickname, would keep dad company.

REID: It was hard to make a living, and the man that my dad worked for a lot of times wouldn't pay him or give him bad checks that would bounce.

BASH: The memories can hurt.

REID: My parents both drank a lot. And I was always so glad when they were broke because they couldn't afford stuff then.

BASH: Then, prostitution was Searchlight's biggest industry.

BASH: Reid learned to swim at one of the 13 brothels, remembers the owner giving kids $5 for Christmas.

REID: That's what it cost for the men to go with the girls, is five bucks.

BASH (on camera): I won't ask how you used the $5.

REID: Well, I bought things out of a catalogue.

BASH (voice-over): School ended in eighth grade, so Reid hitchhiked 42 miles for high school, and went to college with a collection from the locals.

REID: Even though I was raised here, my mother always was able to instill in me that I was as good as anybody else.

That's part of it there, that old wood there.

BASH: A trailer has now replaced the four-room home with no running water where Reid and his three brothers grew up. To tour Searchlight is to find scars, like where his 58-year-old father shot himself to death.

REID: This house right here, that last room is the bedroom. That's where he killed himself.

BASH: The senator from Nevada fights for Sin City, but doesn't gamble or drink, a square-looking guy who listens to hip songs on his iPod.

(on camera): Cowboy Junkies.

REID: You know the Cowboy Junkies?

BASH (voice-over): And how does he keep up with music? Get this.

(on camera): Did I read that you're a People magazine reader?

REID: Yes, I love People magazine.

BASH (voice-over): Harry Reid sums himself up this way.

REID: Isn't that a Kris Kristofferson song, he's a walking contradiction? BASH: Dana Bash, CNN, Searchlight, Nevada.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And we're going to be speaking with the Senate majority leader, an exclusive Sunday interview with Harry Reid. That's coming up here on "Late Edition" right at the top of the hour. In that interview, he says that the war in Iraq is the worst foreign policy blunder in American history. We'll ask him what he means by that. Is it worse than Vietnam? That question coming up to Harry Reid.

Also coming up next, we're here in Las Vegas. We're watching what's going on. We'll talk politics in Nevada, politics nationwide with the entertainer, the magician Penn Jillette. That's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer.

We're reporting today live from Nevada. Just a little while ago in Las Vegas, I sat down with one of the stars of Las Vegas, the magician and entertainer Penn Jillette. We spoke about this town and his politics. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Penn Jillette, thanks very much for joining us on "Late Edition."

PENN JILLETTE, ENTERTAINER: Thank you so much. Thank you.

BLITZER: I've been a big fan of yours for a long time, seen your act here, and you're still on.

JILLETTE: Yes. We're still going. We seem to be in Vegas forever now, you know?

BLITZER: Let's talk politics.

JILLETTE: OK.

BLITZER: Because I know you're a political guy.

JILLETTE: Well, you know.

BLITZER: Do they talk politics here in Vegas at all?

JILLETTE: You know, not much. It's not a big political city. You know, it's too comfortable to be too political.

BLITZER: But you notice, Nevada all of sudden...

JILLETTE: We're going to be huge. We're going to be huge.

BLITZER: ... is going to be right between Iowa and New Hampshire.

JILLETTE: We're going to have them all coming here.

BLITZER: Who would have thought?

JILLETTE: Everybody will be here, yes, I know.

BLITZER: So it's going to be very, very critical potentially for the Democrats, because all the Democratic candidates are going to be coming here. What do you sense? What's going on?

JILLETTE: I don't know. You know, I'm a Libertarian, which is another word for nut, and you kind of solve all that problem. I think the thing that depresses me the most about politics is people voting against people instead of for people. You know, it's always that lesser of two evils thing.

BLITZER: Do you like any of these Democratic candidates?

JILLETTE: No, none of them at all. I don't like any of them.

BLITZER: Barack Obama you don't like?

JILLETTE: I don't know. I mean, there was a big discussion, you know, that's been hitting all over the blogs. And it was on a poker show on NBC over discussing whether Obama was an atheist, because apparently his mother was rather outspoken, and I guess his biological father as well.

BLITZER: No, he's a Christian, he goes to church.

JILLETTE: That's what they say.

BLITZER: And I believe him. You know, here's what a columnist wrote in the Des Moines Register -- David Yepsen, he's a well-known political columnist -- back in July when the Democrats were thinking about making the Nevada caucus the second after Iowa, before the New Hampshire primary: "If Howard Dean and the Democratic National Committee want to turn to the land of gamblers and brothels for an early test of their candidates' strength, maybe it's best to let them go ahead. Few may take it seriously."

JILLETTE: Well, sadly, you know, we're not the land of gambling and brothels. I wish we were. I wish there was more freedom and celebration of that, but lately, you know, in terms of money, which is, of course, one very good way to measure things, the shows and the restaurants and the hotels now make, you know...

BLITZER: So gambling is not the major source of the...

JILLETTE: I believe it still is. I think the rule of thumb was always 70/30, it was 70 from gambling and 30 everything else. But I believe that's changed recently to 40/60 and they're predicting a full reverse in five years. Of course, that's people making up numbers.

BLITZER: I mean, almost two million people live in Las Vegas alone. It's a major city in the United States. And what, 20, 30 years ago it was just a fraction of that.

JILLETTE: It was just nothing. How long has it been the fastest-growing city? It has to stop at some point, but it's just people are really -- I think we now have good shows. I mean, 15 years ago it was, you know, people doing George Burns impersonations and really nothing else.

And people came to Vegas mostly ironically. You would come with your buddies and you'd kind of make fun of the shows, and kind of make fun of the food and that whole thing. And now, I think, you know, per capita, we have more good shows than any other city in the country. We also have more bad shows.

BLITZER: The shows in Vegas are great, the entertainment is fabulous. Everybody knows that. This is a special weekend, because you have the NBA All-Star Game.

JILLETTE: And you can't get around. You can't move. It's completely packed.

BLITZER: And you have the Chinese New Year as well.

JILLETTE: Oh, yes. BLITZER: So, together, normally it's packed here, but this weekend is going to be incredible.

JILLETTE: It's insane. You know, that's why all you care about when you do a show in Vegas is where your parking is. That's what I want to tell the young people starting out in show business. Ask first where your parking is. We get to come in the back and then you have to deal with that.

BLITZER: You live here all year.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You're not traveling, you're not on the road. You have got a gig here and you take advantage of it.

JILLETTE: Oh, yes, I really love it. You know, I have a family, and I can live at home. I was on the road for 30 years pretty much without stop.

BLITZER: You paid your dues.

JILLETTE: And it's really nice to live like a human being for a little bit.

BLITZER: You know, you're not only a Libertarian, but you're an atheist and you're proud of that.

JILLETTE: OK, everything, yes.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk a little bit about this poll -- I got it right here -- and get your sense. A Gallup poll, September 21st of last year. Are Americans ready for an atheist president? Fourteen percent say yes, 84 percent say no, 3 percent margin of error.

Well, not many people would like to see an atheist president.

JILLETTE: Isn't that odd we started out with a country kind of created by deists, who were really as close as you got to an atheist before Darwin? You know, believed that there was a non-personal god that intervened in no way.

JILLETTE: I mean, that's essentially Jefferson and Adams and Washington, and all those guys. And now we've come to the point where none of them would be considered to even be running.

My information, which of course is not as accurate as Gallup -- I did an NPR piece, what I believe on being an atheist, and got all these accolades from atheists about how brave I was. And I believe that the negative comments we got were a very small percentage. So it's possible there's some sort of wording on that question.

I will listen to gospel music. I listen to Bach, very religious stuff. People come to see us knowing that we're atheists, but that's not the point of the show. BLITZER: But politically...

JILLETTE: I think that we're much more open-minded...

BLITZER: ... it's probably politically more correct to say you're agnostic...

JILLETTE: No.

BLITZER: ... that you're not sure.

JILLETTE: Those are two different issues.

BLITZER: Right.

JILLETTE: Agnostic answers the epistemological question of if things can be known. And then it's just theists and atheists after that. So once you're agnostic, you still have to choose one of the two. But of course I'm not sure.

BLITZER: I don't think there's any acknowledged agnostics or atheists running for president this time.

JILLETTE: Not yet, no.

BLITZER: And you're not throwing your hat in the ring?

JILLETTE: I don't think so. I think that number would stop anyone from backing me on that.

BLITZER: Penn Jillette in Vegas, what could be better than this?

JILLETTE: It's perfect. It gets you out of D.C.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

JILLETTE: Thank a lot, man.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: He's a very, very funny guy. Got a good show here in Vegas as well. Penn Jillette, that interview just a little while ago.

And straight ahead, our special "in case you missed it" segment, highlights of the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States. Stay with "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And now, "in case you missed it," some of the highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows. The focus on all of them, the war in Iraq and the Congressional opposition to the president's strategy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. CHUCK HAGEL, R-NEB.: Of course we're going to support the troops. There isn't anybody in the House or Senate that would vote otherwise. What this debate is about right now is a continuation and an escalation of American military involvement in Iraq.

SEN. JACK REED, D-R.I.: Down the road, will we consider issues with respect to funding? I think so, but we'll never compromise the ability of American soldiers to protect themselves. That's something that I won't do. That's something I believe Chuck won't do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-MICH.: There's risk in whatever you do in Iraq, obviously, but the current course is a proven failure. We've got to shift the responsibility to the Iraqi leaders to take control, and the only way to do that is not to tell them we're going to save them from themselves.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R), FORMER U.S. HOUSE SPEAKER: If you are either our ally or enemy, you're watching the U.S. Congress begin the process of systematically undermining American foreign policy. Now, there are a lot of sound arguments, and I'm not saying that you shouldn't be allowed to argue in a free society, but this is not a cost-free exercise.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think everybody recognizes, from the president to Tony Blair to Secretary Rumsfeld, that post the period of major conflict, we had major problems in the way we managed the war in Iraq, and that has contributed to much of the difficulty we have today. It was underplanned, underprepared, understaffed. (END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., D-DEL.: The way to support the troops is not to surge them in with too little and too late in too vast a territory, but it's to have some hard-headed diplomacy to get a political solution. That's what's going to save the troops, a political solution.

SEN. RICHARD G. LUGAR, R-IND.: The president may make headway, and he would be well-served by having a bipartisan policy which does pass the House and Senate as really a stamp of the American people at a time in which he see the urgency of Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Highlights of the other Sunday morning talk shows here on "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

And just ahead, my exclusive Sunday interview with Senator Harry Reid. Find out what he thinks is the worst mistake in American history. And we'll also get the other side from the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. "Late Edition," we're live from Nevada. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REID: If you win in the West, you win the White House in 2008.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Son of the West and leader of the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid talks about Iraq, the showdown with the president and why his region could spell victory in 2008.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCONNELL: It's too early to say whether the surge will achieve its objective.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, shares his views on the politics of the war in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The strength of the African-American community is always applied in the hearts and soul of our citizens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: From politics to economics to education, what's the state of black America? Insight from former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, National Urban League President and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.

Welcome back to our special "Late Edition: Winning the West 2008." I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting today from Henderson, Nevada. We're at the Revere Golf Club. And you can see the skyline of Las Vegas right behind me, the enormous sprawl of this incredibly fast- growing population.

Nearly 2 million people here in the Las Vegas area alone. It was only a few hundred thousand just a little while ago. Shortly, we'll bring you my exclusive Sunday interview with one of the state's and one of the nation's most powerful politicians. That would be the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid. That's coming up.

First, though, let's check in with CNN's Fredricka Whitfield for a closer look at what's in the news right now. Hi, Fred.

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred.

One man who clearly believes the American West is key to the White House in 2008 is the native son of Nevada. I spoke with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, shortly after he convened a rare Saturday session on a new Iraq war resolution.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Mr. Leader, thanks very much for joining us.

You tried this weekend to get a resolution similar to the resolution in the House of Representatives passed in the Senate. You came up short. You didn't get the 60 votes you needed to break this procedural hurdle.

So, what do you do now?

REID: Well, we're very happy that we got a majority in the United States Senate to clearly state that they're opposed to the president's surge, his escalation. And so that's really what this is all about.

It wasn't about a procedural vote. It was whether the United States Senate supported what the House did, and the answer is yes.

BLITZER: But you didn't get that resolution formally to be passed as a sense of the Senate resolution, which according to your critics seriously raises questions.

Let me read to you from what The New York Times wrote in an editorial the other day.

They said: "The right way for the Senate to debate Iraq is to debate Iraq, not to bar proposals from the floor because they might be passed. By changing the issue from Iraq to partisan parliamentary tactics, Reid's leadership team threatens to muddy the message of any anti-escalation resolution the Senate may eventually pass."

Why not let the Republican resolutions, the alternative resolutions, come up for a vote as well? The Republicans say if you do that, they won't try to impose the filibuster rule.

REID: Wolf, the Republicans -- at least the Republicans minus seven -- did everything they could to delay, to divert attention from the issue before the American people. The issue before the American people is whether or not the surge in Iraq is something the American people want.

The answer is "no." It's no in the House, it's no in the Senate. And all the procedural harangue that went on was an effort to avoid this vote.

Now, the Republican seven courageous senators who voted with us, we have a bipartisan recognition that the president's plan in Iraq is absolutely wrong.

BLITZER: But what was wrong with letting the Republican proposals come up for a vote, as well, including Senator Judd Gregg's vote -- Judd Gregg's proposal that would bar any cutoff of funding for the troops in Iraq?

REID: Wolf, you've been reading too many of the Republicans' press clippings. The fact is that the Republicans, everything they wanted to bring up was a diversion. It was anything but voting on the president's surge. Anything.

In fact, I agreed to allow a vote to take place on McCain's amendment, which supported the surge. They didn't want that.

All they wanted is to divert attention from the issue before the American people, whether we should send 48,000 more troops into the bloody civil war in Iraq. The answer in the House and the Senate is "no."

BLITZER: Well, would you have allowed Senator Gregg's motion to come up for a vote?

REID: We voted today on the fact whether the United States Senate supports the troops in Iraq. The answer there is "yes." Do we support the surge? The answer is "no."

BLITZER: So, but I'm still -- maybe I'm confused, but what about Senator Judd Gregg's resolution? Because the Republicans maintain that was what they wanted. They would have stopped their own roadblocks, their own obstacles, if you had let that resolution come up for debate and a vote.

REID: That amendment had nothing to do with the surge. It's whether we supported the troops. Reading the resolution, we support the troops.

All they wanted is an effort to not have to vote, not to embarrass the president on whether or not the American people support sending 48,000 troops, whether the United States Senate supports sending 48,000 new troops to Iraq. The answer is "no."

They did everything they could to impede a direct vote on that. But the Senate spoke today clearly, along with the House yesterday.

BLITZER: The House did pass this nonbinding resolution. And let me read to you what the House minority leader, John Boehner, said: "Nonbinding means non-leadership. It is non-accountability. And it is not the right message to the troops. This is a political charade lacking both the seriousness and gravity of the issue it is meant to address."

Even the -- some Democrats want a binding resolution that would do something about this war. And they're suggesting using the power of the purse, which is the constitutionally approved right of the legislative branch to cut off funding for the war.

Are you going to take that next step?

REID: John Boehner is a friend of mine, and I like him very much. But if the resolution was so meaningless, why did they fight it so hard?

They fought it so hard because this the first direct message from the American people in a war that's going into the fifth year that the president's direction of that war is wrong.

Now, there will be other opportunities. You know, this is the first opportunity we've had to tell the American people we do not support the escalation. There's going to be other things.

We have all kinds of things going on as to what should be the next step. And we're going to take the next step when the opportunity arises.

BLITZER: Some Democrats are saying, use the power of the purse. Others are suggesting there should be a cap at about 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Where do you stand on these various ideas?

REID: I stand in looking at every one of them. I think we have to give everyone an opportunity to express their opinions, and we're doing that.

We're going to have, take up the 9/11 recommendations, that is, whether they should be implemented. The administration's got Fs and Ds in all of those from the commission itself.

We're going to take all these up and implement those. And during that process, people will have opportunities to again focus on this war.

It's clear that the war is not going well. Seventy percent of the American people don't like what's happening with that war. And as a result of that, where there will be a lot of talk about this and there will be votes taken in the next several months, as should be.

This is part of a process to tell the president, please, Mr. President, change course. We've lost 3,133 American soldiers, 25,000 have been wounded. Two million Iraqis have been displaced, 60,000 to 100,000 have been killed. This is not going well. That's an understatement.

BLITZER: So, let me just be clear. You are leaving open the possibility that you will use this funding option, the power of the purse, as it's called, in order to try to stop this war?

REID: First of all, everyone within the sound of my voice should understand that every Democratic senator, every Republican senator, is going to make sure that every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine, wherever they are, fighting for this country has everything they need. So, to spend a lot of time on funding is really a misdirection. We're going to do everything we need to do to take care of the American troops, wherever they are.

BLITZER: Let's get to this National Intelligence Estimate that recently was released, an unclassified summary.

And they warn this possibility, if some of these ideas for a quick withdrawal from Iraq were to take place: "if such a rapid withdrawal were to take place, we judge the Iraqi security forces would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian institution. Neighboring countries invited by Iraqi factions, or unilaterally, might intervene openly in the conflict and massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable."

It's a dire prediction, a dire assessment of what might take place if a lot of these Democratic proposals are implemented.

REID: Wolf, you editorialized it a little. That is not what the National Intelligence Estimate says.

What it says is that rapid withdrawal would cause problems. Of course it would.

But there isn't a Democrat calling for a rapid withdrawal. We're calling for redeployment.

Does that mean move all the troops out? Of course it doesn't. It means that they would have a role that would be changed to train the forces there, to counterterrorism, I'm sorry.

It's not a rapid withdrawal. It's a redeployment along with -- if you're talking about where we need a surge, we need a surge not in the number of troops going to Iraq, but in diplomacy. That's where the real surge should take place.

BLITZER: Some Democrats, like John Murtha in the House of Representatives, they want a pretty speedy, you can call it redeployment or a withdrawal. But they want to move relatively quickly to get those troops out, especially the combat troops.

REID: Is that a question, Wolf?

BLITZER: Well, if you wanted to respond to that, you could.

REID: Yes, I would say I'm not familiar with what Congressman Murtha wants. You know, I have 99 senators here to worry about what they want to do.

But any proposal, I think, offered by any member of Congress, I think we should look at it very seriously. This war is a serious situation. It involves the worst foreign policy mistake in the history of this country.

So, we should take everything serious. We find ourselves in a very deep hole. We need to find a way to dig out of it.

BLITZER: So, maybe I misheard you, but you're saying this is the worst foreign policy blunder in American history?

REID: That's what I said.

BLITZER: Worse than Vietnam?

REID: Yes.

BLITZER: All right. Let me ask you a question about Iran.

Robert Gates, the new defense secretary, said this the other day, and I'll play a clip, because I want your reaction.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT M. GATES: We are not. You know, for the umpteenth time, we are not looking for an excuse to go to war with Iran. We are not planning a war with Iran.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Here's a question, Mr. Leader. Do you believe him?

REID: Yes. I have great confidence in the secretary of defense.

I do believe that the American people, and we in Congress, are a little concerned about the saber-rattling of the president. This is what happened before he took the United States military into Iraq.

And I think that, if you talk about the National Intelligence Estimate, they acknowledge there, that perhaps Iran is meddling a little bit, but they said that this war is a war that's all Iraqi, a sectarian, civil war. So, we have to be prepared to make sure our troops are protected, whether the duress comes from Iran or anyplace else.

But I believe that the secretary of defense is acknowledging and saying truthfully what he believes. We just have to be concerned about what the president has been saying. That's a real concern to us.

BLITZER: We're reporting this weekend from Nevada, which, as you know, on the Democratic side, is becoming a hugely important state on the road to the White House.

Right after the Iowa caucuses, there will be caucuses here in Nevada, followed by the first primary in the nation, in New Hampshire.

Is your state ready for the focus, ready for this? Because there isn't a whole lot of experience with this accelerated political process in the state of Nevada.

REID: Wolf, we're so happy that the DNC decided to change the old system. The state of Iowa and the state of New Hampshire should not determine who is going to be running for president.

The population centers are moving West. We have a convention in Denver. We're going to take real good care of every candidate that's running for president.

Nevada is looking forward to the first big event, which is this coming Wednesday in Carson City. All candidates except one will be there. It's going to be an exciting time for Nevada, and we're going to make the DNC proud of the caucuses we do in Nevada.

BLITZER: A lot of Democratic senators want to be president. Do you have a favorite?

REID: No. Each one of them is my favorite. I work with them closely every day. Every one of them would be an outstanding president.

BLITZER: A quick question, because Mitt Romney is a Mormon. He wants to be president on the Republican side.

Some recent polls have shown that -- for example, a Gallup poll -- are Americans ready for a Mormon as president. Only 29 percent said yes, 66 percent said no.

What do you say to that?

REID: I say that, you know, first of all, I've never met Mitt Romney. But I say, religion should not have anything to do with who's going to be president or not be president.

President John Kennedy made a very important decision many years ago when he was told that a Catholic can't be elected president. A Catholic was elected president, and I think he set the tone.

Religion should not have bearing on who's going to be president of the United States.

BLITZER: I'll leave you with one final thought, Mr. Leader.

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York, in his new book, wrote this about you. He said, "Harry Reid is soft-spoken and polite and is a deeply religious Mormon. He will also kneecap you if you cross him."

You want to react to what Chuck Schumer said, in a very, very complimentary way, I shall say?

REID: Well, I think Schumer's afraid of me. No one else is.

BLITZER: All right. Mr. Leader, it's good to be here in Nevada. Good to be in Las Vegas. We were supposed to do this interview face- to-face, but you had business this weekend in Washington. We appreciate, though, your taking the time to join us here on "Late Edition."

REID: Thank you very much for allowing me to be on your show, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And coming up next, we'll get the other side of the story from the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell. He answers critics who say he orchestrated a legislative standoff over the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq.

Then, as part of CNN's "Uncovering America" series, we'll get perspective on some of the issues affecting African-Americans including how crucial the black vote will be in 2008.

And for political news all the time, you can go to CNN's Political Ticker. Simply go to CNN.com/ticker.

"Late Edition," we're live from Nevada, and we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're reporting today from Nevada.

And one issue here in the West, and across the nation as a whole, certainly played out in Congress over recent days, that would be the war in Iraq.

Joining us now from his home state of Kentucky, the man leading the charge in the U.S. Senate for President Bush, the Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He's the top Republican in the U.S. Senate.

BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much for joining us on "Late Edition."

MCCONNELL: Glad to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fifty-six senators yesterday voted against the president's policy, in effect, including seven Republicans who decided to go along with almost all of the Democrats. Why shouldn't this be seen as a vote of no confidence in the president's new Iraq strategy?

MCCONNELL: Actually, that's not what the vote was about. Believe it or not, the New York Times and the Washington Post really got it right this week on their editorial pages when they indicated what Senate Republicans were asking for was entirely appropriate.

We wanted to have at least one proposal of our choosing, and the proposal was, of course, the Judd Gregg amendment, which would indicate whether or not we supported funding for the troops. I don't know why the Democrats don't want to have that vote. But they insisted on having just one proposal before the Senate.

In the Senate, if you're unfair to the minority, you have to get 60 votes and that was not achieved yesterday, because the Democrats were trying to rule the Senate like ruling the House. And I know that kind of process is sometimes lost on the American people, so let's just focus on what it was about. Senate Republicans were saying...

BLITZER: But, if I could interrupt for a second.

MCCONNELL: ... there ought to be a vote on funding the troops.

BLITZER: If I could interrupt for a second, what the Democrats were complaining about is exactly what you used to complain about when you were in the majority and the Democrats would use the rules of the filibuster, the rules of the Senate to try to stymie some of your policies. Basically, you're doing now what you were complaining of doing when you were in the majority.

MCCONNELL: Sure, the majority is always unhappy in the Senate when they can't get 60. But that's the way it's been for a very long period of time. And what always usually happens, Wolf, is when the majority can't get 60, you work out what we call a consent agreement under which both sides get to offer proposals.

The Senate doesn't operate like the House. The majority doesn't get to run roughshod over the minority in the Senate, and sooner or later, we're going to get a vote on funding the troops.

I think Congressman Murtha is onto something, where they're going next. Murtha's indicated that this vote was not the real vote. Where they're going is to try to cut off funds for the troops.

It's very dangerous turf for them. Two-thirds of the American people support funding for the troops. Sixty percent of the American people support funding for the additional troops that the president's sending, even though they're skeptical about the mission.

I think the Democrats need to remember they confirmed General Petraeus 81-0 to go out and try to succeed in this mission. We ought to give him some support and give him a chance to succeed.

BLITZER: How upset are you that seven Republicans bolted and joined the Democrats in this resolution yesterday?

MCCONNELL: Look, the Iraq war is very unpopular. The Iraq war is the reason you're talking right now to the minority leader and not the majority leader. We know it's a big, important issue. But we want to have a real debate on the Iraq war, not just some resolution that the majority crafts with no alternatives.

I mean, as I said earlier, even the New York Times that almost never aligns with the Republicans, thought that the Democratic procedure in the Senate was inappropriate, given the magnitude of this issue. We'll have other Iraq debates.

And at whatever point we turn to Iraq again, I guarantee you, Wolf, Senate Republicans are going to want to vote on funding the troops.

BLITZER: Here's how Senator John Warner, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican of Virginia, summed up his stance. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN W. WARNER, R-VA.: We've trained over 300,000. Why not give them the basic responsibility to take on this fight? Mr. President, are there not alternatives other than using the American G.I. to put down this sectarian violence?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: As you know, Senator McConnell, Senator Warner speaks on military matters, national security issues, with a lot of authority, and he disagrees with you, and with the president.

MCCONNELL: Senator Warner is one of our most respected members of the Senate, and a great expert on national security. And he does have a difference with the president on this issue, and we respect that difference.

But the majority of Senate Republicans are also saying, when we turn to voting on the Iraq war, let's make sure that we don't just have one vote dictated by the majority and that we have a full range of discussion of the various options on Iraq.

You know, one thing people are not talking about is how many Democratic differences there are. Senator Feingold thinks we ought to get out very rapidly. Senator Dodd the other day said that this whole vote that we were going through was basically a paraphrasing, but kind of a waste of time. So there are differences on the Democratic side, too. Many of them think that we ought to be getting out immediately and not funding the troops.

BLITZER: You just heard the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, say that the war in Iraq has been the worst foreign policy blunder in American history. And I pressed him, I said worse than Vietnam? He said yes. I want you to react to that.

MCCONNELL: I was a little amazed. I'm sure he's not complaining that we haven't been attacked again since 9/11 here at home. I mean, the fundamental decision after 9/11 that the president made, and the Congress initially overwhelmingly supported was to get on offense, go after the terrorists in Afghanistan, initially, then we widened it to Iraq. The result of that, of course, has been 100 percent protection here at home.

Admittedly, Iraq has ended up being much tougher than we had anticipated. But the question is, it's our reaction to it getting tougher to give up and go home and thereby invite the terrorists, as General Abizaid said a year or so ago, to follow us back here again?

Or do we want to stay on offense, give the new Iraqi government a chance to succeed, continue to go after the terrorists in Anbar province, and engage them on the other side of the world so we don't have to deal with them again here in America?

BLITZER: Do you believe that the Senate needs to pass another resolution that would authorize the president to use military force against Iran, if he makes that decision, or does he have the authority to do so already?

MCCONNELL: Nobody's asking for such a resolution. There's no discussion that I'm aware of about taking military action against Iran. What we are going to do, if there are foreigners...

BLITZER: But, Senator, as you know, there's a lot of concern in the administration that Iranians are providing sophisticated ammunitions, sophisticated munitions to Shiite militias inside Iraq right now.

And only last Sunday, briefers in Baghdad -- American military briefers -- were saying 170 American troops have been killed by those Iranian munitions. Hundreds of others have been injured. And that suggests to some that the U.S., the Bush administration may be looking at the possibility of striking against Iran.

MCCONNELL: Well, that's a different issue. You're talking about Iranians inside Iraq trying to hurt American soldiers. Of course we're going to deal with those people if they come after American soldiers inside Iraq. Any foreigners in there, whether they're Al Qaida foreigners, or Iranian foreigners inside Iraq trying to hurt American troops, of course we're going to deal with them.

That is an entirely different issue from whether anybody's even suggesting the notion of going to war with Iran. I've never even heard it suggested except by a few news people in the last week or so.

We're working on the Iran nuclear problem multilaterally. The administration, I think, had a rather significant success with North Korea. We'll have to test it and see if it's going to ultimately work, with a multilateral approach to the North Koreans that involved countries like the Chinese and Russians that are also very important in a multilateral effort to try to make sure that Iran doesn't get nuclear weapons, either. That's an entirely different issue.

BLITZER: Are you ready to support -- because the Congress will have to authorize and appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars at a minimum in aid to North Korea, to Kim Jong-Il in order to get this deal working. Do you think the American people want to do that?

MCCONNELL: I think if they believe the deal is verifiable, and the briefing I had the other day indicates that this could well work, but there's several different steps. I think if we can keep North Korea non-nuclear, I think that's something the American people would applaud. And, of course, the Chinese and the Japanese are now fully engaged, and that's the reason that this deal has a chance of working.

Back during the Clinton administration, it was a one-on-one arrangement between the U.S. and the North Koreans. We gave them money, they cheated. Now, as a result of the administration's approach, which includes the Russians, the Chinese, the South Koreans and the Japanese -- the neighbors are involved -- it will be much more difficult for the North Koreans to renege on this deal.

But we'll see. You know, it goes in several different steps toward the ultimate conclusion of a non-nuclear North Korea.

BLITZER: One final question, a political question, Senator McConnell. Rudy Giuliani, according to all the polls right now among registered Republicans, Independents leaning Republican, he's at top, ahead of John McCain in this USA Today/Gallup poll, 40 percent to 24 percent. If Rudy Giuliani were the Republican presidential nominee, would you be able to support him, given his support, for example, for abortion rights, for gay rights, for gun control, some of the other social issues?

MCCONNELL: Look, I think any Republican who goes out and earns our nomination, through the process, which is like running a gauntlet, is somebody that I think Republicans will rally around.

Mayor Giuliani has a great record in the wake of the 9/11 disaster in New York. He's a strong anti-terrorism leader. And is widely admired in our party, and we'll see. You know, a lot of good people are running for president, and I'm going to support the winner.

BLITZER: I'll take that as a yes.

MCCONNELL: OK.

BLITZER: Thanks, Senator McConnell, very much for coming in.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up, the former Maryland lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and National Urban League President Marc Morial on what the political clout of African Americans means for the 2008 presidential race.

Also, we'll get a quick check of what's in the news right now, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's meeting with top Israeli and Palestinian leaders. That's happening now.

Stay with "Late Edition." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: ... African-Americans opposed the war in Iraq from day one.

African Americans would like to see someone close the opportunity gap, the equality gap, the education gap. So I think this is going to be an exciting political season. And the African American vote, I think, is still wide open.

BLITZER: Governor Steele, here's what Barack Obama said the other day. He said, "I think if I don't win this race, it will be because of other factors. It's going to be because I have not shown to the American people a vision for where the country needs to go that they can embrace."

Talk a little bit about the challenge facing Senator Barack Obama right now, and our viewers know you come from a Republican political perspective. MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER LT. GOV., MARYLAND: Yeah, well, when Barack came into Maryland to campaign against me for the U.S. Senate, he made it very clear that race was not a factor, and that it was the quality of the candidate that the voters should consider. Now that he's a candidate for the presidency of the United States, I think those words are very true.

And I think that poll, while early, is a reflection of where, at least right now, the Democrat primary voter is in the black community. However, with respect to going forward, I think that Barack, like all the other candidates Donna said is going to have to lay out his vision for America and how it includes African Americans.

I want to see these candidates, I want to hear these candidates, Republican and Democrat alike, speak to poverty, speak to the poor education that continues to persist in the black community to this day. Read what President Kennedy said about the state of the black community in 1963, and compare it to 2006, and ask these presidential candidates, how are you going to change that condition?

And that's got to be addressed. And I think it's about time it is.

BLITZER: I want to get to that. We're going to get to the state of black America. That's coming up. But I want to bring back the mayor, Marc Morial, and read to you a quote from a recent column by Clarence Page, who writes for the Chicago Tribune. A good friend of ours.

He wrote this when referring to the notion, is Barack Obama, quote, "black enough," given the fact that he has a white mother, a black father: "Why all the fuss about what Obama calls himself? Whether Obama had the 'black American experience' before, he certainly appears to be getting that now.

"Part of that experience is to hear other people argue over what you should call yourself. In fact, if you don't have the right to call yourself what you want to call yourself, you don't have much freedom at all."

His father was from Kenya, his mother is from Kansas. Talk a little bit about this debate, if there is a debate, in the African- American community about the so-called black experience that Senator Barack Obama has had.

MARC MORIAL, FORMER MAYOR, NEW ORLEANS, LA: There is a conversation ongoing in the African-American community, and a lot of it has to do with people just getting to know Barack Obama, getting to know more about his background. But great interest in where he stands on the issues.

But what Barack Obama reflects is that black America today is within itself diverse. Black America today encompasses people from a variety of backgrounds, some of mixed heritage. People from various different regions. But there's a shared experience, and it's the experience of history. It's the experience of exclusion. It's the experience of aspiration. So what you see, Wolf, I think, is a conversation that is ongoing as people seek to get to know Senator Obama in a much different way, in a much better way, as he becomes a national figure beyond the state of Illinois, where his political base is.

BLITZER: Donna, you want to weigh in on this debate, this conversation as the mayor says, that's going on in the African- American community right now?

BRAZILE: Well, it's an interesting conversation, and I think Barack Obama needs to put it to rest by basically talking about his past, his background. Senator Obama has been a civil rights attorney. As a state senator in Illinois he passed one of the first racial profiling bills in the country. He has been a strong supporter of affirmative action.

He has not only walked the walk, he's talked the talk. And so while this is an interesting conversation, I think it's clear that Barack Obama not only is black, but he understands what it means to be a black man in America in 2007.

One out of three African-American children a day are born into poverty. There are more black men in the cradle to prison pipeline than ever before. So I think Obama will have to address these issues and force other Democrats to talk about them if they're going to get the black vote in 2008.

BLITZER: We're going to pick up this thought with Michael Steele in a moment. We'll take a quick break. A lot more coming up. We'll get back to our panel, get their assessments on the state of black America right now.

"Late Edition" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." We're reporting today from Nevada, and we're looking at the state of black America with our panel, Michael Steele, Donna Brazile and Marc Morial. Michael Steele, let me pick up with you and play for you a sound bite from Tavis Smiley, the black television commentator who made this point the other day. I want you to listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAVIS SMILEY, AUTHOR, TELEVISION AND RADIO HOST: Black America, not unlike most of America, is concerned and disappointed and thinks the president is moving in the wrong direction on Iraq. The numbers of black folk who are opposed to this Iraq policy or lack thereof is higher than most Americans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Do you agree with him that among African Americans, the opposition to the war in Iraq is even higher than it is among white Americans?

STEELE: I would think it is. But I think what drives that is the reality of Katrina. I think for a lot of African Americans, Katrina was a 9/11 event. They were looking for a response that they did not get from their government, and from the government -- the leadership of the government. I think that is now playing out in what you see in terms of support or lack thereof for the war in Iraq.

I think at the core of it, the black community, when it was at a crisis point, feels that this administration dropped the ball, let them down. And I think there's some good argument to be made there in that regard.

And I spoke about that when I ran for the Senate, that the goal there should have been to be on the ground and in the arms of the people, and to let them know that this administration was going to be there for them. So yeah, I think you see a little translation now into other things. The economy and the war.

BLITZER: I want to talk to the mayor over here. Pick up this thought about Hurricane Katrina. The National Urban League came out with a report in 2006, and it said this: "Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call to the nation to lift many from the depths of poverty. Unfortunately, the initial flurry of concern and attention to poverty and injustice has given way to the status quo of neglect, domestic budget cuts, insensitivity and short-sighted policy priorities."

You're a former mayor of New Orleans, so nobody appreciates the impact of Katrina as much as you do. But the political fallout has been enormous, especially on African Americans nationwide.

MORIAL: New Orleans is hurting. New Orleans reflects a deeper, difficult problem of poverty and lack of economic opportunity. What I'd like to see, Wolf, is for the president of the United States, with the bipartisan leadership of the Congress, personally, not through staff, personally commit to a summit on Katrina. Personally commit the president to the remaining time in his office to be personally engaged in seeing that the recovery, which is not going well, picks up momentum.

BLITZER: And do you agree with Michael Steele that the impact, the fallout from Katrina is one reason why perhaps African-Americans oppose the war in Iraq even more than white Americans?

MORIAL: No, I think that the fallout from Katrina reflects why African-Americans have lost confidence in the direction of the country. I think it's much broader than that. I don't know how it affects the war.

But, you know what's important, Wolf, there's been so much analysis about Katrina and it's political fallout. I want to say again I'd like to see the president and the bipartisan leadership of the Congress personally devote time and attention, and I would hope that on this show we could hold them accountable to do that.

BLITZER: Well, let me bring Donna Brazile in. Donna herself is originally from New Orleans. Are we overemphasizing the impact of Katrina right now, nationwide, on the African-American community? Or are we underestimating it?

BRAZILE: No, Katrina remains a symbol of incompetence. It remains a symbol of neglect and despair. And I agree with Marc that the White House and the Congress really need to help get the recovery going again. Things have stalled down there.

Just recently I heard that it's difficult for people to even get insurance to rebuild their homes. So I would hope that the president and the Congress would get together and talk with Mayor Nagin, talk to Governor Blanco and get the recovery back on its way.

BLITZER: Michael Steele, let me let you get the last word. Why don't you wrap it up for us?

STEELE: Well, I think Donna and Marc have both hit it right on the head. I mean, Katrina was a seminal moment for our country, and certainly for the black community. It brought to the fore poverty, the lack of opportunity, the lack of empowerment.

And I think of all the administrations in the recent past, this one has an opportunity to change the course that we have in this country in addressing the issue of poverty. But you've got to be serious about it and a lot of people run their mouths on this subject. We want to see them put into action those words.

BLITZER: All right, Michael Steele, Donna Brazile, Marc Morial, a good discussion. Thanks to all of you for coming in here on "Late Edition."

We'll take a quick break. More of our coverage from Nevada when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A reminder, if you missed any of our "Late Edition" today, you can download a video podcast of the entire two hours. Just go to CNN.com/podcast. Click on the link for "Late Edition."

And coming up at the top of the hour, John Roberts talks to our correspondents in Baghdad, the White House, and the Pentagon. "This Week At War," that's coming up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The insurgents and the militias have simply melted back, waiting to see what we do. We know that there are some rough days ahead.

(UNKNOWN): What kind of proof really is need? Americans are dying from those weapons.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The president's saying I dare you to come up with a binding resolution that would take away those dollars. JEFF KOINANGE, CNN AFRICA CORRESPONDENT: We were surrounded by masked men shooting at us, demanding who we were.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And that's your "Late Edition" for this Sunday, February 18th. Please be sure to join me next Sunday and every Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk. We're also in "The Situation Room" Monday through Friday, 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern, another hour at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer and we're reporting in Nevada.

For our North American viewers, "This Week At War" with John Roberts coming up next -- John.

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

Search
© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by CNN.com
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines