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THE SITUATION ROOM

GOP Presidential Candidates Prepare for Debate

Aired June 5, 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: Thanks very much guys.
Happening now, the GOP presidential candidates are set to take their turn on our debate stage. And right here in New Hampshire, there's new evidence that Republican patience with the war in Iraq is growing thin.

Also this hour, the fight to break out of the presidential pack -- while underdogs have their dukes up, the frontrunners are trying to stay on the high road.

And what do voters really want?

People of New Hampshire are a sounding board for the driving issues in the race for the White House. They'll be heard loud and clear in our debate tonight.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Manchester, New Hampshire.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In this arena tonight, 10 Republican presidential candidates will hold their first debate in the lead-off primary state of New Hampshire. Here on the campus of Saint Anselm College, the Democratic contenders jousted two nights ago.

Now, the GOP hopefuls will show Granite State voters what they're made of.

Looming large over the stage -- an unpopular war, an unpopular president and the knowledge that one or more big name Republicans still -- still may jump into this race.

As we count down to the GOP debate, Iraq anxiety appears to be on the rise among the ranks of Republicans, including some right here in the state of New Hampshire.

Let's bring in our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana who is sending a new message about this war in Iraq?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the message is coming from a bipartisan group of Senators, and that includes two Republicans who have long-standing ties to the president and the Bush family, both of whom happen to be from the state you're in -- the one hosting tonight's Republican presidential debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

BASH (voice-over): It is intended to pressure the president to change course in Iraq. But it is also a message to Republicans who want to be president.

SEN. JUDD GREGG (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: What we have here, hopefully, is a road map toward consensus.

BASH: Both Republican Senators from the first in the nation primary state, Judd Gregg and John Sununu, now want the president to adopt recommendations of the Iraq study Group, which includes diplomacy with Iran and Syria, and a timeline for troop withdrawal.

Senator Gregg says it's the kind of plan Granite State Republicans are looking for.

GREGG: And there's just real concern, you know?

How do we extricate ourselves from this situation?

How do we make sure the troops on the ground are supported, but how do we also get ourselves out of this situation in a way that doesn't lead to even a greater disaster, not only for Iraq, but for our national security?

BASH: Sununu is up for re-election in 2008, considered one of the most endangered GOP incumbents. In his statement endorsing the bill, he said: "No American serviceman or woman should remain in Iraq a day longer than is absolutely necessary."

The senators are reflecting a growing impatience from New Hampshire Republicans we recently heard there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want to get out and not have the job done, but I do want to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean there's got to be another remedy, as opposed to sending out 21,000 more people.

BASH: New Hampshire's senior senator has some advice for fellow Republicans looking for presidential votes in his state.

GREGG: I would hope that they would take the same view that I take, and that I think Senator Sununu takes, which is that we've got to come up with a plan here, a game plan that -- around which you can develop consensus.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: Now, most of the leading Republican presidential candidates have pretty much said that they think the president's strategy to send more troops to Iraq should be given a chance. But what Senator Gregg is essentially saying is that is not going to fly with New Hampshire voters, who say that they think the president's policy is drifting and they want to see what he calls a game plan for it to end over there -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks very much.

Voters here in New Hampshire are used to having considerable influence over the presidential process and they tend to take that responsibility and the issues very, very seriously.

Our Mary Snow has been out talking to New Hampshire residents.

She's here in Manchester right now -- Mary, tell our viewers what they're most interested in hearing, these New Hampshire residents, from the GOP candidates later tonight.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you just heard Dana mention, there's a lot of frustration among Republicans here in New Hampshire. And they say they want to hear some very specific plans put forth by these candidates on the war in Iraq, but also on immigration reform.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): As GOP presidential hopefuls joust for the spotlight, voters say they not only have to stand out, but stand apart from the current Republican administration, especially in Iraq.

JOAN KEEFE, NEW HAMPSHIRE REPUBLICAN VOTER: At first I thought, you know, President Bush was you know doing the right thing. But I don't know, I just sort of feel that maybe now it's time to bring those boys and girls back.

SNOW: Iraq is high on the list for Republicans, but hasn't been igniting as many sparks as immigration reform.

DANTE SCALA, SAINT ANSELM COLLEGE: I think immigration is really a dividing line among Republicans. And I think John McCain is really the center of the storm.

SNOW: McCain's at the center of the storm because he helped craft the bill President Bush supports that would legalize millions of immigrants.

Republican contender Mitt Romney has been ratcheting up criticism of the bill and McCain is firing back.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: So I say to others who are running for the president of the United States, what's your proposal?

What is your idea?

I'll be glad to examine it. I'll be glad to adopt it, if you can get a majority of the Congress, a majority of -- and the president of the United States to support it.

SNOW: Romney says the bill falls short and he's telling voters that McCain co-authored it with Democrat Ted Kennedy, a name not welcome in Republican circles. MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And my fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics.

SNOW: Rudy Giuliani has been firing his barbs in recent days at Democrats, using the recent thwarted terror plot at JFK Airport to make his point about security.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Those people that got arrested today -- those people who got arrested in New Jersey a couple of weeks ago -- are not just a bumper sticker or a slogan on a bumper sticker.

SNOW: That was a reference to Democrat John Edwards calling the war on terror "bumper sticker politics."

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SNOW: And then, of course, there's Fred Thompson. Wolf, while he won't be here tonight, of course, Republican voters we've been talking to say they are interested to hearing what he has to say as he gets into the mix of Republican presidential contenders -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll all be learning more about the former senator from Tennessee in the days and weeks to come.

Mary Snow and Dana Bash, by the way, are both part of the best political team on television.

And remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can check out our political ticker at cnn.com/ticker.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York.

He's got The Cafferty File -- hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Senator McCain has apparently staked out a lonely position when it comes to immigration reform. Among the Republican candidates, he's the only one supporting the Senate immigration bill.

McCain blasted unnamed Republican candidates, which many translate as meaning Mitt Romney, for attacking the legislation just because of politics. McCain also said the issue needs to be addressed if the Republicans hope to attract Hispanic voters, which I guess is not politics.

Anyway, McCain says pandering for votes on this issue while offering no solution to the problem amounts to doing nothing, and "doing nothing is silent amnesty." That's a quote.

Romney fired back, saying his opposition to the bill is "a matter of principled disagreement about policies and priorities related to enforcement of our immigration laws."

Romney is not alone. Rudy Giuliani opposes the immigration bill. So does presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo, who says he's going to use his campaign as a vehicle to work against the immigration bill. The campaign plans to start a petition drive volunteer network to help voters campaign against any of those who support the immigration bill.

So the question is this -- how important will the issue of immigration be to Senator McCain's campaign?

You can e-mail caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to caffertyfile@cnn.com -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack.

Thanks very much.

Coming up, much more as we count down to the Republican presidential debate.

Joining us will be three people with a keen knowledge of just what voters here in New Hampshire are thinking about, my debate partners for tonight. They're standing by -- Scott Spradling, Jennifer Vaughn, Tom Fahey. They're all here with us from WMUR and the "New Hampshire Union Leader."

We'll talk about politics in this key primary state.

Also, it could be what some are calling the "X" factor. A state just next to New Hampshire may give one of the Republican candidates a leg up.

And John McCain clearly taking a stand on immigration, as we know.

Will he go toe to toe with Mitt Romney over that issue in tonight's debate?

We're counting down to the moment of truth.

Stay with us.

You're in the in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: There will be tense words and political combat. We're only a few hours away now from a very big debate.

Our event here in Manchester, New Hampshire will feature the Republican presidential candidates. Surely, they'll be looking for support from the state's voters.

Three people who understand what's important to the Granite State are here with us.

Scott Spradling and Jennifer Vaughn -- they're both anchors with our debate co-hosts, WMUR, and Tom Fahey of "The New Hampshire Union Leader." All of my partners will be working that floor later tonight. Guys, thanks very much.

Scott, what are the Republican voters, the undecided Republican voters and the undecided voters in general who can vote in a Republican primary, what do they want to hear from these candidates tonight?

SCOTT SPRADLING, NEWS ANCHOR, WMUR: A couple of quick things, Wolf.

Obviously, the war in Iraq is still very, very important. They want to see someone take the lead on that and have the best defense of what's going on, as well as a plan for the future.

I think politically speaking, voters are looking to figure out exactly how they're going to handle George Bush, who is an unpopular president right now, but is still the leader of the party.

How do you not run from him but run towards the future?

And, of course, illegal immigration, which is such a hot button issue right now.

BLITZER: You're going to be moderating, Jennifer, our town hall meeting, the second hour of our two hour debate.

But you speak to these people all the time.

JENNIFER VAUGHN, NEWS ANCHOR, WMUR: Yes.

BLITZER: What is their message?

What are they sending -- the message to these candidates?

VAUGHN: Well, I'm sure, as you noticed on Sunday, they bring with them very personal, very probing questions. And not only do they make a decision on a candidate based on the substance of a candidate's answer, but in New Hampshire, too, style matters, the eye contact. Because that's what they're used to. When someone comes by and shakes their hand, they look them in the eye. And that's what they expecting tonight to happen, as well.

BLITZER: What is the history -- and, Tom, you've covered politics in this state for a long time...

TOM FAHEY, "NEW HAMPSHIRE UNION-LEADER": Yes.

BLITZER: ... of the frontrunners either getting stronger or falling aside at a relatively early stage in this process, based on what you know about the state of New Hampshire?

FAHEY: Well, you know, the voters in this state really don't want to be driven by the polls. They want to make up their own mind. So as they have the one-on-one or small group conversations with the candidates, that's -- that's where the real decisions are made. It's not made by studying the polls out of the newspapers or off of the media. They want to make up their own minds.

They say in this state that if you haven't met a presidential candidate, it's because you're not interested in doing it...

BLITZER: So when you...

FAHEY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BLITZER: ... when you see the national polls, or when people in New Hampshire see the national polls, it doesn't really have that much of an impact on them, is that what you're saying?

FAHEY: I think that it helps them sort out a field of frontrunners from also-rans. But I don't think because one candidate is in the lead, that they decide that's where they ought to go in order to make their vote count.

BLITZER: What's the feedback you're getting from our debate Sunday night, when the Democrats -- eight Democratic presidential candidates -- were behind us?

SPRADLING: Good feedback. I think people really enjoyed the forum and the free-flowing type of dialogue. There were obviously some people that felt ah, he didn't get this question in or this person didn't get enough time to speak.

But you can see, when you start looking at the time format, that you didn't have to have the most time to make a quality point.

Joe Biden was able to do that. A lot of people are talking about him even now.

They're looking towards the Republicans and knowing that you've got a tough job because there's 10 candidates on stage and it's going to probably be a bit of a free-for-all.

BLITZER: It will be a little bit more complex.

What about the feedback you're getting on the candidates?

What are they saying?

Did they like Joe Biden?

He clearly did well.

But what are they saying to you, Jennifer?

VAUGHN: You know, it's -- it's very interesting, the old phrase you can't please them all. But as you talk to these voters, they are thrilled with the opportunity to, first of all, be here. And then, second of all, to ask the questions of the candidates themselves.

And there are many, many voters here in New Hampshire who really wait until they've had the opportunity to meet the candidates one-on- one, to shake their hands and to ask those questions before they'll make a final decision.

BLITZER: Is there a consensus, Tom, who among the Democrats may have done the best?

FAHEY: I don't think there's a consensus. I think it depends on whose supporters you speak with. I think that the frontrunners, for the most part, didn't hurt themselves.

Hillary Clinton did very well. Obama didn't hurt himself. Some folks expected him to move up in the pack or in approval ratings or what have you -- and supporters. I'm not sure that happened on Sunday night.

As far as the -- those fringe candidates or those who aren't drawing the same sort of support, they made their best shot. I think, as Scott mentioned Joe Biden probably did the best, even though he didn't have the full allotment of time that Hillary Clinton got, he made the most of every second of the airtime that he got.

BLITZER: And he was passionate, as we saw...

FAHEY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... especially on the issue of Darfur.

All right, guys, get ready, because we're only about two hours and 40 minutes or so away from the start of this debate.

All of us will be working tonight from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

And much more of our coverage coming up, as I said less than three hours from now. This will be the only political landscape that really matters, at least in presidential politics, on this night.

In just a minute, I'll take you across the stage. I'm going to go down to the podium and give you a little behind the scenes tour of what we can expect tonight. You'll see where the candidates will be standing and where, presumably, they'll be going after each other.

Also coming up, an issue that could go nuclear. It has Iran's president making some not so subtle new threats.

Stick around.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're counting down to our big debate here tonight in Manchester, New Hampshire. A little bit more than two- and-a-half hours from now, 10 Republican presidential candidates will spar over the issues.

We want to take you on a little tour of what you can expect.

You can see here we're in this auditorium, in this arena, and these are where the candidates will be coming out. They'll be coming out from behind these doors over there and then they'll be walking to their respective locations at these podiums.

The first hour -- - the first hour of the debate, all of them will be standing here. They have a little notepad that they'll be allowed to have, and a pen. They can't bring notes themselves or anything, but they can jot down notes to themselves.

These are some of the ground rules that all of the campaigns have worked out, together with us, CNN and WMUR and the "New Hampshire Union Leader."

The first hour, they'll be taking questions as they stand there. There's a little stand there for a little water if they want that, as well.

The second hour, we'll remove those podiums and then all 10 candidates will sit down here on these red chairs and they'll have an opportunity to take questions from the audience.

This will be an old-fashioned style New England town hall meeting. There will be about 100 residents -- - registered voters in New Hampshire, all undecided. They'll be sitting in these red seats. And the other seats will be other people who have been invited who have come here from around the state; indeed, from around the country. Some of the campaigns brought people, as well. They'll be inside. But these 100 seats or so, they'll be asking questions. They'll be standing up and they'll be doing that.

Certainly, it's going to be an opportunity for not only the people here in this arena, it's going to be an opportunity for people all over the country; indeed, all over the world -- - it will be simulcast on CNN International -- - to see these 10 Republicans, just as they saw the eight Democratic presidential candidates Sunday night.

We'll be here. I'll be standing here posing some of the questions, together with our partners.

We're only, what, about two-and-a-half hours or so away from the start of this Republican debate.

Meanwhile, Carol Costello is monitoring the wires. She's keeping an eye on all of the video feeds coming in from around the world.

She's joining us from New York with a closer look at some other incoming stories making news -- - hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

President Bush has invited the Russians to cooperate with the deployment of an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, saying it's meant to deter terrorism, not threaten Russia. President Vladimir Putin is threatening to aim nuclear weapons at Europe if the anti- missile system is deployed in Poland and in the Czech Republic. We'll have a full report in our 5:00 Eastern hour.

Iran's president is warning the United Nations not to impose new economic sanctions because of his country's ongoing nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the U.N. is biased and new sanctions are, in his words, "playing with the lion's tail." The Iranians insist they are processing nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants, not for atomic weapons.

The non-manufacturing side of the U.S. economy better than expected last month. The nation's service sector, which accounts for about 80 percent of U.S. economic activity, chalked up its 50th consecutive month of growth. Service industries doing the best last month were mining, the arts, entertainment and recreation.

And the nation's airlines aren't doing so hot, in the respect of getting you there on time, that is. Figures just out from April show the on time arrival rate was a shade over 75 percent. That is down from 78 percent a year ago. US Airways, JetBlue and Comair were the worst performers. Aloha Airlines was the best for getting you there on time.

Wolf has more from New Hampshire in just a moment, as we count down the minutes to tonight's Republican debate.

Some of the frontrunners have an unusual opportunity.

Up next, who could score the most points by staying above the fray?

Plus, an embattled congressman gives a little -- but he could lose a lot more, and it could be soon.

You're in the in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: Happening now, will there be any amnesty at tonight's Republican debate?

We'll see why immigration could turn into Senator John McCain's potential -- at least some say suggesting -- Alamo.

The Democratic frontrunners get candid about their faith. Hillary Clinton opens up about prayer.

And how many times a day does John Edwards say he sins?

Plus, evolving positions -- see what's new since three Republican presidential candidates raised their hands to reject evolution.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in the in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're only about two-and-a-half hours away from our Republican presidential debate. You're in the in the first in the nation primary state of New Hampshire. And we're looking at several angles, including how some candidates sniped at each other to jockey for position and how a state just next to New Hampshire plays a role in the primary process.

Joining us now, our CNN chief national correspondent, John King, and our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider -- Bill tell us how some of these candidates go on the attack and others try to avoid the crossfire.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what we could see tonight in the Republican debate is like what we saw in the Democratic debate -- the same plot with different characters.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Two campaigns, one scenario. Issue for Democrats -- Iraq. A second place candidate goes on the attack.

JOHN EDWARDS, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Clinton and Senator Obama did not say anything about how they were going to vote until they appeared on the floor of the Senate and voted.

SCHNEIDER: Another second place candidate returns fire.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: I opposed this war from the start. So you're about four -- and-a-half years late.

SCHNEIDER: The frontrunner rises above it.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major.

SCHNEIDER: Another issue -- health care.

The attack?

EDWARDS: Senator Obama came out with a plan just a few days ago, which I don't believe is completely universal.

SCHNEIDER: The counterattack.

OBAMA: My belief is that most families want health care, but they can't afford it.

SCHNEIDER: The frontrunner rises above.

CLINTON: I'm convinced that now, when the Democrats all are coming forward saying this has to be a national goal, we then can try to get the political will.

SCHNEIDER: Issue for Republicans?

Immigration.

A second place candidate goes on the attack. MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And my fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money and politics.

SCHNEIDER: Another second place candidate returns fire with colorful references to his opponent's gaffes.

MCCAIN: Maybe he can get out that varmint gun of his and chase those Guatemalans off his lawn.

SCHNEIDER: The frontrunner rises above.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The reality is the focus on immigration should be to know everyone who is in the United States.

SCHNEIDER: The message?

Let's you and him fight. Tie goes to the frontrunner.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Some people see Fred Thompson as a potential Republican frontrunner, and he's rising so far above it, it's not even in it yet.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, because I want to pick up that thought.

We're going to talk about it.

John King is here, as well -- John, you're from a neighboring state. That would be Massachusetts. New Hampshire a smaller state. But Massachusetts clearly plays a role in what happens here.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It surely does, Wolf.

If I were on the ballot here, the other Republicans would say, the kid from Massachusetts should win. That's one of the complications, you might say, expectations, that complicate the efforts of the former Massachusetts governor who now wants to be the next Republican president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): New Hampshire is a welcoming, neighborly place. They tend to like the Boston teams here, often read the Boston papers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL DUKAKIS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you all very, very much on this spectacular New England spring day.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: And, when it comes to presidential politics, history suggests a Massachusetts factor.

1988: Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis wins New Hampshire's presidential primary.

1992: Former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas takes top prize.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, New Hampshire, you did it again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And, in 2004, victory for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KING: So, then, why this from respected New Hampshire political veteran Tom Rath?

TOM RATH, NEW HAMPSHIRE REPUBLICAN ACTIVIST: Nobody has any special expectations about how you're going to do here. Geography is not a factor.

KING: Spin, pure and simple. Rath is a top adviser to Republican candidate Mitt Romney, as in former Massachusetts Governor Romney. Pressed, Rath gives a little ground -- but just a little.

RATH: Geography is nice. It makes it easy for him some nights to sleep in his own bed. But it -- it's competitive. It's grueling up here. No special advantage is given -- nor should one be expected -- because of where you come from.

KING: But Romney isn't just from neighboring Massachusetts. He also owns a second home here in Wolfeboro, the hometown of State Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen.

FERGUS CULLEN, NEW HAMPSHIRE REPUBLICAN PARTY CHAIRMAN: I have seen him and his family out on their mountain bikes in town. And people see them, you know, going to church and in the hardware store.

KING: A research American Research Group poll put Romney second in New Hampshire, with Senator John McCain on top and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in third.

Camp Romney says it's McCain who should be considered the one who has to win here. After all, McCain won the New Hampshire primary in campaign 2000.

But former Governor Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, says Romney will have a hard time shaking the high expectations that come from being a neighbor.

JEANNE SHAHEEN, DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE OF POLITICS: A lot of us feel like we know them. There's an expectation. And, sometimes, in New Hampshire, as we have seen, the expectations are really more important than where you turn out.

KING: By that, she means, if Romney's New Hampshire's finish is seen at as all disappointing, the road to the White House could give way to the shorter trip home.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: And even Democrats here so far say Governor Romney is playing it just about right. The people do know him from his days as governor, saw him frequently on TV. But he's campaigning here the old-fashioned way, a lot of retail events, Wolf -- passing grades from everybody here, Democrats and Republicans, so far, but, again, higher expectations because he lives in the neighborhood.

BLITZER: New England being one region of the United States, there's an affinity, certainly, from that perspective.

So, Romney's from Massachusetts. McCain won New Hampshire in 2000. What does he need to do right now to sort of get that momentum going that he clearly had back almost eight years ago?

KING: Well, it's -- you're -- it's an interesting point, in the sense that those two men you just mentioned are likely to be the source of the fireworks here tonight.

Both of their campaigns have signaled in advance of the debate they plan to go at it on immigration. Romney is going at McCain. McCain, we are told, will go right back at Governor Romney, saying, if you don't like my plan, what is yours?

McCain needs more energy. The big question here is, this time around, most people believe the independents will vote in the Democratic primary, largely because they are anti-war. So, McCain has to run more of a Republican campaign, if you will, get more Republican votes.

He got the -- more Republicans votes than George W. Bush last time, but his big margin came among independent voters. He cannot count on that this time.

BLITZER: All right. Did I say earlier you're from Massachusetts? You are, but you went to school in Rhode Island; is that right?

KING: I'm making my whole way around the region.

BLITZER: All right.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Speaking of Rhode Island, I want to bring back Bill for this.

The bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, he wrote this, Bishop Thomas Tobin. He said this. And it's referring to Giuliani, the front-runner: "Why is it that, when I hear someone explaining this position, I think of the sad figure of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels, who personally found no guilt in Jesus, but, for fear of the crowd, washed his hands of the whole affair and handed Jesus over to be crucified? I can just hear Pilate saying, you know, I'm personally opposed to crucifixion, but I don't want to impose my belief on others."

There's a lot of Catholics in this part of the country.

SCHNEIDER: Yes. And Giuliani himself, of course, is a Roman Catholic. That's a very stinging rebuke. But the church is very angry over his position. That same bishop called it confusing and pathetic.

Giuliani's views on abortion are a little confusing. He says he's personally opposed to abortion, but he's also pro-choice as a matter of record, but he would support -- appoint strict constructionist judges, who, presumably, would try to overturn Roe v. Wade.

So, it's a little bit confusing, what his views are. He's trying to have it both ways. It's going to be tested tonight in this debate, whether he can get away with it.

BLITZER: And -- and some of those other candidates will be making sure...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... he will be tested.

All right, guys, thanks very much.

Bill Schneider and John King, they are both part of the best political team on television.

And, remember -- remember this -- for all the latest political news at any time, you can always check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Coming up, we will continue to countdown to our Republican presidential debate.

Also, some legal experts are saying the judge threw the book at him. The former Dick Cheney chief of staff Lewis Scooter Libby was sentenced today in the CIA leak case.

And some Republican presidential candidates are using every opportunity to score points. So, will the front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, be a prime target in tonight's debate?

We will talk about that, a lot more, in our "Strategy Session."

We're counting it down to tonight's Republican debate. We're here in THE SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now, the Republican presidential candidates are going through some last-minute preparations for our debate tonight.

Meanwhile, we're following other important stories as well. And there are some new developments regarding that congressman, the Democratic congressman from Louisiana, who has now been indicted.

Our congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel is watching all of this on Capitol Hill.

Andrea, what's the latest?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, within the last hour, the Democratic chair of the House Ethics Committee announced that the committee is going to launch an investigation into William Jefferson's case.

This move comes just hours before the Republican leader, John Boehner, was planning to try to force the Ethics Committee to take the matter up and decide within 30 days whether Jefferson should be expelled from Congress.

Now, earlier today, Jefferson himself wrote a letter to Speaker Pelosi in which he asked her to remove him from the House Small Business Committee. This is the last committee that Jefferson was serving on.

He said in the letter -- quote -- "In doing so, I, of course, express no admission of guilt or culpability in that -- in that or any other matter that may be pending in any court or before the House of Representatives."

That means, Wolf, that Congressman Jefferson is now a lawmaker without a portfolio -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea is watching this for us.

There's another story we're following right now, and it involves former vice presidential chief of staff Lewis Scooter Libby.

CNN's Brian Todd is outside the federal courthouse back in Washington that's been involved in this CIA leak trial.

Brian, there were some dramatic developments earlier today. Tell our viewers what happened.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a very emotional day, where we saw Scooter Libby's wife cry when she first entered court, when we heard letters written on his behalf.

But nothing was more dramatic than this judge's unflinching sentence and the first public comments from the defendant himself.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): The vice president's confidante speaks publicly for the first time since being charged, appeals to the judge for leniency.

Lewis "Scooter" Libby says, "It is respectfully my hope that the court will consider, along with the jury verdict, my whole life."

Minutes later, Judge Reggie Walton says, the evidence overwhelmingly indicated Mr. Libby's culpability, and slaps a two-and- a-half-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine on Libby for his obstruction-of-justice and perjury convictions stemming from the investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity.

SCOTT FREDERICKSEN, FORMER SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: Scooter Libby showed no remorse, no acknowledgement of guilt. And I think, at the end of the day, Judge Walton felt he was compelled to give such a strong, tough sentence.

TODD: Libby is still not sure whether he will be free pending appeal or if he will have to start his term behind bars in the coming months. That will be decided in a hearing next week.

If he's allowed to stay out while his lawyers contest the verdict, Libby's appeals could last until President Bush leaves office, opening the possibility of a pardon, without Libby ever spending a day in jail.

JIM VANDEHEI, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE POLITICO": The president will be under tremendous pressure from some conservatives who feel like Scooter Libby got a raw deal.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, President Bush said to a spokeswoman that he feels terrible for Scooter Libby's wife and kids. The vice president said, Libby is a man of -- quote -- "the highest intellect, judgment and personal integrity," and he's deeply saddened by this tragedy and its effect on Libby's wife and children -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thirty months in prison, potentially.

Thanks very much, Brian, for that report.

The judge in the Libby case, by the way, released some 350 pages of letters written to him by both Libby supporters and detractors. Judge Reggie Walton says he weighed the letters when deciding this sentence.

Let's go to CNN's Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, who exactly wrote these letters?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, these -- more than 160 letters, and they're listed online alphabetically.

A is from simply an angry citizen, someone who writes that they want the longest sentence possible for Scooter Libby. But many of these letters are signed. And many of the names in support of Scooter Libby are going to be familiar, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld writing that Libby is a truly honorable public servant.

From General Peter Pace, says he's writing at the request of Mr. Scooter Libby, calling him a team player.

Not all the letters are necessarily from people who are high- ranking. Someone describes himself as an aging touch football player who played with Scooter Libby on a Sunday team, describes him as dedicated to family and friends.

We have listed some of these online. Here's a handwritten note whose author is no doubt happy, satisfied about today's developments -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you for that.

There is also a new development regarding a senator from Wyoming. Craig Thomas died of leukemia last night in Maryland. The senator was 74 years old. Senator Thomas replaced Dick Cheney in Congress back in 1989, when Cheney became defense secretary. Thomas won his Senate elections in 1994, 2000, and in 2006.

In a situation like this, the current governor of Wyoming, who is a Democrat, will pick a replacement. But those names will be submitted by state Republicans, that according to their constitution out in Wyoming. Since 1913, 178 senators have been appointed due to a senator's death, resignation, or expulsion.

Our deepest condolences to the senator's family.

Up next here in our "Strategy Session": Senator McCain takes the stand on immigration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So, I say to others who are running for president of the United States, what's your proposal? What is your idea?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Will we see round two of McCain vs. Romney? Or will they focus their attention on the front-runner, Rudy Giuliani?

And what do the third-tier candidates have to do tonight to get their poll numbers up? We will talk about that with Paul Begala and Mike Murphy in our special debate preview, as it continues, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All the presidential candidates have been getting the lay of the land here at this arena.

Right now, the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, he is up on the podium behind me. He's standing there taking a look out. He's going to be answering questions tonight. He will be engaged in a debate a little bit more than two hours from now. He wants to get the feel, as all of them have tonight, get a feel of what it's like.

And we're going to be questioning all of those candidates later tonight.

It's time for our pre-debate "Strategy Session" here in Manchester, New Hampshire. We're going to add up the polls, focus on the front-runners, see what it takes to come from the back of the pack.

With us, our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and Republican strategist Mike Murphy, two of the best in the business.

Mike, let me start with you, because this is a Republican debate tonight.

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN MEDIA STRATEGIST: Right.

BLITZER: The front-runners...

MURPHY: Mm-hmm.

BLITZER: ... do they go on the attack tonight to maintain that lead? Or do they try to sort of play prevent defense?

MURPHY: Generally, front-runners have something to lose. So, they -- they stay more on defense. And the second tier try to draw some blood to win the lead of the story and move up.

Tonight, though, because the front-runner thing in this primary on the Republican side is more amorphous now. You have got Rudy. You have got Mitt. You have got McCain. They're each leading in different kind of ways. And then you have got the shadow of Fred Thompson out there.

So, I think you may see a few elbows thrown on immigration tonight, big issue in the Republican primary. Senator McCain has kind of gone on offense. Mitt Romney is now ahead in Iowa, which is a very good place to be. So, I think that makes him a bit of a target.

And guys like Tancredo, I think, who want to get noticed on the immigration issue, will try to work in. So, we should have a few haymakers flying around the hockey arena here. Good thing it's a hockey arena.

BLITZER: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MURPHY: We got some boards. BLITZER: They don't have any padding, though, as some of the hockey players.

Here's our national poll of polls, an average of the major polls nationwide, what they show right now, Giuliani with 30 percent, McCain at 22, Fred Thompson, who's -- running, 12 percent, Mitt Romney at 10 percent.

What -- what would be the advice for these front-runners, if you were giving them advice? How aggressive should be they be tonight in, A, defending themselves, obviously, but, B, in going after their opponents?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, those are two different things.

People will always give you, I think, a counterpunch. I think that was always Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan's greatest strength. Neither of them were great at throwing the first punch. But, if you hit either one of them, by golly, then they decked you.

I think the exception here, though, is John McCain. He clearly wants to attack. And I think there's a movement. If I worked for him, I would say, like they used to say about Reagan, let McCain be McCain. The last two years, he's had an experiment, where he has tried to be Bush.

Well, let's go back and let John McCain be John McCain, which is unconventional, very courageous, very much a maverick, and, you know, just a little bit angry, which I like.

And I would note that the -- the Court of -- the New York Court of Appeals today overturned the FCC ban on the use of the F-word. So, I -- we -- we might see McCain out there...

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: ... dropping some F-bombs on Mitt Romney, particularly.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Those two don't like each other.

MURPHY: Actually, in real life, they do like each other. But they are competitors. And they are both strong candidates.

McCain is in kind of a tricky position, because he's for the president's immigration bill. And I salute him for it. I support it, too. But, among the Republican primary vote, it's a mixed bag, at best. So, instead of being on the receiving end of being on the side of an issue people in the Republican primary may not like, he is going to kind of punch away at all the other guys, saying, what is your position? You know, you have got to make a hard choice here and take some heat one way or the other.

That will be, I think, his game plan tonight. BEGALA: I think that's the wrong way for McCain to -- to handle immigration. He's been saying that today. And he said it yesterday to Romney: What's your position? You don't -- you -- the better -- make this a character issue, Senator McCain.

He's a man of really stunning character. He is. He's a person of great courage. He showed that in the war. He showed that in his political life. Why not contrast that, as a character issue, with Mitt Romney, who he would say is a flip-flopper who takes whatever position -- he used to be pro-gay and pro-choice. Now he's anti-gay and pro-life.

And, you know, he's -- he could turn to Mitt and say, you know, Mitt, I bet, if we were speaking to a hall full of cannibals, you would promise them missionaries. Well, I'm for what I'm for. And you are a hypocrite on this, because you used to hire illegal aliens yourself or something.

I think hypocrisy is better than, you don't have a plan.

(CROSSTALK)

MURPHY: The problem with the flip-flop thing is, all the Democrats have flip-flopped on the war and everything else. It's not an issue with any legs in the general election. I think it's overblown.

But go ahead, Wolf.

BLITZER: I was going to say, the -- everybody remembers the last Republican debate. There was that moment Ron Paul, a conservative congressman, a libertarian, Republican from Texas vs. Rudy Giuliani.

And...

MURPHY: Right.

BLITZER: ... Rudy Giuliani had that moment.

Since then, Ron Paul has not backed down. I interviewed him myself.

MURPHY: Yes.

BLITZER: And I suspect he is going to go full-throttle once again...

MURPHY: Yes.

BLITZER: ... tonight.

How does Rudy Giuliani, the front-runner, deal with Ron Paul who is, you know, a third-tier candidate, shall we say?

MURPHY: I think he thanks him after the debate. It's kind of like Kucinich last night with Obama. These little candidates, whose whole campaign are showing up for these debates, who really aren't real contenders, are wonderful foils for the majors, because they set them up for an easy score, like Rudy Giuliani had last time and Obama did with Kucinich.

So, I think, if Ron Paul goes there again, what you will really see is a huge battle between the top three, all seeing who can get the line off against him quick, because it's easy applause.

BLITZER: And in front of -- in front of Republicans, Giuliani wins that debate.

BEGALA: He does, although most policy experts, including the former head of the bin Laden unit, said, in fact, Congressman Paul was right; Mayor Giuliani was wrong.

Rudy does have this knack, shall we say, this proclivity for giving sort of sanctimonious speeches, especially about these horrific emotional events -- 9/11 not the first. In 1997, a Palestinian man with a gun shot seven people at the observation tower of the Empire State Building, killed one, wounded six.

Rudy was the mayor. He gave one of those emotional, sanctimonious speeches, calling for -- get this -- licensing every gun owner in America and -- and outlawing every assault weapon, popular, maybe, among liberal Democrats, but death among conservative Republicans.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: I suspect one of his opponents tonight might raise that and say, you know, gee, Rudy, you were calling for strict gun control just a few years ago.

MURPHY: Romney might do...

BLITZER: Very quickly.

(CROSSTALK)

MURPHY: ... switcheroo, which is, wait a minute. You want to talk flip-flops? Rudy Giuliani used to be pro-life, now pro-choice, used to be -- and so, it -- I think you could see Romney trying to bring...

BLITZER: All right.

MURPHY: ... Giuliani into the fight.

BLITZER: Mike Murphy, Paul Begala, you going to be watching this debate tonight?

BEGALA: Oh, my goodness.

(CROSSTALK) MURPHY: ... CNN.com.

(CROSSTALK)

MURPHY: ... blogging.

BEGALA: You going -- you going to be watching?

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, guys.

We're coming up, a little bit more than two hours from now, until the Republican presidential debate. In just a minute, we will focus in on the man who won't be on the stage tonight. We will see how Fred Thompson's shadow is already making a difference in this presidential campaign.

Also, a Catholic bishop takes on a fellow Catholic known as America's mayor. How much will Rudy Giuliani's stand on abortion cost him with religious voters?

Much more of our special coverage from here in Manchester.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is: How important will the issue of immigration be to Senator John McCain's campaign?

Michael writes from Reno, Nevada: "The immigration plan of McCain is a killer for his campaign. It totally ignores the will of the legal people of the United States. McCain should just fold his campaign tent and steal away into oblivion."

Bill in Florida writes: "Immigration is the one issue that will be the enforcer. Whoever steps up and says no to anything that even sounds like amnesty will be our next leader."

Hugh in Florida writes: "I don't believe his immigration stance will have much of an influence at all. Senator McCain's campaign is tied to the Iraq war. He's for it. And, with the success that I think Bush and Cheney will have in Iraq over the next several months, McCain will be the front-runner for the Republican nomination at this time next year. Bank on it."

How much money you got, Hugh?

Brad in Columbus, Georgia: "John McCain says doing nothing is silent amnesty. Translation: Bad legislation is better than no legislation." Don in Pasadena, Maryland: "It appears John McCain, like George Bush, is severely out of touch with reality and the U.S. populace, and will rather quickly be a non-contender for the Republican presidential nomination. He's too old and too arrogant, like George."

And Ron in Richmond, Virginia, writes this: "It's his cross to bear, just like Romney's Mormonism and Rudy's wives. All three are doomed" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

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

Happening now: Ten Republicans, all presidential hopefuls, getting ready to step into the spotlight for their New Hampshire debate, but will their showdown be overshadowed by an unpopular president and an unpopular war?

One explosive issue already dividing Republicans and the country, that would be immigration reform. I will speak about it with CNN's Lou Dobbs and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. They strongly disagree on this issue.

And, as Russia's President Putin threatens to aim nuclear missiles at U.S. allies in Europe, President Bush has a message of his own: Back off.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Manchester, New Hampshire. 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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